Why theology is useless

Critics of the new/unapologetic atheist movement frequently chastise us for our supposed lack of awareness of theology. This criticism can come from surprising quarters such as fellow atheist John Shook, director of education for the Center of Inquiry who recently wrote: “Atheists are getting a reputation for being a bunch of know-nothings. They know nothing of God, and not much more about religion, and they seem proud of their ignorance… Astonished that intellectual defenses of religion are still maintained, many prominent atheists disparage theology.”

His article spawned a fierce response, mainly because he did not name or quote a single atheist in support of his charge. Others pointed out that many of the most visible members of the new atheist movement actually do know quite a lot about theology. They just don’t think much of it. That onslaught resulted in Shook issuing a sort of retraction and apology, though still not naming names.

If Shook wants the name of an atheist who disparages theology, he is welcome to use mine because as far as I am concerned, studying theology is a colossal waste of time. For example, just look at the kinds of issues that theologians spend their time on. All their efforts to reconcile their holy books with advancing science lead to similar exercises in futility.

But there are also theoretical reasons why theology is useless and in order to expand on that point, I need to make clear what I mean by the word. If one looks at the Merriam-Webster definition of theology, it says that it is “the study of religious faith, practice, and experience; especially the study of God and of God’s relation to the world.” (Italics in the original.)

It is helpful to split that definition into two parts. The first part ‘the study of religious faith, practice, and experience’ is better labeled ‘religious studies’ and constitutes a credible academic discipline. Religion has undoubtedly played an important role in the history of humanity, and how it originated, is practiced, and its consequences for society are not only important topics of study, but I would go further and argue that they are essential. The second part of the definition, ‘the study of God and of God’s relation to the world’, is what we popularly consider to be theology and is what I consider to be useless for the following three reasons.

The first reason is because it seems pointless to study something whose mere existence has not even been conclusively established. We have no evidence that god exists in the first place and strong reasons to doubt it, so what is the point of studying it? As a parallel, no one would claim that ‘the study of extra-terrestrial aliens and their relation to the world’ is important unless they had first established the actual existence of such aliens. But even if aliens do not exist, studying why so many people believe in them is still worth doing. You can replace aliens with unicorns, leprechauns, ghosts, or any number of imaginary things to make the same point.

The second reason is that theology as ‘the study of God and of God’s relation to the world’ is essentially an attempt to construct a theory of god using the empirical facts of the world as evidence. But any theoretical model of something presupposes that the thing being studied behaves in a law-like manner. For example, we can construct a kinetic theory of gases because the atoms in the gas behave in a law-like way. We can construct a theory of evolution because organisms exhibit law-like patterns of change. We can construct a theory of gravity because freely falling objects have law-like trajectories. The reason that law-like behavior is so important is because it is only then that the resulting evidence has enough systematic features to enable us to inductively assert the existence of an underlying pattern, and thus generate a theory.

But in the case of god, it is asserted that he is not subject to law-like behavior and can do whatever he likes whenever he likes. That is the whole point of being god and why believers say they cannot make any concrete predictions of what he will do in the future. Religious believers stoutly resist any attempt to make god obey laws (whatever the laws are) because they say that then he would not be god. This immediately rules out any possibility of constructing a theory of god. The best that theologians can do is create post-hoc ‘explanations’ of events.

The final reason that there can be no theory of god is because of his supposed uniqueness. Individual people, like god, also act capriciously and unpredictably, so that it is almost impossible to try and create a theory of any single individual in order to predict precisely how he or she will behave. But because we have so many people, we can hope to build statistical models that exhibit law-like behavior of populations, i.e., people in the aggregate. It is like the uncertainty principle in quantum physics. Because of it, we cannot predict with any great confidence the exact moment when any given radioactive atom will decay but if we start with a large number of radioactive atoms, we can predict with great accuracy what fraction of them will decay in any given time interval. The fields of sociology, political science, and economics are examples of fields in which we can build theories of human behavior in the aggregate. But with god we have supposedly a unique entity that can act capriciously. How can one create a theory about such an entity?

