Saturday, 6 September 2014

Cherry Picking - Can it be Contained?

Cherry picking
Miller Jones has continued his series on fallacious arguments used by atheists and fundamentalists. I've already linked to part one, so here are part 2 and part 3.

My reaction to part one provoked some robust discussion here in the comments section, but while not wanting the flow to stop, I wonder if some considered response from Otagosh readers might not be welcome too over on  the GCBC blog. I also want to thank Miller (I'm not sure that's a real name or pseudonym, not that it matters) for raising the subject, and responding quite graciously to my initial comments. This is definitely a discussion worth having.

In the second of his postings Miller provides a number of excellent examples where atheist writers do indeed "bag the Bible." He goes on to list a number of citations from the Good Book, used as evidence by Atheists, where Yahweh is portrayed as a moral monster. Miller then seeks to redress the balance by identifying another set of scriptures in which this same God is portrayed in positive, moral and thoroughly ethical ways. He concludes:
Thus, if we accept all [of the] scriptural examples of God's murderous and cold-blooded nature, we must also acknowledge the over 200 references that I have cited describing a God of mercy, compassion, patience, kindness, forgiveness and unfailing love. Yes, this represents one of those glaring contradictions that atheists are fond of pointing out relative to Scripture; but it also demonstrates that there is an alternate view of God presented in the pages of the Bible...
Well, as they say, yes... but.

Yes, but you'd have to make that same concession regarding the Quran, for example. That's fine by me, but I doubt many conservative Christians will be shouting out loud hosannas and amens at that suggestion.

I guess my question to Miller is this: what is the alternative to cherry-picking the texts we like? I suspect he has a good answer, but I'm not sure he has yet articulated it clearly.

We all approach the Bible with a world of assumptions and, sadly, (despite loud assurances to the contrary in certain quarters) the Bible does not "interpret itself". Two contradictory sets of texts do not cancel each other out; they just create a mess - and a breeding ground for half-baked apologetics. Come back Marcion, all is forgiven!

Part 3 is a nicely worded slap-down to the frequent practice of "appealing to authority" to back up opinions. According to Miller, both fundamentalists and atheists do this, but he concedes that fundamentalists do this more directly (and he won't get any grief from me on that).

But will the "argument from authority" critique wash when it comes to atheism.
... the greater irony vis-à-vis the Atheist position is that they turn around and use the source/authority that they have just discredited to discredit the Judeo-Christian conception of God! They are quick to appeal to those same Scriptures to demonstrate that the God of the Bible is a homophobic, homicidal, immoral, tyrannical, vindictive and slavery affirming monster.
Bart Ehrman - atheist and biblical scholar
Again, yes - but. Only insofar as atheists aim their guns at the Bible. Okay, there are some who obsess about the Bible. Ex-members of high- demand biblicist sects (hmm, maybe we could even think of an example) might be particularly prone to this - and that would be both appropriate for them in their circumstances and understandable. But consider two prominent atheists who engage the field of biblical studies professionally, Bart Ehrman and Bob Price. Neither man fits the pattern.

Second point: obviously any good atheist doesn't believe in the existence of "the God of the Bible" any more than Jupiter Olympus. The point being made is about the portrayal of "the God of the Bible" in the Bible, and that seems to be something evidential, and not an appeal to authority.

Miller finishes by writing:
Neither side seems to be able to recognize their use of fallacious reasoning. They see it in each other, but not in themselves.

Yes, Fundamentalists and Atheists are very different from each other - it is legitimate to characterize them as being polar opposites philosophically. However, it is very clear to this blogger that both sides employ fallacious arguments to advance their viewpoints/agendas. What do you think?
 I'm interested in your perspective too. But if you've got a few minutes to spare, why not click across to GCBC and read the three posts in full, and drop a comment on Miller's blog as well.


