Six Arguments Against Religion II: Hypocrisy

Last week, I laid out the first of six arguments about religion — arguments that I have found interesting and worth exploring in depth. The first argument was that if you chose the wrong religion, you’d waste years of your life. The second argument is that religious beliefs are frequently inconsistent.


Christianity, for example, has a huge body of scripture written over the course of 3,000 years, and things don’t always square up. The Old Testament says “An eye for an eye,” and the New Testament says “turn the other cheek”; Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers” and “I bring not peace but a sword” (is the Son of God himself not blessed? Or can some warmakers be blessed too? Or did Jesus mean something else entirely?); etc. There are various ways in which these conflicts can be resolved, but sometimes the logic gets quite pretzeled.

One of the nastiest puzzles of this sort in Christianity is the problem of evil. How can evil exist when God is omnipotent and good? Why doesn’t God just wipe out the evil? A few years ago, when I was teetering on the edge of atheism and agnosticism, I dove deep into the Catholic Encyclopedia online to figure out the answer to this one. Here was the answer, as far as I could make out:

  1. God gave people free will, so clearly they can choose to do evil.
  2. Yet God himself has made us the way we are, and — according to Catholic doctrine — has even planted within us the impetus to be good. Without that impetus — that Grace — which comes only from God, we cannot be saved. We can strive towards Grace, but even that desire, that striving, comes from God.
  3. But not everyone gets saved.
  4. So God basically decides ahead of time who gets Grace — the badge that lets them into the City of God — and who doesn’t.
  5. Who knows why God chooses some people for Grace and not others? It’s a Mystery.

I took that to mean that, according to Catholic doctrine, (6) God created beings that he intentionally planned on sending to hell for eternity. So (7) Catholics believe that God is Evil. Unfair of me, perhaps, but I mean — really! Go look it up and tell me if I’ve read it wrong.

So religious beliefs are frequently inconsistent, at least at first blush. Most folks throw up their hands, assume that God knows what he’s doing, and try their best to do what he says.

But this, it is argued, isn’t healthy. The effect is that only religious experts — the clergy — have the answers, which puts the rest of the population into an attitude of subservience. They assume they are ignorant; they think it is safe to ignore the issues, that God or the clergy will take care of it, or that it’s all just unknowable, and stop trying. This attitude is equivalent to building a big wall across your spiritual life, and traps you in a sort of self-imposed childhood. Or perhaps you do explore the deep contradictions, you think about them and sit with them, and contemplate the Mysteries, and end up thinking you are being all spiritual and at Peace with the Ineffable, when in fact you’re just being hypocritical.

Now, I am sympathetic to this argument. I definitely do agree that it’s not safe to leave your spiritual life in the hands of the clergy. You can’t hire someone else to take care of your soul. Guides, yes, advisors, certainly, but no one can steer the ship of your soul but you. Given that, you owe it to yourself to explore the mysteries and arrive at your own answers. Because there are answers — and good ones. For example, I think there is a critical flaw in step 3 of the Catholic argument above. (How would Catholicism be different if they dropped that assumption? Funny how a simple logical step can affect the lives of billions.)

However, I am not against hypocrisy — the simultaneous belief in contradictory statements — in principle. I used to have a personal aversion to it, but over the last few years I’ve gotten more relaxed about the whole thing. Let me explain a bit further.

Yes, an unexamined contradiction is extremely dangerous. For example, if you believe all men are created equal, yet you think it’s fine to enslave black people, this is a contradiction, and it’s not ok to dismiss it or try not to think about it. Similarly, if Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers,” but you think it’s ok for the “Christian” United States to attack other nations, or even to act militarily in self-defense, this is a contradiction, and you’d damn well better think about it carefully. Believe me, the state of your soul depends on how you resolve it.

However, an examined contradiction is fertile ground for thought and growth. Holding two contradictory beliefs in the mind, weighing them, considering them, and balancing them, forces your mind into new paths and opens up new vistas of possibility. Even if the contradiction is never resolved, the effort is worthwhile. In Zen Buddhism, sitting with near-unresolvable contradictions (koans) is an essential practice. For example, given a bottle with a goose inside it, how can you get the goose out of the bottle, without breaking the bottle? There are any number of different ways to resolve the question, and each one is True in its own way. My personal favorite is to feed the goose until the goose breaks the bottle. Or take the particle / wave contradiction in quantum mechanics. Sometimes it’s useful to think of the universe as made of particles, sometimes as waves. Neither is false, neither is true, and either way the math still works.

So I do not think contradiction per se is a problem with religion. It’s inherent to any complete belief system, if you push it far enough (see Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems). But I do agree that it needs to be handled very carefully.


Next week: Think For Yourself!

