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Are you living a noble lie?

fantasy, lie, make believe, fire, torch, stone, cave
Unsplash/Linus Sandvide

Playing make believe was fun when we were kids.

I was the stereotypical child who made the spaceship out of the refrigerator box (I can still see it in my mind), pictured myself as all kinds of superheroes and immersed my thought life in many different imaginative adventures where I was the man. It was a blast, and I think you’ll agree that there is nothing wrong with living each day like that.

Unless you’re still doing it when you’re an adult.

The problem is, too many of us today are creating fantasy worlds to avoid the truth, the biting reality of our belief systems and the day-to-day consequences of living them out. The angst experienced in facing such things head-on leads to a mental short-circuiting sung out by Freddy Mercury at the beginning of Queen's famous song, “Bohemian Rhapsody”:

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality

To cope, many will tell themselves the reality they’re facing isn’t genuine and go on to eclipse the truth with lies that allow them to function. But since we all know that lying is wrong, the process must go further so that they become convinced that the lies in question serve a good purpose because, in their mind, they ultimately produce an honorable end result.   

Such a thing has a name: the “noble lie.”

The origin of the noble lie concept is traced back to Plato and comes from Book III of his Republic, where Socrates suggests devising a mythology that will persuade citizens to cooperate with the social structure of the ‘good’ city. The idea is, if people can be made to believe the lie, they will be strongly motivated to care for the city and for each other.

The approving use of noble lies is everywhere these days with the practice serving all kinds of personal, political and even spiritual agendas. To me, there’s no more impressive use of it than with those who deny God’s existence.

You don’t want to go there

If, for an odd reason, you want to depress yourself some evening, give philosopher and atheist Bertrand Russell’s essay “A Free Man’s Worship” a read. In it, you’ll find uplifting statements like these:

“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.”

But wait, there’s more:

“One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death ... Brief and powerless is Man's life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow.”

Just fills your heart with all kinds of squishy goodness, doesn’t it? But here’s the thing: Russell is absolutely right if God doesn’t exist.  

His conclusions are acknowledged by many thoughtful atheists and so, to get around the absolute spirit of nihilism and personal/cultural chaos that would result in living such a thing out, they use noble lies to neutralize its effects.  

For example, atheist and physicist Sean Carroll calls his noble lie “poetic naturalism”. [1] He explains it this way:

“I like to talk about a particular approach to naturalism [atheism], which can be thought of as Poetic. By that I mean to emphasize that, while there is only one world, there are many ways of talking about the world … A poetic naturalist will deny that notions like ‘right and wrong,’ ‘purpose and duty,’ or ‘beauty and ugliness’ are part of the fundamental architecture of the world … The criteria for choosing the best such ways of talking will necessarily be different than the criteria we use for purely descriptive, scientific vocabularies. There won’t be a single rational way to delineate good from bad, sublime from repulsive. But we can still speak in such terms and put in the hard work to make our actions live up to our own internal aspirations. We just have to admit that judgments come from within ourselves.”

In other words, Sean Carroll is playing make-believe. But as an adult.

Right and wrong don’t exist and neither does objective moral value or purpose. But let’s pretend like they do because, if we don’t, well … then, we’re in serious trouble.

Dr. L. D. Rue admitted as much in his address “The Saving Grace of Noble Lies” that he presented to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science in February 1991. In it, he said to avoid what he termed “the madhouse option” we must embrace a noble lie “that deceives us, tricks us, compels us beyond self-interest, beyond ego, beyond family, nation, [and] race. It is a lie, because it tells us that the universe is infused with value (which is a great fiction), because it makes a claim to universal truth (when there is none), and because it tells me not to live for self-interest (which is evidently false). But without such lies, we cannot live.”

No, you really can’t. Without them, you’ll reach the end of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody song where Mercury concludes:

Nothing really matters,
Anyone can see,
Nothing really matters,
Nothing really matters to me

I’m not sure if the group knew it, but they were quoting Macbeth’s sad observation:

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”

But life doesn’t need to be approached in this way — our days indeed have meaning and you don’t need noble lies when you have the truth. Because God exists, you have something real on which to build a life that instinctively seeks out and finds answers to origin, meaning, morality and destiny.

While playing make-believe when we were kids was fun, doing so when you’re an adult is all kinds of wrong and very unnecessary when the truth is so much better.


[1] See Melissa Cain Travis’ article on the subject. 

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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