Over the last week or two I have been writing posts which some people have responded to with the claim to know that something is a revelation from a god. This is a baseless claim, as I said in a recent comment, and it is time to address it straight on, because this claim is at the root of most of the evil of which religion is a source — an amount that is not small. In a fairly well-known essay, Richard Rorty once pointed out that religion is a conversation stopper. As soon as God is introduced into a conversation, there is nothing more to be said. In a comment on the last post, Bob Wheeler has this to say:
The human race cannot simply go on, century after century, ignoring God’s Law and exploiting each other for our own selfish purposes, and expect that nothing will happen to us. The fact that God is a God of love does not mean that He simply ignores evil. At the end of the day someone has to pay the piper.
You see? Conversation over! All it takes is the claim that there is a law that we are ignoring, and that there is a price to be paid for this ignorance, and what more can be said? It is as if Bob is sitting on the papal throne, and he is speaking ex cathedra. He knows, and so he gets to tell us all what is true, period, end of story.
What possible basis could he give for making this claim? He would have to refer immediately to a tradition in which such a claim might be made, a tradition which, in turn, would be countered by someone from a different tradition, who has received a different law, and walks humbly with a different god. What could either possibly say to the other which would be convincing? The Muslim refers to the Qu’ran, a book which is largely a pastiche of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian sayings, only partly assimilated, and often poorly understood. The Jew refers to the Tanach, but especially to the Torah, and its commandments, a loose assemblage of different writings spanning centuries, or, as Tom Thompson suggests, is a very late collection deliberately used to define a people who were to occupy Palestine for Persian colonial interests, no doubt incorporating local myths and stories to add plausibility. The Christian then refers us to Jesus, and to the words and stories about him contained in the New Testament, a book which has that name because of the Christian belief that the Jewish covenant (or testament) is now null and void — though it is plausible to think that Christians misunderstood their Jewish predecessors (as well as their contemporaries) very badly. And try as they might, Christians cannot simply expunge that meaning from their sacred text. And the stories about Jesus are so worked over that they only doubtfully refer to an historical person, even if there was someone at the begining of the story-telling around which the stories cystallised. So, limiting ourselves to these three monotheisms, we have first, the Jews, to whom God’s promises were made; we have, second, the Christians, who hold themselves to have received God’s new promises in Christ, and who also hold that those promises were sealed in the blood of God’s son, Jesus Christ, whom, by their perfidy, the Jews killed; and then we have, third, the Muslims, who believe that they have received a final revelation from God, and that God’s word to Jews and Christians is no longer a living word of the only god, whether or not this is the same god who encountered the Christians and the Jews.
And then, of course, in addition to all this we have all the other religions of the world, small and large, with their sacred traditions and stories, and commandments by which they are told to live. Many, if not all, of them, toil busily in that field labelled “Revelation,” whose harvest is so mixed that it is impossible to sort out what might and might not be revealed, supposing that some of it is. I can understand why someone within a tradition might think, in ignorance of other claims, that there is something objective about the demands that the tradition makes upon them. But once you have encountered another sacred tradition, then you must hold either that that other tradition is in itself inherently evil, because opposed to yours, which, of course, is the truth, or you have to face the fact that there is nothing that you can point to that the other cannot also point to in order to claim that this (for any this) is a revelation from God.
But it gets worse than that. For there is not a religious tradition that has not commanded people to do evil things, things which we can all agree to be evil (if we set aside for a moment our bias in favour of our own tradition). And no one gets off scot-free here. Believers as well as unbelievers have done evil things, basing themselves on their belief or unbelief. It is hopeless to try to weigh objectively the evil that believers and unbelievers have done. Of course, most of the evil in the world has been done by religious believers, since it is only recently that unbelief has been a live option for more than a very very few, and even now unbelief is a minority pursuit. But the real trouble is that the laws that people believe come from a god have often commanded evil. Notable cases include the commandment to Abraham to sacrifice his son — a story which is only meaningful if Abraham actually intended to do it, and thought it was commanded by God — the various genocides in the Jewish scriptures, the antisemitism of Christianity and Islam, and the horrible things done by Mohammed in the name of his god, not to mention the entirely numbing repetition in the Qu’ran of the fate that awaits those who will not submit to Mohammed’s god.
