Religious by day, atheists by night?

Here’s a puzzle. Most people in this country are religious. The god they believe in is an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful god. If that is the case, why is it that people still do wrong things, things that they believe god will disapprove of? We know that even very religious people still lie and steal and cheat and do all manner of things that their religion tells them is wrong. But if they are sure that god knows all the things they do and is capable of punishing them, why do they still do it?

An obvious response is that human beings are not perfect, they are prone to temptation and that they are going to stray from the path of good behavior. A religious person might couch this in terms of human beings being weak and sinful and that they need to depend on god’s forgiveness to save them form their sinful natures. (An atheist would have to depend on his or her conscience and moral sense to help overcome the temptation to harm others for their own gain.)

That’s fair enough, but it seems to me that that only explains behavior in which people do something wrong on impulse or on the spur of the moment or by mistake because they did not have time to think things through or figure out what was the right or wrong thing to do. This can arise in tricky ethical situations where one has to make a decision on the spot and one can momentarily forget that god is watching your every move.

But that does not explain why religious people deliberately do things over a long period even when they know that what they are doing is wrong. Disgraced evangelist Ted Haggard, who railed against gays while having a relationship with a male prostitute, is only one highly publicized example of many cases of both clergy and laity indulging regularly and in a systematic manner in a whole host of activities that they strongly assert to be unquestioningly wrong, not just in sexual matters. If they really thought that god was watching their every move and knew their every motive and that their immortal souls were being imperiled, surely they would desist?

This leads me to wonder as to whether people really believe that god is all the he/she is cracked up to be. Perhaps what we have are closet atheists who pay lip service to the existence of a god but really don’t believe it, or at least have serious doubts. Thus they are gambling that they can get away with things they believe are wrong because they think there is a good chance that god does not exist.

It is true that people can be aware of being observed and yet forget that they are under surveillance and act as if they are unobserved. For example, most stores now have cameras that record everything that goes on but we usually ignore them. But our nonchalant behavior usually extends only to those actions that are not serious transgressions. So we might clown around, pick our noses, yawn without covering our mouths, scratch ourselves, and do similar things and not care that we were being watched and recorded. But a serious criminal acting with premeditation would be aware of the cameras and take steps to avoid being detected or identified while stealing. The greater the levels of security, the more likely people would avoid doing something wrong in that store.

Similarly, if you knew that your boss in your workplace had a surveillance system that was monitoring your every move and that people were watching you, surely that would affect your behavior and you would not do what you felt your boss did not want you to?

But we need not limit ourselves to petty criminality. The examples can be multiplied in the worlds of politics, big business, and in interpersonal relations. People consciously do wrong things (cheat on their taxes, defraud their companies, tell lies about others, etc.) all the time, gambling that they can escape the adverse consequences because the earthly authorities are not likely to find out because they do not have the resources to find out everything.

There is no reason to think that such people are any less religious than the average person. Since surely god is the most perfect security system of all, how is it that these people can so easily ignore the fact that the god they believe in knows exactly what they are up to and considers it wrong? Could it be that, deep down, people do not really believe in this kind of god at all, but are simply spouting the pieties that they have been brought up to say from the time they were children?

Are we really a world of closet atheists, too nervous to say out loud what they really believe? That would explain this cavalier attitude to god’s watchfulness but I suspect that religious people would not accept it.

I would be curious to hear alternative explanations for this.

POST SCRIPT: Photo touch ups

I recently saw a magazine cover photo of actress Sally Field. She is 60 years old but in that photo she looked a lot younger and I was impressed at how well she had taken care of herself. But was that photo touched up to ‘improve’ her looks? I don’t know but it is clear that the technology is there that gifted people can use to improve your image immensely.

Take for example, this photo. By moving the cursor over and off the image you can compare the images before and after the photo was touched up.

In another image, the bare shoulders from the image of a different woman was grafted onto the image of a woman who was wearing a dress. It is so well done as to be seamless and unnoticeable.

You can see more examples here. Just click on any thumbnail to get the full image.

These touch ups are done by the company which is run by the editor of MachinesLikeUs, who is also a professional graphic designer, which explains why his website is so attractive!

In some ways, this is disturbing. Can you believe any image anymore? No wonder some women in this country suffer so much, trying to reach the unattainable standards of beauty they see in magazines. Granted, these women are attractive to begin with (he would have a tough time improving a photo of me!) but the retouching takes them to a level of flawlessness that is unattainable in real life.

