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    To say He [God] hath spoken to him in a dream is no more than to say he dreamed that God spake to him ...
    Thomas Hobbes , Leviathan

    Mainstream churchmen have become as reticent about miracles as they have about exorcisms. Such things are not explicitly denied; they are simply not talked about in public. As the popularity of miracles has declined, the popularity of revelation has increased.

    More and more people enjoy direct communication with God. To these individuals God reveals himself in various ways, and the information provided in this way is called revealed knowledge. He appears to people, conveys information, imparts secrets, offers guidance, grants hidden knowledge, and so on. Sometimes he does so directly, sometimes through a heavenly intermediary. There are numerous ways in which divine revelations might be verified, and which have supposedly been used in the past to establish their reliability. For example, they might foretell the future, solve intractable puzzles, reveal hidden knowledge, or corroborate other revealed knowledge. In the past God allowed people to prove that visionary dreams were miraculous by granting identical dreams to more than one person. Without the opportunity to collude, this provided convincing evidence of the divine source of the dream information. There seems to be no good reason why such evidence should not be available today. For example, the reporting of identical apparitions by different visionaries could be tested by separating the visionaries until apparition-time and then questioning them separately afterwards to see if their stories tally. This could easily be done at Medjugorje for example, but it never has been. The nearest the visionaries there have come to a scientific investigation was to undergo a medieval test for religious ecstasy: being pricked by a priest with unsterilised pins. The technique is similar to that used on other well-known visionaries — stabbing, cutting and burning to see if the visionaries came out of their ecstatic states. This shows that the Roman Church is not opposed to testing in principle, merely to effective types of testing in practice.

    In modern times God has taken to providing Anglicans with revealed knowledge so insubstantial that it is virtually unassailable. Yet he still provides Roman Catholics and fundamentalists with more solid material, which is vulnerable to objective assessment. There are a number of good reasons for doubting the validity of this revealed knowledge, similar to those for doubting the validity of visionary experiences. Among them are phenomena such as contradictions, errors, and other matters provoking suspicion.



    Expectations Fulfilled

    God's revelations generally match the recipient's background, culture, intellectual limitations, existing beliefs and prejudices.

    God never seems to advocate liberal views when revealing himself to those of a conservative outlook, or vice versa. When he speaks to fundamentalists and Roman Catholics he invariably confirms that his views are much the same as theirs. When he communicates with American Baptists and other evangelists, he often assures them that it is necessary to be born again in order to get into Heaven. He rarely, if ever, provides this intelligence to Roman Catholics or mainstream Protestants.

    When colonialism was popular in Christian countries, God would frequently recommend that European countries should take over other countries in order to bring Christianity to them. As late as the nineteenth century God was telling French bishops that he had chosen France to make Algeria the cradle of a great Christian nation. Perhaps God subsequently changed his mind about colonisation, as most Europeans did in the twentieth century. He was no more consistent about the Philippines. For many centuries he told the Spanish that it was their destiny to bring Roman Catholicism to the natives. It was for this reason that King Philip II imposed Catholicism by force of arms. Around the beginning of the twentieth century God seems to have decided that their Roman Catholicism was a mere superstition that should be replaced by Protestantism. He informed the President of the USA of his change of mind. As President McKinley reported:

    I am not ashamed to tell you, Gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance that one night. And late one night it came to me.... There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos and uplift and civilise and Christianise them.... *

    Perhaps God later changed his mind again, because as it turned out Protestantism made little headway against the already entrenched Roman Catholicism. God quite often communicates with religious American presidents. He communicated with the second President Bush in 2003 on the second American War in Iraq, failing to correct any of the president's misconceptions about Iraq though he (God) presumably knew what was happening, and informed the president that he (God) had “been through” what he (Bush) had been through*. They seem to have been on close terms, because President Bush was also able to confirm that “Liberty is the plan of heaven for humanity"*

    As in the case of George W Bush, suspicions may be aroused not so much by what God revealed to his favoured followers, but by what he failed to reveal. God favoured Pope Pius XII with divine visions. This was at the tail end of the long period during which it was acceptable for popes to live like great princes, and Pius was not keen on change. God failed to reveal to him that times were moving on, and that those gold door handles fitted to his Cadillac might be seen to represent bad taste, or that they might appear to compromise him as champion of the poor and as Servant of Servants. God seems to have been just as out of touch as his earthly representative.

