God does not provide any clear or obvious communications to mankind. It has all knowledge about itself passed by word of mouth from human to human, deciding to send some revelations to individual people which have unfortunately been contradictory. Despite the number of clearly false messages, many holy books demand that believing in signs and messengers is the good and holy thing to do and they declare terrible punishments for those who fail to believe correctly. The fundamental epistemological problem is that it is impossible for anyone to verify the original message.
All evidence points to human-psychology being the source of divine communications. Religious texts have all been delivered to men - and throughout the entire Jewish Scriptures and Old Testament, God never talks directly to any woman1, mirroring precisely the patriarchal structure of traditional societies. It seems that human culture, not divine culture, is apparent in divine texts. Such texts contain large quantities of non-religious historical content. But none of that content has ever revealed any non-human knowledge. Scientist Victor Stenger notes that "Biblical and Qur'anic statements about the natural world, look exactly as you would expect them to look if there was no new knowledge being revealed - just what was the human understanding of the day. That is, they look as if there is no God who speaks to humanity through scriptures or other revelations" (2007)2.
This has led to uncountable errors, mistranslations, disagreements, sects, divisions and then disputes, conflicts, violence and war, sometimes on large scales. Given how many wrong revelations there have been, it is clear that no-one is compelled to believe any of them - not even the recipients, and it is probably safer and wiser to have a policy of non-belief in revelation. God could very easily reveal pure truth to everyone simultaneously and therefore put an end to all battles between different religions, but it does not feel morally compelled to do so. The only sensible conclusion is that God doesn't care about what we humans believe, nor does it care about what the effects of non-belief are.
Traditional world religions all began with the oral transmission of stories from God to prophets, and from prophets to others. But this universally proven to be a very unreliable mechanism for preserving the truth. You'd think an all-knowing God would have known better!
We humans have a set of instinctive behaviours when it comes to telling stories; we naturally embellish, exaggerate, cover up doubts about the story and add dramatic and cliff-edge moments. We do this because we are genetically programmed to try to tell good stories. These subconscious side-effects of our social instincts have a downside: we are poor at accurately transmitting stories even when we want to.4. All the major world religions went through periods of oral transmission of their founding stories, and the longer this state persisted the more variant the stories became5. Hundreds of years of oral tradition in Buddhism led to communities in different regions thinking that the Buddha gained enlightenment in the 5th century BCE, the 8th, the 9th or even in the 11th century BCE and each community thinks it has received the correct information through its oral transmission6. A scientific study of Balkan bards who have memorized "traditional epics rivaling the Iliad in length show that they do not in fact retain and repeat the same material verbatim but rather create a new version each time they perform it" based around a limited number of memorized elements7. A sign of untrustworthiness is that as stories spread they often become marvellous, more sure of themselves, more fantastic and, more detailed rather than less8.”
Thomas Paine deliberated over these problems at length, and concluded that it was not sensible to imagine God communicating by such arbitrary and poor methods. We cannot approach the truth by simply trusting what people say because we know that huge numbers of people have incorrect beliefs.
“No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make [direct revelation]. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it.”
Most religions teach that ultimate reality is revealed to humanity in a series of steps. Despite this, most religions also claim to embody final truth. This contradiction is most pronounced in the classical monotheistic religions: Jews believe their religion to be the result of a new eternal covenant between God and man, replacing the polytheistic paganism of their era. But Christians believe that Moses and Abraham were only given partial truth and that Jesus was then given the next set of revelations, washing away the Old Testament and establishing a new final word - in Matthew 5:18 it says very clearly that the word cannot ever change, although John 16:12-13 admits that people are not yet ready for the full truth so some things are not yet revealed. Then comes the Qur'an, superseding the New Testament with another even newer final word from God. The eternal and perfect text of the Qur'an is held in heaven and Muhammad is another final "seal of the prophets" (Qur'an 33:40, 5:19, et al.). Yet he has been followed by Bab and Baha'u'llah of the Bahá'í Faith who too claim to be the latest messengers of God11. The sequence of messiahs continues and what is revealed by one, is annulled by another. It isn't just monotheistic religions that are at it; the teachings of the Buddha are divided into "Sudden" and "Gradual" teachings, and people must learn the more superficial doctrines before moving up to the more profound ones12.
