Thursday, April 17, 2014

Religious cherry-picking - the only sane thing to do

There's a post currently making the rounds from George Takei's (a.k.a. Star Trek's "Sulu's") Facebook page, which after one day has over 350,000 likes and 260,000 shares - so people obviously resonate with it.

It's a "quote" from a pastor's sermon (real or fictitious, it doesn't matter), which cites a religious double-standard: We don't listen to the Bible (in this case the Christian scriptures) regarding the severe way it deals with divorce, but yet we're happy to accept the Bible's severity regarding homosexual relationships - and "ruin the lives of people we don't even know". In other words, we cherry-pick Scripture where it suits us.

Of course, the pastor is hardly the first to point this out. The "cherry-picking" criticism is regularly thrown into religious people's faces. They cherry-pick verses which are convenient for them, which fit into their philosophy, and then "conveniently ignore" others which don't. Same thing with practices - they do the ones they want and ignore the others.

But for me, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's the only sane thing to do. Why? Because the Bible is not written by God - it's the product of human beings. So naturally, it contains things we might agree with, relate to, want to incorporate into our lives as part of a religious/cultural tradition, and it contains other things that we can in no way can accept nowadays and need to reject.

So we absolutely must cherry-pick the Bible if we hope to use it constructively, in a healthy way. Two caveats though:

1) We also have a tremendous amount to learn even from those things we disagree with, maybe just as much as the rest. So when I say "cherry-pick", I mean for purposes of identifying those things we agree with and wish to uphold.

2) The difference between the cherry-picking I'm talking about, and the cherry-picking that typically goes on in religious circles, is that for me it's important to be open, honest and explicit about it. In other words, rather than just brush certain verses under the rug which don't fit our religious philosophy (by pretending they don't exist or reinterpreting/sanitizing them) and denying the fact that this is religious cherry-picking, I say: Be a proud and vocal cherry-picker! Say it straight - that you're picking X and rejecting Y.

That's really the difference between fundamentalism and "choiceism". One views the text of the Bible as God's immutable word and therefore can't admit that it cherry-picks (or worse, doesn't bother cherry-picking!). The other looks at the Bible as an imperfect (or "perfectly human") document, cherry-picks as a matter of principle, and takes 100% responsibility for the choices it makes.

And I'll state unabashedly: I'm a "choicist" through and through.


  1. Since you agree it's not divine, why should we cherry pick from the Bible at all? Why not cherry pick from all of literature and history, across all cultures? In fact, by focusing on the Bible, you are in fact "cherry picking" the Bible itself!

    1. You're absolutely right. More to the point, I'm cherry-picking "Jewishness". Because tha's the culture/tradition I call "home".

      Which of course doesn't mean I spend my time exclusively on things Jewish, or that I don't appreciate the value of other cultures - I do. But I identify as a Jew and give that special emphasis, yes.

  2. Wow. In your last few posts, you'll really on a roll!

  3. > Because the Bible is not written by God

    Maybe you should rephrase this as "Because I believe..."

    Also, the cherry picking argument, while it sounds nice, can backfire. For example, the Torah describes both business fraud and homosexuality as abominations. So yeah, I shouldn't cherry pick and condemn one and not the other. But one possible solution is not to condemn either.

    1. Maybe you should rephrase this as "Because I believe..."

      Part of me agrees with that. But the other part says it would almost be like saying, "I believe the Earth is not flat." When the burden of exposition is so heavily in the other person's court, it's they who have to say "I believe", not you. Plus, I did introduce the paragraph by saying "for me..." (i.e. according to what I believe).

      But one possible solution is not to condemn either.

      Just to clarify - are you saying that if we allow cherry-picking, then we create an opening for people to say that business fraud is OK?

      I think that's what you're saying. If so, this is really a discussion on whether we can create a "moral" world without adopting a system of absolute morality - i.e. dictated by God - which is a long discussion! My position "al regel echad":

      1. There is no objective morality "out there". It's something humans invent and ascribe to God. That's on a truth-level.

      2. On the functional level, there will always be competing systems of absolute morality where what's considered absolutely "good" for one is "bad" for another. And because it's "from God", instead of debating over it, we end up killing each other for the sake of "God's will". Not a good thing!

      3. Subjective morality has its problems, but people are generally able to come to a consensus on basic things - that murder, rape and stealing are deemed "wrong" and have legal consequences.

      4. As for issues like taxation, gay rights, gun control, foreign policy - sorry, there's no "right" answer on a cosmic level. We just have to put in the hard work of trying to work things out like mature adults, and hopefully make people's lives better, not worse.

    2. Enlightenment values make a joke of Jewish morality (all religious morality.) The Bill of Rights (man made, no discussion) has led to the emancipation of women, blacks, Jews etc. and the concomitant protections (so their rights are not abridged) of women, blacks, Jews, gays, the old, the young, the handicapped, etc.

      The USA is the light unto the nations - everyone wants our Bill of Rights and sophisticated laws (which are refined constantly.) Our freedom of speech, press, etc. Our commitment to open inquiry.

