The argument from inconsistent revelations can be formulated as follows:
P1. If God exists, we would expect compatible revelations
P2. But faithful seekers of God produce incompatible revelations
C. Therefore God does not exist
This argument is similar to the problem of evil in that there is a logical problem and an evidential problem.
- The logical problem argues that the mere existence of incompatible revelations are entirely incompatible with the existence of God.
- The evidential problem argues that incompatible revelations are inconsistent with our concept of God and make God’s existence unlikely.
The logical problem
It would be a bad argument to claim that the mere existence of competing revelations means that God does not exist. Many people claim to have revelations, but no-one would accept that all claimed revelations are actual revelations from God. An obvious solution to the logical problem is to simply accept that not all incompatible revelations are true.
William Alston has commented on the nature and difficulty of revelations:
Why shouldn’t there be realms, modes, or dimensions of reality that are so difficult for us to discern that widespread agreement is extremely difficult or impossible to attain even if some veridical cognition of that realm is achieved…It may be that God makes basic truths about Himself readily available to all persons, regardless of race, creed or color… Thus I would suggest that the facts of religious diversity are at least as well explained by the hypothesis that there is some transcendent reality with which some or all religions are in touch, though of course they cannot all have it exactly right. 1
The evidential problem
The main power of this argument however is arguing that the current situation we find ourselves in is simply inconsistent with what we would expect God to want or allow. It is argued that it is much more likely that the situation we find ourselves in (with regards to incompatible revelations) is because God does not exist.
So we should revise the original argument to be clearer:
P1. If God exists, we would expect more compatible revelations
P2. But faithful seekers of God produce incompatible revelations more than we expect
C. Therefore God does not exist
Proponents of this argument would claim at least two things:
- Many people’s revelations are indeed wrong
- If God existed, we would see more consistent revelations. For example, we could imagine people all over the world agreeing “I just had a revelation that told me X” and others in complete agreement that they had experienced the same thing.
Proponents and detractors of this argument would both agree on point #1. We would not expect 100% compatible revelations, because at least some are indeed wrong.
The proponent of the argument only expects the % of compatible revelations to be more than it currently is but somewhere less than 100%. So what percentage would be acceptable? Let’s say only 1% of claimed-revelations are compatible. Is 2% enough to reject the argument? Or 51%, or 99%?
The answer would be different for each person so the argument is actually somewhat as follows:
P1. If God exists, we would expect faithful seekers of God to more or less produce compatible revelations
P2. But faithful seekers of God do not produce more or less compatible revelations
C. Therefore God does not exist
There appears to be much good in having correct revelations and it appears that God would want there to be correct revelations. For example, if God is an exalted man then would it not be good for God to reveal this and for everyone who errs to be corrected?
As the burden of proof is on the proponent of this argument, the argument to be convincing would need to also show that the following is true: We cannot see any good reason for God allowing the current number of incompatible revelations therefore there probably are no good reasons for God allowing the current number of incompatible revelations
This of course is a noseeum inference, which is not convincing unless we are able to:
- Successfully search the entire area
- Would expect to see something if it was there
How confident are we in the inference that God has no good reason to allow so much incompatible revelations? Theists should rightly sceptical about this claim for the same reasons as the issues with the problem of evil. William Alston has explained the problems with believing we are in a position to see any goods if there were any:
- Lack of data. This includes, inter alia, the secrets of the human heart, the detailed constitution and structure of the universe, and the remote past and future, including the afterlife if any.
- Complexity greater than we can handle. Most notably there is the difficulty of holding enormous complexes of fact-different possible worlds or different systems of natural law-together in the mind sufficiently for comparative evaluation.
- Difficulty of determining what is metaphysically possible or necessary. Once we move beyond conceptual or semantic modalities (and even that is no piece of cake) it is notoriously difficult to find any sufficient basis for claims as to what is metaphysically possible, given the essential natures of things, the exact character of which is often obscure to us and virtually always controversial. This difficulty is many times multiplied when we are dealing with total possible worlds or total systems of natural order.
- Ignorance of the full range of possibilities. This is always crippling when we are trying to establish negative conclusions. If we don’t know whether or not there are possibilities beyond the ones we have thought of, we are in a very bad position to show that there can be no divine reasons for permitting evil.
- Ignorance of the full range of values. When it’s a question of whether some good is related to E in such a way as to justify God in permitting E, we are, for the reason mentioned in 4., in a very poor position to answer the question if we don’t know the extent to which there are modes of value beyond those of which we are aware. For in that case, so far as we can know, E may be justified by virtue of its relation to one of those unknown goods.
- Limits to our capacity to make well considered value judgments. The chief example of this we have noted is the difficulty in making comparative evaluations of large complex wholes 2
The theist does not need to argue that God does have good reason for allowing incompatible revelations, only that we do not have sufficient reason to think that God does not have sufficient reason. Maybe God does have good reason, for example perhaps if all revelations were compatible then each person would be less inclined to act in faith or seek personal revelation and a direct relationship with God and instead just follow the crowd who have all received the same revelation. Or perhaps God is more concerned with the person’s commitment to the revelation rather than to correcting the content itself.
Yes there appears to be much good in compatible revelations, however we cannot ignore the cost, of which the impact is not clear. We can easily imagine the problems if God were to spend time “continually correcting” all incorrect revelations, however the burden of proof is on the not on the theist in this argument and although these ideas are useful they are unnecessary.
We should of course expect to see inconsistent “claims of revelation”, however it is a heavy burden to carry to say that God probably does not exist because we should see more consistent revelations than we already do.
- Alston, W P, 1991. Perceiving God. 1st ed. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press
- William Alston. 1991. The Inductive Argument From Evil and the Human Cognitive Condition. [ONLINE] Available at: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/c059/5a6cd84e892c7f8ce0a9e04d18d8b6484b7c.pdf. [Accessed 13 June 2017].[↑]