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Naive atheists and the value of honesty/truth

November 28, 2011

Over at Lower Wisdom, JSA has a considerably controversial post about why atheists are considered untrustworthy, and whether they are cheaters and liars. There are many points to address (more of which I addressed in a comment to his site), but I did want to hit on one theme of the post that I’ve been considering recently. As he writes:

My theory is that people mistrust atheists because [they believe] atheists are too naive and simple-minded. The world is built on hypocrisy and deception, and you want leaders and colleagues who are expert at lying when necessary, and who tell the truth at just the right time.

If you’ve been in the ex-Mormon internet world, then one thing you’ll notice pretty quickly is this emphasis and valuation of honesty and truth. Even at the cost of relationships that could be salvaged if one were less blunt about his/her thoughts/feelings.

A lot of ex-Mormons happen to be atheists, but a lot of atheists I read/talk to online seem to have a similar orientation. For me, a lot of both of these groups seem too focused on the value of raw, brutal honesty. On full disclosure. On truth and fact-finding.

Over and over, I see believers arguing for “nuance” or “realism” that reads to me and others as “deception,” “lies,” or “hypocrisy.” Naturally, the nonbelievers are appalled by these attitudes and behaviors. The believers insist that this is just how the world works. “Every organization is imperfect, so don’t expect perfection from the church.” “You won’t get very far in personal relationships if you are completely honest all the time.”

So, I guess that does lead me to ponder a question: is honesty overrated? And if so, then are people who value it so highly being naive or simple-minded? Because one eschews or is appalled by the hypocrisy and deception of day-to-day living, are they worse off for trying to be above it? (There’s one thing to recognize that you will fail when you have high standards…but are these standards unreasonable to begin with?)

The Latest DadTalk

Over the Thanksgiving Break, I had a DadTalk with…well, duh, my dad. We talked about a lot of things (to fill out and reinforce some of the things he had talked with me recently by phone and by email on “grace“…which I may also have blogged about), but one thing that came to my mind (as it does occasionally when talking to my father) is the extent to which I felt uncomfortable with some of the things he was saying — I felt like he himself had taught me better than to do those things.

For example, he said that he was not a fan of “fake it till you make it,” but he pointed out that if you want to get into something, then it’s a lot easier to make change from the inside than from the outside…so if you’ve determined that that is a worthwhile thing, then you should do anything in your power to get in. Since “perception is the new reality” (that’s a favorite quote of his), you have to “be all things to all people” in order to get where you want.

At some point in the conversation, I had to point out that the reason I felt uncomfortable with what he was saying was that I thought he was being contradictory at times…he wanted me to have integrity, but he also wanted me to be willing to do whatever I could to get into particular things. I phrased it something like this:

To me, selling out is indicative of a lack of integrity…but it seems what you want me to do is expand my horizons or lessen my sense of morality so that fewer things seem like selling out. But why would I want to make that change, if that change is even possible?

The real meat of my conversation with my father was his idea of life as a journey toward perfection…Perfection not as being without flaw, but rather as being whole or complete. Now, this idea is something I’ve heard before, but my father took it in a different direction. Perfection or wholeness is about having an internal peace no matter what goes on outside, no matter what unpleasant things may occur.

…I’ve definitely heard that idea before, but I always thought it was about enduring things happening to you.

Instead, my father pointed out that sometimes, you should be able to do things — even unpleasant things — and have a personal peace or humility to know that isn’t what you are about. I don’t know how to explain it in the abstract, but the examples he gave were disturbing.

At some point, with respect to the comment I made above (e.g., “lessen my sense of morality so that fewer things seem like selling out,”) my dad had made an allusion to “rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar” and the idea that soldiers aren’t necessarily personally morally responsible for acts they commit during war. I had made two comparisons: one with the “average” Nazi soldier who claimed he was just “following orders,” yet which we would still look at him and say, “If he were morally upright, he wouldn’t follow unjust orders. We still find him morally culpable” and secondly, a comparison to redefining torture as “advanced interrogation techniques.” I thought nothing of it at the time, but now I realize that was a terrible thing to bring up.