But it seems that most young people now assume that the people they see in magazines have had their photos touched up, which is reassuring. I think high school yearbooks now do this kind of thing routinely, making people aware of the fact that things are not always what they seem.


  1. Erin says

    Mano, your argument assumes some things about human judgment & decision making that I’m not sure are true. Let’s assume for the moment that God punishes people only in the afterlife (which is what most mainstream churches teach). Time discounting plays a pretty big role in our value judgments, so one would predict that anything that comes only at the end of life is going to be weighted lower than everything that comes before. One could argue (à la Pascal) that eternal bliss should have infinite positive value, and that thus time discounting shouldn’t make a difference, but in practice I really don’t think that’s the case. Sure, we do assign what look like infinite positive or negative values to immediate outcomes — that is, in a risk situation, some outcomes will be unacceptable risks to some regardless of their likelihood — but I think once you put long time lags into it, things change drastically. The particular form of time discounting varies, too, from individual to individual. Given that, I think a wide range of evangelical sinning is totally compatible with sincere belief in God and Hell.

  2. Shruti says

    Not to mention that in Christianity, at least, you have a sort of “get out of jail free” card -- you can be repentant and ask forgiveness and avoid all the nasty consequences. So I’m sure people can sincerely think, “I’ll do it just this once, but I won’t do it again and I know God will forgive me.”

  3. says


    In some respects your observations about religious people in this country are right on the mark. We aren’t limiting ourselves, but lets face it, most of the people you are talking about are Christians. The question you pose, “Are we really a world of closet atheists” is an interesting one; but no, I don’t think that provocative position is in any way accurate. So then, why does the phenomenon you unfortunately describe with great accuracy occur again and again?

    Some insight from the viewpoint of Christianity since many seem to have questions about it. It is really as simple as the fact that man can’t help it-he is a rebellious fellow. He arrogantly thinks he’s got is all figured out-that he is god. His science, his reason, his own abilities are where he puts his trust. To you this may sound like a pretty accurate description of reality-of course this is what man does because that is the way it is you may say. But it isn’t supposed to be that way for a Christian. You may be surprised to know though that this is a struggle even for Christians at times.

    Christians believe that salvation is not earned but is a gift of grace to be humbly accepted. When one commits to Christ, one is turning over their life to Him-they are abnormally born again as a new creation in Christ. The apostle Paul said “I am strongest when I am weak”. What he meant was that when he is weak in something, he trusts more in Christ and His power and less in himself. Therefore by Christ’s power Paul is strongest in this moment despite his personal shortcomings. In essence Christians are to turn over control of their very lives to Christ and allow Him to steer the ship. Nice ideas and it all may sound great-after all who wouldn’t want to have access to the power of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all seeing, perfect diety-I mean, this has to have some advantages right?

    Unfortunately, living your life this way turns out to be fairly difficult at times despite the advantages and the consequences. Putting self second is against our nature period. The entire Bible is filled with example after example of people doing some of the most horrible things you can imagine to one another-they are constantly rebelling against God. Christians can get arrogant just like atheists and everyone else and when this happens they become the god of their life (after all it is their life they rationalize-they forget to whom they belong) and with this comes rationalizations for what ultimately ends up being sin. They rationalize that “oh, God will forgive me for looking at this internet porn or it isn’t really cheating on my wife and family because they don’t know-its a victimless crime”, or “God doesn’t really care if I cheat on my taxes-the tax is unjust anyway”, etc. Excuses, excuses that is all it is and it comes out of the rebellious side of man that thinks he knows better than God. Mano is right again that they do this at a risk because God could choose to judge right then and there. In this sense man’s understanding of God is flawed because you are ABSOLUTELY RIGHT when you say that if man rightly understood the power of God he would not behave this way. The Psalmist wrote, that “Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in his ways.”

    Christians don’t always have a proper fear and respect for the diety they worship and this is the root of all sin. It isn’t that they don’t really believe he exists; it is that they don’t understand or comprehend or know the God they profess to worship. Our knowledge is incomplete.

    “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13


    BTW-Speaking of people who look good for their age I am reminded of Dick Clark. Unfortunately, I am one of these guys who spends every New Years Eve waiting for the big ball to drop (whew hooh!) watching Dick Clark’s Rockin NYE Party on TV. I swear that they have him cryogenically frozen and just thaw him out at about Thanks Giving every year only to return him to the tank again on Jan 1 at 12:01 am. But this year he looked horrible-I mean, you couldn’t help but feel a little bit sorry for the guy! I guess time will eventually catch up with everyone.

