by Philip McPherson Rudisill
June 19, 2005 and revised on August 21, 2006 and edited slightly on March 12, 2019
This essay was inspired by the condemnation of Abraham by Immanuel Kant in his Religion Within The Bounds Of Sheer Reason (on or near page 186) the section on Conscience. I have most recently removed here all reference to specific religions (except via the Appendix), having considered these in different ways. For information on the the Christian Paul, for example, see Liberty of the Gentile Christian. and then also Christianity and Islam and Converting To Islam?; and finally: Defense of Abraham against Kant's condemnation.
The author seeks a means for any person to distinguish between a divine and a demonic communication. Based on an analysis of concepts, two such means are proposed and examined, namely: the appearance of the communication and the moral import of the communication.
All that the appearance can do is to hint as to the supernatural, but it cannot serve to distinguish a finite supernatural power from an infinite one (the latter pertaining to God alone). The only certain criterion is the moral and negative, namely:
1. God will never command what a person would understand as immoral, and
2. a demon may command the moral on occasion, but then only as a ruse for bringing about a corruption of the moral.
One occasionally hears rumors of a person being approached by a divine or by a demonic being. It is the purpose of this reflection to arrive at a means for distinguishing between the two. Thus we will assume the possibility of a God and of a Demon, and that these would want to communicate with humans.* First we will identify what we mean with God and Demon, and then we will examine the possibility of discerning a divine mission by some appearance, and then we will examine the moral criterion. In all of this we will be influenced by the moral thinking of Immanuel Kant.
* It is not necessary for the reader to admit the existence of a God or a demon. Here it is sufficient merely that both be thought as possible.
Concepts of God and Demon
God. With God, as generally conceived, we already think and presuppose infinite power and infinite goodness (which is called holiness) and rationality.
Demon. Here we will conceive of Demon as a supernatural, but still finite, power; and thoroughly evil and thoroughly rational.* **
* We will not consider here the possibility of hallucinations or self induced dreams.
** Conceptually the human stands between God and Demon in this wise: while God loves the moral law by virtue of his sheer holiness (and this law is expressed for us here by universal dignity and love) and while Demon hates the moral law, man neither loves it nor hates it, but he does respect it, i.e., it is impossible for him to be thoroughly happy when he is conscious of a violation on his part of this law of moral conduct (once he comes to understand the law).
Criteria of Discernment in terms of Appearance and Morality
Appearance. Concerning the appearance of the communication and especially with regard to infinite power, all we can say is that the human being simply cannot recognize an infinite power and distinguish it from a finite, albeit supernatural, power.* We cannot recognize it any more than we can distinguish a very long but finite line from an infinite line, for each comes to an end in the eye ** The most we can presume to do is to recognize a supernatural power (and even that is suspect), but we cannot distinguish in the supernatural power a finite power from an infinite power. We simply cannot tell by looking that some being before us is infinite in power or finite in power, i.e., whether it is divine or demonic. The most we can tell is that some perception seems to be supernatural, e.g., flying in an airplane from the perspective of a savage.
* By virtue of supernaturalness in general we simply mean the idea of a power which is independent of the laws of nature; and say nothing at all about the degree of that power and whether it is infinite or not.
** This is due to the peculiar capacity of human looking and which is far indeed from any sort of intuition as to the length of the lines. When we stand on an infinite straight line and look at it we do not intuit its infinity in some way, but rather our perspective presents it as having an end, i.e., there is a stopping place in our sight, and so is indistinguishable from a very long straight line, but which is still finite. For an extended consideration of this sort of understanding see essay on Circles in the Air.
Moral Content. Now as to the content of a communication not much can be said in general except this: God will never communicate a call for what is understood as immoral. And so at the very least the human is not allowed to interpreted any alleged communication of God in a way that could be understood as calling for a violation of the moral law.*
* The moral law is a product of common human rationality when applied practically, i.e., to actions. The moral law itself is conceived by man in his rationality in this sort of way: He conceives of a realm of free beings and where there would be an election as to the laws to guide their behavior with each other, and that would be subjectively of two different sorts: "I am supremely important," or instead: "all are equally important."** The common element among all the beings of this realm would be all are equally important and this then is the moral law, the law of universal human dignity, a law that each person comes up with on his own (albeit usually as the result of a prompting occasion***). In other words all people count equally and indeed are of infinite worth. Now this is a nice idea, one that is easy enough to dream up by pure practical reason, just like the tooth fairy tale and just as we have done here, but the fact of the matter is that the human is imposed upon by this idea, of his own making, so much so that he has a bad conscience when he reflects upon a wrongful act he has committed, i.e., an act contrary to the dictates of this moral law. This bad conscience is based on a feeling that arises solely upon a comparison of one's actions with the moral law. It is a practical feeling and is called respect for the moral law.
