A religionist may be an enthusiast, and imagine he sees what has no reality: he may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it, with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause: or even where this delusion has not place, vanity, excited by so strong a temptation, operates on him more powerfully than on the rest of mankind in any other circumstances; and self-interest with equal force. …What greater temptation than to appear a missionary, a prophet, an ambassador from heaven?
~David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
Can you prove that there is no alien spaceship trailing the Comet Hale-Bopp, on a mission to collect souls for transport to a higher level of existence, but only the souls of those people who happen, at just the right moment, to ingest Phenobarbital and asphyxiate themselves by covering their heads with plastic bags?
The Hale-Bopp UFO was the invention of Marshall Applewhite, the blinking-averse leader of a cult called Heaven’s Gate. He was bat-guano bonkers. But evidently he was quite a charmer. He was able to persuade his congregation to merrily commit the largest mass suicide on American soil.
By the way, the answer is no, you cannot offer definitive proof that there is no such spaceship. Applewhite’s UFO is a perfect example of an unfalsifiable claim. The claim seems utterly ridiculous to most people, but if we’re to be honest, it’s no more outlandish than many unfalsifiable claims made by mainstream religions.
The supernatural is that which, supposedly, disobeys natural law and exists outside of human observation. If we cannot detect the supernatural then how do we know it exists at all? Aha, simple! The supernatural reveals itself through private encounters with chosen individuals. Those individuals then break the good news to the rest of us.
Hit the pause button for a moment. Let us reflect…
So to have unquestioning faith in the supernatural, we must first have unquestioning faith in… a human prophet.
A skeptical person should have two problems with that. Firstly, what if the prophet is delusional like Marshall Applewhite? Secondly, what if the prophet is a charlatan?
Sathya Sai Baba (1926-2011) was an Indian swami with millions of devotees, and with a commendable (though insipid) slogan: “Love all, serve all; help ever, hurt never.” His fabulously wealthy Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust is responsible for free schools, hospitals, and other important charitable projects in rural areas and slums in India, and in other needy parts of the world. But despite his positive message and good works, the swami is known to have manipulated his followers with cheap parlor tricks, conjuring holy ash and jewelry to bedazzle the credulous. Prophets who employ “pious frauds,” as Hume called such parlor tricks, reveal themselves as con-artists, and it is a sure bet that a bit of digging turns up worse crimes. It is alleged that Sathya Sai Baba sexually abused young males at his ashram. Perhaps he reserved for himself an altered version of his maxim: “Serve self; hurt little boys sometimes.”
After his death, a team of income-tax accountants and other officials inspected the swami’s living quarters. They discovered that the spiritual leader, who claimed he owned nothing and who once said “wealth is the source of all evil ways of life,” owned a few meager possessions after all. The loot they uncovered included dozens of bottles of perfume and hair spray, 500 pairs of shoes, 750 silk robes, a silver chair, gold jewelry and ornaments, a pair of golden slippers, six golden crowns studded with precious gems, several pouches filled with diamonds, over 100 suitcases filled with gifts from devotees, and cash equaling $2.6 million.
Sexual and financial exploitation seem to be reliable components of new religious movements led by prophets. Gurus who don’t start as swindlers and rapists become corrupted by the mindless veneration. While guiding others toward the light, they descend into darkness.
Cognizant of this fact, critically minded people are justifiably skeptical about all modern day self-proclaimed prophets. Perhaps, though, this critical thinking is not as vigorously applied to the revered prophets of the past.
Human nature itself has not changed, has it? Why should we assume that self-proclaimed prophets in ancient times were any more legitimate or that their audiences (who were generally less educated) were any less gullible?
Sociologists and psychologists have studied cults and we know who starts them (namely narcissists, schizophrenics, psychopaths, and con artists) and how they work (brainwashing). Why should we assume that things were any different in the Bronze Age or the Medieval Age or the 1800s? Isn’t it possible that the revered religions of today are merely the surviving personality cults of yesterday, mellowed with age? And our sanctified deities arose from the imaginations of glinting-eyed swindlers and the delusions of dementia praecox? Isn’t it possible that, long ago, most or all religions were not so different from Heaven’s Gate, and most or all gods sprang up in much the same way as Applewhite’s comet chasing UFO? Why are we haunted still by mad whisperings from within the heads of long dead schizophrenics? And isn’t it odd that we should consider the existence of God even to be a valid question?
