In a way, our whole existence is a lifelong attempt to “fake it till you make it.” We learn by imitation, which means we are always pretending to be something which we have not yet become…right up until the moment that we’re no longer faking it. That’s why imposter syndrome is such a common struggle. But in time we become what we mimic; as historian Will Durant reminds us in paraphrasing Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do.”
I’m personally convinced our species is on its way to becoming something else (not unlike every other species), which means we are always reaching forward and aiming higher than where we already are. Maybe that’s why we keep inventing gods and superheroes in the first place: We want to transcend ourselves, to become more than what we already are, so we keep creating and revising our image of what perfection would look like for us each time our understanding of the world around us grows.
Related: “Nim’s Island and the Reason for God“
To be human is to be forever striving to be something more than human. That’s probably why hypocrisy is so common among humans in general. We are relentlessly aspirational.
But the Christian faith in particular raises hypocrisy to an art form. It takes what’s already a problem for everyone and intensifies it. Ask anyone who regularly interacts with those who believe they “follow Jesus” (however their group defines that) and they will tell you it’s a consistent pattern. I’ve never felt more condemnation for my mistakes than I’ve felt from those Christians who have done the exact same things I’ve done.
It’s become a running joke that every preacher who rails the loudest against homosexuality is only a few months away from being caught in a hotel room with a male escort. And this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, either. Have you ever read The Scarlet Letter? It isn’t for no reason that Hawthorne would envision the moral guardian of a community reserving the harshest criticism for those sins of which he himself was guilty.
I used to think the Christian faith made me more self-aware than those outside of it, but in retrospect I believe I was way off. Projection is like a way of life among the highly religious, and I’m beginning to think this a feature, not a bug.
But why? Why does it seem like Christians are worse than others at saying one thing but doing another? I came up with ten reasons why this would be a bigger problem for them than for others. Maybe you can add more in the comments below.
Ten Reasons for Christian Hypocrisy
1. They inherited expectations that were unrealistic in the first place. The Christian faith is offering something to people, but everyone must first come to believe that they actually need it, and that means raising the bar so high that nobody can ever reach it. It’s not just that you yourself cannot live up to the ideals they are espousing, it’s that no one can. And it’s not hard to see why.
I explored this trait in my review of one of the chapters in Tim Keller‘s The Reason for God. In order to make sure everyone views themselves as wicked enough to merit eternal punishment, this faith doesn’t just declare that behaviors X and Y and Z are bad and therefore deserve punishment. It goes on to say that any and every kind of behavior is potentially bad if done for reasons other than the ones they believe are the right ones.
“Sin is not simply doing bad things, it is putting good things in the place of God.” (Keller, p.178)
With a definition that broad, absolutely everything is now potentially a sin. And who gets to decide that you’ve “put something in the place of God,” anyway? They do, of course, which is awfully convenient. The whole concept is custom made to entitle them to be what Captain Cassidy calls “The World’s Designated Adults.”
Related: “Everything You Do Is Wrong“
What you have to realize, though, is that they know they don’t pass this test, either. The definition of sin they inherited is so elastic that they’ll never achieve success no matter how completely they commit themselves to these ideals. They are taught that moral goodness is not humanly possible, and that’s precisely the way this game is rigged to work. With that kind of starting point, how can anybody be the kind of person they believe they’re supposed to be?
Which leads me to the second point…
2. Their estimation of humanity is so low that they’ve developed a learned helplessness about themselves. You cannot convince them that they can step up their moral game without triggering the programmed response that says “No one is good except God.” On the surface that may seem fairly innocuous; but in practice, taken together with the unrealistic standards mentioned in point one, you’ve got a recipe for a supply of guilt that’s virtually unlimited. It’s a renewable resource.
Why invest any effort in self-improvement if you believe self-improvement is impossible? Or worse yet, immoral? If depending on God for everything is the highest good, then trying to be a better person is the essence of wickedness. There goes any real motivation to get better. This kind of entrenched pessimism can lead to moral defeatism, which seems strangely out of place for a belief system so obsessed with purity.
It also leads to the torturous internal dualism that the Apostle Paul famously describes in Romans 7:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing…
What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
The sin that he’s working so hard to overcome, by the way, is coveting. He’s self-flagellating over his belief that there are things he wants too much. That’s the terrible sin from which he feels he needs saving. The horror. But then again, he is claiming to follow a man who taught that fantasizing about sex was tantamount to doing it in real life, so I suppose he’s merely giving a variation of the original theme.
