What cherries am I talking about? I am talking about cherry picking written texts, most often heard in reference to the Bible. So, I will discuss cherry picking in general, and its use in sacred texts like the Bible and the Koran. Cherry picking could even be applied to non-textual experiences. For one we cannot possibly pay attention to everything in our environment; although, the parts missing from our consciousness may still be influential in our thinking. We also bring a lot of background information with us as we encounter situations and texts, which we are often not aware of (in philosophy these are called presuppositions).
Anyway, what is cherry picking, besides delicious? Cherry picking is when one takes a sentence or two, sometimes more, of a text, especially out of context. In the Bible it is quoting a verse or two. The biblical text is unmercifully cherry picked by both believers and nonbelievers. If one reads atheist’s texts one gets the impression that only believers cherry pick the Bible. This is not so; although, atheists are more likely to give a context to their cherry picking.
But, the Bible is not the only orchard that is picked. A big area that I have come aware of is in climate change debates. Climate change deniers often cherry pick the data in order to support their arguments. It is not just these deniers that cherry pick data, however. Unfortunately, some scientists do their own picking in order to support their hypotheses. Granted, that this is hopefully rare in science, but probably not as rare as one might hope.
Getting back to the Bible and other sacred texts, it is not only believers and nonbelievers who accuse each other of cherry picking. Liberals accuse fundamentalists, and fundamentalists accuse liberals of it. The liberals say that the fundamentalists use violent passages to support their violent acts (I will say that most fundamentalists are nonviolent.) Today this is especially true of the Koran. The Jihadist are accused by their more liberal brethren of perverting the Koran. The liberals argue that there are plenty of peaceful passages in the Koran that the Jihadist ignore. While peace is to be preferred to war in most cases, both sides do their own cherry picking.
Christians and Muslims are not the only believers to cherry pick the Bible; possibly the most inventive are the Jews. One use of cherry picking by Jews of the Hebrew Bible involves what is called a midrash. Often these Midrashim (the Hebrew plural) take a specific verse an expound upon it. One example is an explanation of why Moses was not a good speaker. According to a midrash, Moses was given a choice of choosing a nice attractive object or a hot coal, so the Egyptians could test how smart Moses was, and if he was a threat thereby. As the story goes, Moses was guided by god to pickup the hot coal and place it in his mouth, which showed to the Egyptians that Moses was not going to grow up into a threat against the Egyptian people, and which explains his speech issue.
Gematria is another example of Jewish cherry picking. It is the conversion of words into numbers using the number system of the Hebrew alphabet, and then using the number to form a different word or relate it to a different part of the Hebrew Bible. So in this instance, not only do the users of this system cherry pick a verse, but they cherry pick just a word.
The Jewish use of cherry picking gets even worse depending on your view of such things. In the Kabbalah (the Jewish mystical system) they expound on single letters. Now this is quite a stretch. If a single letter can mean something, than it can mean anything.
So is it wrong to cherry pick a text. In some cases, I hesitate to say most cases, it is quite unavoidable. Take quotes for instance. There are whole books and websites devoted to presenting quotes. Rarely, maybe never, is any context given in these presentations. And, then the person who takes a quote from these sources and puts it in his or hers own writing may have no idea of any context that might be important for a better understanding of the borrowed quote.
In some cases people will use somebodies quote as evidence to support their view of this other person and lend support to their pet idea. Einstein is an often quoted scientist, one of the most famous scientist of all time. Some of these quotes are used to prove that Einstein believed in god. One quote is “God does not play dice with the universe” which he stated in his fight against quantum mechanics, which he had happen to help found. He also made some statements on spirituality that are used for the same purpose. But, he is also known to be critical of religion. Now, I do not know, and probably no one using these quotes knows, if Einstein believed in god. It is quite possible that he was using the dice statement figuratively, and there are some atheists who claim to be spiritual or that the spiritual does exist. One of these is Sam Harris.
So, I think pretty much everybody cherry picks at times; this includes me. In my criticism of the Bible I pick text that points out how Christianity is not a very nice religion, not that any are in my opinion. It is not that there are not nice religious people. I know plenty. Matter of fact, I am hopelessly in love with a Catholic. And, while I certainly could not agree with their religious reasons for being nice, they do seem to look on the better side of religion. I do feel that they have other than religious reasons for being nice, though. One is that you tend to feel better when you act nicely. Actually, feelings are integral to moral decision making.
The question comes up, considering that cherry picking is rife, is it a bad thing? It depends. If you quote out of context and context matters, it is usually bad, unless you and your audience are aware of the context. When context does not matter, it appears that cherry picking is fine, if not at least neutral. So, my advice is to be mindful of context. If context does not matter, than taste those sweet cherries. Of course, watch for those stones and have a napkin handy.
I leave you with one of Christians’ favorite cherries: John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. . . .”¹ Perish is not exactly explained here, but in verse 18 the unbeliever is “condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”¹ I guess name is code for belief in Jesus as the son of god. But, there are other places in the gospels that do declare what happens to the unbeliever. They are put in a trash dump and burnt forever. All for not believing in a story so preposterous as to defy belief (although, not everyone’s apparently).
And this god was willing to destroy the whole world without the saving grace of Jesus before he notice Noah and decided to save him and his family and the animals known to Noah. I say known by Noah because there were plenty of animals not recognized in the Bible.
Which brings up the cruelty to people who lived before Jesus. They did not have a name to believe in, so eternal life would not have been available to such people. This is not to mention all the people who have died from Jesus’ time to the present who did not believe in his name or have not heard of his name.
¹Crossway Bibles. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (with Cross-References [not shown) (p. 1071). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.