Christians are not lying

June 2006

On both sides of the believer-unbeliever divide, there are those who question the honesty of their adversaries. Some Christians are convinced that nobody is really an atheist, that we who claim to doubt God's existence somehow actually know that he is real. In turn, a few atheists think nobody can really believe what Christians say they believe.

What follows is an edited version of a dialogue I once had with an atheist who thinks that all Christians are liars. It began with a debate about whether the same utterance could be both a lie and a mistake at the same time. I said it could not. My interlocutor said it could.

* * * *

If I say, "I am God and you are Satan," I know that I am lying about the God part, and certainly feel that I am mistaken about the Satan part. However, your logic that I cannot be both lying and mistaken leads to the conclusion that you are Satan.

A person cannot be simultaneously lying and mistaken about the same proposition. Assuming there is no god, any theist who asserts the existence of a god either believes his assertion, in which case he is mistaken, or else he does not believe his assertion, in which case he is lying if he makes the assertion with deceitful intent.

With a compound proposition such as the one above, it gets more complicated, but the underlying principle doesn't change. The proposition affirms the conjunction of two simple assertions: I am God AND you are Satan. The conjunction is true if and only if both assertions are true. If at least one of them is false, then the proposition is false. If the proposition is false, but you believe it is true, then you are mistaken. If it is false, and you know it is false and you intend deceit, then you are lying. If you know you are not God, then you lie if you say "I am God and you are Satan," quite regardless of whether you actually think I am Satan or even whether I really am Satan.

Thank you for the logic tutorial. Was that a bonus lesson or were you trying to prove something?

I was trying to prove that this statement of yours was in error: Your logic that I cannot be both lying and mistaken leads to the conclusion that you are Satan. You have not demonstrated how the conclusion logically follows from the premise.

You assert that theists cannot both lie and be mistaken about their beliefs. That assertion has some problems.

Yes, it does, but I didn't make that assertion. I have asserted that a single statement about a particular belief cannot be both a lie and a mistake. In reference to "beliefs" (plural), one certainly could be lying about some statements and mistaken about others.

What about theists who believe in the Bible?

There are many ways to "believe in the Bible." You don't have to be an inerrantist to believe that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God, and even the inerrantists don't agree among themselves on exactly what inerrancy implies about how we should understand the Bible.

But, you apparently are referring to a hypothetical inerrantist, and I'll try to work with that.

The bible has numerous contradictions. That being so, we must infer that anyone who believes the Bible must believe that both A and not-A are true.

No, we must not. An inerrantist denies that the contradiction exists.

You see two passages in the Bible, one of which, according to your understanding, says A and the other of which says not-A. I would probably agree with you that one says A and the other not-A. The inerrantist, however, believes that they both say A.

Such a believer fails to understand some very basic principles of reality.

The basic principles he does not understand are those of critical thinking. He fails to see the absurdity of supposing, to pick just one example, that God would have inspired the author of Luke to refer to Mary's father as Joseph's father.

If this person has no problems coping with similar secular problems, we may consider that a willful suppression of a rule of logic is taking place.

It's called compartmentalization. The kind of thinking that works in the secular world is perceived to be irrelevant to an understanding of the spiritual world.

A person has to lie to himself to think that way.

Is it a lie, or is it self-deceit, and how could one tell the difference?

Do you deny that people can lie to themselves?

Yes. It's a very handy metaphor with which to label certain kinds of irrational thinking, but it does not literally happen.

It would appear that "belief" for a theist is not the normal "confidence of truth" that is normally associated with the word.

I don't see why. The definition has nothing to do with the source of the confidence. If you are confident than an assertion is true, then you believe it, regardless of how you acquired that confidence.

For Christians, maintaining their beliefs is a moral act. This suggests that they consider it an accomplishment more virtuous than drawing logical conclusions from observations of reality.

Yes. They think that what one observes, and how one reaches any conclusion, is a matter of personal choice. They think we are supposed to know what God wants us to see and to choose to see it. They think we're supposed to know what God wants us to think and use whatever mental strategy it takes to think accordingly.

Why do they extol the study of scripture when they already believe it? How can a person claim total belief in a body of knowledge while retaining a need to study it closer?

The purpose of study, as they perceive it, is to learn the contents of that body of knowledge.

Obviously they have decided to "believe" it before they know what it is.

Belief is not a matter of decision in that sense. What they believe is that whatever it is, whether they've heard it yet or not, it must be true. But they think it is good to hear it, regardless.