Despite its appearance in formal doctrine and holy texts, the idea of sequential revelation doesn't make sense. (1) There is no reason for God to deceive entire cultures with claims that the latest revelation is the last - we cope with changes in knowledge without all going crazy. (2) The illusion of finality causes religious conflicts to be prone to violence and aggression, because 'belief' is raised to a matter of life and death. A benevolent God would simply tell everyone the truth, or, make it clear that it doesn't matter what we believe. The middle-ground of gradual-instruction is very destructive. (4) Many of the specific things revealed by religion differ from revelation to revelation in a haphazard manner; there is no sense in which religion is gradually getting closer to final theological truth. What this all tells us has more to do with human nature than divine truth: in reality, the only clear evidence from the proliferation of different religions is that if there is a god, it doesn't mind who believes what.”
If God is good in nature and its message is true, and the message of god is important for us, then it holds to reason that a good god would want human beings to know that message13. God in its omnipotence can immediately impart the correct knowledge directly into our consciousness. I am sure it also has the know-how to do it in a non-harmful way given that it designed our brains down to the functioning of millions of neuronal connections and neurotransmitters, etc. Put another way: It must be true that we all already know the most-important things that God wants us to know. Whatever various religions, prophets, seekers, mystics and holy spokespeople say is not exactly what God wants us to know. There is no reason for a good god, which wants the truth to be known, to convey important messages to individual human beings, in specific human languages, and allow us to spread the message using our own imperfect communication methods. As soon as people start translating it, explaining it to each other and writing it down then the message becomes reliant upon cultural understanding. It will dilute, get misunderstood, and it is sure that different communities will come to interpret the message differently, leading to schism and confusion, and as history has shown, to violence and bloodshed. Therefore, God's important messages are universal, imparted directly into all of our hearts and minds, and are therefore not made subject to human communications errors. If goodness comes from god, then given their historical mistakes, their culture-specific language, moral shortcomings and the social strife that results from their existence, holy books cannot possibly be from God. The whole idea of cultivating the True Religion via the orally-transmitted stories of itinerant and illiterate preachers such as Jesus and Mohammad, in (often obscure) human languages, is nonsensical.
If God wants someone to know the facts about a particular religion, then it would automatically make that person know. What God wants, it can do, because God is all-powerful. If God is also perfectly good, then if it is right for someone to know something then God will let them know it. If it is right to know something, then, a good God is compelled to let people know it directly.
Evangelism therefore is pointless. It is senseless for religious adherents to go around telling people about their religious views if they believe in an all-powerful or perfectly good God. An all-powerful good god will want (and can!) give anyone any knowledge it is good for them to have. It is not the job of religious adherents to run around trying to pretend to know what God wants people to know!
The reasons for evangelism are probably more selfish than theological; to do with (1) personal ego, (2) public image and (3) Earthly influence. They think that if they evangelize they will (4) get themselves into heaven and (5) increase their own sense of self-worth (deluded psychology).
But it is obvious that evangelists are going against God's will, if God has a will. If God wanted someone to know something, and it was right for them to know it, God would tell that person directly. There is no point in doing it any other way. The only reason people need to tell each other things about religion is if it is things that God doesn't think it is best for them to know. This absurd state of affairs means that evangelists are least godly, trusting least in the abilities of God to tell people what they need to know!
The fact that God appears not to have given us, as a species, any information about transcendent reality is a big hint that God does not mind what our beliefs are. Based on the evidence, it appears that the correct way, god's way, to discover the truth is to look at the evidence, judge things for ourselves, and to use our brains. In other words, science and skeptical philosophizing appear to be the precise way in which God wants us to learn. We know this from the lack of important-truths which are conveyed to us directly by God.
Many do not dare to dismiss the world's religions. Each is supported by miracles that prove their principles, and supported by prophets and mystics who have personal knowledge that prove the truth of their own religion. Yet they produce contradictory doctrine, different descriptions of God, and vastly differing instructions on how to live and what to do. The conflict that this causes has led some to argue that god itself is evil, and seeks to maximize human conflict:
“Religions that fight each other tend to make their adherents believe in them even more strongly. Group solidarity comes into effect: when you have enemies, you keep a closer grip on your friends and also reinforce your own group identity. So, an evil God would appear to mankind in a variety of guises and preach a number of powerful, but conflicting, religions. It would therefore create maximum confusion, and maximum suffering, through war and intolerance. It would preach to each religion that its followers were right and other followers were wrong! These groups would all wholeheartedly believe that as God (or, the gods) has revealed the truth to them, other religions must be wrong and ungodly. That way, most of the weak, inferior, pathetic people that the evil god creates would fall foul of one religion or another, and be duped! Once duped, they'd cling to the lies even more the stronger because of the existence of competing religions. An evil God, indeed, would do this, and this is exactly the state the world is in. Coincidence? If there is a God, it is surely evil!”
