Friday, July 27, 2012

Why Hypocrisy Should be a "Sin"

In my last post I dealt with my suspicion that "conservative", especially people of religious bent, do not see hypocrisy as being nearly as bad a thing as "liberals" do.  Since I posted it, I've done a bit more looking around and it seems like a lot of people blogging from the conservative point of view agree with my analysis.  For example, take a look at this blog post, entitled "Hypocrisy, the Seven Deadly Sins, and the Left" .   The author pretty much makes my case, but from the point of view of a conservative Christian.  Take a look at the following quotes.

I am suggesting, then, that hatred of religion is at the root of the Left's excessive and unbalanced animus against hypocrisy. 
 ---in our culture, dominated as it is by liberals and leftists, most of the Seven Deadly Sins are not reckoned sins at all.  Given that sin is a religious concept, there cannot be sins for those who deem religion buncombe from start to finish.  But one can believe in vice without believing in sin.  I think it is safe to say that most Americans today do not consider any of the Seven Deadly Sins to be vices, with the possible exception of sloth interpreted as laziness rather than as acedia.  Take gluttony.  Americans are by and large gluttons as one can observe by going into any public place.  And yet how many speak of gluttony as a vice as opposed to an 'eating disorder' to be treated by stomach stapling, etc?  This is a fit topic for a separate post.
This is an interesting question, "Do liberals no longer believe in 'sin'?   Or 'vice'?"

First, it's important to try and understand the difference.  It would appear, from a quick Google search, that the core concept of "sin" has to do with the relationship between a person and a commandment of God.  A "sin" occurs when someone does something God has told her not to do.

Two interesting points.

First of all, what happens when someone's sense of "right and wrong" conflicts with what God has told him to do? In the Bible the best example comes from the story of Abraham and Isaac. For those of you who don't know the story, God asked Abraham to murder his only son as a sacrifice. Abraham sets out to do the deed and God stops just before the deed is done and says "Just fool'n".

 What would have happened if Abraham had told God the following "I don't care if you are Jehovah.  I don't care if you will torture me for all eternity for saying this.  But I will not kill my own son.  Such a deed would be perverse and evil."   In saying so, Abraham would at the same time be committing a sin, and, acting in a moral manner.

Lest this seem a weird, hypothetical example, consider the bind that religion puts many parents of gays into.   They may very well genuinely love their children, but at the same time, God's commandment tells them to treat them as if they are pariahs who's instincts are the result of demonic influences.  Again, the moral thing to do (e.g. try to understand your child and love them as you would have others love you) conflicts with the dutiful thing to do (e.g. cast them from your home and disown them.)

The second issue that arises comes from the question of how someone actually decides what is and is not a commandment of God.  As I see it, there are four avenues for learning God's will.  Each of them, IMHO, has significant "deal breakers".

First of all, people say that the will of God is revealed in holy scripture, like the Bible.  The problem with that is that if you make the effort to look at scriptures in a disciplined manner, it becomes obvious that they are the result of human activity----with all the contradictions and confusion that that entails. Once you start saying that you read the books in some sort of metaphorical manner and allow for the frailties of the human authors, the authority that says that this is "the word of God" quickly dissipates.

Even if you are the most adamant Biblical literalist, the fact remains that the book is filled with stuff that no one actually believes is the word of God and needs to be followed to the letter. Check out the following image.

It's not totally obvious, but this is a screenshot of a fellow who went to the trouble of tattooing the following quote on his arm:  Leviticus 18:22  “‘Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable."   What makes the picture funny is the fact that this fellow probably didn't read further in the book and come across this text:  Leviticus 19:28  "'Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD."  

If all religious believers don't follow ALL of the commandments of God, but instead pick and choose due to some other criteria, then how is it that they are following the commandments of God instead of that other criteria?  

If we aren't following the revealed scripture as the voice of God, what are we following?  Is it the tradition of whatever denomination we find ourselves in?   If so, why your tradition instead of another's?  And, if you look at the history and internal politics of any religious body you will invariably find that the tradition mutates and changes over time.  Does this mean that the law of God changes over time?   If it was a sin to eat meat on Fridays in 1912, why isn't it still a sin in 2012?  

