Religion and hypocrisy

Jeff asked:

Does the presence of hypocrisy in a religious adherent automatically invalidate the belief system he/ she professes to follow?

Answer by David Robjant

No. For reasons both theological and logical.

Theological: full coherence of behaviour with stated ideals can only be attributed to persons of perfect good and perfect evil, of which there are precisely two, namely Jesus Christ (God), and the Devil. Attributing to oneself the coherence of the first is blasphemy, and pursuing the coherence of the second is evil. Thus to the extent to which the question is really a challenge to those of religious faith, it would not be understood by any of those it is supposed to target. It is thus a circular argument justifying anticlericalism only if you are already opposed to the whole of Christian theology. In this it closely mirrors popular understandings of the ontological argument; a circular argument justifying theism from a foundation in theism. These are not the sort of arguments or questions that persuade anyone, or are supposed to do so. The pressure they exert is a sort of reciprocating faith engine — the one a faith in God, the other a faith in the folly of religion. Such engines tend not towards understanding, but can exert a sort peer pressure or exhortation, even upon the self.

Logical: answering the question depends on settling what it is to “follow” a “belief system”. Any “yes” answer to the question is going to require an awful lot of background work on what following a belief system is supposed to be, and may well involve saying some pretty implausible things about belief along the way. Such as, for example, that a belief just is whatever someone acts on, or alternatively that a belief just is what someone declares or “professes”. Neither seem persuasive for reasons we can all of us rehearse, and failing these snappy answers do we really understand what a belief is? That would appear to be the primary problem raised by the question, and it is by no means easy to answer — it is a tricky and deep philosophical problem for those who assert their atheism as much as for theists. In this, ‘how do you know you are really an atheist?’ is not wholly unlike ‘how do you know you are really a believer?’ Are we supposed to be looking at acts or statements, or statements in some special ceremonial setting, or some forth unclear story relating all three? Can anything useful even be said here in the abstract and for all cases, or does understanding the significance and grammar of “belief” in use require something like the extended gaze of a novelist upon their characters, beyond the handy portability of a short thought experiment?

A perhaps more philosophically tractable angle here is around “system”. What is “system” in thought, to what extent is system a good thing, and what has system got to do with religion specifically, or the religious attitude in general? Praising Schopenhauer against Kant, Iris Murdoch makes a persuasive case for unsystematic modes of thinking for something rather like religious reasons, on the basis that internal coherence (within a philosophical system or theory) can close the mind to reality around us (close us off from continuing revelation, in theological terms). These unsystematic modes are needed to coexist with and inform the urge to system, which is treated as ineradicable. It is none of it supposed to be easy.

I have raised questions in answering yours, but while I have no firm idea what I should best do with a word like “God”, I am clear that “Hypocrisy is vice’s tribute to virtue”.

It strikes me that you are opposing and banishing all possibility of moral progress, when you treat coherence between the ideal and the actual as the condition of respect for the ideal professed. What’s so great about coherence of the type demanded depends a lot on conceits about where you think you are starting. Being coherent in crime is not a feather in the cap for a criminal. Incoherence then is the only salvation; incoherence is precisely virtue, if you start from some dark wrong place. And it is the challenging difficult unpalatable but perhaps insightful view of most religion, and a fair chunk of philosophical morals, that we do indeed start from some dark wrong place. Perfection is a very long difficult infinite path away — it is not realised by bringing cynical remarks into coherence with cynical behaviour. For all that the “failed priest” is supposed to be a figure of fun, failure means that something was attempted — and an attempt on moral progress is by definition incoherence with where we start.

One thought on “Religion and hypocrisy

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful and considered response. I appreciate the time spent in developing your answer. It will likewise take me some time to ponder and process what you have said in order to glean the most benefit from your argument/s. Thus far, however, it has been helpful. The background to my question is rooted in over 40 years of experience interacting with various people around religious and philosophical concepts. The assertion has often been posited that, “I could never embrace that faith, religion or philosophical construct because there are so many hypocrites who profess adherence to it.” I find the argument totally illogical and I believe your answer here helps to establish that.

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