Since the bar is raised so high that no human can reach it, the standard can never be realistically evaluated and modified to better fit real life. Thus they will forever be proclaiming ideals they know they’ll never live up to, and neither will anyone else.
3. Faith teaches you to verbalize things that aren’t actually true in an attempt to make them true in real life. In A Manual for Creating Atheists, Peter Boghossian only missed by a little bit when he argued that faith is “pretending to know things you don’t know.” He approaches the term epistemologically—the way any philosophy professor would—but that’s not the way most Christians would frame what faith is about.
For Christians, faith is more about speaking things into existence, believing them into reality. People often accuse that faith means “believing without evidence,” but it’s more accurate to say it means “believing before evidence.” They are taught that the act of believing helps to make the thing they believe come true. They are taking part in bringing a new creation into existence. As Paul put it:
“[God] gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.”
Can you see how this would teach them to be dishonest with themselves about what they see when they look around them? They are taught not to admit things that are inconsistent with what they were raised to believe. It’s almost as if they believe that saying those things out loud would only jinx it.
This, too, is a recipe for hypocrisy. If you take away self-honesty this profoundly, you make it nearly impossible for anyone to see when they are doing things that are inconsistent with what they say they believe. It separates belief from practice so completely that they become completely different compartments. Calling attention to the chasm between the two only falls on deaf ears.
4. They seem to think that saying things out loud is as good as doing them (see previous point). If faith is about speaking things into existence, and if you’re taught not to look at what’s actually happening but instead look to Jesus—trusting that God will somehow change things because you believe—then you eventually learn not to scrutinize real life too closely and instead learn to talk as if reality is something completely different from what it really is.
Maybe this is why they seem to believe that saying “I love you” is as good as actually doing it. Perhaps they even feel affection toward the other person, but that’s not enough, is it? They are the ones always insisting that love isn’t just something you feel, it’s something you do. It means actively demonstrating care for the well-being of others.
But then their faith keeps telling them to pay attention to what it says is true “on paper” more than what they see with their own eyes, which makes cognitive dissonance an almost constant fixture for the devout Christian. The gnawing sense that something doesn’t quite add up becomes the steady background noise of their daily lives until they learn to tune it out.
Of course all of this assumes they’re aware of the incongruities in the first place. But that brings up another problem…
5. Their faith normalizes logical inconsistency, and over time that destroys their irony meter. One only needs to note how much humor flies right over their heads to see what I’m talking about. It’s not just because the jokes are often dirty (because, come on, innuendo can be so much fun). It’s more fundamentally because most humor springs from detecting inconsistencies—discovering the exact opposite of what you would expect—and their faith teaches them that’s just normal.
Related: “How Faith Breaks Your Thinker“
For them, some things aren’t supposed to make sense. In fact, when it comes to matters of faith, the less sense something makes the more likely it is to be true. You say God is somehow three persons at once but still one being? Perfectly fine. He loves everyone but does unspeakably cruel things to them as well? No problem. Somehow it all works out. On and on it goes like that, and in time your sense of irony gets worn down until you don’t even notice those kinds of inconsistencies anymore.
This renders an entire subculture susceptible to deception on a large scale. And don’t think for a second that powerful people and organizations haven’t figured that out and taken advantage of it. I know an entire political party that would have disappeared decades ago if it weren’t for the credulity of evangelical Christians. Since saying you believe things counts as actually believing them and living by them, all politicians have to do is say the right words and now you’re theirs. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.
6. They keep defining morality in the shallowest of terms, making everything about keeping up appearances. I suspect this is a tendency of all religions and value systems due to the simple fact that the overwhelming majority of humans are mentally lazy. They don’t think deeply about what they are being told, and as a result the most popular expressions of every virtue seems to be the most superficial.
Consider for example the biblical notion of “taking God’s name in vain.” They think it means simply including the word “God” into curse phrases when swearing, but that’s not at all what it originally meant. Misusing God’s name originally meant claiming to represent him while behaving in ways that are contrary to his values. It means misrepresenting the God you say you worship. Meanwhile they think it’s just some kind of speech code. That’s much easier to track and control than what goes on inside someone’s “heart.”
The Christians I’m around are more offended by profanity than they are by systemic injustice. They get more upset hearing “dirty words” than they do witnessing abject cruelty. I know a devout couple who won’t let their children watch any movies that even mention sex, but they’ll allow them to watch brutally violent movies as long as they depict the kinds of violence of which they approve (e.g. Bible stories, or anything originating in Tolkien’s “Middle-earth”). They cannot read Harry Potter books because those feature magic, but they’ve read through The Chronicles of Narnia a dozen times together.
