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Dec 18 2012

Gospel Hypothesis 3: on the origin of Scriptures

According to the Myth Hypothesis, gods do not exist, and all religions that promote belief in gods do so through the political and psychosocial processes of ordinary superstition and myth-making. This implies a number of things, the most fundamental and obvious of which is that none of these religions is going to have any actual god to show to people, much less to lead them and judge them. Everything we’re going to be able to know about gods is going to have to come from ordinary mortal humans, either from their speculations, or their superstitions, or their subjective feelings, because in the absence of any real gods, that’s all we’ve got to go on. This in turn is going to have some consequences that may seem very familiar to students of history and current events.

The first implication is that religions, as part of the myth-making process, are going to invoke two methods as their primary sources: stories, and prophets. Stories give us 3rd hand information about what gods have allegedly done, and in the absence of any real gods showing up to correct them, the stories are going to be free to evolve according to the usual, mundane processes of hearsay, superstition, and confirmation bias. A misperception here and an exaggeration there, plus a few appeals to the human love of a good story, and you have the makings for an entire pantheon of deities blessing and/or smiting mankind. If the Myth Hypothesis is true, then such stories and legends will have to make up for the absence of the real presence of any god or gods—assisted, of course, by the prophets.

The prophet has a unique role, if the Myth Hypothesis is true. As the authoritative spokesman for God, in the absence of any actual God who might otherwise dictate his actions, the prophet is essentially free to say whatever he can get away with saying. He can exploit people’s superstitions and prejudices and ambitions, and make them feel like God is on their side, provided of course that the people are faithful about staying on the prophet’s side.

For example, if the people happen to own other people as slaves, the prophet can get away with recommending what masters will see as fair and human treatment for the slaves. Denouncing the practice of slavery in general, however, might be more than he could get away with, at least in the absence of considerable public sympathy for ending slavery. Deus ex machina won’t save you from an angry mob if Deus is only a myth.

Or if the people are largely sexist and homophobic, the prophet can preach male dominance and homophobia, and thereby increase his social standing and influence. In the absence of any real God, who’s going to tell him he’s being prejudiced and unjust? Traditional superstitious practices, like blood sacrifice, are also big winners, so long as the people buy into it. If no God exists, then no God is going to break the news that hemoglobin does not actually change anyone’s moral history.

The downside is that merely appealing to popular attitudes and prejudices isn’t going to be enough. Sooner or later a question will arise that will require the prophet to take a stand, in God’s name, that will involve being verifiably right or wrong. There are ways a prophet can dodge accountability for his mistakes, like claiming that God changed His mind, but too many instances of this sort of thing tend to create doubts, which are extremely toxic to prophetic privilege.

But all is not lost. There’s an ingenious solution to this problem: write your prophecies in a book. Transfer the “divine” authority to a book, and then don’t claim to be a prophet yourself, but only claim that you’re following the book’s authority. If you’re right, it’s because the book has divine, prophetic authority. If you’re wrong, hey, you’re only human—you must have just misunderstood what the book is saying. But the book is still authoritative, and therefore you still speak and preach with divine authority no matter how often you’re wrong.

This is the optimal outcome for religions that don’t have an actual God, so if the Myth Hypothesis is true, then that implies we should see religious authority emerging from a collection of stories and prophetic writings that eventually become codified as Scripture, administered by human authorities who are qualified either by scholarship or by the remnants of some kind of quasi-prophetic authority to serve as its interpreters.

The Gospel Hypothesis, meanwhile, implies that we won’t need second- or third-hand accounts of what God wants to tell us. We’ll have God Himself, Who loves us and wants nothing more than to participate in the kind of personal, tangible relationship that makes third-party reports superfluous. We might have certain records around of how God dealt with past generations, and in fact we’ll never stop compiling such records, because our loving Heavenly Father will never stop having those kinds of dealings with us, every day. If the Gospel Hypothesis is true, therefore, we should expect the absence of any such thing as “authoritative Scripture” and “Apostolic Tradition,” because we won’t be getting our information second or third hand, we’ll be getting it first-hand, directly from our loving Father Himself.

The situation we see in the real world is exactly the only situation we could see if the Myth Hypothesis were true. No additional explanations or rationalizations are needed: the history of Scripture has unfolded the only way it could unfold in the absence of any real God. The Gospel Hypothesis can’t predict the kind of divine absence that would make prophets and Scriptures necessary, and in fact it implies the exact opposite. Believers have all kinds of rationalizations for why reality doesn’t match the implications of the Gospel Hypothesis, but that’s exactly the point: the rationalizations are necessary because reality isn’t consistent with the original hypothesis on its own.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    Bill Openthalt

    Or more succinctly, if the Gospel Hypothesis is true, we wouldn’t have a gospel.

    And so we cycle back to the problem of perception – those who are convinced that their “holy books” prove the existence of their god(s) will not be swayed by this argument. I wholeheartedly agree that the god from the gospels would not need obtuse books or self-serving prophets, but for those who believe the bible or the quran are proof of the existence of god it’ll be very hard to admit that the existence of their books effectively proves their god doesn’t exist.

  2. 2
    Sines

    An implied (or at least suggested) corrolary is the question of why god chose to communicate with his followers in fundamentally the same way as other religions?

    Certainly, the “True Religion” would have a better book. It would be more well written, it’s claims would match up more with the discoveries of history and science, etc… but the problem is, God is choosing a way of communicating with his people in a way that is fundamentally the same kind of thing that all those false religions can do.

    Same with the ‘Holy Spirit’ and emotional ‘communication’. Again, very common in people all following the wrong religion. Even if “True Holy Spirit experiences” are better, the ‘made-made’ experiences are easily mistaken for them.

    If the Gospel were true, God would be willing and able to communicate with mankind through some method that could not be replicated (even if only to a lesser degree) by men or demons.

    So, why does Christianity, like Islam, rely on a mere book and it’s claims? Why couldn’t Jesus demonstrate himself in a way that is fundamentally different from what men are doing?

    I’m sure it has something to do with free will. That’s usually the excuse for cases like these. Personally though, if free will can buy me a one way ticket to a lake of fire, it’s pretty over-rated.

    1. 2.1
      Bill Openthalt

      It has to do with the idea that god makes it difficult for people to believe – somehow, if it were too obvious, there would be no virtue in it (and you need to prove you’re virtuous to get into heaven). Humans are born bad, but can become worthy of eternal life by believing the unbelievable, and prefering unprovable promises to reality.

      Life on Earth is a kind of test. What we think of as reality is an elaborate mise-en-scene to tempt us away from the (gospel) truth. The better we resist that temptation, the more worthy of eternal life we become.

      Once stuck in that mindset, conflict between reality and belief will only strengthen belief.

  3. 3
    Marcus Ranum

    If the gospel hypothesis were true, it wouldn’t look like it was cobbled-together by humans. The obviousness of the way that Daniel’s alleged “prophecies” were back-dated shows that whoever wrote the gospels had no special knowledge.

    Christopher Hitchens once made a fun argument on this issue by pointing out that, if you accept the gospels as true, you also have to accept that god stood around with his arms crossed for the first hundred thousand years of human existence and only finally eventually decided to reveal his great truths to a bunch of illiterates in a backwater of civilization. Why he didn’t choose to reveal himself to the Chinese certainly is puzzling.

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