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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Henry Gee : Science: the religion that must not be questioned

Science: the religion that must not be questioned

It's time for the priesthood to be taken to task – and journalists aren't up to the job

Tompkins square riot 1874
You'd think from the way that science tends to be reported in the popular prints, as they used to be called, that Professor Helsing von Frankenstein goes into the dungeon laboratory of his castle one morning, dons his white coat and – by elevenses, and working completely alone – discovers a way to kill all known germs, tautologically. He gets his assistant, Igor, to set up a press conference at lunchtime, at which the professor emphasises that the research raises more questions than it answers. By teatime he has won the Nobel prize and his magic nostrum will be available on the NHS next morning. It's always a "he", by the way – received wisdom finds no place for female scientists, unless they also happen to be young, photogenic and, preferably, present television programmes.
Well, as we all know, science doesn't work like that. Scientific research gets trapped in more box canyons than the Lone Ranger; does more U-turns than the average government; falls to certain death more often than Wile E Coyote; has more women in it than you might at first imagine (though probably not nearly enough); and generally gets the wrong answer.

As my learned colleague Dr Sylvia McLain, who is both a scientist and a person of the opposite sex, explained here just the other day, this is business as usual. All scientific results are in their nature provisional – they can be nothing else. Someone will come along, either the next day or the next decade, with further refinements, new methods, more nuanced ways of looking at old problems, and, quelle surprise, find that conclusions based on earlier results were simplistic, rough-hewn – even wrong.
The problem is that we (not the royal we, but the great unwashed lay public who won't know the difference between an eppendorf tube and an entrenching tool) are told, very often, and by people who ought to know better, that science is a one-way street of ever-advancing progress, a zero-sum game in which facts are accumulated and ignorance dispelled. In reality, the more we discover, the more we realise we don't know. Science is not so much about knowledge as doubt. Never in the field of human inquiry have so many known so little about so much.
If this all sounds rather rarefied, consider science at its most practical. As discussed in Dr McLain's article and the comments subjacent, scientific experiments don't end with a holy grail so much as an estimate of probability. For example, one might be able to accord a value to one's conclusion not of "yes" or "no" but "P<0.05", which means that the result has a less than one in 20 chance of being a fluke. That doesn't mean it's "right".
One thing that never gets emphasised enough in science, or in schools, or anywhere else, is that no matter how fancy-schmancy your statistical technique, the output is always a probability level (a P-value), the "significance" of which is left for you to judge – based on nothing more concrete or substantive than a feeling, based on the imponderables of personal or shared experience. Statistics, and therefore science, can only advise on probability – they cannot determine The Truth. And Truth, with a capital T, is forever just beyond one's grasp.
None of this gets through to the news pages. When pitching a science story to a news editor, a science correspondent soon learns that the answer that gets airtime is either "yes", or "no". Either the Voyager space probe has left the solar system, or it hasn't. To say that it might have done and attach statistical caveats is a guaranteed turn-off. Nobody ever got column inches by saying that Elvis has a 95% probability of having left the building.

Why do we (it's the royal we this time, do please try to keep up at the back) demand such definitive truths of science, but are happy to have all other spheres of human activity wallow in mess and muddle?
I think it goes back to the mid-20th century, especially just after the second world war, when scientists – they were called "boffins" – gave us such miracles as radar, penicillin and plastics; jet propulsion, teflon, mass vaccination and transistors; the structure of DNA, lava lamps and the eye-level grill. They cracked the Enigma, and the atom. They were the original rocket scientists, people vouchsafed proverbially inaccessible knowledge. They were wizards, men like gods, who either had more than the regular human complement of leetle grey cells, or access to occult arcana denied to ordinary mortals. They were priests in vestments of white coats, tortoiseshell specs and pocket protectors. We didn't criticise them. We didn't engage with them – we bowed down before them.
How our faith was betrayed! (This is the great unwashed "we" again.) It wasn't long before we realised that science gave us pollution, radiation, agent orange and birth defects. And when we looked closely, "we" (oh, I give up) found that the scientists were not dispensing truths, but – gasp – arguing among themselves about the most fundamental aspects of science. They weren't priests after all, but frauds, fleecing us at some horrifically expensive bunco booth, while all the time covering up the fact that they couldn't even agree among themselves about the science they were peddling us like so much snake oil. And if they couldn't agree among themselves, why should good honest folks like you and me give them any credence?
Witness the rise of creationists, alien-abductees and homeopaths; the anti-vaxers and the climate-change deniers; those convinced that Aids was a colonial plot, and those who would never be convinced that living under power lines didn't necessarily give you cancer; ill-informed crystal-gazers of every stripe, who, while at the same time as denouncing science as fraudulent, tried to ape it with scientific-sounding charlatanry of their own.
If the once-inaccessible scientists had been defrocked, why couldn't just anyone borrow their robes? Announce that camel turds are the latest miracle super-food; put on a white coat and mumble impressive nonsense about zero-point energy, omega fatty acids and the mystery third strand of DNA; and you're in business, ready to exploit fool after fool at a bunco booth of your own making.
And all this because scientists weren't honest enough, or quick enough, to say that science wasn't about Truth, handed down on tablets of stone from above, and even then, only to the elect; but Doubt, which anyone (even girls) could grasp, provided they had a modicum of wit and concentration. It wasn't about discoveries written in imperishable crystal, but about argument, debate, trial, and – very often – error.

Not that you'd see any of this in the above-mentioned public prints, which continue to display a disarmingly schizoid attitude to science. They are at the same time the wizards with magic bullets against everything from cancer to male-pattern baldness; the charlatans whose behind-the-scenes chicanery is designed to exploit your honest naivety.
Even the more highbrow effusions on science have yet to learn this lesson. TV programmes on science pursue a line that's often cringe-makingly reverential. Switch on any episode of Horizon, and the mood lighting, doom-laden music and Shakespearean voiceover convince you that you are entering the Houses of the Holy – somewhere where debate and dissent are not so much not permitted as inconceivable. If there are dissenting views, they aren't voiced by an interviewer, but by other scientists, and "we" (the great unwashed) can only sit back and watch uncomprehending as if the contenders are gods throwing thunderbolts at one another. If the presenters are scientists themselves, or have some scientific knowledge, be they Bill Oddie or David Attenborough, their discourse is one of monologue rather than argument, received wisdom rather than doubt.
I believe there might have been a time when science journalists would engage with scientists, picking holes in their ideas directly, as if throwing traders out of the temple. I yearn for scientific versions of political journalists of the calibre of Jeremy Paxman, James Naughtie or John Humphreys who could take on scientists on their own terms, rather than letting them drop their pearls of wisdom and wander off unchallenged. For that kind of journalism, TV is more or less a desert, though the blogosphere is better. There are more hopeful signs on radio, with the likes of my former Nature colleague Adam Rutherford, who gave Andrew Wakefield – you know, the MMR-and-autism guy – a thorough working over on the Home Service a while back. But, you might argue, Wakefield is too easy a target. And yet, as science journalists such as Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre have discovered, even those apparently easy targets whose scientific credentials are challenged resort very easily to legislation in the way that politicians never would.
Why is this? The answer, I think, is that those who are scientists, or who pretend to be scientists, cling to the mantle of a kind of religious authority. And as anyone who has tried to comment on religion has discovered, there is no such thing as criticism. There is only blasphemy.
Henry Gee is a senior editor of Nature. He is on Twitter at HenryGeeBooks and his book The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution is published on 21 October by the University of Chicago Press

Top 10 Reasons Science Is Another Religion

Top 10 Reasons Science Is Another Religion

Cortical Rider December 15, 2012

As a Biologist with a PhD in Neurosciences, I’m well aware that this is a controversial subject for both scientists and religious people alike. Scientists consider it ridiculous even to entertain the notion that science, a human achievement built on logic and reason, could possibly have anything in common with religious myths. The faithful, on the other hand, are reluctant to warm up to the idea that Science, a human creation, could be compared to divine religion.

But let’s compare: try to keep an open mind, and an objective – but not necessarily scientific -perspective, and we’ll see whether the two are so different after all.


Science Thinks Humans are Special

It is understandable that religion might place man in the center of the universe – but for science to do so is inexcusable. However, a great number of astrophysicists and cosmologists are eager to talk about how the universe conforms to the “anthropic principle”.

There is absolutely no scientific reason why human understanding – above that of slugs, dolphins and monkeys – should be wide enough to encompass the universe. Anthropocentrism – the assumption that humans take center-stage in the universe – is rife in the sciences, as it is in religion.


It Casts Out Heretics and Persecutes all Other Religions


Science, like God in the Old Testament, behaves jealously against any other religion. So science will say to its followers: “You shall have no other gods before me”.

If you have any doubts, try asking an audience at a scientific convention to join you in a prayer. From that moment on you’ll be called a theist-scientist. A heretic. A miasma. An abomination. Just look up how Kurt Gödel was viewed at Princeton after circulating his ontological proof of God.


Science Reveres Its Own Saints

The ranks of science martyrdom may be thin, yet its members are revered as far greater scientists they actually were. Take Galileo Galilei, for example, the patron saint of all scientists persecuted by religious orders. He actually contributed very little to science: most of his achievements were technical, such as tampering with telescopes. Heliocentricity was known since the 4th century BC.


Science Makes up Stories to Explain Our Origins

The Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Aztecs – all of them had creation myths, probably invented around a fire. All of them took their creation myths seriously. Now, of course, we have science to explain our origins.

You know what its latest version of this story is? In the beginning, there were giant membranes. These membranes touched each other, triggering something called the “Big Bang”. Sure.


Science Has Its Own Code of Ethics

There are state laws, and there are moral laws. And now, according to science, there are “laws of scientific conduct”. All kinds of atrocities are committed in the name of science – take a doctor, for example, who has to give placebo pills to a number of his patients in a drug trial, knowing that they will suffer or die much sooner than if they had received proper treatment.

But scientific advancement almost always claims precedence over personal morality. And – unless you’re a zealot yourself – its ethics will clash with your personal code of conduct.


Science Has Its Own Priesthood

Newton, Darwin and Einstein serve as the holy trinity of western science. And below these are the elders: Watson, Crick, Dawkins, Hawking, Dennet, Chomsky, Penrose and Sagan. And then you have the High Priests: the Nobel Prize winners, the popular writers and the media celebrities.

Their opinions are received as sermons, and their statements are quoted like sacred texts. Ordinary people are ridiculed, if they doubt the interpretations of this priesthood. Even for scientists, questioning a member of a higher tier is done only at your own risk. After all, all scientific work (from papers to grant applications) is peer reviewed, remember?


Science is Based on Established Dogmas

Ever wonder how for centuries, the best doctors could insist on blood-letting as a cure – without ever noticing that their patients did worse? The answer: belief in blood-letting was part of the scientific dogma at the time.

Anything contradicting this dogma is simply rejected and ignored, or ridiculed for as long as possible. Science thus has the trappings of a full blown religion.


Science Will Bend to Accommodate Modern Trends

If you think scientists are immune to the pressure to conform to public opinion – think again. I am not even going to consider the announcements made by scientists under totalitarian regimes (such as racist “conclusions”), because I consider these to be forced aberrations.