If the rules change, then what is the status of someone who works within the church to change the rules? Is an activist who is pushing for the ordination of women a sinner up until he convinces the synod to make the change and then after that a righteous believer?  Is the only criterion for sin whether or not you are successful in convincing the church hierarchy to adopt your point of view?  

One final point of view would be to say that our conscience is the "voice of God".  But if that is so, then what about when different people say that their conscience tells them different things?   And what exactly is a "conscience"?  If I change my mind about something, does that mean that God has changed his mind about something?   Or does it simply mean that I now look at the problem in a different light?

After working through the above, it seems clear to me that I certainly do not "believe" in "sin".  First of all, because the term refers to the will of God---and I don't see any valid evidence for the existence of said God.  Secondly, even if I did believe in the existence of God, I don't see any valid way of divining exactly what his will really is.  Finally, I don't really believe that moral issues should be settled by appeals to authority anyway.   They don't work in math or physics, so I don't see why they should work in ethics either.  If we do accept this point-of-view, isn't uncomfortably like the Nazi "I was just following orders" defense?

But does that mean that I no longer believe in "vice"?   

This is an equally subtle thing to think about.  The author quoted above writes that Americans no longer consider gluttony a vice but instead see it as an "eating disorder".   He even suggests that the remedy is not longer an appeal to morality but rather "stomach stapling".  

I think that this is a significant over-simplification.  First of all, liberals do not lightly dismiss the concept of personal responsibility.  Instead, there has been a great deal of thought aimed at who is responsible for social issues like the current wave of over-eating.  But instead of simply placing all the blame on the individual, which is the attitude involved in the Church teaching about the Seven Deadly Sins, commentators have raised a whole host of complexities.  For example, how much of this epidemic is as a result of marketing strategies aimed at encouraging people to eat too much?


It's all very well to complain about poor people's greed when it comes to eating.  But this is the first society in human history where anyone but the wealthy has had the option to become overweight.  It seems simply mentally lazy (e.g. slothful) to just put the blame on the individual instead of trying to understand the entirety of the issue.  

I think the dividing line comes over free will.   Paradoxically, the theist wants to believe that all people have a radical form of free will that doesn't allow for any significant social or biological influence over people's ability to choose one course of action over another.  But they take away all of this freedom by introducing the idea of "sin" that reduces the entirety of this choice to whether or not one will freely submit to the absurd (in the sense of without rhyme or reason) direction of an unauthenticated authority.  As I've pointed out above, there really isn't any reason why one particular definition of "God" should be followed versus any other, so you end up having to believe whatever religious authority you happen to come across in your life.  

In contrast, the liberal has very little belief in free will.  He knows from scientific study that for all of our sense of freedom, we are tightly constrained by our biological instincts and social conditioning.  But in the midst of that knowledge, he is still willing to allow people to use their intellect to steal as much freedom as they can from the authorities around them by using the tools of inductive and deductive logic.   

And what exactly is happening when someone indulges in hypocrisy?  

I would suggest that what they are doing is experiencing some cognitive dissonance.  In the examples from my previous posts, the anti-abortion crusaders were coming up against some personal experience that should have undermined their previous assumptions about life.  But instead of taking this as a "learning moment" where they could seriously rethink the underpinnings of their moral code, they chose to simply do the mental equivalent of shoving their fingers in their ears while humming loudly.  

From the conservative point of view this is a simple "the mind is willing, but the flesh is weak" moment with very little ultimate consequence.  For the liberal, though, this is the fleeting opportunity for the person in question to exert real free will.  Until reality smacked them in the face, they probably couldn't be expected to understand how reality diverges from what they have been told.  But because they refused to take the opportunity to think things through and change their minds, they threw away their opportunity to be free.  

The reason liberals believe hypocrisy is the ultimate "sin" is because it is the throwing away of the few opportunities we have to grow as human beings.  It is also the process of denying that aspect of ourselves that makes ourselves so unique----the ability to learn and grow.  

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