Progressive Religion and the Cherry Picking Problem


This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

“Sure, I choose the parts of the Bible/ Torah/ Koran/ Bhagavad-Gita/ etc. that make sense to me, and reject the ones that don’t. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Think for ourselves? Isn’t that better than being a fundamentalist?”

When atheists criticize religion, one of the things we harp about most is cherry-picking: believers embracing the parts of their religious teachings they like, and ignoring or rejecting the parts they don’t. We point out that sacred texts — the Bible, the Koran, etc. — are typically filled with anachronisms and absurdities, internal contradictions and factual errors and moral grotesqueries, and that nobody actually adheres to all their teachings… not even self-proclaimed fundamentalists. (Are there any Christian fundamentalists who decline to wear blended fabrics, or who stone their disobedient children to death?) And we point out that believers conveniently pick the parts of their sacred texts that they already agree with, or that they would most like to agree with, or that they happened to be taught by the accident of which faith they were brought up in.

Now, fundamentalists and other conservative believers will hotly deny this charge. They’ll insist that they really do follow the literal word of their sacred text. And they’ll come up with any number of contorted excuses for why they embrace parts of their religious text and reject others: why they’re wearing cotton-poly blends, why their disobedient children are still alive.

But progressive and moderate believers take a very different approach. They freely admit to cherry-picking. “Sure,” they say. “The Bible says a lot of things — things that are anachronistic and absurd, factually inaccurate and morally grotesque. The Bible (or whichever sacred text we’re talking about) isn’t a perfect document written by God — it’s a flawed document written by people who were trying to understand God. You think you’re telling us something we don’t know? Yes, we cherry-pick. We should cherry-pick. We have minds, and moral compasses, and we’re supposed to think for ourselves. Isn’t that what atheists do? When you read works by thinkers you find inspiring, you get inspired by the parts that resonate with you, and you reject the parts you think are screwed up. Why shouldn’t believers do the same thing?”

Yeah. See, here’s the problem.

Actually, before we get to the problem, I should say this right at the outset: Compared to religious fundamentalism? Yes, this approach to religion is vastly preferable. I have serious objections to progressive religion — but they’re a lot less serious than my objections to fundamentalist religion. If all religion were in this progressive vein… well, I’d still disagree with it, and I’d still speak out about that disagreement, but I wouldn’t care nearly as much as I do. And while I disagree with progressive and moderate believers, I’m more than happy to share a dinner table with them, and to work in alliance on issues we have in common.

So. That being said. Here’s the problem with religious cherry-picking.

It’s this: How do you know which cherries to pick?

How do you know which parts of the Bible/ Torah/ Koran/ whatever are divinely inspired, and which parts are human and flawed? How do you know — to give just one example — which parts of the Gospels are the things that Jesus really said and meant, and which are the bits that got twisted and corrupted and just plain made-up by flawed human beings?

How do you know what God is really saying?

Most progressive believers will answer with one of two answers, or a combination of the two: (a) scholarship, and (b) looking at our own hearts and our own moral compass. They’ll say that historians and other scholars can give us a good idea of the historical accuracy (or lack thereof) of any given religious text. And they’ll say that, in the many, many instances where history leaves us guessing, we can look at the world around us and our experience of it, and look deep into our own hearts and minds, and follow our own moral compass. That’ll tell us what Jesus really wants.

So here’s the problem with these two approaches.

The problem with the scholarship thing — apart from the fact that scholars don’t agree at all on which parts of sacred texts are historically accurate and which parts aren’t — is that it’s still assuming the existence of a supernatural god, with no good evidence to support that assumption, and plenty of evidence to contradict it. Even if you could get excellent historical corroboration for the assertion that — to give just one example — a real religious teacher named something like Jesus existed in or near Judea at around 0-33 C.E. (a notion that is seriously in doubt), and that he really said some of the things attributed to him in the New Testament and probably didn’t say some of the other things… so what? Without excellent historical corroboration for the assertion that this Jesus fellow really was the perfect and divine son of God, and that he performed miracles and returned from the dead and can somehow magically cure us of the bad things we’ve done as long as we believe he’s real… what difference does it make whether there was a real person who said these things? The ideas are either good or they aren’t.

The only thing that would make these ideas at all special, at all different from any other collection of ideas, would be if they had emanated directly from the mouth of God. And the whole point of this progressive, non-fundamentalist approach to religion is that it rejects the claim that religious texts emanated directly from the mouth of God. If you don’t think the Bible or Koran or whatever is divinely inspired… then why do you treat it as special? Regardless of which bits scholars think may or may not have been spoken by the “real” Jesus or the “real” Muhammad or whoever… why do you treat it any differently from any other piece of human writing, parts of which you agree with and parts of which you don’t?

And the problem with “looking into your heart” to decide what God really is and isn’t saying, and which parts of your holy text are and are not divinely inspired… well, I would hope that the problem with that would be obvious. But experience has taught me that it’s anything but — so I’m going to spell it out.

The problem with “looking into your heart” to find out what is and is not literally true about the external, non-subjective world is that our hearts and minds are deeply flawed. Our minds and our instincts are wired by evolution with a whole passel of cognitive biases. And these biases slant us in the direction of believing whatever religion we already believe — and they slant us in the direction of believing in religion in the first place. Among other things, we’re wired by evolution to see intention where no intention exists… and to see patterns where no patterns exist… and to believe what we already believe or what we most want to believe… and to believe what other people around us believe… and to cling more tightly to beliefs that we’ve committed time and resources to… and to believe what we were taught as children… and so on, and so on, and so on.

That’s the whole point of the scientific method — as applied to questions of history, as well as to questions of physics and biology and so on. We know that our minds are biased. That’s why we check the things we think are true, using rigorous standards of testing and evidence. That’s why we don’t “look into our hearts” to decide which drugs to use to treat HIV, or who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays, or whether the earth orbits the sun. We can look into our hearts to decide subjective questions of what’s personally true for us — where we should live, what job we should take, who do we love, etc. But when it comes to questions of what’s actually true in the external, non-subjective world (such as whether God exists and what he thinks and wants)… if we look in our hearts to answer those questions, then how do we know that what’s in our heart is right, and what’s in our neighbor’s heart is wrong?

See, that’s the thing about “looking into your heart” to decide which of your religion’s cherries are the good, tasty ones that you should gobble right up, and which are the nasty, rotten, poisoned ones you should avoid at all costs. Believers tend to conveniently overlook the fact that other believers are looking just as deeply into their hearts… and are coming up with the exact opposite answers to these questions. Some people sincerely believe that God intends marriage to be strictly between one man and one woman — others sincerely believe that God intends marriage to be between any two people who love each other and want to make a lifetime commitment. Some people sincerely believe that God created women and men as equals, to live their lives as they best see fit — others sincerely believe that God created women and men with radically different roles in life, and that women’s divinely ordained role is to be subordinate to men. Etc. Etc. Etc.

And there’s no way to find out which of them is right.

