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Jul 03 2008

Hypocrisy and the “Modern Theology” Argument

God-Delusion
Is it fair for atheists to criticize religion when they haven’t studied theology?

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.

But in a recent Daylight Atheism thread, OMGF (of the charmingly- named Why I Hate Jesus blog) made this point … and I’m smacking myself on the head for not having thought of it myself.

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.

Zeus
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?

Wicca
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? 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.

Simpsons_church_sign_www.txt2pic.com
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.

5_religions
I 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.

23 comments

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  1. 1
    Infophile

    Actually, there is a shorter name for it. You’ve happened on what PZ calls the “Courtier’s Reply.” It’s probably best to let him explain it himself.
    Even with all that he’s said about it, you have hit upon a good new point here with the hypocrisy of this argument. The metaphor PZ used doesn’t extend very well to show this hypocrisy, but it certainly is there in the real world.

  2. 2
    J. J. Ramsey

    Another problem with the Courtier’s Reply as it stands now is that it has become a thought-terminating cliche in response to someone pointing out when Dawkins or Harris have been sloppy with their arguments, as it was in a response to Taner Edis’ critique of them. It’s also a poor analogy in some ways.
    I’ve noticed that the users “‘Modern Theology’ argument” seems to be a bad attempt to explain the flaws of Dawkins and company. It’s as if they sense that Dawkins et al. have pulled a fast one somewhere but they can’t quite put their finger on it, so instead of pointing out, for example, that Dawkins’ TGD contains a non-argument argument against the Trinity that is a chain of falsehoods at worst or poorly written statements at best, we get vague statements about Dawkins’ lack of sophistication.

  3. 3
    efrique

    Thank you Greta.
    Yes, it’s hypocrisy.
    The argument always bothered the heck out of me and I couldn’t state clearly why it was so irritating. I was able to give an argument in the past about them not studying the most sophisticated experts on pink unicorns or leprechauns before rejecting them, which always felt like it was on the right track but lame-ish. The obvious analogy – other religions – is much clearer.

  4. 4
    SteveC

    Saying “you haven’t studied the better arguments”, isn’t, in an of itself, an actual argument. I’m down with PZ’s “Courtier’s reply.”
    If I haven’t studied the “better arguments”, don’t tell me that, instead, make the better argument.
    The better arguments, the finer points of theology, etc. do not exist. They simply do not exist.
    The “good arguments” are terrible, awful, blatantly, insultingly in-your-face retarded, and there is no way for the theist to escape this.

  5. 5
    bugsoup

    Sure, a person could study anything long enough to explain away contradictions within some ancient text, but all that apologetic nonsense does nothing to help us understand the real world. “Modern Theology” is nothing more than the process of trying to make mythology internally consistent. Comic book fans debate their favorites all the time, and some are even experts, but the fact that Superman is internally consistent doesn’t make it true.
    “Well, of course you reject Superman. You start with the assumption that Krypton doesn’t exist. You should be more open minded.”

  6. 6
    aztecknight

    I solve the problem you have nicely laid out by accepting all religions until I have enough evidence in my mind to show them false.
    But I do tend to redefine God. Because my thought of God is that he is a 5 dimensional object moving through our 3 dimensional universe. We can not see the whole thing ever and what we do see changes as he/she/it moves around.

  7. 7
    Dr. Jim

    Greta, a great post (as usual).
    You have really hit the nail on the head. Having studied religion for years as an atheist academic I’ve noticed the changing goalpost game of the “sophisticated” theologians.
    They couch their beliefs in metaphors and abstract, subjective figures about the divine nature. The irony is that to affirm their beliefs in the absolute they often end up playing the postmodernist, generating truth out of subjective feelings about words.
    Basically, what separates the “sophisticated” theologian from the early Christian believer,(or the modern fundamentalist, for that matter), is a 2000 year old talking shop whose basic premises have never really been challenged. To challenge it means one stands outside of it, and therefore, cannot see its truth. It became a self-confirming house of cards supported by tendentious and anachronistic interpretations of key scriptures.
    In short, they are putting the sophist in sophisticated.

  8. 8
    Paul Crowley

    The better arguments, the finer points of theology, etc. do not exist. They simply do not exist.
    It’s a little like the runaround people used to get when they tried to find out what the rules to Mornington Crescent was. You need to read this – but it doesn’t contain the rules, though it talks about them. It refers to that – which you can’t get hold of. That web page seems hopeful – but the link to the rules is a 404.
    An intelligent liberal Christian friend, after debating the issue with me and other atheists close to her, posted to her favourite intelligent liberal Christian website to ask about what the really good arguments for religion were. The resulting thread went on for several pages, but she was very shaken to notice the poverty of the responses she got. From what I know about that community, if these “good arguments” existed, I can’t help but feel they’d have been put there.
    Of course, when I mention this to Christians they say “oh well, you wouldn’t get a good response on that website”, but of course they don’t point out where we *can* find the good answers… and so the Mornington Crescent chase continues.

