Dawkins and theology

One of the biggest whines I hear from theists about The God Delusion is that Richard Dawkins just doesn’t know enough about all that wonderful theology. Why, if only he knew more! Maybe then he would totally be a Christian.

But I’m wondering. What would that knowledge actually change? Aside from making Dawkins a great Jeopardy! player, it’s obvious the whiny little Christians really don’t have an answer. After all, just think about it. Has anyone even bothered to give a single example where having a deep theological background would have changed a single bit of The God Delusion?

The truth is, theology is nothing more than literary criticism with a narrow focus. What’s more – and here’s the kicker – Christian theology assumes God. Why in the hell would Dawkins ever defer to theologians? Using theology to prove God is classic question begging and has no place in a serious debate about the existence of God. I hardly believe anyone who says any different is even really interested in these sort of discussions.

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Thought of the day

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Christianity is the uncanny ability to get people to believe some parts of the Bible are metaphorical (e.g., Genesis does not really say the Universe was made in 6 days) while they believe other parts are literally true (e.g., Jesus really did turn water into wine). It’s entirely arbitrary.

But I’m being dishonest. Christianity actually has no methodology. It has no way of determining how one thing is true and another is false. How could it? Theology is the best claim any religion can have, but even then it only works if everyone agrees on some basic premise (e.g., God exists). And even then there’s no way to be sure what to believe; theology is an arrogant form of literary criticism. Anyone who has bothered to make any interpretation of any novel with any amount of symbolism knows that without direct knowledge of what the author meant, it’s all a crap shoot. Some interpretations may be more sophisticated than others, but none can be certain. The Bible, another book written by people (in this case, the few literate members of an otherwise illiterate society), is no different. It contains no methodology, no defined ways of knowing. It can’t inform anyone of anything except by faith.

And that’s not really being informed, is it?

Trivial Theology

By Michael Hawkins

It goes without notice when a theologian is asked to appear on television or in print concerning a recent disaster or a current social issue. Media and society turn to these people for answers. Has anyone bothered to ask why?

Theology really has nothing worthwhile to offer. It is a bankrupt field that says nothing true of the real world which is not trifling. Indeed, it is hardly a field at all. If not for prestige by longevity, it could very well be dismissed as little more than literary criticism with a very narrow focus.

What can theologians resolve for the world? Can they offer society any practical information which cannot be discovered otherwise? Beyond this, can theologians even resolve internal issues?

The answer is nothing, no, and no. There is no method by which theology self-corrects. It is a field which is explicitly at the mercy of subjective interpretation which, unsurprisingly, moves with the times (even if it often lags a bit). Should a person ask, “Is the story of Noah’s Ark true?”, theologians have no way to answer that. They must turn to some external source to discover the answer. (It’s “No, because it’s utterly silly to believe in such a fairy tale”, by the way.)

Theology, in fact, is not a way of knowing. It gets touted as such, of course, but no evidence is ever presented to support such a claim. How could there be evidence? Claiming a single book has self-contained answers excludes all drive for verification; it teaches there be no hunger to know beyond its bounds. More importantly, it is an audacious claim on the level of saying The Lord of the Rings must be true, so it needs no outside verification.

All theologians have achieved is a meaningless distinction in society based upon a non-field. They can tell us nothing which is not trivial – and when they try, there’s no way to verify the truth to their claims. They are those among us who happen to use their literacy in devotion to a narrow topic that cannot be resolved through any frivolous knowledge they may have.

More Rosenhouse

I have had intense discussions with people about obscure points of the Buffyverse, but I don’t expect anyone who is not a Buffy fan to regard such discussions as interesting or important. The trouble is that many of the participants in this session made Christian theology sound like much the same thing. They had various personal reasons for accepting Christianity, but at no point provided any basis for their beliefs that could be recognized as evidence by those outside the community. Theology came off seeming like an in-house discussion among those who share a particular set of premises. Which would be fine if they forthrightly admitted that’s what theology is. The trouble comes when they act as if theology is actually giving us knowledge or understanding of something, or that it is a branch of human inquiry that deserves a place at the table alongside science. Give me some reason to think that Christian theology has any more basis in reality than does Buffy studies, and then I will start taking it seriously.

