Most moments in our lives wash over us, quickly forgotten. The information which shapes and changes our views is often acquired incrementally – we know what we believe, but it’s hard to recall how or when we came to form our opinions. But, on rare occasions, a single insight, or piece of information, can transform your understanding of the world in an instant. These tectonic shifts in perspective are so rare, they become etched, indelibly, in our memories and can change our lives forever. The revelation that changed my life and world-view was the statement, “Christians lie.”
Long before I was any kind of activist, long before I’d even started the university degrees which gave me the skills I now use as a professional researcher, I attended a party. The host was a ghost-writer for a series of famous detective novels, the guests, an eclectic mix of professionals, artists and writers, and a few ‘randoms’ like me.
At that time, I had very few strong convictions. I wasn’t religious, but I was curious about the history of religion. I knew nothing about evolution – it wasn’t taught at the private school I attended as a teen. And, although I may well have agreed with the concept of voluntary assisted dying, it wasn’t a subject to which I’d been exposed. I might have described myself as nominally Christian, although I’d long since ceased to believe in an omniscient or omnipresent deity. Like most Australians then, and probably now, I thought of Christians and Christianity in general as ‘good’ – even if I didn’t buy in to the whole ‘God’ thing.
A young couple at this party stood out from the rest of the guests. Looking vaguely like hippies, I saw them locked in earnest conversation with a man in his 40s, who I knew to be a scientist. I didn’t like him much. He was abrasive and arrogant, but the volume of the conversation was escalating and I was intrigued, so I moved in as a spectator.
They were discussing evolution. The young couple, recently converted to some fundamentalist faith, were arguing passionately that the theory of evolution had been definitively debunked; that only creationism could explain the complexity and diversity of life on earth. To my uneducated ear, they sounded well-educated, well-read and convincing. But, the scientist was better read, knew the sources they were relying on, and eviscerated their argument forensically.
“Who says that?”
“Based on what evidence?”
“That’s not what that study says! Have you read it?”
“You’re quoting that completely out of context? What he really said was …”
It was the first time I’d witnessed a clash between ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’ and, at length, ‘belief’ was reduced to a lot of ‘humming and harring’ until, roundly defeated, it retreated to the buffet and affected a feigned fascination with the finger food.
Talking to the scientist later, I said, “I enjoyed the argument, but they did seem really well read and well informed. What about all the evidence they talked about?”
The scientist looked me straight in the eye, and in a tone which reminded me of God instructing Moses from the burning bush he said intoned slowly, but emphatically, “Christians lie!”
I was not, then, particularly well educated, but I was not stupid. I had, of course, entertained the idea that Christians might be mistaken in their beliefs. But, it had never occurred to me that people who aim to emulate Christ and inhabit the high moral ground might tell bald-faced lies. It would be another 20 years before I’d call myself an atheist, but this was a revelation which changed my entire view of the world. In fact, the idea that Christians might lie hit me so forcefully that every time I find evidence to support that assertion, I time-travel back to that long-ago party and hear the scientist’s words ringing in my ears.
Some time later, I came across research undertaken by Dr Martin Bridgstock. In the 1980s, Bridgstock was struck by the amount of ‘scientific evidence’ being put forward to support creationism. The material was sufficiently convincing that Bridgstock decided he should investigate it. Just as I had been at the debate at that party, Dr Bridgstock was taken aback to find the Christians compiling these academic arguments weren’t just mistaken – they were lying.
“Anyone encountering creationist claims for the first time is bound to be struck by the amount of scientific evidence they produce. Major scientists are quoted, scientific papers referred to, and important findings detailed. Given the sweeping nature of the creationist challenge, it is logical to ask a simple, basic question: how reliable is the evidence that creationists produce?
… I examined the creationist literature, and checked claims that creationists made. Two rough statistics summarise my findings.
First, on average, each creationist reference to science has two errors: these comprise a minor error (e.g. a wrong page, date, or an error in a quote) and a major error. The latter is an error which gravely misrepresents, and changes the meaning of the evidence quoted.
The second statistic is that roughly 90 per cent of creationist references to science have something gravely wrong with them: that is, they have major errors.
This result — repeated many times — shocked me profoundly. It meant, if correct, that creationist claims could not be believed without careful checking. It also meant that the normal give-and-take of discussion simply could not exist: how can you discuss something with people who have made so many errors?
… Misquotes are not uncommon in creationist literature. More common is taking a quote, or some information out of context, so that its meaning is altered.
… It is quite common to find creationists quoting only part of a scientific paper, if the part they do not quote conflicts with the point they wish to make.”
And, once misleading academic-sounding documents are published, he says:
“… one notices also that they quote themselves and other creationists extensively.”
That is, having misrepresented legitimate academic texts, they then quote their own dishonest texts as evidence.
