Unfit Hypocrites At The Church Gym

Versions of this idea have existed since I was a youth in the 1980s — long before online social media existed.

The Metaphor Fallacy
This week’s silly meme compares a church to a gym and “out of shape people” to “hypocrites”.

It says: “Not going to church because of the ‘hypocrites’ is like not going to the gym because of ‘out of shape people’.”

So much is wrong here; I’m not sure where to start. I’m also having a difficult time assigning specific logical fallacies, so perhaps someone more versed in such things can help me out. At first, I thought it was the metaphorical fallacy, the mistaken belief that a metaphor provides an adequate cognitive frame for a given abstract concept. Now, I’m leaning toward false equivalence, in which “an anecdotal similarity is pointed out as equal, but the claim of equivalence doesn’t bear because the similarity is based on oversimplification or ignorance of additional factors”. Perhaps it’s something else. There might even be a straw man thrown in there.

The meme depends on three major assumptions: (1) that people should go to church, (2) that people avoid church “because of the hypocrites”, and (2) that hypocrisy is to church attendance what lack of fitness is to gym patronage.

The first assumption is what the entire idea rests on, and because it’s an unsupported assumption, the entire meme breaks down immediately. However, assuming you do think people should go to church, let’s look at the other assumptions.

• ‘Hypocrites’ Is Why People Don’t Go To Church

This second assumption is, I think, a straw man. The primary reason non-churchgoers don’t go to church is because they’re not Christians. It’s easy to miss this from the inside — as I know from personal experience. When you’ve been raised to think your religious is the only right one, it’s difficult to understand why others wouldn’t be interested.

Adherents, Worldwide
A breakdown of religious adherents, worldwide, from the Pew Research Center.

But less than a third (31.5%) of the world’s population (7.4 billion people) identifies as Christian. Muslims number about 1.6 billion people, and about 1.1 billion people say they adhere to no religion whatsoever. Hindus are in fourth place with about a billion. In all, about 5.2 billion aren’t Christians, contrasted with 2.2 billion who are. For the 70% of the world who doesn’t identify as Christian, I would think it quite odd if they attended regular church services (except perhaps in support of a Christian spouse or other family member). Expecting it would be like expecting Christians to regularly attend Muslim services or show up in support of the Church of Satan — or like someone not interested in cars joining a car club.

It’s clear that church leaders and commentators don’t get this. An internet search for why people don’t go to church shows that the question is common but none of them have come up with the main answer. They just assume going to church is the standard for people.

What about Christians who don’t go to church? When Pew asked this very question a few years ago, a few people did say “hypocrites” — about five percent. More than twice that number (12%) said there were work-related conflicts, and three times (16%) said they were “too busy”. The largest category of answers (18%) included these statements: “don’t agree with beliefs”, “it isn’t necessary to attend church”, and “the church is not strict enough”. (That last one might seem strange to outsiders, but in many circles there’s a strong belief that their churches are “too worldly”.) Other answers included health issues (6%), transportation problems (4%), laziness (4%), just don’t feel like going (3%), church is too corrupt (3%), church leaders are too pushy/demanding (2%), general dislike of religious leaders (2%), haven’t yet found a local church (2%), etc. I imagine that for many people, it’s a combination of these reasons.

I also searched for why I don’t go to church, and came across quite a few entries, with quite a few reasons. One thoughtful post explains how attending “events” on Sunday morning is basically irrelevant to his faith/beliefs. Another one claims: “the concept of organized religion… has wounded me so deeply that I’m not sure if I will ever be able to go back.” Continuing:

“…and there are many things in that community that I cannot believe in or stand behind any longer. I can’t go to a church without feeling trapped, skeptical, and cynical.”

John W. Fountain wrote in The Washington Post:

“Somewhere along the way, for us, for me, the church — the collective of black churches of the Christian faith, regardless of denomination — lost its meaning, its relevance. It seems to have no discernible message for what ails the 21st-century black male soul… it seems clear to me that the church does not — will not — seek us black men out, or perhaps even mourn our disappearance from the pews. Instead, it seems to have turned inward. It seems to exist for the perpetuation of itself — for the erecting of grandiose temples of brick and mortar and for the care of pastors and the salaried administrative staff.”