7. In order to protect its “witness,” the Church is taught to bury its problems and its flaws, pretending they aren’t there. Of course to some degree this is true of any other institution in the world, but the Church has the added burden that it claims its people possess a power that is supposed to make them different. The reputation of Jesus is at stake and they know it, so they work very hard to sweep their own problems under the rug.
But it’s not just about what the rest of the world thinks. Faith, it turns out, is an incredibly fragile thing. So when things go the opposite way from where they’re supposed to go, some kind of explanation has to soothe those savage doubts. And since all religions are fundamentally social constructs, it critically threatens their faith to hear that the gospel isn’t making the church any different from the rest of the world. The presence of the Holy Spirit is supposed to make a positive difference, but the truth they are unable to face honestly is that it really doesn’t.
Furthermore, admitting defeat on this would be blasphemy. It’s an insult to the God who told them things would turn out differently. That’s not acceptable at all, so things like pervasive sexual abuse among Independent Fundamentalist Bible churches go undetected for decades before anyone finally blows the whistle on the perpetrators. They were worried about God’s reputation, they tell themselves.
8. Self-awareness requires openness to outside input, but the Church has been taught not to listen to the world at all. Insularity is a recurring problem for them because from the very beginning “the world” was portrayed to them as “the other.” With in-group/out-group distinctions as stark as theirs, it’s impossible to learn anything from the rest of the world. This cuts off the Church from a hugely important source of self-knowledge: other people.
What does the world know, anyway? They’re ignorant of God’s ways and they are positively set against him because they are under the control of the Devil. And don’t for a second think that it’s only the gushy charismatic churches who are into blaming The Bogeyman for everything bad that happens. The more formal, sophisticated churches believe in him, too; they just don’t talk about it very much because it sounds silly to them when they hear it out loud.
I wish they would listen to their own instincts on that one. But they’ve been taught to distrust their gut, so they keep doing it, albeit through theological dogwhistles.
9. You don’t try as hard to do right if you believe every mistake is just going to be forgiven and washed away. This one’s fraught with irony for people like me because I am told so often that I left the faith so I could be “free to sin,” free to do as I please. For the record, that’s hogwash since, as a teacher and a father of four, most of my daily life is consumed with taking care of other people’s needs. This whole “you can do as you please” business is total lie.
Nonreligious people like me have to live with every decision we make. We don’t have the luxury of believing that our mistakes and our poor choices will somehow be magically erased. We have to pay the consequences for our own faults and we don’t get to demand forgiveness from anybody we mistreat. How do you suppose that affects the choices we make?
On the other hand, if you believe like Christians that your sins have already been forgiven—have already been atoned for—then you really don’t have to worry as much about your flaws. God’s the only one who can really make you better, anyway (see point #2 above). Imagine how much easier that makes forgetting about the things you do wrong. There’s nothing left to pay for because “Jesus paid it all.”
Incidentally, this faith also teaches you to believe you’ll be rewarded for the good things you do, which means you can never perform a purely altruistic act. Goodness can never be pursued for its own sake. You should try coming over here to the dark side for a while, where you and you alone will know and appreciate the good things you do when no one else is looking.
10. Evangelical Christians in particular place the church and the world in such different compartments that they develop two completely different standards for each. Consequently, they can support government decisions that go against their most basic values because, hey, it’s just the world. *shrug*
Now that evangelicals bear the bulk of the responsibility for installing the most corrupt presidential administration in national history, their leaders keep reminding us that they weren’t electing a pastor, they were electing a president. The obvious implication is that they’re using two separate standards for each realm.
I don’t recall them ever saying this while Barack Obama was president. But the racial prejudice inherent in evangelicalism is beyond the scope of this list, which I think is already long enough. This article goes into much more detail about it if you’re interested.
The point is that they maintain one set of expectations when it’s convenient for them to do so, but their theology gives them “an out” so that they can pull a switcheroo anytime they see fit. And more importantly, they show no signs of awareness that they’ve just swapped realities. That self-awareness would only come from overcoming some of the traits listed above, and I won’t be holding my breath waiting for that to happen.
Living Double Lives
People who believe they live simultaneously in two different realities aren’t going to be consistent about, well, anything. And since they’ve been taught that cognitive dissonance is good because it keeps us in our place as creatures under the authority of a Creator, it’s not going to do much good to try and point out the contradictions. His ways are higher than our ways, don’t ya know.
Like I’ve said before, reality is no match for the determined believer. And that’s why a robust self-awareness will continually elude those who subscribe to the series of ideas listed above. Projection is a way of life for such people, and that explains so much of their behavior it’s astounding.
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