      And women can be witnesses and judges. And get divorces. And gays can be married and parents. And everyone is equal...

      The big obligation in our society is not to abridge the rights of others.

      Religion cannot abide this. It says, "believe what we say, or lose your place in the world to come," etc.

      But people will not give up religion because of their infantile narcissism.

      Plus, it is warm and fun if you handle it carefully. Kind of like all mass movements. Built on indoctrination, deception, forced conformity -- but also cohesion, purpose, inspiration, and special status.

      Nazis knew this (til it spun into actual murderous violence and conquest), Communists, Scientologists, Mormons and Jews - many people need it (many do not.)

      To paraphrase Woody Allen "we need the eggs."

      At least some of us do.

      But the Enlightenment is what we all really want. Then we build our little pretend fantasy communities within viewing distance of the adults (the Enlightenment.) We get to reenact all kinds of childlike impulses - but we build the religious fort in the safety of the living room (the Enlightenment.)

      Voltaire, Jefferson, Spinoza, self-evident truths, equality under the law, inalienable rights -- it's all there...


    3. This is a great comment if only for the Annie Hall reference!

      I resonate with a lot of what you're saying, just that your wording is harsher than I like to portray it. I'm still a fan of Torah/observance. The difference is that I insist on making it compatible with Enlightenment-thinking - or what I call "rational benevolence".

      Some may call the idea of making Torah "fit" what I believe is right and true completely disingenuous. But I don't want to say "Torah be damned" OR "enlightenment be damned". So that leaves me... pretty much where I am.

  4. First, to clarify: George Takei might be gay but Hikaru Sulu most definitely is not. Just like James T Kirk is the Great American Hero while William Shatner is a conceited jerk.
    Secondly, yes cherry-picking can go both ways. A system in which we say "Business fraud is no good because the Torah forbids it but gay marriage is okay because we think it should be" can be mirrored into the opposite. In a system which rejects an external moral system (God's) then yes, both are equally moral and both can be equally abused.
    Your point 3 is also squidgy. People agree murder is bad but then train soldiers to go and murder citizens of other counries. People say stealing is wrong and then elect politicians who do just that withou consequences.
    Finally, the argument about a flat Earth isn't applicable. You and I can jointly see the Earth is a sphere. It's a measurable physical thing. The idea that there is a knowing and guiding First Cause behind everything is not something you can 100% disprove by any meaningful measurement.

    1. can be mirrored into the opposite

      It can be, but I don't know of any society where business fraud is *legally* acceptable. Institutional corruption is another issue - and we both know that can afflict religious institutions (i.e. with "God-given morality") just as it can secular ones.

      The question of what's murder and what's acceptable military policy is again something that requires careful thought. No pat answers there. But again, once you get into competing systems of "absolute" good and bad, that's a recipe for God-sanctioned bloodbath, where the murderers believe they're doing a "mitzvah".

      not something you can 100% disprove

      You have to be careful talking about "100% proof" or "disproof".

      First off, you can make up anything you want, e.g. "Barack Obama is a Martian", and you'll be able to sleep soundly knowing that no one can 100% disprove it. The question is never about "100%" - it's about evidence vs. lack of evidence vs. counterevidence, experimental evidence vs. anectodal evidence, etc., which then gets translated into varying degrees of likelihood vs. unlikelihood.

      Second - again, the one who makes the claim has the burden of exposition, and until they've done that satisfactorily should be considered the "believer". I don't have to "disprove" God any more than I should have to "disprove" Barack Obama being a Martian. "He's a Martian" and "He's not a Martian" are not equal claims. "He's not a Martian" is the rejection of a claim with little-to-no evidence. I shouldn't have to say I "believe" he's not a Martian. The one who claims he's a Martian needs to use the word "believe".

      Third of all, we're not talking about a "guiding First Cause", which would be extremely difficult to provide any "counterevidence" for - we're talking about the Torah being divine. And on that count, there is loads of counterevidence. Not "100%" mind you, but enough to place the idea somewhere between "very highly unlikely" and "beyond all reasonable credulity".

      The way I feel is probably how you'd feel if a fundamentalist Christian (or heck, a fellow Orthodox Jew) prompted you to be more precise and say that you "believe" the world is more than 6,000 years old. It just feels... wrong. Like things turned topsy-turvy. Do you get what I'm saying?

    2. I understand but there's my two points:
      1) There's reasonable and then there's unreasonable assumptions. Assuming BHO is a Martian is unreasonable as we know there's no life on Mars and to insist "Well maybe they're hiding amongst us, having come to Earth years ago" is not reasonable. In the case of God existence, we are arguing over whether the universe is eternal or not and what came first at the very absolute beginning of time. The definition of God in Jewish thought is "First Cause". That existence exists would seem to be proof of such a thing.
      2) The burden is on the atheists. Pretty much the entire planet believed in the concept of an overall supernatural First Cause for thousands of years until relatively recently.

    3. The Enlightenment for values -- it solves all of your arguments over whether a society would have bad business laws and liberal marriage laws.

