When God Calls, Don’t Answer

August 18, 2010

People can convince themselves that some god or another makes special visits to them. Neuroscience, psychology, and sociology are investigating how these special experiences happen, and why people believe that a god has contacted them.

The sciences can explain the natural processes behind revelatory experiences. Religion still has the option of arguing that a God is really responsible for those natural processes. A more philosophical argument is additionally required to explain why these people are not really getting in contact with any supernatural being. Philosophy can refute the theological claim that such "contacts" are best explained by the hypothesis that a real God is responsible for these special experiences.

When we apply philosophical skepticism to theological claims, we are doing "atheology". A comprehensive guide to these philosophy-theology encounters is the subject of my new book, The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists, Believers and Everyone in Between.

Theology argues that the direct experience of personal revelation is really a direct encounter with something divine. However, there is no good reason to think that God is the best explanation. Too many violations of ordinary rationality are needed for arguing that revelations give good evidence for a God.

Revelations are a confused and contradictory mass of experiences. Whether revelations are assembled from different people of the same religion, or from people of different religions, they exhibit an immense variety. It is impossible to make any firm conclusions about what revelations mean, or even what they are really about. Frequently revelations are described as highly mysterious experiences, so they can't yield any information about anything beyond one's own psychology. Even when revelations yield specific information, they often contradict each other in every possible way.

If they are any gods, there would have to be many of them, to account for all the different kinds of commands and insights of revelations. Or, if there really is just one God, this God can't clearly communicate, or perhaps God is completely insane. Mysticism is the default theology for believers who can’t say anything definite about God, even whether God exists. When revelation gives no guidance about God, mysticism ends up about as skeptical as atheism, and there is very little worth debating anymore.

Theologians who don’t want to let blank mysticism take over have more strategies to defend revelation. Most of them take refuge in some church that says, "Only these particular revelations are really from God." Many religions are based on similar experiences by a small group of people, in order to avoid the rational problems we have noticed so far. Such a special set of revelations can serve as an authoritative guide to proper religious beliefs. They guide instruction in the religion, and they can applied as a standard to test any new revelations for validity.

Unfortunately for theology, violations of reason still remain. There is no good explanation for why just this group’s set of similar experiences should count as the only valid revelations. The church group cannot argue that God approves of just this set of revelations and no others, since that presumes that some god exists, which is just the thing to be proved. If the church claims that no other revelations should be considered because they are too different from the preferred set of revelations, this justification is circular by first assuming the validity of the church's preferred set of revelations. If the church claims that their revelations fit their God the best, then any other church could make the same sort of justification for their revelations about their own God. There is no rational way to conclude that any church has the "right" revelations about any God.

Supernaturalism argues that the best explanation for a revelation experience that seems to be about God is that it is actually caused by God. This God hypothesis demands too many violations of rationality. Furthermore, we don't even need the God hypothesis here. There are at least three simpler naturalistic explanations for alleged revelations: erroneous perception, illusion, and hallucination. People may be thinking they are seeing or hearing God, but they are really perceiving something else (making an error of judgment). Or, people aren’t seeing anything real at all, although their senses and brains are functioning normally (seeing an illusion). Alternatively, people sometimes suffer from abnormal failures of sensory or brain functioning (having a hallucination).

The cognitive and behavioral sciences are busily sorting out the various causes to explain why people think they are contacted by gods. But we need not wait for a full report from science. There are already plenty of rational ways to grasp why we all should be skeptical about revelation.