And this — as I’ve said before, and will no doubt say again — is the fundamental problem with the entire idea of religious faith: There’s no reality check. The ultimate arbiter is an invisible, inaudible, intangible being, whose nature and attributes nobody can agree on, and whose ultimate decisions we have no way of knowing until after we die. And the only way to “know” what this being thinks is to either trust in the word of people who swear that they’ve spoken to him directly… or to close our eyes, and think really hard, and tell ourselves that the voices in our heads and the feelings in our hearts are being planted there by our invisible friend.

Now, many progressive believers will no doubt protest at this point. They’ll say that yes, they settle these difficult questions of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, by following their observations and experiences and instincts, and picking the ideas that seem right to them. But don’t atheists do the same thing? Atheists don’t blindly follow the teachings of Saint Dawkins or Saint Hitchens — we accept the ideas that make sense to us, and reject the ones that don’t. Why are we so critical of believers when they cherry-pick their sacred texts? What’s the difference?

Yeah. See, here’s the thing.

There is a huge, huge difference between atheists cherry- picking the parts of a secular text that we find useful and plausible… and believers cherry- picking the parts of a religious text that they find useful and plausible.

The difference is that the atheists aren’t bringing God into the equation.

When atheists have disagreements — with each other, with the writers we admire, with ourselves in our long, dark nights of the soul-less — we aren’t telling ourselves that God is on our side. Sure, we often make decisions based on intuition and instinct and so on. We’re human beings, we’re wired to do that. But we acknowledge that that’s what we’re doing. We know, when we’re examining our heart and searching our moral compass, that we’re talking to our own brain — our own flawed, human, cognitively- biased brain. We’re not telling ourselves that our intuitions and instincts are really a profound moment of connection with the divine, and that the voice in our head and our heart is really the voice of God.

And that makes a big, big difference.

If you’re just going to use your own conscience and your own mind to decide what’s right or wrong, true or false — why do you need God? Why do you need a holy text written hundreds or thousands of years ago by people who claim to have spoken to God? Why not cut out the middleman? Why not just acknowledge that you’re using your mind and your instincts and your moral compass, as they evolved over hundreds of millions of years — flawed and astonishing, brilliant and stupid, deluded and insightful?

Again, I’ll say: If you’re acknowledging that you’re relying on your own observations and experiences and instincts to decide what’s true and how to act, informed by the best evidence you can find… I can work with you, and share a planet with you. A lot more easily than I can with fundamentalists who insist that an internally contradictory, wildly inaccurate, morally repugnant piece of Iron Age history and philosophy is the perfect word of an omnipotent creator. We can work together. We can hang out together. We can fight for separation of church and state together. We can get drunk together and incoherently analyze the lyrics to “Bad Romance.”

But I’m still going to point out — in the public forum, anyway, if not in my living room or at the bar — that you’re cherry-picking the tenets of your faith… and that you have no good basis for doing so. I’m still going to point out that you have no more reason to think that your instincts are in line with God than the fundamentalists do. I’m still going to point out that you have absolutely no basis for thinking that God even exists… much less that he personally approves of the cherries you’re picking.

And I’m still going to point out that your cherry-picking is endorsing the very idea of religious faith — i.e., the idea that it’s reasonable and even virtuous to believe things we have no good reason to think are true. I’m still going to argue that this idea is among the most damaging ideas that human beings have concocted. And I’m still going to ask you, the next time you’re examining your heart and searching your moral compass, to consider whether this is an idea you really want to support.

Comments

  1. Eclectic says

    I agree with what you say, but I take issue with one snetence.

    “The difference is that the atheists aren’t bringing God into the equation.” Although you clarify later, that sounds like a trivial tautology.

    Or worse yet, it sounds a lot like the assertion that “no God, therefore atheists better.” Which sets all my LOGIC FAIL warning flags.

    I think a better way to say this is “Atheists don’t claim the result of their cherry-picking is any more reliable than they are.”

    Or perhaps “Atheists don’t claim that their cherry-picking is God’s Law.”

    Or maybe “Atheists don’t claim divine authority for what they cherry-pick.”

    Some writing contains superhuman wisdom because God said it, and I know God said it because it feels good to me. Um… logic step #2 seems to involve strictly human judgment, which makes it impossible for the result to be superhuman in any way.

  2. jose says

    Cherry picking is okay when you do it with things that aren’t sacred. You make your life in the way it makes sense to you. You’re making a song, you take this bit from this player you like, you take this other bit from this other composer, etc. musicians do that all the time, that I can say at least. Why not? Nobody claimed the whole thing was all the ultimate truth to begin with; let’s share what we’ve got and let’s see if we find something interesting that we can use.

    The problem comes when someone shows up and says this is my book, and it is sacred. Everything about it is right. That said, I’m going to dismiss parts of it because I don’t like or because I don’t think they apply anymore or because of any possible reason you can come up with. If a musician showed up and said this is the ultimate work of music, it fulfills everything the art of music has ever aimed to, and it’s complete. Well, in that case there’s no point changing the song, is there?

    If you’re going to cherry pick, it’s okay. Just realize you’re not taking the bible as a sacred book anymore, but just as a book like any other. That would mean you’re rejecting a good deal of the religion you say you profess, but hey, that’s you. I know people who call themselves Christians and reject Jesus’ resurrection. It makes me scratch my head every time, but hey, not my place to judge. As long as you’re aware of the automatic desecrating nature of cherry picking, there’s no problem.

  3. Keith Collyer says

    @Eclectic: The implication of bringing God into the equation is that you are bringing in a supposedly infallible being, so Christians (and other religions with an infallible religious book) who cherry-pick are in effect saying that some parts of the book are NOT infallible, which is the contradiction that blows apart the whole thing.

    On the other hand, when atheists cherry-pick (at least sceptical atheists), we are not only allowed but almost MUST choose only those parts that are plausible to us or can be backed up with facts or logic, or we are contradicting many of the reasons we become atheists in the first place.

    So for a believer, cherry-picking is contradictory with their beliefs, but for an atheist it is entirely consistent.

  4. MisterJohnGalt says

    I don’t see the “big big difference” between atheist cherry-pickers and moderate religious cherry pickers.

    In both cases, the individual searches his or her conscience and experience and puts a label on the resulting conclusion.  The believer calls it “God’s will.” The atheist calls it “the truth.”  

    No difference whatsoever.

    You apparently perceive some danger (or “arrogance”) in attributing the conclusion to God. But is the conclusion is true, it doesn’t matter. If the conclusion is false, it will matter, but it won’t matter in a way that’s any different from an atheist calling a false conclusion “true” after searching his or her conscience and experience.

  5. Steve Jeffers says

    I agree with the general sentiment here, and I agree that the main problem is that ‘because God said so’ is a horrible justification for anything for all the reasons Greta outlined.

    Here’s the problem … every religious person cherry picks. You have to, for the reasons articulated in the article. My flat out favorite fact about creationism is that they’re nutters who take every word utterly literally, but … there are five distinct strains of what those literal words mean. And those are the dyed in the wool reality-denying batshit insane ones.

    Most ‘Christians’ aren’t, are they? They’re people who live in Christian countries and want a few different safety nets around to make sure they aren’t exploited, and that they’re being nice.

