“What is truth ?” asked Pontius Pilate, faced with the politico-religious conundrum of having to allow the condemnation of an obviously innocent man, who claimed to be the Son of God and bearer of the divine truth that would set men free.
An equally interesting question is, “What is a lie ?”. For most of us, believers or not, the answer is that of St Thomas Aquinas (though we would not use his words, even in translation) : “locutio contra mentem”, (“a speaking against the mind”). A millennium earlier, St Augustine had defined lying differently. He affirmed that it was the violation of another person’s right to the truth. If I spent some time in prison – or in the priesthood (!) – not only do I not have to admit it, but if a smoke-screen won’t work for me to conceal a truth to which you have no right, I, according to Augustinian logic, would be allowed even to deny it. This, of course, has to be a last resort, because every voluntary deception, even if justified, reduces mutual human trust. Dixit Doctor Doctorum (said the Doctor of Doctors).
Augustine opened the way for the more modern doctrine of the Jesuits which we learned in Catholic schools. A “mental reservation”, saying to the salesman at the door that Mummy is not home, when the child knows she is in the kitchen preparing lunch, is not a lie. “As far as you’re concerned, buddy, she’s not at home … to you”.
Besides the accepted convention, there is the “little” white lie. You don’t want to spend a boring evening at that function, so you say you have the ‘flu. Creativity in this area has no limits. Everyone knows how often married women have migraines . . .
Many parents inculcate and reinforce their children’s belief in Santa Claus. No one is going to accuse such parents of a federal crime or even a venial sin. Not only is this contradiction of reality, as Aquinas might say if he were still around, a well-intentioned (supposedly) harmless stretching of the truth, for the giver of gifts exists, after all, in the persons of the parents, though they have neither reindeer nor a residence at the North Pole. The story about letters to Santa, the sleigh, the chimney and the piles of pre-ordered presents, may, in fact, be small children’s first encounter with what they will later discover are called “miracles”. Having lost the Saint Nicholas connection, this purely materialistic, non-religious dimension of Christmas will continue throughout the children’s lives, alongside the Christian belief in the birth of the Savior. Belief in Santa will last only a few years. Christian faith, for many, will endure a lifetime. Weaned usually without trauma from their belief and the “lie” about the magic origin of their Xmas gifts, children will continue to accept the “truths” of Christian faith, themselves myths, that one cannot call lies because they are usually transmitted innocently, with no malicious intention to deceive. Only the cynic preaches what he does not himself believe. A lie is not an unfounded belief, but a deliberate, conscious deception. The cynical preacher’s lie if not only illicit but a blatant hypocrisy.
No one should be forced to accept belief in God, religion and life after death. To proclaim the existence of God is clearly not a lie, if he who proclaims it sincerely believes it is the truth. On the other hand, for atheists like me, not to proclaim that God is a myth would be a violation of others’ right to the truth.