‘Not My Theology’ and Hypocrisy

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 16, 2010 in General Atheism

In an earlier post, I differentiated three religious responses to critiques from atheism.

First, the Courtier’s Reply. When Richard Dawkins gave an argument for why no Creator God could exist, many of his critics did not address his argument but rather complained that Dawkins was not familiar with sophisticated theologies about grace and salvation. But this Courtier’s Reply misses the whole point. If no Creator God exists, then no theology of grace or salvation is true.

Second, the ‘Not My Theology’ reply. When an atheist argues against the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving God, a believer may reply, “But that’s not my concept of God!” (For example, he may agree with Rabbi Kushner that God isn’t all-powerful.) This reply can be legitimate, but it also misses the point. If you don’t believe in the God the atheist is arguing against, then your God isn’t the target. The atheist is targeting the kind of God believed in by over a billion people worldwide. He may also have an argument against your God, but that’s a different topic.

Third, the ‘Straw man!’ reply. Let’s say I argue that a good God would never command genocide as recorded in the Old Testament. Believers who don’t accept the authenticity of those passages often reply, “You’re attacking a straw man!” when they should really be saying, “Well, yes, millions of people do believe that, it’s just not what I believe.” The atheist is not attacking a straw man when he aims his attacks at millions of people who do believe in precisely the God he is attacking.

But there’s another question worth asking:

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

OMFG points out:

[Believers] have no problem with rejecting… all other religions [without studying them]. Apparently, they and we can reject all those out of hand, but their’s must be given serious consideration, and we are not to stop considering it until we accept it.

Nurse Ingrid adds:

Exactly, OMGF. It’s not like they studied a lot of Greek mythology before deciding they didn’t believe in Zeus.

So I have some questions for the believer who complains that many atheists have rejected Christianity before studying many sophisticated works of apologetics.

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{ 85 comments… read them below or add one }

Dangerous Variable April 16, 2010 at 6:13 am

How do we know that there is no god? How can we be for certain that there is no God like the religious people are certain that there is a God.

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rvkevin April 16, 2010 at 6:15 am

“How far do you need to read into Harry Potter before you realize it is fiction?”-anonymous

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Chris April 16, 2010 at 6:21 am

Even better, do most people study the thousands of alternative theologies of different Christian denominations before they reject them and convert to one particular denomination?

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Mark April 16, 2010 at 6:21 am

My favorite example is Holocaust denial. Everyone recognizes it as absurd, but dedicated white supremacists have constructed an extremely elaborate body of literature around disputing all the evidence for the Holocaust in great detail.

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RA April 16, 2010 at 6:23 am

Not a bad question Dangerous. I’m not sure that there is no God. But where does that get us?

Do we decide that God is the Old Testament God or the New Testament God or a Deist type of God or Allah or Zeus or that there are several Gods or that God is unknowable in which case we are right back where we started.

If we can’t believe in a specific God, we don’t really believe in any God. We just don’t know. Which God are you going to choose and why?

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Steve Maitzen April 16, 2010 at 6:33 am

Luke: Nice post on an important topic. I confess I’ve not read Rabbi Kushner, whose reply to the problem of evil (namely, “God isn’t all-powerful”) you say “can be legitimate.” I doubt, though, that there’s any principled way of hedging one of God’s traditional attributes rather than another as a reply to the problem of evil. Why not say, instead, that God isn’t all-knowing or isn’t all-good? Either of those latter trade-offs is just as compatible with the evidence provided by suffering. Once you begin retreating from the “tri-omni” conception of God, I can’t see any non-arbitrary place to stop. Indeed, once you hedge one of the tri-omni attributes, why think God has either of the others?

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Mike aka MonolithTMA April 16, 2010 at 7:14 am

Good stuff, Luke. I think it’s important to know specifically what we are arguing for or against, too often we end up tripping over baggage that need not even be in the way.

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Martin April 16, 2010 at 7:20 am

We all recognize the fallacious reasoning in creationists when they dismiss evolution by attacking Haeckel’s embryos and the Piltdown Man, without even considering the newer and better evidence for evolution.

Similarly, Dawkins dimisses theism by attacking Anselm’s original ontological argument while ignoring newer modal versions, and brushes away Aquinas’ original arguments without once addressing Kalam or anything newer and better. In fact, he even says “The design argument is the only one still in use today.” !!!!!!! The rest of the chapter is spent attacking the weakest arguments for theism: personal experience and Pascal.

DAWKINS IS REASONING EXACTLY LIKE A CREATIONIST! HE HAS BECOME WHAT HE LOATHES!

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Justfinethanks April 16, 2010 at 7:30 am

I especially hate the “strawman” charge when you point out the ridiculousness of Young Earth Creationism.

“That’s hardly fair,” they say, “I accept mainstream scientific findings and am a Christian.”

Well great, but if you are a protestant in America and accept mainstream science, that makes on the outer fringe of Christians. Almost all US Christians believe that Christianity necessitates a rejection of an Old Earth and Evolution. I don’t see how attacking something that most people who identify themselves as Christians believe constitutes a “strawman.”

http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1105/darwin-debate-religion-evolution

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Haecceitas April 16, 2010 at 8:13 am

It is fair for atheists to criticize religion even without having studied theology. It’s just that some of them may be unwilling to admit ignorance even when it’s relevant to the arguments they are making. For example, Dawkins’ presentation of his central argument displays a total lack of understanding as to what are the theological and philosophical resources within the philosophical traditions of theism that a defender of any such tradition is likely to draw on when rebutting Dawkins’ argument (God’s necessity, simplicity, etc). In Dawkins’ case, there’s also his insistence that theology is in fact a non-subject. This can be seen as a justification for intellectual laziness that is hardly appropriate for someone who wants to be taken seriously as a critic of religion.

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Briang April 16, 2010 at 8:25 am

To answer Luke’s question, there are many thing I haven’t studied that I also don’t believe. But here’s the thing. I also don’t go around blogging about them, holding or attending conventions about them, writing books about them, and I don’t join political activist groups against them. If I made it my mission in life to criticize flat earthiers, I would want to study what I was criticizing. That just makes sense.
There are certainly many people who fall under the broad category of “non-religious” who do not blog, write books, or attend atheist conventions, etc. These people usually are not the ones Christians encounter as “atheists”. Some of them could be described as atheists, since they lack belief in God, although they often don’t use the term themselves. Others believe in some sort of God or “higher-power” or spirituality, but oppose institutional religions. Others haven’t though about it enough to know what they think about the topic.

I think Luke’s defense could be applied to this “non-religious” group; however, I think when Christians criticize atheists they are thinking of the ones that are blogging and writing books, not the fuzzy “non-religious” category which don’t have conventions or books.

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Zeb April 16, 2010 at 8:34 am

The atheist critiques you mention don’t do anything more than refine the understanding of what God must be like, if he does exist. They have all been used by theists for that purpose already.

On your later questions, there is a difference between declining to believe in some body of propositions, and attacking them with the intention of defeating them. I don’t believe in the flat earth, but I don’t go around saying that there is no good argument for a flat earth and anybody who believes in it is an idiot or a liar.

As to the other faiths, I have studied Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism from an unaffiliated position and found reasons to prefer Christianity. But I also found that most common understandings of those religions are false, and so are most reasons for rejecting them. And so I acknowledge that my own reasons for rejecting them may be more due to misunderstanding than to faults in the religions and I am open to finding them to be more truthful.

However, many religious people who have actually sought true belief land where they do as a result of some sort of epiphany, not as a result of arguments for and against each faith. We reject the other religions by default, not because we believe we have good reasons to attack them as false. I think atheists are barred from that kind of defense to the “you reject what you don’t even understand” criticism.