** I would prefer, for example: "Philip is supremely important" but would settle for "all people are equally important." My friend Jack would prefer "Jack is supremely important" but would also settle for "all people are equally important." The only choice which can and will be universally accepted is "all people are equally important.".****
*** Usually this is introduced to children in such a question as: how would you like it if someone did that to you?
**** Since having composed this essay originally, I have learned that the specifics of this thinking arose with John Harsany and John Rawls and is termed the Original Position and the Veil of Ignorance. It matches the thinking of Immanuel Kant in his consideration of the moral law and the categorical imperative, namely the idea of a law which would be binding on all people and which all people would insist upon if they did not know of their own rank in the world, e.g., whether king or pauper. This is also consistent with Genesis 3:22 of the Jewish scriptures.
With Demon the matter is not quite as clear cut. As the first consideration one might think that Demon would always call for immorality, for he (per our definition) relishes violations of the moral law, i.e., he hates the moral law and wishes to thwart it and have others thwart it and to corrupt the moral makeup of the human. But this could very well be too obvious for the human to stomach. And Demon is not merely hateful, he is also rational. Accordingly it is not unreasonable to think that he might tailor his communication in a way that seems moral, in order to seduce his hearers, but at bottom proves to be immoral.* And so we should not be surprised to hear Demon command something that is moral, for that is no proof at all of any divine source, not when dealing with an intelligent and rational being. If some icon or core of a communication could be identified then a definitive judgment might be possible, for if the core is moral then the communication can be divine and cannot be demonic. And if the core should focus toward the corruption of the moral in the human then that communication can be demonic, but it cannot be divine. At least that much could be determined. Otherwise with regard to appearance, again the most we can say is that something looks supernatural to us, i.e., it seems to defy the laws of nature.**
* The corruption of the moral core of the human might be achieved in the following way. Moral and amoral (and eventually also immoral) commands are lumped together and presented as a means to the same Great Reward or for avoiding the same Great Punishment according to the will or whim of a God, the Infinite Power. No attention is placed on the moral education. Parents, for example, would not reason with children by asking them, how would you like it if someone did that to you? regarding some wrongful act, but instead we would hear: "if you do that again I will punish you. And if I don't catch you myself, the God catches everything and will impose the Great Punishment." Hence, according to this conception, there is no reason for anyone to even consider what a moral law might be, but instead perhaps to understand that "moral" means doing as one is told by the God and reaping the Great Reward and avoiding the Great Punishment. From an individual standpoint moral becomes "smart," and so "doing the smart thing," or even the 'right' thing" is to walk the Path of Great Reward. By virtue of the Great Reward and the Great Punishment both the moral and the amoral and even then also the immoral can collectively be called moral. Moral then comes to mean that which is commanded by the God (and leading to the Great Reward) and the immoral is what is commanded not to be done (and which leads to the Great Punishment). Then in this state, when those (if there be any remaining) who still have an uncorrupted conception of the moral come to challenge those who are corrupted in this way, those who are corrupted will simply not be able to understand the challenge of the uncorrupted. For along with the moral heart, the meaning of the word will also have been lost, and the corruption will be complete.*** This is also a common denominator of otherwise very diverse cults.
** I am not certain about the general understanding of laws of nature up until about 1500 CE, and I think it was more a time when most anything could happen as a result of spirits and genies and demons and angels and so forth. Perhaps everything was still in universal causation, only some causes were considered and "known" to be spirits and couldn't be seen nor subjected to experimentation.
*** Suppose the God commanded only that the moral law be obeyed, and would base the Great Reward and Great Punishment on the ensuing conduct? Then we would have at least the trappings of a moral religion, for the teaching of such a religion indicates that only moral conduct can please God. But even if the God commanded only moral acts, still in the absence of any knowledge of the moral law, and thus following merely a list of do's and don'ts that even a list like the moral law would be able to generate, would mean the corruption of the moral heart, i.e., acting for the sake of the Great Reward and not for the sake of moral goodness. For in this case while what is being done is good (objectively moral) still it is being done with the same attitude and state of mind (regarding reward and punishment) as though one were told to do the amoral and inane or the immoral (and thus be subjectively immoral). And so only the moral law can enable a person to make a judgement about good and evil, even to the extent of judging the God.**** Again cf: Genesis 3:22.
