Suppose I visit the wife and seven year old daughter of a colleague who has recently died. Now it turns out that the wife is a Christian, and she has told her daughter that her Daddy is now living in heaven with God and the angels. This is very comforting belief for both the wife and the little girl. Daddy hasn’t gone for ever. He’s merely moved to somewhere very nice, somewhere that they too will go in the end.
Now I am an atheist. I don’t believe in God or in any sort of after-life. Suppose that this little girl asks me whether I believe in heaven. What do I say? Do I tell her the truth or do I lie?
Of course, if you happen to believe in God and the angels, you can tell comfortably tell her the truth about what you believe. But if, like me, you don’t believe in any of that, you find yourself facing a dilemma. Do you lie?
I would avoid telling her the truth if I could, perhaps by changing the subject. But I don’t think I could lie. I don’t think I could tell her I believed in God and heaven when I don’t. Even if the result of my not lying is that it shakes her own confidence in her belief.
Which at first sight is very odd, because if she were to ask me whether I believed in Santa and the elves living at the North Pole, I’ll happily lie. In fact, I’ll go out of my way to embellish the fib – by helping her put out Santa’s mince pie and Rudolph’s carrot at bedtime, and then leaving bite-marks in the mince pie and gnawing the carrot once she’s gone to bed.
But if she asks me whether I believe in God and Heaven, I would find it very difficult to tell her what I consider to be a fib. Despite the fact that this little girl derives an extraordinary amount of comfort, and even some happiness, from that lie. Far more, in fact, than she derives from the fib about Santa and the Elves.
Doesn’t that make me a hypocrite? Aren’t I operating with a blatant double standard? I’ll go out of my way to lie about Santa and the Elves. Yet I turn into Mr Principle when it comes to lying about God and the angels.
Well, may be not. As children grow up, we create illusory worlds for them to inhabit: little bubbles of deceit. One of these bubbles of belief is about goblins and fairies, another is about Santa and Rudolph. These bubbles soon pop, of course, We can’t sustain them into adult life. But, while they last, they are charming fantasies.
The trouble with the religious bubble, from the point of view of most atheists, is that it doesn’t always pop. Many of us continue to inhabit it throughout our entire lives. And it can dramatically shape our lives, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
Six arguments for lying to children
1. Educational fibbing. My daughter and I often tell each other fibs. I say, “Did you know that there are fairies living under our garden shed?” To which she responds, but Daddy, why can’t we see them?” To which I answer, “They only come out at night.” To which she says “But then how do you know they are there?” and so on. The more we play this sort of game, the better she gets at figuring out when she’s being lied to.
Lying games are good way of showing children that, armed with nothing more than their own power of reason, they can often figure out what’s true for themselves.
Educational fibbing games can help them develop some intellectual and emotional maturity. They won’t be afraid to think or ask a question. It gives them a course in self-defence that will come in very handy when they are confronted by the corporate, religious and other psychological manipulators and snake-oil salesmen later on.
If we want our children to grow into good truth-detectors, these are the sort of skills we need then to acquire.
2. It makes them happy.
3. Gives them an appreciation of what it’s like to be a true believer. Even after the bubble of belief has burst, the memory of what it was like to inhabit it – to really believe - lingers on. The adult who never knew that is perhaps kind of missing out.
4. And we can vicariously enjoy their pleasure. Having children around who believe in Santa transforms Christmas – you can half inhabit their kitsch fantasy world for a few days.
5. Useful for controlling behaviour. “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s going to find out who's naughty and nice”. Santa is watching what you are doing even when Mummy and Daddy are not.
6. “Protecting” them from potentially upsetting or damaging truths.
Three arguments against lying to children
1. They will learn not to trust you. Crying wolf – won’t believe you when it really matters.
2. We are teaching them that lying is acceptable.
3. We can instill false beliefs that may hurt them later in life.
And, incidentally, some of the lies we tell we don’t ourselves properly register as lies:
• “You can be anything you want to be!” (cobblers, of course)
• “Looks don’t matter!" (perhaps they shouldn't, but they do)