—Reverend Lovejoy, The Simpsons

Have you ever sat down and read this thing? Technically we're not allowed to go to the bathroom.

Cafeteria Christians pick and choose laws and doctrines of Christianity as if they are at a cafeteria. Cafeteria Christianity is very common, in the USA the majority pick and choose which parts of Christianity to believe, sometimes mixing in beliefs from other Religions. Indeed believers need to be cafeteria Christians to function properly in society, for why see below.

The Bible[]


You get cafeteria Christianity, a kind of shopping for ideas you approve of. They turned out to be right for the wrong reasons, because I think that once you admit that there are in scripture large sections that by our standards are not just inappropriate but scarcely moral - such as the justification of slavery.

Following the teachings of the Bible doesn't fit the modern world since the oldest parts of the Old Testament are in the region of 5,000 years old while the New Testament is roughly 2,000 years old. So modern Christians frequently look to society for moral guidance and overlook or reinterpret parts of the Bible that conflict with present day attitudes. This can mean more Liberal Christians accepting openly gay clergy, approving of gay marriage and the like.

See "Contradictions in the Bible for why the Bible has been described as "the big book of multiple choice." Indeed following one Bible teaching can in some cases force the practitioner to break a different teaching in a different part of the Bible that contradicts the first teaching.

  1. Is childbearing sinful? is just one example.
  2. Is it a a good thing to be childish? is another.

Some examples of conservative cafeteria Christianity not following the Bible include Christians who condemn homosexuality due to Leviticus 18:22, [2] then they ignore the rest of the book's laws on food, clothing, and other practices. There are also Christians who condemn witchcraft because of Leviticus 19:26-31 [3] but ignore the command to kill practitioners in Exodus 22:18. [4] Even Fred Phelps and the others of the Westboro Baptist Church don't use actual violence against gays, that would break man's laws and land them in jail. [5]It really looks as if almost all Christians, including those who call themselves fundamentalists, are cafeteria Christians. After all they condemn slavery even though there is plenty of support for that evil institution in both the Old and the New Testaments. [6]

Ordinary Christians and the Bible


Most Christians never read the Bible from cover-to-cover, despite the practice being widely encouraged. They read passages that come up in sermons and Bible studies, which are pretty much limited to the well-known stories and a few inspirational quotes. They also have no idea what doctrines their church teaches beyond the few basic ones that get emphasized in sermons.

So when ordinary Christians don't even know what's in the Bible there are plenty of chances for ordinary Christians to pick and choose what they read and what they believe. There are also chances for religious leaders to pick what their congregation reads.

Twisting the Bible
If picking and choosing doesn't work believers can always twist the Bible or publish their own versions pretending the Bible says what they want it to say.


They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch. They are joined by religious rationalizers—fundamentalists who, unable to find Scripture supporting their biases and beliefs, twist phrases and modify translations to prove they are honoring the Bible’s words.

Criticism and alternatives[]

Some Christians look down on other Christians and say/think along the lines of, “We follow the faith strictly, those others are lax.” The outsiders may be called Cafeteria Christians, this suggests that the people in question keep parts of Christianity they personally like, reject what they dislike and assemble their beliefs based on what makes sense for them.

Cafeteria Christian suggests that Christianity is followed casually, without strong Christian principles. This is true of some Cafeteria Christians but others are committed, see below. Cafeteria Christians may treat Christianity like a consumer good choosing which doctrines and practices they personally like and rejecting what they dislike. Frequently Cafeteria Christians choosing for themselves tend to choose the easy bits.

C and E Christian
Christians without a strong commitment are sometimes called "C and E Christian" or "Christer" combining Christmas and Easter in one word and implying they only pay attention to Christmas and Easter. Those two holidays pay off in Christmas presents and Chocolate bunnies.

"C of E" also refers to the Church of England (i.e. a branch of the Episcopalians) and this coincidence gives people the chance to make jokes about worldliness and lack of devoutness in some Episcopalians.
Note: Committed members of the Church of England tend to call themselves Anglicans rather than "C of E".

Another terms not connected with the Church of England is "Sunday morning Christian".

Fundamentalists and Liberals compared
The Religious Right in the United States prefer punishment, war and self defense notably with guns. They value rich people and fight efforts by the state to help poor people. American Liberal Christians value love, forgiveness and the like. Liberal Christians value compassion for poor people and try to help poor people in the most effective way, this is likely to include state help. The Religious Right despise American Liberal Christians but in reality both sides pick and choose, the two sides just choose differently.

