How to Invent a Plausible God

Aaron turned his staff into a snake in front of Pharaoh to show that he and Moses were God’s representatives (Exodus 7). What better way to demonstrate that you’re channeling God’s power today? Pastor Yaw Saul from central Ghana promised to replicate that show of power, but it didn’t turn out as planned. After hours of effort in the market square, the public lost patience. Perhaps inspired by the command in Deuteronomy (“a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded … is to be put to death”), they drove him away by throwing fruit and water bottles.

Balancing act

You must promise, but not too much. That’s the challenge with religion. Promise too little and there’s no attraction. What’s the point in following a god who promises nothing more than an improved complexion and twenty percent fewer weeds in your yard?

But promise too much—that is, make promises that can actually be tested—and you risk getting found out. That was Pastor Saul’s error.

William Miller made the same mistake. He predicted the end of the world on October 22, 1844. When the next day dawned uneventfully, this became known as the Millerites’ Great Disappointment. More recently, Harold Camping predicted the Rapture™ on May 21, 2011 and the end of the world five months later. Too specific—oops.

Almanacs and fortune tellers are in the same boat. If they promise too little, what’s the point? “The winter will be cold” or “This time next year, you will be older” doesn’t attract many fans. But too specific a prediction and you rack up a list of errors that even the faithful can’t ignore.

One way to avoid this problem is to be ambiguous. The predictions of Nostradamus are famously hammered to fit this or that event from history. (Curiously, no one ever uses these “prophecies” to predict the future. Isn’t that what prophecies are for?)

And, of course, the Bible is ambiguous and even contradictory. Exodus has two conflicting sets of Ten Commandments. Whether you want to show God as loving and merciful or savage and unforgiving, there are plenty of verses to help you out. Jesus can appear and vanish after his resurrection as if he had a spirit body, but then he eats fish as if he doesn’t. Jesus can be the Prince of Peace but then say, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

How can such a religion survive? Wouldn’t its contradictions make it clear to everyone that it was just a collection of writings without divine inspiration?

Contradiction as an asset

Let’s skip over the Bible’s consolidation phase that ended in roughly 400CE. The hodge-podge of books chosen from a large set of possibilities was accepted as Christian canon, and we can debate about what sorts of compromises or rationales were behind the final list. But the odd amalgam that resulted has a silver lining: a contradictory Bible can make Christianity stronger. Because it contains both answers to some questions, it is able to adapt to new and unexpected challenges.

Take slavery during the U.S. Civil War. From one pre-war book published in the South:

If we prove that domestic slavery is, in the general, a natural and necessary institution, we remove the greatest stumbling block to belief in the Bible; for whilst texts, detached and torn from their context, may be found for any other purpose, none can be found that even militates against slavery. The distorted and forced construction of certain passages, for this purpose, by abolitionists, if employed as a common rule of construction, would reduce the Bible to a mere allegory, to be interpreted to suit every vicious taste and wicked purpose.

And, of course, others used the very same Bible to make the opposite argument.

Rev. Martin Luther King used the Bible to support his argument for civil rights, and Rev. Fred Phelps uses the same Bible to argue that “God hates fags.” I’m sure that as same-sex marriage becomes accepted within America over the upcoming decades, loving passages will be highlighted to show that God was on board with this project all along.

The Bible hasn’t changed; what’s changed is people’s reading of it. The Bible’s contradictory nature allows it to adapt like a chameleon. Play up one part and downplay another, and you adapt to yet another social change.

Contradiction as a strength—who knew?

Maybe in order to understand mankind, we have to look at the word itself.
Basically, it’s made up of two separate words—“mank” and “ind.”
What do these words mean? It’s a mystery, and that’s why so is mankind.

— Jack Handey, Deeper Thoughts (1993)

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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  • RichardSRussell

    This comment is solely for the purpose of having a “notify me of additional comments to this blog” box that I can check, since I don’t see any other way of keeping up.

    • RichardSRussell

      And it didn’t work, anyway. How DO I get notified of more comments?

      • I dunno. Do you have a Disqus account, or are you here as a “guest”? Maybe the former status gives you some sort of superpower.
        BTW, I think that the moderation problem is fixed. No one should have their comments moderated. Let me know if this isn’t true.

        • John Kesler

          At, go to edit profile—>notifications—>
          personal settings. You then can choose from these options:

          * Notify me of replies to my comments.
          * Subscribe to threads that I comment on.
          * Notify me when I’m mentioned in a comment.

      • Greg G.

        At that John Kesler discusses, there’s an option to follow somebody but I think it involves Twitter. Lessee, Twitter is the one where you tell the truth to people you don’t know and Facebook is the one you lie to people you do know. I have trouble keeping them straight.

      • Greg G.

        Try this. I just did it but we’ll have to wait until Bob’s next post to see if it works.

        In the lower right corner of the main Atheist Channel page, click Subscribe to RSS Feeds.

        Click the orange icon to the right of Blog: Cross Examined.

