"This country was founded on the principle of Christianity. The moral fiber of this country is in trouble, and I will stand and honor the Ten Commandments, I always will and I will never be apologetic for it" (Craig James, candidate for U.S. Senator from Texas in a televised debate on April 13, 2012). As a Texas resident (I can't say I'm a true Texan because I wasn't born here, even though I've lived here longer than in any other state), I wasn't surprised to hear these words while watching part of this recent senatorial debate, in which four candidates sought to outdo each other in wooing conservative religious voters. James' sentiments certainly would have resonated with me prior to my deconversion; after all, the U.S. was founded on Christian principles, including the Ten Commandments, was it not?
Is it okay to tell a white lie?
No. So says atheist neuroscientist and author Sam Harris in his tiny little book, Lying. Say what? Atheists aren't supposed to have any legitimate moral foundation! On what basis can Harris go even farther than many Christians and preach against telling your friend she doesn't look fat in that dress?
I confess I'm not always a fan of Harris' manners; I can certainly see how some might be put off by his direct, blunt, and sometimes smug pronouncements. Yet he does have an effective way with words, and sometimes it can't hurt to receive a jolt from the likes of Harris to help us see our failings and steer us in a less self-destructive direction. His e-book is so short and inexpensive ($1.99) and so chock full of nuggets that it would be worth your while just to read it yourself than to read any attempt of mine to summarize it. Perhaps a couple of anecdotes from the book would suffice to whet your appetite for more:
A friend of mine recently asked me whether I thought he was overweight. In fact, he probably was just asking for reassurance: It was the beginning of summer, and we were sitting with our wives by the side of his pool. However, I’m more comfortable relying on the words that actually come out of a person’s mouth, rather than on my powers of telepathy, to know what he is asking. So I answered my friend’s question very directly: “No one would ever call you ‘fat,’ but I think you could probably lose twenty-five pounds.” That was two months ago, and he is now fifteen pounds lighter. Neither of us knew that he was ready to go on a diet until I declined the opportunity to lie about how he looked in a bathing suit.
Harris, Sam (2011-09-13). Lying (Kindle Single) (Kindle Locations 184-190). Kindle Edition.
Jessica recently overheard her friend Lucy telling a white lie: Lucy had a social obligation she wanted to get free of, and Jessica heard her leave a voicemail message for another friend, explaining why their meeting would have to be rescheduled. Lucy’s excuse was entirely fictitious—something involving her child’s getting sick—but she lied so effortlessly and persuasively that Jessica was left wondering if she had ever been duped by Lucy in the past. Now, whenever Lucy cancels a plan, Jessica suspects she might not be telling the truth. These tiny erosions of trust are especially insidious because they are almost never remedied. Lucy has no reason to think that Jessica has a grievance with her—because she doesn’t. She simply does not her as much as she used to, having heard her lie without compunction to another friend. Of course, if the problem (or the relationship) were deeper, perhaps Jessica would say something—but, as it happens, she feels there is no point in admonishing Lucy about her ethics. The net result is that a single voicemail message, left for a third party, has subtly undermined a friendship (Harris 2011, loc. 252-261).
Harris has been criticized by believers and unbelievers alike for his insistence that objective moral values can be constructed from a naturalistic, consequentialist foundation. Perhaps some moral questions aren't as cut and dried as Harris's critics contend he makes them out to be, but I confess I'm drawn to the simplicity of one of Harris' prescriptions for an uncomplicated life: unless someone's life is on the line, always tell the truth. If you do, then others will know they can trust what you say, and when you praise them, it will be genuine and well deserved. These are conclusions that can be drawn by observing the fruit of people's interactions, and they are conclusions that can be drawn whether or not a higher power prescribes them.
For those who are in the throes of deconversion, a gut-wrenching question you'll be confronted with is how and whether and when to "come out" to those who think you're still a believer. Part of what makes it difficult is that the line between belief and unbelief is somewhat fuzzy, and if you're like me, you'll cross the line back and forth several times before you realize you really don't believe and aren't likely to cross back over the line to faith. In the meantime, especially if you're in Christian ministry, but even if you're just a committed lay Christian, other believers will continue to expect to see and hear ongoing affirmations of your faith: praying before meals, chiming in agreement with pronouncements on biblical theology, preaching sermons and leading worship music (in the case of clergy who've lost their faith), etc. The longer it takes you to “come out,” the longer you will be putting on an act, in other words, deceiving those who think you're a Christian when you're not. Harris maintains that “to lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication.” (Harris 2011, loc 46-47).
Though I hadn't read Harris before I left the mission field, there came a point when I knew that to continue working as a Bible translator would be to intentionally mislead my mission board and my financial supporters who had the right to expect honest communication regarding my loss of faith. My wife and family also deserved to know. Sure, I could have continued on in the ministry I was being paid to perform, putting on a pious face and pretending to believe what I no longer knew in my heart to be true, but I realized a day of reckoning would have to come at some point, and there was nothing to be gained—only further trust to be lost—by delaying that day. I was in a precarious situation; I did not know how I could find gainful employment and support my family after having spent the previous 7+ years in the mission organization. It nearly ripped me apart, but I could not lie: I no longer believed, and I owed it to everyone who thought I believed to tell them the truth. As it turned out, our family survived, and we didn't end up on the streets. I would have been willing to work minimum wage at McDonald's if necessary to avoid a lie.
Yet I know some individuals who remain in the ministry today, understandably fearful of coming out of the closet during these difficult financial times. Any act of apostasy is an affront to a believing community, but the betrayal must be even more acute if and when it's learned that the apostate continued putting on an act for months or years after deconverting. My heart goes out to those caught in a situation like this—I remember it all too well myself as if it were yesterday—but to them I say, What's the worst that can happen if you come out? It's not likely you'll die; you may have to depend for a time on charity or government assistance, but at least you'll have your integrity intact and you can keep your head held high, and you won't have betrayed the trust of your former fellow believers more than was necessary.
A possible miracle revisited
Following the publication of my book, in which I related an incident that came as close to being inexplicably miraculous as anything else in my experience, I've heard from at least three readers challenging me to follow up on it and to determine what really happened. As a result of their prompting, I did what I should have done before including the story in my book: I contacted the church I attended two decades ago to learn more details about the fellow member who experienced the miracle.
Before I tell you "the rest of the story," I'll include below the account as I related it in my book:
Kenneth W. Daniels (1968-), son of evangelical missionaries, is the author of Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary. He grew up in Africa and returned as an adult to serve with Wycliffe Bible Translators in Niger on the edge of the Sahara Desert. While studying the Bible on the mission field, he came to doubt the message he had traveled across the world to bring to a nomadic camel-herding ethnic group. Though he lost his faith and as a result left Africa in 2000, he remains part of a conservative Christian family. He currently resides with his wife and three children in suburban Dallas, TX, where he works as a software developer.