Fundamentalists like Jack Chick, are so out of touch they may have trouble functioning in the real world. Still even they pick and choose far more than they admit. Who can follow Christian morality fully and remain an effective person?

Alternatives to Cafeteria Christianity

  1. One alternative is letting religious groups and religious leaders tell the faithful what to believe and how to behave. Letting religious groups and leaders determine beliefs is also sometimes called Cafeteria Christianity but mostly Cafeteria Christianity has the image of individuals choosing beliefs for themselves. Religious leaders are more likely to impose harsh rules on their followers though influential people involved in religious organisations are sometimes caught doing what they condemn in others, see Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Michael Johnston, George Alan Rekers, Jimmy Swaggart, Prosecutor Bill Higgins and very many others.
    1. Some sects and denominations even have their own version of the Bible that fits their specific beliefs.
      1. The Roman Catholic Church is one example of of a denomination with its own Bible, additionally the Pope and other groups from the Church hierarchy can supplement what the Bible teaches.
      2. The Jehovah's Witnesses are another denomination with their own Bible and they have a governing body to interpret the Bible for them.
      3. Mormons have the Book of Mormon which they believe supplements the Bible and men considered Prophets can add to Mormon teachings.
  2. Another alternative which may go with religious leaders determining things is reading the Bible in a dogmatic, conservative way to decide beliefs and behaviour. In this second case rigid tradition based on choices religious groups, religious leaders and individuals made long ago determine beliefs and behaviour rather than present day individual choices. Dogmatic Christians True believers of this type are Fundamentalist Christians, accept possibly Geocentrism. [9] and certainly Young Earth Creationism.


—Roman Catholic commentator John Wilkins[10]

It can deal with it [The gap between Roman Catholic orthodoxy and what ordinary Catholics believe and do] in two ways - either by clamping down from the top, which runs the risk of reducing the Church to a small sect, or by adapting its teaching

In the case of "Cafeteria Catholics", the choice of following or abandoning doctrine is clearer, since the Roman Catholic Church at least officially has clear-cut rules for its followers. That doesn't prevent disobedience though.


The Vatican is beginning to recognize that disobedience in the church is now the norm. In the United States and Europe, from whence most Vatican income streams, there are far more Excommunicated Catholics in the pews than there are doctrinally-compliant Catholics.

Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University found UK Roman Catholics still generally see themselves as Catholics but trust their own moral judgement more than traditional Church doctrine when deciding what is the right or wrong way to act. [10] A worldwide survey of Roman Catholic opinion found widespread disagreement with Church teachings throughout the developed world. Notable areas of disagreement were over abortion, contraception, divorce, the ordination of women and married men. [12] [13] [14]

  1. Pope Benedict XVI wanted for a smaller, more faithful Church and tried to get Cafeteria Catholics out of the Church. Many resisted and since their money supported the Church doing anything about that was hard. [11]
  2. Pope Francis aims for a larger, more inclusive Chruch. [15] Francis follows similar doctrines to Benedict but he sees Cafeteria Catholics as lost sheep to be saved. [16] Francis tries to keep Cafeteria Catholics within in the Church giving them the message that the Church loves them despite their sin. This combination of love and strong criticism can be deeply hurtful for believers. [17]

Still Francis hopes some may be persuaded back to orthodoxy. Gradually Francis is playing down the sins of Non-Orthodox Catholics. Gradually the new pope seems to accept that he can't change the Cafeteria Catholics and changes style so Cafeteria Catholics can feel included. Francis is playing down the supposed sins of Cafeteria Catholics insisting that other sins matter more. Francis hints that dramatic changes are happening in the Church but there is confusion over how much is really changing. [18]

Women, gays and dissident Catholics who had fresh hope are going to have to face the reality that while this pope is a huge improvement on the last, the intolerance is still there. We are still going to be discriminated against, but with a smile instead of a frown. Maybe a frown is more honest. – (New York Times service)[19]

Why the Catholic leadership is out of touch with followers
The pope is almost always a man over 70[20] and at that age most people find it hard to adjust to change, influential men in the Holy See are also elderly. The RC hierarchy believe they, especially the pope have a direct line to God, it's not up to them to adjust to change in the world, rather the world is out of touch with God. This system worked till the 20th century but today social change is happening faster than ever in history before.