        Click Get Cross Examined delivered by email in the box at the upper right of the page. (Or maybe just click this link.) Give them the email address you want the notices sent to, fill in the weird letter box and click the button.

        You should get an email to confirm and complete the process.

        (Experimental HTML to test the new system for ordered lists.)
        (That would be a fail, but we see that we get different results.)

    • RichardSRussell

      Well, what I’d really LIKE to do is just have an e-mail notification arrive in my inbox every time anything at all gets posted here to “Cross Examined”, but I don’t see any way that I can do that. I definitely do NOT want to select “Subscribe to threads that I comment on”, or I’ll be deluged with thousands of comments from,, etc. I’d like to just narrow it down to this one and a few others. Anyone know how I can target my preferences like that via Disqus?

      • Greg G.

        Hi Richard

        I got a notification about Bob’s latest article about 10 hours after I had commented on it. Better late than never.

        So there’s Feedburner, a Google service, for Patheos articles and Disqus for comments but they are separate services.

        • On the topic of figuring out how the new commenting system works, I’m trying to figure out why my usual way of embedding links doesn’t work anymore. Here’s a link to this article using this code:

          [a href=””]Here’s[/a]
          (except with angle brackets).

          … and now it works.

          OK, never mind.

        • Aha! The Puzzle of the Broken Links has been solved.

          The conventional HTML way of making a link works, but you can’t use smart quotes. That’s why a link typed into a Disqus comment block works but my approach (type it in Outlook first, then paste into Notepad, then paste in Disqus) won’t.

          Solution: just retype them within Disqus.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    This comment is solely for the purpose of remarking on the similarity between strategies for plausible religion as laid out by Bob S above, and techniques for cold reading, as described in The Full Facts book of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland. The bit about contradiction as a plus, for example. That fits ‘something for everyone’ Barnum statements. “You are basically shy, but participate in socialization when necessary.” Now who doesn’t that describe?

    • Reginald: Good point about cold reading. The talk-to-the-dead mystics (Sylvia Brown, etc.) would be in the same camp.

      • Castilliano

        Timely comment.
        Sylvia Browne was just caught for a false reading back in 2004 made on national TV. She was too specific, saying a missing girl was dead.
        She, Amanda Berry, was found alive.


        (I cannot wait to share this with her fans. “Really, you hadn’t heard about the Amanda Berry goof?”)

        • Castilliano: I hadn’t heard that. Nice. But, like believers in a religion, many Sylvia Browne fans will bounce back like a weeble.

        • Castilliano: I hadn’t heard that. Nice. But, like believers in a religion, many Sylvia Browne fans will bounce back like a weeble.

        • Castilliano: I hadn’t heard that. Nice. But, like believers in a religion, many Sylvia Browne fans will bounce back like a weeble.

        • Greg G.

          I read that some of her followers are saying that at least she got it right when she told the mother that she would never see her daughter again. The mother died a few years later.

    • Niemand

      Another method is to say things that people basically want to believe about themselves, no matter how true or untrue they are. “You’re a sensitive soul who looks deeper than most.” “You are deeply loved by many, although your modesty may keep you from realizing it.” “You are shrewd and honest. None can deceive you.”

  • John Kesler

    Bob Seidensticker wrote:
    Moses turned his staff into a snake in front of Pharaoh to show that he was God’s representative in Exodus 7.

    Actually, as the narrative reads, the rod that transforms into a snake is Aaron’s:

    Exodus 7
    8 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 9‘When Pharaoh says to you, “Perform a wonder”, then you shall say to Aaron, “Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh, and it will become a snake.” ’ 10So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the Lord had commanded; Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake.

    Your recall of the event is understandable, because in Exodus 4:1-5, it is indeed Moses’ staff that becomes a snake. Source critics explain this inconsistency by pointing out that most of Exodus 4 is from the “E” source, while the first part of Exodus 7 comes from “P,” the priestly source, which was partial to Aaron. The irony is that your article highlights inconsistencies in the Bible, while unwittingly shining a light on another one.

  • “Curiously, no one ever uses these “prophecies” to predict the future. Isn’t that what prophecies are for?”

    Well, they have tried, but as usual it fails miserably. I own a Nostradamus book from 1972 with claims that he “predicted” such things as that the “third antichrist” would come in 1993, and WW3 around 1999. Somehow we missed that. It’s so much easier predicting the past, and thus people have gone back to show that Nostradamus “predicted” such things as the French Revolution, Napoleon, WW2 and Hitler, among many more.

  • The Watchman

    You can find anything wrong with anything if that’s what you want to find.

    • Watchman: Sure. If you see an agenda, point that out.

    • Kodie

      You can find anything with anything if that’s what you want to find. You missed the point by that much.

    • Castilliano

      Even the perfect word of God? Shocking.
      Or is perfect? Or God’s? Because you’d think Big G would have written clearer.
      I mean, even people trying earnestly to follow his word don’t agree on his word, and these are people who go in assuming it’s all godly, whose agenda is to agree with the Bible.
      Yet they can’t agree with the Bible without disagreeing with somebody else who agrees with the Bible.
      Why would two people who agree with the Bible disagree with each other?

