It seems that God's sole method of letting people know that it exists, or of promulgating correct beliefs, is via some pretty obscure methods. Excepting direct revelations to a very few number of people, God has all knowledge about itself passed by word of mouth from human to human. This limited and confusing way of communicating with us has led to uncountable numbers of chinese whispers, confusion, mistranslation and error, resulting in disagreements, sects, divisions, varying denominations, entirely different religions and dispute, conflict, violence and war, sometimes on large scales. Strangely, it also seems that direct revelation is nearly always given to mankind - for example there is no instance in the Jewish scriptures (Old Testament) of God talking directly to any woman1, and, causing additional problems, revelation is apparently restricted to classical and ancient languages. Many holy books are very clear that believing in signs is the good and holy thing to do, but, most of the same books have terrible punishments in store for those who have the wrong religious beliefs. This contradictory mess clearly shows us one thing: the vast majority of religious instruction that has surfaced in our history is a construct of human error. God, it seems, is a very poor communicator.
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 message. 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. If any of this comes from a good-natured creator-god, then one of these two options must be true:
God really has spoken to various prophets and messengers, and has given them all contradictory messages.
God does not mind what our beliefs are (and therefore religions are trivial).
The first option has been invoked by 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 second option, then, has seen concluded by some religious thinkers: God brings truth to humankind in a series of steps. So, Moses and Abraham were given partial truth, Jesus was then given the next set of revelations, Muhammad the next lot, and finally the Bahá'í faith embodies the most recent in the line of Abrahamic religions promulgated by God. Each wave of revelation is given 'when humanity is ready'. This idea has some problems:
Many of the scriptures of previous religions themselves claim to be universal and absolute. The Christian Bible and the Qur'an both demand and assert that nothing can be added or removed to them. This cannot be true, if God plans to later send another prophet.
God, being truthful, should be honest about the fact that it is revealing the truth in stages, and therefore avoid the massive conflicts that emerge when a new religion (i.e., Islam) emerges, as all would know that it was true.
If there is a series of prophets and holy books from God, then, it forces us to doubt all of our current religions and traditions because we know they will be revealed to be false; just like present religions sought to replace previous ones. Hence, a system of multiple prophets undermines trust in God's word in any form.
Many of the specific things revealed about god (unity / trinity / obscure / imminent) differ from religion to religion in a haphazard manner; there is no sense in which religion is gradually getting closer to theological truth.
There is little psychological or sociological evidence supporting the idea that we need to be shielded from the truth. Every conceivable position has already been explored if not by philosophers and thinkers, then at least by science fiction authors.
If God had an important message to convey it would not select a single person and whisper into his ear secretly. The fact that people think that God would communicate like this has been the cause of so 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.
If both option 1 and option 2 cannot be true; then it simply cannot be the case that God tries to reveal truth to us via prophets nor 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.
For more, see:
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.
If the question is phrased in terms of how we can tell which mystical communications to trust as being from God, and which not, when both the secular and divine type are devoutly believed in by those who experience the messages(s), we could ask: isn't it safer to believer than to not?. Phrased this way, it is another example of what is called "Pascal's Wager". 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.
The above paragraph is taken from my full page about Pascal's Wager; 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 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.
The Qur'an recognizes that there have been prophets of God that have come before Muhammad, including Moses (Musa), Abraham (Ibraham) and Jesus. It, rather sensibly, tries to explain why God has seemingly sent different messengers at different times. It starts with the following admission:
“Now has come to you Our Messenger making (things) clear unto you, after a break in (the series of) Messengers [...].”
Many verses repeat the idea that there were previous messengers before Muhammad. For examples see Qur'an 6:42, 13:38 and 15:10. The Qur'an teaches that peoples have an assigned book, and each people have a set duration, and that both only last for a set time. The Qur'an and Muslims therefore have a set term, after which they will no longer be valid. In the following three verses the Arabic word ajal is translated either as "people" or "age":
But things do not add up. Qur'an 57:9 says clearly that the God's message brings people from "utter darkness" into light. Fair enough - this is what you'd expect the Qur'an to say. But what was the worth in the previous messengers if people are still in utter darkness? Another contradiction arises from 33:40 where Muhammad is said to be a final "seal of the prophets", contradicting the verses that say that each people, and their assigned book, both have a limited duration.
Previous prophets include Moses (Musa), Abraham (Ibraham), Jesus and then Muhammad. What does the Qur'an say about these prophets?
“Those who ... wish to make distinction between Allah and His Messengers ... saying, "We believe in some but reject others," and wish to adopt a way in between. They are in truth disbelievers. And We have prepared for the disbelievers a humiliating torment. And those who believe in Allah and His Messengers and make no distinction between any of them (Messengers), We shall give them their rewards.”
Not only were there previous messengers and the likelihood of future ones, but, failure to believe in them (or believe other signs) means you are destined for hell as a nonbeliever (Qur'an 4:150-152). But of course there are many more prophets that just those popular ones. The world is awash with religions, denominations and folklorists, many of which produce a steady stream of prophets. It seems that if you ignore the wrong one, if you disbelieve in the wrong one, you could incur the eternal wrath of God and end up in hell. This is a true dilemma. There are some very strong contenders for the title of the next prophet, and the Bible and the Qur'an give clear warnings that missing the signs, and disbelieving in a sign, is a serious misdemeanour with eternal consequences.
Each major religion stamps the seal of finality on to the sequence of prophets. Judaism had God come and side with the Hebrews with an eternal covenant. But then in Christianity, Jesus was proclaimed the only begotten son of God itself and in Matthew 5:18 the Bible says that the word cannot ever change (hover over the verse to read it in full, it is very direct and clear). Then comes the Qur'an with its own strict and powerful statements that now only Muhammad is the prophet of God and that it is the text of the Qur'an, after all, that is held in heaven in eternal stasis - Muhammad, in Qur'an 33:40 is the (another) final "seal of the prophets". Yet he has been followed by Bab and Baha'u'llah of the Bahá'í Faith from Iran, persecuted and oppressed in Muslim lands. It, like some parts of the Qur'an, claims that there is a gradual sequence of prophets and its prophets are but the latest in the line, and the fulfilment of the prophecies of many religions, such as the Second Coming of Jesus Christ according to Christian doctrine. Hence, the sequence of messiahs continues and what is revealed by one, is annulled by another.
How is it possible for an outsider to ever be convinced by any the religions, claiming that their claims to truth are the final one, when so many have claimed the same thing, and so many religions contain so many divisions, all with different interpretations of the teachings of those many prophets? It is as if all prophets, and all religions, are simply man-made, culturally-born and temporary constructions.
By Vexen Crabtree 2012 Dec 13
Originally published 2011 Apr 17
Last Updated: 2013 Sep 14
Parent page: The Bane of Monotheism: Against Single-God Religions
The Koran. Translation by N. J. Dawood. Penguin Classics edition published by Penguin Group Ltd, London, UK. First published 1956, quotes taken from 1999 edition.
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
(2013) Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. Third edition. Published by Cornell University Press.
Stanton, Elizabeth C.. (1815-1902)
(1898) The Woman's Bible. Amazon's Kindle digital edition. Produced by Carrie Lorenz and John B. Hare. Public Domain.
Stenger, Prof. Victor J.
(2007) God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Published by Prometheus Books. Stenger is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, and a skeptical philosopher whose research is strictly rational and evidence-based.
(1764) Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary. Digital edition produced by Juliet Sutherland, Lisa Riegel and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. Accessed via Amazon.co.uk