Sunday, June 06, 2010

Um, yeah, whatever....

Anthony, in comments below, gives me a heads-up about this: An Atheist’s Guide to What You Need to Know about Theology. This is, of course, kind of like a Creationist's Guide to everything you need to know about Evolutionary theory. And rather like Creationists, who imagine if they know of the 2nd law of Thermodynamics they know all the science they need to refute Darwin, this "guide" rests on the category error of failing to distinguish between questions of theology, and questions of philosophy of religion. Such as, for example, the question of the existence of God; which is the central issue of this "guide:"

Part One. Do you feel the need to argue with a religious believer about why one should instead doubt God? To be effective, learn some theology (see Part Three). If you don't like arguing over God, then you don't need to know anything about theology. Your non-religious worldview is amply justified by common-sense, reason, and science. Relax and let others do any needed arguing.

Part Two. Do you feel the need to argue with religious believers about why religious belief has bad consequences or immoral implications? To be effective, you need to get good at "religious criticism" (rather than just match their opinion against your opinion), and you should acquire a philosophy that has rational standards of what is good/bad and what is moral/immoral (see Part Four). If you don't like arguing over religion gone bad, then you don't need to know anything about theology. Relax and smile at your religious neighbors, so they will wonder how an atheist can be so happy.

Part Three. Next, check whether this religious person is religious basically because this person enjoys their cozy worldview or this person finds religion morally satisfactory. If so, then proceed to Part Four instead. Still here? Then you are dealing with a religious person who could probably give you some frail arguments for why God exists.
Part One already betrays a complete ignorance, not of theology or philosophy, but of religion. Doubt God? Have you read the Psalms? ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?") Job? The prophets? Jonah? The Gospels?


Parts Two and Three is an attempt to re-hash the 19th century arguments about God=morality=whatever society likes. I'll stick to Dostoevsky, thanks; more insightful and far more entertaining on this hoary chestnut. Why, even the film version of The Brothers Karamazov is a better investigation of those issues than this "guide" is. And as for Part Four: please. I'm a theologian and a philosopher of religion, and I can probably summon up better arguments for atheism than this "Guide" can. I won't even give you a "frail argument" for the existence of God, because I consider them all frail. But let's be distinctly clear about this last issue, and distinctly clear about where this "guide" is aimed.

Judaism, I am told, does not have a theology. The concept of theo logos is Greek, not Hebraic, and it's one reason Martin Buber is considered a philosopher, not a Jewish theologian. Islam seems to have a theology, but there is no serious discussion of the existence of God in Islam, at least not one I am aware of. Hinduism? Buddhism? Does anyone think of these when they hear the word "Theology"? And do you attack them by attacking the notion of God's existence? No, of course not. And it's an interesting thing that no one attacks observant Jews for believing in the same God Christians do; no one attacks them for their beliefs, that is. I guess that would seem rude....

Not to wear my heart on my sleeve about the matter, just to point out how truly narrow the vision of this "guide" is. It's aimed at some idea of Christian theology, and probably aimed at Protestant theology and some Roman Catholic theology. Orthodox doctrines are of no interest, and the Copts aren't even on the radar screen. So, are we clear so far?

The question of God's existence came up first among Christian theologians, although variants on the issue were used to condemn Socrates, and led to Aristotle's explanation of a causal universe that required a first cause, lest it be a closed loop with no beginning and no end, and so no cause and effect. But that shows only that the questions came into Christianity through Greece, not through Israel. And while the question intrigued theologians like Anselm and Aquinas, the answers were never the basis for faith, but arose from faith. So, at best, they were tautological; or, as Kierkegaard puts it, illogical:

