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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Argument from Inconsistent Revelations

The Argument from Inconsistent Revelations, also known as the Problem of Avoiding The Wrong Hell, is often used as an argument against the existence of God. It claims that the existence of God is unlikely because theologians and religious authorities throughout history have produced revelations and doctrines that are entirely incompatible and contradictory. The argument states that since a person not privy to revelation must either accept it or reject it based solely upon the authority of its proponent, and there is no way for a mere mortal to resolve these conflicting claims by investigation, it is prudent to reserve one's judgment.

For example, Christians believe that Christ is the savior of the world, Jews and Muslims do not. Jews believe they are the chosen people, Christians and Muslims do not. Muslims believe the Qur’an to be divinely inspired, Christians and Jews do not.

In addition, even denominations of the same religion often contradict one another. Some believe that God is one person, some don't. Some believe the Bible is inerrant, some don't. Some believe Christ is the Son of God, some don't.

It is also argued that it is difficult to accept the existence of any one God without personal revelation. Most arguments for the existence of God are not specific to any one religion and could be applied to many religions with near equal validity. Acceptance of any one religion thus requires a rejection of the others, and when faced with these competing claims in the absence of a personal revelation, it is argued that it is difficult to decide amongst them.

What are the odds?

In mathematical terms, if it were to be assumed that:
  1. The existence of some god is certain,
  2. There is some number (n) of distinct, mutually exclusive faiths one could believe in,
  3. Each of these faiths has a corresponding Hell, and
  4. There is no way to tell which one, if any, were true a priori (by reason alone, without empirical observations)
then the probability of having chosen to practice the correct religion (through upbringing or by making Pascal's Wager) cannot be greater than 1⁄n. Therefore, if there are only two distinct faiths, the probability that a person who chooses to believe in either faith has chosen the correct one is 1 in 2 (50% or 1⁄2). Four distinct faiths would result in the probability dropping to 1 in 4 (25% or 1⁄4), and so on.

In practice, there are hundreds of religions in existence, which gives a person less than a 1% chance that the true religion would be chosen. This is especially true if the choice between the religions is made on a random basis that does not take into account the number of members in each.

Conflicting Scriptures

The Argument from Inconsistent Revelations is based upon the many number of interpretations of holy texts and scripture. If scripture was revealed to man by God and God is infallible, then all revelations would be the same, inerrant text (notwithstanding necessary linguistic and, perhaps, cultural differences). But contradictions and vagaries still remain in the Bible and the holy texts of other religions. As a result, there are many different groups of people with many different interpretations.

Thus, God cannot exist in the sense that Christians claim, because his own writings betray his capacity for error. Either God is fallible, or humans wrote the Bible and God was not involved. Needless to say, Christians don't like either of those possibilities.

However, this problem is easily resolved by saying that not all of the revelations are true. Even theists agree that not all revelations are genuine. If one church claims that Christ possesses divine qualities and another claims that he does not, then they cannot both be true. If one church claims that Sunday is the Sabbath and another church claims that Saturday is the Sabbath, then they cannot both be true. Assuming there is a God, then the fact that different scriptures contradict each other is not an issue. It simply means that one must be true while others must be false.

The problem, then, is not whether or not God is fallible or whether He was, in fact, the author of the Bible or whatever other book of scripture. Those two issues are entirely irrelevant. The issue is that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to know which religion is the product of genuine revelation, assuming there is such a thing, and which is not. Even applying the reasoning above we may prove that one is true and one is false, but we cannot prove which is true and which is false.

Prove me now herewith...

So even though we can show that one religion, or a very small group of religions, must be true and all others false, we still do not have a way to discern which is the true religion, so we are still left with the arguments initial statement that since a person not privy to revelation must either accept it or reject it based solely upon the authority of its proponent, and there is no way for a mere mortal to resolve these conflicting claims by investigation, it is prudent to reserve one's judgment.

The two assumptions here are:
  1. Not everyone can receive revelation, and
  2. There is no way to resolve conflicting claims by investigation.
I can't speak for other religions, but neither of these apply to Christianity, so the argument fails.

First of all, not only is there a way to resolve these conflicting claims by ivestigation, but we are repeatedly invited by the Lord to do so. In both the Old and New Testaments, we are invited to test the word and judge it by the results we find. In the Old Testament, we have Malachi 3:10, in which the Lord says,
“Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.”
Here, the Lord invites us to “prove”, or test, him, to see what results we may get from obedience to a commandment. Again, in the New Testament, the Lord repeats the invitation. John 7:17 says,
“If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.”
The Book of Mormon also echoes this important teaching. In Alma 32:27, we are told,
“But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.”
Even if we do not believe, even if we can do no more than desire to know, we are invited to experiment upon the word. The chapter goes on to compare faith to a seed which, after some effort on our part, will bear fruit, and by that fruit we may judge if the tree is good or if it needs to be cut down. This is generally claimed by Christians to be a repeatable test (over 300k new converts annually to the LDS church alone), and can predict future results (If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine...”).

This process may sound familiar to the scientifically inclined. After all, the process being described here is basically the scientific method. We are invited to ask a question (“Is X true?”), do background research and investigate, construct a hypothesis, test hypothesis by experimentation, analyze results and draw conclusion (“That was great!/That was terrible!”), return and report findings (“X is/is not true.”).

Personal Revelation

Second, everyone is capable of receiving revelation. From the Prophet of the Lord (1 Kings 19) to the most stubborn sinner (Acts 22, Alma 36), anybody can receive a divine witness necessary to discern truth. In fact, not only is it possible for anyone, but it is absolutely essential for everyone. In Christian doctrine, the Holy Ghost is often described as the source of faith. Jesus taught, in John 15:26,
"But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me:"
In addition, Paul taught that the Gifts of the Spirit were given to everyone. He said, in 1 Cor 12:3,
"Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost."
Later in that same chapter, he includes faith in the list of gifts we receive through revelation. It would seem, then, that not only can everyone receive at least one type of revelation, but that receiving revelation (faith) is even required for salvation. Everyone capable of being saved (which is everyone) is capable of receiving revelation.

Incidentally, I'm aware of the difficulties surrounding Religious Experience as a credible source of information, but this post operates under the assumption that there is, in fact, a God who does, in fact, commune with mortals, and it operates under that assumption because it was a part of the original argument.

In other words, the argument is essentially, "If there is revelation, then why are they so inconsistent?" and the answer is, "Because not all of them are genuine, but if there is revelation, then it can be used to discern truth from fallacy."

In the last chapter of the Book of Mormon, we find the following promise,
"Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.

And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things."


So it turns out this isn't even an argument against the existence of
God as much as it is a complaint that its difficult to find him. The fact that there are many false churches has nothing to do with the fact that one of them is true (which was assumed in the argument). Whether or not God actually exists is entirely irrelevant.

Also, even if this was a valid argument against God, the assumptions it contains make it inapplicable to a Christian God.

But if there's a God, why would he allow such confusion amongst His children?
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