Gospel Hypothesis 1: The nature of revelation

[This is the first post in a series comparing the Gospel Hypothesis with the Myth Hypothesis in the light of Occam’s Razor.]

One of the reasons apologetics does so well with a lot of people is because skeptics try to prove that religion is wrong. In other words, the issue focuses on a binary question regarding religion: is it true or is it false? So long as believers can come up with an answer—any answer—to skeptical objections, they will feel justified in continuing to believe regardless of the evidence. And because humans are so good at rationalization, there will always be some answer.

Instead of focusing on the question of whether religion is flat out wrong, we want to take a comparative approach, demonstrating that, even if someone thinks they have good reasons for believing in religion, there are even better reasons for believing that religion is a myth. This makes the apologist’s job more difficult, because then it’s not enough to think up some random, unverifiable rationalization. In fact, random, unverifiable rationalizations may even begin to hurt the case for religion, by highlighting the fact that skepticism doesn’t need them.

With that in mind, let’s begin. The first point I want to consider is the nature of revelation concerning God. If there is a loving, divine Heavenly Father who is all-good, all-knowing, all-wise and all-powerful, then the most immediate and obvious consequence of His nature and His goals is that He’s going to reveal Himself by showing up in person and spending time with us, working with us and teaching us all the things He wants us to know. That’s what any loving father would want to do, so we know God would have the desire to be here, and He’s all-wise and all-powerful, so we know He has the ability to be here. Plus, faith is a quality that grows out of a long relationship of personal interaction, so God’s presence among us would be necessary in order for Him to save us through faith.

In contrast with the Gospel Hypothesis, the Myth Hypothesis implies that God will not be able to show up in real life, for the obvious reason that He does not exist. Any revelation about God, therefore, will have to occur by means of stories told by people. Granted, people could tell stories about God showing up in real life, but we won’t be able to actually see any of those stories taking place. Our only access to information regarding God is going to be people. Even if we rely on our own superstitions, giving God credit for creation and other natural phenomena, we’re still obtaining information about God from people, since we’re people too. So the immediate consequence of the Myth Hypothesis being true would be that all revelation concerning God would come to us through stories people tell us. God is not real, and therefore He cannot reveal Himself to us by showing up in real life.

The real world evidence, obviously, is immediately consistent with the consequences implied by the Myth Hypothesis, and is starkly inconsistent with the consequences implied by the Gospel Hypothesis. Of course, that’s no secret. Believers have known for centuries that their God does not show up in real life, and that our only access to information about God is through stories told by men. There have been all kinds of additional theories proposed to try and explain why God does not show up. But only the Gospel Hypothesis needs these supplemental supports. The Myth Hypothesis fits the facts right out of the box.

The Gospel Hypothesis suffers from the additional problem that each rationalization for why God does not show up only creates additional problems. Any time you explain why God cannot or should not show up for us, you’ve produced a reason why He could not and should not appear to the apostles and prophets as well. And conversely, in order to explain how God could be willing and able to appear in real life to Moses and company, you have to invent a God would would be willing and able to appear to us as well. When your story is inconsistent with reality, trying to rationalize away the inconsistency only creates more inconsistencies!

So yes, absolutely, you can think up all kinds of excuses for why a loving, almighty Father would consistently fail to behave the way He ought to behave if the Gospel Hypothesis were true. But the Myth Hypothesis is still going to be better, because the more excuses you pile on to the Gospel Hypothesis, the more striking it is that the Myth Hypothesis fits the facts without them. The Gospel Hypothesis may create a more pleasing and/or attractive story (to some people), but the true story is a lot simpler.


  1. aziraphale says

    Your argument is good – and in the end, i think I agree with it – but one-sided.

    I would like to propose this version of Occam’s razor:

    “When comparing theories, each of which explains all the relevant data, the simplest one should be accepted.”

