If someone, say a man named Bill, received a picture of his wife having sex with three other men, in all likelyhood he would be visibly shaken. One of the strongest covenents we make as humans are the pledges of monogamy to one’s spouse, and when these bonds are shaken it drives many to murder, drug addiction, suicide, or other incredibly destructive, suffering-perpetuating behaviors and actions.
But what if the picture was simply the production of a clever Photoshop worker? We know that almost every picture coming to us is manipulated or altered in some way, whether to increase breast size, give men a bigger six pack, or smooth away scars or hair. We accept that these are not truthful representations of reality.
Likewise other people, objects, and unbelievable realities can be achieved through a few mouse-clicks. A family photo was set in space with an astronaut added in the above picture from the PhotoshopTroll. It is incredibly straightforward to doctor a picture via Facebook’s repository of photos to create the aforementioned adultery photograph.
Reliability is Proportional to Content
From this example, it is not so much the message that is important; it is whether or not the message is true. In the case of our imaginary photoshop image, the message has a credible object that lends to its belief: Bill’s wife.
Yet the message’s truth does not depend entirely on the message itself; the fidelity, or the resemblance to reality, depends on external factors as well. If we were in Bill’s shoes, we would want to know the answers to questions like:
- Where was the picture taken?
- When was the picture taken?
- Was this a digital photograph that could have been doctored?
- Who are the other people in the photograph?
- Who gave Bill the photograph?
We can also ask internal questions relevant to the content of the message to determine if it is a reliable message:
- Who are the other men in the photograph?
- Is there any evidence of doctoring of the photograph?
- Is the location a likely location that is plausible?
All these questions may not be at the forefront of Bill’s mind when he sees the photograph, but they are immensely important to the truth of the claim presented. Thereby, the reliability of the message is proportionally important to its content. As the implausibility of content increase, so should the reliability of the message and the message-bearer.
Religious Texts: Incredible Content with No Reliability
The claim that a theistic, intervening, acting God exists is an incomparably more incredible notion than that Bill’s wife cheated on him. Some would point out that cultures across time have continually created, invented, and worshipped god, but this no more proves that it is a credible claim than that if Bill believed his wife was cheating on him without the photograph. The key is comparing the content of the claim (an intervening God exists) to the reliability of the method making the claim.
As an example, we can think of dozens of examples of people who promised great wealth, health, or happiness at some expense. Perhaps a miraculous wonder-drug, or a tarot card session, or any number of things that most rational people would not accept. We can also go to a used car lot and be informed of seemingly miraculous properties of used cars. Go to any political body on any day and you will find people with an agenda to sell you on some idea that actually benefits them more than you.
Agendas are everywhere, and it is unwise to recognize that people who say they speak on behalf of God are any different than those who speak on behalf of “Energy,” the body politick, or the car with 170,000 miles on it that won’t die for another 100,000. Pastors have a need to retain members in their flocks, both for sustenance and for the mutual encouragement necessary to believe incredible claims. This is not to say that they may believe it, but that throughout the ages, many, many people have spoken on behalf of God to (consciously or subconsciously) further their own means.
In the case of the pastor, many people treat their pastor’s claims as absolute truth, while in other areas of inquiry they treat claims with overly-arrogant skepticism. The claim to hear the voice and know the mind of God should meet an almost unachievable burden of proof before they should be believed, and yet it is not.
Holy Texts: Photoshopped Pictures
When talking about intervening Gods, most people refer to ones that are described by various holy texts that have existed throughout the ages: the Bible, the Enuma Elish, the Vedas, the Qu’ran, etc. Many of these texts posit god-claims, that if true, should create extremely immense reaction from their acceptance. Yet all too often people fail to look at the core facts about transmission.
The authors of the texts are largely unknown, especially in the case of the Bible. There were as many as 5-6 different author groups within the Pentatuch alone! Investigative textual criticism, coupled with archaeology, has completely overturned the intelligibility of the notion that Moses wrote the entire Pentatuch as one contiguous document. The facts instead point to different people with different agendas and conceptions of god, one in which God is all-powerful, all-knowing and unchanging. However this same God is surprised and angry when things happen exactly as he should have known, and then he changes his mind. These passages were written in different eras with different authors.
Then we can look to the gospels, whose authorship is anonymous. Recall the earlier point about snake-oil salesmen; we need only to note that the “Gospel according to Matthew” appears on nearly every bible published today, yet it has been known for centuries that the authorship was anonymous.
When there is a patent lie on every bible published, we should question the reliability of the text.
Additionally, when we see contradictions with the virgin birth or things that appear to be legend, we should begin to doubt the truth and validity of the message, especially when one considers that an all-powerful god would not be so easily befuddled by humans getting his message wrong. Yet we consistently see contradictions and problems within the bible itself, as well as problems in the transmission.
The Quran does not get off as easily either. It was written after Mohammad’s death based on the memorization of various verses and sayings. Unfortunately each of those scribes who memorized the words of the holiest book had competing and conflicting ideas over what was said. This resulted in several versions circulating, which were ultimately collected, some of which were destroyed, in order to make the ‘coherent’ document that exists today.
However, this message still suffers from many of the same problems, with an all knowing god becoming jealous, enraged, or surprised by something he, by all counts, should have seen coming. There are numerous events that are reported that are not supported by archaeology or other external documents. There are also fantastical claims contained therein, as well as in the Hadith, that should shake our reliability of the claims made.
Whenever we investigate any claim, we should first look at the source and reliability of the message behind the claim. In the case of Bill, he could have an extremely incorrect but justified belief that his spouse was an adulterer, yet if it is shown to be a photoshopped picture, he would have a very different response (and probably a different object for his anger). It is here that I rest my case; I believe that each of the holy documents are photoshopped images of truth; that there may be a few real things, but that the unreliability of the message outweighs the content, especially when the content is so implausible as to render it nearly unintelligible.