As some of the nastiest people I know are also the most conspicuously pious, I do not subscribe to the view that religion is the guardian of morals. Indeed, the Church can often be a magnet for the petty and mean-spirited, the spiteful and sadistic, the resentful and the bigoted. This is not a novel claim. It was something the young Nietzsche noticed when he surveyed the congregation in his father’s Lutheran church: the foul stench of moral hypocrisy.
Of course, moral hypocrisy, or inconsistency between our actions and the moral values we espouse, is not an exclusively Christian phenomenon. But the common view that Christians are perhaps more susceptible than most to this particular vice is in fact supported by many empirical data. For example, statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (1997) indicate that criminality in the United States correlates with levels of religious conviction, with Catholics comprising 39% of prison inmates but only 12% of the general population.
Studies have also shown that more Christians are pro-torture and capital punishment than any other religious faction. More recently, a study at Brock University, Ontario found that individuals living in US states identified as the religiously conservative search for online pornography at greater rates than their non-Christian counterparts. But why should Christians, in particular, be more inclined to moral hypocrisy than other groups?
Christian moral judgments tend to display a bias toward the negative. They comprise the various modes of censure by which agents are dissuaded from increasing the stock of evil in the world. In this respect (among others), Christian ethics differs markedly from the much more positive ethical systems of the classical Greek and Roman worlds, in which the initial emphasis is upon the good life for man–eudaimonia or happiness–and the cultivation of virtue or excellence of character.
By contrast, Christian morality, at least as Nietzsche understands it, begins in an impulse to detract and to punish, and as such caters to and rewards an essentially sadistic aspect of human personality. Individuals in whom sadistic tendencies are strong may be drawn to such a table of values because it enables them to castigate others; in effect, it provides a stick with which to beat others over the head. By judging others according to the precepts which the agent herself transgresses, the moral hypocrite is able to project her own guilt onto another; and thus the dissonance between the agent’s moral values and her behavioral misconduct is resolved, or at least attenuated, and she obtains a kind of imaginary acquittal.
The need to resolve this internal tension would also explain why the moral hypocrite often tends to overcompensate for her wrongdoing not only by condemning others for “sins” of which she herself is guilty but by actively and unrealistically presenting herself as morally meritorious.
A further explanation for Christian moral hypocrisy is found in the Augustinian doctrine of original sin, which defines human beings as fundamentally and essentially reprehensible. Human beings are not just guilty on account of specific wrongdoings; rather we are always and already guilty quite apart from any particular transgression in virtue of an immutable essence that constantly inclines us towards sin.
It is not hard to see how this view might engender a form of ethical perversion. First, it is likely to encourage moral apathy. In effect, the doctrine says, “look, you’re fundamentally bad anyway, so you might as well stop trying to be good.” But it may even actively encourage viciousness. Any instance of human wickedness counts in favor of the truth of this central tenet of orthodox Christianity, viz., that human beings are structurally oriented away from the good and towards wickedness. In addition, of course, the idea that human beings are ‘originally’ sinful may lead one to embrace wrongdoing as a means of emphasizing the redemptive message of forgiveness of sin through Christ.
Of course, it would be a glaring non sequitur to infer from this anything about the truth-value of Christianity as such. As John Warwick Montgomery once quipped, Christian hypocrisy no more disproves Christianity than Albert Einstein’s assistant being arrested for shoplifting would make E=mc2 false. But perhaps we may infer that those who espouse Christian moral values and fail utterly to live by them do not genuinely believe in the faith they profess. Perhaps, as Nietzsche said, “in truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.”