Thursday, February 16, 2012

Cherry Pickin'

One of the most common charges leveled against progressive Christians is that we're the smorgasbord faithful.

We progs stand accused of wandering up to the Jesus buffet line and only taking those things that look yummy to us, while pointedly ignoring the stuff we don't like.  We serve ourselves a heapin' helpin' of Sermon on the Mount Roast, and a pour a big mess of 1 Corinthians 13 Gravy on our 1 John Mashed Potatoes.

The Revelation Hellfire Lentil Loaf doesn't even get a second glance, and we make a funny face at Ol' Uncle Paul's Obedient Slaveberry Pie.

For our pickiness, we're assailed from both sides.  Fundamentalists and atheists both assail us for...lets say it together..."cherry pickin'."  You only take what you like?  Cheaters!  Outrageous!  All or nothing!

So now, boys and girls, let's use the imaginations God gave us, and see ourselves standing in a garden.  Before us, there's a cherry tree hanging heavy with thousands of plump red morsels, the fruit ripe and delicious and in season.  We're hungry, and the smell is sweet.

Behind us and to our left, we've got the atheist, who looks at the entire tree with its leaves and branches and fruit.  I'm not going to eat that whole thing, he snorts.  Much of it is completely inedible!  And the fruit has pits!  How do I know I might not be allergic to it?!  He sits down in a snit, and with his best pinchy defiant two-year old pout, insists he'd rather starve.

Kneeling at the base of the tree, we have the fundamentalist, her mouth full of bark and twigs and leaves.  She gnaws vigorously at the indigestible hardwood near the bottom of the trunk.  Bits of masticated wood mingled with fragments of tooth enamel and dark green leaf juice drip from her lips.  It's absolutely, presuppositionally delicious, she insists.  By definition, it couldn't possibly taste any better.  And as an added benefit, she says with a slightly broken smile, I'm so much more regular now!

Cherry pickin'?  I suppose so.


  1. That's a very poor analogy with regards to atheists. Neither I nor any of the atheists I admire object to absolutely everything in the Bible. We generally acknowledge that "love your neighbor" is good advice. And some of the poetry is lovely. (I always liked "Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.") We are happy to pick the ripe cherries and spit out the pits, as we do with any other kind of literature or philosophy, since we know there is no reason to believe that any of it is divinely inspired. It was written a long time ago by profoundly ignorant men with ethics that were, more often than not, horribly backwards. We know that one must read it and evaluate it like every other man-made thing. We do precisely what you are advocating. We just do it better, frankly, because we are not saddled with the delusion that this literature has any greater claim to truth than any other literature. We don't have to tie ourselves in knots to explain, for example, why the story of the Binding of Isaac has a valuable moral lesson. Or to strain ourselves to discern which of the tales of Jesus's magic are true and which are legends.

    And so we atheists are hardly starving. We just have a diet with more variety. Cherries are sometimes fine, but there are richer fruits to be had, many with more wholesome ethics. Many of the cherries that theist feels obligated to eat are rotten and sickening, as, say, such as tales of eternal torture foisted on gullible children. And none of the cherries, sweet or sour, are likely, as the theist claims, to cure him of his mortality, and they cannot ethically absolve him of his crimes.

    It is interesting also to note that one of the most common theist arguments is to claim a kind of "copyright" on morality. That is, that atheists have no right to appeal to morality unless we first accept of faith the baseless assertions of the religious. In that sense, we atheists are told by by those who idolize the cherry tree that the fruit is forbidden to us unless we consent to eat the leaves and bark as well.

    The analogy fails because in a healthy cherry tree, the bark and leaves are inedible, but they are still healthy. The tree of the Bible is rotten. It's authors were often men so morally backward that even small children recognize how shameful their ethics were, and intelligent adults must tie themselves in logical knots to justify the divinity of the horrors they condone. The atheist doesn't sit on the ground and pout and starve. He says instead that your fetish of this sick, sad tree is unwholesome, and you can get the same cherries from healthier trees. Get off your knees and explore the rest of the orchard.

  2. Hi, Browning! I like your comment.

    It makes a sputtering step towards debunking the analogy, and kinda spends the rest of the time affirming it. "And even the cherries will make you sick! And we're told we have to eat the whole tree! Which is rotten through and through!"

    That shoe, she fits real good. ;0)

    How's the writing project coming? Please tell me you're making progress...

  3. Um...was there a comment here? I found this empty thing in my blog spam folder, for some reason. Care to take another swing?