  9. 9
    terrence

    The next time an “advanced” “subtle” or “sophisticated” Christian tells you that “faith has its place, and science has its place,” you can remind them that the keystone of their religion is an alleged scientific event for which there is no evidence.

  10. 10
    Lynet

    There is one exception to this argument, Greta (and it also applies as a rebuttal to the ‘courtier’s reply’). If Dawkins criticises a specific point of theology, and gets it wrong, then it’s fair enough to criticise him for not knowing enough theology to comment. For example, if he says ‘simultaneous omniscience and omnipotence is impossible’ while ignoring vast amounts of carefully considered definitions of omniscience and omnipotence, some of which get around the problem he notes, then theologians who have studied such problems rightly become irritated by Dawkins’ ignorance of such counter-arguments (which are obvious to them, because they have, after all, spent a lot of time thinking about it).
    This doesn’t change the argument you have given above about null hypotheses and the like, but it does show that, despite the coherence of that larger argument, criticisms of Dawkins’ lack of knowledge of theology can still be justified in some circumstances.
    For further discussion, I point you to this post by a theist whose intellectual honesty I respect.

  11. 11
    Rev. Bob

    Dawkiins doesn’t need to be authoritative in matters of religion. who cares about authorities anyway? His ideas are out there as part of our cultural idea soup, and unlesss somebody can find a factual error, they’re unassailable.
    As to scholarship among Christians, let’s encourage it. The best recruiting tool for atheism is a well studied bible.

  12. 12
    J. J. Ramsey

    Lynet:

    If Dawkins criticises a specific point of theology, and gets it wrong, then it’s fair enough to criticise him for not knowing enough theology to comment.

    And I think that’s what the purported users of the modern theology argument are trying to say. There is also the matter that Dawkins wrote a book where he has dealt with some more esoteric topics, like the ontological argument, and even some less well known Christian philosophers like Richard Swinburne, so he set himself up to look like he was trying to make a stab at discussing sophisticated theology, but didn’t it very well.
    Come to think of it, I’m a bit suspicious about whether there are even any straight arguers of the “modern theology” argument. To put it bluntly, it looks like a strawman of the complaint that Dawkins wrote a half-assed book.

  13. 13
    PasserBy

    An atheist is as closed-minded as any of the religeons that s/he attacks.
    An atheist, without any supportive and scientifically valid evidence, is convinced that God doesn’t exist.
    Atheism is a belief system q.e.d.

  14. 14
    Indigo

    PasserBy,
    Evidently you don’t know much about atheism, nor have you read any substantial number of posts by Greta on this very blog.
    I’ll ignore the part about “any supportive…evidence”, since it’s a rather slow fish in a very small barrel, to quote our dear hostess.
    Atheism isn’t a belief system. It’s not even a belief. At best, one can characterise it as a position about a particular belief. It dictates nothing about how one ought to behave or what other facts are true; it is one possible “plank” in dozens of other belief systems, but it can’t constitute one by itself, any more than “not believing in leprechauns” is a way of life or “non-faith in aliens” is a philosophy.

  15. 15
    Blake

    While I completely agree with the sentiment of this article, the one flaw, if you can call it that, is that a theist can answer as follows:
    “I have studied the sophisticated arguments of my religion, and they prove that my religion is the one true religion. Therefore I do not need to study all of the others to know that they are wrong. Just as I know that 2+2=4, I know 2+2 can never equal 7, or 12, or tomato. If you examined the same arguments I have, you would come to the same conclusion.”
    It is a difficult argument to win logically, as they will just present new arguments. It is the moving of the goalposts every time someone refutes the argument they most recently presented.

  16. 16
    mothworm

    For example, if he says ‘simultaneous omniscience and omnipotence is impossible’ while ignoring vast amounts of carefully considered definitions of omniscience and omnipotence, some of which get around the problem…

    They “get around it” by ignoring or changing the definitions of omniscience and omnipotence, or by making up totally bogus concepts like “foreknowledge”. In other words, cheating. Words mean things.