“As one works through the creationist literature, one constantly finds errors, changes and misquotes of this type. On top of these major errors, there is also a thick scattering of trivial errors. This suggests to me and to other researchers that creationist claims are not reliable. Ultimately, this lack of accuracy appears as a form of arrogance. The one thing any researcher needs is humility before the majesty and complexity of the universe. It is this lack which renders creationism a menace to scientific enquiry.”
Reading Bridgstock was another one of those “lightning bolt” moments in my intellectual evolution. It took me from the assertion that “Christians lie” to carefully documented and incontestable evidence that this was true.
By the time I read Bridgstock I was much better educated, having completed a university degree and post-graduate studies as a mature-age student. Concepts such as ‘evidence’, ‘credible sources’, ‘respecting the context of quotations’ and ‘being aware of ideological agendas’ had been drummed into me. With this rigorous training behind me, I was even more aghast that anyone with a tertiary education could betray the discipline of academic research and writing this way.
In 2013, I attended a debate in Brisbane between astrophysicist Professor Lawrence Krauss and Dr William Lane Craig on the topic, “Has Science Buried God?” Speaking first, Krauss, to the shock of both the audience and Craig, immediately launched into an impassioned speech about his opponent’s history of lying for Jesus. It was brutal, but Krauss didn’t just claim that Craig was a liar, he backed it up with video evidence. Speaking to Eternity News after the debate, Krauss explained:
“There’s no point in my debating William Lane Craig—he’s not going to learn anything from me or listen.
… I happen to think William Lane Craig abuses science and says many, many, many things that are not only disingenuous but untruthful, but recognises that his audience won’t know that. So one of the reasons I like to do these [debates], and certainly why I agreed to allow the first one to be videotaped, is to demonstrate explicitly examples of where he says things that he knows to be manifestly wrong, but also knows that the audience won’t have access to the information.
… I wanted to show that he was a liar. I think I did that, in my opinion, in the last debate. And I’ll do it again. I want to show what the science is. So I’ll show it again.”
“… when Dr Craig says ‘Scientists say this’ without any support, without any references, that it’s just some quote from someone, or no quote at all … [people] should be suspicious of what he says.
… I think he knowingly abuses science and other people’s arguments—distorts them— I think he does it because he believes in the end. He amazingly believes, wholeheartedly, in the scriptures. And I think his attitude is that because they’re right, anything goes to prove their right. But that’s not how we learn about the world.”
Around this time, voluntary assisted dying was becoming a hot topic of conversation and, as I heard the many arguments advanced in opposition to it, I started using the research skills I’d learned at university and had honed in the years since graduating to look into it. My research took me right back to that party in the 1990s where I was first introduced to the idea that Christians lie. I became such of an expert on the subject, I was invited to deliver the keynote speech to the Dying with Dignity NSW annual conference in 2011.
In my speech, I argued that Christians were not just lying about voluntary assisted dying, they were using the same dishonest tactics to argue on various fronts – about abortion, LGBTIQ people, and stem-cell research. Different topics, same strategy. I argued that the material emanating from pro-life and anti-gay advocates wasn’t just misinformed – it was blatant and deliberate lying. It was dishonesty and deception strategically employed for the purpose of achieving a religious goal.
I gave the example of The Family Council of Victoria (FCV) – affiliated with a number of prominent Christians and Christian organisations including the Catholic Women’s League and Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party. At that time, under the heading “Abortion and Breast Cancer” the Family Council of Victoria’s website stated that:
“The link between induced abortion and breast cancer is substantial … The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in the U.K. has issued warnings of a 30% greater risk of breast cancer via leaflets and the internet.”
But, when I checked the website of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), it said:
“… there is now evidence to conclude that induced abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer risk.”
And, it was not just that the FCV hadn’t caught up with the latest news. The RCOG’s statement had been on their website for eight years.
Another example related to LGBTIQ issues. An anti-gay Christian group called the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuals had cited an article by Professor Lisa Diamond to support the thesis that sexual identity can be changed. In fact, her study said exactly the opposite. Professor Diamond pulled no punches in her public rebuke:
“… there’s no chance that this is a misunderstanding, or simply a different scientific interpretation of the data, that’s simply not possible. This is a wilful misuse and distortion of my research. Not an academic disagreement, not a slight shading of the truth, its wilful distortion. And it’s illegitimate, and it’s irresponsible, and you know that, and you should stop.”
As I’ve developed as a researcher, I’ve learned that on issues such as evolution, abortion, stem-cell research, LGBTIQ issues and voluntary assisted dying, when you find a claim or an anecdote that is blatantly untrue, the source will almost inevitably be a Christian activist or organisation – although the link will almost always be concealed or undeclared. Dig enough and you’ll find that doctor is a devout Catholic or Mormon, that ‘neutral’ journalist is an evangelical Christian, that outspoken politician is even more outspoken when addressing her local Baptist church, that ‘secular’ bio-ethics organisation is funded by the Catholic Church, that MP’s presentation was authored by a religious ghost-writer with no academic qualifications, and that ‘not particularly religious’ opinion writer has strong family links to a fundamentalist church.