  4. Hmmm... Weird. What I said was, more or less:

    "I'm not surprised that you think I affirmed what you already believe. That's how faith works. You turn your head sideways and squint real hard until everything appears just the way you want it to appear."

    I think your whole argument, thusfar, is really like that old Calvin and Hobbes strip, from exactly twenty-five years and one day before our last birthday. (I'd link it, but I'd land in your spam filter again, so google "calvin and hobbes january 18 1987.") You're basically saying "Atheists are like pouting babies sitting in the dirt going go like this: 'Bluh, blug, agggle, bluh!" And when I have deconstructed this sorry excuse for an analogy, you ignore every point I make and say "Exactly, you just go bluh, bluh..."

    You failed to address any of my objections. For example, my observation that theists, even liberal ones, actually do insist that we eat more than we can reasonably stomach, especially when they insist that a universe without a teleology cannot have morality. That is, theists say, "You can't have any cherries unless you agree to swallow the pits." We say, "No, you may swallow the pits if you like, but I think I just want the fruit." And you say, "No. The fruit belongs exclusively to those willing to swallow the pits." Etc. And I think I can say that SOME of what you call sweet delicious fruit, I find objectionable, and I can do so without being resembling your caricature of me. I am just somewhat pickier of cherry picker. And given your position that cherry picking is not a bad thing, your criticism fails with your analogy. For what basis do you have to object to my eating only what I find palatable? That's exactly what you do.

    I think you will find my book very interesting, when I ever finish it. It is somewhat informed by our discussion of your "M-theology." I'd love to read your book on that subject when you're done with it.

  5. Ah! So that was it!

    I do remember that cartoon well, and I think it's an absolutely delightful analogy for some of our exchanges, as the Maker might see them.

    As for why I object, well, you're a free creature. You can be as picky as you like. But given the propensity of atheists (you're not neo-atheists any more, are you? Is that term still bandied about?) towards dualistic absolutism, I just can't quite get around to seeing the behavior as reasonable. And I'm happy to say so. So it goes, eh?

    I will, of course, let you know once I've got the book done. Write, man, write! What with A. giving you up for Lent and all, you should be able to find the time. ;0)

  6. That's just it. You are accusing atheists of "dualistic absolutism," but that is not an accurate representation of atheists. That's just a fancy way of saying "This is you: "bluh! bluh! bluh!"

    Let's break it down: You are mounting a defense of the fallacy of "cherry-picking" by riffing on the metaphor of the expression. Both fundies and atheists (rightly) accuse you of it, and you are saying, "Yeah, that's what I do, and I'm not sorry! In fact, it's the only sane thing to do." But in order to defend your cherry-picking nature, you feel it necessary to caricature your critics by creating your own false dualism and painting a false picture of them. (This is sometimes called "bearing false witness.") You paint them into your picture as one who eats everything and one who eats nothing. That is, the fundamentalist accepts every line of the Bible, no matter how abhorrent, while the atheist refuses to accept any part of the Bible, no matter how unobjectionable.

    Actually, both these pictures are false. Fundamentalists cherry-pick as well, as you well know. They abhor homosexuality, but disregard the prohibitions against shellfish and footballs, and they concoct strained explanations for why this is supposedly not inconsistent. If they are political conservatives, they manage somehow to "worship" Jesus while despising everything he said about the rich and the poor.

    And atheists do not reject everything in the Bible. We often express our admiration for the parts of it that are beautiful or morally correct, while abhorring the (many) abhorrent parts of it. Which is more or less exactly the thing you are advocating. (And as I pointed out, atheists are often disparaged by theists for doing just this. We are told that if we aren't moral relativists or nihilists, then we are aren't "real" atheists. That morality itself is dependent on a belief in God.) But contra your analogy, atheists can accept the validity of the Golden Rule, while rejecting the literal truth of Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark, and Jesus's resurrection.

    So your analogy fails to accurately depict your critics. But it also fails to defend the practice of "cherry-picking." When atheists accuse you of "cherry-picking," we're not blaming you for your willingness to love your neighbor as yourself and/or your failure to stone a man to death for gathering wood on the Sabbath. We do those things as well. That is, in fact, the only sane thing to do. Instead, we're saying that you can't cherry-pick evidence for a proposition. You can't say, for example, that the Bible is divinely inspired by a perfectly good supernatural being without suppressing the overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary. And you can't credibly justify which parts you treat as metaphor and which as literal truth, which are morally inspiring, and which are morally repugnant. At least not to the rest of us.

  7. Ah, mon frere! But can you? Can you really accept the Golden Rule?

    In the abstract, perhaps. But the moment you hear it from faith, well, then you suddenly stop being able to hear it for what it is.