Instead I will use the scientific approach to homosexuality. It was included in the list of personality disorders of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM) up to its 1973 edition. It was then removed – only to be replaced a year later by a close variant, before being removed entirely in 1986. Upon what evidence rested the changing decisions to include or exclude homosexuality among mental disorders? Public sentiment, backed by convenient “empirical evidence”, played a leading role.


Most of Science is Unfounded

Dark Matter, Dark Energy, Quantum Strings and Ego – all of them sound like plausible stories. But can anyone point out the Ego locus in a dissected brain? Or use the concept of Dark Energy for anything besides helping to explain the expanding universe – another scientific theory? There is no actual proof for any of these theories.

That’s right – we have no proof for the existence of 96% of what science thinks the universe is made of – and yet the theories explaining it (we call them theories to avoid calling them stories) we hold to be true. Why? you ask. Because we have faith – which brings me to my final point.


Science Requires Faith

Even highly-specialized scientists will often pursue a certain line of thought, and explore the implications of certain theory while rejecting others, based on nothing more than intuitive preferences, and their sense of what is elegant and right.

Most people who reject the religion they once accepted will claim to have done so in favor of the reasonable, clear-cut answers provided by logic and science. When asked to explain the existence of the universe, they’ll mention the Big Bang and M Theories; when asked to explain the existence of humans, they’ll mention evolution.

When pressed to explain any of the above, however, they soon realize that they actually understand very little. They were exhibiting blind faith – accepting the theories without comprehending them. If you don’t understand something, yet accept it as the truth, then you’re simply a Believer – and like much of science, you’ll find yourself well within the territory of religion.

Richard Dawkins : Is Science a Religion?

Is Science a Religion? – Richard Dawkins

The following article was first published in the Humanist, January/February 1997.

It is fashionable to wax apocalyptic about the threat to humanity posed by the AIDS virus, “mad cow” disease, and many others, but I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.

Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion. And who, looking at Northern Ireland or the Middle East, can be confident that the brain virus of faith is not exceedingly dangerous? One of the stories told to the young Muslim suicide bombers is that martyrdom is the quickest way to heaven — and not just heaven but a special part of heaven where they will receive their special reward of 72 virgin brides. It occurs to me that our best hope may be to provide a kind of “spiritual arms control”: send in specially trained theologians to deescalate the going rate in virgins.
Given the dangers of faith — and considering the accomplishments of reason and observation in the activity called science — I find it ironic that, whenever I lecture publicly, there always seems to be someone who comes forward and says, “Of course, your science is just a religion like ours. Fundamentally, science just comes down to faith, doesn’t it?”

Well, science is not religion and it doesn’t just come down to faith. Although it has many of religion’s virtues, it has none of its vices. Science is based upon verifiable evidence. Religious faith not only lacks evidence, its independence from evidence is its pride and joy, shouted from the rooftops. Why else would Christians wax critical of doubting Thomas? The other apostles are held up to us as exemplars of virtue because faith was enough for them. Doubting Thomas, on the other hand, required evidence. Perhaps he should be the patron saint of scientists.

One reason I receive the comment about science being a religion is because I believe in the fact of evolution. I even believe in it with passionate conviction. To some, this may superficially look like faith. But the evidence that makes me believe in evolution is not only overwhelmingly strong; it is freely available to anyone who takes the trouble to read up on it. Anyone can study the same evidence that I have and presumably come to the same conclusion. But if you have a belief that is based solely on faith, I can’t examine your reasons. You can retreat behind the private wall of faith where I can’t reach you.
Now in practice, of course, individual scientists do sometimes slip back into the vice of faith, and a few may believe so single-mindedly in a favorite theory that they occasionally falsify evidence. However, the fact that this sometimes happens doesn’t alter the principle that, when they do so, they do it with shame and not with pride. The method of science is so designed that it usually finds them out in the end.

Science is actually one of the most moral, one of the most honest disciplines around — because science would completely collapse if it weren’t for a scrupulous adherence to honesty in the reporting of evidence. (As James Randi has pointed out, this is one reason why scientists are so often fooled by paranormal tricksters and why the debunking role is better played by professional conjurors; scientists just don’t anticipate deliberate dishonesty as well.) There are other professions (no need to mention lawyers specifically) in which falsifying evidence or at least twisting it is precisely what people are paid for and get brownie points for doing.
Science, then, is free of the main vice of religion, which is faith. But, as I pointed out, science does have some of religion’s virtues. Religion may aspire to provide its followers with various benefits — among them explanation, consolation, and uplift. Science, too, has something to offer in these areas.

Humans have a great hunger for explanation. It may be one of the main reasons why humanity so universally has religion, since religions do aspire to provide explanations. We come to our individual consciousness in a mysterious universe and long to understand it. Most religions offer a cosmology and a biology, a theory of life, a theory of origins, and reasons for existence. In doing so, they demonstrate that religion is, in a sense, science; it’s just bad science. Don’t fall for the argument that religion and science operate on separate dimensions and are concerned with quite separate sorts of questions. Religions have historically always attempted to answer the questions that properly belong to science. Thus religions should not be allowed now to retreat away from the ground upon which they have traditionally attempted to fight. They do offer both a cosmology and a biology; however, in both cases it is false.

Consolation is harder for science to provide. Unlike religion, science cannot offer the bereaved a glorious reunion with their loved ones in the hereafter. Those wronged on this earth cannot, on a scientific view, anticipate a sweet comeuppance for their tormentors in a life to come. It could be argued that, if the idea of an afterlife is an illusion (as I believe it is), the consolation it offers is hollow. But that’s not necessarily so; a false belief can be just as comforting as a true one, provided the believer never discovers its falsity. But if consolation comes that cheap, science can weigh in with other cheap palliatives, such as pain-killing drugs, whose comfort may or may not be illusory, but they do work.

Uplift, however, is where science really comes into its own. All the great religions have a place for awe, for ecstatic transport at the wonder and beauty of creation. And it’s exactly this feeling of spine-shivering, breath-catching awe — almost worship — this flooding of the chest with ecstatic wonder, that modern science can provide. And it does so beyond the wildest dreams of saints and mystics. The fact that the supernatural has no place in our explanations, in our understanding of so much about the universe and life, doesn’t diminish the awe. Quite the contrary. The merest glance through a microscope at the brain of an ant or through a telescope at a long-ago galaxy of a billion worlds is enough to render poky and parochial the very psalms of praise.

Now, as I say, when it is put to me that science or some particular part of science, like evolutionary theory, is just a religion like any other, I usually deny it with indignation. But I’ve begun to wonder whether perhaps that’s the wrong tactic. Perhaps the right tactic is to accept the charge gratefully and demand equal time for science in religious education classes. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that an excellent case could be made for this. So I want to talk a little bit about religious education and the place that science might play in it.
I do feel very strongly about the way children are brought up. I’m not entirely familiar with the way things are in the United States, and what I say may have more relevance to the United Kingdom, where there is state-obliged, legally-enforced religious instruction for all children. That’s unconstitutional in the United States, but I presume that children are nevertheless given religious instruction in whatever particular religion their parents deem suitable.

Which brings me to my point about mental child abuse. In a 1995 issue of the Independent, one of London’s leading newspapers, there was a photograph of a rather sweet and touching scene. It was Christmas time, and the picture showed three children dressed up as the three wise men for a nativity play. The accompanying story described one child as a Muslim, one as a Hindu, and one as a Christian. The supposedly sweet and touching point of the story was that they were all taking part in this Nativity play.
What is not sweet and touching is that these children were all four years old. How can you possibly describe a child of four as a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew? Would you talk about a four-year-old economic monetarist? Would you talk about a four-year-old neo-isolationist or a four-year-old liberal Republican? There are opinions about the cosmos and the world that children, once grown, will presumably be in a position to evaluate for themselves. Religion is the one field in our culture about which it is absolutely accepted, without question — without even noticing how bizarre it is — that parents have a total and absolute say in what their children are going to be, how their children are going to be raised, what opinions their children are going to have about the cosmos, about life, about existence. Do you see what I mean about mental child abuse?
Looking now at the various things that religious education might be expected to accomplish, one of its aims could be to encourage children to reflect upon the deep questions of existence, to invite them to rise above the humdrum preoccupations of ordinary life and think sub specie aeternitatis.

Science can offer a vision of life and the universe which, as I’ve already remarked, for humbling poetic inspiration far outclasses any of the mutually contradictory faiths and disappointingly recent traditions of the world’s religions.
For example, how could children in religious education classes fail to be inspired if we could get across to them some inkling of the age of the universe? Suppose that, at the moment of Christ’s death, the news of it had started traveling at the maximum possible speed around the universe outwards from the earth. How far would the terrible tidings have traveled by now? Following the theory of special relativity, the answer is that the news could not, under any circumstances whatever, have reached more that one-fiftieth of the way across one galaxy — not one- thousandth of the way to our nearest neighboring galaxy in the 100-million-galaxy-strong universe. The universe at large couldn’t possibly be anything other than indifferent to Christ, his birth, his passion, and his death. Even such momentous news as the origin of life on Earth could have traveled only across our little local cluster of galaxies. Yet so ancient was that event on our earthly time-scale that, if you span its age with your open arms, the whole of human history, the whole of human culture, would fall in the dust from your fingertip at a single stroke of a nail file.

The argument from design, an important part of the history of religion, wouldn’t be ignored in my religious education classes, needless to say. The children would look at the spellbinding wonders of the living kingdoms and would consider Darwinism alongside the creationist alternatives and make up their own minds. I think the children would have no difficulty in making up their minds the right way if presented with the evidence. What worries me is not the question of equal time but that, as far as I can see, children in the United Kingdom and the United States are essentially given no time with evolution yet are taught creationism (whether at school, in church, or at home).

It would also be interesting to teach more than one theory of creation. The dominant one in this culture happens to be the Jewish creation myth, which is taken over from the Babylonian creation myth. There are, of course, lots and lots of others, and perhaps they should all be given equal time (except that wouldn’t leave much time for studying anything else). I understand that there are Hindus who believe that the world was created in a cosmic butter churn and Nigerian peoples who believe that the world was created by God from the excrement of ants. Surely these stories have as much right to equal time as the Judeo-Christian myth of Adam and Eve.
So much for Genesis; now let’s move on to the prophets. Halley’s Comet will return without fail in the year 2062. Biblical or Delphic prophecies don’t begin to aspire to such accuracy; astrologers and Nostradamians dare not commit themselves to factual prognostications but, rather, disguise their charlatanry in a smokescreen of vagueness. When comets have appeared in the past, they’ve often been taken as portents of disaster. Astrology has played an important part in various religious traditions, including Hinduism. The three wise men I mentioned earlier were said to have been led to the cradle of Jesus by a star. We might ask the children by what physical route do they imagine the alleged stellar influence on human affairs could travel.

