Friday, September 14, 2012

Does God Write Books?

The three main monotheistic religions each appeal to the divine authority of their exclusive religious texts. Jews, Christians, and Muslims assume that God used human authors to reveal certain moral and metaphysical teachings, which these authors wrote down to form the scriptures. Jews believe that God dictated the Torah to Moses, Christians that the Holy Spirit inspired either the overarching themes or every word of the New Testament, and Muslims that an angel dictated the Quran to Muhammad. With these farfetched presumptions in place, officials use those scriptures to command the consent of the religion’s members.

The Necessary Ambiguity of Revelation

There are numerous problems with the notion of a text’s divine inspiration. First, there’s a slippery slope here, since there would be no point of transmitting the divine message were that text to be buried in competition with mere human works and lost forever to posterity. God’s intervention, then, must extend from inspiring or dictating the text itself to manipulating social and political forces so that the text becomes popular and accepted, and even to ensuring that the divine message is properly interpreted by its millions of readers or listeners. The prospect of that degree of miraculous intervention becomes especially dubious when we appreciate that there’s a multiplicity of religions, each with its own holy book that conflicts with the others. Assuming God is behind only one or perhaps some of those works, God must ensure that the true divine wisdom out-competes the pretenders. Since God is omnipotent, we might expect the most successful religion to possess the most authentic revelation.

But two factors count against this assumption, both having to do with God’s interest in preserving our freewill. First, according to the theistic worldview, God doesn’t want to force anyone to accept his message, and thus even though he might intervene in the world to give his message a fighting chance of being heard, God wouldn’t prevent false, seductive messages from surfacing. Second, because we’re free we can sin and be led astray by those false teachings and even by demonic counterfeits of divine revelation. Thus, the most popular religion in any time or place needn’t be one initiated by God.

This raises another problem, however, which is that given this context within which God would be operating, God would had to have foreseen the near futility of his endeavour of sending us his message. The root of the problem is that there’s a conflict between God’s supposed interests in preserving our freedom and in successfully informing us about how he wants us to live. On the one hand, God can’t force us to listen or to understand his message; on the other, God believes that our listening and our understanding are crucial to our afterlife status. Thus, divine revelation is supposed to be a compromise: instead of speaking directly to everyone, laying out the facts about heaven and hell, angels and demons, and so on, God only imperfectly transmits his wisdom, perhaps manipulating history so that his message doesn’t disappear entirely, but allowing geographical, cultural, and biological factors to take their toll on the scripture’s fate.

For example, God would have to concede to rationally-inclined individuals that the whole business of divine revelation is, at best, highly ambiguous. God’s hand in the revelation is so indirect that anyone should be forgiven for regarding the religion and its sacred text as entirely human-made. The multiplicity of religions, the contradictions or errors in the scriptures, the exploitation of the scriptures by unscrupulous religious officials, the availability of infinite interpretations of such poetic statements as are typically found in the sacred books--all such facts add up to reasonable doubt as to whether a deity is remotely responsible for any scripture. To repeat, the only way God can allow us to choose whether to accept his advice on how to live, to render his moral judgment of our lives relevant, is for God to present his advice to us with great ambiguity, leaving room for our reasonable doubt. This means God couldn’t just tell us all directly, in person, what we’re supposed to do. Thus, God would have to rely on human intermediaries, sacrificing their freedom by forcing them to physically write his message down and then to edit, copy, and advocate for it. But this means that those intermediaries would get to inject their biases into the work, giving the text the appearance of having no divine inspiration at all.

Grotesque Anthropomorphism

Faith is supposed to be required to look past the human context in which a scripture is actually authored, proliferated, and interpreted, and this faith is a choice. You can go with your reason which tells you to err on the side of caution and to favour the naturalistic explanation as the most likely one, this being that God would have obviously nothing to do with any of the messages spread in his name. Alternatively, you can side with your hope that the meaning of life is indeed so nicely packaged in one or another holy book. Assuming the rational path leads to damnation and the wild hope to heavenly bliss, this sort of theistic narrative is appropriately preposterous, which is to say that this tall tale is just the sort you’d expect to be favoured by clueless souls trapped in the decaying corpse of the actual god who is altogether undead.

To believe that there’s a living God who creates the universe and gives us the capacity to reason, but sets up life as an elaborate test to see whether we’d submit to absurdity in an act of reckless faith, against the overwhelming force of logic and evidence, is to fade into the ludicrous background of the natural order instead of heroically and creatively resisting that order. What I mean is that all natural, which is to say mindless, patterns are tragic and absurd, and that when you take a leap of faith that the creator of dark matter, black holes, and trillions of stupendously huge nuclear fusion infernos stoops to tell us a story about which foods we should eat, who we should have sex with, and how many times a day we should pray, you participate all too closely in the ebb and flow of natural processes: you adopt nature’s inhumane hallmarks and make yourself horrible to look upon; you become a true child of the cosmos, a plaything of natural forces which create and destroy with no rhyme or reason, a fittingly ridiculous splatter of paint thrown up by a mad and blind artist; you make your life as preposterous and as inexplicable as the natural creation of anything from nothing.