    The suggestion that you see good in the sacred texts of our tradition comes apart when I go back through the written record of our conversations. You, as much as any atheist I've chatted with, will have none of it. Here, we speak not of generalities, or of some Platonic form of The Atheist, but of Browning.

    If from the 10 Commandments I suggest that greed is a bad thing, you immediately feel compelled to refute it. If I claim the Golden Rule as the governing ethic of my tradition, well, it's flawed. "I can do better," you say. The poets and scribes and dreamers and justice-seekers who gave us the texts of the bible? "Profoundly ignorant." "Horribly backwards." The entire tradition? "Rotten." You cannot affirm without feeling normatively obligated to subvert your own affirmation. Pesky thing, print is.

    Your capacity for expressing admiration is what it is, and self-evidently so.

    This isn't a surprise. Atheism is an absolute proposition, and it is rationally defensible to typify it as such. It is not agnosticism. It is the certainty that there is no God, and further, the certainty that belief in God is inherently negative. It is as inflexible as a rebar turtleneck.

    As with all absolutists, you utterly inhabit your own perspective. Of course, we all do, but it is in being able to inhabit the perspective of the other that the Golden Rule finds purchase.

    I know, I know. Aggle aggle aggle. Wakka wakka wakka. But at I can hear you hearing it, eh?

  8. Again, this is filled with untruths and half-truths and good red herrings. Yes, I believe in the Golden Rule. I try, imperfectly, to live by it, because I think it's the right thing to do. And I agree with the injunctions against theft and murder and lying in the Ten Commandments. What cause do you have to doubt it?

    I just don't think that every good idea expressed in Christian literature belongs exclusively to Christianity. I think the good ideas contained therein are encumbered with many, many bad ones. I accept what I deem acceptable, and I reject the rest. And, by your own admission, so do you, you old cherry-picker, you.

    I think I said "I could do better" than the Ten Commandments. I stand by that. I never said that I thought "Greed was good." That was you putting Gordon Gecko's words in my mouth. ("This is you: "Greed is good! Greed is good!'") What I said instead was that the injunction against coveting -- which is a desire that may or may not be put into action -- is a kind of thought crime, and it was doubtful that it should be a crime at all. That coveting is not necessarily bad, such as when a poor person desires to enjoy a better life than what she has. It is a rule designed to preserve the status quo for the sake of the rich. And coveting and greed are not the same thing, and the author lacked the wisdom to make the distinction. Not surprising, given that he was no doubt a Bronze Age man who had power over others and wanted to keep it. And that author, were he truly moral, would have forbidden slavery long before he forbade the coveting of someone else's slaves. So, yes, see, I've already done better than the Ten Commandments, with one hand tied behind my back, simply by recognizing that slavery is truly evil.

    Were the authors of the Bible profoundly ignorant? Of course. Thanks to science and education and the Enlightenment, my seven-year-old daughter knows more of how the universe works than they, and she could tell them true things of which they know nothing. Backwards? Yes. In spades. Homophobic, misogynist, racist, bloodthirsty, pitiless, vindictive, foolishly superstitious. Do you deny it? Of course, you can't. You routinely reject the parts of scripture than you can't stomach. That is your original point.

    I find a bit more to reject than you do, not because I am a smarter or morally better person than you, but because I am not encumbered by an irrational dedication to the notion that these texts must be more wise than any other. For example, I think the story of the Binding of Isaac -- the founding myth of Judaism -- is exactly backwards. It's a fable with a backwards moral. Yes, it's rotten. The right answer would be to refuse to murder your son. Try to find a poem called "Sarah's Choice" by Eleanor Wilner. It's a version of the myth that is not backwards. Her poem inspires me in ways that Bible never has, because it is more morally true and just as beautifully written. I am free to say that because, thankfully, I have no faith to distort my reason or my ethics. Eleanor Wilner is a better, more admirable person than the author of that story.


  9. [...continued]

    You say, "Atheism is an absolute proposition." This is false, and betrays your ignorance of atheist thought. In fact, I am both an atheist and an agnostic, and there is no contradiction in this. I admit that I cannot positively affirm that God does not exist, but I also don't believe that he does. My stance towards that proposition is the same as that towards Russell's teapot. This is the same position of all my atheist heroes, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, etc. This is Atheism 101. I can also imagine versions of God that would not be inherently negative. It's not that hard to dream up a better God than Yahweh, or even Jesus. (In fact, I think this is what you try to do, imperfectly, when you cherry-pick the Bible.) So, again, when you call me an absolutist, you misrepresent me. You are saying "This is you, agga wagga blubluh."