Incidentally, there was a shocking program on the BBC radio around Christmas 1995 featuring an astronomer, a bishop, and a journalist who were sent off on an assignment to retrace the steps of the three wise men. Well, you could understand the participation of the bishop and the journalist (who happened to be a religious writer), but the astronomer was a supposedly respectable astronomy writer, and yet she went along with this! All along the route, she talked about the portents of when Saturn and Jupiter were in the ascendant up Uranus or whatever it was. She doesn’t actually believe in astrology, but one of the problems is that our culture has been taught to become tolerant of it, vaguely amused by it — so much so that even scientific people who don’t believe in astrology sort of think it’s a bit of harmless fun. I take astrology very seriously indeed: I think it’s deeply pernicious because it undermines rationality, and I should like to see campaigns against it.
When the religious education class turns to ethics, I don’t think science actually has a lot to say, and I would replace it with rational moral philosophy. Do the children think there are absolute standards of right and wrong? And if so, where do they come from? Can you make up good working principles of right and wrong, like “do as you would be done by” and “the greatest good for the greatest number” (whatever that is supposed to mean)? It’s a rewarding question, whatever your personal morality, to ask as an evolutionist where morals come from; by what route has the human brain gained its tendency to have ethics and morals, a feeling of right and wrong?

Should we value human life above all other life? Is there a rigid wall to be built around the species Homo sapiens, or should we talk about whether there are other species which are entitled to our humanistic sympathies? Should we, for example, follow the right-to-life lobby, which is wholly preoccupied with human life, and value the life of a human fetus with the faculties of a worm over the life of a thinking and feeling chimpanzee? What is the basis of this fence that we erect around Homo sapiens — even around a small piece of fetal tissue? (Not a very sound evolutionary idea when you think about it.) When, in our evolutionary descent from our common ancestor with chimpanzees, did the fence suddenly rear itself up?
Well, moving on, then, from morals to last things, to eschatology, we know from the second law of thermodynamics that all complexity, all life, all laughter, all sorrow, is hell bent on leveling itself out into cold nothingness in the end. They — and we — can never be more then temporary, local buckings of the great universal slide into the abyss of uniformity.
We know that the universe is expanding and will probably expand forever, although it’s possible it may contract again. We know that, whatever happens to the universe, the sun will engulf the earth in about 60 million centuries from now.
Time itself began at a certain moment, and time may end at a certain moment — or it may not. Time may come locally to an end in miniature crunches called black holes. The laws of the universe seem to be true all over the universe. Why is this? Might the laws change in these crunches? To be really speculative, time could begin again with new laws of physics, new physical constants. And it has even been suggested that there could be many universes, each one isolated so completely that, for it, the others don’t exist. Then again, there might be a Darwinian selection among universes.
So science could give a good account of itself in religious education. But it wouldn’t be enough. I believe that some familiarity with the King James version of the Bible is important for anyone wanting to understand the allusions that appear in English literature. Together with the Book of Common Prayer, the Bible gets 58 pages in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Only Shakespeare has more. I do think that not having any kind of biblical education is unfortunate if children want to read English literature and understand the provenance of phrases like “through a glass darkly,” “all flesh is as grass,” “the race is not to the swift,” “crying in the wilderness,” “reaping the whirlwind,” “amid the alien corn,” “Eyeless in Gaza,” “Job’s comforters,” and “the widow’s mite.”
I want to return now to the charge that science is just a faith. The more extreme version of that charge — and one that I often encounter as both a scientist and a rationalist — is an accusation of zealotry and bigotry in scientists themselves as great as that found in religious people. Sometimes there may be a little bit of justice in this accusation; but as zealous bigots, we scientists are mere amateurs at the game. We’re content to argue with those who disagree with us. We don’t kill them.
But I would want to deny even the lesser charge of purely verbal zealotry. There is a very, very important difference between feeling strongly, even passionately, about something because we have thought about and examined the evidence for it on the one hand, and feeling strongly about something because it has been internally revealed to us, or internally revealed to somebody else in history and subsequently hallowed by tradition. There’s all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation.

The Evolution of God in Mormon Theology

The Evolution of God in Mormon Theology

One of the more curious evolutions in Mormon theology is that of God. Any active member of the LDS faith will now tell you that Jehovah of the Old Testament was in fact Jesus and the father of this Jehovah-Jesus is God or Elohim. In fact, a recent proclamation confirms this changed belief. Both of these supposed beings have bodies. When this same Mormon begins to read some of the writings of the early church leaders (including the first edition of the Book of Mormon) they are generally surprised to find out that this wasn't always the doctrine of the church.
Up to the turn of the 20th Century the LDS Church taught, like the rest of Christianity, that Jehovah was the Father. With the turn of the century and new interpretations, such as that given by James Talmage in Jesus the Christ and The Articles of Faith, the concept started to change. Joseph Smith Jr. believed Jehovah and Elohim to be one in the same (The Father) and Jesus to be Jesus (The Son).
Until the early 20th Century it was taught that Jehovah was the name of God the Father, along with Elohim. Biblical scholars state that Elohim is a Hebrew plural for God and JHVH was the symbol for the unspeakable name of I AM. Even the LDS hymnist sings:
"Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah
Jesus annoited that Prophet and Seer."
W. W. Phelps, Praise to the Man
Joseph Smith taught that the two were separate individuals. Jesus and Jehovah were two personalities. Jehovah being the singular form of the name of God the Father in the Hebrew and Jesus Christ, Our supposed redeemer and His Son. Joseph Smith taught:
The Lord (Jehovah) hath spoken through Isaiah (xiii: 1), saying, "Behold my servant whom I uphold--mine elect in whom my soul delighteth;" evidently referring to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, chosen, or elected by the Father. (I Peter i:20). "Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you, who by Him do believe in God to serve Him in the redemption of the world, to be a covenant of the people (Isaiah xlii: 6), for a light to the Gentiles, and the glory of His people Israel, having ordained Him to be the judge of the quick until dead (Acts x: 42), that through Him forgiveness of sins might be preached (Acts xiii: 38), unto all who would be obedient unto His Gospel."(Mark xvi: 16, 17).
Joseph Smith, History of the Church, Vol. 4, Ch. 14, p. 256
If you will put away from your midst all evil speaking, backbiting, and ungenerous thoughts and feelings' humble yourselves, and cultivate every principle of virtue and love, then will the blessings of Jehovah rest upon you, and you will yet see good and glorious days; peace will be within your gates, and prosperity in your borders; which may our heavenly Father grant in the name of Jesus Christ, is the prayer of yours in the bonds of the covenant.
Joseph Smith & Hyrum Smith, History of the Church, Vol. 4, Ch. 12, p. 226
...trusting in the arm of Jehovah, the Eloheim, who sits enthroned in the heavens...
Joseph Smith, History of the Church, Vol. 5, Ch. 5
But may the Almighty Jehovah shield and defend me from all their power, and prolong my days in peace, that I may guide His people in righteousness, until my head is white with old age. Amen.
Joseph Smith, History of the Church, Vol. 5, Ch. 9
Brigham Young taught this doctrine too. Brigham Young says:
We cannot even enter the temple when it is built, and perform those ordinances which lead to spiritual blessings, without performing a temporal labor. Temporal ordinances must be performed to secure the spiritual blessings the Great Supreme has in store for his faithful children. Every act is first a temporal act. The Apostle says, faith comes by hearing. What should be heard to produce faith? The preaching of the Word. For that we must have a preacher; and he is not an invisible spirit, but a temporal, ordinary man like ourselves, and subject to the same regulations and rules of life. To preach the Gospel is a temporal labor, and to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ is the result of a temporal labor. To be baptized is a temporal labor, both to the person administered to and the administrator. I am a living witness to the truth of this statement, for I have made my feet sore many a time, and tired myself out traveling and preaching, that by hearing the Gospel the people might have faith. The blessings we so earnestly desire will come to us by performing the manual labor required, and thus preparing all things necessary to receive the invisible blessings Jehovah has for his children.
Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 9:240.
The excellency of the glory of the character of Brother Joseph Smith was that he could reduce heavenly things to the understanding of the finite. When he preached to the people -- revealed the things of God, the will of God, the plan of salvation, the purposes of Jehovah, the relation in which we stand to him and all the heavenly beings, he reduced his teachings to the capacity of every man, woman, and child, making them as plain as a well-defined pathway. This should have convinced every person that ever heard of him of his divine authority and power, for no other man was able to teach as he could, and no person can reveal the things of God, but by the revelations of Jesus Christ.
Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 8:206.
John Taylor also taught the that Jesus Christ and Jehovah were separate beings:
But what is the reason for all this suffering and bloodshed, and sacrifice? We are told that without shedding of blood there is no remission of sins. This is beyond our comprehension. Jesus had to take away sin by the sacrifice of himself, the just for the unjust, but, previous to this grand sacrifice, these animals had to have their blood shed as types, until the great antitype should offer up himself once for all. And as he in his own person bore the sins of all, and atoned for them by the sacrifice of himself, so there came upon him the weight and agony of ages and generations, the indescribable agony consequent upon this great sacrificial atonement wherein he bore the sins of the world, and suffered in his own person the consequences of an eternal law of God broken by man. Hence his profound grief, his indescribable anguish, his overpowering torture, all experienced in the submission to the eternal fiat of Jehovah and the requirements of an inexorable law.
John Taylor, The Gospel Kingdom, p. 116
Neither Joseph Smith, nor Hyrum Smith, nor Sidney Rigdon, nor Brigham Young, nor myself, nor anybody associated with the Church at the present time, has had anything to do with the origination of these things. This work was commenced by the Almighty; it has been carried on by him, and sustained by his power, and if it is ever consummated it will be by the power and direction and sustenance of the Lord Jehovah, of Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, and then through the medium of the priesthood here upon the earth. These things originated in the heavens, in the councils of the Gods; and the organization of the priesthood and the power thereof, and everything pertaining thereto, have been committed from the heavens through Joseph Smith, principally, and through others who have been associated with him in this great work.
John Taylor, Journal of Discourses, 24:227, 1884.
Go! to all the gospel carry,
Let the joyful news abound;
Go till every nation hear you,
Jew and gentile greet the sound;
Let the gospel,
Echo all the earth around.
Bearing seed of heavenly virtue,
Scatter it o'er all the earth;
Go! Jehovah will support you,
Gather all the sheaves of worth,
Then, with Jesus,
Reign in glory on the earth.
John Taylor, The Gospel Kingdom, p. 388
Yet today the doctrine has been changed. How can such an essential doctrine be changed? During the time of Joseph Fielding Smith (1950s) the question was still being asked:
Question: Will you be kind enough to answer the following question? Who is it that speaks to Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Moses and the Prophets of the Old Testament? Is it our Eternal Father or Jesus who was known as Jehovah? We have had several discussions on this question, but we seem to be hopelessly divided. Some of our members maintain that it is Jesus Christ who represented the Father, others that it was the Father himself.
[Joseph Fielding Smith goes on to express the current view that Jehovah is the God of the Old Testament and the same being as Jesus.]
Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, Vol. 1, p. 13
Spencer W. Kimball wrote decades later that he had a difficult time accepting the doctrine:
I was surprised and perhaps shocked a little when I learned that it was the Son, Jehovah, or his messengers who led Abraham from Ur to Palestine, to Egypt, and back to the land of Palestine. I did not realize that it was Jesus Christ, or Jehovah, who inspired the long line of prophets in their leadership of the people of God through those centuries.
The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 8
It seems strange that a church that has direct revelation and that claims that its founder actually spoke face to face with both God and Jesus could be so confused on such a seemingly basic doctrine. This isn't the only doctrine which is now rigidly in place despite very different origins. The Melchizedek Priesthood has also evolved over the years. Joseph Smith's own version of his visitations from God the Father and Jesus rapidly evolved during his lifetime. The first few versions didn't even mention the supposed fact that two personages where involved. The idea of God having a body didn't come about until 1835 or shortly thereafter. Although it is one of the core doctrines of Mormonism today, it wouldn't even be included in the Mormon canon of scripture had Willard Richards not jotted it down on April 2, 1843. (It subsequently ended up as part of D&C 130). Joseph Smith apparently said the words found in D&C 130, or words similar, as a response to Elder Orson Hyde's speech in which Apostle Hyde stated that God was a warrior who dwelt in our hearts.