The other alternative is that God has no opinion over what religions we follow (if any). If God had an important message to convey it would not select a single person and whisper into his ear secretly and then wait for the word to spread. The fact that people think that God would communicate like this has been the cause of much suffering in history. Cult leaders, false religions and people-who-hear-voices would all be limited in their harm if the common-sense view was taken that human psychology and delusion were the most likely causes of divine revelation.
It simply isn't the case that a god is trying to reveal truth to us via prophets, or via messages sent to individuals to be transmitted via human languages. These methods are poor. If God wants us to know certain things, then, it has already imparted them into us innately, accurately and clearly via our genes and instincts.
Skeptical thinker Guy Harrison ponders why it is that the world's religious books can contain messages which are wrong, and yet convince so many (billions of people) that they are God's true revelations:
“If one of these books really is a direct message from a god, then why has it failed so miserably to convince so many people? [...] One says Jesus is a god; the other says Jesus is not a god. This means that, at the very least, more than a billion believers have been hoodwinked by a book that is not a message from a real god. The fact that one of these books must necessarily be false, yet still manages to convince so many people that it is true, shows how people can be entranced by a book that is just a book. And if that can be the case for one book, then it could be the case for all of them. [...]
There is no consensus on which gods are real or how these gods want us to worship them. Nobody can even agree on what the gods want us to eat or how they want us to dress. Disagreement and disunity is the rule for the world's believers.”
Historians have collected fourteen books and various fragments of the Sibylline Oracles, and they are referred to in respectful and amazed tones by ancient historians. Their predictions were widely held to be supernaturally accurate, and inspired by God. For example, Sejanus, a powerful General in the Roman Empire, who had a secretary write a book entitled "The Truths of the Sibylline Oracles, Proved by the Facts"18. Voltaire commented on this book in Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary19:
“[The book argues that] it was neccessary God to send on earth several sibyls one after the other; for He had no other means of teaching mankind. [...] They had certainly predicted all the events in the world, for Tarquinius Superbus bought three of their Books from an old woman for a hundred crowns. [The book says:] "Who can deny the fulfilment of their prophecies? Has not Virgil himself quoted the predictions of the sibyls?"”
But despite the trust and awe that these books inspired, it has been found that they were Christian forgeries based on an older pagan idea, with hidden Christian messages contained within them designed to give Christianity credence as a prophesized religion20. Many respectable people, including scholars and the most educated Romans, had been fooled by them, as we saw in Voltaire's comments above. This proves that belief that prophecies are genuine is easy to come by amongst credulous humans, and that it is easy to make people believe that texts have a divine source even when they are purely human products.
The Bible contains multiple forged texts. That is - texts that are written in the name of someone by an author who hides his own real identity. Bart Ehrman is the foremost scholar of the critical study of Biblical texts who has written many books on ideas which are now accepted by nearly all historians:
“Some have argued that the forged books that made it into the Bible (such as the Pastoral Epistles, and 3 other letters written in the name of Paul), were not 'bad' forgeries, but were written because their authors were inspired by the Holy Spirit. German scholar Kurt Aland articulated this view. The doublethink idea was that it was really the Holy Spirit that was writing, therefore, it would have been fraudulent to use their own name! In other words, some theologians have held that God sends messages that require Humans to put down other people's names as the author so that the reader wouldn't mistake God's message for their own message. But it makes very little sense, because it seems that all the authors put down other Human's names as the author. Not only that, but to believe that God would send a message in this way is to believe that God itself causes deceit and lies. It seems somewhat more honest to simply prepend writings with 'Thus says the Spirit' rather than to lie about the author.”
The Christian Bible and the Islamic Qur'an both contain verses where believers are greatly rewarded for trusting in signs, symbols, portends, dream visions and waking hallucinations of both the visual and aural type. People have acted on these, done God's will and preached God's revelations off of the back of them. Many a saint, prophet and revered holy man has been proclaimed as a result of their confidence in experience(s) they have had.
