Is Cherry Picking a Good Thing?

This is actually a question I can see both sides of, even though I know which side I come down on. And recently a fan wrote in to express the following:

I’m ok with cherry picking religious beliefs in general because I think that it has helped push beliefs towards a more beneficial outcome. Today you hear people claiming that the Christian God is Love and other such nonsense, but I’d rather them intentionally ignore the bad parts in their holy book than to accept it all unquestioningly if they’re going to believe in both cases already.

He raised some good points about how it’s good many Muslims are moderate–and not like their more fanatical counterparts. I get the point, I really do. But here are my thoughts:

This is a question with no answer. Someone recently posted on Facebook an article about an American association of physicians who initially came out with a position that it’s OK to “nick” infant female genitalia as a substitute for a full female circumcision–which they feared some families would go back to the old country to get if doctors here wouldn’t do it. However, they then reversed their stance to say that, in fact, doctors should counsel and support the families, but not perform any such ritualistic procedures.

What should they do? Should they cause small harm, in order to mitigate greater harm? Or should they stand firm against all harm?

I compared it in a recent dialog to chemo therapy. Some chemo treatments have long-term, or even permanent awful effects on people’s bodies. But the idea is that this toxic cocktail will save someone’s life, so we induce harm, in order to mitigate worse harm. And most people agree this is the right course. BUT, what if we found a cure for cancer that inflicted no harm tomorrow, but some oncologists insisted upon continuing to use chemo treatments? Would it still be the right course of action?

Making religion somewhat less toxic, I can see, is preferable to having it be fully toxic. But I personally, as a reformed Christian myself, know that there is a cure available that eliminates the harm altogether. And with that knowledge, I can’t, in good conscience, pursue the course of mitigating harm, when a cure that eliminates the harm is available.


I can’t speak for everyone–but this is how I view it and how I address the problem.


And I think it also covers the “cherry picking” question. To support a book that encourages subjugation of women and killing other people who don’t believe what you do, to me, is inexcusable. It would be like joining the KKK because you like the social networking, but reject the racist agendas.


So, for what it’s worth?

Post-show thoughts for 1/10

Hi folks,

Thanks for watching the show last night, and thanks in advance to all of you who will eventually come across this thread after listening to the podcast. Sorry for spinning this off into a new post, but I felt like using my executive privilege to cut in line and not appear after 20+ comments.

I hear what you guys are saying about the positives and negatives of last night’s experiment. And believe me, this was definitely an experimental bit, and I didn’t have any idea whether this would be a good move or not. I suspect I will not really be sure until discussing it and reading feedback for a few more weeks. I’m sure there are things that could be improved.

I cut my intro short, because the obvious shuffling around on camera threw me off a bit and I didn’t want the introduction to seem phony. But I was intending to explain a little better why I decided to violate our usual stated reasons for not having Christians on the show. Obviously there are a lot of exclusively Christian shows out there, so we feel no need to provide “equal time.” But as we’ve noted often in the last year, it’s hard to get a reliable source of disagreement from the callers when so many people are internet fans who seek us out because they like us. I think yesterday’s show illustrated that very well, since all but the last two callers were atheists, and those two were a bit mediocre in my opinion.

So I have been wanting to see what would happen if we go offer an invitation to an experienced Christian speaker, rather than some clueless person who just happened to stumble on us. I sent out an email to everyone at Great Hills Baptist (which is among the biggest churches in Austin) and got feedback from Kyle right away. While acknowledging that this was possibly a stumbling first effort, I’d like to make a case for why this appearance was a success.

First of all, apologies to people who were hoping that they would see a full scale brawl and didn’t get one. I know that that’s a direction we could have gone, but that would have depended more on getting a guest who wanted to fight. We got Kyle. He’s a polite, friendly, non-creationism-promoting, non-atheist-condemning Christian, and that’s who we wound up with on the show.

At the same time, I completely disagree with somebody’s claim that this was so “softball” that it was like Fox News interviewing Dick Cheney. My opening statement was intended to point out that whether or not evil is a “problem” for God, there is no indication that there is any kind of God (whether Dionysus, Jonathan Edwards’ god, or Kyle’s god) taking an active interest in society; and what we see is exactly what we’d expect if every individual simply made up their own concept of god based on personal preference. To the extent that Kyle made specific claims about his god, we didn’t miss any opportunity to point out that there is no rationale for believing that this god actually exists, or that Kyle’s interpretation of God has any more weight behind it than that of Jonathan Edwards. And furthermore, Kyle didn’t provide any serious disagreement with this response, preferring to disavow any application of evidence.

