We’ve all been taught from childhood that loyalty is noble and that we ought to “have the back” of our family, friends, sports team, school, company, Boy Scout troop, country, and church. Certainly these groups benefit from our collective loyalty, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they each attempt to cultivate loyalty as a virtue. Without loyalty, it’s hard to imagine that any group could succeed in the face of obstacles and adversity.

Yet what are we to do when loyalty to a group runs counter to the long-term interests of the group? For example, there were engineers who warned their superiors of the possibility of “O” ring failure and of the dangers of cold weather leading up to the disastrous launch of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. However, these warnings were not passed up the chain of command, no doubt because of a culture of letting things slip and of accepting a little risk in the interest of moving the program along. There were those who did not want to make waves, to dwell on problems, or to blow the whistle, because to do so would have made them look like disloyal gadflies if they had halted the program every time there was a potential problem, no matter how minor. That is to say, the Program (with capital P) took precedence over the problems.

In the context of NASA, when truth and loyalty come into conflict, truth quite clearly trumps loyalty. In other situations it isn’t so easy to decide. Two of our three children play soccer, and it’s amazing to note how often the parents on our team feel the referee makes bad calls against our team compared to how often he makes bad calls  in favor of our team. Sometimes when other parents on our team have yelled out and complained to the referee (“hey, that ball went out on the other team, not on ours!!!”), I’ve noticed that the ball really did go out on our team and I’ve occasionally tried to correct the parents, assuring them the referee in fact made the right call. That’s not a good way to stay on good terms with the other parents of our team! You’re just not supposed to be contrary; you’re supposed to be loyal to the team.

The tendency for us to see and believe what lines up with with what the other members of our in-group see and believe, and the tendency for those members to see and believe what lines up with their interests is called motivated reasoning. See this link for a fascinating study on Ivy league students who watched a film of a football game involving their team and another team, showing how even the brightest of students could not see what members of the other team saw when watching the same game. Our ability to discern the truth is clouded by our loyalty to the groups to which we belong.

I’ve realized it’s futile to continue being contrary when I discern that the soccer parents on our team aren’t being objective, because the stakes are low. That is to say, the value of loyalty trumps truth in this case; I’m not going to get in the face of the other parents and shout, “Can’t you see you’re operating under a cognitive bias called motivated reasoning?!” But neither will I join them in calling out to the referee that his call was mistaken.

In other situations, loyalty trumps all other values, even truth. If I were living in Nazi Germany and my best friend were a Jew and the the Gestapo were hunting him down, I would not have a problem lying about his whereabouts in order to protect him.

What about religion and politics? If we come to suspect that the fellow members of our religious or political in-group are making pronouncements that don’t line up with reality, saying for example that scientists (referees) are making bad calls on evolution or global warming, and we come to realize that in fact the perspectives of these scientists are valid, then do we remain loyal to our in-group and join in the calls against the scientists, or do we silently agree with the scientists, or do we outright break ranks with our in-group and speak out in favor of (what we believe to be) the truth? In short, do we (1) remain fully loyal to our group, (2) withdraw in silence, or (3) speak up for the truth? Of course, the in-group would prefer (1), but if we can’t make ourselves believe what they do, then they would prefer we opt for (2) over (3), since our silence would minimize the damage to their cause.

This works in both directions. Jesus did not call for his followers to zip it up even if what they believed was in conflict with that of their family members. In fact, for him, the truth of the gospel trumps family loyalty:

Matthew 10:34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn
  “‘a man against his father,
  a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
  36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
  37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

To sum up, loyalty can indeed be a high virtue, particularly when it comes to protecting family and friends from harm. But loyalty can also sometimes prevent us from seeing the truth, a truth than runs counter to the prevailing opinions of our in-group. Loyalty is only a conditional virtue and can be a powerful force that prevents us from taking an unpopular stand against the misguided religious or political views of our family or friends.

For those who hesitate to go against the grain to uphold the truth for fear they’ll be branded as disloyal to their in-groups, I fully understand your plight; I once was (and still am, in some ways) where you are. Yet there comes a point where silence becomes a form of complicity to that which is not true, and the internal battle begins. Should I speak up? When do I speak up? It’s going to kill me! I can’t keep this pent up within me forever, and I can’t pretend to believe what I don't believe, but neither can I bear the thought of being disloyal! Everyone who begins to question the truth of what their in-group stands for must struggle with these gut-wrenching dilemmas.

As many of you may know, over a decade ago I come out publicly against the views of my family, church, and mission board, abandoning the faith I had embraced since my earliest years. I could have played the silent soccer dad, disagreeing in my heart with the calls of my former coreligionists. But my former coreligionists continued to make their complaints, even pronouncing that those who didn’t agree with their calls were doomed to eternal damnation. As a soccer dad, I don’t mind remaining silent even when other parents on my team are making their bogus complaints, because their complaints don’t really matter; the referee’s calls will stand in the end. And besides, these soccer parents don’t think I’m going to hell if I don’t join in with them in challenging the referee, and they’re not going to stack the school boards with those who challenge the referee, nor are they going to press their mistaken views in society outside the soccer field. If only the stakes surrounding the disputes over religion, evolution, and global warming were so inconsequential! Alas, they are not; thus, the need to speak out. Whoever remains silent cedes the outcome to the other side.

May we always be loyal to physically protect and provide for those in our inner circles, but may we also be faithful to the truth, and may be have the wisdom to discern what to do when truth and loyalty come into conflict. I can only hope that those who unconditionally value loyalty above truth will not work for NASA or any other enterprise that requires integrity and the ability to be corrected under the weight of the facts. It certainly matters how we respond to good evidence that counters our interests and the views of our in-groups.