  4. Erin says

    Mano, it’s a good question why people pray for Stuff. I don’t know of any mainstream theology that says that prayers will be answered. There are sure some wackos that believe in it (laying on of hands and whatnot) but most believe that prayer is good for you for other reasons — God likes it, or something. In any case, whatever we might think of God bestowing clear blessings on good people before death, I certainly do not know of any mainstream version of Christianity that believes God will smite bad people. So I don’t think punishment comes into it until Hell.

  5. says


    Your post brings up a good point. Some Christians do exactly as you write-heck, I’ve done that. But when they do this their theology is flawed. Being repentant means to confess and to turn away from the action (not do it again). When Christians repent but do the same sin again and again they are testing God’s grace, mercy and patience and they are assuming risk. This may make them stupid but it doesn’t make them a closet atheist:)


  6. says


    In Christianity, Judaism and Islam they do believe in answered prayer at least if they hold to the central tenets of the sacred writings in their particular religion.

    All prayer is answered. Sometimes the answer is “No”, but it is all answered. The purpose of prayer though is not to change God’s mind. God does not change. It is also not because God likes it-God does not need man’s prayer or fellowship. The “or something” or purpose that you refer to is to change us. To align our will with that of God. That is the purpose from a theological standpoint.


  7. Erin says

    Jim, you’re right, I spoke sloppily. What I meant was that I don’t know of any mainstream religion that teaches that if you pray for Stuff, you are bound to get it in exactly the way you desire. So the point of prayer is not to get God to do what you want in the world, as Mano seemed to suggest, but something more internal.

  8. says


    Your explanation of why people still behave the way they do despite believing in an all-knowing god is plausible. But it seems like it would explain the actions of people like you (and the apostle Paul) who have clearly thought a lot about this. I don’t know that most people put that much effort into explaining away their actions.

    An interesting point you make is that most people do not fear god’s power the way you think they should. But how could they not? Most preaching (except for the very liberal churches) place a great emphasis on the torments of hell, do they not? Why don’t people take it seriously?


  9. says

    I think, in a perfect world, people would react in much the way you’re proposing. Unfortunately, people aren’t quite so rational:

    if you knew that your boss in your workplace had a surveillance system that was monitoring your every move and that people were watching you, surely that would affect your behavior and you would not do what you felt your boss did not want you to?

    You might not want to do something that could get you fired/reprimanded, but that’s not a sure fire way to stop you.

    Here’s a more concrete example in line with Erin’s comments: You would expect doctors (who are experts on how the body works) to have lower rates of heart disease, obesity, and drug & alcohol abuse. For the most part (on all those measures) they’re the same as the general population or higher.

    So, why is it that doctors, who are more aware of what happens inside the human body, don’t take care of themselves? Clearly, they know better! So, there must be something else in the mix, that causes them to ignore it: stress, societal pressures, addiction, etc.

    People will do the wrong thing even when they know better; they’ll tell themselves, “I’m making a mistake,” even as they’re making a mistake. It’s not because there is no real danger (hell, heart disease, being fired); but because of their own quirks & situations.

  10. says

    Mano, I think the reason many religious people continue to misbehave is the same reason many don’t save enough for retirement: they are living in the moment — not giving much thought to what the future might bring. Humans are supreme rationalizers, and the promise that “one day I will do better,” or “one day I will stop this behavior and gain god’s forgiveness,” is enough for them to put off what should be done today. Having a god who forgives is also part of the problem. A Christian may rationalize: “Why behave now when god will forgive me for my sins later — even moments before my death?”

  11. Graeme says

    I think your conclusion is probably right (most people don’t really believe what they say they believe when you ask them), but I also think this example is flawed. Ask the same question, but instead of the fictitious “God’s gonna punish you”, substitute a real “Sword of Damocles” over your head.
    Example: A person has a heart attack, and is happy to survive. The doctors tell them “Your lifestyle is incredibly unhealthy, you need to change your diet and exercise regularly, starting today, or you will die when your next heart attack occurs, within 12-18 months. Apparently (cardinal sin of “I read it somewhere, can’t remember where now”), there is substantial literature showing that a majority of people in these circumstances relapse into their poor lifestyle habits very quickly. (The context I saw this in suggested that different techniques for changing a patient’s habits were critically important.)
    In the case I described, a perfectly rational, scientifically testable, prediction is made, and people still cannot control their self-detrimental behavior. This suggests that a person’s inability to act in their own best interest is widespread.