Conversely, many people in the Bible and the Qur'an have been punished, chastised, warned or even killed because they did not trust in signs sent to them, or in revelations proclaimed by others. In the example given in this text, remember that Balaam in Numbers 22:21-34 does not take heed when his donkey is resisting his commands. The donkey was resisting because it could see a sign from God (an angel). The man did not trust in his donkey's reluctance when he should have. He got away with merely apologizing to God for his sin. But more seriously, Qur'an 4:150-152 warns that unless you believe all of God's messengers, then you are as good as a disbeliever (destined for hell).
In the world's monotheistic religions then, it is the norm - the default - to expect people to believe anything that might be a sign from God. Such people are rewarded by God, and, those who do not do this, are sometimes punished by God. More verses from the Bible and the Qur'an are given below. Doubt is not an option.
However, there are a seemingly endless and continual stream of visions, dreams, signs, prophecies, prophets, wonders and warnings all of which are said to come from God. It is impossible to believe them all:
There are simply too many so-called prophets and signs from God. It is impossible to analyse every dream, every shape in the clouds, every proclamation from across the world that the divine will has been freshly ascertained. To do so is to lose all fidelity in any particular belief or practice.
Most of these signs contradict each other. Given that most of them contradict each other, if any of them are right it means that most of them are wrong.
There are many biological, neurochemical, electromagnetic and artificial causes of mystical experiences. These range from intentional devices such as LSD, to highly concocted laboratory experiments where electrical stimulation of the brain causes immediate transcendentalist feelings and experiences in subjects.
Given the above, it is clear that most events that would once be called religious, "from God", are actually purely man-made - even if it subconsciously or unwillingly so.
What is needed is objective criteria on which to judge such things. The best human endeavour along this road is the combination of psychology, psychiatry and neurology, all of which attempt to rule out physiological and biological causes of these types of events. The problem is that these sciences are so far advanced that no experiences remain unexplained.
We are left in the situation where no-one trusts new revelations on the basis that there already been so many firmly established religious traditions (which between them claim to know all there is to be known about spiritual matters), and that we know so many of the secular causes of such experiences, that we know their source is not divine. We now doubt - as psychologists have suspected since the dawn of psychology - that all mystics and prophets of God do in fact have their experiences sourced from purely Earthly and psychological phenomenon.
If you go down the route recommended by the holy books and accept all as possible signs from God then you end up with doctrinal anarchy where no religion nor belief can stand firm against the torrent of revelation. If you go down the path where you objectively attempt to judge what experiences are true or not, then you end up agreeing with the medical and scientific world that all such experiences are manmade. From a religious point of view, neither route in satisfactory. Luckily for them, most believers do not sit down for too long philosophizing over these issues.
How can we tell which mystical communications are from God? The question raises problems when we learn how many forged and fake prophecies there have been in history, that have actually come to be widely believed and trusted. Skeptics come to the conclusion that we should distrust all Human texts that claim to be divine because so far, all concluded investigations have found that such texts have been written by fallible Humans. But those who are influenced by Pascal's Wager would ask this question: isn't it safer to believer than to not?. But the problem is worse than having to make a choice between believing if a particular message is from God or not. Theologically, there is a greater risk than merely being wrong over what messages you accept.
“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
“Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.”
Any powerful spirit can pretend to be good. Even a being of complete evil, like Satan in the Christian Bible, is said to be able to appear 'as an angel of light' (2 Cor. 11:14). And in Islam, the Satanic verses were sneaked into the Qur'an by the devil, without Muhammad noticing that they were from the most evil being rather than angel Gabriel. That a being of complete evil can hide its true nature and appear as good is a genuine warning from world religions; how much easier must it be for lesser demons and naughty spirits to hide their lesser quantities of evil (e.g. 1 John 4:1). Some groups of early Christians thought that the entire Old Testament was written by an interloper; an evil god, that ought to be overthrown. Such dualistic battles are common in gnostic and mystery religions. We poor Human beings have little chance of determining who are the good, and who are the bad, in the world of gods, angels, demons and spirits.
In other words, it is theologically safer if you by default distrust all texts that claim to be divine. The above text is taken from my full page about Pascal's Wager: Pascal's Wager is Safer in Reverse: Picking a Religion is Dangerous Business. Here is the contents menu for that page:
The Book of Numbers in the Hebrew Scriptures / Old Testament contains two examples of some very limited communication methods used by God. Both would have serious deleterious consequences if we didn't ignore these verses.
