Let’s say you’re an atheist. Let’s say you’re a college student. Let’s say your parents are supporting you, including paying your tuition. And let’s say your parents are adamantly opposed to atheism—so much so that if they learned you were an atheist, they would stop paying your tuition, cut off all financial support, and cut you out of the family. (This is not a hypothetical situation, unfortunately.)
Is it ethical to conceal your atheism? We often treat this question, and questions like it, as a no-brainer. In my book Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, I repeatedly counsel atheists to hold off on coming out if they don’t think it’s safe—if they think it will get them fired from their jobs, cut off by their parents, kicked out of their homes. I do think coming out is ultimately the right choice for most people—overwhelmingly, most atheists who have come out say it made their lives better and they’re glad they did it—but I think it makes sense to hold off if the timing is bad. As I delicately phrased it in the book, “Don’t screw up your life.” I give this advice without hesitation, and it’s mostly accepted without hesitation.
But I’ve gotten some comments about this—yes, from atheists—that have made me look at this question more carefully. I’m still coming to the same conclusion, but I think it’s more difficult than I’d originally thought, and a more nuanced answer is required.
The issue at hand: If people are giving you something, and they wouldn’t give it to you if they knew a particular thing about you, is it ethical to lie about that information or even simply to withhold it? If a boss were considering hiring you and wouldn’t if your embezzlement conviction were known, is it ethical for you to conceal that? If someone you were dating were considering marrying you but wouldn’t if you were a Republican, is it ethical for you to conceal that? I think most people would say no.
So by the same token, if your parents wouldn’t pay your tuition if they knew you were an atheist, don’t they have the right to make that decision? Isn’t it their money and their right to decide what to do with it? Isn’t honesty a core ethical value—especially when people are making decisions that would be influenced by your disclosure?
Now, the most obvious counterexample comes up a lot in ethics discussions: the case of people who helped protect Jews from the Nazis. Say you were living in Nazi Germany and you were hiding a family of Jews. If the Nazis knocked on your door and asked if there were any Jews in the house, would you be obligated to tell the truth? I think the answer is an obvious and impassioned, “No freaking way.” (It’s actually a tenet of Catholic dogma that lying is always always wrong, and many Catholic theologians argue that it would be wrong, even in this situation, to lie. This isn’t just a holdover from Augustine and Aquinas; it’s argued by contemporaries John Finnis and Ronald L. Conte Jr. and the authors of the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy—one more example of the moral bankruptcy of Catholicism.
The “Nazis searching for Jews” example is an extreme one, of course. But it does highlight the principles at hand: You’re not ethically obligated to tell the truth if (a) it’s unreasonable or wrong to ask the question and (b) an honest answer would destroy someone’s life. Yes, honesty is a virtue and an important one. But life is full of situations where one core ethical value conflicts with another, and we have to weigh the good and the harm of each value in that particular instance. In this instance, the harm done by lying to the Nazis is so absurdly minuscule, and the harm done by telling the truth is so great, that the choice should be obvious.
What’s more, in the hiring situation described earlier, it’s completely reasonable for a boss to want to know if prospective employees are convicted embezzlers. That’s relevant information. But to put it mildly, the Nazis do not have a good reason for wanting to know if there are Jews hiding in the house.
So, to bring us back to the question at hand: Where does concealing one’s atheism fall along this continuum? In the case of parents who would cut off their atheist children, I would argue that the harm done is pretty severe. It’s not as severe as the harm done by squealing to the Nazis about the hidden Jews, but it’s considerable. I would also argue that, while the harm done by keeping this big secret from your parents is not minuscule, it doesn’t outweigh the harm done by them cutting you off. And of course, I would argue that they don’t have a good reason to do that. To put it mildly. Ditto for bosses who would fire you and landlords who would throw you out.
You can take this line of thinking too far, of course. I’m reminded of the episode of The Simpsons where Bart is persuaded to join the Mafia by mob boss Fat Tony: “Bart, is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family? . . . Well, suppose you got a large starving family. Is it wrong to steal a truckload of bread to feed them? . . . And what if your family don’t like bread? They like cigarettes? . . . Now, what if instead of giving them away, you sold them at a price that was practically giving them away. Would that be a crime, Bart?”
Similarly: Is it wrong to conceal your atheism from your parents who are housing you? What if they’re paying for your tuition? What if they’re helping you with the down payment on a mortgage? What if they’re making out their will, and you’re managing okay without an inheritance but you sure would breathe easier with that extra cushion? What if they’re deciding whether to send you to the Bahamas?
There is a point where the harm done by losing your parents’ financial support slips over from “ruining your life” into “would be awfully inconvenient.” We might not all draw the line in the same place, but I assume that we can all agree that the line exists. And that’s the point, I would argue, where you actually are obligated to spill the beans about your atheism—or at least, you’re obligated to not accept whatever moolah they’re offering. No matter how unfair it is for your parents to use your religious beliefs or lack thereof to decide whether to send you to the Bahamas, it’s still their money.
But there are some situations where the harm caused by concealing, deceiving, or even outright lying is far outweighed by the harm that would be caused by telling the truth. Honesty is a virtue, but it’s not the only virtue, and it’s not always the most important one. In many situations, it is not only reasonable, but right, to set aside strict honesty to protect people from harm. And that’s true even if the person you’re protecting is yourself.
Greta Christina blogs at Greta Christina’s Blog. She is the author of Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why and Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless (2014 and 2012, both from Pitchstone Publishing.