The rift between Roman Catholic leaders and followers widened steadily over the decades. Social change is accelerating and so the gulf between leaders and ordinary Catholics widened steadily faster.

  1. The Church hierarchy could modernise and get better in touch with what modern people want but under John Paul II and Benedict XVI that looked unlikely.
  2. Alternatively the problem of Catholics who reject traditional beliefs will intensify over time and before Pope Francis that looked more likely.
  3. Today the position isn't clear, Very early in his reign Pope Francis seemed to clamp down hard on Disobedient nuns and also on at least one Disobedient priest, Fr Greg Reynolds. As he gets more experience Francis seems to accept that he can't defeat the Cafeteria Catholics and is adjusting the Church to accommodate Cafeteria Catholics without officially changing doctrine.

Increasing proportions of ordinary Roman Catholics, even Priests and Nuns refuse to follow the whole of Church teaching. Conservative critics call them cafeteria Catholics and Catholics in name only but naturally Catholics who don't accept the whole of RC doctrine see themselves differently.

Cafeteria Catholic beliefs
Cafeteria Catholics do not follow aspects of Church doctrine that they disagree with (such as the Church refusing to accept abortion, birth control, divorce, gay marriage, marriage for priests, ordination of women). Many cafeteria Catholics are devout Christians and ethical people who disagree with parts of Roman Catholic doctrine.

  1. Supporters see cafeteria Catholics as intelligent people who refuse to follow unreasonable dogma blindly.
  2. Opponents believe cafeteria Catholics ignore church teachings in order to rationalize a sinful lifestyle. [21]
    1. Of course many who support gay marriage aren't gay and don't want to marry anyone of their own sex, they just think gay people should be free to marry each other.
    2. Many who support women's ordination don't themselves want to be woman priests and may be men. Many who support allowing priests to marry don't themselves want to be married priests. How is being a married priest or a woman priest a sinful lifestyle?

Apathetic Cafeteria Catholics
An alternate, Catholic-specific term to "C and E Christians" is "Lily and Holly Catholics," where the lily refers to Easter and the holly to Christmas (i.e. those Catholics who allegedly only attend church twice a year for these holidays).

History and modern times[]

Christians have been picking and choosing individually and collectively what to follow since Biblical times. The beliefs and practises of the of the early Christians were different from modern Christianity.

John Calvin, Martin Luther, early Church fathers, Jesus, all were cafeteria religionists. There always have been fresh religious innovations or heresies depending on viewpoint but in the late 20th century and 21st century there appears to be more of this. People develop their own ideas and are less inclined to accept authority without question. This leads to increased atheism and freethought among some people. Among those with faith there is more tendency to decide for oneself what to believe.

Cafeteria-style religion is an understandable result of the core values of American society. (...) no one has a monopoly on truth, different truths can be found in different religions, and the truth of each individual is his or her own truth and need not be the truth of any other. Furthermore, Christianity is considered "old-fashioned" (...) Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are different, "new" to us, and therefore more "exciting." And since Americans have always been skeptical of authority figures, the idea of a God who dictates what is right and wrong absolutely is a challenge, and it is easier to explore one's own spirituality. It is no wonder, therefore, that so many create their own religion out of different pieces from major belief systems! [22]

As shown Above though some strongly disagree with modern style religion. Those who see the Bible as revealed truth are likely to believer their personal interpretation of revealed truth or that of their church is absolute and anything else is wrong. [22]

Committed Cafeteria Christians[]

Cafeteria Christians may be quite committed but they tend to be committed to their own idiosyncratic type of Christianity. New age material like Reincarnation and/or material from some popular publications like "The Da Vinci Code" may be mixed with more standard Christian concepts for example. This type of Christianity can change every few years as popular religious fashions change. Believers in Non-Christian religions also mix religious ideas from different sources and add the mix to whatever they're used to. Many Cafeteria Christians and cafeteria religionists shun organised religion. [23]

Passages from the Bible are quoted that support the distinctive viewpoint of the cafeteria Christian while other passages which contradict that viewpoint are ignored. Bible quotes may be unintentionally misleading because cafeteria Christians do not know enough Theology to understand the real meaning and context of scriptures they use. [24]

By contrast selective quoting and selective interpretation of scripture by those who have studied the theology of a denomination in depth is done in a more organised way and follows the Memeplex of that particular denomination.

There is a good and a a bad side to Christianity, see the category page

See also[]


External links[]

Adapted from RationalWiki and Iron Chariots