In Why I Quit Going to Church, Rupert Hughes (uncle to tycoon Howard Hughes) wrote in 1924:

“I came to believe that what is preached in the churches is mainly untrue and unimportant, tiresome, hostile to genuine progress, and in general not worth while. As for the necessity of paying homage to the deity, I began to feel that I did not know enough about God to pay him set compliments on set days. As for the God who is preached in the churches, I ceased to worship him because I could no longer believe in him or respect what is alleged of him. I cannot respect a deity who would want or even endure the hideous monotony and mechanism of most of the worship paid him by hired men, hired prayer-makers and their supporters.”

I could keep going, but hopefully the point is made: there are a lot of reasons. Each Christian who stops going to church has a reason good enough to satisfy himself or herself. Some just ceased to believe entirely. Others got tired of the rote memorization and other useless nonsense. I know that many people who left the church I attended did so due to personal conflicts with other members or disagreements over how the church was spending its money.

• But What About The Hypocrites?

So why are so many Christians convinced that “hypocrites” is a major reason people avoid attending church? (Believe me, it’s a common trope. I even found discussions about this in gun rights groups. It’s been so common for so long that Christians have developed regular responses, and of course the meme cited at top.)

One reason is because some people actually do say this is the reason they quit going.

Another reason is that it’s harder to solve than the other reasons. Churches that suffer lack of attendance due to transportation issues now have buses or vans that pick up parishioners. Too crowded? Build a larger structure or conduct multiple services. Work conflicts? Set up meetings at more convenient times. Laziness? Televise your services.

So many of the other excuses can be somewhat addressed by the church. Two things cannot be easily fixed: the fact that people within a church rarely behave better than people without, and when someone simply stops believing.

A third reason is that they actually understand this reason, because they know it’s true. Anyone who’s spent significant time as part of a church organization knows that it’s full of judgmental people who preach “judge not”, indulgers who preach “abstain”, sinners who preach “go thou and sin no more”.

Besides the meme above, there are other popular responses to the “too many hypocrites” charge. (1) “What else have you stopped doing because of hypocrites?” (2) Just admit it, then claim that church is the best place for hypocrites to be. (3) “The church isn’t perfect, but Christ is.”

Each of these responses, of course, fails under closer scrutiny. (1) Most of us have actually quit other things due to perceived hypocrisy — or other poor behavior, often after first trying to fix it. A lot of people don’t vote because they believe “all politicians are corrupt”, for example. (2) This goes back to the base assumption I mentioned at the top, that people should go to church; that it’s somehow intrinsically better than doing something else. I’ve yet to see any empirical evidence of this, despite decades in and around the church. (3) Not only is this another baseless assertion, but even if true it doesn’t offer a compelling reason to go to church — it’s a compelling reason to get closer to Christ.

• Unfit People Are Hypocrites?

Leaving the discussion of church itself for now, I return to the meme at hand. The direct comparison in this analogy is that out of shape people in a gym are the same as hypocrites in a church.

This is absurd.

Yes, some unfit people are hypocrites. Just a couple of years ago, a man in my neighborhood began marketing his skills as a personal fitness trainer; he didn’t get much business because he himself was visibly overweight, became out of breath quickly, and was a smoker. In another town, I met a morbidly obese woman selling weightloss products. My brain locked up at her sales pitch; what could I say without being rude? (I said nothing.)

But an unfit person going to the gym (or any fitness facility) has clearly gone to the right place, especially if they walked or rode a bike to get there.

* Out of shape person at a gym: “I’m out of shape, and I realize it, so I’m here to fix it.”

* Hypocrite in a church: “I’m saved and going to heaven, but did you hear that Jane actually had two abortions? I can’t believe they’re letting her teach Sunday School!”

The first is encouraging — inspiring even. Someone is about to be stronger, healthier, less of a drain on our overburdened healthcare system. They’re just like me! Perhaps I should join the gym too. The second is a nasty person who believes they’re quantitatively better than someone else and never hesitates to point it out. They’ve forgotten the basic tenets of the Gospel, that everyone is a sinner, equally deserving of death, and that anyone who believes in Jesus gets to avoid the punishment.