  1. Gavin,
    Thank you for your thoughtful response to my posts. I think that these kinds of discussions are very productive - I believe that we learn when we are exposed to different perspectives. As you have pointed out, the single most important flaw in the Worldwide Church of God culture was that the perspective of one man was made the only acceptable perspective for the whole group (and it proved to be fatal). I believe that questioning, discussion and debate are the engines of "growing in grace and knowledge."
    You asked me a question: "What is the alternative to cherry-picking the texts we like?" I'm not sure I have the "good answer" that you anticipated. I don't have any universally applicable formula, but I am willing to share my own approach to the question of cherry picking Scripture.
    When dealing with Scripture, I think it is essential to come to terms with the fact that the Bible contains contradictory information; and that it was never intended to be a book of science or history. Likewise, as you have suggested, HWA's notion that the Bible interprets itself has to be rejected - the Bible does not provide the resources within its pages to reconcile its many contradictions.
    As a consequence of these facts, it is my opinion that the only objective way to interpret the book or glean anything of value from its pages is to gather together EVERYTHING that is said about a particular subject - the good and the bad - the stuff that you agree with and the stuff that you reject. In evaluating that evidence, I attempt to employ several different tools to reach my own conclusions: 1) A review/consideration of the opinions/interpretations of others, 2) A review of different translations and Strong's Concordance, 3) What does the weight of the evidence indicate? 4) Is it consistent with Christ's view of God as the epitome of love? 5) My own reasoning processes - I believe that God gave us brains to use (Is it logical? Is it consistent with the scientific, archeological and historical evidence?) 6) Does the intangible guidance of the Holy Spirit offer any help?
    After all that, I still have to remind myself that my conclusions may be wrong - that I don't have all of the answers. I don't believe inspiration makes ANYONE infallible - Pope, Billy Graham, the human authors of Scripture or me. I also believe that writings as diverse as the Quran and the poetry of Robert Frost can contain Divinely inspired revelations of a spiritual nature. And, since I believe that there is a God who is an active agent of inspiration, I think that the understanding/perspective of the original writer is not necessarily determinative in reaching conclusions about interpreting anything. After all, communication is giving AND receiving.
    What do you think?

    1. Miller, you state you "believe that there is a God who is an active agent of inspiration". You further state that you "think it is essential to come to terms with the fact that the Bible contains contradictory information". Taking these two statements together indicates that you believe your God inspired a book that contains contradictory information. Why would he do that?

      I have to ask, which is more likely? Was this set of books, that is full of contradictions, inspired by a perfect God? Or was it written and/or edited by many of imperfect humans, each with their own goals and perspectives?

      Each person will have his own answer I suppose.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments - I look forward to reading more of them.

  2. You know, Christians would probably be so much better off if they just stuck to the gospel of redemption through the sacrifice of Jesus and left the non believers pretty much alone instead of attacking them at every turn. Otherwise, they're just begging for scathing retaliation.

    "Why Faith Fails: The Christian Delusion" edited by John W. Loftus keenly carves up the failure of Christianity and introduces disturbing questions which are embarrassing for believers to answer. The authors insist on the militant Christians apply the same criteria to themselves as they attempt to do with atheists and agnostics. Moreover, they insist on reality checks. This is something most Christians don't address.

    Atheism may be a movement (but in which directions -- it is not a cohesive social group, for sure: It's more like herding cats), but it is not a religion. It's not like the atheists (and agnostics) have their own Bible (or Koran or Book of Morman), hold a particular day holy and meet on it and have dress codes and dietary proscriptions as a group. They just haven't found any really believability for the god (or gods) that Christians espouse. Often, though atheists do have facts, history and science on their side, but so do those of us who do believe in God and use science to reduce British Israelism to stupid foolish rubbish.

    What the atheists have talked about and seriously considered are such things as comforting those who suffer loss and face death or those whose friends and relatives do. It is the humane thing to do and many atheists are considering it. Christians offer what seems to be delusions for those in emotional need and in the end, they see it as doing more harm than good to offer empty promises.

    Where Christians can make inroads is to set a stellar example. They should be those who inspire others both with hope and achievement in excellence. There may be some quibbling about definitions: Is a Christian someone who merely says they espouse belief in Jesus, or is it a matter where they are people who are transformed by Spirit to exhibit love, joy, peace, goodness, meekness, faith, temperance? If it's the former, then that prisoner claiming he is a Jew by believing in his head that he is one (rejected by Rabbis) has full justification in getting the superior special diet of better food in jail. The Rabbis and Chaplain say no; the 9th Circuit Court says yes. And the prisoner did sue... apparently successfully, though he never exhibited any behavior to suggest he was a Jewish convert.

    Therein hangs the tale: Definitions.

    For my part, I've been looking for Christians all my life and maybe I have found one or two, but if I did, it was long ago and I've forgotten.

    Because except for the name on the door, I can't tell the difference between Christians and the carnal person on the street.

    And so far, the atheists and agnostics have treated me better for the most part.