If, namely the god does not exist, then of course it is impossible to demonstrate it. But if he does exist, then of course it is foolishness to want to demonstrate it, since I, in the very moment the demonstration commences, would presuppose it not as doubtful--which a presupposition cannot be, inasmuch as it is a presupposition--but as decided, because otherwise I would not begin, easily perceiving that the whole thing would be impossible if he did not exist. If, however, I interpret the expression "to demonstrate the existence of the god" to mean that I want to demonstrate that the unknown, which exists, is the god, than I do not express myself very felicitously, for then I demonstrate nothing, least of all an existence, but I develop the definiteness of a concept.
If you at least get the sense of a dog chasing its tail from the excerpt, you are on the right track. Proving the existence of God is a bootless enterprise, And it isn't a theological issue at all. The question of God's existence is a philosophical one; the question of God's nature is a theological one. But contemplating God's nature presupposes God in the first place, and no theologian ever came to the work having reasoned out God's existence without some experience of God that was far more important than the product of any rational analysis. (Consider the example of Aquinas, one of the supreme reasoning minds of the Western world. He had a mystical experience sometime after completing his Summa, and said that all his words were straw in comparison, and he never wrote another word. Did he need to argue a proof for God's existence? Would it have mattered?) Yet the existence of God is the central premise of this "guide," and it purports to explain enough theology to the uninformed to make them experts at destroying the faith of believers. Uh-huh. Kind of like how that 2nd law of thermodynamics just shoots down the whole theory of evolution.

Once again, what puzzles me is why "atheists" care so damned much what other people believe. I don't care that atheists don't share my beliefs; why do they insist I share theirs? Don't tell me it's because "Christians" force their beliefs on you, an atheist. A lot of Christians don't like my theology, either, and would love to force their version of Christianity on me, but I've learned to live with them, and to leave them alone. And as a "guide," I presume that blog post is supposed to lead somebody somewhere. But it's hardly going to provoke the kind of exploration that will lead back to the place of beginning, where it can be known for the first time. In fact, it's just another road to nowhere.

So it goes.


  1. Robert, at first I thought Shook's post was tongue-in-cheek, but apparently he's serious. What he wrote is just plain silly.

  2. Robert, at first I thought Shook's post was tongue-in-cheek, but apparently he's serious. What he wrote is just plain silly.

    I hadn't bothered to read much of that post, to be honest, but when I went back to it, I found this:

    At this point, you won't be arguing over theology anymore, really, because God's existence and powers are being judged by our human needs. It only "sounds" like theology because these theologians have learned all this fancy terminology and need to keep up appearances.

    And this guy bills himself as "a co-editor of three philosophy journals" who "travels for lectures and debates across the United States and around the world."

    Whoo-boy. Those must be scintillating debates.

  3. Once again, what puzzles me is why "atheists" care so damned much what other people believe.

    I think the type we're talking about cares primarily to the extent that they need an opponent in order to "win," and will construct one out of whole cloth if needs be.

    After all, if religion is stupid by definition, then anyone who argues against it must be smart. Or something.

    And as you say, some of this "philosophy" is not entirely unlike evolution or climate denialism...partly in terms of the intellectual short-circuit involved, but mainly 'cause of the burning desire to earn self-esteem points by doing battle with some poor schmuck on the Intertubes.

    Must be great to be able to do without the imaginary consolations that appease the weak-minded, huh?

  4. Must be great to be able to do without the imaginary consolations that appease the weak-minded, huh?

    After Mimi pointed it out to me, I actually read the blog post carefully. He distinguishes between "atheists" (good!) and "apatheists" (bad!). Apparently the latter are "apathetic" (Get it?), because they don't care to proselytize their non-belief.

    Which, as you say, is where it gets really funny. Feh. I'm gonna work on that post on Kierkegaardian "prattle." It's a better waste of my time.

  5. geor3ge11:35 PM

    He seems to play the fundamentalist's game of pitting religion against humanism.

    ...which brought to mind your recent post that "Ideas don't matter. Things don't matter. People matter."

    ...which jogged my memory a bit, so I pulled Hans Küng back off the shelf, and he kindly reminded me that "Christianity and humanism are not opposites."

    ...which just confirms my suspicion that Shook's "theology" is cut from the same straw as Dawkins's.

  6. Apparently the latter are "apathetic" (Get it?), because they don't care to proselytize their non-belief.

    So because they are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, he will spue them out of his mouth?