This lack of the foundations for creating a theory of god explains why despite thousands of years of effort by a vast number of very clever and dedicated theologians, there is not even the slightest consensus on what god is like. It seems like theology, like a well-stocked God-mart store, can supply any god for any need. You want a stern and even vengeful god who has no compunction about throwing even minor sinners into the torments of hell for eternity? Theology can supply that god. You want a loving god who will forgive and welcome into heaven all but the worst of people? Theology can provide that god too. You need a god who will console you in times of trouble? No problem, they’ve got just the god for you. You need a god who controls every aspect of your life? Theology can provide exactly what you need. You need a god who seemingly chooses to work only through the laws of nature? Yep, they’ve got some of those too. And if you order any one of these gods, they will include free-of-charge a deistic god who created the universe and all its laws at one instant and then retired. But wait, there’s more! If you place your order within the next 24 hours, they will even throw in ‘the ground of all being’ and ‘a plenitude of actuality’! So order now!

Is it any wonder that I think there is no field of study as pointless as theology?

The Catholic Taliban

The Italian government has given the mayors of their towns new powers to help them crack down on crime and ‘anti-social’ behavior. So what does the mayor of the seaside town of Castellammare di Stabia want to use these powers for? To ban mini-skirts, low-cut jeans, sunbathing, playing football in public places, and blasphemy.

Of course, a local Catholic priest approves, because when it comes to upholding the highest standards of morality, the Catholic Church is the first institution that comes to mind, no?

How Adam and Eve killed the dinosaurs

In my earlier post titled Gen fight at the Baptist corral, I discussed the hoo-ha that is currently going on in some religious circles because of William Dembski’s attempt at reconciling the doctrine of original sin with evolution and an old Earth.

The reason that this is a problem for Christians is that they believe that all suffering is due to the fall from grace caused by the original sin of Adam and Eve. If you believe in an old Earth and evolution, then how do you explain the natural disasters and suffering that occurred during the time of our pre-human ancestors? Dembski’s book presumably answered this question but since there was no chance in hell that I would buy that book and read it, I thought his solution would be forever lost to me.

But fortunately there is a blogger (who claims to be also an orthodox Baptist) who has written a detailed review of Dembski’s book with lots of direct quotes and I am now privy to Dembski’s solution which I will share with you, because I am sure that you have been losing sleep worrying over this very question.

Brace yourself for an earthshaking revelation: in Dembski’s world, effects can precede causes!

Here’s how Dembski’s plan works. You start with the big bang and evolution working their way through, all leading up to the time when non-human hominids appeared. All this happened just the way we godless heathens say it happened based on silly old evidence and the laws of science. But “these hominids initially lacked the cognitive and moral capacities required to bear the image of God.” Then at some point, these hominids entered the Garden of Eden, “received God’s image and became fully human” (whatever that means). They then experienced the famous fall from grace and the consequent punishment of suffering that is inflicted on us all.

But here’s the kicker: All the suffering that occurred before that time was due to god applying the punishment retroactively because he knew the fall was going to happen later. So, for example, god punished the poor dinosaurs by sending an asteroid to collide with the Earth and cause all of them to go extinct because sixty five million years later a couple of hominids would wander into a garden and eat some fruit. Doesn’t seem quite fair to the dinosaurs but who are we to questions god’s sense of justice?

At this point, I am sure that some of you are saying, “Hold it right there, Bill. Isn’t that going a bit too far? Surely you realize that abandoning the principle of causality is to deal science a mortal blow? If effects can precede causes, then is anything in science safe? Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

One of Dembski’s critics, fellow Baptist theologian Tom Nettles who thinks a young Earth is the way to go, seems to think this is absurd and compares it to a stern father who spanks his child soundly every Sunday evening because he knows that the child will do something wrong during the coming week and so he might as well get the punishment over with.

The problem with you cynics is that you are not looking at things with the eye of faith. After all, once you have given god the power of omniscience and omnipotence and omnipresence so that he can overrule all the laws of science, why hold back? Why not go the whole hog and give him the power to reverse cause and effect as well? As Dembski’s says, “Why, in the economy of a world whose Creator is omnipotent, omniscient, and transtemporal, should causes always precede effects?” True, that. Once you have demonstrated a willingness to abandon almost all of science, why cling to some trivial remnant of it merely because it poses an obstacle to your theological argument? As the comic strip Jesus and Mo astutely points out, what gives religion its edge is that it is allowed to make stuff up.