    Language and human psychology make it impossible even for two people brought up in the same house rigidly adhering to the same simple rule to do exactly the same thing, or to read a Bible verse and take *exactly* the same message. So a monomaniac religion can not, and does not endure. You need a vague book and priests authorized to say the ‘eternal answer’ is ‘no’ one year and ‘yes’ the next. The ones that ruthlessly impose orthodoxy quickly either evolve out of it or burn themselves up in purges of heretic priests. Christianity has tons of examples of both.

    So the non-cherrypicking, non-interpreting religious person is a straw man. Yeah, it would be great for atheist arguments if they were programmed by the Bible to all behave the same way. They’re not. Christians, all Christians, negotiate with their imaginary god and weird, badly sub-edited, holy books.

    We have to understand that religion is specifically *not* about following rules, it’s about honoring. It’s *about* that negotiation.

    So the line of attack is not ‘they cherry pick’, it’s ‘they’re trying to second guess the whims of a giant pixie and that’s just weird’.

    (It also puts clear blue water between the theist and atheist positions. Atheists might – should – internally debate courses of action. But they don’t ‘second guess’ in that way).

    Here’s the second problem … it’s *good* that they cherry pick. Because they’d be robots if they didn’t.

    And modern people’s morality is better than Jesus. We have better anger management, a more inclusive view of other peoples (even if we grant that Jesus was above average for Jewish fanatics of the iron age), more developed views on women’s rights, homosexuality, animal rights, the environment, social mobility, society beyond your immediate surroundings. We don’t endorse slavery, the death penalty or beating children.

  6. Ariel says

    The only thing that would make these ideas at all special, at all different from any other collection of ideas, would be if they had emanated directly from the mouth of God. And the whole point of this progressive, non-fundamentalist approach to religion is that it rejects the claim that religious texts emanated directly from the mouth of God. If you don’t think the Bible or Koran or whatever is divinely inspired… then why do you treat it as special?

    I think that you misinterpret the progressivists. They could answer: “you are wrong in attributing us the view that the Bible or Koran (or whatever) is not divinely inspired. On the contrary, we believe that it is. The whole of it, together with the ‘absurdities’ you are mentioning. However, ‘the Torah speaks in the language of man’. There was indeed the divine inspiration, but it doesn’t mean automatically that the words ‘emanated directly from the mouth of God’. On the contrary, they were filtrated through the people, who expressed them in categories of their place and time.”

    In this way they would avoid the pitfall you are constructing. They would say: “the Scripture expresses the real will of God, it is divinely inspired as a whole – that’s why we treat it differently from other pieces of human writing – but in many cases scholarship is needed to decipher what God really wanted to tell us. It’s not cherry picking, it’s interpretation.”

    It’s seems to me that my reconstruction of their reply should be accurate … And just to be sure: I didn’t say that I accept any of this, did I? It’s simply that I want to see a real opponent criticized, not a scarecrow.

  7. says

    MisterJohnGalt:

    The atheist calls it “the truth.”

    Maybe some atheist does. But Greta only labelled some of it “useful,” and some of it “plausible.”

  8. Janney says

    To the best of my ability to understand, “cherry-picking” means taking x and leaving y, where y contradicts or casts doubt on x in some way. To cite x in isolation, in other words, is to imply that there is no y. It’s misleading, deliberate or not, and regardless of who’s doing it, and that’s why we should mind when it happens.

    Right? Otherwise, what difference does it make?

  9. says

    I think the big difference between the theist cherry-picking of a religious text and atheists cherry picking any particular book, is that the theists can see all the flaws in their holy book, pick out the bits they like and reject the other parts, and yet continue to hold the holy book AS A WHOLE as something worthwhile.

    It would be like if you… I’m going to construct an analogy on the spot, I don’t vouch for it… if you put a bowl of M&Ms and an empty bowl in front of an atheist, a fundamentalist theist, and a progressive theist. The atheist might pick out just the green ones and place them in the empty bowl, and toss the rest, and say “these are the good bits, the rest are nonsense and I don’t need it!” The fundie might pick out a couple of the cracked ones, or ones that are melted together(fornicators!!!), and then declare “I LOVE ALL THE M&Ms!!! NOT ONE JOT OR TITTLE SHALL BE REMOVED FROM MY BOWL!”

    The more liberal theist just sits there and stares at the bowl mumbling “I love M&Ms, I love them I do I really do,” so you come over to help. You ask if they like the red ones and they say “no, not really” so you take them out and put them into the empty bowl. You have to coax out of them that OK, maybe most of the greens, all the blues, exactly 40% of the browns have to come out. You think your work is done, so you turn and walk away. The second you turn your back, the liberal theist mixes ALL THE M&Ms back together!

    The difference is that atheists pick and discard. Liberal theists pick but don’t discard.

  10. llewelly says

    Cherry picking an authority, be it a bible, a Quran, or a preacher, confers upon your own ideas a false mask of legitimacy; your own misconceptions become your personal prophet.

    That is my primary objection to cherry picking believers; their religion serves to give their ideas a false aura of authority they do not deserve.

  11. Z says

    There really is a difference between how (most) atheists cherry-pick vs. how most “liberal” theists pick. I have known a fair number of new agers and new thought christian types over the years, and they tend to cherry-pick the things that “feel” good, even if they’re downright crazy.

    When atheists are picking and choosing a certain about of reason gets applied. They don’t cherry-pick things that are incompatible with evidence, in particular. Atheists are of course hardly paragons of Vulcan-like logic in all circumstances, and some can be right assholes, but at least in principle atheists ought to be testing their picks against the real world.

    In some ways, the “what feels good to me” method of liberal theists isn’t that different from the fundamentalist methods of cherry-picking: the religion they choose is based on trying to satisfy some psychological need. In many cases, liberals are just less fucked up psychologically.

    Sadly, being a liberal Christian does not make your church immune to the scandals and shenanigans we hear depressingly often about other churches. For example, there used to be a New Thought oriented suburban megachurch near Portland OR that imploded in a significant financial scandal which sent the head minister’s husband to prison. Power corrupts, and when you have the power of being God’s special person with your buildings, robes, titles, and hundreds of adoring parishioners, even the most benign theology won’t save you if you don’t reality-check yourself.

  12. Greta Christina says

    I think that you misinterpret the progressivists. They could answer: “you are wrong in attributing us the view that the Bible or Koran (or whatever) is not divinely inspired. On the contrary, we believe that it is. The whole of it, together with the ‘absurdities’ you are mentioning. However, ‘the Torah speaks in the language of man’. There was indeed the divine inspiration, but it doesn’t mean automatically that the words ‘emanated directly from the mouth of God’. On the contrary, they were filtrated through the people, who expressed them in categories of their place and time.”

    In this way they would avoid the pitfall you are constructing. They would say: “the Scripture expresses the real will of God, it is divinely inspired as a whole – that’s why we treat it differently from other pieces of human writing – but in many cases scholarship is needed to decipher what God really wanted to tell us. It’s not cherry picking, it’s interpretation.”

