Against Theology

This draft has been sitting in My Documents folder for quite a while.  Since I have recently been chided for my lack of serious “scholarship” (note the scare quotes) while debating on David Robertson’s blog on the question of whether Stalin was influenced by Darwin and evolution and my reply involved delving into this draft and copying any pasting the links and quotes, I thought that now would be as good a time as any to complete and publish the draft.

Some of most entertaining articles I have ever read have been those debunking theology.  There’s something so pompous and self-important about all theologians I have encountered.  When I first started reading the reactions to Richard DawkinsThe God Delusion, one of the more stinging comments was that he has not engaged in any serious Christian or Jewish theology.  No discussion of the finer details of the Trinity.  No dissection of the Transubstantiation.  As US evolutionary biologist, H Allen Orr, put it in his lengthy review:

[T]he result is that The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents.  You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?)…  Instead, Dawkins has written a book that’s distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow.  Dawkins’s intellectual universe appears populated by the likes of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Carl Sagan, the science populariser.

Richard, what were you thinking committing such a gapping hole in your research?

Nevertheless, Dawkins has hit back at this criticism both before and after the publication of his book.   Dawkins’ response to Oxford University’s Christian theologian Alister McGrath’s criticisms that he has a poor grasp of theology in his 2004 book, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes And The Meaning of Life:

Yes, I have, of course, met this point before.  It sounds superficially fair.  But it presupposes that there is something in Christian theology to be ignorant about.  The entire thrust of my position is that Christian theology is a non-subject.  It is empty.  Vacuous.  Devoid of coherence or content.  I imagine that McGrath would join me in expressing disbelief in fairies, astrology and Thor’s hammer.  How would he respond if a fairyologist, astrologer or Viking accused him of ignorance of their respective subjects?

The only part of theology that could possibly demand my attention is the part that purports to demonstrate that God does exist.  This part of theology I have, indeed, studied with considerable attention.  And found it utterly wanting.

Spot on.  Ninety-nine percent of all theology simply assumes that God exists; the content of the Bible is literally or metaphorically “true” and proceeds from there.  For an atheist to start arguing against the Trinity and assert that God is not one in three, but one in five would be to accept God’s existence implicitly and therefore contradict their core position!  Learned theological treatises among Christian theologians (and those of any other religion for that matter) have no more scientific or intellectual content than the discussion of Norse-like gods between Conan and his companion, Subotai, in Conan The Barbarian at the beginning of this post.  The cue to Basil Poledouris’ (wonderful) score is even called “Theology”!

Science blogger Jason Rosenhouse’s reply to Orr’s review, “Orr On Dawkins”, elaborates further:

Dawkins provides no serious discussion of Jewish or Christian theology?  Of course not, because such theology is mostly irrelevant to how religion is actually practiced.  Theology is an academic pursuit, and like many such pursuits it concerns itself primarily with esoterica far removed from people’s actual lives. Much Christian theology in particular tends to take the form of viewing the Bible as a complex cipher, one that requires years of training to understand properly.

And since Orr is criticizing Dawkins’ superficiality, it is a bit rich for him to reduce Augustine’s views to the slogan that he rejected biblical literalism.  Augustine did take the view that the Bible should be interpreted in as literal a way as possible, and in some of his writing he even endorsed a young-Earth position.  He was willing to countenance a somewhat allegorical interpretation of Genesis, but that was only because he felt the Bible should not be read in a way that contradicts what clear scientific evidence is telling us.  A worthy sentiment, certainly, but not one that finds much theological justification.

At any rate, Dawkins is perfectly aware that many serious Christians do not accept Biblical literalism.  So what?  Dawkins’ book is primarily about the reasonableness of believing in a creator God, and on the social impact of widespread religious belief.  The minutiae of different schools of Christian thought just isn’t the concern of this book.

The rest of this post will provide further resources and pithy sound bites giving this pseudo-intellectual non-subject that is needless contributing to the destruction of the rainforests and the worsening of climate change the respect it deserves.

Thomas Jefferson (quoted in The God Delusion [London: Transworld Publishers, 2007, p. 55]):

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity.  It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ:

Anyone with theologian blood in his veins will approach things with a warped and deceitful attitude.  This gives rise to a pathos that calls itself faith: turning a blind eye to yourself for once and for all, so you do not have to stomach the sight of incurable mendacity.  This universally faulty optic is made into a morality, a virtue, a holiness, seeing-wrong is given a good conscience, – other types of optic are not allowed to have value any more now that this one has been sanctified with names like “God”, “redemption”, and “eternity”.  I have unearthed the theologian instinct everywhere: it is the most widespread and genuinely subterranean form of deceit on earth.  Anything a theologian thinks is true must be false: this is practically a criterion of truth.

