Thursday 31 July 2014

Rodney Stark on on the validity of revelations, and how methods and results are dictated by assumptions


One of the most influential books in getting me 'across the line' as a Christian, was Rodney Stark's historical overview of the major religions Discovering God - which I read in the spring of 2008 as a spin-off from reading the same author's Rise of Mormonism.

Much of Discovering God is about revelations - communications from the divine to humans. IN examining this matter, Stark made a simple point that should be obvious in many situations - but is easy to miss - even, or especially, in oneself.


If you assume that revelations cannot be true, for example because you know that there is no divinity, then when somebody claims a revelation has happened, they can only be regarded as insane or a fraud.

So, the history of religions - when written by those who know that revelations cannot actually happen - inevitably becomes a history of crazies and manipulators (and the gullible masses who are fooled and exploited by them). It is merely a matter of deciding which of these appellations applies in any specific situation.


But, if you assume that revelations are possible, then the problem becomes deciding whether a claimed revelation is genuine, or not.

The assumption is therefore that some revelations are genuine (and to varying degrees, and according to the historical and cultural context), but of course not all revelations are genuine; and probably only a minority are genuine (just because someone says they have received a revelation does not mean that this is correct: they may be mistaken, they may be lying).


This problem of the genuineness of a revelation may not be capable of being resolved with 100% certainty - but then what problem is? However, we at least know how to proceed.

For example, if fraud is suspected then it can sometimes can be evaluated whether the revelator gained by the claimed revelation, or suffered for it. If insanity is suspected, then other evidence of insanity may be present, or absent. And if something is known about God, for example that he is good - and if goodness is understood, then this can be a test of revelations - whether they tend to good, or evil.


Having this pointed-out made me realize that I had been reading the history of religions with the assumption that they could not be true. I had supposed I was evaluating whether god/s existed, but in fact I had already assumed that there was no divinity - and in practice nothing that had ever happened anywhere could challenge this: any evidence for god/s would always be explained away on the basis that it could not be right.

Any explanation of historical reports that did not involve the reality of god/s would always be preferred - and if I could not think of an explanation then that did not matter because I knew that it must exist and be true.


So obvious, when pointed out! - but somehow I had missed that this was what I was doing.And now I see the same thought process all over the place - in science, politics, the law. People imagine that they are evaluating the truth of something, but in reality they already assume, they already know', that X is wrong, and are merely looking for reasons to reject it.

And since they know that X is wrong they merely have to decide whether those who do believe in X are crazy or fraudulent - or perhaps just too dumb to understand.



ajb said...

I have been reading Stark's The Victory of Reason, and found repeatedly he would say things I 'knew' but put it in a different context, to make the possibility of a significantly different interpretation of times or aspects of history open up.

Perhaps OT, but the above discussion reminds me of

"For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, 'He has a demon!' [i.e., he's insane.] The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children." (Luke 7:33-5)

Rich said...

The other light bulb moment in that book for me was how different cultures will interpret revelation in different ways. So, a Mayan receives revelation from God but, will interpret it and explain it quite differently than an American from the 1800's. They may have been told/shown the same thing but, putting it into context in this world for those who haven't seen it will make their revelations appear different.

Anonymous said...

David Friedrich Strauss' "Life of Christ, Critically Examined" is a good example of this, as he opens up the book declaring, might I dare say dogmatically, the mechanical, Newtonian view of the Universe, and how this precludes a God who works miracles. I quickly lost interest at that point, but closed the book after the howler that the story that Zechariah was struck dumb by an angel couldn't be true, simply because this was behavior unbecoming an angel, in Strauss' view.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb and ads - It's a very worthwhile book! I particularly like the pugnacious and polemical style - as if impatiently sweeping away decades of error!

TDK - People simply cannot see what they are doing when they build in assumptions then think they have discovered them to be validated - it is like a sleight of hand technique