My father, former military man, did really well to contain whatever feelings he had inside. But he quietly told me that I just didn’t know, and I couldn’t know unless I had been in such a situation. In war, the enemy will do whatever they can. And yet, if American soldiers do anything, then when they come back, they will be ostracized and criticized by civilians who do not know. Civilians look at waterboarding with horror, but they do not realize that compared to everything everyone else is doing, waterboarding is the least of one’s concerns in the goal to protect the interests of the nation. But when soldiers go through these experiences, when they conduct these acts, what are they to do? Suppose a soldier doesn’t believe in killing, but he finds himself in the position where the enemy is in his sights? If he doesn’t pull the trigger, should he feel good about standing up for his values? If that enemy kills his fellow troops because he didn’t kill the enemy first, what should he feel about that?

What are they to do in hellish situations? My father said some people can’t deal with it. They get doped up. Others can’t deal with it and they kill themselves. This is either before or after they come back to a nation that doesn’t appreciate or even understand what they went through. But some people ask whatever power they can for forgiveness, try to understand that they themselves are different from the unpleasant situations they are placed in.

These last individuals are whole.

How does this relate to honesty and naivete?

Throughout the conversation with my father, I was disturbed. I thought: one shouldn’t be ok after war. One shouldn’t want to be ok after something like that. If you don’t speak out against injustices because you recognize you still have to protect yourself, your friends, your family, and your nation, then that’s one thing. But what kind of changes do we work within ourselves to separate ourselves from those feelings? If that is wholeness, then I have to realize that wholeness is something entirely different than I ever could’ve imagined. I am reminded by a Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri quote:

Yes, yes, we’ve all heard the philosophers babble about “oneness “being “beautiful” and “holy”.  But let me tell you that {this} kind of oneness certainly isn’t pretty, and if you’re not careful it will scare the bejeezus out of you.

– Anonymous Lab Technician,
MorganLink 3DVision Live Interview

I think there’s something to the statement, “You don’t know what you’re going to do in a rough situation until you are in that situation.” But to me, my moral sense is about, even if I don’t live up to my morals in a crisis situation…I shouldn’t be ok with that.

The one thing that I questioned near the beginning of our conversation and still came away from the conversation with was this: in some ways, I’m being asked to lessen my sense of morality so that fewer things seem like selling out. So that I’m “ok” with more. In order to become whole/perfect/patient/gracious/kind, I’m being asked to decrease my sense of indignation at injustice.

So, is that a part of the same phenomenon JSA is talking about? Except instead of “honesty” and “truth,” it’s instead about broader morality? Is that associated with atheism, and if so, is that the grand irony of atheism: that atheists are most mistrusted but have a heightened value for truth? Is it the case that atheists are considered most immoral but that what drives their alienation with theism and religion is a heightened moral sense?

And are these valuations for truth and the heightened moral sense too high?

UPDATE: Check out Hawkgrrrl’s post at Wheat & Tares on lying, which makes a defense for honesty.

From → Dad Talk

  1. Seth R. permalink

    A few years ago, some cable channel did a biographical drama on Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II, reenacting scenes from his life, etc.

    There was a scene depicting one of many confrontations between Eisenhower and one of his most effective, and most controversial generals – Patton.

    Patton had been making a lot of incredibly dangerous remarks about how once we licked the Nazis, we should just keep on heading east and take on the Soviets too. Patton’s philosophy was “we’re gonna have to fight the SOBs eventually – we might as well do it now – because we’ll never have this kind of manpower and force in Europe again.”

    There was a lot of truth to what he was saying. You might even call Patton a bit of a visionary for seeing past the temporary alliance of the day to what Stalin really was, and the monster that was approaching from the east.

    This was all very well from Patton’s perspective, he was a man of action and a man of war. But for Eisenhower, Patton’s remarks were unhelpful, alarming, and even dangerous. As strategic commander of the European theater, he could NOT tolerate these kind of remarks. He called in Patton for a dressing-down and considered even firing him.

    Patton got emotional with Eisenhower, teary-eyed, and promised to behave “just don’t take my command from me.” Eisenhower relented and sent him on his way.

    On the way out Patton chortled to his aid “went just fine, whipped up some tears and the old sap just bought it.”

    Eisenhower wasn’t that naive though. He knew Patton thought he’d pulled one over on him. But he needed Patton, he had a bigger goal he was shooting for, and was willing to let it ride if the man would just do his own job and not try to do Eisenhower’s.

    War is an interesting case-study. Because it reveals how people act when they are REALLY trying to get things done. When things REALLY matter.

    World War II history was an absolute parade of bad decisions made by men in power, and the men who obeyed their orders and went along with it anyway – because the only thing more unthinkable than carrying out a suicidal battle plan, was not following it, and throwing the entire mess into anarchy.