  17. 17
    questioneverything

    Greta-
    Love your site!
    I actually advanced a similar question at http://doubtingthomas426.wordpress.com/
    and I’ll re post it here, tell me what you think, are atheists simply more courageous? (or worser at speeling and eeenglesh?)
    Original post:
    I have read a bit from many religious texts, though I profess I am not versed in any of them, but nor do I need to be.
    Why is the atheist held to a higher standard than the christian here? why must an atheist be able to quote the book he asserts is inconsistent, and based on falsehoods, when the christian is not expected to know and quote from the koran, the book of mormon, or the scientologist’s book in order to assert that these religions are false?
    Is it that the advocates of the christian book, or any religious book, get around having to try and prove other religions are false because they have some positive information which they can assert is right instead? Darwin’s Origin of Species does not speak to the existence of gods or magics, and I do not use it as a refutation of the christian or any other book. But i find it funny that many religious nuts rail aginst the Theory of Evolution by throwing around scripture. Most haven’t read Origin of Species, either.
    Does the game simply consist of who can pull their book from the stack and place it on top? Does some sort of mystic “last hand on the baseball bat” game, some magical rock, paper, scissors exchange, constitute the validity of any religion?
    This puts the atheist at a natural disadvantage, as we have no “scripture”, no set of positive information, no spiritual trump card which we can play, no “get out of thought free” card in the game of religious monopoly.
    Upon the atheist rests the burden of addressing “mystic” assertions directly, of addressing the actual arguments posed for different gods and magics. The atheist cannot take the logically “passive-aggressive” road of formulating their own equally spurious assertions and stating that these are “more right” than others,, without having to disprove other’s assertions. Atheists must take the courageous road of intellectually honest discussion about religion. We must address other people’s arguments directly and logically, and not allow the “i’m okay, you’re okay” conclusion. There is one logic, which leads to valid, true conclusions for humans. Atheists bear the burden of disproving other’s spurious assertions, we are another type of “dismal scientist”, and like economists, will not be swayed by wishful thinking, even our own.

    Thanks for the forum to post my stuff!
    -Q

  18. 18
    Eric R

    In my experience teaching philosophy of religion, I’ve discovered that critics of religion typically don’t get the real force of the complaint, routinely uttered in response to the angriest criticisms, that these critics are attacking only one species of religion, that their arguments don’t apply to the more “theologically sophisticated versions” of religious faith.
    Part of the problem here is the use of the term “theology,” which suggests an elaboration of doctrine, that is, a way of formulating a belief system that is more precise and nuanced than what the sea of believers are typically able to express. It certainly can be helpful to consider such precise formulations of doctrine, since such formulations often show us that an objection misses the mark (it targets only one theological interpretation of a vague doctrinal claim but doesn’t touch an alternative interpretation).
    But I suspect that when defenders of religion talk about “theologically sophisticated” versions of their faith, they really mean to be talking more about philosophy than about theology. Put simply, the view is that there are ways of being religious that fall within philosophically defensible parameters, and there are ways of being religious that don’t. And these philosophically defensible parameters are not specific to one religion, but are a general framework which says, in effect, that if your life is going to be defined in part by efforts to connect with the transcendent (broadly construed), there are parameters for doing so that you must stay within if you are going to be a morally sensitive and intellectually responsible human being.
    What the defenders of religion are trying to say is this: Some versions of religious faith fall within such parameters, even if much that goes by the name of religion does not. They are not trying to say that critics should study in detail the most subtle theology of their faith, and that they are unqualified to criticize the faith until they do so. Rather, they are trying to say that critics should have a clear understanding that (a) there are parameters, defined by philosophical reflection on what it means to be moral and reasonable, within which a religious life may fall; and (b) there are actual examples of religious lives which fall within these parameters. They are not saying that every religious critic must study in exacting detail all the doctrinal clarifications and theological disputations of every religion. What they are saying is that they should look carefully at the philosophical arguments that have been made in support of (a) and (b), and that until they have done so they are not really justified in asserting that religion in some broad sense is irrational and/or immoral.
    In short, objections to “religion” that fail to consider the philosophical case for (a) and (b) are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water. More importantly, these objections may be invalid insofar as they profess to target religion in general for its failure to measure up to moral and rational requirements—they will be invalid precisely to the extent that there are ways of being religious that do measure up to these requirements every bit as well as do some ways of being atheistic.

  19. 19
    A.V.

    My biggest problem with Christians is that they say ‘If you accept Jesus, you will be saved.’ But accepting Jesus is done by your life, not by your mouth. Saying it is not enough. Only a small percentage of people will get to heaven, even though a large percentage say they believe in Jesus.
    (URL removed and author name edited due to commercial content. -GC)

  20. 20
    d.m.

    I like the tone of this post. We don’t need the Bible to tell us right from wrong.
    (URL removed and author name edited due to commercial content. -GC)

  21. 21
    Paul Crowley

    Eric R:
    WHERE IS THE MEAT?
    Once again, I’m reading vague references to an argument somewhere that we should be refuting, exactly as I pointed out in my comment of July 04, 2008. WHERE IS IT? Point me to these sophisticated arguments, or get the hell off the bus.

  22. 22
    Nathanael

    “Put simply, the view is that there are ways of being religious that fall within philosophically defensible parameters,”
    Yes. The ones which deny faith, deny doctrine, and deny obedience. The problem is, are those “religious”? Good question. Religion is not a well-defined term. They are exceedingly rare in practice.

  23. 23
    Nathanael

    Oh, and, um, they’re all atheistic.

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