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

“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. And 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.


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Progressive Religious Believers’ Big Hypocrisy: Cherry-Picking the Parts of Religion they Like and Ditching the Rest. To find out more about why cherry-picking is just as big a problem for progressive believers as it is for religious extremists — and why cherry- picking is even a problem in the first place — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

(Oh, and for the record: I didn’t put the word “hypocrisy” in the title. AlterNet often re-titles my pieces — it’s standard practice in magazine and newspaper publishing — and they did so with this one. I wouldn’t have chosen to do so, as it doesn’t quite express what I was getting at, and has a somewhat harsher tone than I was aiming for in this piece.)

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

  1. 1

    The only thing that would make these ideas at all special, at all different from any other collection of ideas, would be if they had emanated directly from the mouth of God. And the whole point of this progressive, non-fundamentalist approach to religion is that it rejects the claim that religious texts emanated directly from the mouth of God. If you don’t think the Bible or Koran or whatever is divinely inspired… then why do you treat it as special? Regardless of which bits scholars think may or may not have been spoken by the “real” Jesus or the “real” Muhammad or whoever… why do you treat it any differently from any other piece of human writing, parts of which you agree with and parts of which you don’t?

    This! Greta, as happens so often, I read something you’ve written and think, “I was just thinking about that!” or “I’ve been wanting to write about that!”

    There’s also the question of why a book authored by God would need to be treated the same way as texts authored by humans. Even if you take into consideration that humans are flawed, wouldn’t understand God totally, etc., shouldn’t the correct holy book, on average, be better than any text written by humans?

  2. 2

    Technically the blended-fabrics rule only applies to Jews. According to Acts, the only “ritual” laws (such as the dietary rules, circumcision, the rules against homosexuality, etc.) that apply to Christians are the ones about, iirc, not eating food that’s been sacrificed to idols, because Christians are saved through grace and not law.

    On the other hand, you would think the Divine would figure out how to save people through grace in the first place…

  3. 3

    Thanks for this one, Greta!

    This one has been driving me nuts for years, and I haven’t really been able to find the right words to express what annoys me so much with the cherry picking of the progressives. I’ve touched on many of the things you say in this article in my thinking, but you’re laying it all out so clearly, in a way I haven’t been able to!

    Over here in Sweden the few religious people you run into are usually of the more progressive kind – the ones who pick the “nice” cherries out of the pie! And as you mentioned in the post about the parade, I feel churlish, or are looked at as churlish when I get annoyed at their cherry picking. Even most non-believers here would say I’m just being cranky and silly. They’re believing the NICE things, things they can agree with too, isn’t that good? So what the hell am I complaining about?

    This is why I’m complaining!

    And the day they pick one of the not so nice cherries, they will still feel that there is a damn GOD behind their words, and so how can they be wrong – things are not so nice anymore then.

  4. 4

    Thanks for the great read :).

    One thing I find mostly amusing about cherry-picking in christiandom… is that they have their own word for it:

    it’s an old word, derived from the greek word of “choice”,

    the word is “Heretic”.

    Ahh… those good old days, when they would burn people alive for “choosing” only the less insane parts of the bible…

  5. 5

    “stone their disobedient children to death?”
    Well to be fair it’s much easier to shoot your disobedient children in these modern times. Do you know how long it takes to stone someone to death? 😉

  6. 6

    It’s not that I even mind the cherry-picking. I just wish the cherry-picking were put into the same category as cherry-picking from the stoic philosophers, the Icelandic eddas, and Shakespeare. A community of people gets together and discusses and decides on their shared values, which may (but is not required to) include the word “God.” This gets an awful lot closer to the Unitarian-Universalist or Reconstructionist Jewish notion of “god” as an idea, or the wisdom tradition of a people, and not a magic sky fairy at all. (Or, as Dawkins would say – atheism in fancy dress.)

    Cherry picking of the traditional liberal Christian variety is just a variety of solipsism, except with a god in the mind to tell one what to do. It’s fundamentally antisocial, verging on sociopathic. And it provides WAY too much cover for the more destructive fundamentalist strains.

  7. 10

    Greta –

    I enjoyed your essay, but I disagree. When a “christian” or other “believer” says they use their own moral compass to decide which cherries to pick, I think what they are really saying is that they are, essentially, atheist. They just haven’t admitted as much to themselves.

    From personal experience (myself, and others in my family less far along the path to being openly atheist), the reasoning goes something like this: I have my own moral compass, just like most other people, and I use it as the guide to deciding what is right and wrong. According to my own moral compass, parts of the bible are clearly lunacy or downright evil if interpreted literally. But lots of people seem to take the bible seriously. This is a source of tension (socially, morally, etc.), so I’ll play along with the serious bible crowd but also cherry pick things to satisfy my own moral compass.