    Ariel: I’m puzzled. How does that avoid the pitfall I’m describing? It puts them right into it. If they’re saying their holy book is divinely inspired but was filtered through the imperfect filter of humanity… then how do they decide which are the perfect divine bits that made it through the filter correctly, and which are the imperfect human bits? And again — they have no good answer. Scholarship doesn’t help — scholars have no method to determine what God really does and doesn’t think, and they can’t come to an agreement. Ditto “I feel it in my heart.” Interpretation is cherry picking.

    And besides, if God is perfect and divine… why did he choose to send his message through imperfect human filters? Why didn’t he just write the book himself, or beam it into our brains, and avoid the flawed middleman who keeps mucking things up?

  13. Eclectic says

    MisterJohnGalt: The difference, as Greta said, and I tried to find a way to say better, is whether we claim that the picked cherries are Received Wisdom or not.

    In other words, is it my idea, or God’s idea?

    The difference becomes important when someone wants to question or
    criticize the idea.

  14. Joel Wheeler says

    In the end, the progressive believer replaces the authority of the text with the authority of the reader. For that, they are to be congratulated. But it still only gets them halfway to reality, because they still manage to view the text as authoritative.

  15. Ben says

    Wow, I love it! I have been following you for several months and really enjoy your blog. Thank you for being not only brilliant but visible, thank you for sharing.

  16. Ariel says

    Ariel: I’m puzzled. How does that avoid the pitfall I’m describing?

    I was really answering to this passage:

    If you don’t think the Bible or Koran or whatever is divinely inspired… then why do you treat it as special? Regardless of which bits scholars think may or may not have been spoken by the “real” Jesus or the “real” Muhammad or whoever… why do you treat it any differently from any other piece of human writing, parts of which you agree with and parts of which you don’t?

    And my answer was that they can still think that all of it was divinely inspired, and that’s why they treat it differently from other pieces of human writing. At the same time they can insist that holy texts require interpretation.

    Now for the rest.

    It puts them right into it. If they’re saying their holy book is divinely inspired but was filtered through the imperfect filter of humanity… then how do they decide which are the perfect divine bits that made it through the filter correctly, and which are the imperfect human bits?

    Well, let me just note that the list of options you mentioned (either the scholarship or the decision of one’s heart) is far from being exhaustive. I can think of two additional options (there are probably more).
    The first one is that of the Catholics. They reject the “sola scriptura” principle, adopting instead the doctrine of apostolic succession. They would say that as a successor of Saint Peter, the pope has the authority in matters of faith, and this authority stems neither from the decision of the heart nor from (mere) scholarship. It’s rather the spiritual power stemming from God. In fact I think that Catholics would welcome warmly what you wrote, commenting perhaps “Yes, that’s the subjectivity of Protestantism exposed” :-)
    The second would be more protestant in spirit. I don’t know much about Protestantism (with all these Catholics in my neighborhood), but I will try my best. So … behold the prophet Ariel!
    “In the Holy Bible good God gave us enough to mark for us the way to salvation. Men should have faith in Jesus Christ and cherish love in their souls. If you have faith and love, you will be saved – you don’t need more. Good God gave us also freedom, in particular – freedom to interpret the Scripture. And as long as you interpret the Scripture with faith and love, you will be saved – wherever there are differences in interpretation between the faithful and loving, these differences do not matter for their salvation”.

    And besides, if God is perfect and divine… why did he choose to send his message through imperfect human filters? Why didn’t he just write the book himself, or beam it into our brains, and avoid the flawed middleman who keeps mucking things up?

    Let the prophet Ariel speak again:
    “All the holy project of salvation is for the sake of the flawed man who keeps mucking things up. God wants us to be saved, but He doesn’t want to impose Himself on us. God must remain hidden in order for us – flawed as we are – to make a real choice. God has revealed Himself clearly enough, so that the faithful can find Him. But he is also hidden enough, so that the unfaithful (like you, Greta Christina!) can by their own sovereign decision choose Satan and sin. Writing the book himself or beaming it into our brains would clearly reveal His holy presence and be incompatible with God’s holy aims. You still have time, repent‼!”
    Hmmm, perhaps I should grow a long beard … what do you think?

  17. Janney says

    Ariel,

    “If you have faith and love, you will be saved – you don’t need more. Good God gave us also freedom, in particular – freedom to interpret the Scripture. And as long as you interpret the Scripture with faith and love, you will be saved….”

    I have never read any Scriptures, but I’d be very surprised if there weren’t one which contradicted this statement. If such a Scripture exists, then to speak as though it did not is to commit an inaccuracy.

    Unless, of course, you have grounds for leaving that bit of Scripture out. In which case, it becomes very important to be able to justify those grounds.

    Does any of this sound familiar?

  18. Janney says

    Ariel,

    Oops, I’m sorry, I didn’t read your whole comment. I read your mildly strange shenanigans about Catholics and Protestants and missed the deeply weird bullshit about God’s dog-whistle.

    God must remain hidden in order for us – flawed as we are – to make a real choice. God has revealed Himself clearly enough, so that the faithful can find Him. But he is also hidden enough, so that the unfaithful (like you, Greta Christina!) can by their own sovereign decision choose Satan and sin.

    You do realize this is not an appeal to any kind of good sense, don’t you? This is exactly the sort of conclusion believers are stuck with because of the very dissonance addressed in the article: it’s a flip assertion of the right to interpret Scripture, with momentous implications which must be waved aside without two consecutive seconds of careful thinking. Only a believer could ever convince herself that God should withhold information that would change people’s minds about Him.

    Am I right to suppose that this is the “real opponent” you believe the article missed? Do you find any of this material convincing, or are you just throwing it at the wall to see what happens?

  19. Ariel says

    mildly strange shenanigans about Catholics and Protestants

    I know very little about Protestantism, I admitted that much. I know a lot more about Catholic doctrines – as I only should, being myself a Catholic some time ago. So if I got something wrong, correct me.
    Now about a “deeply weird bullshit” :-)

    This is exactly the sort of conclusion believers are stuck with because of the very dissonance addressed in the article

    No, I don’t think so. The “hidden God” conclusion is not because some fragments of the Scripture don’t fit (the dissonance from the article). The conclusion is needed for a far more basic reason: a common observation. The fact is simply that you don’t meet God like you meet people, ordinary objects, animals. Why is this so? Why is it possible to be an atheist? Why is God hiding? The basic question is as simple as that, and the believer needs an answer. That’s the road to the conclusion you are mentioning, not the discrepancies in the Bible.

    Only a believer could ever convince herself that God should withhold information that would change people’s minds about Him.

    I would even strengthen that: the believer must convince herself of this, she has no other choice.

    Am I right to suppose that this is the “real opponent” you believe the article missed?

    You mean – the conception of the hidden God? No, I wasn’t thinking about that; this I took for granted. I was rather surprised that according to Christina the believers dismiss some parts of their own Bibles as not divinely inspired – that’s at least how I read her, maybe mistakenly. Anyway, I found this strange – I’ve heard of no denomination doing such a thing. But maybe it’s just a lack of knowledge on my part.