The United Negro College Fund has for decades had as its slogan “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” When I think of all the undoubtedly very clever people over the centuries, even millennia, spending enormous amounts of time tying themselves up in intellectual knots to reconcile their allegedly holy books with rapidly advancing science, it truly does seem like a colossal waste. What make it worse is that the people seeking to solve such problems do not seem to realize that the problems they are grappling with are artificial ones of their own creation and are not able to see a simple solution that stares them in the face,

The only upside is that these contortions provide a source of endless entertainment for people like me.

The war on WikiLeaks

As Glenn Greenwald points out, the hatchet job on WikiLeaks and its head Julian Assange has begun with innuendo and character attacks, led by the New York Times, CNN, and the rest of the major media.

Why?

Because they were all cheerleaders for the Iraq war and WikiLeaks is making that war look bad by revealing details of torture, civilian killings, and cover-ups. And Assange also makes the media look bad by breaking stories that they were either did not investigate themselves or did not want to report for fear of losing their access to US and Iraq government officials.

This is why we need to support WikiLeaks.

The ugliness of racism

A homeowner in Missouri put up a Halloween display on their front yard (visible even to motorists going by on interstate I-55) that consisted of a robed and hooded Ku Klux Klan figure standing next to an effigy of a black man hanging from a noose. He seemed to feel that his display showed “white pride”.

What is disturbing about this is not that some people have such attitudes. We surely know that such people exist and will always be among us. What is disturbing is that it is a throwback to an undesirable past when ugly manifestations of racism were blatant and overt. If such incidents start to become more common, it will not reflect well on the political climate that is developing in this country.

New WikiLeaks release

As anticipated, Wikileaks has released over 400,000 new secret documents, this time on the Iraq war. The Guardian report on the leaks says that it has new revelations of deaths and abuses of Iraqis.

As predicted, the anti-Wikileaks propaganda has begun, with the Pentagon saying: “This security breach could very well get our troops and those they are fighting with killed. Our enemies will mine this information looking for insights into how we operate, cultivate sources and react in combat situations, even the capability of our equipment.”

We should bear in mind that similar alarms raised after the previous leaks proved to be highly overblown.

More on the Juan Williams firing

As I have said before, my delight with the firing of Juan Williams was simple. I thought he was a lousy journalist and I was glad not to have to listen to him anymore. But Jason Linkins captures why the firing was so unusual and it is not because of free speech issues:

Yesterday, NPR cashiered correspondent Juan Williams for doing something that had hitherto never been considered an offense in media circles: defaming Muslims. Up until now, you could lose your job for saying intemperate things about Jews and about Christians and about Matt Drudge. You could even lose a job for failing to defame Muslims. But we seem to be in undiscovered country at the moment.

Glenn Greenwald explains that some are expressing outrage because creating anti-Muslim fear is their goal and the NPR action has threatened their drive towards it by making it seem as if bigotry towards Muslims should be treated the same way as bigotry towards any other group.

The double standard in our political discourse — which tolerates and even encourages anti-Muslim bigotry while stigmatizing other forms — has been as beneficial as it has been glaring. NPR’s firing of Juan Williams threatened to change that by rendering this bigotry as toxic and stigmatized as other types. That could not be allowed, which is why the backlash against NPR was so rapid, intense and widespread. I’m not referring here to those who object to viewpoint-based firings of journalists in general and who have applied that belief consistently: that’s a perfectly reasonable view to hold (and one I share). I’m referring to those who rail against NPR’s actions by invoking free expression principles they plainly do not support and which they eagerly violate whenever the viewpoint in question is one they dislike. For most NPR critics, the real danger from Williams’ firing is not to free expression, but to the ongoing fear-mongering campaign of defamation and bigotry against Muslims (both foreign and domestic) that is so indispensable to so many agendas.

That sounds right to me.

James Wolcott has his usual droll but accurate take on the event. He points out that Williams can now fully be the kind of person that Fox News loves, the minority who panders to white resentment by validating their stereotypes about minorities, saying “Well, clearly that day has come and such a relief it must be for Williams, able to capitulate to conservative middle-aged white men without having to fret about whatever flak he might get back home at NPR.”