Religious texts can be interpreted in an almost infinite variety of ways. What do different religious beliefs tell us about the believers?
This article originally appeared on Alternet. / by Greta Christina; Talk to a hundred different believers about what God is like, and you’ll get a hundred different answers.
Take, as the most familiar example to most Westerners, Christianity. Ask one Christian about what God is like, and she’ll tell you of a strict, punitive authority figure: a creator and enforcer of rules, with clear ideas of right and wrong, a firm expectation that everybody should follow them — and harsh, intractable punishment for those who don’t toe the line.
Ask another Christian, and you get a different picture entirely: a loving parent, occasionally firm but mostly gentle and supportive, giving you lots of latitude to find your own path, who only wants you to be happy and to be your own best self.
Other Christians — notably deists and theistic evolutionists — see God as a sort of hands-off manager: initially founding the business of the Universe, intervening now and then to make sure things run smoothly, but mostly just sitting back and letting his creation run itself. And still others see God as an impersonal abstraction, an intellectual ideal, the encapsulation in metaphysical form of ideals such as love and morality.
Why do these images of God vary so much?
I’ve been an atheist writer for many years now. I’ve talked with probably hundreds of believers about what they believe and why. And it seems — as something of a generalization, and with lots of exceptions — that the version of God people believe in reveals, more than anything else, the character of the believer. When believers tells me what their God is like, I feel like they’re telling me, not what they’re like exactly, but what they want to be like. What they aspire to. What they value.
Here’s the thing. It’s not like any of these believers make a better case than anyone else for their version of God. It’s not like any one conception of God has any better evidence to support it. Even if you accepted the Bible as a reasonably accurate biography of God… the story is so absurdly inconsistent, so shot full of holes, with the main character depicting such wild personality changes, that the book can be used to support just about any idea of God you could come up with. It has been. Countless times.
And then, of course, you have to look at the question of why you would think the Bible was a reasonably accurate biography of a real entity in the first place. What with the wild inconsistencies and factual inaccuracies and all.
When you look from the outside — from the atheists’ perspective — different conceptions of God look very much like contorted rationalizations. They’re attempts to twist a badly written story and try to make it make sense. A god who is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good… but still sits by while hideous tortures are happening, and even dishes these tortures out himself. A god who only ever punishes the wicked and rewards the just… but who still reserves the right to do whatever he wants with his creation, and does so, and throws a hissy-fit when people don’t respect his authority. Three gods… who are somehow one god… but are still different, with different powers and personalities. It looks a lot like fanfic, actually: like attempts to fill in the gaps of the narrative, and make the confusing and contradictory parts make some sort of sense.
And in the process of rationalization, people shape the facts to fit what they already believe. They decide that some verses of the Bible are clearly the divinely inspired word of God — and that some verses of the Bible are obviously not meant to be taken literally. (Even Biblical literalists do this: how many fundamentalists do you know who stone their adulterous children or refuse to wear blended fabrics?) But they can’t give any good reason why they embrace some bits of the Bible and reject the rest. They can’t give any good reason why stoning adulterous children is obviously wrong but transubstantiation is obviously right; or why transubstantiation is obviously wrong but the doctrine of Hell is obviously right; or why the doctrine of Hell is obviously wrong but the doctrine of Heaven is obviously right.
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.
For one thing, it’s not true. For another: When we convince ourselves that our values come from God, we’re
We base our decisions on what we think is true. Our decisions affect other people. So we have a moral obligation to understand reality as best we can. And we have a moral obligation to take responsibility for our own values. That’s the only way we can fix them.
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