    Pope Benedict XVI - "Servant of Servants"

    God sends different messages to different sects, and even different factions within sects. He revealed to traditionalist Anglicans that he had sent a thunderbolt to damage York Minster in 1984, soon after a liberal theologian, David Jenkins, had been consecrated as Prince Bishop of Durham there. He seems not to have thought to warn anyone beforehand, which would have been rather more impressive, and might have saved his Church much time and trouble in repairs, as well as avoiding the appointment of a prince bishop of whom he so strongly disapproved.

    During the 1980s God started informing some right-wing Christian fundamentalists that he was responsible for causing AIDS. He told them that he had had enough of sodomy and drug abuse and was sending an old fashioned plague to punish the wrongdoers. He did not explain why he had not given warning beforehand, as he used to do. Neither did he explain why he had also targeted haemophiliacs and others who needed blood transfusions (except of course when he spoke to sects that condemned blood transfusions — for them he confirmed what they already knew, that accepting a blood transfusion was a punishable sin). Nor did he explain why he had arranged for innocent babies to catch AIDS in their mothers" wombs. Of course he did not mention the plague at all to more liberal Christians. In Uganda, meanwhile, he sent the Virgin Mary to deliver a different message: in that country she appeared to many people claiming that "slim" (the local name for AIDS) was a punishment for adultery, that no medical cure for it would ever be found, and that it could be eliminated only by repentance and prayer.

    God's revelations often reveal him to be parochial and partisan. It is in itself suspicious that God has told many communities that they are his chosen people, but he never seems to have told anyone that their neighbours were his chosen people.



    Throughout the centuries different Christian groups have received directly contradictory revelations, in circumstances that have often led them to kill each other in large numbers. As we have already seen, in most, if not all, European wars in the last millennium God has informed both sides that they enjoyed his full support. During World War I, God revealed to Protestants in Germany, Roman Catholics in Austria, and Orthodox Bulgarians that he was on their side, but he simultaneously informed their enemies — Protestant Englishmen, Roman Catholic Frenchmen and Orthodox Russians — that on the contrary he was on their side. They all killed each other in the name of the same moral principle.

    God vouchedsafe to the Eastern Churches the fact that a corpse's failure to decompose was evidence that it had belonged to a heretic. But he assured the Roman Church of exactly the opposite: that only the bodies of saints were preserved from corruption. God told Calvin that he wanted to see the Roman Church reformed, but told many popes otherwise. He consistently and secretly confirmed the doctrine of predestination to the King of England (Article 17 of the 39 Articles). Yet he denied it to a long succession of popes.

    Again, God used to advocate slavery and capital punishment to a wide range of Christian sects, but now he confirms these views to far fewer people, and has even started telling other Christians exactly the opposite. In recent times some Christians have been divinely assured that God approves of racial discrimination while others have simultaneously received divine intelligence that he abhors it. At the time of writing some Christians are assuring us that God approves of women priests and that it is heretical to deny women the right to ordination, yet he is telling others that he most certainly does not want women priests so that on the contrary, advocates of women's ordination are heretics.


    Suspicious Mistakes

    God is apt to make exactly the same errors of fact and history that the recipients of his revelations would have made had they been responsible for inventing them. Numerous examples could be cited, but to illustrate the principle we shall look at a few cases of Christ revealing himself to believers.

    When Christ reveals himself on his cross he is invariably seen in the same position, although this position is an artistic convention. It is not known whether he had his face or his back to the cross, nor what position his legs would have been in (probably not as conventionally shown), nor how far up the shaft the cross piece would have been placed.

    Calvary, late 17th–early 18th century German or Dutch; Ivory & ebony.
    A rare representation of one of the more likely positions in which Jesus would have been cruxified.

    Visionary crosses often have a footrest or suppedaneum, an invention of medieval artists unknown on real Roman crosses. According to fashion Jesus sometimes has a nail through each foot, sometimes a single nail through both. Again the titulus bearing the inscription "Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews" is sometimes in Latin only (illiterate types before the Counter-Reformation) or in Latin, Greek and Hebrew (others). Also, the exact wording varies from vision to vision, as it does from gospel to gospel. Sometimes Jesus wears his crown of thorns on the cross, sometimes he doesn't. If he does then it might vary from a delicate circlet to a vicious-looking mass of outlandish thorns, depending on the conventions current at the time in the visionary's home country. The crucified Jesus always wears a loincloth (perizonium) despite the fact that he would almost certainly have been crucified naked. Also, the spear wound on his side has a tendency to migrate from one side of his body to the other in an apparently random fashion, as the spear wounds do on the bodies of different stigmatics. The number of stripes inflicted during Jesus' flogging also changes from time to time. Forty was the number prescribed by Jewish Law but visionaries not aware of this have reported varying numbers. St Bridget of Sweden said the number was in excess of 5,000.