Sam Harris defines the God of the religious community at large:

We can talk about religion as it is for most people most of the time, or we can talk about what religion could be, or should be.  Or perhaps what it is for the tiniest minority of people…

If we talk about consciousness and the laws of nature, we won’t be talking about the God that most of our neighbours believe in, which is a personal god, who hears our prayers and occasionally answers them…

The God that our neighbours believe in is essentially an invisible person.  It’s a creator deity, who created the universe to have a relationship with once species of primate.  Lucky us!

He’s got galaxy upon galaxy to attend to but he’s especially concerned with what we do, and he’s especially concerned with what we do while naked.  He most certainly does not approve of homosexuality.  And he has created this cosmos as a vast laboratory in which to test our powers of credulity.  And the test is this: Can you believe in this God on bad evidence, which is to say on faith.  And if you can you will win an eternity of happiness after you die.

And it’s precisely this sort of god or this sort of scheme that you must believe in if you are to have any kind of future in politics in this country, no matter what your gifts.  You could be an unprecedented genius, you could look like George Clooney, you could have a billion dollars and you could have the social skills of Oprah, and you are going nowhere in politics in this country unless you believe in that sort of God.

So we can talk about anything we want – I’m happy to talk about consciousness – but please notice that when we migrate away from the God that is really shaping human events or the God-talk that is really shaping human events in our world at this moment.

Harris damns all theological discourse in Letter To A Christian Nation: A Challenge To Faith [London: Transworld Publishers, 2007, pp. 65 - 66]:

Consider the recent deliberations of the Roman Catholic Church on the doctrine of limbo.  Thirty top theologians from around the world recently met at the Vatican to discuss the question of what happens to babies who die without having undergone the sacred rite of baptism.  Since the Middles Ages, Catholics have believed that such babies go to a state of limbo, where they enjoy what St. Thomas Aquinas termed “natural happiness” forever.  This was in contrast to the opinion of St. Augustine, who believed that these unlucky infant souls would spend an eternity in hell.

Though limbo had no real foundation in scripture, and was never official Church doctrine, it has been a major part of the Catholic tradition for centuries.  In 1905, Pope Pius X appeared to fully endorse it: “Children who die without baptism go into limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but they do not suffer either.”

Can we even conceive of a project more intellectually forlorn than this?  Just imagine what these deliberations must be like.  Is there the slightest possibility that someone will present evidence indicating the eternal fate of unbaptized children after death?  How can any educated person think this anything but a hilarious, terrifying, and unconscionable waste of time?  When one considers the fact that this is the very institution that has produced and sheltered an elite army of child molesters, the whole enterprise begins to exude a truly diabolical aura of misspent human energy.

To finish with Sam Harris, here’s his summary of religious scientist Francis Collins’ true beliefs:

1.  Jesus Christ, a carpenter by trade, was born of a virgin, ritually murdered as a scapegoat for the collective sins of his species, and then resurrected from death after an interval of three days.

2.  He promptly ascended, bodily, to “heaven”—where, for two millennia, he has eavesdropped upon (and, on occasion, even answered) the simultaneous prayers of billions of beleaguered human beings.

3.  Not content to maintain this numinous arrangement indefinitely, this invisible carpenter will one day return to earth to judge humanity for its sexual indiscretions and skeptical doubts, at which time he will grant immortality to anyone who has had the good fortune to be convinced, on mother’s knee, that this baffling litany of miracles is the most important series of truth-claims ever revealed about the cosmos.

4.  Every other member of our species, past and present, from Cleopatra to Einstein, no matter what his or her terrestrial accomplishments, will be consigned to a far less desirable fate, best left unspecified.

5.  In the meantime, God/Jesus may or may not intervene in our world, as He pleases, curing the occasional end-stage cancer (or not), answering an especially earnest prayer for guidance (or not), consoling the bereaved (or not), through His perfectly wise and loving agency.

How many scientific laws would be violated by such a scheme?  One is tempted to say “all of them.”

Richard Dawkins, “Let’s Hope It’s A Lasting Vogue”:

Athorism is enjoying a certain vogue right now.  Can there be a productive conversation between Valhallans and athorists?  Naïve literalists apart, sophisticated thoreologians long ago ceased believing in the material substance of Thor’s mighty hammer.  But the spiritual essence of hammeriness remains a thunderingly enlightened revelation, and hammerological faith retains its special place in the eschatology of neo-Valhallism, while enjoying a productive conversation with the scientific theory of thunder in its non-overlapping magisterium.  Militant athorists are their own worst enemy.  Ignorant of the finer points of thoreology, they really should desist from their strident and intolerant strawmandering, and treat Thor-faith with the uniquely protected respect it has always received in the past.  In any case, they are doomed to failure.  People need Thor, and nothing will ever remove him from the culture.  What are you going to put in his place?