Mormonism: Anatomy of a Colossal Fraud

Stephen Van Eck

Beginning with a handful of members in 1830, the story of the Mormons has been marked by steady growth and success. Today they number around 9 million (only about half in this country), rake in $10 million a day, and wield influence beyond their numbers, being disproportionately represented in corporate management and in America's Intelligence apparatus. And their influence will continue to grow. Mormons are assiduous, if less than formidable, missionaries, and their emphasis on fecundity insures a constant growth in membership--after all, it's easier to breed new members than to convert them.
Notorious for their squeaky-clean image, Mormons practice a religion born in controversy. The complete truth about their religion is not generally forthcoming--least of all from Mormons themselves--but is available from a number of sources. Exposes on the religion appeared early and often enough in the previous century, but tended to disappear for obvious reasons. Today their influence as well as a misguided form of tolerance, causes even some encyclopedias to shy away from unpleasant disclosures about the history of Mormonism. But the truth cannot be fully suppressed, and free from niceties, is presented below.
According to the official story from the LDS Church, Joseph Smith, Jr., received a series of supernatural visitations from 1820-29. Ultimately he was visited by the angel Moroni, a resurrected being, who revealed the location of the "golden plates," written in "reformed Egyptian caractors" (sic). These plates contained the prophetic record and history of Ancient Israelite settlers in America, including the appearance of a resurrected Christ. With the help of magic specs that translated them for him, Joseph Smith presented the world with the Book of Mormon and established the One True Religion.
Now for the facts. It was a time of revivalism, millennial fever and evangelical zeal; a time when the common people still believed in folk superstitions and odd supernaturalistic ideas. The young "Jo Smith" was a fellow described by family, friends, and neighbors as a prankster and as a gifted storyteller who regaled them with stories of the original inhabitants of America. It prefigured what he'd later be telling the world. Smith also was known as an avid "money digger." Sometimes for himself, sometimes for hire, he'd dig for the lost Spanish treasures and Indian riches that dreamers felt just had to be around. In this endeavor, he employed a "magic stone" in a hat that he claimed revealed the location of buried wealth (a form of scrying). He never found any, but always had a plausible excuse to account for the failure, such as evil spirits or ritualistic impropriety. In 1826 he was hauled into court, accused of being an impostor, and convicted of disorderly conduct, the records for which are sketchy.
An early influence on young Jo may have been an itinerant magician named Walters, who would utter gibberish and pretend to translate it, telling a story of former inhabitants of America who deposited treasure before their extinction. He also claimed to have unearthed an ancient lost book by Cicero. Smith, some speculate, may have taken over his act.
The dawn of Mormonism is traced to 1827, when Joseph Smith Jr. announced to his family that he had found the "Gold Bible." Originally the tale had nothing to do with a new revelation, a new religion, or an angel. He told of a large man in ancient bloody clothes who appeared and told him of buried treasure. His family believed him, but when they asked to see the Gold Bible, he told them he'd been commanded not to. A friend of Smith named Peter Ingersoll later told an early investigator that Smith confided that he had no such book. "I've got the damn fools fixed and will carry out the fun." To suggest his alleged treasure, he made a wooden chest, which he carried in a pillowcase. Another man named Willard Chase testified that Smith first asked him to make the chest, but he'd refused. Soon enough, the gold Bible became the golden plates, the "translation" of which Smith was dictating to his first scribe, Martin Harris. Smith's use of scribes may have been to conceal his poor grammar and spelling, though the scribes weren't all that much better. As he "translated," he conveniently had a blanket between himself and his scribe, lest the latter catch an unauthorized glimpse of the plates. As part of the project, other key Smith followers reportedly spent much time thumbing through and copying portions of the Bible, which so happen to be contained in the Book of Mormon.
Martin Harris was a devoted follower and financial backer of Smith from the beginning, who would eventually sell his farm to finance the first edition of the Book of Mormon (early on referred to as Smith's Gold Bible.) His wife Lucy felt he was being deceived and defrauded by Smith. and brought suit against the Prophet. The judge acceded to male authority and dismissed the case, in accordance with Martin's wishes. One early debunker, Abner Cole, later alluded to one of the Three Witnesses (presumably Harris) beating his recalcitrant wife to persuade her to convert.
In 1828 came a major crisis for Smith. Martin Harris asked and received permission to take the first 116 pages of the text recently "translated" to show his family, in an attempt to justify his sponsorship. The manuscript disappeared and was never seen again. (Lucy Harris is the likely culprit.) This created a sticky problem. If Smith tried to rewrite it from the start, it could not possibly be identical to the original, which would be embarrassing should it ever resurface. If it had been in fact a Divine translation, it could simply be retranslated the same as before. But differences in "translation" would point to human fabrication.
At first Smith was lost, and claimed the gift of translation had been taken away from him for the sin of not protecting the manuscript. But he eventually resolved the problem as best he could. He claimed, in another one of his frequent "revelations," that he'd been instructed not to retranslate the plates he'd already worked on. These were the plates of Lehi. Some of the yet untranslated plates had an account of the same history by Nephi. Thus he could retell the story without worrying about it being identical. Smith suggested that the "stolen" manuscript, should it ever turn up, would prove to be altered rather than being actually divergent, in an attempt to make him look like a fraud. Smith switched scribes (new man, Oliver Cowdery), and continued. Meanwhile, Martin Harris obtained a handwritten copy of text written in the "reformed Egyptian caractors" and took it to one of America's leading experts in antiquities, Charles Anthon of Columbia University. It was a "singular medley" of Greek and Hebrew characters copied from a dictionary. along with inverted Roman letters, stars, and half moons. Anthon told him the text contained "anything else but Egyptian characters," and that he thought someone was trying to perpetrate a hoax. Harris, however, concluded that this only proved Smith was a better translator than the noted academic, and must be working under Divine impulse. He returned claiming that Anthon had originally certified the translation, but withdrew it when informed it was for religious purposes. Anthon vehemently denied approving the translation, and is considered a liar by Mormons to this day.
In 1970 what is believed to be the actual transcript sample was found in an old Smith family Bible. It confirms Anthon's public statements, and refutes Harris' account of his meeting with him. Also helpful is a public statement by the Smithsonian institution in the 1840's denying that any example of Hebrew or Egyptian writing had ever been found anywhere in the Americas. (As recently as 1988 the Smithsonian still had the courage to publish material asserting that the Book of Mormon is not a reliable guide for archaeological understanding of early American habitation.)
As the book of Mormon was being finished, Smith realized that someone else besides him had to see the plates or there would be a credibility problem. He had a "revelation" in which God said he would grant a vision of the plates to three and no more. Smith told Martin Harris that the Lord had said, "Martin Harris shall say, 'I have seen them, shown unto me by the power of God",' and if he doesn't, "he is condemned." In intensive prayer sessions with Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer all three were eventually bullied into "seeing" the plates by the power of suggestion. Cowdery and Whitmer claimed they'd seen the plates in a vision "revealed by the power of God," the same circumstances in which Harris was told he'd see them. All three witnesses, though, told different versions of their visions at different times, versions not consistent with each other or with themselves. But the most important thing to notice is that no one actually saw the plates in the normal physical sense. They were seen with "the eye of faith," another term for "vain imaginings."
Oliver Cowdery was excommunicated in 1838 after accusing Joseph Smith of adultery. He'd also come to believe that the translation was entirely Joseph Smith's work, and not God's. (Furthermore, the angelic voice he'd heard at his baptism, on retrospect, sounded a lot like a certain Sidney Rigdon.) David Whitmer was also excommunicated and Martin Harris left the faith. But the testimony of all three men is still reprinted in every Book of Mormon it attesting to the existence of the golden plates they'd never actually seen. And despite Smith's "revelation" that the vision would be granted to "three and no more," eight witnesses were later added, and their testimony is printed below that of the original three.
It must be pointed out here that the fabled "Hill of Cumorah," where the plates were allegedly unearthed, has produced no physical evidence of anything along the lines claimed by Mormonism. Not only the plates, but no weapons,, bones, or artifacts of any kind were ever found at the site, despite it being--as Mormonism asserts--a veritable Armageddon.
When the project was finished, the prophet's loyal brother Hyrum thought to copyright the "holy book" and suggested that the copyright could be sold for money. Joseph consulted his holy oracles and OK'd the venture, but no buyer was found. David Whitmer wondered how Smith could receive a revelation on it, yet still see the effort fail. Smith sought a new revelation, and informed his followers that some revelations were from God, some from the devil and some from man. (Thus discrediting the reliability of the entire revelation process!) Lacking money, he simultaneously came up with a revelation for Harris: Be more generous in supporting the Book! (Which source for that one?)
Even before publication, the prospect to a purported new "holy book" met with public hostility which only increased afterward. But from an idle tale of buried treasure, Joseph Smith had created a new religion and enjoyed the power and prestige it conferred from the gullible. Others, meanwhile, were claiming to be receiving revelations and gaining a following; and Cowdery and Whitmer were falling for it in the case of a Hiram Page,, who employed a "sacred stone." Smith produced a "revelation" calling him Satan-deceived, and asserting that only he was appointed to receive commandments and revelations. It worked.
Smith and 70 followers moved from New York to Ohio in 1831. There Smith tried his hand at healing. He had dazzling success with one woman's bum arm (a likely hysterical symptom), but failed at other healings, also at an attempt to raise the dead. Clearly, his ego had gotten out of control. Just a few months lateral a revelation instructed him and most of his flock to move to Jackson County, Missouri, which was purportedly the site of the original Garden of Eden. Paranoid, clannish, and with an attitude of superiority (not to mention the beginnings of polygamy), they incurred the hostility of their rough-hewn rustic neighbors, who were afraid of being squeezed out by a bogus Divine provision. There were numerous clashes, killings, and house burnings on both sides. Joseph Smith himself was tarred and feathered, regrettably a lost art these days.
Meanwhile, back in Ohio, a church-run bank (of which Smith was treasurer) had failed. Originally denied a charter, it had opened as an "anti-Bank," and its operations, illegal from the start, included printing their own currency. This created a false prosperity early on, but ultimately collapsed the local economy. This did not do much for their image. Neither did the mysterious fire at the local press building, which many blamed on Smith's instigation.
In Missouri, the Mormon community was finally expelled front the state. The governor who issued the order of expulsion was later shot and nearly killed. By an amazing coincidence (ha!) Smith had earlier "prophesied" his death by violent means, and was very nearly on target. (Or someone was .... ) All along, Smith kept at his task of spurious translation. Papyrus scrolls from Egypt had found their way to America, and they were shown to Smith as an alleged authority. He pretended to translate them, producing a paraphrase of Genesis along with some imaginative embellishment and called it the Book of Abraham. (It was included in a later Mormon text.) These papyri were rediscovered in 1967, matching portions made in Smith's own hand. Legitimate Egyptologists could thereby determine that the actual translation had nothing whatsoever to do with what Smith claimed it said. Smith was also taken in by a hoax by three men who pretended to discover brass plates in the ground, which they'd etched with strange letters and artificially aged before burying. Smith, of course, claimed he could read it, but years later one of the participants revealed it to have been a prank.
After being run out of Missouri, the Mormons moved on to Illinois, where they likewise ran into hostility. 62 neighbors signed a petition stating that Joseph Smith and his father were "entirely destitute of moral character and addicted to vicious habits." Smith was eventually arrested for forging bank notes and for aiding and abetting fugitives from justice. He is also believed to have ordered the destruction of the presses of the Nauvoo Expositor, which had been critical of him. But unfortunately for us all, a mob stormed the jail and shot him and his brother, thus creating martyrs to give impetus to the new religion. Brigham Young, an effective but sometimes ruthless leader, took over and led the long march to Utah, where they would have no neighbors to bother them, other than the remnants of the "Lamanites" who could be displaced without protest by the Federal government. There they went on to the success they enjoy today, so much so that they are almost never referred to as a cult.