03/13/2012 14:54


Another great post. This really resonated with me because the church I grew up in (and the culture that church was a part of) constantly touted obedience as a central virtue. Obedience is important...but not unthinking, unmerited obedience.

Religion's emphasis on obedience explains why so many governments throughout history found great utility in promoting various faiths. What better way to generate a loyal polity.

Ken Daniels
03/14/2012 17:57

Thanks, Chris! Yes, as the old hymn puts it, "for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey." Granted, if Jesus is indeed the Son of God, then it would be in our eternal interest to obey him, but the question comes down to whether he really is divine, or whether we believe(d) in his divinity at least in part because of the influence of those to whom we are/were loyal.

Good point about belief being useful to rulers; reminds me of this quote from "The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" by Edward Gibbon (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/890/890-h/890-h.htm): "The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful."

03/14/2012 12:48

Hi Ken
Great post. I know my family sometimes may feel like I'm a traitor, and I feel that way too. I feel like I have been disloyal to them and that still stings to this day because I do really love my family and hold them in high regard. I have a hard time articulating why I value the truth over the way feeling like a traitor every day makes me feel. Sometimes I think, "who cares if Christianity is true or not. My family has never been radical and it has compelled them to do good and not bad." I have wonderful memories from my church and the people who surrounded me. A few have told me before that they also don't care if it's true or not, that it brings unity and peace and tradition to family and they value that over "The Truth" in this circumstance. I have also heard that if God doesn't exist and Christianity isn't true, then nothing matters anyways. Why care about anything, including what actually is true in this finite and dying world? Having loyalty, unity, and tradition within the family trumps the truth if this "is all there is." I understand this line of thinking and actually feel that way sometimes, yet never enough to go back to Christianity because "the truth" thing really gets to me. I guess it played too much of a role in my life and was so much of my identity that my whole life felt like a lie. I still struggle with how much to say though. Sometimes I want to scream, "STOP LYING!! YOU KNOW IT'S A LIE. I KNOW IT AND YOU KNOW IT!" I can't stand seeing how people's religious notions gets to decide public policy, the advancement or stagnancy of Science, and other people's personal lives. But other times I'm very sympathetic, especially when I see how much it means to people and how much peace it brings them. Plus, I'm still on the fence on how eradicating religion would benefit or hurt society, and it seems like a toss up. On one hand, I feel certain we would get a lot closer to curing diseases; we would have fewer unwanted children and poverty, and more people would be happy because they would be free to live out their personal lives in ways that saw fit. But on the other hand, I wonder how much hopelessness and despair would overcome people as they would no longer have their religion to help in those matters.
It really is a crazy choice people make and it does seem people value loyalty to the team moreso than the truth, or at least, that's how it plays out in their actions. I wonder why it's such a small fragmant of society that values the truth over loyalty? Interesting thing to consider...

Ken Daniels
03/14/2012 18:57

Thanks, Holly! Yes, there's a lot more to this topic than I had time to give it; I was somewhat hurried this past Sunday as I was on the road when I wrote.

The main point I was wanting to convey was that there's a fundamental difference between a person who's willing to change her mind based on evidence that counters her cherished position (a position she shares with those to whom she's loyal) and one who simply isn't willing to do so. If a person who has been exposed to the overwhelming evidence that the earth is old, for example, persists in believing it's no older than 10,000 years (at least in part due to loyalty to her family, friends, and church), then how can we count on such a person to change her mind about any other practical matter when loyalty conflicts with truth? When deciding which lawyer, investigative journalist, politician, or scientist to trust, do we look to one who's willing to be corrected by the facts or one who isn't? As humans, we all make mistakes; some admit their mistakes and change directions, while others persist in their errors. If a person persists in maintaining that Obama wasn't born in the U.S. (despite the birth announcement in a Honolulu newspaper on the day he was born, among other documentation), or denies the antiquity of the earth (despite over 120,000 annual layers of ice in Greenland, among other evidence), or rejects the notion that the earth is warming or that humans have anything to do with it (despite the pattern of warmer-than-usual temperatures below the stratosphere and colder-than-usual temperatures in the stratosphere, as predicted by the blanketing effects of CO2 blanketing; see http://www.atmosphere.mpg.de/enid/20c.html), or asserts that vaccines cause autism, or believes that our lives are influenced by the stars or crystals or auras, or denies that HIV causes AIDS, or places confidence in homeopathic medicine, then what other positions can or will such a person take, positions not anchored in reality, positions that translate to votes that affect public policy and welfare? When ideology or loyalty trumps evidence, all bets are off.

But I digress. The hard part, as you mentioned, is what to do when you find yourself at odds ideologically with those to whom you have been loyal all your life. Does truth really matter that much? It's difficult because sometimes it really does matter what we and others believe, but sometimes not so much. For me personally, if it weren't for the doctrine of hell, I would probably not care as much as I do about speaking out. When you realize that people's attitudes toward you are significantly shaped by their beliefs (i.e., that you merit eternal damnation), then the line has been crossed from a benign, inspiring (whether true or not) belief to one that causes real damage. How can a conservative Christian's belief that I'm worthy of hell *not* affect his attitude toward me in profoundly negative ways?

Yet for all my bluster, I strive to remain loyal to my Christian friends and family--not to their beliefs, but to them *as people* who are worthy of all my love and respect.

03/18/2012 18:46

Hi Ken! I'm sorry... I actually did understand your point. I think I may have gone off on a tangent which makes it seem like I missed your point. You were actually quire clear!

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