    You include as relevant data the fact that “God does not show up in real life”. A theist might wish to add additional data such as:

    Reported miracles, now and in the past
    The fine-tuning of the universe for life
    The existence of something rather than nothing
    Religious experiences.

    Note: I’m not saying that the Myth Hypothesis cannot explain these. Only that when it has done so, it may no longer look quite so simple.

    • says

      “Reported miracles, now and in the past” – Actually, Deacon partially addressed this by pointing out that that is all we get — reports; nothing confirmed. Get it? The data is that people report miracles; it is not data of miracles themselves. If this were data for actual miracles, then you would have a valid point.
      “The fine-tuning of the universe for life” – The problem here is that this is not “data.” This is a conclusion theists are drawing from data, but it is a poorly drawn conclusion. This is actually adding in more inconsistencies, which Deacon did address.
      “The existence of something rather than nothing.” – Again, this is not “data.” We could rephrase this to ask why does data exist rather than not, but this is a distraction. Also, again, the theists would then need to explain why a god would exist rather than no god. That’s more work for them. And if they say a god just has to (but this isn’t an acceptable answer for “something”), then they are adding yet more inconsistencies.
      “Religious experiences” – How is this different than the first point? Again, these are reports that are not confirmed.

    • says

      Also, on the religious experiences point, others have pointed out below that these reports are often inconsistent. Why would the Myth Hypothesis have to explain inconsistent reports of religious experiences? (Answer: It doesn’t!)

  2. davidhart says

    Perhaps, but since any non-Myth Hypothesis has to explain how a god willing and able to create a universe apparently fine-tuned for life came into existence in the first place, which is just as big a task as explaining how that universe came into existence and ais tuned the way it is, and it also has to explain why the reported miracles and religious experiences cover all religions, not just the religion the speaker is arguing for, there is no reason to expect any net difference in the relative complexity of the two explanations once you take these factors into account.

  3. Bill Openthalt says

    Religious christians often describe their “personal relationship” with their god. As far as they are concerned, god is showing up in person in their life, and the fact that the atheists don’t have this personal experience is due to their refusal to accept god. The religious christian walks with god, talks with god, and is counseled and supported by god. For them, your argument doesn’t cut the mustard.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      For such Christians I propose that after the Cross, Jesus “showed up” for the apostles the same way he “shows up” for believers today. If their subjective, mental/emotional, auto-suggestive experiences are what a true manifestation of Jesus is, then we have good reason to suppose the resurrection was also all in the minds of the believers. Granted, later accounts embellish the original story with details designed to “prove” that Jesus rose physically, but by the time those stories were written, Christianity had already become its own religion with its own Gospel, and its own need for “proofs.” But all it takes to start a “resurrection” that never happened is for believers to be willing to believe that subjective feelings are the same as Jesus truly “showing up.”

      Meanwhile, he still does not literally show up in real life, so the fact remains that the stories are the only source we have for information about him. When believers share their testimonies, they’re sharing stories.

      • says

        Yes, their stories are not subject to inter-subjective verifiability. That is why eye witnesses are considered to give unreliable testimony:

        Eyewitness testimony is the account a bystander gives in the courtroom, describing what they perceived happened during the specific incident under investigation. Ideally this recollection of events is detailed, however this is not always the case. This recollection is used as evidence to show what happened from an witness’ point of view. Memory recall has been considered a credible source in the past, but has recently come under attack as forensics can now support psychologists in their claim that memories and individual perceptions are unreliable; being easily manipulated, altered, and biased. Due to this, many countries and states within the USA are now attempting to make changes in how eyewitness testimony is presented in court. Eyewitness testimony is a specialized focus within forensic psychology.

      • Bill Openthalt says

        Meanwhile, he still does not literally show up in real life, so the fact remains that the stories are the only source we have for information about him. When believers share their testimonies, they’re sharing stories.