    Do you find any of this material convincing, or are you just throwing it at the wall to see what happens?

    I’m an atheist – I guess that answers the first part of the question. For the second part: no, it’s not just throwing it on the wall, I just think that there is always some value in knowing the opponent better.

  20. Steve Jeffers says

    “And besides, if God is perfect and divine… why did he choose to send his message through imperfect human filters?”

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with the unintentionally hilarious Jennifer Fulwiler, but here a ‘former atheist’ claims that the fact the human filters are flawed actually strengthens the case for God:

    http://www.ncregister.com/blog/why-the-scandals-increased-my-faith-in-the-church/

    The argument – I’m being serious – is ‘the priesthood is so consistently complacent, foolish and corrupt that there’s no way that the Catholic Church could have survived two thousand years without God propping it up’.

    She’s great for a giggle. Check out her ‘modern art’ posting.

    I think there’s an important point we atheists can miss, though: religion is a negotiation, it is a process. The fundamental question is ‘how do we make sense of the world?’ (nowadays just the moral or ethical world – in former times the material one, but science has that covered).

    Take the question:

    ‘How could God allow an innocent baby to be killed in a house fire?’

    I guess most atheists see the answer as ‘yeah, see what I mean? There’s a good case that stuff like that means there’s no God’. I certainly do.

    But if you take it as axiomatic that there *is* a benevolent God, it’s not the same question at all. It becomes a question of understanding why God allows it. The fact he did is not up for negotiation. His benevolence is not up for negotiation. So he must have a reason, so what is it?

  21. Janney says

    Ariel,

    I’m sorry, I thought you thought Greta’s article was aimed at a straw man. Hence:

    I want to see a real opponent criticized, not a scarecrow.

    But now it looks like your subsequent points are all just apologetic boilerplate. Were there any points you actually thought the article should have addressed?

    For example: “it’s not cherry picking, it’s interpretation.” Actual point of yours? Or common semantic dodge? (If it’s an actual point, could you explain more precisely your use of the word “interpretation”?)

  22. Ariel says

    Janney,

    Ok, I will do it, but just for you‼! :-)

    Christina described a ‘progressive believer’ as someone accepting the principle:

    you get inspired by the parts that resonate with you, and you reject the parts you think are screwed up.

    A ‘progressive believer’ – in her view – is someone who divides the Bible in two parts (a) fragments which were divinely inspired (b) fragments ‘that got twisted and corrupted and just plain made-up by flawed human beings’. And then she asks: how can you tell a difference between (a) and (b). She proposes two answers: scholarship and heart, in order to dismiss both of them.
    My worries:
    1. I haven’t heard of any denomination which defragments the Bible in such a way. The usual approach is rather that (a given version of) the Bible as a whole is divinely inspired. However, some fragments – perhaps even all fragments – require an allegoric or symbolic reading (in short: interpretation). The idea of allegoric or symbolic reading – let me emphasize this – is by no means ‘new’ or ‘progressive’; it’s actually very old.
    2. For the above reason, the polemic against someone who just rejects troublesome fragments (a classical cherry picking) seems futile. The Christians will simply deny the accusation – and not without good reason. They will answer: we do not discard the troublesome fragments, on the contrary, we invest a lot of intellectual effort in our attempts to interpret them (allegorically or symbolically).
    3. Obviously there remains the question: which fragments require allegoric/symbolic reading, and which do not require that (see Christina’s last post). To this I reacted by noting that the options (a) and (b) are not the only ones worth considering. I provided two more.

    I hope that now the structure of this discussion is more clear to you.

  23. Janney says

    Ariel,

    I haven’t heard of any denomination which defragments the Bible in such a way. The usual approach is rather that (a given version of) the Bible as a whole is divinely inspired. However, some fragments – perhaps even all fragments – require an allegoric or symbolic reading (in short: interpretation).

    So you at least agree with the idea that progressive Christians divide the Bible into two parts: those which require interpretation, and those which do not (except there might not be any of those). Would you agree that the bar for “divinely inspired” has been lowered rather a lot, if it leaves to the individual (or the priesthood or whatever) the responsibility for figuring out the difference? Do the words “divinely inspired” still mean anything important, in such a case?

    The Christians will simply deny the accusation [that they “just reject” troublesome fragments of the Bible] – and not without good reason. They will answer: we do not discard the troublesome fragments, on the contrary, we invest a lot of intellectual effort in our attempts to interpret them (allegorically or symbolically).

    Would you agree that that intellectual effort amounts to deliberately foregrounding some elements of the Bible at the expense of other, irreconcilable, elements? Would you agree that, in such a case, it would be misleading for a believer to claim that, nonetheless, everything is still there?

    Obviously there remains the question: which fragments require allegoric/symbolic reading, and which do not require that (see Christina’s last post). To this I reacted by noting that the options (a) and (b) are not the only ones worth considering. I provided two more.

    Yes: once the discussion of word choice is set aside, the issue remains that some elements of religious tradition are not accorded the respect and observance of others, and that no reasonable non-secular justification exists for any particular scriptural selection. In other words, the point of the article stands.

    No: your two new options aren’t new. You characterize Protestants as doing exactly what Greta says progressive Christians do, but with milder words; and you characterize Catholics as deferring the issue to their religious superiors, who are doing exactly what Greta says progressive Christians do, but with milder words.

    It seems clear to me that this discussion is a semantic one.

  24. Steve Jeffers says

    “no reasonable non-secular justification exists for any particular scriptural selection”

    No. Just the opposite in the case of Catholicism, which claims apostolic succession (Jesus gave their priests the car keys). So, the right to interpret and even change what it says in the Bible is in the hands of the Church elders, because of God. Life begins at conception and abortion is bad not because it says so in the Bible (it doesn’t, it actually says the opposite), but because those charged by Jesus to spread the word say so.

    The Protestant traditions say that their interpretations are inspired by some variation of ‘natural order’. We have a sense of right and wrong, given to us by God.

    So … God gave us the Bible *and* the wisdom to use it. The ‘non secular’ justification is that the negotiation is getting us closer to God.

    This theory lasts about ten seconds when applied to actual reality. But … lasting ten seconds is about eight seconds more than any of the arguments for God himself.

  25. Janney says

    Steve Jeffers,

    No. Just the opposite in the case of Catholicism, which claims apostolic succession….

    Yes, Catholics claim apostolic succession. In other words, God gave the Catholic upper-ups, instead of ignorant untutored laypeople, freedom of interpretation. Nonetheless, as far as I can tell, someone is claiming freedom of interpretation, regardless who, and the only justification on offer is “God said,” which of course is everyone’s justification. Which of course is exactly the issue.

    Either we are talking about the claim that people are free to interpret material from traditional religious sources, or we are not. If the first, then we are currently splitting hairs on the body of Greta’s article, and if the second, then we’re not talking about “progressive religion” at all anymore.

  26. Ariel says

    Janney ,

    Would you agree that the bar for “divinely inspired” has been lowered rather a lot, if it leaves to the individual (or the priesthood or whatever) the responsibility for figuring out the difference? Do the words “divinely inspired” still mean anything important, in such a case?