  2. Seth R. permalink

    Makes me think of another example.

    I recently was listening to Fresh Air and the host was interviewing one of the most respected veteran baseball catchers in US Major League baseball.

    People who don’t know baseball that well probably don’t know that it’s actually the catcher who decides most of the pitches that the pitcher needs to throw. But it’s not that simple. The pitchers has a lot of say too, and that’s the back and forth subtle hand signals you see between pitcher and catcher. It’s a conversation between the two. And sometimes, the pitcher doesn’t like the catcher’s picks and rejects them. They call it “shaking off” the catcher in baseball.

    This was after the catcher had described the insane amount of homework he did before every baseball game, studying each and every batter on the opposing team, what his preferences where, what his weaknesses were, how he’d been doing in the last few games, every statistic possible about every batter. A good catcher knows it all. It was impressive.

    The radio host asked this catcher if he’d ever had a pitcher shake him off, to which he responded “oh yes.” The host asked if he’d ever had to chew out a cocky young pitchers who thought they knew better than the man who’d analyzed the other team inside and out. He responded “no, not really.”

    When the host pressed him on this, the catcher noted “pitching is a really rough job. You are putting repeated physical pressure on the same muscles and joints for hours. It’s brutal. It’s also emotionally brutal, and a really lonely spot up there on the mound. You HAVE to believe in the pitches you are making and throw them with the conviction that they’re going to do what you want them to. You lose that, and you can’t pitch.”

    He continued

    “I’d rather see my pitchers throw the WRONG pitch with conviction, than throw the RIGHT pitch and not really believe in it.”

  3. JSA permalink

    Thanks for the link. FWIW, I clarified that *I* don’t think that way about atheists. I was once an atheist, and most of my friends are atheists.

    Your dad talk is quite interesting; almost as if he is giving up on you ever being a sincere believer, and is going for you to at least be a pretend believer?

    My advice has usually been the opposite. If someone really doesn’t believe, I think it’s best for him to try to be a really committed non-believer. If he follows non-belief to its logical conclusion and still doesn’t figure things out, he was never going to figure it out anyway. (I should mention that my advice on almost any topic is often terrible.)

  4. JSA,

    I missed your comment at your site (I thought I had subscribed to comments, but I guess I was mistaken). So, I’ve responded over there too.

    Anyway, my dadtalks are always very interesting…because there is this kind of tension in the things he says. On the one hand, in recent times, he has rephrased much of what he says in a very agnostic-friendly kind of way (e.g., instead of “God” trying to talk about the “ideal” or “something out there higher”…talking more about values like grace, peace, “wholeness” than in religious-specific terms like repentance, salvation, etc…), but at the same time, he wants to assert that God is not just a metaphor or symbolic, but something very real. I brought up to him that I found some of the things he says to be pretty condescending — the way he describes his faith/why he believes/etc., is that there are “some things” in his life that happen, that he can see happening and unfolding, that he can somehow perceive certain things, and so as he becomes aligned with this, he can have greater peace in his life…and that he can’t see these things as coincidence, blah blah blah. But there’s always this sense that if you don’t perceive the same things, or if you chalk it up to coincidence, then you’re just being blind/imperceptive. If you were really aware, then you would recognize that there is a higher power behind nature.

    In response to that, he changed the way he talked to be very third-person oriented: “Some people…may not be able to perceive it now…but if some people…blah blah blah.” where “some people” is supposed to include me, obviously.

    It was very strange. He said that I needed to find my own map and stop following what other people say. I pointed out that I’m trying to do that…I have been for so long following what the church says and what other people say and it hasn’t worked out for me, so now I’m breaking away from all of that. in response to that, he said something that seemed contradictory: “why allow imperfect people at church to turn you away from that? Why follow “scientists” and “philosophers” from university? blah blah blah.”

    I tried to point out to him that I’m not “following” philosophers or scientists or whatever he thinks. This isn’t just a college phase or something I “caught” from attending university. It’s been something I’ve been realizing for a long time, but only started to act upon when I was able to leave home. But now, he just thinks that I’m on someone else’s map or whatever.

    …Aren’t you a Calvinist of sorts? So, for you, isn’t it a very real possibility that some non-believers are “never going to figure it out” not because of themselves, but because of God?