Unlike the unfit person at the gym, who is usually a beginner, the hypocrites in the church are often the longest-serving members who have undue influence with leadership and help set the rules.

• A Personal Anecdote

You know by now that I’m an atheist, but I wasn’t an atheist when I quit going to church. I still very much believed in the core fundamentals of Christianity. I quit going because I was a hypocrite. I recorded in my journal an instance in which I lectured two teenage girls about their smoking — how our bodies and health are gifts from God and intentionally damaging them is a slap to the face of God. I added: “What made the event so memorable to me is that the entire time I was fingering the unopened pack of Winston cigarettes in my suit coat pocket. I had become a hypocrite of the fullest measure.”

I was standing in pulpits preaching about God being real and powerful, but privately beginning to notice the complete lack of evidence in my own life. From 1997:

“I hate myself for being unsure of life, the universe, and everything. How can these people be so sure that the Bible is the inspired, infallible Word of God? How was I so sure of the same damn thing not two years ago?”

A year later, I had shifted to deism. The reason I never went back to church:

“I would be trying to force myself to believe in a God that I don’t really believe in, just to gain some kind of emotional solace.”

• Conclusion

“Hypocrites”, despite being cited occasionally as a reason for why some people don’t go to church, isn’t.

It’s clear that BY FAR the primary reason people don’t go to church is that they belong to other religions (or no religion at all). Among the self-identified Christians who don’t attend church regularly (as high as two-thirds by some estimates), there are dozens of other reasons.

And even if you do cite it as a reason, it’s a valid one — it doesn’t make sense to accept a message from someone who clearly doesn’t believe it herself.

Further, it is entirely unrelated and not comparable to an “out of shape” person deciding to better himself by exercise — which shows they *do* believe the gym’s message.

  1. My thoughts:

    If I were a devout Christian (or hypocrite, or Atheist for that matter) what would any other person’s belief system have to do with my religious experience? Nothing. Nothing at all. I would be going to church because I had a self-motivated desire to go to church.

    If I were a gym person, I would be going to the gym out of a self-motivated desire to be at the gym. Presumably to work out to get more healthy. But nobody’s physical appearance in that gym could ever have any bearing on my attaining that goal.

    So, if I’m not going to church because of the hypocrites, the reality is that I simply don’t want to go to church. And if I’m not going to the gym because of other people, it means I simply don’t want to go to the gym.

    It’s not a false equivalency at all.

    It could just as appropriately have read, Not going to church because you don’t have anything to wear is like not going to the gym to keep your sweats clean.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      “It’s not a false equivalency at all.”

      As for the motivation for going/not going to church/gym, I agree completely — it’s a correct equivalency (or at least very, very close).

      When I refer to “false equivalence” (in my third paragraph), I should have been more clear about which part I was referring to… The false equivalence is between the hypocrite and the out of shape person. Seeing an out-of-shape person going to a gym is seeing a person who believes (and is acting upon) the gym’s message (“come here to get in shape”). Seeing the hypocrite in church is seeing a person who doesn’t appear to believe in OR act upon their message.

      As usual, you’ve seen straight to the heart of this in a way I hadn’t considered, and I very much appreciate it.

  2. Dana says:

    I’d go with false equivalency if you must label it.

    That being said, there was so much incorrect about that statement that it took me three reads before I could even begin to parse it. I felt like I was reading a foreign language.

    As an atheist I don’t go to church because I don’t believe in god or religion.

    As a lazy person I don’t go to the gym because I detest working out.

    They’re not really equivalent.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Well put. Thank you.

      And I had a very similar reaction to Kevin Hart’s expression in the meme; the words didn’t make sense at all to me — despite having heard this expression before and despite my background in the “going to church is best” community.

  3. Dana says:

    And, in the rare times I do drag myself to the gym, if I ever find myself judging someone due to their level of fitness or body I remind myself that everyone gets a pass at the gym (ok, well maybe not the muscle head wearing too much cologne or exhibiting poor gym etiquette, but everyone else). The reason they’re at the gym in the first place, is, as you’ve noted too get fit. Not everyone is born a skinny athlete.

  4. Dana says:

    Don’t worry – I don’t judge the skinny athletes, either – unless they’re wearing too much cologne or exhibiting poor gym etiquette.

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