    Disagree. “Lowered a lot” – comparing to what sort of a standard? Accepted by whom? Janney, it is obvious to everybody – even to the fundamentalists – that some fragments of the Bible are symbolic (e.g. Jesus is depicted as a ‘good shepherd’, but even the fundies don’t take the expression ‘good shepherd’ in the literal sense.) I think the believer should answer you: “of course the responsibility for the interpretation must be taken by someone. It’s quite obvious. And no bar was lowered. The high standard you implicitly invoke never existed apart from your head”.
    And the words “divinely inspired” still mean something practically important. They mean in practice that you have freedom within specific limits. E.g. you don’t question the Bible but you are free to use it, or: you don’t question the Bible and Tradition, but you are free to use it.

    Would you agree that that intellectual effort amounts to deliberately foregrounding some elements of the Bible at the expense of other, irreconcilable, elements? Would you agree that, in such a case, it would be misleading for a believer to claim that, nonetheless, everything is still there?

    You are asking a wrong question. My personal opinion is irrelevant here (ok, personally I think they cheat :-), but so what?). The key problem is whether Christina’s essay gives us any argumentation, which would hurt – really hurt – the believer. That’s what I’m after. And so far I haven’t found it. The believer would just say to Christina and you: “yes, everything is still there. Some fragments are just interpreted symbolically/allegorically. And yes, some are more important than others, which is only natural and was to be expected. Any more questions?”

    No: your two new options aren’t new. You characterize Protestants as doing exactly what Greta says progressive Christians do, but with milder words; and you characterize Catholics as deferring the issue to their religious superiors, who are doing exactly what Greta says progressive Christians do, but with milder words.
    It seems clear to me that this discussion is a semantic one.

    It seems clear to me that you still don’t understand the whole point of this discussion.
    1. Obviously you can say that in Catholicism the religious superiors are doing what Greta says they are doing. But it won’t hurt the believer, it’s not an argument we can use against him: he will just shrug and move further. Or maybe – if he is nice enough – he will retort: “contrary to what you are saying, it’s really a new option, neglected by Greta: neither heart, nor scholarship, but God’s gift, and if you don’t believe it, that’s your problem, not mine”.
    2. You missed my point about Protestants also. Obviously the Protestant from my description does what Greta says he is doing. The whole point is that he becomes immune from Greta’s attack – it doesn’t hurt him any more that different denominations interpret the Bible in different ways.

    All in all, what I fail to find in Christina’s essay is a promising line of attack against religion – an attack that would hurt. If you are already a convinced atheist, you will find there a very nice exposition of your convictions (great read!); but if you are a believer, the cherry picking problem will not harm you.

  27. Janney says

    Ariel,

    “Lowered a lot” – comparing to what sort of a standard? Accepted by whom?

    What is the point of claiming divine inspiration for a text, if one doesn’t mean to differentiate the power or importance of that text relative to others which are not divinely inspired? Do we really need to precisely define a unit of measure, or something, in order to have a conversation about this?

    Janney, it is obvious to everybody – even to the fundamentalists – that some fragments of the Bible are symbolic (e.g. Jesus is depicted as a ‘good shepherd’, but even the fundies don’t take the expression ‘good shepherd’ in the literal sense.)

    And the words “divinely inspired” still mean something practically important. They mean in practice that you have freedom within specific limits. E.g. you don’t question the Bible but you are free to use it, or: you don’t question the Bible and Tradition, but you are free to use it.

    Am I free to interpret the Resurrection metaphorically? What about the Virgin Birth? What about Jesus himself? (Oh, he was never a real person—his story is an allegory for stuff.) Would I still be “using” my source material at this point?

    I think it’s certainly fair, in any event, to say that I would be committing serious revisions of Christian tradition. If I still wish to cling to the “divinely inspired” claim nonetheless, then the words “divinely inspired” just aren’t contributing anything useful to the sentences they’re in. What can the words still mean, if they’re applied to what amounts to a massive ink blot?

    My personal opinion is irrelevant here (ok, personally I think they cheat, but so what?).

    Did Greta attack a straw man, or did she just criticize progressive Christians in ways progressive Christians would dispute? You keep offering hypothetical responses as though they actually challenge the things the article says, even though you don’t appear to believe that they do. Is the “real opponent” being criticized, or not?

  28. Steve Jeffers says

    “In other words, God gave the Catholic upper-ups, instead of ignorant untutored laypeople, freedom of interpretation. Nonetheless, as far as I can tell, someone is claiming freedom of interpretation, regardless who, and the only justification on offer is “God said,” which of course is everyone’s justification. Which of course is exactly the issue.”

    Yeah, but if you [are crazy enough to] buy the premise, it’s not a ‘secular’ reason.

    Catholics do not believe they are all ‘free’ to interpret, they believe that a small subset of men have been given the ability to, following the correct training, and in very proscribed circumstances.

    If, like me, you don’t buy the basic ‘there’s a God’ premise, then *obviously* it’s just a bunch of guys making stuff up. If you don’t buy apostolic succession, then Catholicism is particularly vulnerable, because it’s traditionally seen what the Bible says as a complete pain in the arse and done everything it can to keep it away from people. It doesn’t so much cherry pick as apple pick, coming up with stuff that’s completely unrelated to anything in the Bible.

    If you do buy it, it makes perfect sense – God handpicks a group of people to hang around and clear up the inevitable textual confusion. A Supreme Court, as well as a written Constitution.

    Again … I think we’ve just got to be careful about this ‘cherry picking’ argument. I think pointing out that people cherry pick is useful. I think pointing out where the Bible says utterly horrific things is useful. I think *criticizing* people for cherry picking just results in ‘well duh’.

  29. Steve Jeffers says

    “All in all, what I fail to find in Christina’s essay is a promising line of attack against religion – an attack that would hurt. If you are already a convinced atheist, you will find there a very nice exposition of your convictions (great read!); but if you are a believer, the cherry picking problem will not harm you.”

    Yes, this.

    I think it’s actually more than this – the believer will say ‘we negotiate these things, and that process of negotiation is a beautiful blah blah whole point wibble wibble gets me thinking about and closer to Christ’. The fact they cherry pick makes them an active participant. It empowers them.

    They do not think they are choosing what *they* want, they frequently claim that they are trying to interpret what *God* wants and (here’s where I think it’s usually disingenuous) they had to make difficult choices and go against what they think (amazingly enough, this ‘difficult choice’ invariably involves adopting some prejudice against women or homosexuals or the secular state). ‘Hey, I don’t *want* to hate the gays, but God’s pretty clear on it’.

    So Ariel is right – this isn’t a ‘line of attack’ that works. I think there’s a variation of the ‘you cherry pick’ that does work at a local level – a simple ‘where does it say that in the Bible / your religious tradition?’ usually works on a point by point basis.

    And I come back to the point I made in my first reply. Cherry picking is *desirable*. We’d want them to do that. A degree of ambiguity is a basic feature of all human language.