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Hermes April 16, 2010 at 8:37 am

How do we know that there is no god? How can we be for certain that there is no God like the religious people are certain that there is a God.

Depends on the god(s) being claimed.

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Derrida April 16, 2010 at 8:53 am

It’s fair to criticize religion without knowing theology if you’re criticizing it for non-theological reasons, i.e. saying that religion is harmful to society, or unscientific.

I don’t really see why atheists who are criticizing religion need to use theology when the premise of religions, that there are supernatural beings, can be criticized philosophically.

Sure, atheists who criticize religion philosophically need to be aware of objections to the argument from suffering, or the argument from non-belief, but they can be summed up and dispatched easily. The religionist’s appeal to obscure theological literature is really just hand waving.

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MauricXe April 16, 2010 at 8:54 am

My favorite example is Holocaust denial. Everyone recognizes it as absurd, but dedicated white supremacists have constructed an extremely elaborate body of literature around disputing all the evidence for the Holocaust in great detail.  

Frightening.

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thePowerofMeow April 16, 2010 at 9:08 am

I think there is a difference between an atheist criticizing theism amongst friends and an atheist launching a systematic attack on theism in a public format.

If the latter is not educated on the system he is criticizing, he risks making irrelevant arguments, reinventing the wheel, perhaps even looking a bit foolish. And as a popularizer, he is not educating as fully as he might – if that is his goal.

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Atheist.pig April 16, 2010 at 9:09 am

Dawkins is just trying to persuade the average religious person who hasn’t really thought about the issue in any real depth before, he doesn’t waste his time with Craig et al’s arguments. Apparently this has proved very successful with people in the “middle ground” as Dawkins calls them.

One or two comments on this thread are thoroughly ridiculous, comparing Dawkins to the fundies because he doesn’t take on “particular” sophiticated irrationalities. The mans a master in game theory, he’s calculated his odds, and chosen to go for “richer pastures”, to give these people he talks about an alternative world view to the one their peer group or society indoctrinated them in.

He has said this explicitly numerous times before, I don’t see how arguing with Craig about the “Kalam” argument would make any difference what so ever with what he’s trying to achieve.

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ayer April 16, 2010 at 9:58 am

In regard to the flat earth and geocentrism, most people reject those based on the authority of modern science (perhaps you can make an argument that they shouldn’t, but it seems reasonable to me to accept authority on empirical scientific matters instead of having to conduct the experiments yourself–though “climategate” has probably damaged that authority to some extent).

In regard to other religions, the vast majority of Christians reject other religions based on the positive fact of their belief in the truth of Christianity; if Christianity is true, than the other religions are by definition false (at least where those other religions make truth claims that contradict Christian truth claims). And since Christians are warranted in their belief in a properly basic way by the internal witness of the Holy Spirit (as Craig and Plantinga have explained), there is no need to construct an elaborate apologetic case for their Christianity or conduct a detailed investigation of all other belief systems.

Atheists, however, as they are fond of pointing out, are not making a positive case for any belief; so they would be obligated to investigate all other beliefs in detail before being justified in rejecting all the other belief systems.

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Bill Maher April 16, 2010 at 10:23 am

Ayer, all an atheist has to do is warrant to some b.s. system too and Christianity is counted out (Marxism, etc..)

I would say that everything you are saying is because of alienation from your species being and is nothing more than ideology used by the bourgeoisie.

The struggle between worker and master has been instilled in our species-being and we can feel it in our hearts as it points us to the glorious revolution. Science, religion, art, are all ideology that are blinding you from the struggle to end history.

You see how dumb that sounds?

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Fortuna April 16, 2010 at 10:35 am

ayer:

it seems reasonable to me to accept authority on empirical scientific matters instead of having to conduct the experiments yourself–though “climategate” has probably damaged that authority to some extent

Eh? How is that supposed to work? The scientists involved have been cleared of any wrongdoing.

And since Christians are warranted in their belief in a properly basic way by the internal witness of the Holy Spirit (as Craig and Plantinga have explained),

My understanding was that Craig and Plantinga have explained how Christian belief could plausibly be warranted if Christianity were true, that is to say, if there were such a thing as the Holy Spirit in the first place.

Atheists, however, as they are fond of pointing out, are not making a positive case for any belief; so they would be obligated to investigate all other beliefs in detail before being justified in rejecting all the other belief systems.

They would be if they weren’t advocating a skeptical, evidentialist approach to knowledge.

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Hansen April 16, 2010 at 10:39 am

And since Christians are warranted in their belief in a properly basic way by the internal witness of the Holy Spirit (as Craig and Plantinga have explained), there is no need to construct an elaborate apologetic case for their Christianity or conduct a detailed investigation of all other belief systems.

Shorter version: Whatever feels right, is right.

That’s nothing more than a cop-out that can be used by anybody to justify any claim they wish without ever considering if there is any truth to that claim.

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Martin April 16, 2010 at 10:41 am

Atheist.pig,

I mean, if you don’t think a position is true, and to support your position you only address the weakest and oldest arguments for that position while ignoring newer better ones, then you’re doing exactly what creationists do. Period.

This is biased reasoning, plain and simple.

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Jeremy April 16, 2010 at 10:43 am

I don’t write books about things I haven’t studied. I reject flat-earth theories, but if I were to write a book denouncing it, I’d study the issue first. Dawkin’s being criticized because he’s the poster boy for atheism and he’s ignorant on the issue.

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rvkevin April 16, 2010 at 10:46 am

ayer:
Eh? How is that supposed to work? The scientists involved have been cleared of any wrongdoing.

The damage is done. You can thank Fox News. Not to mention that them being cleared probably didn’t make the TV or if it did, received much less air time , so anyone who heard before aren’t being corrected and are still influenced by the allegations.

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Hansen April 16, 2010 at 11:02 am

I mean, if you don’t think a position is true, and to support your position you only address the weakest and oldest arguments for that position while ignoring newer better ones, then you’re doing exactly what creationists do. Period.This is biased reasoning, plain and simple.  

No, it’s simply trying not to drag people into ivory-tower philosophy that nobody in the real world cares about – including most theists.

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Reginald Selkirk April 16, 2010 at 11:02 am

If you don’t believe in the God the atheist is arguing against, then your God isn’t the target.

Which reminds me of this article on science and religion:
How Scientists Misunderstand Religious People
by Elaine Howard Ecklund

As the film ended, discussion began. I watched incredulously as some of the scientists in the room basically confirmed Olson’s* accusations. They erupted with totalizing criticisms of religion and religious people, calling them “stupid fundamentalists,” oblivious to the fact that there were religious people—even religious scientists—seated in the room.

* Randy Olson, who made the film A Flock of Dodos

If the scientists were commenting on fundamentalists, why should non-fundamentalist theists feel targeted?

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Hermes April 16, 2010 at 11:36 am

Haecceitas:In Dawkins’ case, there’s also his insistence that theology is in fact a non-subject.

I don’t care much about Dawkins’ arguments, but I do have a question that is related to this.

Here’s the question;

What specific knowledge or practice has been gained/discovered/developed in the last 100 years in the field of Theology?

Note that I’m interested in knowledge or practices that are not limited to a specific sect, or even to Christianity alone, but something that can be broadly applied to differing theological areas and is also generally accepted. A couple analogies;

* A business practice created in the financial sector might be adopted by an accounting group or by a large plumbing contractor.

* A new composite material created in the aerospace industry might be used to make light weight electric motors for automobiles, or the diaphragm in a wall mounted speaker used in a home stereo.