      You have to really get into Enlightenment thinking if you want to understand Canada or the US. Both pretty much gold standards for Enlgihtenment values -- and at least the US - set up by people who were sometimes deists but wanted to keep G-d out of the whole discussion of the Bill of Rights.

      The problem is not religion per se, but how religious "belief" is reinforced by hiding information from adherents. Religions that are fundamentalist in their kishkes know they can't handle open inquiry. They can't stand up to scrutiny. So they circle the wagons, tag questioners as malcontents, and call it a day.

      thousands of years our best and brightest believed in alchemy. they were wrong as far as anyone knows.

      those who say G-d caused the universe i have no problem with really. Religions can get a little dicey though with their specific belief doctrines.

      Both G-d did it and nothing did it are pretty valid as of now.

      If year six thousand rolls around and no moshiach and no resurrection of dead in Israel, then the world, then everyone pointing to the Jews and saying "wow, they're right!" I guess we just put the whole argument to rest really...


    4. Garnel,

      The definition of God in Jewish thought is "First Cause".

      I don't understand how you can say that. Besides the fact that notions like "First Cause" and "Unmoved Mover" are Aristotelian ideas which became *incorporated* into Jewish thought (there's none of that kind of talk in Tanach), when Orthodox Jews today think about Hashem, how many do you think conjure in their minds some sort of detached, philosophical "First Cause"? A "Boreh"? Sure. But that's just the start. PRIMARILY, Hashem is the Notein Hatorah, the Oseh Peleh, the Masbia Kol Chai, the Av, the Melech, the Ma'anish, the Shome'a Tefila... And THAT is really what I'm talking about here. My "atheism" has to do with that God, not the "First Cause".

      That said... I still hold that "I don't know" is a better answer to the question of "where did existence come from" than assuming God started it. Why? Because what we're talking about here is so huge, so vast, so beyond us, that I think any attempt to fill in the blank through simple human intuition and "common sense" does indeed constitute an "extraordinary claim", and that the burden of proof lies with them. I'm a "hard agnostic" on this issue.

      Pretty much the entire planet believed in the concept of an overall supernatural First Cause for thousands of years until relatively recently.

      Seriously, I don't understand why you find this compelling - as evidence of anything. People have believed in multiple simultaneous gods for thousands of years. The belief that "Jesus is God" has been around for a couple thousand years and is still going pretty strong. How does the "resilience" of beliefs prove anything about their truth-content? Am I missing something here?

    5. Read the first chapter of Chovos HaLevavos. It's simple logic. Either the universe is eternal, never having had a beginning or it isn't and it did have a beginning.
      Aristotle posited it was eternal. Rambam philosophically disproved him and scientists showed there was a Big Bang.
      Now consider: where did the Big Bang come from? Either from something previous, like another universe that collapsed into itself or it popped into existence out of nowhere. If it's the former, where did that previous universe come from, and so on? At some point there must have been a 1st universe with a 1st Big Bang and then you're back to the latter. Did the Big Bang pop out of nowhere? Is it reasonable to assume the building blocks of the entire universe just appeared without any cause consider that we know that matter plus energy is an inviolable constant?
      The Jewish answer is that God is the First Cause. Now, we can argue whether or not He's the God portrayed in the Torah, whether or not He appeared to our ancestors at Sinai, etc. but since everything came from an original cause He's definitely out there.

    6. since everything came from an original cause He's definitely out there

      "Who/what" is out there is obviously the big question. Even if we assume a First Cause, we don't really know anything about who/what was involved. We project that it was a loving Creator, an intelligence, because that's what we are - when we're at our best at least. Maybe it was started by a greater intelligence, or maybe it was a non-sentient "force", or something totally different that we can't begin to imagine. It's a great mystery - and that's okay!

      So why do people call it "God"? Because that allows them to "fudge" - trick themselves (and others) into conflating the First Cause God with the God of their religion, along the lines of...

      "The universe didn't come from nothing - clearly it was started by God. Therefore God exists. Are you with me? Well, that's exactly what our tradition has said all along! The same tradition also states that God spoke to so-and-so and imparted His eternal instructions. Yes, same God! After all, if logic dictates that the universe must have been created by God, then logic also dictates that God didn't create it just for fun - He must have had a plan. Agreed? Now if He has a plan, wouldn't it make sense that He'd want us to know about that plan? Okay, well that's what our religion has been saying for thousands of years: Here's the plan! We're His plan. And here's what He wants us to do!"

      Wow, that was smooth - nearly had *myself* convinced there for a minute!

  5. I should also add there's a "what does it matter" clause in there. For example, Elvis might still be alive. Personally I wonder if he's running a gas station in the deep South with the Rebbe as his cashier since he's so good at handing out dollar bills. Might be true, can't prove it isn't but hey, what does it matter?
    With God, however, it very much does matter because it changes the entire locus of your life.

    1. I agree with you. But that's a different line of discussion - the "utilitarian" aspect of belief. I'm talking about the "truth" aspect of belief.