Richard Dawkins, “The Emptiness of Theology”:

What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody?  When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious?  I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them.  I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false.  If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming.  If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference?  Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work!  The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything.  What makes anyone think that “theology” is a subject at all?

P Z Myer’s, “The Courtier’s Reply”:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship.  He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat.  We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all.  He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D T Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed – how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry – but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste.  His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

Paula Kirby, “Fleabytes”, (Special Topic: The Bible):

We are all familiar with PZ Myers’ inspired “Courtier’s Reply” to allegations of inadequate understanding of the Bible and theology, but there’s another angle to this issue, too, it seems to me, and that is that Dawkins and other atheists are deliberately refusing to take the Bible at anything more than face value.  At first glance this may seem deliberately obtuse but actually it is all part of stripping away the special treatment that has been accorded to faith in our societies.  We are just no longer prepared to read “Show him no pity.  Do not spare him or shield him.  You must certainly put him to death.  Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people.  Stone him to death because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 13: 8-10, NIV) and pretend it means “God is love, God is good, God is moral.”

Likewise, when Dawkins argues that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually exclusive (thus provoking shrieks of indignation and scorn from Robertson in this letter), he is simply refusing to engage in the sort of wordplay and casuistry that allow theologians to twist and turn and claim “Ah yes, well, that’s not really what omnipotence means in this context.”  How many theologians have been kept gainlessly employed, how many trees have been felled, to produce and disseminate such sophistry?  And why should a book that requires such reams of debate, disagreement and interpretation before it can be held to make any sense be considered to be the Word of God, for goodness’ sake?

As a result, you don’t need your words to be interpreted, translated, or otherwise made comprehensible by even one go-between, let alone whole university faculties of them.  You are God, for God’s sake – you are perfect and omniscient and omnipotent.  You have the ability to create a book that will light up the world with its goodness and truth and unmistakably divine insight.  A book that will speak directly to any human being in whatever age they live.  A book that speaks incontrovertibly to the heart and mind of any being that opens it – and here’s the thing: EVEN IF THEIR THEOLOGY IS SHOCKINGLY BAD.

If it is necessary to read the Bible in a certain way, through a certain kind of lens, with a willingness to allow words to mean what they do not mean, and not to mean what they do mean; if it can only be made to be not offensive, not repellent, not meaningless after years of in-depth theological study, then your benevolent, all-powerful and all-knowing God cannot have viewed it as a particularly important way of getting his message across.  In which case, it’s hard to see why “evidence” based on it should be taken very seriously.

To conclude with my own contribution to this issue;reviewing Peter S Williams’ reply to Dawkins & Co., A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism:

Avoiding the real issues

Williams’ contribution is fatally flawed along with the other “flea” books by self-proclaimed “scholars”, because it only addresses barely a quarter of the arguments of the Four Horsemen, namely whether or not God exists, without saying a word in defence of the effects of organised religion on the world.

Unfortunately, religion is not just about the sophisticated ponderings of scholars in ivory towers debating the finer points of the Trinity.  It has an effect on every single one of us, whether we like it or not.

I could concede every single word of Alvin Plantinga and say that there are good reasons to believe in God and Christianity and Christians are perfectly justified in doing so.  Hell, I could even go the whole nine yards and say that I actually do believe in God!  That I think that the virgin birth and the resurrection are as true as Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Hitler carrying out the Holocaust and Armstrong landing on the moon!

That still does not in any sense allow Christians to force their beliefs on others.  I cannot deny the existence of Joseph Stalin and Kim Jung Il, but at least I am not forced to obey them.  Even if the Christian doctrine was true, even if the evidence for it was much better, what right would that give Christians to force their beliefs on others?  Exactly the same right as liberals, conservatives and fascists: none whatsoever.

Although the theologians are called to defend religion at the debater’s lectern, ironically, they are not the people with whom I have my main quarrel.  If the theologians ran religion, it would be a far more benign entity and one that perhaps I could live with happily.  It’s not so much belief in ancient myths and fairy tales that angers me; it is the severely negative consequences that these unfounded beliefs have on the world.

If someone wants to believe in the Bible and live according to the teaching of Christianity I can’t stop that.  If they want to encourage other people to share in these beliefs, then I suppose I can’t stop that either.   What I do resent is the effects such unfounded beliefs have and their utter lack of negotiability.  If stopping the effects of religion means cutting it off at the roots and spoiling believers’ blissful ignorance and indulgence in ancient fairytales, then so be it.

Like all theology and religious philosophising, Williams’ new book is all theory and precious little practice.  Accordingly, there is nothing about the foul rantings of Falwell and Robertson, the teaching of junk-science in schools classrooms, the destruction of the Twin Towers, the abuse of children by hell-fire preaching clergymen and the discouraging of condom use by the Catholic Church in sub-Saharan African where c. 3 million people die of HIV/AIDS each year.

