January 3, 2021

Performative Piety to Impress Others and Bolster One's Faith

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Anyone who writes on a regular basis will have had the experience of searching for a particular word or phrase to capture an idea, only to come up lacking. In these situations, we know what we want to communicate but cannot manage to find the right phrase for doing so. We try out several different options, but none capture what we are looking for. We end up feeling stuck. Fortunately, Bert Bigelow) (A Tippling Philosopher) just provided the phrase that had been eluding me for some time: performative piety.

Here is how Bigelow introduces the term:

How many Christians are just going through the motions? Their public prayers, the pious look in church, the blessings that they ask their god to bestow on others, and all the rest of the piety performance package are part of their way of life, inculcated into them at an early age. It dominates their worldview, and dictates many of their actions…especially when others are looking.

Yes, that's it exactly. It is related to hypocrisy, of course. This is where I kept getting caught up. I recognized that it was like hypocrisy in some ways but found that hypocrisy was insufficient to capture it. This is not mere hypocrisy; it is a showy version of hypocrisy. Bigelow provided the perfect phrase when he referred to Catholics and the "conspicuous performative piety" they demonstrate around Lent and other occasions. It seems clear that many do not believe much of what they claim to believe and this performative piety is likely designed to convince others (and perhaps themselves) that they are good Christians who deserve eternal rewards.

Okay, so what was the point I was trying to make with the phrase I didn't know I was looking for? Many Christians regard piety as a good thing. The pious Christian is a better Christian than they are, assuming they aren't terribly pious themselves. It isn't really until the more extreme holier-than-thou level that annoys almost everyone that Christians place an upper limit on piety. Until that point, one aspires for greater piety. And yet, I bet most of us have long suspected that many expressions of piety are insincere. We don't know this, of course, but they certainly seem insincere. This is where the notion of performative piety comes in. Regardless of what these people may believe, they only behave this way when they have an audience.

Still, I think it is likely that performative piety is as much about easing their own self-doubts as it is about virtue signaling to others. Because many Christians value piety, it is in one's interest to appear pious to others. One reaps Earthly rewards in this manner. But I think that overt expressions of piety also serve to quell the doubts that will be experienced by most rational minds. By behaving piously, I can see myself as pious and therefore deserving of heavenly rewards. And because few are sufficiently pious, this sort of ostentatious piety gives the believer something achievable to work toward.