Religion Begets Hypocrisy

One of the most irritating characteristics I find in theists is hypocrisy. The sense of moral rectitude that they continually profess is often contradicted by extreme moral failings. Think child diddling Catholic priests. Think Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, not to mention Oral Roberts. It’s the “Do as I say, not as I do” approach to morality that gets my goat. They always seem so sure of what they demand of me, but when it comes to applying their morality to themselves, they conveniently ignore it.

I don’t have a major problem with human frailty and failings. We are not perfect.  I don’t believe in the concept of sin, but I do believe in the concept of imperfect human nature. Perfection is a nice thing to strive for, but I don’t kid myself that I might actually achieve it, despite my wife’s protestations to the contrary.

I also don’t have a problem with others preaching perfection, as the religious are wont to do, under the guise of proselytizing. I can take personal criticism, and welcome any suggestions to help me achieve perfection, as long as you don’t mind if I pick and choose what I find to be the best path.  If this means rejecting your religion, or your personal morality, of even your favorite book, then get over it. It’s my path I’m taking, not yours.

What I’ve never been able to understand, however, is how a self-professed religious person, who believes all the moral strictures of their religion, can be so insistent towards others about those strictures, while violating them at the same time, oftentimes rationalizing them in the process.  Sure, when they get caught, like the examples above, they become contrite and acknowledge their “sin”, while pleading for personal forgiveness, but how can they rationalize their actions in their own minds as they repeatedly violate their own divinely mandated morality? They believe that their god is always watching them, yet they do so anyway.

My personal theory is actually naturalistic, fully explainable by the workings of the human brain. I’m not a neuro-biologist, and I’m sure there are others out there with the credentials to support, confirm or refute this, but it seems patently obvious  to me that anyone who trains their brain to hold two diametrically opposing thoughts, while believing both, is just setting themselves up to fall into a pit of hypocrisy. What better example of this phenomena than religion?

Religion requires the religious to believe in god, and other matters of faith, without evidence. They beleive that faith is a virtue, and that there is nothing wrong with believing in something that would otherwise contradict one’s day to day experience, such as the existence of unseen beings, or the existence of an unseen world outside the bounds of scientific testing,  the performance of miracles, and other matters of “faith”. So, on Sunday, it’s OK to believe that a woman could have a baby without any sexual contact with the father, that men can walk on water, that burning bushes can talk and impart wisdom, that the earth was created in one day, and the whole of the universe in six, or that huge bodies of water can be parted in the middle on command.

But then, on Monday through Saturday, they rely on engineers to build the bridge over the same body of water, along with the car to drive over it. They accept the findings of science and evolution, and the advances of scientific technology, when it provides medical relief from life’s common  ailments. They fly in  airplanes, designed and constructed by people with advanced degrees in science and technology, rather than simply praying to god to get them to their distant destination.

In short, humans depend entirely on evidence based thinking to run their lives, to make decisions about the smallest, most transparent aspects of their existence, or risk inconvenience,  injury and even death for not doing so.

Imagine if you prayed to god every night to wake you up the next morning at a specific time so that you could get to work on time, rather than setting your alarm clock. You could probably do that once or twice, but within the week you’d be fired for habitual tardiness.

Imagine if you brought your grocery order home, and simply stored everything on the room temperature shelf, including the perishables, while praying to god to preserve them for the week until the next grocery run. You’d be putting a lot of good food in the garbage within a few days, and going without fresh food the rest of the week.

No one does this in their daily life.  Everyone makes decisions on the day to day workings of their life based on evidence, not faith. No one has “faith” that the car will start in the morning, they rely of the designers and automobile manufacturers for that, and if the car doesn’t start, they don’t call their minister, they call the mechanic.

The irony in here is that theists share evidence based thinking on an everyday basis with their more rational, non-believing brethren, while at the same time holding far-fetched beliefs in one specific area of their lives. Most humans actually can compartmentalize this irrational/rational belief dichotomy in their minds, with no adverse consequences. They instinctually, or even knowingly, understand the competing nature of faith-based beliefs and that of logical, evidence-based beliefs, and can keep them separate. Others, however, find themselves being overwhelmed at the wrong times by their faith, which then spills over into their daily lives with hypocritical results.  In these instances, we get Bible thumping ministers railing on about the evils of homosexuality, while having homosexual affairs in secret. Or perhaps we simply get a less noticeable, yet devout doctor committing insurance fraud, in contravention of the The Eighth Commandment.  Some people may even take this faith-over-evidence mindset to an extreme, with dire results.

