Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Morality Is For The Faithful... Not!

I had a conversation with my mother recently. She told me a story that she had heard through a friend about some distant or not so distant family member. Unfortunately I cannot remember all of the specifics of the story, so bear with me. I also have no means of verifying its accuracy, so I use it as a way to discuss a point, not necessarily as a historical account.

The story took place in a Nazi occupied country during the Holocaust. A Christian family was hiding a Jewish family in their basement. The Nazis came knocking, as they often did, as asked if the family was hiding anyone. At this point, the family was torn. If they told the truth, the people they were hiding would be killed, but if they said “No”, they would be lying, and as Christians believed that lying was a sin. They told the truth. According to the story, the Nazis were so shocked by their response that they laughed it off, did not believe the Christians, and assumed that there must have been some sort of trap. The Nazis left and the Jewish family was safe. After finishing this story, my mother said, “I can't understand how some people can hear a story like that and not see god.” To which I'm sure you can guess my response.

Now, I hear you. This story does not seem plausible, if only for the fact that I cannot imagine the Nazis leaving with everyone unharmed if they honestly believed there was a setup. However, not having studied enough about the subject, for all I know that was a common scenario, so let's disregard any glaring unlikelihoods. Let us focus instead on the actions of the Christians in the story and my mother's response to it.

In the conversation that followed, my mother stated that she did not think she could have made the same decision the Christians in the story made, but that she admired the Christians for their faith in god, and he came through for them. My take on the story is that the Christians were adhering to warped and harmful beliefs, should not be commended for telling the truth, and were just plain lucky that the outcome was what it was. I also stated that they probably were not the only Christians to have given up their hidden charges for the sake of following their god's laws, and that nine times out of ten the Nazis would not have reacted the way they did and those hiding would not have been spared. I even went so far as to say they would have been partially culpable in the death of this Jewish family, had it happened. It's one thing to tell the truth and risk your own life, but to risk someone else's?

As an atheist, I am often asked how I can possibly determine wrong from right. As any atheist can tell you, it is really not that difficult. I also consider myself a humanist, obviously of the secular variety. As clich├ęd as it sounds, I follow the Golden Rule- do unto others... you get the idea. There are a couple of gray points I have, and as I've said before I am an anti-absolutist, but those are topics for a different post. Maybe this sounds like a moral mess to some, and granted as an anti-absolutist I sometimes have to look at situations case by case to determine my view on them, but for the most part it is pretty self-explanatory. I do not advocate the violation of someone else's will, and this goes beyond what is legal and what is illegal, which is a different matter.

Let's try to figure how out lying fits into this. Lying could be considered within the gray area, so I guess I would have to take it case by case. While I try to avoid dishonesty in my life because it generally does not lead to good things, I cannot say I believe every lie is inherently wrong or ought to be avoided. The old story of a wife asking her husband if he thinks another woman is prettier than she is a pretty easy example to work with. Say the man thinks the other woman is prettier (he better not!). On one hand, one could argue that it is a violation of the woman's trust if he were to lie. On the other hand, one could argue that it would hurt the woman's feelings and it is better to lie over such a trivial matter. Personally, I see the damage that can be done by lying, but if I were in the situation, I would prefer being lied to. If I was only dating the guy then I might prefer honesty, because I'd probably end up breaking up with that guy eventually anyway. However, if married, I'm obviously not going to get divorced over something like that, so my alternative is to continue in the marriage knowing my husband does not think I'm the prettiest girl around. I'll be honest (pun intended), I have jealousy and insecurity issues, and if I thought my future husband found another woman more attractive than me, that would definitely be a sore spot. Maybe these are issues I need to work on, but for right now, that's the way it is.

As far as I'm concerned, lying over certain matters is not necessarily wrong. It has to do with intent and weighing the severity of the potential and probable outcomes. Now let's take the case at hand: lying to save someone else's life. Clearly, I think it's appropriate and, in fact, more ethical to lie in this situation. Luckily the situation worked out for the families involved so that perhaps telling the truth was the only way lives would be spared, but there was no way to know that. The Christians told the truth assuming that the family they were hiding would be killed, but that in god's eyes it was still the course they should follow.

As an ex-Christian, I know firsthand that some Christian churches do teach that all prevarications are equal in god's eyes. Of course I do not speak for every church, but I am confident that some do teach this. This means that lying to your friend that you like her new purse is just as bad as lying on a tax return, or lying about being married in order to cheat, or lying to save someone's life. But of course, isn't being partially responsible for someone else's death also a “sin”?

The Protestant churches I went to (obviously the Catholic church disagrees here) also taught that all “sins” are created equal. Murder is equal to lying is equal to a six year old stealing gum from a convenience store. I asked my mother what she would have done in this situation. She said she didn't know and she probably would have lied, but she generally implied that she thought the fact that she would probably lie was a character flaw or a lack of faith on her part.

My question to her, and to other Christians in general, was: so if both outcomes involve “sinning”, and all “sins” are created equal, how do you decide what to do in a situation like this? (Let's disregard the idea that all “sins” are created equal, which I think is a fairly reprehensible idea anyway.) She did not know how to decide which was more wrong in “god”'s eyes, and I do not think she honestly believes one path would have been more wrong or more right than the other. For her, it all came down to faith in god, and that god chose to reward these Christians for their blind, unmoving, unthinking, harmful, negligent faith.

After all of this, I have to ask: how can anyone say it's difficult for an atheist to determine between right and wrong when not all Christians can seem to even determine that it's more wrong to risk someone else's life than to lie? Or at least that some Christians may think one option is better while others disagree? I can't speak for every atheist, but I'm pretty sure most if not all would agree that lying is the better option here based on the potential and probable outcomes. And they call us moral relativists. I may have to take certain things case by case, but at least I can make a damn decision when I do. What do you think?

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