    Instinctively, I think there’s a ‘line of attack’ to do with cherry picking. But it’s not just ‘hey, you cherry pick!’. Perhaps we can figure it out between us?

  30. Janney says

    Steve Jeffers,

    …if you are a believer, the cherry picking problem will not harm you.

    How about this? “If you are a believer, then no problem will harm you.”

    After all, we’re not talking about the quality of an argument anymore, but about people’s resistance to an argument’s conclusions.

  31. Ariel says

    Janney

    What is the point of claiming divine inspiration for a text, if one doesn’t mean to differentiate the power or importance of that text relative to others which are not divinely inspired?

    But I said many times that they do mean to differentiate this. When you use the Bible as your guide in matters pertaining to your salvation, you can be sure that the book – as divinely inspired – contains a good (Godly) advice. There are pitfalls of course, but you can be sure that the advice is there, you just have to look for it. On the other hand, if you use “The God Delusion” for that aim, your chances are significantly lower – you are much likelier to take the devil inspired advice instead! (My deepest condolences to Richard Dawkins at this point). See the difference?

    Am I free to interpret the Resurrection metaphorically? What about the Virgin Birth? What about Jesus himself?

    I admit that there are boundaries beyond which you are not a Christian or even not a believer any more. Taking Resurrection as a metaphor for waking up with a bad hangover would be one of those cases :-) I admit also that these boundaries are vague. But do you see any fatal problem with that? Vagueness is a normal, everyday phenomenon and it can (or even must) be lived with. No one promised you that life will be easy!

    Did Greta attack a straw man, or did she just criticize progressive Christians in ways progressive Christians would dispute?

    After reflection I wouldn’t say that Greta attacked a straw man (minor issues aside). I don’t think however that this sort of criticism is really damaging – see my previous post.

    You keep offering hypothetical responses as though they actually challenge the things the article says, even though you don’t appear to believe that they do.

    I’m afraid I don’t understand what you are saying here.
    Steve,

    I think it’s actually more than this – the believer will say ‘we negotiate these things, and that process of negotiation is a beautiful blah blah whole point wibble wibble gets me thinking about and closer to Christ’. The fact they cherry pick makes them an active participant. It empowers them.

    This is an excellent point. The active role of man – the fact that he is a participant, and not a slave – is stressed very often. So much the worse for the cherry picking argument!

    Instinctively, I think there’s a ‘line of attack’ to do with cherry picking. But it’s not just ‘hey, you cherry pick!’

    There may be something, although I wouldn’t be overly optimistic. What you can always do is to go to the specifics and ask for the interpretation of a concrete passage – you can say e.g. “if your church thinks that God doesn’t mind homosexual practices, how do you interpret Romans 1:26-27?” (ok, that example may be inconvenient for political reasons, but you get what I mean.) In some cases you may be successful – it may be possible to show that a given interpretation is far-fetched or absurd. But in general we shouldn’t count on success with this strategy.

    Oh, a new post, so one more time:

    Janney

    How about this? “If you are a believer, then no problem will harm you.”
    After all, we’re not talking about the quality of an argument anymore, but about people’s resistance to an argument’s conclusions.

    I think you are wrong, we are still discussing the quality of the argument. What you are saying is not true; there are arguments against religion which really can give one a pause. I don’t think cherry picking is one of them.

  32. Greta Christina says

    What is the point of claiming divine inspiration for a text, if one doesn’t mean to differentiate the power or importance of that text relative to others which are not divinely inspired?

    But I said many times that they do mean to differentiate this. When you use the Bible as your guide in matters pertaining to your salvation, you can be sure that the book – as divinely inspired – contains a good (Godly) advice. There are pitfalls of course, but you can be sure that the advice is there, you just have to look for it.

    Ariel: And yet again: What method do they have for differentiating this? When people look for godly advice in the Bible, how do they know when they’ve found it?

    The answer: They cherry-pick. They say that the parts they already agree with, or the parts they were brought up to believe, or the parts their religious leaders teach them, or the parts that just personally resonate with them, are the parts that are godly. There’s no method for evaluating the truth claims about invisible, inaudible, intangible beings with no observable effect on the world.

    And yes, as I pointed out in the piece: Non-believers are human, and we also do this when we agree with parts of a book and disagree with others. But we aren’t convincing ourselves that the feelings in our hearts come from God. We know that these feelings come from our hearts (okay, our brains) — which we know are fallible. We know that evidence might contradict our conclusions, and that we might have to let go of them. And that is a significant difference.

  33. Steve Jeffers says

    “We know that evidence might contradict our conclusions, and that we might have to let go of them. And that is a significant difference.”

    I’m not sure it is. Believers have changed their minds. The Bible sees slavery as normal, God and Jesus both explicitly condone it in there. Say what you like about the Catholic Church – say, for example, it’s currently run by an ex-Nazi who remains actively involved in covering up multiple international pedophile rings and that any civilized world would have dragged him from his palace and seen him rot in jail with all his accomplices – but it’s 1400 years since they took a line against slavery, and 1000 since it’s been doctrine.

    Conversely, the Bible says if someone injures a pregnant woman and she miscarries, you should fine them a little more than you would if she wasn’t pregnant. That is literally the only thing in the Bible that’s even a bit about abortion. St Brigid of Kildare was canonized because she performed a miraculous abortion. The ‘believers’ changed their mind on that one, too.

    I don’t think it’s *the gods* that are the primary unknowable intangibles in ethical questions. Ethics itself is intangible. What’s a fair punishment for stealing a loaf of bread? We atheists don’t have one ‘tangible’ answer for that, either.

  34. Greta Christina says

    Believers have changed their minds.

    Yes. But when you look at the history of social change and ethical progress, you’ll see that religion is almost always behind the curve. It’s been late to the party on slavery, women’s rights, gay rights… you name it. Religious ideas are stubborn, slow to change.

    And the belief that one’s opinions come from God is, I think, one of the main reasons for this. Ideas that are acknowledged as coming from human brains are more amenable to new ideas and evidence than ideas that are believed to have come from a perfect divine source. Not perfectly amenable — just more so.

  35. Janney says

    Ariel & Steve,

    You have been conflating one issue—the issue of scriptural cherry picking—with another—the issue of whether or not the charge of scriptural cherry picking has any effect on the folks who do it—for almost the whole of this thread.

    Ariel: to say “They could just counter with x [where x is some sort of standard apologetic deflection], and therefore charging them with cherry picking is a waste of time,” is to change the subject from the one to the other. Steve: so is criticizing an article for stating the facts of the case, on the grounds that the article’s subjects have already inoculated themselves against the implications of those facts.

    And of course the article addresses this very inoculation in its opening paragraph: “Sure, I choose the parts of [insert religious text] that make sense to me, and reject the ones that don’t,” etc. I submit that, if an article paints its subjects as conscious cherry pickers, then it clearly does not mean to imply that charging them with cherry picking will affect their worldview very much.

  36. Steve Jeffers says

    “And the belief that one’s opinions come from God is, I think, one of the main reasons for this. Ideas that are acknowledged as coming from human brains are more amenable to new ideas and evidence than ideas that are believed to have come from a perfect divine source. Not perfectly amenable — just more so.”