    Some Christians report religious experiences as a result of carrying a large wooden cross along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, which they are told is the route that Jesus walked on his way to be crucified. Some even see him, and walk along with him, on their Good Friday pilgrimage. But there are problems here. First, Jesus" cross as seen by his new companions looks like the ones in traditional Christian art, whereas the real one would have been much shorter. Worse still, Jesus would not have carried a whole cross. Those condemned to crucifixion carried only the cross-piece (patibulum). The main shaft (stipes) was a permanent feature on the site of crucifixion — which is why it was often referred to as a tree (e.g. Acts 10:39). Furthermore, the route has changed many times since it was first reconstructed. At one time there were two separate routes, each promoted by the Christian faction who had most to gain financially by that route. In the fourteenth century the whole route was changed to meet the requirements of European pilgrims who wanted the stations of the cross to match their preconceptions, based on the order of events in the gospels. Changes have been made ever since, often for commercial reasons. The first, fourth, fifth and eighth stations were given their present locations only in the nineteenth century. Worse still, the traditional route had been based on the assumption that Pilate had been staying at the Antonia Fortress. In fact it is far more likely that he stayed in a building now called the Citadel, near the Jaffa gate, on another side of town.

    Christian pilgrims are often told that Jesus entered Jerusalem by the Golden Gate. Some of them then enjoy numinous experiences there, entering the very same gate that Jesus used. This gate is the one which Jewish, Christian and Moslem mystics agree is the one to be used by the Messiah when he arrives. The problem is that it was not built until six hundred years after the time of Jesus.



    Revealed knowledge often turns out to be wrong.

    God frequently reveals the future to his followers. For example he often calls believers to serve him, assuring them that they have an important part to play in his unfolding plan. These assurances are not always fulfilled. For example, God has instructed many missionaries that part of his divine plan was for them to spend their lives converting pagan savages, only for those same missionaries to die before they could carry out their part in his divine plan. One can imagine the mystification of newly arrived missionaries who discovered that, despite their divine calling, their future extended no further than a malarial swamp or a large cooking pot.

    In earlier centuries huge numbers of Christians received divine intelligence that God wanted them to go off to the Holy Land to kill Muslims. He was particularly keen to encourage noblemen to go and help. Yet many, even his anointed kings, failed to achieve anything of note, and many died having achieved nothing at all. Baldwin IV, unusually, had the makings of a fine King of Jerusalem, but he was disabled by leprosy and died in his bed in 1185. Frederick Barbarossa drowned in a few inches of water in 1190 on his way to liberate the Holy Land. Henry of Champagne, Count of Troyes, King of Jerusalem, met his end in 1197. Standing at an upper gallery of a castle, facing into the room, he stepped backwards and plummeted to his death. Louis IX (St Louis) lost one battle after another and then died of plague in 1270, with the result that his whole crusade was doomed to failure. In 1471, Pope Pius II, who had been inspired to lead a crusade himself, died of excitement before setting off.

    God seems to have been remarkably capricious in his explicit allegiance. Just as he had told the Jews that Jerusalem would never be taken by their enemies, he told the Christians that Constantinople would never fall. Constantinople was known as the "God-protected city". Perhaps God changed his mind, for Constantinople fell to the Muslims in 1453, just as Jerusalem had fallen centuries earlier. He also seems to misdirect people on points of doctrine. For example he sometimes shows bereaved Christians unfamiliar with doctrine that their dead pets are now happy in Heaven, but theologians have always said that animals do not have souls, and cannot therefore go to Heaven. Again, Christians whose spouses have died are often informed by divine agency that after their own deaths they will be reunited with their spouses in eternal wedlock. But this directly contradicts what Jesus said on the matter (Matthew 22:30).

    God has revealed to various devout Christians — popes, saints, visionaries, and others — the identity of the antichrist. It has been several different Roman emperors, leaders of numerous rival denominations, Genghis Khan, Saladin, Martin Luther or the Pope (according to taste), Napoleon, Hitler, several American presidents, apartheid, the European Union and the United Nations. Altogether hundreds of antichrists have been identified. Everyone agrees that there is at most one real antichrist, which means that hundreds of others cannot be. Since no claim is noticably more credible than any other, it appears that God has been misleading a large number of his most devout supporters.