I contend that if there are no innovations — no new knowledge or at a minimum practices — then theology is effectively a dead subject even if it has the potential to theoretically be a vibrant one.

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matt April 16, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Hermes,

your requirements for a ‘living subject’ are too stringent. Such constraints would have to apply to any number of things that are more ‘obviously’ true than theology. I don’t think that theology works well in an instrumentalist sense, or is meant to.

Furthermore, what you’ve said might be used as a little aside against the whole ‘hiddenness of God argument.’ If God does exist He has been good enough to make it plain, then theology should only be refined through time, rather than be ‘new’ in the way you describe. If theology was so innovative it would just go to prove the low probability of God’s existence. I wouldn’t stake a whole argument on what I’ve just said, I only mean to point out the problems with your statement.

-

In reference to the original post, and I know others have said this, I think, Luke, that you do unfairly rule out the possibility of refinement in theology. I’d also say that the straw man accusation would still stand, if you were debating with a specific person, wouldn’t it? You are supposed to be engaging them and their theology. Beyond that, attacking the weakest form of an argument is not necessarily burning a straw man, but it does look like the attacker is compensating for something. Also, and this is in agreement with you (i think), the statement ‘Not my God’ seems to imply that there is a different god for every theology. It’s a strange way of ignoring what would be the best description of reality should God exist. Namely, that people are correct to varying degrees concerning God (there would be a spectrum of correctness, then, from athiest to pagan to monotheist – or vice versa if He doesn’t exist – and we’d all fall somewhere along the line, depending on the day).

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Haecceitas April 16, 2010 at 12:51 pm

“What specific knowledge or practice has been gained/discovered/developed in the last 100 years in the field of Theology?”

There are various subdisciplines under the general heading of “Theology”, such as New Testament Studies, Church History, Systematic Theology, etc. I suppose this question can’t be about any discovery or new practise whatsoever that have emerged within these areas of study, since that would be trivially easy to answer (any new historical reconstruction, new interpretation of a text, developments in the methods of study within these subjects, etc. would qualify – and there are plenty of those). So the question should be understood as limiting the scope of what can be allowed as legitimate “discoveries” further than that. But how exactly?

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Steven April 16, 2010 at 2:09 pm

It’s one thing to reject T, another thing to criticize T. It may not be right for you to criticize T without properly studying it, but it isn’t obviously wrong for you to reject T without properly studying it.

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lukeprog April 16, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Interesting distinction, Steven.

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ayer April 16, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Ayer, all an atheist has to do is warrant to some b.s. system too and Christianity is counted out (Marxism, etc..)

That’s actually a good point; a Marxist has a positive case to make, which, if true, rules out all religions without investigating the individual claims of each religion in a detailed, evidentialist way. But that doesn’t help the person who claims atheism is merely unadorned lack of belief, a lack of belief justified because all other belief systems fail the test of skeptical evidentialism. Such a person is under an obligation to examine every single belief system ever derived to determine if it fails the skeptical, evidentialist standard and can thus be ruled out. The Marxist bears only the burden of establishing the truth of his system (no easy task, since it took Marx and ungodly number of mind-numbing pages to do so in Das Kapital), not the specific refutation of all other systems. The Christian, whose knowledge is immediate and noninferential, bears no evidentialist burden whatsoever (except to the extent he wishes to “show” his belief is true to a nonbeliever, as opposed to “knowing” his belief is true, which is based in proper basicality).

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Steven April 16, 2010 at 3:40 pm

I don’t know if your remark is sarcastic or not, but thanks Luke. It just seemed like an obvious distinction to make in this situation.

Countless many Christians may not be wrong in rejecting Hinduism, or whatever; but if they don’t know anything about the system, they’d be doing wrong (or at least look stupid) in trying to criticize it. So also with atheists who reject Christianity–they may not be doing anything wrong in rejecting it without knowing much about it, but they would be doing something wrong (or at least look stupid) in criticizing unsophisticated versions of it.

I should say that it may even be improper or immature to reject T without properly studying it, unless you have it on good authority that P, where P ⊃ ~T. If I reject scientific anti-realism but don’t know anything about the realism/antirealism debate, I should think either I’m doing something wrong or I had better not hold my views very firmly, lest I be improperly dogmatic. It seems like in subjects where you are generally pretty ignorant of the relevant facts, you either should remain agnostic or else not believing anything firmly, one way or the other.

But then for all Christians, they have it on good authority that Yahweh is the only God, which means they don’t need to properly study religions inconsistent with the existence of Yahweh in order to reject them [assuming Christianity is true]. In fact, if Christianity were true, it probably would be their duty to reject other religions. So if Christianity is true, then Christians wouldn’t be doing anything wrong.

Whether or not Christians are wrong to reject other religions without studying them, then, depends upon whether or not the religion is true.

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lukeprog April 16, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Steven,

No, not sarcastic.

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Hermes April 16, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Haecceitas, this will be reasonably brief and incomplete as I am in the middle of writing a more specific reply to Matt. If you have any questions, please wait and take a look at that future reply first before responding to this message. (I might be wrong or missing something important even after I post that reply, of course.)

Haecceitas: There are various subdisciplines under the general heading of “Theology”, such as New Testament Studies, Church History, Systematic Theology, etc.

…and Hindu Theology (and subgroups), Muslim Theology (…), … and even Comparative Theology. The last one would be an example of something that might have an answer. Harvard has a journal, though I just noticed it.

Point being: The emphasis was on new knowledge or practices that were available outside of sectarian concerns, and (better) available outside of the main umbrella of Theology as well as is the case with most other general fields/disciplines/professions/… .

I suppose this question can’t be about any discovery or new practise whatsoever that have emerged within these areas of study, since that would be trivially easy to answer (any new historical reconstruction, new interpretation of a text, developments in the methods of study within these subjects, etc. would qualify – and there are plenty of those). So the question should be understood as limiting the scope of what can be allowed as legitimate “discoveries” further than that. But how exactly?

Limited scope? No. Quite the opposite. I was asking about general use throughout Theology or (better) outside the field of Theology and into other general fields/disciplines/professions/… .

For example: A finding of a biologist that it takes a specific amount of time for a body to decompose (if at all) in different areas of the world is generally useful when the topic is the narrow study of different bacteria, worms, insects, and larger carnivores. Tweak that to assist an anthropologist, and the same raw data can be used throughout that field in different instances. Tweak it again, and the field of Forensic Anthropology is both more capable in academic circles as well as in law enforcement and even to the point of determining the outcome of criminal cases handled by specialists in local, regional, national, and international criminal investigations. The knowledge and procedures gathered in those utilitarian professions can flow back to the more academic users of that data.

Additionally, as was briefly mentioned before and I will expand on briefly here, an organizational practice (Example: CMM (software)) can be extended from one narrow industry into many industries (Example: CMM ==> CMMI (covers many business areas)), and even in the narrow form (Example: CMM) is not limited to one type of business, government, or non-business organization.

Theology doesn’t seem to leave the self-imposed theological ghetto.

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Martin April 16, 2010 at 7:36 pm

Hansen,

No, it’s simply trying not to drag people into ivory-tower philosophy that nobody in the real world cares about – including most theists.

Reverse that and see if it makes any sense. A creationist writes “The Evolution Delusion.” They devote a chapter to examining the evidence for evolution. They talk about Piltdown Man, and Haekel’s embryos, and refute each one of them. That’s it. Then when asked why they do not address the better and more recent evidence for evolution, they state that they are not trying to drag people into ivory-tower science that nobody in the real world cares about.