  12. Kathy says

    I think people rarely deliberately do something that they clearly know at that moment is wrong. Most of the time, they’re not thinking clearly (i.e., their judgment is clouded by emotions or addictions) or, most often, they rationalize their actions and don’t realize until later that they did wrong. I imagine Ted Haggard, for example, rationalizing each step along the way: I’ll just see this guy…no touching! This guy seems lost and alone…maybe I can help him! Afterwards, like an alcoholic or overeater, he probably realized he had fallen again and resolved to “sin no more.” It must have been (must be) very hard for him to admit his real inclinations…which, to me, by the way, are not sinful — I’m trying to see it from Haggard’s point of view.

    Our complex psyches cause us to do lots of harmful and self-destructive things, all the time. Why should believers be any different?

    Also by the way, I think you underestimate the number of liberal Christians. I’m a Catholic — not generally regarded as a liberal sect — and I haven’t heard any preaching about hellfire for decades.

  13. says

    V and Norm and Graeme,

    I agree with all that you say but all the examples you cite are because people think that the doctors etc whose advice they are following could be wrong. It is well known that people will seize on the slightest evidence that supports their prior beliefs, and ignore ov erwhelming evidence to the contrary.

    But that argument only works if they think god has the same credibility as their doctor, which I why I think that people don’t reqally think that god is all that he is cracked up to be.


    As I have said before, Catholics are a very mixed bag, hard to classify, ranging from the very radical to the very conservative. It is true that the Catholic church has not emphasized hell as a reality for some time but that may be changing. Pope Benedict has very recently said that hell is a real and awful place, not a metaphor, and he wants to raise awareness of it. I was planning to write about it in the near future. So watch out in a pullpit near you!

  14. Erin says

    Mano, I’d bet you dollars to donuts that people who trust their doctors completely will have roughly the same compliance rates as people who think there’s a chance their doctors are wrong. There are tons of, e.g., smokers out there who aren’t in denial about the risks, but do it anyway. It’s all about time discounting.

    Why do you believe so strongly that cognition should change people’s behavior with perfect reliability? This sounds like an unsupportable article of faith, to me ;).

  15. says


    I think you are limited in your thinking on this by your own bias. It doen’t make sense to you so it musn’t make sense to others. I thought the ideas that Graeme and Norm posted hit the mark exactly. Living out your faith in God is not so mechanical and just because you believe in God and an afterlife does not mean that you are perfect. True, it is supposed to move you in this direction but in the end you do not earn your salvation by adherance to a set of moral laws because you ought to or because of the nature of God. You are still just as flawed as everyone else and are capable of mistakes (and sometimes big ones) in a moments notice by the slightest lack of focus. Christians are human and still make human mistakes. It isn’t because they are secretly atheists or even unconscious of the fact that they are atheists. It is because they are human.

    The Christian believes that man has “fallen” due to events that happened in the Garden of Eden. His pride is his downfall. He thinks he knows better than God and this arrogance gets him every time and that is why God had a plan for salvation and recociliation. The entire Bible tells one long story of God’s plan for the redemption of man.


  16. Kristin says

    I am a Christian, but I am not religious or whatever and I don’t appreciate being called that. I think that the topic you brought up is really interesting, and I assume you don’t believe in God. But if God is not real than explain to me how the world was created. Was is from a blob of cell material? Or was it by an all-powerful, omnipotent, perfect being we call God? Some people who say they are Christians are not, but most of them are. I know God is real because I can feel Him empowering me when I am weak and when I am scared. If you don’t believe in God you should read the Bible and do some research. Archaeolagists have found Noah’s Ark. I believe they found the ark of the covenant and they have found remains of ancient Biblical cities. Also, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell basically the same story. It is pretty bazaar that four men all sat down and wrote the same story and one of them didn’t even see the things happen. IN the Old Testament people prophesized that a Messiah would come and hundreds of years later He did and everything they prophesized came true.

  17. says


    I have looked into this question and you can read the seven p[art series dealing with the historicity of the Bible by going to part 7 here and clicking on the links to the full sequence.

    The short result is that there is almost no evidence for anything that the Bible reports as history before 650 BCE. That rules out Abraham, Noah, Moses, David, Solomon, etc.

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