Need anyone be reminded that even were there in fact a personal God who indirectly publishes works of nonfiction for our edification, we’d each have separate rational, moral, and aesthetic duties to utterly reject that theistic hypothesis, to live as though there were no such abomination? Rationally speaking, it goes without saying, all scriptures are written entirely by certain clever mammals; there is no extraordinary evidence warranting the extraordinary judgment that the universe’s creator had a hand in any of them: no miraculous foreknowledge, no superhuman writing skill or method of transmission, and so on. (Again, any such miracle would interfere with our free choice to reject God.) Morally, we’re each obligated to overcome the rank cowardice and vanity that take hold of all those theists who project an image of themselves onto the patently inhuman cosmos, when they speculate that the First Cause of quantum fluctuations, of supernovas, and of hurricanes also writes books for our benefit. That very notion is so monstrous that every time a pitifully desperate Jew, a comically hypocritical televangelist, a pompous and self-righteous Catholic, or an ignorant Muslim fanatic parades his or her odious drivel, which humanizes and so trivializes the mystery of god’s undeadness, dignified people everywhere should shun those beasts, refusing even to look at them for fear of being turned to stone by their hideousness. Aesthetically, then, we should strive to beautify the entropically decaying corpse in which we’ve “evolved”; for example, we should rebel against the natural forces that exploit us, which entails abandoning childish hope, taking a more accurate measure of our existential predicament, and creatively expressing that grim awareness.

Revelation, Evil, and Freewill

However divine revelation is thought to happen, the theist is left also with a problem of freewill. Whether God or an angel would dictate a book to an author or manipulate the human author’s natural faculties to write the text, thus remaining more behind the scenes, supernatural agents would thereby possess the human to some extent, turning him into a puppet. Yet the most common theistic solution to the problem of evil is that God allows us to act evilly as a result of our freewill, since our freedom is a greater good. Why, then, would God make an exception for the sake of revelation? Why would God care more about revealing certain messages to us than about the authors’ freewill, but more about freewill than preventing all the suffering caused by our evil acts? The clearest answer is that our suffering in this life is insignificant compared to our status in the next, and that God’s revelation is intended to inform us of that lopsidedness. That is, whether we’re happy or miserable in our present, earthly life makes no difference in the grand scheme, because our souls are immortal, and so God isn’t much concerned with the plethora of pains to which we’re subject in our natural bodies. Thus, God isn’t motivated to correct natural injustices, by interfering with evil people’s freewill. God’s much more concerned with our eternal destination in the afterlife, and so he’s motivated to interfere with some people’s freewill to reveal the path to the best such destination.

This solution, however, should be unacceptable to the theist, since it renders theism nihilistic and incoherent. Even were there a supernatural heaven and a hell which are vastly more important than planet Earth, this wouldn’t mean the events in the afterlife must be all-important whereas earthly events are completely insignificant. Surely, if God created the natural universe, that fact alone would dignify nature and indeed Genesis says that God called his Creation not just good but very good. So what happens in nature must interest God to some extent, which means it should interest us. But as long as what allegedly happens to us in the afterlife matters more than what happens here and now, the theist has reason to treat everything in nature as having merely instrumental rather than inherent value. Moreover, our supernatural destinations are ineffable, or at best understood imperfectly with religious metaphors, and these two facts together would seem to deprive the theist of any well-grounded values at all.

In other words, the theist believes she has a divine promise of ultimate goodness or suffering in another life, an eternal destination for the spirit which requires faith here and now, because we can’t rationally understand anything so disconnected from nature. The theist trusts that that promise is contingent on what we do in the present life, but because the next world is more important than the present one, all earthly events can have only secondary importance. In particular, the theist must regard them as means to achieving her ultimate end of reaching her best endpoint in the next life. Since the theist would thereby credit all natural events with mere instrumental value, and must confess that she can’t understand her ultimate values of heaven and hell, the theist would be left without any tangible value to speak of. She should be hopelessly adrift, blindly following religious orders like a robot with little or no conception of their meaning.

Moreover, if natural life has only instrumental value compared to the supernatural kind, but the latter depends on a divine judgment of the former, which sends us either to heaven or to hell, the relative unimportance of natural life saps the ultimate value of our supernatural destination. Here’s an analogy: an Olympian athlete trains for months to run a race, she wins and is awarded a gold medal. Her training and the race itself have entirely instrumental value to her, meaning that her ultimate goal is to win the medal. Now the medal is made of gold, which gives it an independent, albeit not an inherent value, since the demand for gold is greater than the metal’s supply. But suppose the medal were made of paper so that the medal’s only value is its abstract representation of the fact that its wearer comes in first place in the race. And suppose also what happens to be counterfactual, which is that the training has no purpose other than to win the competition, that the athletes lose their added muscles and skills after the race, for example. In that case, I submit, the goal of being such an athlete and of winning the race would be arbitrary, which is to say, pretty much pointless. If the value of the journey is solely to reach a certain destination, and the destination is nothing but the outcome of that journey, both the journey and the destination are vacuous. The meaning of the whole affair becomes stipulated and arbitrary.