  5. Andrew wrote:

    but one thing that came to my mind (as it does occasionally when talking to my father) is the extent to which I felt uncomfortable with some of the things he was saying — I felt like he himself had taught me better than to do those things.

    This is part of growing up – maturing (still not sure I’ve gotten there yet) where you realize that everyone (including your parents) has blind spots and can be hypocritical at times. No one is perfect.

    From my observations on this blog (and your comments/posts elsewhere), you are investing a lot of time and thought in this investigation. You are not following anyone else’s map. You are defining belief, morality, ethics, whatever for yourself. A human is never truly alone, or without influences – but your arguments are reasonable. You aren’t just accepting something without questioning it or being skeptical. You work at being introspective and thinking through what you claim. As a parent, if my kids came to me with such arguments (for a particular belief system or religion or absence of belief that I didn’t necessarily agree with) I would be impressed.

    I wonder what your dad really wants here. What is his goal in these discussions with you? Is it to know that you are a good person with morals? Is it to know that you have arguments that you can back up, that you are not just “following the crowd”? Does he want you to be a successor to him, to his ideals – to buy into everything he’s tried to do and live for in his life?

    I can’t say, and all this is fairly personal (between you and him).

    I assume that all this has to do with the differences in my personality vs. you and your dad – I don’t understand why you can’t respect the other person’s position and agree to disagree.

    Is honesty and truth over-rated? I think yes sometimes. There are times when honesty is not the best policy (whether or not a person would lie to the Nazis to protect Jews hiding in their home). In terms of relationships – I don’t think that all relationships have to be salvaged or that all relationships have to sacrifice honesty.

    I think it depends on the relationship and people involved.

    I think among adults, discussions about assumptions and honesty are important.

    I think partners need to discuss their assumptions about fidelity, expectations about potential relationship stress points (money, family, kids, sex, religion, work, health). I think honesty is not overrated in those relationships – if one person has an expectation about honesty about money in the relationship (for example), and the other person is not honest about money – that can be a huge relationship issue. These things change, of course, but if one person is not able to address their issues with money (or expectations about honesty with money), the relationship may end. To my mind, that’s an okay conclusion….how can you remain in a relationship/marriage with someone who may steal from you (for example), or refuses to acknowledge that discussions about money are important to their partner? Short term, it may save a marriage to lie (ex. no I didn’t spend $$ on this item), but long term I don’t know that the marriage can last…unless the partner can accept that deal (that the partner will lie to them about how they spend money).

    That’s just my perspective – I think honesty between partners is pretty important (for many of the reasons hawkgrrl discussed in her post at wheat and tares). But it really depends on the people, the issues involved, many different factors.

  6. Aerin,

    First, I’ll note some site-specific things. doesn’t use BB code, so tags shouldn’t be in brackets, but in the less than/greater than symbols (what are these called? “”?) Secondly, some places use “quote” while others use “blockquote” — here, it’s “blockquote in to quote stuff.


    I wonder what your dad really wants here. What is his goal in these discussions with you? Is it to know that you are a good person with morals? Is it to know that you have arguments that you can back up, that you are not just “following the crowd”? Does he want you to be a successor to him, to his ideals – to buy into everything he’s tried to do and live for in his life?

    I can’t really be sure at this point. I don’t think it’s the last one…not in the sense of trying to live vicariously through my life or whatever. But I think it’s something of the matter of, these are the things that have brought him peace/joy/whatever, so he wants me to experience that.

    I try to point out that different people can have different experiences, and to an extent, he agrees that that is true (e.g., he will say, “Why do you think people have different religions? Because they have different experiences.”) but there is a limit to that for him (after saying that, he’ll turn around and say, “I don’t know about you, but most people in the history of humanity have thought there was some kind of higher being. They may not have agreed on how to describe it/him/her/them, but how can so many people be wrong?” Naturally, I’m not a fan of that kind of argumentation…)

  7. Jen permalink

    My dad died when I was in my early 20’s. He was also a former military man. He said things I didn’t appreciate as well, but I would do anything to have him here to talk to now….. I realized that after reading this post. Even though your conversations may not be your favorite, remember he could be gone tomorrow.

  8. Jen,

    I absolutely am aware of this…far, far, more aware of this than I was when I was still living at home, unfortunately. So, I definitely cherish the times when I can go home on break/vacation and talk with my parents. I wish I had paid more attention when I was younger. Ah, youth is wasted on the young, I suppose.

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