    Yes.

    I do agree with this, but the thing is, believers do change their mind. They’re serial monogamists – the new idea is God’s plan, the previous one was a misinterpretation, or the idea ‘evolved’.

    I spent some time on Jennifer Fulwiler’s comments threads, and … OK. Papal Infallibility.

    Keenan’s Catechism, 1869:

    “Q: Must not Catholics believe the pope in himself to be infallible?

    A: This is a Protestant invention; it is no article of the Catholic faith; no decision of his can oblige, under pain of heresy, unless it be received and enforced by the teaching body; that is, by the bishops of the Church.”

    Keenan’s Catechism, 1871:

    “Q. Do you here suppose the teachers individually infallible?

    A. The Pope as the constant head of the Church we hold infallible in decisions ex cathedra”

    That looks like a *change* to me. Except Catholics, at least on that board, insisted it wasn’t. It was simply a more developed understanding of the issue. That it was ‘no’ and then ‘yes’ doesn’t represent a ‘change’, they say.

    The chief principle is that the Church’s teaching is eternal, what Jesus would have said. Therefore what the Vatican teaches is what it’s always taught.

    The scary thing isn’t that they don’t change their mind, it’s that they don’t recognize that’s what they did. That’s actually scarier, I think. They have always been at war with Eurasia.

    So it’s not ‘they don’t change’ it’s ‘when they don’t change they don’t acknowledge it’. That’s extremely common – look how God told the Mormons that polygamy was good, then said no it wasn’t.

    But it’s also, obviously, far more dangerous – they have *capricious* eternal truths.

  37. Steve Jeffers says

    “But it’s also, obviously, far more dangerous – they have *capricious* eternal truths.”

    Oh, and local ones – the Catholic Church is currently for religious diversity and political expression in China; in South America, where it has a monopoly, it actively helps various oppressive regimes crush dissent.

    (The biggest one, of course, is moral relativism – there are absolute truths, there is good and evil, if you even think about sex you’re going to hell; oh, what’s all the fuss about 10% of US priests raping kids or actively blocking investigations into that, we’re only human).

  38. Steve Jeffers says

    “I submit that, if an article paints its subjects as conscious cherry pickers, then it clearly does not mean to imply that charging them with cherry picking will affect their worldview very much.”

    Yeah, but we *want* to affect their worldview, don’t we?

    They cherry pick. Even if there was a holy book that contained no apparent contradictions and clear instructions (and I’d contend that holy books that survive survive *because* they are ambiguous enough to be flexible), believers would find different interpretations (as I say, creationists all take Genesis literally, but they argue about what ‘day’ means). Or they would find something that wasn’t in the book and argue about that (life begins at conception).

    As I say, the problem with Greta’s ‘where’s their reality check?’ is ‘well … where’s ours?’. Any Christian who’s read two books has rejected Adam and Eve, the *science* stuff in the Bible is all bullshit. Bats aren’t birds, the Moon doesn’t emit light, the wind doesn’t get stored in a big shed when it’s not blowing, the Earth moves … so on, so on.

    We don’t have an objective scientific model for ethics in the same way we do for astronomy. And it’s the *ethical* questions that are at issue, usually. We concentrate on the creationists saying the universe is 6000 years old because it’s funny and shows how dumb they are. But stealing, say, is not the same as gravity.

    Now … a tried and trusted bank of information, precedent, social consensus and anecdote is not actually a bad way to deal with a moral issue.

    As Greta says, we hit a problem when that bank of wisdom is manipulated to become more reactionary, or sets artificial boundaries, or becomes detached from the population.

    But these are not God problems. The Christians who are squeamish about gay sex aren’t that way *because* they think God told them to. Other way around, if anything.

  39. Ariel says

    Christina

    They cherry-pick […] There’s no method for evaluating the truth claims about invisible, inaudible, intangible beings with no observable effect on the world.

    Steve already answered that, and I sympathize with his approach. The point is that these truth claims quite often do have observable effects on the world (with a possible exception of purely abstract, theological speculations, about which few people care anyway). It works just as well on the micro as on the macro level. On the one hand, you have an individual, who looks for a godly advice in the Bible (or in the Catechism …). He thinks he found it and he tries to follow it. Then – as it sometimes happens – it backfires; the effects are disappointing/unpleasant/disastrous. What then? Well, normally in such a situation you would say: either the advice was no good, or the advice was good but I didn’t really follow it, or maybe the situation changed in the meantime … that sort of stuff. And the point is that you react in the same way whether you are a believer or not. The difference lies elsewhere: it is that when taking the first option (“the advice was no good”) the believer reinterprets the Bible. He will say “my mistake, I must have misinterpreted God’s voice”. There is some reality check for interpretations after all.
    On the other hand, as Steve pointed out, the same happens on the macro scale.

    Steve,

    The chief principle is that the Church’s teaching is eternal, what Jesus would have said. Therefore what the Vatican teaches is what it’s always taught.

    Yes, that sounds familiar. You were talking about the strategy “never recognize that you changed your mind!”. There is a nice trick which makes it easier. It consists in pointing out that the documents you are citing do not have the status of infallible teaching. In effect you hear that Vatican never taught this-and-this solemnly and ex cathedra. The strategy is very nice because the notion of an infallible teaching has never been precisely defined – it is not clear what exactly belongs to that domain and what doesn’t.

    Oh, by the way: I’m leaving now for a couple of days. So you will stay here alone and helpless against Christina and Janney … wow!!! I already envy and pity you :-)

  40. Steve Jeffers says

    “The strategy is very nice because the notion of an infallible teaching has never been precisely defined – it is not clear what exactly belongs to that domain and what doesn’t.”

    My favorite one, and this is true: Catholics and women priests.

    Here’s how it works – the Catholic Church position is that if one infallible statement is ever proved false, that’s it – not only game over for Catholicism, but game over for God.

    John Paul II said in, from memory, 1995 that there could never be women priests, and a subsequent document said that was an infallible statement.

    So, if the Catholic Church, at any point, ordains a woman priest, there is no God.

    Leave aside the fact that women priests *have* been ordained (look up Ludmila Javorová). The point is that in the mid nineties, in a cheap political move to lure misogynist Anglicans, the Pope put *the existence of God* at stake.

    And the Catholic hierarchy went ‘oh fuck’, because it ties their hands forever. A million years from now, one woman priest is ordained, Catholic is false. So … and this is the hilarious bit – here’s the loophole: the Pope said something; a second document said that something was infallible. This is the official Church position, OK, I stress I’m not joking: *that second document* is not infallible. So the statement it made that the first statement was infallible is potentially fallible.

    If you ever find yourself debating infallibility with a Catholic, just play this card: ‘I will gladly discuss this if you can tell me whether Ordinatio sacerdotalis was an infallible statement’. No one can. But it’s fun to watch them disagree.

    The Vatican does not keep a list of infallible statements. Isn’t that extraordinary? And they don’t because … well, it’s the exhaust port of their Death Star. One shot can destroy their God.

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