      Oh, yeah, because it’s too poorly written to be the handiwork of God.

      So much so that some of those god-focused people come to realize how ungodly the Bible is.
      And become non-believers.
      The Bible, read for edification of my faith, instead set me well along on my path to atheism. And I’m not alone in this (i.e. Ehrman).

      And Watchman, your words are a perfect defense for anything against anything, meaning they’re hollow and worthless.

      Oh, and your drive-by rejoinders on atheist blogs aren’t aiding your cause. It’s like yapping. We already know that point of view. Give us some reasoning, if only for sport.

    • RichardSRussell

      2 + 2 = 4
      Please tell me what you find wrong with that.

      • Niemand

        What base were you using? The answer could be 11.

        • RichardSRussell

          OK, now you’ve piqued my curiosity. In what base can you add together 2 even numbers and end up with an odd number?

        • Niemand

          Base 3. Unless I did the math wrong, but I think I got it right.

        • Niemand

          If you were using base 4, the answer would be 10. Then there are games to be played with vectors…(Yeah, I’m being difficult. Math does that to me.)

        • RichardSRussell

          Yup, you got it right. The error was mine in looking at “11” and thinking it had to be an odd number.

        • Question Everything

          If you’re a programmer, the answer could be 0, too. That isn’t even a representation of 4 in a different base… much fun to be had.

      • Greg G.

        2 + 2 = 5, for large values of 2.

    • Greg G.

      Hi Watchman

      You can find anything wrong with anything if that’s what you want to find.

      You can also overlook anything that is glaringly wrong if you wear rose-tinted goggles.

  • Nox

    Promise a reward that people get in a later life. Since they won’t be coming back to tell other adherents they got shorted on the reward, all budget constraints are lifted and you can promise as much as you want. While you’re on god’s infinite dime you might as well go extravagant with it. Streets paved with gold. Your pets and grandparents will be there. Everyone gets seventy-two, f*ck it, seventy-three virgins.

    Just don’t promise staffs to serpents in this life.

    • That is actually an ancient magic trick. With some snakes, holding them by their head and squeezing just behind their head temporarily paralyzes them, and it will look like a stick (if you keep waving it around a bit). Throwing it down on the ground allows it to recover and slither away.

  • BobaFuct

    Pharoah’s magicians turned their rods into snakes as well…Maybe Pastor Saul needs to check out the “secret arts.”

    Exodus 7:10-12

    10 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. 11 Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: 12Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.

    • BF: Yet more evidence that the Old Testament acknowledged the existence of other gods–the Egyptian gods, in this case.

    • RichardSRussell

      I wonder if Hitler quoted this during WW2 to the German General Staff.

  • Rain

    Aaron turned his staff into a snake in front of Pharaoh to show that he and Moses were God’s representatives (Exodus 7). What better way to demonstrate that you’re channeling God’s power today?

    Even better would be God simply dropping down for a visit and just reasoning with people. Yeah, ain’t gonna happen…

    • Greg G.

      Hi Rain

      It’s worse than that. God did drop down but it was to block Pharaoh’s free will choice to allow them to leave by hardening his heart just so he could show off with frogstorms, rivers of blood, and the killing of livestock and first-born children.

      • Hanan

        To be a little more specific, I believe Pharaoh hardened his own heart the first 5 times, only after did God harden his heart.

        • Greg G.

          The first mention is Exodus 4:21 The Lord said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.”

          There are almost a dozen verses where God is hardening Pharaoh’s heart and twice when Pharoah hardens his own heart in Exodus. 1 Samuel 6:6 puts the blame on Pharoah.

          The second time is Exodus 7:3 “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt,” which is why I said God was doing it to show off.

        • “Pharaoh will refuse to listen to you—so that my wonders may be multiplied in Egypt.” (Ex. 11:9)

        • Greg G.

          I should use that line. “I’m not showing off. I’m multiplying my wonders.”

    • Rain: Yeah, but that would eliminate the need for faith! Which would be bad! For a reason that no one has yet explained!

  • John Kesler

    Rain wrote:
    Even better would be God simply dropping down for a visit and just reasoning with people. Yeah, ain’t gonna happen…

    Yahweh did that when he bargained with Abraham regarding the fate of Sodom, but those days are apparently over.

    Genesis 17
    23Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26And Yahweh said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” 27Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to Yahweh, I who am but dust and ashes. 28Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30Then he said, “Oh do not let Yahweh be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to Yahweh. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32Then he said, “Oh do not let Yahweh be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33And Yahweh went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

    An interesting point is that since Sodom and Gomorrah were indeed destroyed, presumably there were not even 10 righteous people in the city, but it seems unlikely that there weren’t at least 10 children or infants in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and children are elsewhere declared to be exempted from punishment since they don’t know right from wrong (Deuteronomy 1:39).