Lent is supposed to be a period of reflection and sacrifice, generally understood as the giving up of a favourite activity, drink or food. I wish to suggest that thoughtful Christians may benefit from giving up the assumption that their most fundamental belief cannot be assessed in a rational manner.
Whether you are of a religious disposition, spiritual, agnostic or atheist, you would agree that the single most significant event in the history of mankind would be a divine revelation – a supernatural omnipotent being acting beyond the rules of physics taking the time to reveal their existence and, even more impressively, imparting moral commands with associated punishments and rewards.
People of faith, while wholeheartedly endorsing the magnificence of the divine, are less keen to acknowledge the other side of the extraordinariness of revelation, best expressed by the Christian apologist CS Lewis:
Here is a door, behind which, according to some people, the secret of the universe is waiting for you. Either that's true or it isn't. And if it isn't, then what the door really conceals is simply the greatest fraud, the most colossal
sell on record.
To the best of my (very limited) knowledge, no 'new atheist' has taken up Lewis' challenge on his very precise terms, namely, that the alternative to there being a supernatural god is not their
non-existence, but rather the perpetration of 'the greatest fraud'. In my nearly-finished book (Religion As Fraud
) I make a very humble attempt to weigh the evidence, not for the non-existence of a revealed divinity, but rather for the hypothesis that all revealed religions are fraudulent.
Consider the following simple thought experiment. Suppose that no revelation had taken place yet, but some may happen in the near future. How can we determine in advance which is the one true revelation and which are hoaxes? By setting some objective tests that are more likely to be passed by a truly extraordinary event.
. Whereas a true revelation could happen at any time, a fraudulent revelation is more likely to take place in a specific period. Why? Because a necessary feature of a divine revelation is the performance of a miracle, necessary to convince mankind that a supernatural force is at work. Therefore a fraud is more likely to be perpetrated at credulous times. The degree of credulousness of early Christians, for example, is truly remarkable; take Pliny the Elder's Contact with a Woman's Monthly Flux is Harmful
Contact with the monthly flux of women turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seeds in gardens are dried up, the fruits of trees fall off, the bright surface of mirrors in which it is merely reflected is dimmed, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.
For many similar examples there is no better source than Miracles in Greco-Roman Antiquity
, by an impeccable scholar – Dr Wendy Cotter, a Sister of St Joseph (who teaches at Jesuit Catholic Loyola University in Chicago). I wish to stress that first-century credulity is categorically different from today's. Every single example of magic power mentioned above can be disproved by the simple means of testing
it – but the very concept of testing and experimenting was not available to early Christians. A perfect time for revelatory hoaxes.
Medium and geography
. The three main revelations, not only all took place in credulous times, in the same Middle Eastern backwater, but they all took the form of a book
in spite of their target audience being overwhelmingly illiterate. By overwhelmingly illiterate, I mean not only that the percentage of the population able to read (and write) was miniscule (3% readers), but that the very concept of personal reading material was totally alien to virtually everybody except the tiniest of elites.
If you take the fraud perspective, the choice of the book as the vector of revelation makes perfect sense. It creates, and is created by, a small privileged priestly caste who alone can read and interpret the rules by which everybody must live on penalty of death in this world and eternal damnation in the next. The divine text is inerrant and must be followed to the letter. It is not surprising that the extremely unlikely choice of a book as a vector for revelations at a time when reliable book production and preservation were virtually impossible strengthens the fraud hypothesis.
. As I said earlier, a necessary condition for a non-fraudulent revelation is the performance of a miracle. I wish to stress the word performance. When illusionist David Copperfield says that he will walk through the Great Wall of China, we know that he cannot break the laws of physics and the performance centres on whether we can discover the inevitable deception.
The same, obviously, does not apply to the performance
of a miracle. If I claimed to be the son of God, I would not need the choreography of a magic trick. I would simply walk through the Great Wall of China with no screens, no magical apparatus, no special lighting. As I as a supernatural being can do this – unquestionable, unadorned, straightforward, open breaking of the laws of physics – doing anything else increases substantially the probability that I wish to give the appearance
of a miracle, not irrefutable evidence for it.
In other words, a mis-choreographed miracle increases the probability of man-made staging. The staging of the resurrection show provides ample evidence for the man-made hypothesis: not only the centre-piece (the main miracle: the actual resurrection) happens off-stage, but also the side-shows (the 'secondary miracles': the three-hour solar eclipse and the zombie saints rising from their graves) highlight a deep problem of credibility.
. I cannot improve on the Italian mathematician and sceptic Piergiorgio Odifreddi's take on the imperfection of the good book:
If the Bible were inspired by a God, should it not be correct, consistent, truthful, intelligent, just and beautiful? Why, then, does it teem with scientific absurdities, logical contradictions, historical falsehoods, human balderdash, ethical turpitudes and literary ugliness?
I dare readers of the Scottish Review
not to find at least one passage in the Bible that cannot be either erased or replaced by a better one – clear proof that the Bible cannot be the work of an omniscient deity. Imagine how much harm would have been avoided and how many lives saved if 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live' (Exodus, 22:18) and 'A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood [shall be] upon them' (Leviticus, 20:27) were replaced with 'witchcraft does not exist; therefore witches should never be prosecuted, let alone tortured or killed'.
. The choice of a book as the vector of the divine word makes complete sense when my final criterion for spotting religious frauds is taken into account. The difference between deception and fraud is that the latter is a deception undertaken with the aim of acquiring a personal benefit in the form of financial gain or increased power and control. So if a revelation is to be regarded as fraudulent, someone must personally benefit from it. Need I spell out who, over the ages, has benefited the most from organised
Notice finally that logically there is absolutely no necessity for a true revelation to imply the establishment of a class of people whose task is to manage the effects of the revelation itself, but the creation of a priestly hierarchy is the very essence of a successful fraud.
Perhaps the problem with the Kate Forbeses of our age is not so much their abhorrent views on equality and on women's rights, but the very fact that acting on evidence-denying beliefs is not considered sufficient ground for disbarment from public office.
Dr Manfredi La Manna is a Reader in Economics at the University of St Andrews