**** All in all, the "god" of a religion not based on the moral law, but on reward and punishment, is summed up in this Christmas Season children's song:
You'd better watch out; you'd better not cry;
You'd better not pout, I'm telling you why--
Santa Claus is coming to town.
He knows when you are sleeping;
He knows when you're awake;
He knows if you've been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake,
and where "for goodness sake" is understood to mean the Great Reward, and "bad or good" means doing what you have been told not to do or to do, respectively.
We can imagine many demons. They would all hate the moral law. But Demon, as presented here, would represent the greatest of all such spirits or beings, for he would be thoroughly rational and under total self control and would focus not so much on inciting individual immoral acts, which would be the amusement of petty demons, as rather corrupting the very foundation of morality itself. That would be an achievement worthy of a great demon.
This then is all that we can know in advance with regard to any divine communication: it will not command the immoral, but only the moral or in a way that would enhance the moral. And all we can know in advance of a demonic communication is that the ultimate goal is the immoral (although not necessarily every specific command). And as far as the appearance goes we can discern what seems supernatural to us, but we cannot discern any apparent difference between God and Demon among whatever might be supernatural.
Other Criteria. We might consider other criteria. For example we would expect a divine communication to be very clear and a demonic one, perhaps, caged in some confusion for the further, nefarious goal of corruption of the moral make up of the human. We would expect the divine communication to speak to all people regardless of their condition, while with the demonic, even though it is conceivable to speak to all people equally, it is also possible that certain human conditions would not be acceptable, e.g., writing with ones left hand.* And somehow we would think that a communication of God would have a certain result morally.** But these are not conclusive and definitive. A divine communication might be delivered in terms of a particular situation, and might become confused when considered later, or any number of possibilities with regard to all this.
* This would be consistent with Demons intention of universal moral corruption. Here good and evil is put on things, and not on the state (motivation) of the heart, and so where it is necessary to be instructed, and where it is necessary then to have some "holy" guidance about pleasing God, and where then everything can (and indeed in that system must) be associated with a certain reward and punishment, and thus where morality becomes identified with happiness and in that way its meaning is totally lost, and people come to comply with commands, some of which might even be moral, but solely for the reason that they are connected with certain qualities and degrees of happiness, and not because they are just. And it would further serve Demon's purpose to topple the moral imperative that "all people count and have dignity," and a good way to do that is to show that some humans, e.g., left-handers, are different and not acceptable to the God and hence may be treated differently.
** The certitude for this lies in the fact that the only meaningful notion of God possible for humans arises as a consequence of the respect which humans naturally (by virtue of their freedom) hold for the moral law. And hence an effect would be expected and it would be expected to be moral.
In short we shall not utilize any of these "other criteria" for they are still all problematic, and we want something which is certain, and that we find alone in the negative proof of a divine communication, namely that it cannot call for immoral acts or have an immoral core, and also the positive indicator that it will reveal a moral core.* We will play it safe and opt for the moral key and leave all else to the particular circumstances**
* This latter is not conclusive, of course, for a human might dream up a "communication" which had a moral core, and this might even be understood as conveyed through an hallucination.
** In a moral religion, which is a step further from the object of this examination, God is further developed to the point where he is additionally pleased with a love for the moral law and not just respect, as sufficient as that is for being in his good graces. By means of working together in this consideration of God the individual has reason to think that he can develop this love of the moral law.
Summary. While we may easily suspect the supernatural in the appearance, we cannot distinguish the divine from the demonic in this way, and so for our purposes here the supernatural is only suggestive of the divine. The only criteria that we will consider is the moral, namely: a divine communication about actions will command the moral law and never a violation. A demonic communication might command specific moral actions, but Demon's communication can be seen leading to a corruption of the moral nature of the human. It is not to be expected that a demonic communication will issue commands which are patently immoral (although this is not impossible), and it is more likely, given the presumed rationality of Demon, that a demonic communication will speak in moral terms, as a seduction for the corruption of the moral core of the human, and have such things as immoral sayings, for example, develop more gradually, through flexibility in interpretation.
See appendix on Mohammed and Joseph Smith.