One thing that bothers me about the irreligious is that they have not struggled with the problem of piety and thus fall into the trap of presenting a disingenuous piety themselves. Or rather, they become what they accuse the religious of being, without realizing it themselves.
A good example of this is what is called “virtue signalling”. People on the left typically engage in this practice, although it’s not uncommon on the right either. “Virtue signalling” is when someone says or does something so that people think they are virtuous, but in reality, it is a meaningless gesture. For instance, “Retweet this if you stand against Trump for Muslim immigrants!” or “Sign this petition to help the refugees!” In neither case does the action proscribed actually achieve the intended result, but the people who engage in it feel like they have done something positive and people who see other do it think something similar.
This is what piety, or rather, disingenuous or false piety is in religious circles. How often do you hear about the person who faithfully attends their church meetings every Sunday, and yet find little time to help the poor or even to be with their kids? Or the rich businessman who dumps large sums of money into the offering plate, but spends their business hours trying to extort ever more money from their customers and denying their employees a fair wage.
Every religion struggles with this. Christianity, like all others, struggle with it too.
The curious thing about Christianity is how it deals with this problem. And trust me, it’s a big problem. After all, if you aren’t actually doing good things, you are doing evil. A bit of opportunity calculus makes this clearly evident.
Christianity solves this problem by making our actions completely irrelevant. Christ doesn’t judge us based on our actions. Or rather, our actions are not the deciding factor. That is to say, try as you might to live all the teachings of Christianity, it cannot be done unless you have first been changed to become like Christ. This change comes about by the Grace of God, and none of us who experience can say anything else but to praise God for it.
Thus, Christians should not be looking on the outward appearance. All the good behavior, especially publicly visible good behavior, doesn’t amount to anything. It says literally nothing about whether a person in their heart is good or evil. So Christians should rightfully eschew this sort of outward, superficial, disingenuous piety in favor of trying to change their hearts to be more like Christ’s.
When you first join a church or a religion, or at least set your intentions towards adhering to it, you likely do what everyone else who has done the same has. You start with a zealous, even dangerous commitment to obey all the rules and restrictions. This is unhealthy, not only because oftentimes the ideals are simply impossible to achieve, but because you will find that when your actions do not align with your heart, you become more and more stressed.
It usually takes some time for you to develop empathy. First, you begin to see yourself and how you have failed to live up to the high standards you set for yourself. As you compare yourself with others, you spend less time finding faults, and even finding praise, but more time saying, “We really aren’t so different.” It’s at this point that you need to make a decision: Are you going to renege on your initial commitment, and give up? Or are you going to allow your experience to guide you down a better path?
In the case of Christianity, and I hope, someday, with all religions, we are forced to consider the better path: Forgiveness, both for ourselves and for others. This, and nothing else, is the true piety we all strive for in our religions: Sincere understanding, sincere compassion, all the while never giving up on our ambitions to achieve our ideals.
If the irreligious considered this, and walked that path for themselves, they would spend far less time virtue signalling. After all, what does it accomplish to tell others you are good when you know that you are not? What good is it to judge our hearts by our outward appearance? No, you would learn, like all the religious eventually do, that complete compliance with ideals is impossible, but that’s ok. We can still be friends, and we can still help each other.