  10. No, what I'm saying is the ethos you claim to hew to is abba-sabba-looop-ertist. Given the similar etymology, I can see where you might confuse those two words.

    You are different than your ethos, of course. One of the interesting things you discover when you stop viewing people as archetypes and start encountering them as themselves is that they rarely fully conform to that stereotype. Browning with his atheist hat on, for instance, may fit all of the popular stereotypes of the atheist. But with his storyteller hat on, he's a different fellow. With his dad hat on (do you wear a hat while parenting?), he's another different person. And two out of three ain't bad, as the Apostle Meatloaf once said.

    When I look back across the millennia, I see differently than you. Sure, I see what was not known, and could not have been known. I see the influences of tribalism, power, and greed. But I also see the thread of compassion that is our Maker's best purpose for us as individuals, and the call for justice, tolerance and liberation that is our best purpose as societies. It's as clear and bright as can be. I see similar things in the other traditions of the world, but I have chosen to teach and hew to the grace in my own. But you? You struggle to see any of them, or admit that there is value in living into them. Again, this is not a factor of your intelligence. Just your ideology...which, blessedly, is not the whole of your being.

    I'm interested, however, that you have told me that you can imagine a God. And more significantly, that you can imagine a God who would meet your criteria for good.

    Query, given your claim that you can do this: 1) What does that good God look like, and 2) Given the strong possibility...from science...that this universe contains the actualization of all probability, what reason do you have for NOT believing that such a Being could exist?

  11. I was trying to find the sources of your recent "prooftexting" of me last night. (Did I really say of the Golden Rule that "I could do better?" Short answer: No.) But I re-read a lot of our old arguments and discussions. There's a lot of good, interesting stuff in there!

    But we are going over some familiar territory now. One thing I have noticed before is that you frequently deny what I tell you about what I believe or don't believe, and then presume to tell me my own mind, as if you thought you knew me better than I know myself. This behavior is unbecoming to you, my friend. I think my purpose in our conversations has always been to better understand what you believe. You are a better interlocutor when you treat me with the same courtesy. There is no coherent sense in which I am an "absolutist."

    What I have said is that I can, in fact, see glimpses of the angels of our better nature in the Christian tradition, and in other religious traditions as well, and that I too value justice and liberation. I see the value in tolerance, but I see it as a weak relativistic form of solidarity, which I value even more. And I value the truth. I want to see things as they are and not as I might wish them to be. These are real values, and my argument with religion comes out of my commitment to them, and not in spite of them. I would keep the good and jettison the rest (as would you, my good cherry-picker). And I would acknowledge that these things are not derived from religion, so much as the best parts of religion are derived from them (as you would probably not).


  12. [...continued]
    And, sure, I can imagine a good God. Just as I can imagine Russell's teapot. And I can imagine a God who is better than the one imagined by authors of the Bible. (And so can you. Otherwise, you would not feel the need to cherry-pick.) As I read the Bible, I often think to myself "That is just so wrong! God is behaving badly here!" Even Jesus does not quite live up to my sense of ethics. He could do better. If I grant for the sake of argument, that the stories are true, they both could behave better, within the texts of the Bible, or within the context of the world at large. There more examples of this than I could ever hope to list in a blog comment, and I bet you can guess many of them. I have been interested to hear explanations of them from religious people, and they are all over the map, and they seldom if ever satisfy me. They seem like so much special pleading and lame, half-baked excuses.

    But, really, why should I expect them to be more than this? As I said, these stories were written long ago by ignorant, backwards, profoundly superstitious men. These men were okay with slavery and misogyny and the occasional genocide. They feared demons and witches and thought the creator of the cosmos craved blood and smoke and genital mutilations. The best explanation for the triune deity's failure to live up my my higher ethical standards is that these stories are not divinely inspired to begin with. They are tales told by deeply flawed humans who often got things very, very wrong. History is full of such characters. John the Revelator, Mohammad, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard. People tend to make @#$% up. This is a very simple and satisfying explanation for me.

    But my ability to imagine a better God -- one very different from the one described in the Christian tradition -- does not imply the existence of such a being. I know you think that M-theory and your Anselm 2.0 give you some kind of license to claim that everything that can be imagined must be real, but I think you are mistaken, on at least two levels. (1) I don't think M-theory implies what you think it does, and (2) even if it did, I think that it raises more theological problems for you than it solves. And this is an interesting conversation in itself, but one that we have already covered at some length. But the short answer here is that is that if we live in a cosmos where every possibility is actualized, then a "Maker" is completely superfluous. The Book of Revelations requires an author. Every possible combination of every letter in every alphabet does not.