Dawkins

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?

Theologians

I’ve written in the past about theologians. I want to start calling out the idea of what these people do as what it actually is: literary criticism with a narrow focus.

Whereas most literary critics will have focuses on relatively broad topics – periods in time, styles of writing, etc – theologians focus merely on single books. Granted, the books are often relatively large, but so is War and Peace.

Now, theologians do deserve slightly more credit than I’ve given them. They do have some background on the history of the cultures and societies in which their texts originated. But if that’s what one wants, then why not turn to textual critics? These are people who actually understand what authors (and scribes) were intending while also having a grasp on the history of the cultures and societies.

Theologians enjoy an elevated status in our society. But do they deserve it any more than literary critics of Shakespeare? The answer must be ‘no’.

I’ve taken far too many English courses in my time. I have constantly found myself encountering papers that are wide-open to interpretation. Hell, I made an argument that Utopia was about setting up a true hellhole, not anything glorious. It got an “A”. The argument itself was probably wrong, but Sir Thomas More isn’t around to say otherwise, is he? Theologians take the same liberties. They are free to interpret meaning and intention as they see fit. Is it any surprise that theology moves in conjuction with cultures and societal movements (even if it usually lags)?

In short, theology is certainly nothing more than literary criticism. What’s more, literary criticism shouldn’t enjoy an elevated status, especially when it is so narrowly focused. We can all interpret passages. Theologians are just the literate among us with more (narrow) dedication.

What it means to be a theologian

I found this blog post to be very well written and concise.

To understand the effects of religion on a wider scale, it’s absurd to think that reading a holy book would indicate anything beyond a peripheral understanding of the text itself. For behavioural effects, it’s best to look at neuroscience and psychology. For societal effects, there’s sociology and history. Being an accomplished theologian won’t teach anyone about the influence of religion on society, but the social sciences will and that’s the place to look to.

Now consider the parallel with something I actually do care about: gaming. One might ask the question “what are the wider effects of gaming on the individual and their role in the community?” Now if there was a study that showed a trend of violence among gamers, would it be more pertinent to question the controlling factors of the study or whether the psychologist in charge had ever beaten Quake on Nightmare difficulty? If there was a sociological study showing anti-social behaviour increasing among online gamers, would the controlling factors of the study be under question or whether the sociologist’s World of Warcraft character had reached level 80?

The parallel with gaming is there to show that knowing the content of a subject is not an adequate resource to deal with questions not relating to that content. Knowing the back-story of Zelda universe does not make that person any bit qualified to answer questions on behaviour associated with playing the game. Theology won’t answer questions of individual behaviour, it won’t answer question of the wider social effects of group behaviour and how that has happened throughout history. The best way to study the inquisition is to look at the historical evidence, not the bible.

This really is to what this argument boils down. There is often an attempt to discredit anyone who dare suggest the idea of a concerned or even aloof creator is a faulty one. No, it isn’t good enough to say that the notion of a god doesn’t hold up very strongly under scrutiny; it is necessary that we fully understand the specifics of what man has written concerning this notion.

What does reading the bible actually tell us? It’s like any other piece of literature, it has a message that the author(s) intended. Those who are adept at literary analysis would see even further into the book and be able to understand the authors themselves. But for the layman, the bible is a chance to get immersed in the world of the mythology. They are able to emotionally connect with the characters involved and try to understand the motivations associated therein. In essence studying theology has the academic scholarship of studying Lord Of The Rings.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a masterpiece in the fantasy genre, it’s influence today is seen transcending literary fantasy and into the pop culture. Admittedly the adaption to the silver screen helped bring it into the consciousness of an otherwise ignorant mainstream, but it’s success still speaks volumes for it’s quality. It doesn’t stop there either, the appendices, and further books all bring Middle Earth to life and give it a complete mythology.

I personally would have chosen All Quiet on the Western Front, but to each his own. Even if it’s the great literary work that is the Bible.