    1. Mikey,
      After my experience with the Worldwide Church of God, I stopped looking for Christians. Unfortunately, we are ALWAYS going to disappoint each other - it's in the nature of the beast as they say. I do my best to exhibit kindness, care and concern for others; but I find that I often disappoint myself in this regard.
      Like you, I have also suffered at the hands of "Christians. The WCOG looked at funerals as opportunities to introduce heathens to the "truth" about what happens when we die - I always thought that a better motivation would be to try to console and comfort the folks that were grieving.
      And I'm not talking about that hogwash that God will not give us more than we can bear (which is also a twisting of what that scripture is actually saying). There are things that happen in life that are simply too much. When my uncle lost his son, it destroyed him. I still don't know how my poor brother has survived the loss of his fourteen year old daughter - I don't know if I could have survived it (It was hard enough coming to grips with it as an uncle who loved her very much). Yes, we need more kindness in the world.

  3. Humans are hard wired to cherrypick. We've all got our favorite Shakesperian passages, favorite genres of music, and songs within those genres, even favorite scientific concepts. It becomes problematic when we morph the fruits of our cherrypicking into "proofs" and begin teaching them as "truth", and in the most extreme cases, calling ourselves by Biblical names or titles, and using them as leverage with which to manipulate others. It is much better to simply derive personal meaning and inspiration from the input which most greatly appeals to us as individuals, or speaks to our souls.


  4. It's more like we compartmentalize. Herbert Armstrong committed incest with his daughter for a decade as he began his ministry and saw nothing inconsistent with the behavior and being a minister.

    Unfortunately, some few of us can't compartmentalize. It is rare, but it does happen.

    And for those of us who can't compartmentalize, socialization is traumatically excruciating because people are chaotic and irrational.

    People who compartmentalize can't understand us because they're just fine with all the horrific parts of themselves which make no sense at all.

  5. There is no "fallacious reasoning" when simply not believing in a book that is supposed to be true when it contradicts, presents false history and makes no sense in the world of reality. The only dilemma one faces when dealing with "God's Word" is trying to make it make sense and to say what one wants it to say. For the most part, it does - IF one cherry picks the parts they want to believe is true and ignore the rest, OR, explain away the parts they don't like as metaphor and allegory. Of course, the really neat and convenient thing about allegory is that it can be made to mean anything you like.

    Sound reasoning, on the other hand, is to lean toward the facts and evidence and the fact is there is absolutely no evidence of any gods or any other supernatural things inside or outside of the known universe. That's why the threat for not believing is torture and death in this life by believers and hellfire torture in the afterlife. Fear of punishment/hellfire/death eliminates sound reasoning in most folk's minds when it comes to religion -- but not for some other conflicting things -- and that's why all religious people suffer from a certain amount of cognitive dissonance that causes them to either doubt science or their religion or both.

    Should one believe in gods, angels and demons before or after the facts and evidence have been examined? Are there any facts and evidence to be examined? If not - why would one teach these things to other people (with threats of punishments for not believing) when they don't have any facts and evidence to present for those delusions themselves? To enter the world of the book religion is to enter the world of circular reasoning and gullible people who don't know the difference between that and sound reasoning.

    1. "Facts and evidence"!?!

      As Bart Simpson would say, "Man, you're no fun!"

  6. I agree with Byker Bob. Further, it is impossible for us to read the Bible without an agenda or predisposition. Humans do not receive meaning from words but impart meaning to words. Hence, differing understandings derived from the same words. I can cite Biblical "contradictions" that are not really contradictions but point to alternative interpretations that nobody, evangelical or atheist, wants to consider. I believe there has always been and always will be people who believe there is no supernatural world because they cannot observe it directly. Frequently these people intermix objections to denominational viewpoints and practice with objections to the existence of the supernatural. These are really two different topics. In the West, atheism is almost always about the denial of the existence of the Judeo-Christian God. It is important in any dialog with atheists to ask them what God they are talking about and who they think that God is. Considering that Christians characterize the Judeo-Christian God in so many different ways, it would not be surprising if atheists also have many "custom" viewpoints.

    -- Neo

  7. Christians are thankful, I'm confident, when they wind up in an Emergency Room or ICU they are in the hands of Agnostic-with-the-default-assumption-of-Atheism Medical Science -- not being subject to assessment/diagnosis by priest/witchdoctor, exorcism rituals, trephination....

    1. Christians are thankful that God guides the hands of the doctors. God gets the credit if they get better. If they die, God gets no blame: it was just their time. God wins either way.