Updated September 2014 to address some objections.
Luke 14:26 If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.
The subject here is the word for hate, which is the Greek miseo. One Skeptic is typical of critics when he writes:
Most Christians feel obligated to soften the face meaning of the word 'hate' to something like 'love less than me,' even though the Greek word miseo means 'hate.'
In line with this comment, Skeptics will stress the meaning of the word "hate" and insist that the word must be read literally, and that Jesus is truly preaching hate. But in fact, the "softening" is correct to do -- and is perfectly in line with the context of the ancient world, and the Jewish culture in particular.
For a background on the use of extreme and hyperbolic language in the Bible, I direct the reader first to my foundational essay (link below) on this subject. Abraham Rihbany (The Syrian Christ, 98f) points to the use of "hate" in the Bible as an example of linguistic extreme in an Eastern culture. There is no word, he notes, for "like" in the Arabic tongue. "...[T]o us Orientals the only word which can express any cordial inclination of approval is 'love'." The word is used even of casual acquaintances. Extreme language is used to express even moderate relationships.
Luke 14:26 falls into a category of "extreme language," the language of absoluteness used to express a preference, and may refer to disattachment, indifference, or nonattachment without any feelings of revulsion involved. To seal this matter completely, let's look at some parallel materials which prove our point. The closest example comes from Genesis 29:30-1:
And he went in also unto Rachel, and he loved also Rachel more than Leah, and served with him yet seven other years. And when the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb: but Rachel was barren.
Here, "hated" is clearly used synonymously with one who is loved less. Let it be added that if Jacob hated Leah in a literal way, it is hardly believable that he would consent to take her as his wife at all. (See also Judges 14:16 and Deut. 21:15-17.)
Now here is another example from Jesus, Luke 16:13:
No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.
Such extremes of feeling would be atypical, but the extremes are not meant to be taken literally; the point is that one master will get more dedicated labor than the other.
Now let's move into some secular works with the same sort of hyperbolic language. Fitzmeyer's Lukan commentary offers this example from Poimandes 4:6:
If you do not hate your body first, O child, you will not be able to love yourself.
Would critics suppose that this teaches literal hatred of the physical body? It does not -- it emphasizes the need to give preference to the whole self before the body alone. Literal hate of the body would have us cutting it with razors or hitting it with blunt objects -- an extreme practiced in some Eastern faiths, but not among the Greeks.
Here is another example from a war song in the Poetae Lyrici Graeci (see James Denney, "The Word 'Hate' in Lk. 14:26," Expository Times 21, 41-42): it is said that in battle, men "must count his own life his enemy for the honor of Sparta" -- is this a literal hatred of one's own life being taught? No! It is emphasizing the need to make one's life secondary for Sparta's sake. Here's a final example from Epictetus 3.3.5: "The good is preferable to every intimate relation." This is just a more abstract version of Luke 14:26!
Those who think that Jesus is preaching literal and misogynist hate in this verse are anachronizing.
"The word used in Greek is quite explicit, it means hate!"
The first error of this point is that Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek. So whatever word he spoke in Aramaic that was translated "hate" but be judged in terms of the linguistic tendencies of those who spoke Aramaic. As Rihbany shows us, that means hyperbolic excess.
"All those other references from the Old Testament and Greece could be read as literal hate!"
No, they cannot, and I explained why not in each case.
"Yes they can be! Kierkegaard explained how. He said that hatred was an ethical expression."
It would be enough in response to simply note the absurdity of appealing to the views of a 19th century European when judging the intentions of members of a collectivist, agonistic society. But we may further explain that any idea of "hatred as an ethical expression" is simply foreign to such a cultural setting. Kierkeegard, in Fear and Trembling, "Problem Two," explained Luke 14:26 as reflecting "absolute duty towards God" and rejects an explanation like ours on the rather strained grounds that the parable that follows, about the building of the tower, indicated a more fundamentalist reading. It does not. The parable is told as an illustration of forsaking all one has (14:34). The obvious parallel is to those who really did so, the Apostles, who obviously did not "hate" their families in the literalist sense, as they continued to be with them (e.g., as Peter was still married). Kierkegaard is incorrect to say that the word must be "taken in as terrible a sense as possible." It also could not possibly be reconciled with the order to love others if read so literally. (Rather tellingly, Kierkegaard evades explaining how, in practice, we are to "hate" these others while still loving them, and settles for deeming it a paradox.)
"We can argue a literal interpretation from all those people who gave up their wealth to follow Jesus!"
No, we cannot, because the number who were told to do so was only a tiny fraction of believers. Men like Nicoedemus were not told to give away their wealth. Nor was Zaccheus. Nor were Ananias and Sapphira told to give away all they had. The obvious point is that having money does not always mean one is serving money.
"Hatred here means the truth is betrayed by your actions!"
That is nothing more than a contrivance to accommodate a literalist reading. The far simpler explanation is that this statement, made in a social world within which dramatic language was the norm, is intended hyperbolically.