Mental hospitals are chock full of “divine revelation,” where thankfully it’s seen for what it is: a sign of a disturbed mind in desperate need of care. Where the mentally ill are provided compassionate and effective treatment, prophets do not emerge. One wonders whether we’d all be atheists if decent antipsychotics had been available to our ancient ancestors. Sane human psychology is full of evolutionary relics that make it fertile soil for the concept of deity to take root, but the genesis of the deity concept occurs in the insane mind, where phantom voices and delusions of grandeur are commonplace. Our ancient ancestors didn’t have the benefit of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. A person who heard voices could be taken all too seriously.
I don’t mean to add to the stigma of mental illness by blaming religion wholly upon the mentally ill. It is only a microscopic minority of mentally ill people who go into the prophet business, so there must be much more involved than merely mental illness. And it should be noted that religion is not often kind to the mentally ill. In fact the religious are more likely to perform exorcisms upon the mentally ill or burn them at the stake as witches than to bow down to them. But it’s also evident that religion invites and thrives upon the shamanistic reveries and satanic prophecies of the schizophrenic, the (periodic) grandiosity of the manic-depressive, and the ritualism of the obsessive-compulsive. There is a link here that needs to be investigated.
It goes something like this. A person with a mental illness on the schizophrenia spectrum hears voices in his head and decides he is a prophet (we’ll use a male prophet in this scenario because most of the successful ones have been male, but there’ve been plenty of female prophets too). His psychosis manifests as choirs of angels who minister unto him, and he conveys the revelations to anyone who’ll listen. The God concept is born from his sickness. Or perhaps our prophet is bipolar rather than schizophrenic, and in his manic episodes becomes utterly convinced of his own divinity. The prophet persuades a few others – the gullible and those with a strong neotenous need for a protective parent – and whamo-bamo a cult is born. The cult members are fruitful and multiply, and their children are inculcated into the cult, starting a tradition of child abuse. Members are commanded to defer, submit, grow dependent, tolerate abuse, and otherwise act like sheep so they may more easily be sheared (or flocked hard). On the other hand, they’re also occasionally asked to put aside their sheepiness and bully, restrain, torture, or kill for the beloved leader.
Belief is rewarded. Doubt is punished. Prospective adherents are seduced. Apostates are murdered or shunned. With the right combination of hugs and strong arming, the movement grows.
Once a new cult is on the scene, unless its doctrine is fatally self-destructive, it is virtually destined to spread. Though the prophet eventually dies, the profit still rolls in. The lost sheep bleat pathetically, just begging to be fleeced. That is usually when the cult is cynically co-opted by the least scrupulous but canniest officer, one with a marvelous knack for explaining away all the prophet’s predictions that don’t come to pass. Leadership passes from the mad to the greedy, and the beloved leader’s monster survives him. This begins another tradition in which faith becomes the vessel of exploitation by the priest class.
The organization is further honed, the rough edges are smoothed, the appropriate tax status is sought, and the cult morphs into a bono fide religion. Franchises called churches effloresce across the countryside. Apologists seek to reconcile the abhorrent teachings of the prophet with rational thought. Strained interpretations are concocted to tone down the beloved leader’s craziest rants. Troublesome passages in the holy book are glossed over. A retrospective straightjacket is fitted to the prophet, but the restraints won’t hold.
Enraged fundamentalists, clear-eyed enough to discern the malarkey of the moderates but not of the beloved leader, strive to return to the bad old days when the religion was young and radical and dangerous. Alternative interpretations lead to schisms – mitosis of the monster into mutant forms that crawl off in search of new habitats to invade. This sort of thing continues for decades or even centuries.
So, back to the question. Does God exist?
If there is a God, and religion is God’s creation, and prophets are the best mouth pieces God could drum up to communicate the good news, then the lord works in mysterious ways indeed!
The urge to obey authority figures is deeply ingrained in us. Children who obey their elders tend to survive more than children who don’t, so it’s not difficult to imagine an evolutionary process to account for the inclination in humans to obey. But obedience to a prophet is a mistake. When it comes to supernatural claims, there is simply no philosophically sound justification to accept a prophet as a legitimate source of knowledge, for the prophet’s authority cannot be proved any better than the supernatural claims themselves. In fact, the prophet’s authority is itself one of the prophet’s supernatural claims. To accept the prophet’s doctrine based upon the prophet’s authority involves the logical fallacy of circular reasoning.