Lying for Jesus, Explained

People without religious faith are often flabbergasted by the things believers say in defense of their beliefs, not least because what can come out of their mouths is unequivocally false.  Atheists will joke about “lying for Jesus” — the idea that Christians, or people of any faith, would deliberately lie in order to prevent believers from doubting, or to bring doubters back into the fold, or even better to convince the unbeliever to believe. Could they not know they are lying? Well, it’s possible, but as far as I can detect they’ll continue to employ the lie even after the falsity of it has been exposed. So there has got to be a motive, a reason to lie, and to repeat the lie even when it looks like a lie. Furthermore, many people accept the lie even after exposed to sufficient evidence to know that it isn’t true. Why?

A common example of these lies is the spewage of the likes of Ray Comfort or Lee Strobel. When they make claims such as evolution defying thermodynamics, or about how there is an abundance of archaeological evidence confirming the Gospels as historical fact, surely they know they are not standing on firm ground. (Just in case you’re wondering: Evolution does not defy the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and anyone who takes the trouble to learn about either subject will see that in an instant. And there is not one shred of archaeological evidence to suggest Jesus even existed.) Another favorite of mine is the circle-referencing of meritless sources, or the misrepresenting of sources as scientific research when in fact they are essayists or columnists. Not that there’s anything wrong with being an essayist. I’m one. Only I would be dreadfully embarrassed if anyone tried to cite me as if I had done clinical research on any of the subjects I write about.

None of the perpetrators of these lies and misdirections are too sheltered to know the difference. They have access to resources: to libraries, to peers, to the Internet. There is no probable excuse that they simply do not realize they are lying. As for motive, both Comfort and Strobel have lucrative franchises based on shoveling their brands of falsehood, so that might be a good reason for them to tell these lies. However, that doesn’t explain why people parrot them. It doesn’t explain why a book author would knowingly cite a non-source as a source, or portray non-research as research. It certainly doesn’t explain why so many people willingly swallow such easily-disproved statements.

I couldn’t figure it out. The best I could guess was a version of social-psychological schema defense, which says that people are highly biased toward information that supports their current world-view. That was not a very satisfying answer. A much better answer came from Dan Dennett, by way of a video shared here by Tom Eigelsbach.

Dennett describes this kind of faith-lying by comparing it to the consensual belief in the value of money. If the consensus collapses, the value of money rapidly approaches zero. Money only has value because we believe it does. Likewise, due to how religious belief co-opts some of our innate moral senses, seeming as it does to found a divine-social-contract, what believers perceive is that unbelief threatens the consensus of the social contract. As soon as confidence in the social contract deteriorates past a certain threshold, it will, like currency, rapidly and irrecoverably lose value. This is a reason to lie, and to believe in a lie. The alternative is the Thunderdome.

The elegance of this explanation is that it also encompasses why religious believers see atheists as wicked and dangerous. It also explains why expressions that invalidate religious tenets, such as “out” atheists and homosexuals who remain obstinately un-smited by an indignant deity, are seen as attacks against those religions. Clearly no one is attacking, but it feels like an attack to them because it shows the lie for what it is. If you think the lie is all that spares us from chaos, then it makes sense that you would fear its exposure, and that you would perhaps shout the lie even louder and more shrilly and with greater frequency, the better to convince yourself and those around you that you still believe it. Why, you’d think your shouting is rescuing us one and all.

Of course, the trick of it is that the social contract doesn’t depend on religion. I don’t excuse the liars for their lies — in fact I don’t denigrate the lying nearly as much as they do — but I find reserves of compassion for them in their fear. The world is moving in a way that panics them. They need reassurance.

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