Michael Moore : On (False) Prophets and Messiahs

On (False) Prophets and Messiahs (2016)

Michael Moore

The word "prophet" comes from the Greek for "one who predicts." It served as the accepted translation of the Hebrew "navi"—itself from a Semitic source, which in Akkadian and Arabic indicated "call, announce." Some Latin sources translated Greek "prophetes" with Latin "vates" (still current in English, and the source of "Vatican"); this can be traced back to a Proto-Indo-European root, meaning "to blow, inspire, spiritually arouse." In Old High German "prophet" was rendered by "wizzago," from "wizzan" or "to know" (which, incidentally, is also the source of contemporary "wiseacre"). The Hebrew source of "messiah" translates into "an anointed one" in English and into "khristos" (hence Christ and Christians) in Greek. The Hebrew root is first used in Genesis (31:13), and is applied to the anointing, i.e., consecrating by smearing with oil, of a pillar. So much for etymologies.
As for the title of this essay: According to my worldview, prophets are either liars[1] or suffer from some psychopathology (or perhaps both). Therefore the label "false prophet" uses an unnecessary qualifier: one way or another, all prophets are false.[2] By necessity, this conclusion would be rejected by religious denominations that declare some of their own prophets to be true (and most, if not all, of others' prophets to be false). Historically, prophets and messiahs perform different roles; but given the overlap in their functions (messiahs prophesize, and many prophets have been regarded as messiahs), here I will treat them interchangeably.
To substantiate my doubts about the sanity of nonprevaricating prophets, I offer the following examples, which either demonstrate a prophet's abnormal behavior, or note others' characterizations of a prophet as a madman[3]:
"He [Saul, the first king of the Israelites] stripped off his garments, and he too prophesied in Samuel's presence. He lay naked all that day and all that night " (1 Samuel 19:24). Zvi Mark mentions Rashi's (perhaps the most revered exegetist of the Hebrew Bible) interpretation as King Saul having been "possessed by madness" (2009, p. 3). (See also Chabad, n.d.).
According to an article in New Scientist, "records in the Bible reveal that Ezekiel, who lived about 2600 years ago, showed extreme classic symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy" (Motluk, 2001). Alison Motluk's report is based on Erik L. Altschuler's (2002) work, in which he described some of Ezekiel's symptoms, included fainting spells, inability to speak, hypergraphia (a compulsion to write profusely detailed accounts), and aggressive religiosity.
On God's command, the prophet Isaiah walked naked and barefoot for about three years (Isaiah 20:2-3).
The prophet Balaam was thought to have been mad: "They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Bezer, who loved the wages of wickedness. But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey—an animal without speech—who spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet's madness" (2 Peter 2:15-16).
"The days of punishment are coming, the days of reckoning are at hand. Let Israel know this. Because your sins are so many and your hostility so great, the prophet is considered a fool, the inspired person a maniac" (Hosea 9:7).[4]
"According to Rabbi Yohanan, since the destruction of the Temple, prophecy has been taken from the prophets and given to fools and babies" (Talmud: Baba Batra 12/B).
In 1825 Thomas Jefferson dismissed The Revelation of St. John as "the ravings of a maniac" (Allen, 2005).

Religious Attitudes Toward False Prophets

The abundance of claimants to messiahship should lead even believers to suspect that many are or have been false messiahs. Though not a totally reliable source, Wikipedia is useful for approximating the magnitude of this phenomenon: It lists and documents 20 Jewish, 34 Christian, 7 Muslim, and 10 other individuals who either claimed to be messiahs, or were regarded as such by a large number of followers (2015a); 16 more claimed to be a reincarnation of Buddha (2015b).[5]
One might think that believers find it relatively easy to decide who is a false prophet/messiah by seeing whether their predictions come true. Yet both their scriptural definitions and an examination of later and better documented examples show that things are far more complicated: A prophecy may come true, and yet its author is declared false; and failed prophecies need not disqualify their source (as in Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 1956). Examples of such cases will be included among the brief review of scriptural, as well as extrascriptural, references to so-called false prophets and messiahs in the three Abrahamic religions.


According to the Hebrew Bible: "If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, 'Let us follow other gods' (gods you have not known) 'and let us worship them,' you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer.... That prophet or dreamer must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the LORD your God" (Deuteronomy 13:1-5).
This primary definition clearly tells us that the motive underlying most claims about the falsity of a prophet is a need for control. In today's vernacular, this comes down to "Who is the boss?"
Take, for example, the Prophet Micah's attack on his rivals:
This is what the Lord says about the prophets who are causing my people to go astray, who are calling out 'Peace' when they are being fed, but who declare war against those who won't feed them: 'You will have nights without visions, and darkness without prophecy. The sun will set on the prophets, and the day will darken for them. Those who see visions will be put to shame, and the diviners will be disgraced—every one of them—they will cover their faces, because there will be no answer from God.'

As for me, I am truly filled with power by the Spirit of the Lord, filled with judgment and power to announce to Jacob his transgression, and to Israel his sin. (Micah 3:5-8)
Many similar incidents of rivalry among prophets appear in the Jewish Bible: Elijah first challenged and shamed, then slaughtered, 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 22-40); in the Lord's name Jeremiah (28:15-17) cursed the prophet Hananiah, and accused other prophets of lying and committing adultery (29:23); Isaiah (28:7) proclaimed that drunken "priests and prophets ... stagger when seeing visions, they stumble when rendering decisions."[6] In postbiblical times Simon Bar Kokhba was recognized by Rabbi Akiva (referred to in the Talmud as Head of all the Sages) as the messiah; yet this hero of the 2nd-century war against Rome was called Bar Koziba, the son of lies, by his rabbinic opponents (Krauss, 1906, pp. 506-507).
A 17th-century case is especially worth mentioning: Shabtai Zvi (1626-1676) was a Turkish-born Jewish cabbalist who came to be acknowledged as the Jewish Messiah by tens of thousands of followers in Europe, the Near East, and North Africa. His claims to messiahship were based on a spurious book, supposedly containing scriptural proof of his messianic origin, as well as forged documents—all provided by one of his disciples (Scholem, 2007, p. 273). Gershom Scholem, probably the greatest authority on cabbalists in general, and on Shabtai Zvi in particular, described him as "a character that conforms largely to what handbooks of psychiatry describe as an extreme case of cyclothymia or manic-depressive psychosis" (1974, p. 246). His downfall was brought about by a rival prophet: Nehemia ha-Kohen, a Polish cabbalist, denounced him as an impostor to the Sultan. Subsequently, both Shabtai Zvi and his denouncer converted to Islam (Kohler & Seligsohn, 1906, p. 212).
Accusing another of being a false prophet, and thus attempting to retain control, is not a thing of the past. Rabbi Schneerson (1902-1994), a charismatic Hassidic leader, is regarded by many of his followers as the Messiah, to the point of denying his death. Rabbi Shach, one of his powerful opponents and the leader of a rival Jewish sect, compared Rabbi Schneerson to the followers of Shabtai Zvi, accused him of false Messianism, and called him "the madman who sits in New York and drives the whole world crazy" (Yehudim Neged Chabad, 2015).


The attitude of Christianity toward false prophets resembles what we have seen in the Jewish Bible.[7] Here, too, admonitions are announced by rival prophets, warn of dangerous (i.e., heretical) messages, and even contain some character assassination. Notice how their purport is echoed by the censorship practices of various totalitarian regimes (see Goldstein, 2001):
For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers... Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre's sake. (Titus 1:10-11)
But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them ... In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. (2 Peter 2:1-3)
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. (Matthew 7:15-16)
In addition to such warnings (see also Revelation 13:6 and Matthew 24:24), the New Testament recounts a confrontation between Paul and "a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, who was an attendant of the proconsul Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, 'You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.' Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand" (Acts 13:6-11).
Contemporary examples are abundant. In their quest for control, Protestant and Catholic sources inevitably blame each other for producing dishonest leaders of their faith. On the one hand, Protestants are liable to so describe the serving Pope. Hence the Rapture Ready website offers this indication of the current Pope's falsity: "Humility may in fact be the real sign that Pope Francis is a possible candidate for the role of False Prophet. Revelation describes this person as a beast with two horns like a lamb. It will most likely take someone of a kind and flattering nature to bring the world together under the Harlot church system" (Rapture Ready, 2015). Catholics, on the other hand, attack evangelists. Having published a "Ten Most Wanted" list of the most famous ones, Anthony Hilder went on to say that "[w]hen these false teachers and false prophets are apprehended they will be tried in a spiritual court of law (I Kor. 6.2), and when found guilty they will be punished according to the Scriptures (Rom. 16.17; I Tim. 3.5, 6; 2 Tim. 2.25, 26; Tit. 1.9-16; 3. 10,11)" (2015). He also added that "All females teachers are false teachers for the Scriptures makes [sic] it explicitly clear they are not to teach men (I Kor. 14.34,35; 1 Tim. 2. 9-15)" (Hilder, 2015).