Yes, the conversation still turned out to be pleasant and friendly. So what? The mission of the Atheist Experience is not to destroy Christians at every opportunity. It’s:

  1. To promote positive atheism — which wouldn’t have been as well served by hosting a Crossfire-style shouting match.
  2. To provide community outreach and clear up misunderstandings — which I think will only be helped if we can encourage more Christians to watch the show and not fear the atheist attack dogs.
  3. To present atheism as a rational point of view while pointing out logical inconsistencies in religion — which we most certainly did.

I must also report that Kyle was a fine dinner companion, listening respectfully to people who wanted to contest what he’d said, and talking about experiences that people were interested in hearing. That’s exactly why we regularly add “or atheist friendly” in our dinner invitations.

Finally, I hear some people saying that the segment wasn’t long enough, and that they were left wishing that we had left more time for it. Fantastic! I was initially worried that 30 minutes was going to be too much time. I was thinking that if it became a one-sided preachfest, at least we would have a time limit. Instead, the time I was on seemed to fly right past, and I was downright surprised when 6:00 rolled down. Apparently, so were our viewers. So if you actually wanted more, then that’s a good indication that this is something we ought to repeat.

Obviously I wouldn’t be averse to having a guest with a little more fire and brimstone in them. If you know a better way to get in touch with such people, post your suggestions.

Christianity and the allure of “cheap grace”

One aspect of religion that has often come under atheists’ critical fire is the way in which it enables the most egregious hypocrisies amongst its most devout adherents. Considering how important Christians will tell you Scripture is to their lives, it’s remarkable how selective they are in their reading of that Big Book of Multiple Choice. The warnings against hypocrisy among believers that comprise most of Matthew 6 would be sufficient to shut up almost the entirety of the American Christian Right, if they were the kinds of people who practiced what they preached.

But I think there is something about religion that’s even more insidious than hypocrisy, and that’s the way it puffs up believers’ hubris, allowing them to think they’re more special and entitled and deserving, even (and especially) without having done anything to earn it. Religion tells people they’re part of a select group, favored over others by God. And yet these are the same people who routinely like to attack unbelievers — and the intelligentsia many unbelievers are part of — as “elitists.” What could be more elitist than believing everybody but you deserves eternity of torture in hell, simply because you belong to the Jesus Fan Club and they don’t?

I’ve been thinking about this over the last couple of days since my attention was drawn to something that hasn’t really turned up on atheists’ radar: the Manhattan Declaration. This is a kind of manifesto that has recently been put together by several prominent conservative Christian figures — among them arch-bigot Tony Perkins and Kazim’s old pal Chuck Colson — as something of an ideological purity test. It begins as follows:

We are Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Christians who have united at this hour to reaffirm fundamental truths about justice and the common good, and to call upon our fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join us in defending them. These truths are:

  1. the sanctity of human life
  2. the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife
  3. the rights of conscience and religious liberty.

Some quick Googlage has revealed that this Declaration has already ruffled the feathers of liberal, progressive Christians, who have quickly called the whole thing out as an effort to enshrine conservative prejudices as “fundamental truths about justice and the common good.” Only the most smug and arrogant bigots could claim with a straight face that a Declaration that openly repudiates GLBT marriage equality is one that favors “justice” in any form. I think that word, to quote The Princess Bride for the 80 billionth time, doesn’t mean what they think it means.

Basically, the highfalutin language of the thing does little to disguise the fact that it’s a huge anti-gay-rights and anti-abortion petition, and it takes a Bushian “with us or against us” attitude that is nothing less than a gauntlet thrown down to all those liberal Christians who haven’t toed the Hate Line to the satisfaction of their conservative betters.

Surfing the blogosphere, I come upon this post by blogger Hugo Schwyzer — who, as an avowed pro-GLBT liberal feminist Christian, is about as far from the fundies’ notion of ideological purity as a guy can get — where he takes the Manhattan Declaration to task for being little more than a reactionary pushback against the tendency among the younger generation of modern Christians to reject right-wing fundie obsessions with “pelvic morality” (basing culture war talking points on sexual and reproductive issues to the near exclusion of everything else) in favor of broader moral concerns — saving the planet, helping the needy — that are generally of interest only to those damn latté sipping libs. Schwyzer makes an astute point about the “cheap grace” enjoyed by fundies whenever they beat their chests and pontificate over such narrow-minded issues: that these are fights they love precisely because they have nothing at stake.