The simple fact is that Williams’ subtle brand of nuanced religion has very little impact on the way that religion is actually practised.  Alistair McGrath got his feathers all ruffled in response to Dawkins and bleated on (at probably more speaking engagements than he was invited to in his career preceding publication of The God Delusion) about the importance of challenging those who take an overly literalist approach to the scriptures.

Yet when, in July 2007, the Bishop of Carlisle informed us all that the floods in Northern Yorkshire were divine retribution for laws permitting homosexual marriage did McGrath say a word in public to admonish the Right Reverend Graham Dow for his unsophisticated take on matters?  Like hell he did!

That is all.

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5 Responses to “Against Theology”

  1. Hobbes Says:

    I thought this might be coming, since you didn’t reply to my post at TheWeeFlea’s blog. :)

    The difference between you and Dawkins is that you attempted to engage with Christian theology, and made a fallacy out of it.

    if you believe it to be a good argument simply to ridicule Christianity, then at least make an attempt to understand what you are ridiculing. Otherwise (to quote one of your own, Peter Atkins), you are just being “intellectually lazy”.

    Cheap shots don’t score highly.

    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      At the time of replying to your first comment, it doesn’t look like theweeflea has even approved my comment posting the link to this post.

      Strange.

      But if it means that you’re now following my blog, I’m flattered. :D

      I was not engaging with Christian theology; just highlighting that it has been used by many of its adherents to justify and mandate the most appalling atrocities from Augustine to Hudal.

      Perhaps we are ridiculing your beliefs because they are ridiculous. We don’t automatically respect everyone’s beliefs and opinions.

      We have not passed laws in this country against Holocaust denial, but we practice a conversational intolerance to people who do by stopping listening to them and not electing them to high office.

      Present leaders of the BNP and one or two bishops in the Roman Catholic Church excluded…

      Cheap shots are the only weapons available to us.

      MSP

      • Hobbes Says:

        Well, I suspect theweeflea got tired of approving our daily exchanges. :) I’m surprised he let it go on for so long!

        You said: “Cheap shots are the only weapons available to us.”

        No, they are not, actually. This may be heresy, but the Atheist Magisterium does not always get it right. And Pope Dawkins is wrong on this one. Dead wrong. Ridicule is not an argument, merely vigorous arm-waving and finger pointing. You know, the kind that goes on in primary school playgrounds. I believe you don’t like that kind of thing.

        You said: “…just highlighting that it has been used by many of its adherents to justify and mandate the most appalling atrocities from Augustine to Hudal,”

        Yes, of course. I agreed with you. But, the fallacious hole you fell into was concluding that those atrocities were an outworking of biblical Christianity. I argued that it wasn’t. You need to delve into Christianity theology to prove otherwise. Having Christian belt buckles means nothing, in the same way that those who wear golden crucifix necklaces are not thereby biblical Christians.

        So, if cheap shots is all you have, I’ve won the argument.

        PS Yes, I follow your blog. It’s a fun read, if nothing else. ;)
        PSS This is definitely my last reply on this particular issue!

      • manicstreetpreacher Says:

        Hobbes

        I’m pleased you are following my blog. I am using this windy/rainy Saturday morning to answer the theweeflea’s reason as to why he is not an atheist. I hope it does not disappoint.

        Well, I’m happy to leave on an agreement to disagree. I am satisfied that the appalling views and actions of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Hudal and Hitler flowed naturally and directly from their Christian faith/theology.

        And since there is no argument with which to engage in the 99% of Christian theology that simply assumes that God exists and proceeds from there, then I’m afraid yes, ridicule is the only weapon left to us.

        Read that quote from Thomas Jefferson again and consider how much Norse “scholarship” you have read up on before deciding not to believe in Thor and Odin.

        MSP

        P.S. I don’t regard Dawkins as any kind of “Pope” or even a leader of atheism. He is an intellectually brilliant man who can articulate publicly and unashamedly what many of us have been thinking all along but have been too afraid to say aloud for fear of offending people’s precious religious sensibilities. However, he is fallible. There are things in his books and articles with which I don’t quite agree. And I’m not going to say a word in his defence over his inflammatory tweets, “Elavatorgate” or saying that we need to mock people’s religious views over the dinner table. I think the whole problem with Christians’ responses to the New Atheists is that they think atheists view Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens etc. as infallible messiahs and that they can be defeated by discrediting them personally and dismissing their arguments without meeting the burden of actually answering them. It is a tactic to which I have long been wise to and I can tell you it does not work.

  2. Ukip councillor David Silvester displays a disgraceful lack of ‘scholarship’ in the face of Britain’s recent floods. But will the ‘scholars’ actually correct him on it? | manicstreetpreacher Says:

    […] my recent post deriding theology as a proper academic discipline, I drew on my review of Christian apologist Peter […]

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