Since according to the Quran (33:40) Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets, anyone claiming to be a prophet after Muhammad is a false one. However, Islamic eschatology speaks of a Mahdi (the guided one), who is the prophesied redeemer of Islam. The Mahdi will rule for several years before the Day of Resurrection, and with the help of Jesus will destroy Masih ad-Dajjal, the False Messiah (Bowker, 1997, p. 43). This false messiah will be easy to recognize; on the basis of Quranic and hadith sources, Abu Ibrahim described him as follows: "The Dajjal will be a short man, pigeon-toed, with curly hair. He will be one-eyed, with his eye neither prominent nor sunken. If you become confused about him, then remember that your Lord is not one-eyed" (Abu Ibrahim, 2011).
There have been numerous claimants to be the redeemer of Islam, including Muhammad Jaunpuri, the 15th-century founder of the Mahdavia sect; Siyyid Ali Muhammad, the 19th-century founder of Bábism, and Muhammad Ahmad, who in 1881 established the Mahdist state in Sudan. Each of these was violently opposed and persecuted by his rivals.
Though not having brought about the promised redemption, some of the self-proclaimed Mahdis have been very popular: Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, 19th-century founder of the Ahmadiyya sect, currently has 10 to 20 million followers in over 200 countries (Al Islam, 2015). Mirza Ghulam Ahmad saw himself as a prophet, and offered the following explanation for apparently violating the "seal of the prophets" idea:
All windows of Prophethood are now closed except the window of complete obedience to the Holy Prophet. Therefore, he who approaches God through this window is reflectively clothed with the same cloak of Prophethood which is the cloak of the Muhammadi Prophethood. The Prophethood of such a one is not apart and distinct from the Prophethood of the Holy Prophet, inasmuch as he does not claim it in his own right but receives everything from the fountain of the Holy Prophet, not for himself but for his glory.... Therefore the concept of Khatamun Nabiyyeen [seal of the prophets] has not been contravened by my advent, but it would certainly be contravened by the advent of Jesus a second time. (Ahmad, 2015)
Two contemporary examples are Muhammad al-Qahtani and Abdul Zahra. Al-Qahtani was behind a 1979 uprising in Saudi Arabia. In 1978 "Juhayman [al-'Utaybi] declared that it had been confirmed to him in a dream that his companion Mohammad al-'Qahtani was the Mahdi" (Hegghammer & Lacroix, 2007). Juhayman was a fundamentalist who opposed the corrupt Saudi leadership. Within a year he and his followers seized and held for two weeks the Great Mosque in Mecca, with the aim of consecrating al-Qahtani as the Mahdi. Hundreds of deaths occurred during the siege, and scores of public beheadings ensued. Abdul-Zahra, the leader of the Heaven's Army cult, was arrested twice on charges of claiming to be Imam Mahdi, the revered Shiite Muslim saint who disappeared more than 1,000 years ago (Rouge & Fakhrildeen, 2007). He was killed by Iraqi and U.S. troops in 2007.


This essay has not been concerned with the need to believe in prophets and messiahs, only with the need to undermine them. As we have seen, in each of the three major religions (as in comparable monolithic organizations), self-acclaimed leaders who do not follow orthodoxy put themselves in harm's way: when they threaten the secure status of those in power, or attempt to wrench away control, they are ridiculed, censored, persecuted, silenced, and destroyed. A basic human need underlies this behavior. While enumerating universal psychogenic needs, personality theorist Harry A. Murray called this need dominance and found that (a) it was a common reaction to being faced by stubborn opposition and (b) was directed against anyone who opposed any need (1938, pp. 81-82). Erich Fromm was more blunt when he referred to control as "the religion of psychical cripples" (1977, p. 386; cf. Kramer-Moore & Moore, 2002, p. 386).


[1] In the words of the prophet Isaiah: "I expose the false prophets as liars and make fools of fortune-tellers. I cause the wise to give bad advice, thus proving them to be fools" (Isaiah 44:25).
[2] As weather forecasters, polltakers, and horoscope writers (among others) well know, as profitable as predicting the future may be, it is an occupation fraught with uncertainty and failure.
[3] See also the etymology and sense evolution of "giddy" (which in Old English meant "insane, mad, stupid") from "possessed by a god."
[4] Compare this to Jeremiah 29:26, where the prophet uses the term "every crazy prophet," or "every madman who prophesies."
[5] This count disregards, of course, the countless psychiatric cases who make similar claims in and out of hospitals all over the world.
[6] Also note the following: Hanani the seer was jailed for cursing Asa, King of Judah (2 Chronicles 16:7-10); Micaiah was jailed (1 Kings 22:26); and Jeremiah was arrested and threatened with death, while his predecessor Urijah was killed (Jeremiah 26 and 37:14), for their unfavorable prophecies.
[7] Related aspects of this phenomenon, not dealt with here, are the Christian concern with the Antichrist (McGinn, 1994) and the success of charismatic cult leaders (Lofland, 1977).


Abu Ibrahim. (2011). "Dajjal Anti Christ." Islamic Learning Materials Website. <http://islamiclearningmaterials.com/dajjal-anti-christ/>.
Ahmad, Mirza Ghulam. (2015). "Can a Prophet Still Come?" Why Ahmadi Website. <http://whyahmadi.org/why-i-am-an-ahmadi/can-a-prophet-still-come.html>.
Al Islam (2015). "An Overview." Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Website. <http://www.alislam.org/introduction/index.html>.
Allen, Brooke. (2005). "Our Godless Constitution." CBS News, February 4. (Slightly modified in the February 5, 2005 The Nation article of the same title.)
Altschuler, Erik L. (2002). "Did Ezekiel have Temporal Lobe Epilepsy?" Archives of General Psychiatry, Vol. 59, No. 6 (June 1): 561-562.
Bowker, John (1997). (Ed.). "Al-Dajjal." In Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Chabad (n.d.). "Shmuel 1: Rashi's Commentary." Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center. <http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/15848#showrashi=true>.
Festinger, Leon, Henry W. Riecken, & Stanley Schachter. (1956). When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks.
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Goldstein, Robert J. (2001). Political Censorship. Chicago, IL: Fitzroy Dearborn.
Hegghammer, Thomas & Stephane Lacroix. (2007). "Rejectionist Islamism in Saudi Arabia: The Story of Juhayman al-'Utaybi Revisited." International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 39, Issue 1 (February): 103-122.
Hilder, Anthony. (2015). "Ten Most Wanted: False Teachers In America." Free World Alliance Website. <http://www.freeworldfilmworks.com/dov-10danger.htm>.
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Kramer-Moore, Daniela & Michael Moore. (2002). Life Imitates Art—Encounters Between Family Therapy and Literature. New York, NY: Solomon Press.
Krauss, Samuel. (1906). Bar Kokba and Bar Kokba war. In The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 2. New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls.
Lofland, John. (1977). Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization and Maintenance of Faith, enlarged ed. New York, NY: Irvington.
Mark, Zvi. (2009). Mysticism and Madness: The Religious Thought of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. New York, NY: Continuum.
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Adam Lewis : Why Religion is Persuasive: How Religious Rhetoric Taps into Intuitions Underlying Religious Thought

Why Religion is Persuasive: How Religious Rhetoric Taps into Intuitions Underlying Religious Thought (2011)