What would you think of that person?

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matt April 16, 2010 at 8:10 pm

I was just talking to my wife about this here comment thread and realised that I really didn’t like my own statement , ‘Such constraints would have to apply to any number of things that are more ‘obviously’ true than theology.’ I saw that Hermes is planning on responding, so I don’t want to preempt anything else. That statement just doesn’t make any sense to me when I think about it. I’d rather say that there are many things, including atheism, that inform a worldview that could arguably fit Hermes’ definition of dead.

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rvkevin April 16, 2010 at 8:17 pm

What would you think of that person?  

If the target audience believes in evolution for those reasons, then they are doing a great service. If they don’t believe in evolution for those reasons, then his criticisms are off the mark. You would need to establish that the target audience believe in their particular sect for the ivory tower reasons rather than the reasons Dawkin’s criticized in his book to say that he was off the mark.

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Hermes April 16, 2010 at 8:20 pm

Matt, feel free to offer any additions, tweaks, or revisions. I promise to post any interesting parts I currently have even if they become redundant or even silly after your changes.

As things are now, it looks like I won’t be able to post my reply for 8 hours if not 15 or more. Oh, the horrors of actually having a life.

On that note, good night.

FWIW, the current rough draft response to you is coming in at ~800+ words. (None of it scathing or sarcastic.)

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matt April 16, 2010 at 8:27 pm

awesome!

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Briang April 16, 2010 at 8:53 pm

Another consideration. Dawkins and company are promoting atheism on the basis of the idea that atheism is intellectually superior to religious belief. They want to promote science, reason, and critical thinking. Because of this, I think it’s perfectly fair to criticize them for not being educated in the reasons for God or Christianity.

Now, if they promoted atheism on some other basis, my criticism would be different. If Dawkins had said that I should become an atheist because it’s sexy, I wouldn’t be complying so much that he is uneducated, but that he isn’t sexy.

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Hansen April 16, 2010 at 9:25 pm

Hansen,
Reverse that and see if it makes any sense. A creationist writes “The Evolution Delusion.” They devote a chapter to examining the evidence for evolution. They talk about Piltdown Man, and Haekel’s embryos, and refute each one of them. That’s it. Then when asked why they do not address the better and more recent evidence for evolution, they state that they are not trying to drag people into ivory-tower science that nobody in the real world cares about.What would you think of that person?  

I see no reversal in your argument. I see comparing apples and oranges. One is a couple of infamous hoaxes that were never in any way central to the evidence for evolution. The other is the central design argument from personal incredulity that essentially hasn’t changed in hundreds (if not thousands) of years.

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TaiChi April 16, 2010 at 10:13 pm

Dawkins and company are promoting atheism on the basis of the idea that atheism is intellectually superior to religious belief. They want to promote science, reason, and critical thinking. Because of this, I think it’s perfectly fair to criticize them for not being educated in the reasons for God or Christianity.

Why do you suppose that they are not educated in these things? There’s much sophistication they don’t address, granted, but it seems rather unfair to tar them as ignorant, especially when their books obviously address popular theism.

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Haecceitas April 16, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Haecceitas, this will be reasonably brief and incomplete as I am in the middle of writing a more specific reply to Matt.If you have any questions, please wait and take a look at that future reply first before responding to this message.

I’ll make just one brief observation before that. When you think about the criteria that you employ with regard to Theology when evaluating whether it’s a legitimate subject of study, I think you should also consider what other subjects might be disqualified by the same criteria. Large areas within Humanities, for example, might be under the threat of being relegated to the category of “non-subject” by the same criteria.

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Beelzebub April 17, 2010 at 2:13 am

The Christian, whose knowledge is immediate and noninferential, bears no evidentialist burden whatsoever (except to the extent he wishes to “show” his belief is true to a nonbeliever, as opposed to “knowing” his belief is true, which is based in proper basicality).

In addition to Bill Maher’s response to this, there’s the view that what one person internally experiences should be accessible to all human beings. However, I and many others, can’t testify to the internal experience of God, therefore a contradiction. It’s incumbent on those advancing this idea to explain why others don’t seem to have the same perception as they do. Without introducing some kind of Calvinistic predestination, the idea that some people simply can’t experience God, while others can, I don’t see how this is going to be explained.

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Fortuna April 17, 2010 at 10:51 am

ayer:

That’s actually a good point; a Marxist has a positive case to make, which, if true, rules out all religions without investigating the individual claims of each religion in a detailed, evidentialist way. But that doesn’t help the person who claims atheism is merely unadorned lack of belief, a lack of belief justified because all other belief systems fail the test of skeptical evidentialism. Such a person is under an obligation to examine every single belief system ever derived to determine if it fails the skeptical, evidentialist standard and can thus be ruled out.

You seem to be implying that skeptics should consider “every single belief system ever derived” to be true until proven false.

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Atheist.pig April 17, 2010 at 11:39 am

A philosopher is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there. A theologian is the man who finds it.

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ayer April 17, 2010 at 12:25 pm

You seem to be implying that skeptics should consider “every single belief system ever derived” to be true until proven false.

No, just that every belief system would have to be examined in a detailed, evidential way to determine whether it is true or not.

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ayer April 17, 2010 at 12:30 pm

there’s the view that what one person internally experiences should be accessible to all human beings.

Why is that? Some access this truth noninferentially, and others do not.

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Hermes April 17, 2010 at 2:37 pm

No, just that every belief system would have to be examined in a detailed, evidential way to determine whether it is true or not.

Nonsense. Lack of belief is not a positive claim. It’s not even a definitive claim. It’s a statement of belief, not a claim of knowledge.

If someone — anyone — makes a claim, though, the claims require the burden of proof. In many instances, that burden is lifted by convention because people do not care for it to be addressed. That doesn’t eliminate that burden, though.

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ayer April 17, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Nonsense. Lack of belief is not a positive claim. It’s not even a definitive claim. It’s a statement of belief, not a claim of knowledge.

I am agreeing with you. Atheists have a lack of belief because they say no religious belief system meets their threshold of evidence. But to maintain that stance, they must examine every religious belief system in detail to see if it fails to meet that threshold.

Since Christians have a positive belief (not a lack of belief) that by definition excludes all conflicting religious belief systems, they need make no such investigation of all other belief systems. And if the Christian is not voluntarily attempting to show an atheist the truth of his belief, he need not muster any evidence to be justified in treating his belief as knowledge, since justification of properly basic beliefs is not rooted in evidence and argument.

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Justfinethanks April 17, 2010 at 6:42 pm

But to maintain that stance, they must examine every religious belief system in detail to see if it fails to meet that threshold.

Not really, because the details are irrelevant if the broader claims aren’t warranted. For example, I find the evidence for God insufficient, having examined many of the stock arguments for existence of such a being. If God does not exist, I am justified in rejecting the Miwok religion as false, even if I know nothing about it besides that it believes in a creator God (which happens to also be a Coyote.) If the Miwok religion is false in that claim, I need not bother with the finer details.

Since Christians have a positive belief (not a lack of belief) that by definition excludes all conflicting religious belief systems, they need make no such investigation of all other belief systems.

That’s a good point. The Christian rejects the Miwok religion because it makes claims that are mutually exclusive from Christianity (such as the non-coyote nature of God). However, it doesn’t really apply to all the examples Luke provided. For example, there is no inherent contradiction between belief in Christianity and belief in Geocentrism. Given that, is the Christian justified in rejecting Geocentrism even before examining arguments offered by geocentrists?