        I fully agree, but have not had much success when using this type of argument in my discussions with convinced believers. For them, their experiencing the presence of their god is as real (if not more real) than my experiencing the presence of my wife at the breakfast table. Their built-in filters make them experience reality in a different way, but to them it is reality and nothing less.

        The problem is not the quality of the argument, but the difference in perception.

  4. James Willmott says

    “Plus, faith is a quality that grows out of a long relationship of personal interaction”

    It is? I would have thought most believers had faith first, then the long personal interaction comes after? If it can be shown that faith does not require a long relationship, this premise could surely be disputed?

  5. Thorne says

    Religious christians often describe their “personal relationship” with their god. As far as they are concerned, god is showing up in person in their life

    Yes, but it can be shown very easily that this “personal relationship” is entirely internal. There is no external evidence that their god is actually communicating with them. It’s voices in their heads. And it can then be shown that the voice in one person’s head is very often saying something completely different from the voice in his neighbor’s head. When it becomes impossible to distinguish faith from psychosis, you’ve got a serious problem.

  6. Bill Openthalt says

    How would you “show” it so that the believer accepts your proof? Their experiences are –as far as they are concerned– entirely rational, coherent and in harmony with their observations. If their voice says something different than the neighbour’s voice, it’s obvious that the neighbour is under satan’s influence, and the believer can always find a bunch of like-minded co-religionists to confirm his version of the faith and his assessment of the non-believer.

    That being said, I agree that deeply religious people suffer from a kind of psychosis, but one that has a distinguished pedigree because it did, and still does, bind non-related individuals into much larger groups than kinship or ethnicity. If these groups manage to out-compete other (less cohesive) groups, the core ideas and beliefs gain credibility no matter how ridiculous they appear to outsiders (cf. mormonism).

  7. ah58 says

    This “personal conversation” that some believers have with god can easily be demonstrated to be flawed. All you need to do is ask them to have god provide them with an answer to something they don’t know but god, if he exists as described, could. For example, you write a six digit number on a piece of paper and put it in your pocket. Then ask them to have god tell them what the number is.

    Most will refuse to even try, often quoting the the scripture about how you shouldn’t test god. Amazing how they can believe this internal voice when it tells them how to live their lives but have no problem with it not providing any verifiable evidence of its existence.

  8. markr1957 (Patent Pending) says

    What truly baffles me about all the Abrahamic God religions is their fervor for breeding to become the only religion left at the end, but failing to realize that it is an un-winnable race because once you outbreed your resources you’re fucked, so the ‘winner’ is the real loser. I could not live with the guilt I would feel if I were in any part responsible for the deaths of billions of ‘others’. I do not want to be on the winning side in that war.

  9. says

    The Hindu milk miracle was a phenomenon considered by many Hindus as a miracle which occurred on September 21, 1995. Before dawn, a Hindu worshiper at a temple in south New Delhi made an offering of milk to a statue of Lord Ganesha. When a spoonful of milk from the bowl was held up to the trunk of the statue, the liquid was seen to disappear, apparently taken in by the idol. Word of the event spread quickly, and by mid-morning it was found that statues of the entire Hindu pantheon in temples all over North India were taking in milk. A small number of temples outside of India reported the effect continuing for several more days, but no further reports were made after the beginning of October. Skeptics hold the incident to be an example of mass hysteria, and when reports of the Monkey-man of New Delhi (item 3) began to appear in 2001, many newspapers harked back to the event.

  10. awilson says

    I’d like to suggest, for posterity, that this post provide a link to explanations of what the Myth Hypothesis and Gospel Hypothesis are. Regular readers of this blog won’t have any trouble, but I think this series is a fascinating comparison of myth vs. reality that a lot of newbies to the style of thought might like to see, but to tie all the threads together they’d have to first understand exactly what the two hypotheses state (in particular, I’m not entirely sure that all or most Christians really understand the implications of the Biblical statements that make up the Gospel hypothesis, and being able to access your explanation easy would make it easier to clarify those points).

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