Self-Serving Accusations of Hypocrisy

I’m not sure what inspired the Providence Journal to transport this essay from one coast to another, but with the assumption that the objective was to begin debate, rather than conclude it, I thought it worth taking up. The argument of William Lobdell’s broadside on religious Americans, initially published in the LA Times, is that folks are losing their faith because religious people are hypocrites:

How to explain the Grand Canyon-sized gap between principles outlined in the Gospels and the behavior of believers? Christians typically, and rather lamely, respond that shortcomings of the followers of Jesus are simply evidence of man’s inherent sinfulness.
But if one adheres to the principle of Occam’s razor — that the simplest explanation is the most likely — there is another, more unsettling conclusion: that many people who call themselves Christian don’t really believe, deep down, in the tenets of their faith. In other words, their actions reveal their true beliefs.

As evidence that Christians don’t behave as they believe appropriate, Lobdell cites broadly and generally research from the Barna Group, founded by evangelical pollster George Barna. This section of the essay functions by jumbling together demographics, eliding through terms that really must be differentiated in this context, and layering assumptions onto the findings. For example:

Barna has found that born-again Christians are more likely to divorce (an act strongly condemned by Jesus) than atheists and agnostics, and are more likely to be racist than other Americans.

Lobdell leaves unmentioned that born-again Christians are also more likely to be from demographic groups — economic and geographic — in which these traits and behaviors are more likely regardless of religion. Correlation, as the intellectuals like to tell people of faith, is not causation. More relevant, though, is Lobdell’s failure to address the fact that born-agains, being typically Protestants, adhere to sects that find divorce to be acceptable. I happen to agree with him that one cannot legitimize divorce within a Christian context, but from that perspective, Protestants are wrong, not hypocritical. It certainly doesn’t mean that applying looser doctrine to Christianity — as would be the reflexive response to accusations of hypocrisy — is any sort of solution.
I’ve written before about the pitfalls of Christianity Lite (see, for example, here, here, and here), and evidence can be found even in the Pew study that Lobdell, himself, cites (PDF). If the hypocrisy thesis is correct, one would expect more stringent religious groups to experience greater losses of members. Consider, however, that 14% of those raised Catholic became “unaffiliated,” which includes no belief, but that the percentage of Anglicans/Episcopalians who made the same move was 20%.
For those not familiar with comparative Christianities, the Anglican/Episcopal Church is arguably the most Catholic of the Protestant sects, its main differentiation being a willingness to compromise with the mores of the time — with divorce, of course, and with married and female clergy, actively homosexual bishops, and all that. If hypocrisy is to blame for departures, the less demanding religion should have more success retaining its members, because adherents should be better able to follow the rules.
The next question is whether Christians move from stringent sects to lax sects before they exit the religion altogether. There’s a conspicuously significant hole in Pew’s data, here, inasmuch as the tables don’t allow the reader to discern how many departing Catholics moved into the more conservative evangelical protestant sects versus the more liberal mainline sects. Of current Evangelicals, however, 11% were once Catholics, while the same percentage for mainline churches was 9%. Were the numbers presented from the perspective of the Catholic Church, they would probably be a lot more skewed, because the evangelical religions are larger.
In other words, even if we ignore the different strains within Catholicism, it appears to be the case that dissatisfied Catholics move toward more conservative expressions of faith.
It’s also problematic that the study has no qualification of “raised as.” What percentage of those leaving the Church were only nominally “raised” within it? It strikes me as entirely plausible that the real dynamic is of people who are brought up with a merely cultural Christianity, as opposed to a church-going, religious Christianity, recoiling from attacks and accusations such as Lobdell’s, rather than from actions of actual Christians whom they know. This supposition is especially reasonable in light of this finding from Barna:

Most of the people who have made these changes did so as a teenager or young adult. The study discovered that the median age at the time they changed faiths or significantly altered their faith perspective was 22.
One-third of those who experienced a significant faith shift did so during their twenties and another one-third did so before age 20. In total, two-thirds of people who had a major faith change experienced that outcome before the age of 30 (68%). In fact, among respondents over 40, only 5% of them reported making a major shift in their religious affiliation after the age of 40.

The picture is of young adults — as susceptible to the mandates of pop culture as they are — giving up whatever religious practice they had as they move into the phase of life in which they must find motivation for their own activities. In many cases, no doubt, the “practice” that they abandon has mostly to do with religious sayings and trappings. It isn’t hypocrisy that ushers them away, but laxity.
The most stunning aspect of Lobdell’s essay, though, is the degree to which the definition of hypocrisy has been diluted beyond recognition. Apparently, difficulty following a regimen is hypocrisy, whether or not the individual is vocal about instructing others about how they should live. Indeed, it should be proven, for such accusations to be reasonable, that those who most strenuously speak the doctrine are also the most apt to fail, themselves, and that those around them are more likely to lose faith altogether. The attempt is not even made to prove such at thing.
The likes of Lobdell talk of “losing their religion” (a cliché incorporated into the title of his book) and seek to blame the religious. They appear mostly interested in justifying their own inability to live up to standards that they once espoused on the grounds that others can’t do it either. Their actions, and the actions that they so delight in highlighting in others, are driving their philosophy, while the thrust of religion ought to be in the other direction.
I suppose I can’t fault them for that, but it hardly justifies their presumption of being the most clear-thinking party. It also raises questions about the propriety of secularists’ handing over poison and then complaining that it makes the faithful sick.

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John
John
11 years ago

Justin,
I’ve seen a lot of other data that suggests that the more important segmentation is between those who attend church weekly or more, those who attend at least once per month, and those who attend less often, regardless of Christian denomination.

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