One of the most common counter-critiques against critics of religion is that we’re going after the easy targets. We go after dogmatic, unsophisticated, literalist versions of religion… while ignoring the more serious, subtle, well- thought- out theologies. (“The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins gets hit with this one a lot.)
I like to call this the “You’re Not Critiquing My Particular Version Of Faith, Therefore Your Critique Is Invalid” fallacy. (I really need a shorter name for it…)
The usual argument against this — and it is a good one — is that the simpler versions of religion are the most common. The overwhelming majority of believers haven’t spent years studying advanced theology, either. Atheists don’t care all that much about religion as it’s taught in divinity schools; we care about religion as it’s practiced in the real world.
They have no problem with rejecting or us rejecting all other religions. Apparently, they and we can reject all those out of hand, but theirs must be given serious consideration, and we are not to stop considering it until we accept it.
To which my own darling Nurse Ingrid replied:
Exactly, OMGF. It’s not like they studied a lot of Greek mythology before deciding they didn’t believe in Zeus.
Which brings me to the hypocrisy part.
There are hundreds of religions in the world. Thousands if you count all the different sects separately. And when you get into dead religions — the Greek gods, the Norse gods, etc. — those numbers go way, way up.
Have these sophisticated theology scholars carefully studied every single one of these religions before rejecting them?
Good theologians do study lots of different religions. But have they studied every single one? And have they studied them in depth, in their most carefully- thought- out, sophisticated forms? Have they spent years studying the advanced theological theories of astrology, of Wicca, of Santeria, of Rastafarianism, of Crowleyan occultism, of that religion that worships the blue peacock?
And if not, then how are they any different from us?
It’s true, most atheists are comfortable rejecting religion with only a decent working knowledge of its more common tenets and practices. But that’s true for the Sophistimicated Theology crowd as well. They reject hundreds, thousands of religions without any more than a cursory knowledge of them, and in many cases without any knowledge at all.
Plus there’s an infinite recursion quality to the “sophisticated theology” argument. Even if you have read serious theology, you haven’t read all of it — so how can you reject it?Â Okay, you’ve read Aquinas… but have you read C.S. Lewis? Okay, you’ve read Lewis… but have you read Teilhard de Chardin? As OMGF put it, we are not to stop considering it until we have accepted it.
And yet, as OMGF also pointed out, this only applies to their religion. Other religions, it’s okay to reject out of hand, or with only a cursory knowledge. But theirs — theirs is special, and it’s unfair for atheists to reject it without spending years studying every aspect of it in detail.
It reminds me of that Richard Dawkins quote: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
Which brings me to a point that gets made a lot in the atheist debates.
It is not up to atheists to prove that religion is wrong.
It is up to theists to prove that religion is right.
They’re the ones making the claim, proposing the hypothesis about the world and why it is the way it is. It’s up to them to support their claim. We’re just saying, “You haven’t made your case. None of the arguments you’ve made in the past have held water, and until you make your case we’re going to stick with our null hypothesis.”
And from what I’ve read of advanced theology (I haven’t read tons, but I have read some), it doesn’t make the case. It doesn’t provide arguments or evidence for why God exists and what his precise effect is on the world. It mostly just uses clever logic and wordplay to explain why it shouldn’t have to; arguing that faith in something you can’t prove is noble and beautiful, or redefining God so far out of the realm of the real world that he might as well not exist.
IÂ do think atheists should have a basic working knowledge of the religions they’re critiquing before they critique them. (And in my experience, most of us do. The atheists I’ve known and read often know more about religious beliefs, are often more familiar with the basic religious texts, then the religious believers they’re debating.)
But unless the sophisticated theology crowd is prepared to drop everything they do and devote the rest of their lives to a careful study of every single religion that has ever existed in the history of humanity — including the most advanced, arcane apologetics for every one — before they reject all other religions and embrace their own, then they are in no position to criticize atheists for forgoing a years-long study of theology before taking that final step, and rejecting that one last god.