Numbers 12:6 has God say "Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you, I, the Lord, will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream". But this is a clear-cut path to chaos and anarchy, and would immediately undermine all religion. If we trusted Numbers 12:6, then, it would mean that Christianity isn't true, because too many people have had visions of Krishna and Buddha. Likewise, Hinduism cannot be true because too many people have had visions of a monotheistic God. Instead, it must be the case that most visions are actually wrong - they are delusions and illusions. Fortunately for us, we have learnt much about human neurology and we know many of the physiological and neurological causes of visions (see: Experiences of God are Illusions, Derived from Malfunctioning Psychological Processes). We now know simply to disregard Numbers 12:6.
Numbers 22:21-34 tells a rather odd story where a man, Balaam, is travelling one way, when God wants him to go another. God's method of communication here - out of all the means available to the miracle-worker Creator of the Universe, is to have the donkey do things. At first the donkey merely resists because God sends an invisible angel to stand in their way, that only the donkey can see. The man, of course, has no idea why the donkey is being stubborn and strikes the donkey a few times. I could not think of a poorer method of communication than an unspeaking invisible angel. It is so daft that the Qur'an makes fun of it in Sura 31:19 - "indeed, the most disagreeable of sounds is the voice of donkeys". When the donkey speaks, things get a little clearer - eventually. The moral of the story is somewhat shaky: if an animal resists doing what you want, then do not make it obey you because it might be God trying to communicate with you.
The parables of Jesus are famous for two reasons. Firstly, because they are often catchy and often repeated by many in the influential Christian world. And secondly, because they are so confusing that consensus on their meanings is very rare, and, often in the New Testament itself it describes Jesus' very own disciples as not understanding them.
“It seems that not only does the Bible describe a God who is a very poor communicator, but that the Bible itself is communicated very poorly.”
It is theologically problematic that Jesus decided not to write anything down. For thousands of years, mistranslations of important Biblical verses have misinformed the masses on even important points, such as whether Jesus' mother was a virgin or not. The Bible has caused endless confusion with the irregularities, inconsistencies and ambiguities of its text. On top of that are the mistranslations, cultural misunderstandings and outright subjectivist attempts at exegesis by those who are genuinely and passionately trying to understand the core text of their religion. It seems that not only does the Bible describe a God who is a very poor communicator, but that the Bible itself is communicated very poorly.
It cannot be the case, therefore, that people need the Bible nor that people have to know the right things, or have the right beliefs, in order to fulfil God's plan. (In-)famous playwright Tim Rice once had this idea, too, and put it to verse...:
You'd have managed Peter better if you'd had it planned
Now why'd you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?
If you'd come today you could have reached a whole nation
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication!”
Jesus Christ Superstar (1971)
Written by Tim Rice
Sura 14:4 of the Qur'an says "And We sent not a Messenger except with the language of his people, in order that he might make (the Message) clear for them. Then Allah misleads whom He wills and guides whom He wills. And He is the All-Mighty, the All-Wise" (Mohsin Kahn translation).
Muhammad spoke in Arabic and Sura 20:113 confirms that the Quran is in Arabic. Sura 14:4 says that each people has a Messenger sent in their own language: The Arabic Qur'an is only for Arabs. As this is not the language of the rest of the world, then, Muhammad's message was not for those others. The Qur'an says in 16:36-37 that "every nation" has had a messenger, telling them to worship God. It is clear from the accounts of religious revelations from across various cultures and nations however, that most of those other messengers have differed from what Muhammad says. The Chinese and Japanese in the Far East, Native Americans and Aboriginees and the Indian subcontinent have not had messengers preaching the strict monotheism of Islam's kind.
It is clear that the God of the Qur'an has been having some serious communications issues, because all of these verses contradict another one: Qur'an 68:51-52 says that the message of the Qur'an "is nothing less than a Message to all the worlds" (or 'to all beings' depending on translation). But more verses say otherwise (as above) so the comment in 68:52 is probably the errant one.
Is the Qur'an clear? 3:7 says God has sent the Qur'an to us, but, there are some verses that are "ambiguous", containing "hidden meanings... no one knows its hidden meanings except Allah" but also only "men of understanding" will understand the message. Contradicting this, however, is 16:103 which says that the Qur'an is clear.