The lying, coupled with the subterfuge, is jarring – even after you’ve encountered it time after time after time.
It should come as no surprise that opposition to voluntary assisted dying is almost exclusively linked to, or inflamed by, religious activists or organisations. In an interview with VAD activist, Neil Francis, Els Borst, the Dutch MP who first introduced VAD legislation to the Netherlands, reveals there was a time when the lies emanating from the Vatican were so egregious, the Dutch government sent a delegation threatening to cut diplomatic ties.
Els Borst: Their journal, the Osservatore Romano, was writing, was publishing articles saying that in the Netherlands, people who went to a nursing home or an old people’s home, didn’t dare to do that any more because they were so afraid they would be killed by their doctor after a week or so.
And we were so angry about this, absolute lies, that we went together, to the Vatican, and we told them that if they didn’t stop that sort of lies in their journal, that we would stop diplomatic relations with Vatican City.
I can still remember the night Neil shared that, as yet, unpublished information to me, as we shared an Asian meal in Brisbane. I found I still had the capacity to be shocked.
One of the most scathing assessments of this religious strategy of dishonesty and deceit comes from John Griffiths, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Groningen. Writing in a scholarly book on Euthanasia and Law in Europe, Griffiths says:
“Imprecision, exaggeration, suggestion and innuendo, misinterpretation and misrepresentation, ideological ipsedixitism, and downright lying and slander (not to speak of bad manners) have taken the place of careful analysis of the problem and consideration of the Dutch evidence.”
I had Griffith’s quote in mind today as I was reading a document, recently published by Andrew Denton’s Go Gentle Australia (GGA) (for which, in full disclosure, I have done some work in my professional capacity as a freelance researcher.) GGA’s “A Guide to the Debate on Voluntary Assisted Dying” points to a ‘minority report’ opposing the introduction of VAD, by Western Australian MP, Nick Goiran. Goiran (a committed Christian) warns of the high number of wrongful deaths occurring in countries and jurisdictions which have legalised VAD. At face value, it’s a terrifying account. But GGA’s assessment of Goiran’s claims is strangely reminiscent of Martin Bridgstock’s critique of creationist literature, three decades earlier. GGA explains:
“Analysis shows the bulk of the evidence used in this report was not peer reviewed but instead came from abbreviated versions of official reports taken out of context, newspaper stories and anecdotes told by anti-euthanasia physicians.
A detailed investigation of 26 allegations of ‘wrongful deaths’ presented in the Minority Report shows that only six out of 26 cases (less than a quarter) related to patients who may qualify for an assisted death (under the legislation that was being debated in Western Australia).
Twenty cases in the Minority Report were entirely irrelevant because the subjects fell outside the proposed criteria.”
Among those cases found by GGA to have been grossly misrepresented in Mr Goiran’s account were: one rejected as ‘lacking veracity’ by the CEO of the health care provider in which the incident occurred; four in which the victim of the ‘wrongful death’ was still alive, and; two in which the subjects were not approved for assisted deaths and died by their own hands.
In short, the report was a tissue of lies, based on half-truths, misreporting and information taken out of context. And Goiran is far from the only culprit. This is not the exception, but the rule.
Now, let me be clear. When I say “Christians lie” I do not mean every Christian lies. I don’t even mean that most Christians lie. But what I can say is that Christians who engage in ideological activism designed to curtail the freedoms of others, or impose their religious views upon those who don’t share them, routinely lie, distort, misquote, and present information out of context – and they do it deliberately. I know this because I have seen them corrected and directed to the correct information time and time again, and yet, they continue to pump out the same, old, discredited arguments.
Further, not content with this outrageous mendacity, they routinely conceal, and, in fact, deny outright, the religious ideology which underpins their convictions.
Call me naive, but even today, when I scratch the surface and find that a blatantly dishonest account has been authored by a Christian I am still as shocked as I was the first time the scientist at that party said to me, “Christians lie.”
I still struggle to understand how people who claim to be fighting on the side of truth and morality are routinely willing to just make shit up in order to achieve their goals. What’s more, because I do not tar all Christians with the one brush, I know that many, perhaps most, Christians are appalled at what is being done, and said, in their name. It is, to put it in Biblical terms, an abomination.
Christians lie. In doing so they betray everything their religion is supposed to stand for. Conservative Christian activists are dedicated to defending the things they hold sacred, but they are all too ready to violate the one thing that should be sacred to all of us, whether we are people of faith or of none – the truth.