Sunsara Taylor's "debate*" with Scott Bartchy brought up an important theme in epistemology, ethics and politics: "picking and choosing".
*It wasn't a true debate; Sunsara didn't have the opportunity to address Bartchy's commentary at all.
Atheists often charge that religious people pick and choose from their scripture. Bartchy's rebuttal is that picking and choosing is routine; since everyone picks and chooses, the activity cannot be used to differentiate religion from other epistemic, ethical and political activities. In a sense, Bartchy is correct. Scientists have chosen Einstein's theory of gravitation over Newtons; Darwin's theory of evolution over Lamarck's. Ethical humanism is rife with paternalism and condescension: the road to hell is indeed often paved with good humanist intentions. Modern communists — even those who call themselves Marxist-Leninist-Maoist — typically do not want to replicate Lenin's Red Terror, Stalin's permanent bureaucracy, or Mao's hyper-collectivization of agriculture.
Yes, picking and choosing is routine. What is important, however, is the basis on which one picks and chooses.
Scientists pick and choose theories, but they do not — even a little bit — get to pick and choose experimental results; scientists pick and choose theories based on the experimental results. Experimental results are thus authoritative and foundational.
Two philosophical notions are often employed to rebut the idea that experimental results are authoritative and foundational to scientific epistemology: experimental error and theory-laden observations. If experimental results are authoritative, in what sense can they be found to be in error? If experimental results rest on a theoretical structure, in what sense are they foundational? These notions, however, challenge only our equivocal understandings of authority and foundationalism.
Scientists must account for the literal meaning of all experimental results. To deem a result an "error" does not entail that it is simply ignored; an experimental "error" is simply a result that is explained in a particular way. The theory-ladeness of any observation determines the observations meaning, but it never determines the actual result. A volt-meter is a rather complicated, theory-laden device, but the definition of a volt-meter does not tell me anything about the actual, specific result I will see when I hook it up to some arbitrary battery.
The question we should ask of the religious is not whether they pick and choose, but what do they not pick and choose? What stays constant? What cannot be ignored? What stands as true, literally true?
Christians "pick and choose" about the literal meaning of their scripture. Fair enough, but if you pick and choose from your scripture, then your scripture is not authoritative. Christians "pick and choose" about intuitive notions about God; they do not seem to accept my own atheistic intuitions as veridical. So intuitions about God are not authoritative.
Even the supposedly "axiomatic" assumption that God is omnibenevolent is not authoritative, unless we are to believe that "war, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime, corruption, and the Ice Capades" are examples of benevolence. To assign "benevolence" to a God is to rob the term of any meaning: whatever happens, no matter how we might feel about it, must be the highest good, and we should all walk around saying, "It's a good life."
So fine, everyone picks and chooses, at least sometimes. But if you're not going to descend into pure bullshit postmodernism, you have to draw some line in the sand: you have to say, "When it comes to X, I'm not going to pick and choose."
With regard to religion, where is this line?