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Is Religion a Rorschach Test?

Religious texts can be interpreted in an almost infinite variety of ways. What do different religious beliefs tell us about the believers?

Photo Credit: Brian A Jackson/


Talk to a hundred different believers about what God is like, and you'll get a hundred different answers.

Take, as the most familiar example to most Westerners, Christianity. Ask one Christian about what God is like, and she'll tell you of a strict, punitive authority figure: a creator and enforcer of rules, with clear ideas of right and wrong, a firm expectation that everybody should follow them -- and harsh, intractable punishment for those who don't toe the line.

Ask another Christian, and you get a different picture entirely: a loving parent, occasionally firm but mostly gentle and supportive, giving you lots of latitude to find your own path, who only wants you to be happy and to be your own best self.

Other Christians -- notably deists and theistic evolutionists -- see God as a sort of hands-off manager: initially founding the business of the Universe, intervening now and then to make sure things run smoothly, but mostly just sitting back and letting his creation run itself. And still others see God as an impersonal abstraction, an intellectual ideal, the encapsulation in metaphysical form of ideals such as love and morality.

Why do these images of God vary so much?

I've been an atheist writer for many years now. I've talked with probably hundreds of believers about what they believe and why. And it seems -- as something of a generalization, and with lots of exceptions -- that the version of God people believe in reveals, more than anything else, the character of the believer. When believers tells me what their God is like, I feel like they're telling me, not what they're like exactly, but what they want to be like. What they aspire to. What they value.

Here's the thing. It's not like any of these believers make a better case than anyone else for their version of God. It's not like any one conception of God has any better evidence to support it. Even if you accepted the Bible as a reasonably accurate biography of God... the story is so absurdly inconsistent, so shot full of holes, with the main character depicting such wild personality changes, that the book can be used to support just about any idea of God you could come up with. It has been. Countless times.

And then, of course, you have to look at the question of why you would think the Bible was a reasonably accurate biography of a real entity in the first place. What with the wild inconsistencies and factual inaccuracies and all.

When you look from the outside -- from the atheists' perspective -- different conceptions of God look very much like contorted rationalizations. They're attempts to twist a badly written story and try to make it make sense. A god who is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good... but still sits by while hideous tortures are happening, and even dishes these tortures out himself. A god who only ever punishes the wicked and rewards the just... but who still reserves the right to do whatever he wants with his creation, and does so, and throws a hissy-fit when people don't respect his authority. Three gods... who are somehow one god... but are still different, with different powers and personalities. It looks a lot like fanfic, actually: like attempts to fill in the gaps of the narrative, and make the confusing and contradictory parts make some sort of sense.

And in the process of rationalization, people shape the facts to fit what they already believe. They decide that some verses of the Bible are clearly the divinely inspired word of God -- and that some verses of the Bible are obviously not meant to be taken literally. (Even Biblical literalists do this: how many fundamentalists do you know who stone their adulterous children or refuse to wear blended fabrics?) But they can't give any good reason why they embrace some bits of the Bible and reject the rest. They can't give any good reason why stoning adulterous children is obviously wrong but transubstantiation is obviously right; or why transubstantiation is obviously wrong but the doctrine of Hell is obviously right; or why the doctrine of Hell is obviously wrong but the doctrine of Heaven is obviously right.

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