Back to the point of our debate . . . I interpret your assertion as: "a person cannot simultaneously lie and be mistaken with regard to a given statement."

Yes, and therefore I believe it is illogical for anyone to assert that a person can simultaneously lie and be mistaken.

To be scientific about things, your theory should be clearly stated.

I don't think it could be any clearer.

And it is not a theory. It is an observation that the ordinary definitions of lie and mistake imply the impossibility of their applying to the same statement at the same time.

Theory or observation, whatever, it is invalid if I can falisify it by positing a situation where it is not true.

We infer the definitions from observation of the words' usage. Given those definitions, I have demonstrated the logical impossibility of their simultaneous application to any particular statement. You can prove me wrong by showing my argument to be fallacious. You have not done that.

I am attempting to show how your statement could be interpreted to render it not universally true.

To what end? Such an interpretation would require equivocation, and then the whole exercise is logically pointless. I can interpret 2 + 2 = 4 so as to render it untrue, but that doesn't change the mathematical facts about 2 and 4 as they are defined within mathematics.

To call something a lie is to pronounce a moral judgment. That judgment might be suspended in some situations where the modified label "white lie" could be applied, but we still don't call it a mistake. It's still a lie. Except in such a situation, we assert that it is morally wrong to tell a lie. A mistake is also wrong, but not in the same sense that a lie is wrong. We don't say that it is morally wrong to make a mistake.

At least, the mistake per se is not considered morally wrong. Some mistakes can be due to morally culpable actions, but that's another topic for another discussion.

If your statement can be falsified, then it is not universally true.

The original statement is true by definition. Definitions cannot be falsified. A definition can be unuseful, but it cannot be false.

It is not true under all interpretations.

If you produce a counterexample using a different interpretation, then you are equivocating, and if the statement is true by definition, then you cannot produce a counterexample except by equivocating.

If your statement is true by definition, I can certainly make a statement that uses the exact same text, yet is false by my definition.

Yes. That is why equivocation is a fallacy.

The obvious problem is that when presented with the bare statement, any third party would be justified in concluding that it was not always true—and therefore a false statement.

The third party first needs to find out how I define the relevant terms. He doesn't have to accept my definition, but he can't prove me wrong if he doesn't.

Let's encode your statement as XYZ. Your interpretation of it is XYZDoug , mine is XYZJK. For any third party, the plain XYZ, unelaborated and uncommented-on, could reasonably be assumed to mean XYZDoug or XYZJK , with different logical implications depending on which assumpiton he made.

You can't discuss the logical implications of it without assuming one or the other and sticking with that assumption. You can certainly say that XYZDoug is true and XYZJK is false, but you cannot say that the falsity of XYZJK falsifies XYZDoug .

I don't see what is so difficult about this concept.

The difficulty seems to be your inability to distinguish logic from semantics. That you can't discuss one without discussing the other doesn't mean they're the same thing.

I am asserting the falseness of the text of your statement.

Yes, but in order to prove the assertion you are defining the text differently from how I defined it.

You have one interpretation of the key words, and it might or might not be a valid interpretation, but your particular interpretation is beside the point in either case. Other interpretation can be valid, too, and they can falsify your assertion.

My interpretation is the point. You may argue that it is an unuseful interpretation, but that is not the argument you have been making. Your argument must address my interpretation or else we're not even talking about the same statement.

 If that statement is so ambiguous, then there is your problem.

I removed the ambiguity when I explicitly defined my terms.

You presented your statement without a context. It can have no useful meaning without a context.

Context could determine whether my definition is useful or not. It cannot change the logic of my argument.

Anyone who says they know for a fact that God is real is telling a lie. Even if God is real, nobody can know that.

For some people, "I feel certain" is equivalent to "I know." If that is how they think, and they feel certain that God is real, then they do not lie when they say they know God is real. But they are certainly mistaken.

Christianity does not deserve the respect of being considered "simply mistaken."

The only respect I am trying to demonstrate is respect for the truth. If Christians believe what they say they believe, then it is not true that they are lying when they state their beliefs. To call a falsehood a mistake is not necessarily to trivialize it. A mistake can be a very bad thing to make. Mistakes kill people every day.

Furthermore, to call something a mistake is not necessarily to excuse it. Libel case law has established the concept of "reckless disregard" for certain cases where someone is defamed by a false statement but cannot prove that the reporter or publisher knew the statement was false.

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