Here’s the thing: fighting against abortion and gay rights is, in the end, cheap. It requires no particular personal sacrifice or reflection on the part of those who claim these are the top issues. Men who will never get pregnant; heterosexuals who have the privilege to marry those whom they love — they surrender nothing precious to them by fighting tooth and nail against reproductive and glbtq rights. The struggle against global poverty and the struggle to save the planet from environmental degradation, on the other hand, make radical claims on all of us — particularly on the affluent in the West, whose unsustainable consumption patterns are directly linked to human and animal suffering. Fighting against climate change and poverty require that the wealthy transform their lifestyles; fighting against gay rights requires nothing more than censorious and self-righteous indignation.

Bam! — direct hit, below the waterline. But I’d caution Schwyzer not to forget that, in a very real way, “cheap grace” is at the heart of all Christianity, not just the version practiced by wingnutty Sarah Palin and Carrie Prejean fans. Christianity presents believers with this odd notion about morality, sin, and fate: that, merely by virtue of being alive, a person is a worthless sinner damned to eternal agony because of the Fall; but hey, not to worry, because Jesus took all of that punishment upon himself, poor chap, and now by virtue of his sacrifice, you’re good to go, and all you need to do is make sure (at some point before you die) you publicly high-five Jesus for taking one for the team, accepting him as your savior. So, we’re damned, but we’re not, and eternal salvation is ours simply by the rough spiritual equivalent of clicking a confirmation email.

So right from the outset, Christians are more or less raised in the extremely confident belief that all the heavy lifting for their own personal redemption was already done 2000 years ago. Their own efforts require no personal sacrifice at all. If this is not cheap grace, what is?

The very thing that Christianity tries to sell as its most morally and spiritually profound element — salvation by proxy — in fact cheapens the entire notion that in life, self-respect, the respect of others, and an enduring reputation as the kind of good person whom the rest of us should want to emulate, must be earned. The whole notion of salvation by faith and not works (which, admittedly, might be more favored by conservative Christians than liberal ones, though I think God, if he’s up there, ought to do his job right and clarify matters) gives Christians the ability to think pleasingly of themselves as among the saved elect, regardless of how they might actually behave in their lives. The popular Christian bumper sticker “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” conveys egotism, not humility, as it’s basically saying, “Yippie! I’m a Christian, and I never have to change, never have to better myself, never have to take responsibility at all.” The very hypocrisy Matthew 6 rails against is enabled by Christianity’s entire salvation mechanism. How else could so many arch-scumbags (insert names here, but off the bat I think of Kenneth Lay and Jim Bakker) preen with such pride while living the sleaziest, most immoral lives they could manage?

So, while I’m always pleased to see liberal Christians who aren’t afraid to take on the Right Wing Noise Machine (a thing we have pointedly challenged them to do for a decade on AETV), I’d caution Schwyzer and his liberal Christian brethren not to overlook the cheap grace at Christianity’s very foundation. But to be fair, perhaps the fact that guys like him, at the very least, do try to live decent lives of higher personal responsibility, supportive of the real meaning of terms like “justice” and “equality” that the wingnut
s simply treat as pious catchphrases, means they’re more aware of it than they might like to admit.

Thanks for not using “No True Scotsman”

I found this letter to the editor in yesterday’s Austin American-Statesman interesting. It was in reference to a statement in an earlier article regarding the recent Fort Hood shootings:

Religious radical?
Re: Nov. 12 article “Suspect alarmed doctors.”

The story noted that Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s doctors and colleagues “viewed him at times as belligerent, defensive and argumentative in his frequent discussions of his … faith.”

That pretty much describes every member of the religious right that I’ve ever encountered.

Rev. Bill Young

How often have I, and others, said that liberal Christians need to be more vocal in their condemnation of their more extreme brethren–instead of falling back on the “No True Scotsman” fallacy? In fact, it’s their silence and solidarity as much as their support of irrationality that lends credibility to the extremists in their ranks. So, this statement undermines at least one of the pillars supporting fundamentalism in Western Christendom. I hope other Christians will follow suit.

When I first read the content, I thought, “No Christian will hear anything an anti-religious person submits in this vein.” Then I saw the signature and was happy. It’s like reading about a lawsuit to bring down a religious statue on public property and finding the plaintiff is theist. It’s sort of a relief to know we aren’t going to be accused of bias and targeted for criticism or ugly insults—at least not this time. That’s not a bad feeling now and again.

Thanks Bill.