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matt April 17, 2010 at 6:52 pm

I think ayer is making a pretty unavoidable point. I see a lot of other people saying, ‘well you have to prove God exists, because you’re making a positive claim.’ that’s a perfectly acceptable thing to say in an argument, and likely the truest thing to be said in a debate (also, I’m really not interested in arguing for the existence of God, I figure, if He’s there, He’ll get your attention whenever He pleases. I’m more interested in the reasoning going on in the debate).

Ayer would be correct, though, in stating that the atheist puts themselves in a position of having to know every shred of evidence available in order to maintain atheism, as opposed to agnositicism. The burden of proof may turn out to not be nearly as great as the burden of knowledge (listen to the latest radiolab episode, it’s a mindfrak!). That is, if the atheist is a logical positivist (am I using that term correctly? I hope what I mean still comes across). The atheist could back out of the whole argument at that point by saying, “Well, that’s not my epistemology.”

In the end, I think the most reasonable thing to be said would be, ‘I’m not sure about God as defined by a particular belief system, and I’d want to see more data before I jump to making up my mind.’ It’s a huge logical leap from ‘there’s evidence against such and such a god’ to there is no god of any kind, and an even bigger one from a simple lack of evidence. No matter how badly a person wants to be right, they should concede when they are making a jump that no self-respecting computer ever would.

Also, why do people keep on saying atheism is not a belief system. It’s only a ‘lack of belief.’ Really? That’s not what the word means. It’s strange to put so much value on empirical evidence and then think it’s ok to fudge the definition of a word that has been around for a while now. It’s ok, then, to come up with another word to describe yourself. Agnostic means ‘no knowledge’ so, I think one would still need a different word.

If you are going to make a negative claim, then it’s important to avoid going into denial about the amount of work it entails. At the same time, it would be sound, I think, to say that, as an atheist you are making a falsifiable claim (all you need is God, and poof! you’re wrong). I also think that it is clear from the language of the early Christians, that they believed they were making falsifiable claims as well (I only say that to remind the reader that thoughtful Christian types have not ever spoken of God in way that would make Him interchangeable with an invisible flying spaghetti monster. The playing field, in that respect, is level).

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Hermes April 17, 2010 at 6:57 pm

[ Matt, still polishing a reply to you between dart games. This takes less effort. :-) ]

I am agreeing with you. Atheists have a lack of belief because they say no religious belief system meets their threshold of evidence. But to maintain that stance, they must examine every religious belief system in detail to see if it fails to meet that threshold.

Then, you are not agreeing with me.

Stating that someone has the burden of proof, but not saying why they do beyond asserting that they do, is not an argument. It is a mere assertion equivalent to saying “is not”.

Since Christians have a positive belief (not a lack of belief) that by definition excludes all conflicting religious belief systems, they need make no such investigation of all other belief systems.

The equation is;

Positive belief ==> Requires satisfying burden of proof.

Here’s where you jump the shark, Fonzi.

Unless you are a henotheist, not a monotheist who claims knowledge like other common followers of the deity of Talmudic character of Abraham, part of your belief as a knowing monotheist is explicit knowledge that all other systems are invalid. That claim is what sets you up to having to review each and every contrary claim. That is what you as a monotheist making a positive claim of knowledge are burdened with.

The only way around this is to say you;

1. Do not know — for a fact — that other deities do not exist.
2. Do not claim to know that any deities — including yours — exist.

That would categorize you as an agnostic theist.

If you do not agree with 1 or 2, then you are making a positive claim of knowledge, and thus do not dodge the responsibility of the burden of proof for that claim.

Conversely, *if* an atheist were to make the positive claim similar to “There are no gods — that’s a fact and not a belief.” they would have the same burden of proof as those monotheists do *plus* dealing with your specific deity.

An atheist that does not make that broad claim would be categorized as an agnostic atheist.

If — and this is important — the atheist says “I do not believe there are any gods, but there are specific deities that I know do not exist/… .”, then the burden of proof for the atheist is on the specific deities and not the general belief.

As a part of informal convention, it may be that nobody asks for that burden to be satisfied — either for the monotheist claiming knowledge or the atheist claiming knowledge — but that does not mean that the burden is not there.

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Hermes April 17, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Note, again, that the issue is one of knowledge vs. belief.

Almost all of the confusion on this issue is based on ignoring or dismissing the difference.

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ayer April 17, 2010 at 7:03 pm

having examined many of the stock arguments for existence of such a being. If God does not exist, I am justified in rejecting the Miwok religion as false

Examining only the “stock arguments” is not sufficient for the true skeptic; after all, the Miwok religion may have come up with new evidence and arguments, which must be investigated by the skeptic, since all his beliefs are based on an objective examination of the evidence

That’s a good point. The Christian rejects the Miwok religion because it makes claims that are mutually exclusive from Christianity (such as the non-coyote nature of God). However, it doesn’t really apply to all the examples Luke provided. For example, there is no inherent contradiction between belief in Christianity and belief in Geocentrism. Given that, is the Christian justified in rejecting Geocentrism even before examining arguments offered by geocentrists?

As I noted in my first comment above, I agree with you on these empirical scientific matters. Christians (if they are not working in the relevant scientific fields), just like non-scientist non-Christians, reject geocentrism, flat earth, etc. based on the authority of the scientific community, since no one has the time or resources to confirm all the experimental evidence personally. I assume the atheist non-scientist skeptic also accepts most scientific facts on authority (?)

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Justfinethanks April 17, 2010 at 7:07 pm

It’s a huge logical leap from ‘there’s evidence against such and such a god’ to there is no god of any kind, and an even bigger one from a simple lack of evidence.

I don’t quite see why that is. Bigfoot might exist. The Bigfoot concept is perfectly coherent. I don’t have any arguments against Bigfoot. But yet I am extrememly confident there is no bigfoot of any kind based on simple lack of evidence. The evidence that people offer in favor of bigfoot is invariably eyewitness testimony (notriously faulty) or frauds. So am I unjustified by being an abigfootist?

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Justfinethanks April 17, 2010 at 7:30 pm

Examining only the “stock arguments” is not sufficient for the true skeptic; after all, the Miwok religion may have come up with new evidence and arguments, which must be investigated by the skeptic,

Then they should submit them to the philosophical community so that they may be discussed. If not, I will assume their silence is based upon not having anything noteworthy to contribute to the defense of their beliefs, and I will continue to be satisfied in thinking the Miwok religion is false based upon their belief in a creator God.

no one has the time or resources to confirm all the experimental evidence personally.

Fair enough, but what’s to prevent a lay-atheist from simply shugging off God-belief without examining it at all on the basis that the majority of philosophers are atheists (and he doesn’t have the time or training to examine all arguments himself)? Is he justified in rejecting God and Geocentrism for identical reasons?

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matt April 17, 2010 at 9:24 pm

justfine -

no, you wouldn’t be justified in being an abigfootist, if that meant you saying you had knowledge, in a final sense, that there was no bigfoot. Bigfoot, however, is not very important when it comes to forming a worldview, so the analogy is false. Some people do argue about whether or not there is a bigfoot, just not us =). The discussion would be pretty irrelevant to ethics, politics, history, etc. If somebody found a bigfoot, it might make some biologists happy.

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matt April 17, 2010 at 9:31 pm

Hermes,

It seems you take a high view of my contributions to the discussion, and I appreciate your generosity.

also, Briang made a comment using ‘sexiness’ to parody Dawkins line of reasoning. I thought that was funny, because it’s just like Dawkin’s ‘stinker’ analogy.

