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All Religion Is Cafeteria Religion
And that’s okay!
“You can’t have it both ways,” he writes. “One gets to choose whether to be a faithful Catholic, for example, or instead an adherent of a secular ideology whose tenets and practices are incompatible with the Catholic understanding of human nature.”
To bolster his claim, George tells the stories of Moses and Joshua. These men, the story goes, urged the Israelites to hold firm and reject the beliefs and practices of surrounding cultures. “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve,” and so on.
George says that religious leaders today must do the same. Separate the true believers from the heretics. End the “risible” and “pathetic” (pathetic!) phenomena where people try to belong to a religion despite not fully aligning with every truth claim.
In short, George says he’s against cafeteria religion — the practice of picking and choosing which aspects of a religion to hold and which aspects to drop.
What he doesn’t seem to realize, however, is that he practices cafeteria religion.
To start, Robert George, a Catholic, published his article in a newspaper owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To him, it’s a non-issue, as it should be. But it’s a non-issue thanks to secularism.
Long before the secular era, Catholics and Protestants fought wars — including the Thirty Years War — over religious differences. The divide persisted for centuries after the literal wars ended in the form of anti-Protestant and anti-Catholic screeds. (Within Latter-day Saint circles, for instance, church leaders from Orson Pratt to Bruce R. McConkie declared that the Catholic Church was founded by the devil himself.)
Today, such theological screeds are rare. Why? Because most Protestants and Catholics no longer believe their differences matter much. Not enough to kill over, at any rate. They’ve instead adopted the value of religious tolerance, choosing to downplay irreconcilable distinctions in their faith — a hallmark of cafeteria religion. (Thank goodness!)
Their “true believer” ancestors would likely be shocked at the reconciliation. “We died for these religious differences!” they might say. “And now you don’t even care!?”
So it goes.
The same thing has happened with the Book of Joshua. According to that text, Joshua leads the Israelites to destroy the walls of Jericho and kill the people there. “They utterly destroyed all that was in the city,” the story reads, “both man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword.”
According to the story, then, the reason it’s worth choosing the Lord is that the Lord will help you win wars wherein you slaughter men and women, boys and girls, toddlers and animals. And that’s what many true believers throughout history did, ostensibly in the name of religion.
But George (hopefully) isn’t saying that today’s believers should slaughter nonbelievers. Why? Precisely because he’s a cafeteria believer. He knows that taking the Book of Joshua at face value is morally reprehensible. And the reason he knows this is because he grew up in a secular era which declares that all people (even nonbelievers) are worthy of life and dignity. Gone are the days of Catholic priests burning heretics at the stake!
Like everyone, George picks and chooses which scriptures to emphasize and which scriptures to downplay or ignore.
What I’m pointing to is far bigger than a single article by Robert George. I’m pointing to the rise of a strange collaboration among so-called “true believers” across religious traditions. From Robert George to Ben Shapiro to Ted Cruz, these “true believers” have essentially branded themselves as defending “the faith” while simultaneously ignoring the fact that “the faith” does not exist.
These people want unity across traditions while also downplaying that true believers in their traditions have historically killed those of other traditions who didn’t believe the “right” way.
In short, the so-called “true believers” today are having it both ways. They’re citing certain verses to bolster their claims while ignoring other verses. If they interpreted every verse the same way their “true believing” ancestors did, they would still be at war with each other. At the very least, Ben Shapiro’s Judaism would be irreconcilable with Ted Cruz’s Protestantism, which would be irreconcilable with Robert George’s Catholicism.
The truth is quite simply that it’s impossible to be a “true believer.” What, after all, is “true belief”? Who defines it? Those who take, say, 40% instead of 10% of the Bible literally? You might say that “true belief” is self-evident from the Bible and that you should take 100% of the Bible literally, but anyone who has wrestled with that text knows that’s bogus. Some verses assert the humanity of all people. Other verses (yes, even verses in the New Testament) assert the exact opposite. You have to pick and choose.
Alternatively, you might say that you just have to follow a certain religious leader and ignore everyone else. But if that leader relies on the Bible, then you’re back at square one, having to decide for yourself which verses to emphasize (1 John 4:16) and which verses to downplay or ignore (Judges 19-21).
The Bible defies any single unified interpretation. (Hence the thousands of irreconcilable religious beliefs stemming from the book!)
We’d be better off, from my perspective, if we just admitted this and lived accordingly.
Ignore the calls to separate the true believers from the heretics. After all, each one of us is in our own way (again, thank goodness) a heretic.
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