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.