  13. One could say, equally, that nothing is superfluous. So the short answer, I think, is just "no." You can't imagine it. Your imaginings are so colored by long held predilection that you can't use your considerable capacities to get to even the probability of God. Ah well. So it goes.

    And yes, this is familiar territory. I know that me and thee won't agree on our understandings of the implications of M-Theory. That I stand in the same place as Deutsch, Hawking, Kaku, and Greene will just have to suffice, I guess.

    Superfluous? Interesting. Is that a meaningful term given the context of the cosmology we're contemplating, or a value statement grounded in your defense of your ethos? I'd say it is more of the latter. It is a line of conversation worth pursuing, and I'd hoped we could do so when you sunk your teeth into the manuscript...but...well...let's just say that chaos doesn't seem to want that book published. Sigh. Back to the drawing board.

  14. What!? Again, that's not what I said! Why do you insist on putting words in my mouth? Let me say again: I can imagine a God. I even admit that it is impossible to know that there is no such God.

    And, no, you don't stand in agreement with Deutsch and Hawking! They are both atheists for all the same reasons that I am. I'm not very familiar with the other two, but my impression is that Kaku admits only of the possibility of a Spinozan kind of God as an explanation for there being order at all in the universe. But once you accept M-Theory, then no explanation for order in the universe is required, because our universe is just one in a vast disordered array of universes. It is that sense even that Spinozan God is superfluous, which I think is precisely what Hawking means when he says the same thing. Specifically, and I quote: "M-Theory does not disprove God, but it makes him unnecessary. It predicts that the universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing, without the need for a creator." That makes perfect sense to me. It's not a value statement. It's a logical consequence of M-theory.

  15. Cosmological agreement, mon frere. Not theological agreement.

    And where you say "po-tay-toe" I say "necessary." Where you say "disorder" I say "completeness." We don't have to call the whole thing off, though, so long as it remains mutually entertaining.

    'Tis true, though, that I was putting words in your mouth. A fair cop, guv.

    But as there were no words there, I presumed upon their absence. You say "I can imagine a good God," and then...nothing. So, from your silence, I can assume several things. 1) You're using that as a rhetorical tool, gifted as you are in the art of debate. But nothing more. 2) You have such an image in your mind, but realize that might lead our conversation into places you'd prefer not to explore.

    No matter. It is your choice to speak it or not.

  16. Okay, well, you and I are in cosmological agreement, allowing for the fact that we are both amateur enthusiasts who just get off on the mind-blowing wonderment of these theories,and would be way out of our depth to begin to explain the math and science that lay behind them. But the guys who can actually do the math, and grok the science? They are on my side of the theological argument. Or rather, I am on theirs.

    I mean, I am not even arguing that makes us right and you wrong. But I just want to keep you honest. The truth is: you are kinda all by yourself with regards to the theological implications of M-theory. And I respect that! I actually find your speculations on the subject quite interesting and I enjoy our conversations about it quite a lot. I hope you won't give up on your book.

    I thought I explained what a good God would look like to me, but I guess I was unclear. To be fair, I did it in a kind of abstract way. I think it would be impossible for me to imagine or describe exactly what a perfect God would look like. Just not smart enough. But if you describe a God to me, and I can tell immediately that he is not perfect, that I can imagine how he might be easily improved, then that shows that I can indeed imagine Gods, and that one can be better than another, which in turn demonstrates that I can imagine in principle a good God. The ways in which one might improve on the God of the Bible are too many to list. But my point is that I can imagine a good God much better than the authors of the Bible. As can you, cherry-picker. You read Revelations, or the Book of Mormon, or whatever, and you say "Very imaginative, but that really doesn't sound to me like a very good God that you've imagined. We can do better." And so do I.

    You would paint me (relentlessly, and in direct contradiction to my explicit denials) as someone who is fundamentally and irrationally opposed to the very concept that there could ever be such a thing as a good God. But that is a cheap and dishonest way to discount my arguments. You and I are not so different as all that. We can both imagine good Gods. Our main difference is that I recognize that even if I imagine the best possible God, that does not make him real. And you would try to use M-theory and Anselm 2.0 to insist that it does. And I would reply that neither I, nor the fellows who actually understand M-theory, are quite persuaded yet.

  17. Indeed, "All Christians pick and choose which portions of the Bible literally, progressive Christians simply admit this and share how we discern." See: 16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret The Bible,

    Roger Wolsey, author, Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don't like christianity