I am intrigued to know whether there is any particular word in English for an opportunist who tries to look like religious people in some religious countries and cultures.
Take "some rabbis in Judaism or many mullahs in Islam just for the sake of some financial gains or seeking political or positional favors.
Sometimes they do that solely to expand their circle of influence looking for further advantages
Such a person does not observe most of their respective religious rules. They only try to be similar to the religious ones by appearance or the way they speak and so on.
For instance, they might grow beard and mustache in Islam and Judaism or wear some specific clothing which is a sign of believers and extremists in that particular school.
You can see the typical of such characters frequently, in some Asian countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey etc.
I am familiar with the words "hypocrite (n.) and hypocritical (adj.), however the problem is that these words encompasses a wider semantic area.
I need a narrower or finer word/expression/idiom which carries directly my intended message if there is / are such a notion(s) in English.

  • 1
    Try sanctimonious, and it synonyms. Mar 25, 2022 at 21:02
  • Does the adj. "sanctimonious" encapsulate the notion of somebody how is not actually religious an solely strives being similar to religious people by appearance out of the reasons I mentioned @DrMoishePippik.
    – A-friend
    Mar 25, 2022 at 21:10
  • 2
    The problem is that in English speaking countries you generally can't tell someone's religion by their appearance or dress unless they actually are members of e.g. Islam or Judiasm. of course, being a 'member' is not always synonymous with firm belief. You can't 'dress like' a Catholic or a Baptist, so there is not likely to be a specific word for this. Mar 25, 2022 at 21:14
  • 1
    "sanctimonious" is close, but you can be sanctimonious and genuinely religious. My understanding is that it means acting as if you are superior because you think you are better for being more religious than someone else. Mar 25, 2022 at 21:30
  • @PeterJennings - we had a sanctimonious neighbour that my father called a 'bloody holy Joe' and a 'creeping Jesus'. Mar 26, 2022 at 14:05

2 Answers 2


You are correct that 'hypocrite', though used in the Christian scriptures to describe religious leaders of the day, has a much broader use and does not specifically refer to religious teachers. Further, there is nothing inherent in the word to suggest that the person does not believe what they teach, only that they fail to live up to it in some way.

However, the idiom 'a wolf in sheep's clothing' is of Biblical origin (derived from the text "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves") where it is used specifically to describe false religious teachers (or false prophets) who deliberately conceal their true nature for malevolent reasons. Although the idiom has come to have a slightly broader use today, dictionary definitions nearly always note its religious origin, and it makes the most sense in this context. The very specific imagery of a placid sheep suits the 'pastoral' role that religious teachers are supposed to occupy, while a 'wolf' would be dangerous to real sheep, which are also used in Christian teaching to represent adherents.


Although not a single word or phrase you could describe such a person as acting like The Vicar of Bray. A clergyman who changed his religious stance to fit in with the changing doctrines during a time of religious upheaval.

  • Or Tartuffe - the last paragraph of the 'History' section claims that the word is used in English, though Molière's plays aren't that well-known to English speakers. Mar 26, 2022 at 13:52

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