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ayer April 17, 2010 at 10:15 pm

Fair enough, but what’s to prevent a lay-atheist from simply shugging off God-belief without examining it at all on the basis that the majority of philosophers are atheists (and he doesn’t have the time or training to examine all arguments himself)?

Nothing, but then the lay-atheist should not style himself as a “skeptic” who only forms beliefs based upon reason and evidence, and admit he is basing his lack of belief in God on an appeal to the authority of an academic elite

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matt April 17, 2010 at 10:20 pm

on the difference between knowledge and belief:

I hope it comes across that I’d assert atheism is a belief system, because it is difficult to prove and one decides to believe there is no God after doing their due dilligence epistemically. Such a person is not unreasonable for not believing (in this case, I find the definition of atheism being thrown around here acceptable). They would be unreasonable to claim knowledge of God’s nonexistence. From the belief or lack thereof, all their philosophy, their system of thought/belief/etc. flows. A Christian Theist may be a Calvinist, Arminian, post-trib, pre-trib, pentecostal, chrarismatic, dispensationalist, whateverist and they could also subscribe to any number of political theories, ethical theories or whatever. An Atheist can subscribe to just as many varying presumptions, assumptions, and systems of thought and find a group of fellow humans to share that system with. The belief or lack of is probably the single most important component in the formation of a worldview, but neither are provable in the strictest sense so as to qualify as knowledge. They both end as a belief, either that there is a bigger mind out there, or that the human mind is where the buck stops (as far as we know). If theism is correct, then the burden of proof actually rests with God, which, I think, should humble the believer. For the atheist, the burden lies with them, so they should humble themselves, lest they imagine that they are a god. (sorry, that last bit was melodramatic)

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Evolution SWAT April 18, 2010 at 8:31 pm

Nice post Lukeprog. I deal with this a lot. I criticize some idea, and then the Christian I am debating will reply “but some people believe that God …”. So they keep changing their definition of God… Very frustrating.

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Hermes April 19, 2010 at 7:46 pm

[ Sorry for the delay. Much has happened and I wanted to make sure that I posted a proper response. ]

Hermes,your requirements for a ‘living subject’ are too stringent. Such constraints would have to apply to any number of things that are more ‘obviously’ true than theology.

Mark, I’m actually bending over backward to accommodate Theology while I am being extra strict with all other disciplines/fields/professions/… . To be explicit, here’s the breakdown;

* Both: Must show some knowledge or practice that came from the discipline/field/profession/… that they are responsible for creating that can be used and is used outside of the limited scope that it originated in.

* Theology: Does not have to show this use outside of the field of Theology, but the knowledge or practice must not be limited to a specific sect or religious tradition.
* All others: Must show some knowledge or practice that is adopted by other disciplines/fields/professions/… .

* Theology: Any demonstration of the above over the last 100 years.
* All others: Any demonstration over the last 50 years.

The only thing that I admit is unfair about this request is that I’ve already done the work to see if there are any obvious examples and I already know that at best they are not at all obvious. I write that because nobody has produced an example that satisfies the request for the field of Theology but it is not difficult to do similar things like that for many other disciplines/fields/professions/… .

How about something new, then? Something that I haven’t dealt with in the previous conversations?

I’ll remove the requirement that some new knowledge or practice must actually be used elsewhere in another field or within Theology itself (but outside of the limited scope that it originated in).

Meaning: If the new knowledge or practice can be argued that it applies elsewhere (outside the limited scope it originated in) and does so in a natural way, then even without evidence of actual use, that example will satisfy the request.

Note the previous example involving forensic anthropology and law enforcement. The argument does not have to be as compelling as that chain of examples, but it should strive to be as compelling.

As a hypothetical example, my request could be addressed by Theologians (acting as Theologians) who show how a common spiritual practice — such as prayer — is enhanced using a specific technique for Hindus and Muslims and Jews or whoever. [Note: I see that possibly happening outside of Theology, though, possibly with the help of theists (but not spearheaded by Theologians).]

Or, if that is too instrumental (a non-problem? a symptom of the actual problem?), a different hypothetical could be fleshed out.

Say, hypothetically, a theoretical structure of religious concepts could be derived by analyzing various religions and determining a pattern that they all share. That structure could be used by Hindu Theologians as well as Muslim Theologians, Christian, Jewish, … Theologians.

To me, these seem quite fair and possible. The problem is that beyond brainstorming about possible examples, I have not found or been presented an example that is in actual use.

Conclusion: If knowledge or procedures like these don’t happen in Theology, that is not an indication that the field can’t be viable but that it currently (and has not been) viable in practice. Effectively, it is dead.

* * *

Note that the practice of Theology is sectarian with few attempts outside of that. Case in point, Haecceitas mentioned “New Testament Studies, Church History, Systematic Theology, etc.” — all exclusively Christian topics. Separately, we have experts like Troy Nunley who are hired to help train sectarian members. Meanwhile in my most recent review of the topic, Volume one, Issue one of Comparative Theology pops up; http://www.comparativetheology.org . This is a positive sign, but not an example of an ongoing vibrant exchange of knowledge and practices with an eye towards adoption or reuse.

“The only completely consistent people are the dead.”
— Aldous Huxley

* * *

I don’t think that theology works well in an instrumentalist sense, or is meant to.

Agreed, though if the goods that they are selling are as important as they claim, why not have a ‘space race’ or even a ‘gene race’ level of investment in the subject?

Where are the regional Theology corridors with racks of data banks and theologians constructing complex ‘what-ifs’ based on that data? If that’s too techy, then where are the expeditions of theologians who systematically piece together the missing features of the Theological landscape?

It can’t be because the subject is too simple. Religious people insist that religion is nuanced and subtle and deep. That it is transcendent and unfathomable. Well, the same things can be said about the disparate fields of human relations and particle physics, but that only makes the members of those fields work harder.

In practice, Theology is not meant to be applicable, as it does not intend to enlighten through discovery, but to reinforce what has already been decided by the theologians or by society (as theologians react to societal changes; ex: the US Civil Rights Movement in the middle of last century).

Yet, actual knowledge or practices can be reused, even in the case of totally disparate disciplines. For example, fractals are curious mathematical toys without utility in one context, investigative tools in another, and generative tools in another.

The issue with Theology is that it currently generates neither general knowledge or useful practices outside navel gazing self-referential sectarian issues. That’s the point. That’s why it’s a dead discipline.

Pointing out that it has not generated knowledge or practices that other disparate groups can use — even within the field of Theology itself.

Furthermore, what you’ve said might be used as a little aside against the whole ‘hiddenness of God argument.’ If God does exist He has been good enough to make it plain, then theology should only be refined through time, rather than be ‘new’ in the way you describe. If theology was so innovative it would just go to prove the low probability of God’s existence.

I’m actually not addressing any theological ideas specifically.

There are definately limits to Theology. That in itself is very intersting. Those limits should be seen as an admission that the subjects Theology is said to address aren’t as they propose them to be. Large subjects challenge people to make great efforts to deal with them. Theology thrashes in place if it moves at all.

I wouldn’t stake a whole argument on what I’ve just said, I only mean to point out the problems with your statement.

Does this update improve things somewhat?

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Zeb April 20, 2010 at 1:42 am

Hermes, how about Liberation Theology, which was used to help bring political and social equality to people in Latin America?

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Hermes April 20, 2010 at 5:12 am

Hermes, how about Liberation Theology, which was used to help bring political and social equality to people in Latin America?

My understanding is that it was completely derived from Marxism/Socialism and is heavily sectarian. Do you know of it being applied or adopted outside of Christian circles, say, by Hindus or Sikhs? If not — going with my looser set of restrictions granted to the field of Theology only — could you give an argument for it being adopted in theory? If it can, does that adoption merit being called new knowledge or a new practice as opposed to an existing (non-Theologically derived) one?