Adam Lewis

Empirical reality often clashes with our scientifically uninformed intuitions. These intuitions would lead us to believe that the Earth is stationary while that burning yellow light in the sky is the celestial body that moves. Though inaccurate, these intuitions provide enough of a working mental model to suit our needs. One could pass through life believing in a geocentric solar system and function properly, as generations upon generations of human beings did. Many of our intuitions and modes of perception were not cobbled together by evolution as tools for discerning truth, but rather for building approximations of reality that were useful to our ancestors. A number of skewed ways of thinking (from a scientific perspective) have come down to us and are well known to psychologists. A few prominent examples are confirmation bias, self-serving bias, in-group bias, group consensus bias, and personification bias (Newberg and Waldman 253-257). These biases are often the intuitive "default" in our thinking and take conscious effort to suppress. However, the fact that these biases can produce false conclusions does not entail that any thinking influenced by them must lead to false conclusions. Take, for example, group consensus bias. That a group of experts believe something can be a good reason to believe that it is probably true, though with a different group a consensus would not provide a good reason to believe it at all. The point here is simply that these intuitive biases are legion in our thinking.
Among these built-in proclivities for thinking in certain ways are religious and supernaturalist biases. Just as human beings are biologically "prewired" to learn language from their social environment, thinking in terms of the supernatural may also be inborn. With language the specific semantic content is not inborn, but the general proclivities are there. Perhaps learning religious concepts comes naturally in a similar way. This isn't to say that people are born with any innate "knowledge of God" or sensus divinitatis, but simply that human beings are generally susceptible to thinking in terms of religious conceptualizations (which are almost always in abundant supply in the surrounding culture, particularly in its rhetoric). Developmental psychology has shown that children are often intuitive creationists (Kelemen 295-296). Indeed, cognitive scientist Jesse Bering tells us that, "By her own accounts, even Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind from nineteen months of age, spontaneously pondered, 'Who made the sky, the sea, everything?' prior to being taught how to communicate" (Bering, "Creationism"). These examples show why empirically vacuous claims about gods, souls, afterlives, and so on are rhetorically effective: they fit well with people's prescientific intuitions. In this paper I will explore how these intuitions shape beliefs about gods as supernatural agents, drawing on examples from the Koran, before finally considering their impact on beliefs about the soul and related afterlife beliefs.
Explaining our surroundings and the situations that we experience is a primary human drive. We create order out of chaotic environments and complex phenomena through language, constructing narratives and myths to situate ourselves within the larger sphere of the world. One of the prime reasons for these myths and narratives is to establish one's relationship to other human beings, to events, and even to oneself. This is not just a creative process, where narratives and myths are plucked from the imagination without constraint, but a process where our senses and psychology interplay and interact to mould the stories that we tell and the beliefs that we hold. And as with any way of understanding the world, we often feel that there are better or more correct kinds of explanation which compete with other explanations. Thus explicative and explanatory narratives and myths—and their connected belief systems—often use rhetoric to sway opinion in their favor.
Where do God and religion fit into this process? The pantheon of deities and their central role in various cultures have always played an explanatory role in our mythic narratives. The Koran (mirroring many other holy books) says: "It was God who created the heavens and the earth" (14:31). But why do so many people find this type of rhetoric persuasive? The answer is that it is natural for human beings to think in terms of agents acting upon the world, and gods are agents (Whitehouse 30).
Our physical and mental world is full of agents, and our minds are constantly inferring their actions. If the neighbor's lawn has been mown, even if it was not directly witnessed, we automatically infer that either she has cut the grass or hired another human being to do so. The inference of agency is ubiquitous as a mental tool for Homo sapiens. Interpreting a strange creaking sound in the night as an intruder's foot upon a squeaky board—not simple temperature contraction—utilizes what Justin Barrett has dubbed our mind's Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD) (Barrett, "Foundations" 31-32; Tremlin 77-78). As a mental tool the inference to agency is nearly a default cognitive perception (Boyer 145). Indeed, as Todd Tremlin puts it, "Because agents are the most relevant things in the environment, evolution has tuned the brain to quickly spot them, or to suspect their presence based on signs and traces" (Tremlin 76). Why this is so makes perfect biological sense. The cost of false positives—such as thinking that a coiled rope is a snake at first glance—is very low, resulting in a mere shock. But the result of a false negative—thinking that a snake is a rope—can cost you everything in biological terms (Guthrie 50-56).
Extending this principle into the social realm, it is easy to see why we are always looking out for agents. If a husband comes home smelling like flowers, his odor may have been caused by a walk through a blooming field, or it may be the perfume of another woman that rubbed off on him. To the wife, the nonagent explanation is of little consequence, but the explanation positing another agent carries grave consequences. Thus, even where no obvious agent is involved, inferring that an agent was responsible is a seductively powerful explanatory scheme, as it should be. For, as in the lawn mowing example above, these types of explanations often turn out to be correct. If an event or circumstance needs to be explained, positing an agent often does the job nicely.
However, this tactic becomes trickier when explaining events that no natural agent—human or animal—is capable of producing. In these situations human beings often keep the inference of agency, but modify the type of agent involved. Supernatural agents are thus inferred from situations where no natural agent could possibly provide a plausible explanation. Consequently, these situations often invoke questions of a religious nature. Sacred texts, such as the Koran and the Bible, often imbue phenomena that can be understood entirely naturalistically (in our contemporary scientific age) with supernatural agency. The resulting rhetoric is deeply ethos-empowered: the suite of existential questions present in all human cultures—Where did we come from? How did we get here?—are often answered by positing an overarching supernatural agent: the Deity. With a supernaturalistic explanatory scheme in place, explaining causation in nature and causation in large-scale social trends by reference to this deity-agent invokes a deeply ethos-driven rhetorical effect. Who can match the credibility of the Creator of the universe? To get to the root of this, certain aspects of human psychology must be unpacked.
Within human culture the ubiquity of—and massive variation in—religion and supernatural belief are defining characteristics of our species. Critiques which claim that supernatural beliefs are as absurd as obvious fictions like Santa Clause or fairies are caricatures that misunderstand the issue. Such superficial critiques fail to critically evaluate the role that supernatural beliefs play, why the human mind is so apt to hold them, and why they are persistent even in the face of naturalistic explanations. As psychologists Justin Barrett and David F. Bjorklund write,
Belief in gods requires no special parts of the brain. Belief in gods requires no special mystical experiences, though it may be aided by such experiences. Belief in gods requires no coercion or brainwashing or special persuasive techniques. Rather, belief in gods arises because of the natural functioning of completely normal mental tools working in common natural and social contexts (21)
As previously mentioned, human beings believe in gods in part because gods act as agents, and agents—at least natural ones—are indisputably part of the world. And, as Barrett points out, quite ordinary cognitive functioning can cause human beings to hold extraordinary beliefs. But although agents are a normal part of our physical and mental life, and gods are agents, gods are still rather distinctive from natural agents. As Barrett and many other cognitive scientists of religion point out, gods fall into a class of concepts that are "minimally counterintuitive."
Minimally counterintuitive (MCI) concepts typically violate one (or a few) intuitive assumptions about a conceptual category. Barrett's illustration is clarifying:
Create an MCI the following way. First, take an ordinary concept, such as 'tree,' 'shoe,' or 'dog,' that meets all of the naturally occurring assumptions of our categorizers and describers. Then violate one of the assumptions. For instance, as a bounded physical object, a tree activates the nonreflective beliefs governing physical objects, including being visible. So make the tree invisible (otherwise a perfectly good tree), and you have an MCI (Barrett, "God" 22).
Distinguishing gods as minimally counterintuitive is an important step in understanding the intuitive (and by extension rhetorical) pull that they have on the human mind. For instance, if I were to tell a group of people that there is a tree on campus that could sing songs, turn neon purple on command, and fly like a helicopter, most would be incredulous and my rhetoric relaying the story would fail. However, if I relayed a minimally counterintuitive tree concept, like a tree that could hear one's whispers on moonlit nights and grant wishes, it would be more likely to convince. (Notice the social component of this more believable concept.) By contrast, flatly counterintuitive ideas are not useful in for perceptual schemata. For instance, a god that eats spaghetti with a water hose, drinks dirt, and exists only on every third Thursday won't last long in the minds of human beings. That god would be too outlandish; in the jargon of cognitive science of religion, it wouldn't achieve a cognitive optimum (see, for example, Todd Tremlin's Minds and Gods and Harvey Whitehouse's Modes of Religiosity).
On the other side of the coin, a god that is a normal person except for having the ability to make magic rocks won't last as an idea either—that would be too mundane. There are many minimally counterintuitive supernatural concepts that are not gods—such as ghosts, ancestral spirits, and angels—but they differ from gods in very important respects. For one, as Todd Tremlin explains, gods have more social relevance:
Ghosts, witches, and similar representations go so far as to activate our social mind systems, including the mental mechanisms of social exchange. As a result, these kinds of representations hold a special salience the world over. Usually, though, they are treated as agents that need to be dealt with as one deals with other humans. What these concepts ultimately lack is the counterintuitive property that makes gods the focus of serious religious commitment: full access strategic information, including people's moral qualities. Only god concepts capitalize on the mind's most powerful cognitive systems and have the counterintuitive properties capable of generating serious personal and social commitment (Tremlin 122).
As Tremlin notes, the most cognitively optimal concepts for gods are the ones that utilize an anthropomorphic template and violate it in a strategic way, such as having omniscient access to social information.
This access to strategic information brings us to another key concept about how gods are constituted in the human mind—theory of mind. This useful perceptual schema evolved as a specialization of our hypersocial species because it has particular survival value (Tremlin 80). For its intuitive characteristics it is dubbed the Theory of Mind Mechanism (ToMM) by Tremlin (80). Further discussions about the theory of mind's role in religious cognition can be found in Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust, Justin L. Barrett's Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, and Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained. Whether hypothesizing what is going on in the mind of a sexually competing peer, or in the mind of a potentially deadly enemy or animal, an adept and engaged ToMM is exceedingly important. When we recognize that we are interacting with another agent,
Our knowledge of agents links physical causality to mental causality. Agents, we intuitively assume, have minds. They are things that think. Agents have feelings, intentions, and an array of private beliefs and desires. Their behaviors, we also assume, are motivated by these beliefs and desires (Tremlin 80).
Being able to anticipate the potential actions of other agents because we know that they possess a mind—a mind that can feel hunger, pain, lust, or love and act on those desires—is one of the vital aspects of human social life. Indeed, one of the primary impairments of autistic children is that they lack the ability to theorize about other minds (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, and Frith 37). Since the ToMM is primarily a social navigation and survival tool (TOMM is only useful in a world with other minds), and the human social world is of central importance to human beings, the primary type of mind that we attribute to agents is the one that we understand the best—our own. This may be why gods have minds with human characteristics.
Carrying this forward, Tremlin argues that all god concepts are the result of suspecting the presence of an agent and then theorizing about what is going on in its disembodied mind:
First, of all the objects in the environment, agents matter most. The connection?—gods are agents. Second, humans understand the world, and particularly agents, in light of minds. The connection?—gods have minds. These facts are exceedingly trivial, but they are also exceedingly explicative. They tell us exactly what kinds of things gods are and how we think about them (86).
If this theoretical framework is correct, it also explains the variation that we see among the complete pantheon of deities. It has long been noted in religious studies that the deities of a culture often reflect the values and characteristics of that culture. For instance, the sometimes brutal depictions of Yahweh in the Old Testament of the Bible reflect the cultural landscape of the time, and the uncompromising yet merciful depictions of Allah in the Koran mirror the mind of Mohammed and his culture. Indeed, as Paul Froese and Christopher Bader put it:
The idea that one's God reflects something essential about oneself is a popular notion among religionists and nonreligionists alike. The Book of Genesis is clear on the matter: 'And God said, Let us make man in our image after our likeness' (Genesis 1:26). Social scientists and psychologists tend to reverse this causal order and argue that individuals anthropomorphize the idea of the supernatural to reflect cultural values and desirable human traits (465).
So supernatural beliefs—including beliefs about gods—are formed out of concepts and perceptions that arise in the natural human mind. Although this does not preclude the existence of the supernatural, it provides a naturalistic framework where we can study and explain supernatural beliefs, and tie them into religious rhetoric present in both holy texts and in the culture at large.
Supernatural concepts (including those about various deities) are usually not the abstract metaphors or philosophical yearnings found in some intellectual schools of thought. Rather, they are practical, explanatory, and reified systems of perception that carry rhetorical weight. Impersonal, noninteracting deities are within the realm of philosophical arguments; but practical and acting deities can have actionable rhetoric attached to them. As Tremlin notes:
It's telling, too, that in religions that teach the existence of some ultimate power or impersonal divinity—the forces of Tao, Brahman, and Buddha-nature, the creator gods of many African tribes and of early American deists—such ideas are almost completely ignored in favor of more personal or practical deities (123).
Indeed, the simple American invocation "God bless" is quite illuminating on this point. Unpacked, the statement implores a supernatural agent to interrupt the causal structure of reality on behalf of a person or group. Unless God is an active agent in the world, His prominence is drastically reduced, and the rhetoric attached to Him is lame. As Pascal Boyer writes: "First, religious concepts are represented by people mostly when there is a need for them. That is, some salient event has happened that can be explained in terms of the god's actions" (Boyer 138). Thus, one of the primary functions of the rhetoric of supernatural agency in the Koran and other holy texts is to point to prominent events. When the salient event has been proffered, the explanation that it was the result of an acting agent fits perfectly with the profile of human cognitive patterns. Given that humans are already prone to see events as the products of agency, the perceived understanding that a listener gains will be especially rhetorically effective if the supernatural agent is imbued with a theory of mind closely related to the listener's culture.