8 responses to “Six Arguments Against Religion II: Hypocrisy”

  1. Actually, I think it’s Calvinism that says that God has elected only certain people to receive grace, and that others are condemned from the beginning. It’s been a long time since I read deeply into Catholic doctrine, but my understanding is that Grace (through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ) is offered to all by God, but that people, given free will, are able to reject that. So, for example, a sinner (who does not currently have Grace living in his soul) is prompted by God via the Holy Spirit to seek forgiveness through Jesus and thereby receive Grace. However, if the sinner rejects or ignores that prompting, there’s nothing God can do about it, because he has to leave us with free will. The ability to receive Grace is available to everyone, and therefore those promptings by the Holy Spirit (i.e. the option or choice to repent) must also be given to everyone. The idea that God elects some people to be saved and condemns others is one of the reasons that Calvinism is so controversial – I don’t think it’s what the Catholic Church, and many other Protestant churches too, teaches.

    I may of course be wrong – I’m no theologian, but it is an interesting question, and one that I’ll be hunting out information on. I also agree with you that contradictions, in any religion or sacred text, must be carefully examined. It’s very dangerous to take single statements without looking at their contexts, and we have to be very careful about how we interpret those.


  2. For what it’s worth, a friend of mine in Catholic seminary assures me that the actual (current, past may have been different) doctrine is that while we know Hell exists, we don’t actually know if anyone is there. This seems to me both an ethically superior and intellectually more interesting doctrine than point 3 above, and I wish it were better emphasized.


  3. This is a very informational read. Your points are very logical, honest and very well-explained as well. I should also point out; however, that in point 1 above, “God gave people free will, so clearly they can choose to do evil,” this was further explained by the Second Vatican/Vatican II and they defined freewill as the freedom to do what is good, abuse of which is evil. (My memory is a bit blurry but it goes around those lines.) I refer to for matters about the Christian faith. Just a reference for everyone, it could be helpful.


  4. I basically accepted the Calvinist/Reformed theological position that Mankind was totally depraved (and freewill stopped short of choosing God). We were chosen by God not the other way around as Mankind was totally depraved. So this led to the natural conclusion that while all are destined for Hell, it is only through God’s intervention, his saving grace, that we are able to place our faith (Rather than works) in him, and be saved. So, yeah, there’s a whole bunch of contradictions that can be, to an extent, theologically resolved, but not to anyone’s complete satisfaction. If you are willing to take this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, it doesn’t cast God is a favourable light, knowing beforehand, that a large proportion of his children would end up suffering eternally. And no one wants to believe that God is evil. The belief that the Christian God gives us freewill to either choose or not to choose him doesn’t really fix things, plus it begs the question, what do Christians need saving from if they choose God? Surely it would only be those who do not choose God that need saving?

    Anyway, the way I resolved the problem was that we were all born saved. That God dwells naturally in everyone’s hearts and ultimately would save everyone. I guess I kind of copped out 🙂 It wasn’t the kind of contradiction I felt I could comfortably live with.


  5. A small point, but an important point nonetheless. It is extremely “false”, actually, to consider the universe as being made of particles at times and waves at others. Scientists assume one or the other at certain times because that is what helps make the math work and make sense, but a person shouldn’t just go around thinking that at any time they can pick and choose what model to use. Sometimes its just absolutely wrong to consider the universe as particles because in doing so the experiment you are considering would make absolutely no sense. The important point is that matter exhibits both wave-like and particle-like properties, which means that matter (and thus energy) is something beyond a wave-particle (to be beyond a wave-particle just means that whatever matter=energy is, it is something our current theories are unable to accurately represent mathematically in one complete model). The math is incredibly affected by which model you approach the experiment with, so all you kids out there, make sure you mind your Z’s and T’s when dabbling in quantum mechanics.

    Not to mention, I’m pretty sure the original Biblical text reads: “Blessed are the Cheesemakers.”


  6. I want to thank everyone for the insightful and fascinating comments you’ve left here!

    Melanie, I think you’re probably right vis a vis the Calvinists vs the Catholics. My partner Ali says that the Catholic Encyclopedia is a rather reactionary version of Catholicism in any case.

    Jenavira, that certainly would be a fascinating point of doctrine! But if Hell is empty, what is it for?… Surely not as a threat?

    Paul, thanks for the link! That’s a fascinating site.

    Mahud, I agree it’s not a pleasant contradiction to sit with. 🙂 A friend of mine long ago said she thought that God was indeed omniscient, did indeed create evil, and frankly doesn’t care that much about our suffering, since we’re little more than ants to Him. This, if true, makes God less ethical than some of His own creatures… Which I find extremely unlikely.

    Ray, thanks for the clarification. 🙂 I’ve read a lot about quantum mechanics, but I can’t claim more than a layman’s understanding, if “a layman’s understanding” is even possible with quantum mechanics… I should probably stick to analogies involving language and culture. 😉


  7. […] against religion — that it gives a poor return on investment, and that it encourages hypocrisy. In this part I look at another argument: that religion encourages too much reliance on doctrine, […]


  8. […] why didn’t Jesus…? He certainly cast his judgement on a lot of people. Aha, another Mystery to […]


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