    And that is where I think you are wrong, Greta. This is a good thing! We should say “Yes! Cherry picking is honest, and right, and good. You because you now realize you have an internal moral compass, you don’t need the bible after all. In fact, now that you admit that parts of the bible are evil, or could easily be interpreted in such a way by someone with a corrupt moral compass, why not junk the whole thing and talk about morals directly without the extra baggage.”

  8. 11

    I so agree with Kevin. I am a cherry picker myself: I picked and picked until there was nothing – not even a god – left! Every time I threw out a bad cherry the bible became lighter and the religious load easier. Only I have to admit that I threw out the worst cherry (god) quite at the beginning. Once that was accomplished, all I had to do is to compare the bible to “what was in my heart” and I realized that the good cherries had been in my heart all along and I could take my bough as a born-again atheist.
    Really as easy as picking cherries!

  9. 12

    I’ve met plenty of catholics who didn’t think the cracker thing were actually part of the catholic dogma. They say to me “nahhh, that’s symbolic! It’s a representation of sharing” and stuff. When I *teach* them that they are supposed to believe that the little cracker actually becomes the real, true body of Jesus, they just ignore it. Which means they’re only nominally catholic due to tradition. Changes are scary, particularly changes in one’s own. Easier to ignore them.

    Religious people create God in their own image. They always have. On the other hand, the scientific method prevents us from creating our own reality by demanding replicable experiments or at least open access to the data.

    I disagree with you on the bit where you talk about our moral compass having evolved, but that’s off topic anyway.

  10. 13

    A moral argument against cherry-picking only if you can point to empirical, scientific evidence that overall, cherry-picking causes more harm than good. You haven’t done so. You’ve simply pointed out that probably the vast majority of people cherry-pick with respect to some of their beliefs.

    But since you’ve looked deep within yourself without relying on a religious text, you must be right.

  11. 14

    Cherry-picking is normal and human. Cherry-picking the word of a deity implies that something is amiss. The most likely problem is that the source material is not, in fact, the word of a deity.

  12. 15

    Well, yes, I agree.

    It’s the ‘God-has-approved’ part of their cherry picked stuff that annoys me. Doesn’t matter then if they believe good or bad things, that’s a bad thing in itself!

  13. 16

    The other thing that would make religious cherry-picking more acceptable is for those doing it to admit that they’re doing the best they can to figure out what they think the Master of the Universe™ wants, but that no one has a pipeline with revealed truth and everyone (including themselves) could be totally wrong. I’ve met people who admit this, but again, they tend to be the UU/Reconstructionist Judaism types, which are the extreme agnostic ends of the progressive religious spectrum.

  14. 17

    Cherry-picking only becomes a problem under two conditions

    1. When you dismiss what you don’t pick to be a cherry as irrelevant
    2. When you insist that the twig you picked is a cherry

    Jesus was not fair when he asked people to spare the prostitute but said nothing about her john.

    Fundamentalists absolutely despise the idea of Christians picking on atheists.

  15. 18

    Wow – I read through some of the comments, and you sure stirred up the hornets nest!

    Really insightful piece; you’re always able to give language to vague concepts that bother me, and this is no exception. Although it seems you’ve provoked a lot of strong sentiments from commenters, it doesn’t seem that anyone has an answer for you. The question remains: how do you decide who is cherry-picking “correctly?”

    I think it’s controversial because you hit something crucial here, and it resonates for theists in a really uncomfortable manner. Everyone seems to be flustered that religion is being “attacked” but, again, no one can give you a good answer (spoiler: there isn’t one!).

    As an ex-Christian, I can totally see why this is so bothersome to a person of faith. Thanks for the blunt and so honest critique, Greta!

  16. Nes

    And that’s why I just don’t bother reading comments over there anymore. Same thing happens with pretty much everything Greta puts up there.

  17. 22

    This is why I call ‘moderates’ fundy-breeders.
    They may cherry pick but they don’t ‘eliminate’.
    Jefferson was smart enough that when he wanted a part out of the buyBull he actually cut it out of the buyBull.
    The cherry pickers do not. The vile crap is still there for the future fundy waiting to pop out of the moderate.
    I asked a moderate why they have not cut the ‘bad’ part out and got silence as an answer. If you scratch a cherry picker you will find a cowardly hypocrite fundy underneath.
    But then I’ve been called an asshole with an bad attitude so I’m probably wrong and they are all very nice people that you would love to have in charge.

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