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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?

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So they shape the facts to fit what seems right to them.

If they believe that what makes someone good is kindness, they construct a God who takes care of people. If they believe that what makes someone good is justice, they construct a God who rewards goodness and punishes evil. If they believe that what makes someone good is mercy, they construct a God who's forgiving. If they believe that what makes someone good is intellect, they construct a God who's a complex theological abstraction. If they believe that what makes someone good is respect for authority, they construct a God who issues clear rules and expects them to be obeyed.

Religion is like a Rorschach test. The content of the Bible -- or any other sacred text -- is essentially meaningless. It can be interpreted in an almost infinite variety of ways. And the way it's interpreted says more about the interpreter than it does about the jumbled mess on the page. (And yes, I know that actual Rorschach tests are considered unreliable by many psychologists. I'm using them as a metaphor here.)

I've debated many, many believers who have basically come out and said this. They've been forced to admit that they're cherry-picking their sacred text and have no good reason to pick the cherries that they do... and they've acknowledged, in actual words, that "That's just how I feel," or even "That's just what I like to believe." They often get very defensive about it, in fact. "Why do you care what I believe?" "If it makes me feel good, why is it any of your business?"

And history backs up this "religion as Rorschach test" concept. When you look at the moral evolution of humanity, you see that the major leaps forward -- democracy, freedom of speech, the abandonment of slavery, the equality of women, the acceptance of homosexuality -- have largely been driven by secular thought. Religion loves to take credit for it afterward... but that's generally not consistent with reality. Religion adapts itself around evolving morality -- not the other way around.

Now, obviously, this Rorschach business isn't the whole story. For one thing, people tend to believe in whatever religion they grew up with. (It's always interesting to ask a true-believing Christian, "Do you think you'd believe in Jesus if you'd been born to a Hindu family in India?") So a lot of basically good, decent people do still believe in a harsh, pissy, control-freak God... because that's the God they were taught to believe.

But a lot of people do shop around for religion. Even the ones who stick with the basic nominal faith they were brought up with -- Christian, Jewish, Hindu, etc. -- still do a lot of shopping around. When they grow up, or get married, or move to a new town, they often shop around for a sect of their religion, or even just a local branch, that suits them. They pick a religion that fits their values... or contort it until it does.

So what's an atheist view of all this?

Well, the obvious atheist conclusion is, "Religion is bunk." But I think there's another conclusion, one that's a lot more positive:

We should take responsibility for our own values.

If we value kindness or justice, intellect or mercy... we should own that. We shouldn't pawn it off on God. We shouldn't make up an image of God that fits our own values, twist our holy texts to fit that image, and then persuade ourselves that our values really come from the Divine.

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