It’s hard to be a hypocrite when you run your life on the basis of logic, reason and evidence. When you do so, you are always examining your thought processes in order to prevent yourself from making mistakes of inconsistent thinking.  I’m not making an absolute statement here, because there are certainly many non-religious hypocrites in the world, though I would venture that religious upbringing, even if subsequently rejected, may go far in explaining this.

It’s the mindset created by religious thinking, not religion itself, that begets hypocrisy. If your brain is trained to think that the holding of two opposing beliefs is normal, it’s easy to be hypocritical about anything.

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6 thoughts on “Religion Begets Hypocrisy

  1. Very nice, SI.

    Here’s the problem. Should we hold the Bakers, Swaggarts, Haggards, etc. etc. to some higher standard re: hypocrisy? Only to the following degree:

    What we *should* expect, based on their professed beliefs, is not that they won’t do things like be attracted to other men, or to prostitutes or to pornography or drugs but that we won’t find them being contrite, admitting to sin, begging Jesus forgiveness *after they get caught*. We should expect them to freely admit their sinful nature and beseech god to assist them while they are experiencing “sin”.

    That they never do this, speaks volumes about how much “faith” they really have in god’s forgiveness of their faults – and to the fact that they would just really like to “get away with it”.

  2. Hypocrisy being a favourite topic of mine, I found this article very interesting.

    However, as you pointed out, the religious don’t have a hold on hypocrisy. It’s the ability to deceive yourself about something that leads to being a hypocrite.

    As religion is all about deception, I can see that religious people are more likely to be hypocritical, and less likely to admit to it or own up to it when caught out. But I have met seemingly intelligent, logical, reasoning, non-religious people who have been highly hypocritical (my life has been somewhat destroyed by one such person, but that’s another story).

  3. What I’ve never been able to understand, however, is how a self-professed religious person, who believes all the moral strictures of their religion, can be so insistent towards others about those strictures, while violating them at the same time, oftentimes rationalizing them in the process.

    I think that like many or most, this phenomenon can arise for several reasons. Like you say, people aren’t perfect. We’re all going to contradict ourselves at some point or another, right? Detest me as you might online, but I do stirve to stray far from making morality-based judgments on other human beings precisely because I’m so familiar with the ugliness of my own past. I think believers who act like the ones you criticize often act from fear, or a false sense of pride, or some other intellectual / emotional shortcoming not unlike those that motivate the wrong people to become cops. In the Christian subset of instances of this phenomenon, I’d say said individuals’ misunderstanding also stems from ignorance over the true nature of Christ’s calling. It wasn’t to throw stones.

    Religion requires the religious to believe in god, and other matters of faith, without evidence.

    I feel that statement is an out-of-scope, broad generalization – but other than that, good post.

    Also, Evo made a good contribution, and to it I’ll add that the Bible says folks like the ones mentioned will be held to a higher standard. I don’t have the verse right handy but if anyone’s interested I’ll gladly find it for them.

  4. Human functionality requires hypocrisy should one indulge in most religions. The candy coating which makes that pill something that can be swallowed is rationalization, or as Momma Chief says, “You can’t take the bible literally. That would be goofy.”

    As for the religious leaders with the transgressions, I think even painting them in the most favorable light you end up with people who could have felt that their ministry was too important to openly admit their wrongs, fearing that would hurt the ministry. Still, that doesn’t explain repeated transgressions.

    I think for certain authority positions it is not unreasonable to have higher expectations for the character of those holding such positions. You could probably graph it, showing how the expectations grow in relation to how much you have to place your trust in them. I have little expectations for the cashier at Safeway, but plenty of expectations for a cop or a doctor. It might be unreasonable to have such expectations for some positions (there’s nothing which says your doctor can’t be an asshole), but for a position which espouses morality like a religious leader, well, those expectations should be justified (provided you agree with the morals they espouse). That’s what makes their transgressions that much more devastating to the believers, I would imagine.

  5. SI:
    Good post. This statement was excellent:

    Perfection is a nice thing to strive for, but I don’t kid myself that I might actually achieve it….

    It’s good to set goals and it’s good to set them high, even though, due to human limitations and imperfections, reaching high goals inevitably entails some failures or disappointments along the way.

    I like this statement as a goal, but recognize that people, even rationalists, sometimes engage, unwittingly, in self-justificatory behavior (see Mistakes were Made, But Not By Me, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson):

    It’s hard to be a hypocrite when you run your life on the basis of logic, reason and evidence. When you do so, you are always examining your thought processes in order to prevent yourself from making mistakes of inconsistent thinking.

  6. The problem is, we have an extraordinary capacity to b.s. ourselves.

    “Yeah, I know I shouldn’t do it, but it will be just this one time.”

    “Wow, I liked it and nothing bad happened to me. I’m going to do it again.”

    And thus we end up ensnaring ourselves in traps of our own making.

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