#1 Hugh Laue (Guest) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 at 2:13pm

Hi John,
My daughter forwarded the link to your site to me. Let me be frank. I’m a bit high on brandy at the moment - but I’m reasonably (ha ha) aware of it. Later Wittgenstein or better, Candrakirti (6th C CE) had a better suss on this subject. I se you have a post on “Understanding the Public is easier than understanding science”. As a scientist I beg to differ. I’m still trying to understand climate change denialists while the science is so obvious. Well actually, you are right - “the public” (pretty much all of us?) are caught up in the delusion that ego is something that actually exists (whatever that may mean). Ego = desire = attachment and aversion (to projected models of “other”) = suffering. Yes, very simple. How to see through it? Simple but not easy. By science I presume you mean empiraical science - i.e. that which deals with what can be measured in terms of SI units (kg, meter, second, etc). Funny, could never measure the feeling of love - in myself or others - using these units.
If you got wife, children and grand-children give them them a big hug and lots of care. Then move on from there to universal compassion. John, I’m justy talking to myself - you are obviously wise enough to find your own path to ..... where? I got a lot from David Sless’s book - “In search of Semiotics”.

#2 Michael Dowd on Wednesday August 18, 2010 at 2:46pm

John, I agree with you but I don’t think it wise (or winning) to let the fundies set the terms of the debate. An evidential approach is best, I think.

As Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, and other 20th century scholars of mythology and world religions remind us, we simply cannot understand religion and religious differences if we ignore the human propensity to relationalize—that is, personify—anything important or mysterious. Evidence from a wide range of disciplines, from cognitive neuroscience to anthropology to cross-cultural study of the world’s myths and religions, all support the claim that God is a personification not a person, and that we instinctually forget this. More, THERE IS NO COUNTER-EVIDENCE! This fact alone makes sense of the thousands of competing stories around the world as to what God supposedly said or did. “God” is a mythic name for Reality in all its sublime fullness. Any so-called God that is imagined as less than this is unworthy of our devotion and deserves to be mocked, as the New Atheists so readily do.

If you’re interested, I’m currently engaged in a public debate with Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on exactly this point.  Here’s the URL:


Keep up the great work!

~ Michael

#3 Nathan Bupp (Guest) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 at 3:04pm

@Michael Dowd: I admire your work tremendously. I recommend everyone read “Biblical Christianity is Bankrupt” as well as “Thank God for The New Atheists.” I’d love to have you contribute a piece to FREE INQUIRY.

#4 Eric Charles on Thursday August 19, 2010 at 8:41am

But John,
Isn’t the best explanation for any phenomenon the phenomenon itself? The ground supports my weight in the morning because the ground is the type of thing that can support my weight. The water in my cup quenches my thirst because water the type of thing that I can quench thirst. I can hallucinate god because god is the type of thing that can be hallucinated….
no wait… uhm… I mean…
My experience of god is real because god is the type of thing that can be really experienced. Mohamed’s experience of god is real because god is the type of thing Mohamed could experience. Your experience of not-god is real because not-god is the type of thing that can be really experienced….
crap, that didn’t work either…. what I really mean is…
Where do you get off telling me that my experience is not perfect! My experience can trump yours any day! I know which coffee is best at Starbucks, which movies are in the top 10, and which purportedly divine revelations are worth following without question. Who are you to judge my defense of god as any more absurd than my defense of the Cleveland Indians? They are, after all, basically the same sort of decision.

Nice, I nailed it that last time!


P.S. Kindly ignore the fact that a thing cannot be an explanation for itself.

#5 Miriam (Guest) on Friday August 20, 2010 at 6:14am


For those of us indistinguishable from secular humanists/agnostics in behavior and ethics who do hear notes of a different register, here is a simple guide which addresses the mature response, not the science:

If an imaginary, insecure Sky Daddy tells you inappropriate, unethical things - ignore it/see a mental health professional.

If Courage/Love/Joy/Compassion/God/Wisdom/Beauty/Wholeness/Whatever tells you to do something wholesome - please, by all means, knock yourself out…

P.S. Eric - this is how it would work according to my guide: granted, all subjective experiences are real to the experiencer.
However, when Mother Teresa, or Mohammed, experienced God telling them to love and heal - I’m glad they listened;
but when Mohammed, or a pope, a guru, or any fundie hear God tell them to inflict suffering, lead by terrorizing, and adopt emotionally damaging, immature attitudes - they should know better than ascribe their own insanity to God.

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