FWIW, one example that had promise on this issue was Pope John Paul II’s book The Theology of the Body. The problems with that book was that it has not spawned refinements or derivative works, or even deep discussion of the implications of the work within Catholicism (let alone outside of Christianity), so it’s not conveying shareable knowledge but very sectarian and personal knowledge that has not grown over time. That book is as static as it’s author.

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Zeb April 20, 2010 at 5:59 am

The only cross-sectarian example of theological advance I can think of is Ghandi’s ahimsa/satyagraha as applied to mass liberation movements by him and MLK. But wouldn’t nonsectarian theology just be philosophy of religion?

Anyway, if one of the sects is true, then theology is a valid and important study. Theology is only dead if God is.

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Hermes April 20, 2010 at 11:01 am

The only cross-sectarian example of theological advance I can think of is Ghandi’s ahimsa/satyagraha as applied to mass liberation movements by him and MLK.

That might qualify. Do you have references?

But wouldn’t nonsectarian theology just be philosophy of religion?

I’m not saying non-sectarian, though, but I am emphasizing intra/inter-disciplinary connections. So, as with the Pope John Paul II example, PJ2 could have sparked off a new form of theology that can be applied in other sects as well; multi-sectarian or non-sectarian are both options, but we see neither.

Outside of Theology, these concerns are not an issue. If there’s something about Theology as a field/… that is alive and vibrant — and not insular/self-referential — then it should be easily demonstrable.

Anyway, if one of the sects is true, then theology is a valid and important study. Theology is only dead if God is.

The questions in this instance are not about narrow sectarian claims about reality. As an example, knowledge from the field of quantum mechanics can be re-used by self-proclaimed psychics and spiritualists. This does not mean that the claims of one applies to the claims of another. [I would actually argue that the psychics/spiritualists aren't actually using the knowledge gained by people researching quantum mechanics at all. For the sake of this example let's say they understand some of the knowledge from QM correctly but are applying it in such a way that the application is nonsensical.]

Saying that one sect (or set of sects) is true does not address all of the other sects except as an assertion. Till we know for a fact that one or a set are ‘true’ in the common sense (as opposed to true in context of the perspective of members of the sect), there is no common ground to share a sectarian-tied claim of knowledge. This, of course, is the issue.

The issue is not one of true/false, or right/wrong, but of communication. Can useful knowledge be communicated? Can useful processes be communicated? Are they? If they are, what are they?

If the Theologians only represent specific sects, and they put up impenetrable barriers of dogma, then they (as mentioned before) have effectively ghettoized themselves.

I contend that even religious leaders know that Theology is not a valid or important field of study/research/knowledge. It is necessary infrastructure, like a marketing department or a business school with the exception that there is no competition — inside or outside. They are selling Coke in a world where water and Pepsi both taste like urine to their customers, and orange juice, coffee, or tea are strange things that just aren’t considered. The silos are very narrow, vertical, and do not allow communication on the same basic levels with other silos. Like a set of Pez dispensers with different figure heads; the candy is all locked away and secondary to the plastic that surrounds it.

As such, there’s no need for humility or curiosity. Why bother bringing up issues your customers aren’t interested in and that would detract from your own authority? There is room to be insulted, though, when someone rudely brings up other options.

I say that because there are no grand pushes to fill in the gaps of current knowledge. Surely the infinite and transcendent offer limitless opportunities, even to find similarities between sects or topics that can be jointly investigated? If those aren’t being taken up, then the question has to be asked *why*? My answer is that the religious leaders like their Pez blocks precise in their shape and arranged just where they are. A grand revival of Theology is not required.

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Zeb April 20, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Are you asking what can theology, which is the study of special revelation and its relationship to other knowledge, actually tell us without referring to special revelation? If so then yeah, you’re right, it can’t tell us anything.

However theologians, especially today, are bridging gaps between different faiths, and by finding commonalities they are opening up possibilities of sharing techniques, understandings, and approaches to real world problems. I am most aware of the ways that people like Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Ghandi have illuminated ways of increasing personal, interpersonal, and social peace by cultivating spirituality through prayer techniques and ways of understanding life that borrow from multiple religious traditions. So to the extent that people find religion useful, they may find advances in theology useful.

Here is a wikipedia reference to MLK and satyagraha.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satyagraha#Satyagraha_and_the_civil_rights_movement_in_the_United_States

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Hermes April 20, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Special revelation? No. That’s mainly Christian Evangelicals, and is not the same as the field of Theology.

Theology; as in the topic of the Comparative Theology journal I linked to earlier from Harvard Divinity School; Journal of Comparative Theology.

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Hermes April 20, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Zeb, are we talking about the same subject?

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Zeb April 20, 2010 at 7:13 pm

Hermes, I don’t see where we differ. By special revelation I just meant knowledge the source of which is not independently available to all people – scripture, prophecy, mystical experience, or some special relationship with Divine or its designees. If theology is not necessarily in reference to that kind of knowledge, then I don’t know what theology is. And that may be, since honestly I don’t have much idea of what academic theologians actually do.

The contemporary theology I am a little familiar with comes from popularizers of theology. And from them I see a few innovations in the last 100 years that do seem to apply across sects, though maybe not outside of a religious context. The innovations I see are

1) The growing popularity of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. In previous centuries the default position was that every other religion than one’s own was false, and that they were worshiping an imaginary being or even a demonic entity. Now it is common to think that many or all religions are at least approaching and the same truths, even if one’s own sect is the truest of all. That allows cooperation in spiritual work and borrowing of spiritual methods and ideas that may add to one’s own traditional resources. There are tons of examples here- the papal encyclical Dominus Iesus, the Vatican’s Catholic-Muslim Forum, Thomas Merton’s books on Zen, Christ the Eternal Tao by orthodox monk Heiromonk Damascene, Living Buddha Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh

2) Bringing spirituality into mass movements for liberty and justice. Liberation theology and satyagraha/ahimsa are examples that may extend even beyond the religious context.

Anyway I find it odd that you would reject out of hand advances in theology that allow people to relate better to the supernatural, themselves, their neighbors, and the world, just because those advances are specific to a sect. I understand why an atheist would find them irrelevant, but if they are improving people’s lives and the world as a whole, those advances are not pointless and the discipline is not dead.

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matt April 20, 2010 at 7:44 pm

wowzer, Hermes. You did write a lot.

I don’t have much time, so a couple quick-ish thoughts:

I think this very blog would be a good proof of theology heavily affecting philosophy, especially ethics. There is either a continual attempt to invalidate theological notions of morality or to affirm them, but this tension does the field a service, I think. I don’t wish to plug C. S. Lewis for apologetic purposes, but he has a good section on commanalities between various moral ideas (different versions of the golden rule and so on) in the back of ‘The Abolition of Man.’ I’ve also heard Peter Singer remark on the ‘golden rule’ as being a good basis for an ethical system, but I can’t find the quote right now… so don’t take my word for it =)

I also don’t see how naturalism escapes your dilemma. It doesn’t actually contribute to discoveries. Scientists, Forensic experts, etc. all have a variety of reasons for what they do (look at Francis Collins and Richard Dawkins, both of them are constantly using science to bolster their dogma, yet they do contribute, even in spite of themselves). If I may wax poetic, Theology, philosophy, the arts and such things have their life in the unique and invisible realm of the human mind (I’m not skirting naturalistic explanations of the mind by saying ‘invisible’, I only mean to say that the mind is observable by its effects, not as ectoplasm or something like that). It does not surprise me that theology comes out dead after going through this impersonal grinder you propose.

