The Parable of the Fair-Weather Believer,Nicole Scott,Free Inquiry

Once there was a man who had been taught to believe something that didn’t really make sense. The man kind of knew that it didn’t really make sense, but he had also been taught that believing it—even if it didn’t make sense—made him a better person. He was a good man, and he wanted to continue to be “a better person”; so, he decided to just believe the parts that seemed to mostly make sense.

The man belonged to a club, and the people in the club all kind of believed the same thing. All his friends were in this club, and they thought that believing just the parts that mostly made sense totally made sense. They drank coffee together, and they were all very happy.

But some other people, who were in the same club, enslaved the weak, slew heretics, burned witches, killed Jews, bombed medical clinics, repressed women, suppressed science, brutalized animals who weren’t human, started wars that killed animals who were human, and forced women to keep having babies until there were so many people and problems that they eventually laid waste to their entire planet.

The man took comfort in knowing that he and his friends were good people who had always tried to do the right thing.

The Sermon on the Parable of the Fair-Weather Believer

IT’S HOLY SCRIPTURE! YOU DON’T GET TO CHOOSE! Excuse me for shouting, but really … words that claim to be the Word of God need to be accepted as divine or dismissed as invented. There is no middle ground. If you choose to disbelieve or simply ignore (that is, passively disbelieve) even the loonier portions, you have rejected the divinity of the words. You have stepped outside the boundaries defined by the very scripture you otherwise purport to believe.

Many words have been applied to people who rejected some or all of a holy scripture. Messiah and prophet, for instance, have been reserved for a select few; it usually runs more along the lines of blasphemer, heretic, infidel, sinner, and so on. They have all resulted in unpleasant consequences.

To be fair, it must be conceded (and this could be viewed only as a “concession” in the present context) that the Christian bible and every other “holy scripture” are rife with contradictions, ambiguities, and translation uncertainties that make any “literal” understanding of them impossible and necessitate some level of interpretation by a believer. This loophole is especially convenient for those “willing” to interpret scriptures for the more interpretationally challenged. It also makes it rather obvious that some remarkably imperfect words have flowed (downhill) to us from a perfect being. Nonetheless, recognizing that there are some genuine gray areas that a believer must navigate is a reasonable indulgence that we should be willing to sell cheaply.

But legitimate, reasoned interpretation of scriptural gray areas is not synonymous with conveniently hearing what you want to hear and/or ignoring whatever you don’t. If the scriptures are, as the believer believes them to be, essentially true, they must be accepted essentially at face value. They cannot be doubted, amended, or especially cherry-picked. History suggests otherwise, which is the point. Shias, Sunnis, Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Hindus of every stripe: If your sacred words are not immutable, how sacred can they be?

The meaning of holy writ cannot be an evolutionary process, drifting with new facts and mores of the times. Reinterpretation-until-plausible is not only disingenuous; it is actually a form of rejection, because any new manner of belief requires disbelief in any previous manner(s). When an earlier version of a belief becomes false because a newer version has become true, can the underlying belief still be considered valid? Between the version that was false and the version that is now false, which should be viewed as more false? Answer: false is false.

Selective rejection of beliefs on an as-convenient basis comes easily to believers. They all do it, most of the time. Not only do they reject the many previous (and, of course, future) interpretations of their own scripture, they also reject the words of all the other gods/religions a priori. Two-thirds of the world’s theists reject the New Testament, three-quarters reject the Qur’an, and seven-eighths (give or take) reject Hinduism. As Apollo and Quetzalcoatl could attest (were it not for the obvious reason), one person’s deity is another person’s … nothing at all.

Yet, through the perpetually shifting sands of holy certitude, the modern “masses” manage to remain fair-weather believers for whom it would be unthinkable to embrace: a) zealotry—accepting every word of original scripture as having been written by or about God and committing to act accordingly; b) disbelief and rejection of the whole bloody mess; or c) the logical extension that only “a” or “b” are valid and necessarily mutually exclusive options.

Instead, the masses, not noted for deep contemplation or critical thinking, tend to drift along with their own self-concocted, personally palatable versions of their beliefs. In most cases, they never bother to question any personal departures, but those who do can invoke the meaningless age-old anesthetic of “faith,” or stylish modern psychological perfumes such as “spirituality” and self-discovery, to justify their heresies of independence of thought. “I believe in my own way,” the mantra might run, if pressed.

Well who are you to believe in your own way? Unless you are claiming messiah or prophet status, you didn’t invent your religion or write its sacred words. And although “organized religion” may have become a popular target, it’s a good bet that you have not studied any original texts or historical contexts and so are in no position to question the interpretations of anyone who has. You believe in it. So, believe it … damn it! Or, if you can’t—then don’t.

The dark side of this have-it-both-ways breakdown in reason is that every kindly Methodist schoolteacher or gentle Muslim shopkeeper becomes an enabler of the radical factions within one’s own and, to a lesser extent, every other belief system. Islamists, end-timers, Zionist expansionists, and Kool-Aid pourers and drinkers both literal and metaphorical have all pursued their ruthless, repressive, destructive delusions from the backs of the “reasonable” moderates who recognize crap when they catch a whiff but just pinch their noses and pretend it isn’t there. If a small dose of acquiescence to an absurdity can keep at bay the demons spawned by wavering faith … well, really, who could it hurt? If your hands get a little dirty passing the stones up to the front of the mob—at least they don’t have blood on them (which is, of course, another metaphor … except when it isn’t).1

But at least the zealots embrace the tenets of their belief system with the gravitas demanded, both literally and logically by that system (assuming it were true). If God himself wants an adulterer stoned, who are you to not stone the adulterer? Did you think it was up for debate? This is not an endorsement of zealotry (or stoning) but instead a recognition of the logic of zealotry versus the illogic of “believers” who … well … for starters, don’t stone the adulterer.

But as long as fair-weather believers remain in the thrall of a belief system, even a relatively benign one that has been personally adjusted to their own liking, they have neither the incentive nor a higher ground from which to challenge more radical beliefs. The high ground is gained only by recognizing the falseness of delusional thinking itself. Is a harmless delusion less delusional than a malevolent one? Answer: No; it just seems like it should be.

The true believers and their seemingly harmless enablers sail off in the same boat to a cultural mess of their own creation, not even sharing the same invented reality. Fair-weather belief—the invisible dark matter that is holding theism together—far from being harmless, may be the most corrosive pseudo-ideology of our time.

A proper parable leaves it up to the reader to ferret out the lesson as part of the learning experience. But a good sermon shows no such restraint. The Sermon on the Parable of the Fair-Weather Believer, leaving nothing to chance, concludes with this pithy (and highly quotable) admonishment:

Every step taken away from rational thought and objective truth is a step toward delusion and darkness.

[1] Stoning, in addition to being a conveniently horrible metaphor, is an excellent example of belief’s slippery slope. While this nasty piece of human behavior is prescribed in the Old Testament and Hebrew bible, it is never mentioned in the Qur’an but is instead part of Islam’s Hadith—orally transmitted rules that are forbidden from being written down (the “because I said so” of Islam). Jews and Christians have abandoned the practice. The Islamic world has increasingly embraced it.

Once there was a man who had been taught to believe something that didn’t really make sense. The man kind of knew that it didn’t really make sense, but he had also been taught that believing it—even if it didn’t make sense—made him a better person. He was a good man, and he wanted to …