    Perhaps the most striking example of divine mis-revelation in recent times occurred at the election of Pope John Paul I in 1978. Cardinals claimed to have felt the hand of God at work during the election. Cardinal Basil Hume said of his fellow cardinals' decision to elect John Paul: "The feeling he was just what we want was so general that he was unmistakably God's candidate". To the embarrassment of the cardinals, God's candidate died within 33 days of his election, having achieved nothing during his short reign. More curiously still, his successor, John Paul II, adopted policies diametrically opposed to those that John Paul I (and therefore God) was known to have favoured. (John Paul II was subsequently diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and was unable to function or speak for years before his death.)


    Insubstantial Revelation

    As long as the information provided through divine revelation is sufficiently anodyne, there is no way of knowing how reliable it is. Assertions such as "God wants us to pray more", "God feels great pity for those who are suffering at this time", and "God says thank you all for coming along today" are sufficiently insubstantial to be intrinsically unverifiable and therefore immune to rational criticism. To an objective third party the revealed knowledge of the Christian God is no more convincing than any other revealed knowledge, as long as it remains insubstantial.

    If people purport to have received information from God we cannot know for certain whether they are reporting the objective truth, or unwittingly deluding themselves, or suffering from a mental illness, or deliberately attempting to deceive us. The revealed knowledge claimed by many residents of homes for the criminally insane is qualitatively indistinguishable from that purportedly enjoyed by the most devout and respected saint. Cleopatra, Merlin, space aliens and garden gnomes all provide information to psychiatric patients that, to a disinterested outsider, is qualitatively identical to that revealed by God to his most holy living saints. There is no way of distinguishing revealed knowledge, if it really exists, from the product of a fertile imagination or an unstable mind. Some observers find this suspicious, on the grounds that God might reasonably be expected to provide better quality revelation than other suppliers.


    Subsequent Admissions

    Many of those who claim to have experienced divine revelation subsequently discover themselves to have been mistaken.

    The role of priest is not a job, it is a vocation, a calling from God. God tells selected men (and women at certain times and in certain Churches) that he needs them to dedicate their lives to his service. Their whole lives are to be spent in the service of his Church. All these people have the faith required to provide absolute proof of the existence of God. But if this is the case, how can any of them ever change their minds? How can they decide that they were wrong? Either God doesn"t need them after all, or else they only imagined their vocation. In the Roman Catholic Church alone more than 700 priests leave each year, just in Europe. Worldwide there are currently more than 80,000 priests who have left the Church.

    Apparently God tells the Pope one thing, and the 80,000 ex-priests something quite different. The position is much the same in most established Churches where God has called people to his service, granted them certain knowledge because of their faith, and then discarded them. From born again Southern Baptists to high church Anglicans such discoveries are not uncommon. More curious still is the fact that those who undergo conversion experiences often undergo a subsequent conversion to another sect. It seems unlikely that God should "reveal" one true religion yesterday, a different one today, and yet another one tomorrow. It is not clear how converts rationalise such re-conversions, but many do so. Indeed some evidently manage to do so many as five times*. It seems unlikely that God keeps changing his mind about which is the one true faith.

    Clergymen of all denominations have discovered their vocation to have been mistaken and have abandoned it. Some have become atheists, and critics of Christianity. This is not a new phenomenon: a number of prominent names could be cited from the past, from the Roman Catholic priest Jean Meslier to the Calvinist minister William Goodwin (1756-1836). This leads the impartial observer to wonder how it can be that the recipients of a divine calling could come to doubt its veracity. Alternatively, if these people have been mistaken in believing that they had experienced divine revelation in the first place, we might wonder if all such claimants, given time, an inclination towards sober reflection, and financial security, might also find themselves to have been mistaken. Furthermore, it is not only the clergy who lose their faith. Famous visionaries have also decided that they had been mistaken, and so have all other categories of Christian follower.


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    §. Cited by Johnson, A History of Christianity, p 456 President McKinley described his decision-making process to a group of Methodist ministers in 1899 and this was written up in a 1903 article in the Wesleyan journal The Christian Advocate.

    §. "It was less 'Here's how you have to take care of the guy [Saddam Hussein]' and more 'I've been through what you've been through and I know what's happening and therefore I love you' would be a more accurate way to describe it.". President George W Bush quoted by Bob Woodward. (William Hamilton, Washington Post, Saturday, April 17, 2004; Page A01). See

    §. See The President's New Crusade, by Paul Starr in The American Prospect, December 2003

    §. Russell Olt, An Approach to the Psychology of Religion (Christopher Boston, 1956), cited by Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 61.

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