There’s a joke about a guy — let’s call him Bill — who visits his local bar and, without fail, orders four pints of beer every night. He drinks in silence, pays, then leaves. One night he sits down and orders three pints of beer instead of four and the barman is curious.
“I have to ask,” says the barman, “why are you ordering only three pints when you usually order four?”
“Well,” says Bill, “I’ve always ordered four pints because one is for me and the other three are for my father and my two brothers. And, well, the sad truth is that my father passed away recently, so now I just drink for myself and my brothers.”
This answer satisfies the barman, and for months Bill’s ritual continues, only now with three pints instead of four. A while later, though, Bill walks into the bar, sits down, and orders two pints. The barman is saddened by this sight for obvious reasons.
“I’m very sorry. Did something happen to one of your brothers?” he asks Bill.
“Oh dear, no,” says Bill, laughing. “You don’t need to worry at all. My brothers are fine. I’ve just stopped drinking for me because I’ve just learned that I’m an alcoholic.”
And that is hypocrisy.
It’s probably the number one criticism levelled against the religiously inclined: they — who is this “they” anyway? — are hypocrites. It sounds like the worst possible thing you could say to anyone but I’m wondering if it’s not always as bad as it sounds. Surely it’s better to be accused of failing to do the right thing than to be accused of not even having a ‘right thing’ to be measured up against at all? It’s certainly better, in my view, to miss the mark than to have no idea of whether or not there is a mark to begin with. The virtue of hypocrisy is that it points so clearly towards the virtues that seem to be absent from speech and action.
Although I don’t like to preface what I say with disclaimers, I feel that it’s important to point out that what follows is, as usual, just a brief thought experiment, and should therefore be taken as such. I’m not planning to prove that black is white or that white is green, but I do want to suggest that maybe there’s more going on in accusations of hypocrisy than some may like to admit.
A simple idea guides the following, namely that there is a subtle benefit to the accusation of hypocrisy in that it always puts the accuser on the side of the virtues that the hypocrite claims to believe in.
When, for instance, the atheist accuses the Islamo-fascist of hypocrisy in their killing of the innocent (a fair accusation, as recent events have shown), she is automatically siding, among other things, with the Quran’s injunction to prioritise the inner struggle (which is what jihad really means) to submit to a kind and merciful God over any kind of vindictive conflict. Even if the atheist critic thinks that the violence committed by the Islamo-fascist is inherent in Islam, she will soon be confronted with the falsity of her beliefs (especially if she bothers to actually read the Quran properly).
It is not widely known by non-Muslims, but it’s worth pointing out that the Quran condemns aggression in the strongest terms (2:190), is clear that hostility towards others is deeply misguided, stresses that retaliation is only allowed in the form of defence and never in the form of outright attack (2:192-193), and is adamant that coercion in matters of belief is absolutely forbidden by God (2:256). Peace always remains the priority in the holy book of the Muslims. War is always a last resort and should stop when the ‘enemy’ ceases to attack.
And so, really, the Muslim hypocrite is being accused not for being a Muslim but for not being enough of a Muslim. And in the process the atheistic critic is unconsciously assuming allegiance with Islam over any allegiance with the Muslim’s hypocrisy. With atheism, of course, this kind of reversal of beliefs by means of actions is common, since it is by definition a belief without content; it is, in essence, discontent. So whereas the Islamist stands for a kind of atheism (as a rejection of all moral grounding), the atheist stands for Islam (the submission to a definite moral order and moral law-giver). The atheist becomes, therefore, a kind of virtuous hypocrite: a critic who acts and speaks like a Muslim, and on behalf of true Islam.
But what about those who do hold to a particular religion and who have stepped out to criticise those who have not adopted their own religion? Take, for instance, the Christian who judges the Muslim for his particular religious affiliation. Well, the Christian critic of Islam, by asserting his allegiance with Christianity and with the Christ of Christianity, puts his belief above his own words and actions, and thereby emphasises the truth of his beliefs albeit through a kind of warped via negativa.
He judges what he does not yet understand, and has not even bothered to question (contra Matthew 7:1-3); he treats his so-called enemy in a way that he himself would not want to be treated (contra Matthew 5:44 and 7:12); and, ultimately, he actually prizes his own identity over that of others, which is something strongly discouraged in the New Testament (contra Philippians 2:3, Matthew 16:25 and Galatians 3:28). This may seem like a simplification, but the general idea is that in criticising the other too quickly, the Christian critic who has conflated Islam with Islamism is automatically siding with a kind of egotism that is simply not Christian. He thereby only proves that he is wrong and that the object of his faith is right. He shows that not only is the Muslim not Muslim enough, but also that he is not Christian enough.
I could go on like this all day, proving by playing with words that atheists can be Muslims and that Christians can be anti-Christian, but by now the point I’m trying to make should be clear enough. The virtue of hypocrisy is that it argues, if only implicitly, that our actions and speech acts actually do matter; that they are often really the most potent summary of what we do actually believe, whether consciously or not. However, I would not absolutise action too much, owing that this is a tendency in postmodernism that I find unhelpful. I’m not saying that our actions are the sum total of what we believe. What they do, though, is tell us that maybe we have a way to go; that we should, perhaps, look at the enemy within us instead of just looking for the enemy out there in straw men and 2D cardboard cutouts of our own invention. Hypocrisy tells us that the truth is out there, in our speech and in our actions; it also tells us the truth about the lies we tell ourselves, which is that there are things we know that we don’t even want ourselves to know.