How often does it happen that a religious person does something reprehensible and suddenly all the members of that religion are evil and perhaps religion itself is evil and responsible for all the suffering that Earth has ever endured? Doubtless we have heard coworkers, columnists, and letter writers espousing such opinions for years.

Why do some people have this response? Simple human nature. We are almost all guilty of this way of thinking, in some context or another. If a person of an ethnicity, profession, or religion we despise does something jerklike we will of course notice it and record it as one more example of how bad that ethnicity, profession, or religion is. On the other hand, if a person who does not belong to the hated group does the same jerklike thing, we fail to notice it. Likewise, if a member of the hated group does something remarkably unjerklike, we won’t notice that either. Only evidence that confirms our preconceived thought will enter our brains and take up permanent residence. (This also occurs with superstition. You tell me you know someone who broke a chain letter and they keeled over the next day Interesting, perhaps, but that someone died after breaking a chain letter does not prove a cause and effect relationship. It’s like the old joke about the guy wearing garlic to keep the vampires away. “How silly”, we say, but he points out that he hasn’t been bothered by vampires in years.)

This is simple human nature. It’s precisely why the scientific method was developed: to help us overcome the tendency for confirmatory or anecdotal evidence to carry excessive weight.

So, shouldn’t we simply label as “jerk” an individual who is one, who uses his religion to justify his despicable behavior, rather than imagine that that religion was somehow guilty by association? I mean, how much bigger proof do you need of someone’s status as “jerk” than the simple fact that he or she tried to justify his actions by claiming he was only doing what God told him to do?

Worse, if we condemn a religion, then we’re taking the testimony of an obvious jerk that he is a legitimate spokesperson for that religion. Doesn’t this strike anyone else as screwy? I’m going to take the word of a murderer that he can really give me profound insight into deep theological truth? Do I have “stupid” written on my forehead?

Do we really agree with the assassin of Yitzak Rabin when he claims his murder of the Prime Minister of Israel was justified by the Torah? Do we actually agree with the suicide bomber who believes the Koran really teaches that the killing of innocents serves God? Were the Crusades of the Middle Ages truly consistent with the teachings of Christ?

I don’t think so.

So let’s acknowledge that the world has jerks in it and that part of the definition of “jerk” is anyone who justifies his evil by daring to claim “God told me to do it; look, it’s right here in the book.”

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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One Response to Jerks

  1. Eric Miller says:

    Agree. But we who hold to a belief need to work to denounce the jerks (or worse) that do things in our name. We also need to pray and realize that we too can behave in ways that dishonor what we believe; that is, none of us is immune from being a jerk.

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