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Progressive Religious Believers' Big Hypocrisy: Cherry-Picking the Parts of Religion they Like and Ditching the Rest

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?

"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. 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.

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