Now, just as the medal is actually made of gold, which has independent value, heaven and hell are supposed to include great pleasure or pain, which should be independently reckoned with. But because where we end up would depend crucially on God’s judgment of what we do in our natural life (whether we follow God’s laws, accept Jesus as our savior, and so on), and that natural life would be a game to test where we belong in the next life, the gravity of heaven and of hell would be lost, as it were. Those in heaven would suffer from the anticlimax that their great joy rests on something as comparatively trivial as what they did in a world that would have passed away, fulfilling its purpose as a mere cocoon for their benefit. Meanwhile, those in hell could content themselves with knowing that although they suffer horribly, their misdeeds must have been relatively insignificant in the first place, since they would have affected only embodied spirits in a game of natural life, and so the divine judgment of sinners must be farcical. 

If this is the case, though, theism becomes incoherent, since now the supernatural destination loses its ultimate value and the choice of whether to construe natural events as mere means to achieving a supernatural end becomes the choice of whether to play a certain game. Granted, the game in question would be God’s, but it would be a mere game nonetheless, with arbitrary rules and an end state with ultimately artificial, stipulated significance. God would declare those in heaven to be good and those in hell to be bad, but the value of the earthly actions that land those spirits where they end up would be instrumental, which is to say that the only reason to care about earthly happiness or suffering would be because either is a means to our supposedly much more important placement in the afterlife. Remember that were earthly suffering to have some independent value, God would have reason to value that suffering more than the freewill of evil people, so that he might prevent the former by interfering with the latter. Only were the importance of natural events trumped by that of the afterlife, because the former are the means by which we achieve our status in the latter, would God clearly have reason to value our freewill more than our corporeal happiness or suffering. But the mere instrumentality and thus game-like quality of natural life would deprive life's conclusion of its ultimate significance, rendering heaven and hell absurd.

Comic Relief

The notion of divine revelation through scripture is one of the more prevalent but nonetheless loathsome features of exoteric theism. Luckily, critics of theism can spare themselves the physiological damage of apoplexy from contemplating these religions, by paying attention to the comedic value which lies safe and secure in the fact that though most theists claim to have in their possession some such God-written text, they typically either ignore each and every one of its teachings or else substitute their laughably primitive perceptions for what would be God’s, by cherry-picking the parts of their scripture which they deem relevant or plausible. Needless to say, the magnitude of this theistic hypocrisy is beyond measure. Again, when anyone subscribes to such extravagant balderdash in the first place, she dehumanizes herself and submits to natural processes of complexification; thus, the pattern of her daily activities becomes as monstrous as the universe’s scale, her hypocrisy as grotesque as the imbalance between the evolution of a galaxy and its being swallowed by a black hole.

That is to say, believing that God writes books is bad enough, but because the cosmos is a perverse cornucopia, spouting endless tragedies and absurdities, the theist must go one step beyond even that foolish affirmation; she must cast aside all pretense of being a dignified, sentient rebel against the cosmic horrors, and perpetrate a bonus bit of nonsense: she must pretend to care about her manifestly fictional deity while actively ignoring most of what this deity is supposed to have miraculously penetrated the present world to tell her. Having resigned herself to the undead god’s tyranny, with no thought of resistance, the theist utterly abandons herself to the sway of mindless forces, heaping one absurdity upon another until the local process of complexification is complete: natural forces, including the biases and fallacies to which we’re prone, produce a fantasy world in the theist’s mind, a mental map that bears as little relation to natural reality as one cosmos would bear to another in the multiverse. The theist’s worldview, complete with anthropomorphisms, delusions, fallacies, and so forth, stands as an emergent level of reality, like scum floating to the surface which nevertheless boasts patterns of putrefaction that can be divined by an intrepid anthropologist.

The fortunate point, though, is that this abyss between the theistic worldview and the reality of nature, between the theist’s self-indulgent conception of the First Cause and her vice-driven, beastly lifestyle which reveals the vaingloriousness of theistic religion as efficiently as any atheistic counterargument, is enormously funny! Instead of criticizing the theistic notion of divine revelation, which after all requires little more than stating the obvious, enlightened individuals might choose instead to allow this corner of the cosmic drama to unfold like a devastating but still existentially arresting train wreck. The evident contrast between our godlike technoscience and our savage or petty confusions is the stuff of classic tragicomedy. Indeed, the spectacle of American culture, in particular, in which those two opposites flourish, will be as universally laughable centuries from now as are the backwards aspects of premodern cultures to the modern mindset. 

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