Considering all these things with some dispassion, the suggestion that any of these supposedly sacred texts and traditions contain revelations from a god is simply ludicrous, and the claim should stop being made. While it is true that, once the claim has been made, the use of human reason and even evidence can be brought into play to unfold complex and nuanced understandings of the supernatural realms supposedly revealed in the purported texts and events, and how these supposed realities are related to human life, it is simply preposterous to suggest that there is any basis for believing these texts or those events to be revelatory of something beyond mere human understanding. What we have, in each case, is human understanding attempting to protect an area of absolute certainty from question or dispute. Of course, even that is unsuccessful, for every known revelation has had different interpretations, and dispute has reigned even at the centre of the traditions. Attempts are made by some religious institutions to outlaw dispute, and to define in clear and unambiguous terms the truth supposedly revealed. The Roman Catholic idea of the Magisterium is arguably, with some qualifications, one such attempt to create a pretended objectivity.
It should no longer be possible, in this day and age, when we have sources of such reliable information and systems of knowledge which not only describe in detail the fabric of the universe and the web of life, but can actually be put to use in improving the conditions of life for us all, except that this will only be possible in the long term only if we have the will to control things like the consumption of resources, and the steadily increasing population of the world which makes the former all but impossible. The fact that we know how to do it, is a staggering difference between knowledge before and knowledge after the scientific revolution of the last four centuries. It is interesting that it is religion, primarily, which opposes birth control, and the means necessary to control populations, the failure to do which could bring disaster, not only upon our own species, but upon the life with which we share the world. Yet two great religious systems, the Roman Catholic and the Muslim, refuse to countenance the control of population, and the freedom of women which would make this possible. Basing themselves on the almost unbelievable hubris of the religious mind, both Muslims and Roman Catholics (and Eastern Catholics as well in the Orthodox tradition), and many Protestant evangelical fundamentalists, believe that they are commanded by their god or gods (for how could we determine the identity of gods?) to multiply without controls of any kind, to populate the earth and subdue it. Many of them even go so far as to suggest that God would not have commanded this if we should have come thereby to any harm. The blindness as well as the hubris of religion knows no bound!
And yet, we are told, it is based on a word from God himself! What else do these gods command? So many many things, foolish, mad things as well things which are sane and good. Strange rituals of submission, times of prayer, positions for sex, rules about marriage, honour, subordination of women, condemnation of homosexuality, belief in other gods (whichever god you adhere to, your adherence is condemned by the adherents of some other god), apostacy, disbelief, blasphemy (loosely interpreted to mean insulting gods’ messengers or prophets or servants, holy books, buildings, geographical sites, etc. as well as gods’ names), a veritable caravanserai of prohibited and encouraged or commanded things. But if you were to ask one of the adherents of these different gods for some evidence that these things were either prohibited or commanded, they would immediately point you to something said or written by men (and perhaps a few women, though mostly religious texts have been written by men).
And of course it shows! For in holy texts women are almost uniformly disadvantaged and second listed. Religions are created by men, and many of their rules and prohibitions are used to control the lives of women. Women, sadly, many of them still not liberated from these male creations, and still believing that at the heart of these religious traditions a god has spoken to some man, who has, in turn, written down at god’s dictation or inspiration, are content to permit their lives and the lives of their children to be moulded and perverted by something entirely made up by men. Doubtless, at the heart of these traditions there are experiences of real value, experiences which, for some, are transformative and compelling, but they nevertheless have the effect of binding everyone, or nearly everyone who comes into contact with them. There are good evolutionary and psychological/neurological explanations for the powerful binding effect of religious stories and their promises, but there is nowhere a satisfactory demonstration that any of these complex cultural products originate with a god or gods, no sign or demonstration that these are genuine revelations of the mind and purposes and will of a god. This is no longer an acceptable move in the argumentative game. Whenever anyone tries to tell us, as Bob Wheeler does in the portion of a comment with which I began, that there is a law of God to which we must pay attention or pay the price, the first thing that must be shown is that a god established these laws, and that they can be reliably and confidently traced to that god’s dictation. Otherwise, it is as if nothing more has been said than that these are rules which are observed and commended by the person who attributes them to his god. To which the only reasonable answer is: “Okay, now what?”