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.