Natural events, scientifically understood, are impersonal and lack intentions. But events like earthquakes deeply and personally affect human beings. The mode of thought that understands such events as the intentional actions of an agent with a human-like mind will be advantageous, for it imparts a semblance of social understanding of the events. The agents offered as explanations are particularly memorable minimally counterintuitive god concepts with relevant strategic information. This makes a superbly efficacious recipe for religion because it is both biologically primed and culturally transferable. It is no wonder that 19th- and early 20th-century secularists' predictions that religion would wane as scientific knowledge increased have largely failed to materialize.
Science cannot explain events in the socially salient and relational manner that religion does. While it can and does explain cause-and-effect relationships between human beings and the natural environment (such as climate change), it cannot offer intentional or agency-driven accounts of nature. This is one of the reasons why some philosophers of science have remarked that scientific thinking does not come naturally in explaining nature in terms of natural cause and effect. In A Grammar of Motives Kenneth Burke's pentad of dramatism contains the elements act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. But scientific explanations often leave out major elements—notably mind and intent—relating to agent, agency, and purpose. In other words, there is no Zeus intentionally lobbing lightning bolts. So a naturalistic construal of lightning may be less psychologically satisfying because there is no relational agent, and hence no drama or social meaning. Thus scientifically explicative rhetoric lacks many of the primary ingredients that humans find relevant. Since the human mind evolved in a manner that biases explanations of salient events to include some form of supernatural agency, religious rhetoric invoking supernatural agency will always enjoy an advantage (at least to some individuals) over scientific explanations.
Salient events are used heavily in the rhetoric and narrative of the Koran. One illustrative passage reads:
It is He who has made the earth a resting-place for you and traced out routes upon it that you may find your way; who sends down water from the sky in due measure and thereby resurrects a dead land ...; who has created all living things in pairs and made for you ships and beasts on which you ride, so that, as you mount upon their backs, you may recall the goodness of your Lord. (43:10-11)
In the preindustrial society of the Middle East where Islam was born, seasonal changes held an important place in the minds of inhabitants. Indeed, the natural climate cycle was an intimate part of their lives. The climate-related events noted in the Koranic passage above could easily be interpreted as the intentional actions of an agent. The passage conforms to the conceptual framework sketched out previously. There is a salient event (the seasonal changes that alter the biosphere) that needs to be explained. A nonnatural agent must be inferred since the scope of the action outweighs a natural agent's abilities. This supernatural agent is minimally counterintuitive and has access to strategically important social information, making it a god. And with the culture supplying the theory of mind, this god becomes an intentional and relational being with localized characteristics. As Theodore Jennings points out, "explicative use of god-language is important not only because it is so widespread, but also because it answers to a basic human need: the need for pattern, order, regularity" (152). The rhetoric of supernatural agency generates conceptual coherence out of the world very effectively.
The presence of these rhetorically effective cognitive patterns in human beings is fairly well established, though they may not be perfectly understood or described. However, human beings and their ways of thinking vary greatly, and not everyone perceives the world in supernatural ways, or in the locally orthodox religious manner. Today we find scientific naturalists and unorthodox religious dissenters, and it seems that even in the days of the Koran there were skeptics that needed convincing of its supernatural claims.
As the rhetoric of the sacred text reveals, agency is not universally inferred by everyone for all situations. Addressing unbelievers, the Koran asks: "Do they not reflect on the camels, and how they were created? The heaven, how it was raised on high? The mountains, how they were set down? The earth, how it was made flat?" (88:17) This rhetoric implies that only an agent—Allah—can account for the origins of the things in the world. Indeed, this rhetoric seeks to legitimize a specific theological message through an explanation of events. Jennings notes that "Explicative god-language is the use of god-language to identify a structure which explains an event or to explain or 'legitimate' structure" (159). The structure that this Koranic passage seeks to explain is that of the world. It is working off of the tacit assumption—an intuitive explanation in the mind of the reader—that an agent is required. Crafting its questions in a manner that begs the inference of agency (The camels—how were they created?) is a rhetorical device to persuade the reader of the legitimacy of the Koran's answer. Needless to say, the agent in this scenario is Allah, and He has all of the previously unpacked characteristics of god concepts that are intuitively compelling to the human mind. If this rhetoric isn't enough to convince the audience of the rightness of the Islamic conceptualization of the world, the passage goes on to describe that it is aimed at those who "turn their backs and disbelieve," and that if they do not submit to its teachings, "God will inflict on them the supreme chastisement" (88:25-26). Thus Allah is shown to have access to strategic social information (one's beliefs), making Him not only a very salient agent in the world, but one whose rhetoric is best heeded.
Interpreting world events or the world's condition as the intended result of a supernatural agent is a hallmark of Islamic theology. As Taner Edis writes:
There is plenty of popular superstition and a tendency to see natural events in terms of divine reward and punishment. For example, after earthquakes in Muslim lands, which result in much more devastation than in technologically advanced countries, some popular preachers will invariably declare that the quake was a divine punishment brought on by Western consumer ways, or maybe they allowed too many women to uncover themselves (85).
Indeed, the religious teachers that make such pronouncements are utilizing God as an explanatory device, and these pronouncements flow directly from a literal reading of the Koran. Such pronouncements pepper the text: "It is He who ordains life and death, and He who alternates the night with the day. Can you not understand?" (23:80). While many believers interpret these passages in a metaphorical way, and many religious scholars would scoff at interpreting earthquakes as divine will, Islamic and contemporary American culture make it obvious that there are many people who do not see God as a metaphor. These believers see Him as an active supernatural agent with real causative powers in the world, powers that are not sublime or ambiguous, but matter of fact in the manner of God caused B because of A. Thus the rhetoric that taps into this point of view will undoubtedly be persuasive to many.
The rhetoric of supernatural agency is so effective not only because it works in a top-down trajectory, but from an eruptive bottom-up one as well. The Koranic passages that try to convince us of the explanatory power of God in observed events and situations can be generalized (with some caveats) to similar forms of rhetoric in other sacred texts and in religious discourse. It works in a top-down manner by tapping into cognitive pathways and modes of thinking that are nearly ubiquitous among human beings. It is utilized in an eruptive bottom-up fashion by its articulators because they have the same general cognitive architecture as every other human being. The detection or inference of agency, the application of theory of mind to this agent or agents, and the minimally counterintuitive characteristics of god concepts makes for a deeply compelling and deeply convincing recipe for religion. That this rhetoric has been enshrined as sacred text in the Koran and other holy books follows from these observations. Indeed, the rhetoric argues for and articulates the very way that many people see and view the world, its events, and their interrelationships. As Jennings writes: "The use of god-language to display the antecedent conditions of causality as a mode of explication ... can be seen as a specific form of such a logo-logical or meta-explicative use of god-language" (159). God and the pantheon of other postulated deities serve a deeply human need—giving structure and meaning to the world as we humans have evolved to perceive it. This is why the rhetoric of supernatural agency is—and probably always will be—a powerful part of human communication.
Souls are a another powerful part of the rhetoric of religion. Without an intuitive belief that we possess an immaterial essence instead of just a biological brain, threats of hellfire or promises of paradise would hold little persuasive value. Again, we can look to developmental research with children to see the most intuitive default thinking in humans:
[Jesse Bering] put on a puppet show for a group of pre-school children. During the show, an alligator ate a mouse. The researchers then asked the children questions about the physical existence of the mouse, such as 'Can the mouse still be sick? Does it need to eat or drink?' The children said no. But when asked more 'spiritual' questions, such as 'does the mouse think and know things?', the children answered yes (Brooks 31).
Belief in souls requires a dualistic conception of human beings where the mind of an individual is conceptually separable from the body. Unlike a scientific, monistic view of individuals where the mind is an epiphenomenon of the living brain, a dualistic conceptualization sees individuals as having a soul that "is typically represented as the conscious personality" (Bering, "Souls" 453). The alligator-and-mouse experiment bears this out. From an early age human beings (across cultures) conceptually separate cognitive and biological processes, and even though we learn that biological bodies die, it is much more difficult to conclude that immaterial personalities die (Pyysiainen 94). There are several reasons for this difficulty. Bering's "The Folk Psychology of Souls" cites a study conducted with 5-month-old infants ascertaining their ability to reason about the law of continuous motion as it applies to human bodies:
Like any material substance, human bodies cannot go from A → C without first passing along the trajectory B (a continuous space between two points). For inanimate objects, infants are surprised (i.e., look longer) when the object disappears from behind one barrier and then seems to emerge from behind another adjacent barrier. In the case of a human who violates the law of continuous motion, however, 5-month-olds are not surprised (i.e., they do not look longer at this event than the non-violation event) (454).
Infants, it seems, already have the foundations for thinking of humans (at least in part) in nonmaterial ways. Their intuition seems to be that while inanimate objects cannot violate the law of continuous motion, animate objects can because they possess agency (an immaterial property) and can exhibit goal-directed behavior. If this intuition is carried into adulthood, it becomes obvious why human beings can entertain the notion at a funeral that "he's up there smiling down on us" when the inert decedent is really in a casket. On Justin Barrett's account there is evolutionary logic behind this way of thinking: "Requiring a body around to think about its mind would be a great liability" (Brooks 31). And the subjective experience of dreams, where the "person" "leaves" the sleeping body, also seems to (partly) explain why the human mind naturally demarcates between the (seemingly) immaterial cognitive and material biological aspects of human beings.
Closely related to the conceptualizations of souls are widespread beliefs in different forms of an afterlife. Afterlife beliefs seem to come naturally to human beings (Bering, "Souls" 453) and are certainly pervasive in society. Bering cites statistics that put the level of belief in life after death in the United States at 95% (453). Furthermore, in Bering's 2002 study individuals of varying afterlife beliefs were asked questions about the mental states of a supposed victim of a fatal car crash. Although their "continuity" responses (responses that imply that consciousness does not cease at death) were of lower frequency than their religious counterparts, many "extinctivist" individuals (who think that consciousness ceases at death) were likely to affirm that certain mental processes of the victim were still operating after he had died. Bering concluded that since it is an epistemic impossibility to know what it is like to be dead if death is permanent unconsciousness, it is intuitive to think of death from a conscious perspective (i.e., by running a "simulation" of consciousness). This accounts for the apparent contradictions in the stated beliefs of individuals who did not believe that consciousness survives death and yet answered as if it did. From the standpoint of rhetoric it becomes clear why the concepts of "Heaven" and "Hell" (and the various afterlife concepts in other religions) can hold so much persuasive power while being neither here nor there in empirical reality. If Bering is correct that afterlife beliefs are naturally intuitive (and I think he is), then any rhetoric trying to persuade on behalf of something related to an afterlife will be very effective to a large number of individuals, as it taps into these intuitions.
Biblical rhetoric often implicitly assumes these intuitions. Take, for example, St. Paul's words: "We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:8, KJV). This idea of being "absent from the body" not only assumes dualism, but could not be believed without an established intuitive architecture for souls that can violate physical laws. The advantage of this type of rhetoric is that it does not have to present any real evidence because the only "evidence" required is the listener's own intuitions about souls and the continued existence of consciousness after death (whether these intuitions are correct or not is beside the point). Another clear instance of taking these intuitions for granted is Luke's crucifixion account: "And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, 'Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit': and having said thus, he gave up the ghost" (Luke 23:46, KJV). Like the outlandish dirt-drinking god imagined earlier, which would not survive cultural transmission because of our cognitive constraints, accounts like this would be unbelievable (and its attached rhetoric therefore ineffective) if not for the way in which the human mind perceives and conceives of the world. Since a person's mind or soul (or "spirit" and "ghost" here) is conceptualized as separate from the body, it is intuitively plausible for Jesus to command his spirit to go somewhere else, away from his body, at the time of death. That this is part of the core story of Christianity—and that there are millions upon millions of Christians in the world—testifies to the efficacy of this verbal and conceptual rhetoric.
As Kenneth Burke writes, "rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and religious cosmogonies are designed, in the last analysis, as exceptionally thoroughgoing modes of persuasion" (Burke, "Rhetoric" v). But that still leaves us with the question: "Why is religion persuasive"? Burke continues: "Theological doctrine is a body of spoken or written words. Whatever else it may be, and wholly regardless of whether it be true or false, theology is preeminently verbal" (vi). This paper set out to explore the relationship between rhetoric and religion with an emphasis that diverges somewhat from Burke's. Instead of focusing on the verbal rhetoric of religion (although that certainly remains a vital component), I have argued that the conceptual rhetoric of various religious ideas has a priori persuasiveness. The more specific question is thus: "Why are gods, souls, afterlives, and other components of religion highly credible to human beings even though they are objectively unverified?" The answer is that the intuitions and perceptions that human beings experience when sensing and conceiving of our environment, as well as the cultural rhetoric of religion, predispose us to believe in such things. These two aspects of religious concepts combine to make them particularly persuasive. Religious concepts are conceptually intuitive and rhetorically appealing because of preexisting cognitive biases in the evolved human mind.
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