“Note that the practice of Theology is sectarian with few attempts outside of that. Case in point, Haecceitas mentioned “New Testament Studies, Church History, Systematic Theology, etc.” — all exclusively Christian topics.”

I think most historians, Christian or not, would have quite a beef with this statement. I’d think making this statement in front of a Bart Ehrman type would prompt quite the rebuke!

I’d also be curious to hear why atheism is not a theology.

TTFN

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matt April 20, 2010 at 9:28 pm

also, lets remember that theology only makes truth claims about God, not about other aspects of ‘reality.’ Of course, whatever a person’s view of God is, it will inevitably overlap into other areas of thought. I for instance, don’t hold to the idea that God wouldn’t allow for different genres in the Bible (it’s all pre-science, and obviously deals peotically with things that we, in our culture, tend to describe mechanically). Because of this view, I don’t find difficulty using naturalistic descriptions of things that may or may not have a supernatural cause. If a person denies a belief in God, then, of course, they will seek after other explanations, philosophies, and so on, that fill certain gaps in knowledge (i.e. beleifs), at least that fill them to their liking.

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Hermes April 21, 2010 at 2:36 pm

Zeb, thanks for the comments. I’m specifically and narrowly discussing Theology as a field and not just theologians. A theologian who is also a painter or a singer is not necessarily making any theological statements if they happen to hum a tune or paint a bowl of fruit.

If I said I was instead discussing the field of Mathematics, and not Theology, it would be strange to then talk about the innovations in the design of an iPhone abacus and not bring up the work of actual people trained and paid to be Mathematicians (as opposed to people who use math in their fields).

So, it’s an important distinction since the focus was on the field itself not people with a familiarity with the subject that do other things.

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That said, some quick comments on your items 1 & 2;

1. Ecumenism is specific to Christian sects, so it doesn’t count. Interfaith dialogue is scratching the surface. Does it share knowledge (that is reused) or practices (that are reused) that originated within a Theological field? I mean, I talk with Christians and Muslims, yet I’m not a practicing Theologian and neither do I offer knowledge or practices that are useful to Theologians as a member of the field of Theology.

2. Already granted as a possibility. Can you connect the dots and show how they are actually (or more weakly reasonably compatible with) sourced *from* the field of Theology by professional Theologians working as Theologians and not mainly derivative from other fields or revivals of previous Theological ideas older than 100 years ago?

The limits placed on the field of Theology are (as shown before) much less restrictive than those placed on every other field/discipline/… . As such, while I see plenty of well arranged bones, I find it more than fair to ask where the meat is.

If I were fair, the same limits placed on other fields would apply to the field of Theology.

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Zeb April 21, 2010 at 3:02 pm

OK, I see what you mean and I am not qualified to address the question any more. You’re looking for evidence that theologians come up with new knowledge or techniques that can be used in the field of theology by other theologians not of the same sect, or that can be used by professionals in other truth seeking fields. I’m not familiar enough with the state of the art in academic theology to say whether or not that goes on.

All I will say is that if theologians are producing novel ideas that are useful to laymen in their daily lives, that qualifies as a vibrant art or field of study in my mind, but you have a right to judge by your own criteria.

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Hermes April 21, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Matt, first off I’m not explicitly or implicitly discussing naturalism or natural or supernaturalism or supernatural in this conversation. I do in other places, but not here as it is not part of the question I am asking. For what it’s worth, as I mentioned in other places, I’m not a naturalist. If things that happen to fall within one of those categories are mentioned by me, and you think they are not valid, you are free to note how you arrived at that conclusion.

[working backward]

Theology covers a broad number of topics. So does business management. There are business management processes that can be shared outside of business management to assist non-business organizations or even individuals. The same opportunity is available to Theologians of one sect or sub-field that develop something of value for other non-Theological fields or more narrowly other dissimilar sects.

I think most historians, Christian or not, would have quite a beef with this statement. I’d think making this statement in front of a Bart Ehrman type would prompt quite the rebuke!

Can you specify what part you think historians would have a beef with? Remember that what you quoted was largely something I was identifying as something I did not agree with.

For now, I’ll take a stab at answering. Hopefully I’m replying to your concerns…

* * *

If you did respond to what I actually wrote, then all I have to do is point to issue #1, volume #1 of the Journal of Comparative Theology dated March 2010. Why isn’t it issue #3, volume #35? The Journal of Christian Nursing is on Issue 2, Volume 27, after all.

There are attempts, that I don’t deny one bit, but Theologians tend to have a sectarian focus and people who make divergent claims can easily find themselves expelled. Yet, even if this was not the case and there was heavy involvement between the sects regardless of religion, what I’m asking is “How’s that working for you?”. Without sharable knowledge. Without products like sharable processes. … what do we have?

As for morality, I don’t find morals to be derived from religious beliefs, but that’s also beside the point because the ‘golden rule’ is neither new nor explicitly derived from Theology.

==> The narrow point was on the field of Theology and if it produced something outside sectarian issues.

It does not surprise me that theology comes out dead after going through this impersonal grinder you propose.

It’s a measure all other fields/disciplines/… can be judged by. What do they have? What can they share? If the answer is unrelentingly “We have all the answers. To see them, you only need to do one thing. Let us prepare a toast — using this wonderful beverage called Kool-Aid.” then there’s little else I need to demonstrate. Why the preferential treatment for Theology? Why feel sorry for it’s inability being demonstrated?

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Hermes April 21, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Zeb, note that you are probably(?) not a chemist or a member of law enforcement either, yet you know about Kevlar. You are probably(?) not experienced in process improvement practices developed in IT and the US Military, yet you are probably(?) aware that process improvements impact many industries and that there are self-help resources on personal process improvement.

The point being; the fruits of Theology are supposedly much more valuable than ballistic defense vests or cutting the error rate on various transactions, yet we know of no examples of those fruits being planted and growing elsewhere except inside narrowly defined areas — all other areas being hostile and already occupied.

Why not? Is it that we don’t care (but should) and are ignorant because we don’t look, or is it that Theologians aren’t actually producing much that is applicable to the larger world outside of their narrow domain?

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Zeb April 21, 2010 at 5:48 pm

You’re begging the question. You’re asking, “Why aren’t ideas based on religious claims accepted by people who reject those religious claims?”

One of the main purposes religion claims for itself is to offer ways to bring about right relationships of all kinds. To achieve this, religion elucidates teachings, ways of behaving, rituals, and ways of prayer. Throughout the 20th century theologians have continued to innovate in all those areas. Religious people have used those innovations to get closer to the goal of right relationships of all kinds. To the extent that those innovations have been successful, everyone in the world has benefited.

Another cross-sectarian innovation I can think of is environmental or nature spirituality. Religiously based environmental movements are springing up in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Paganisms. Another is the growth of the practice of meditation, which along with the spiritual benefits we believe it has, is good for personal and interpersonal peace and has physiological benefits. The role theologians have played there is in understanding what the practice means within a new sectarian context and finding and promoting the value of the practice within that context.

Like I said, I am not very familiar with the work of modern academic theologians. But I have spent much of my adult life living and working with religious people whose fulltime job, and perhaps entire life, revolved around bringing peace, justice, and charity into the world. And I know that they read as much theology as they did scripture, and the theology they read was more contemporary than classical. And by inspiring and informing the work of those people, that theology bore fruits that were relevant even to the secular people who worked with or were helped by those religious people.

Finally, I would ask is not also it that Philosophers, Literature Scholars, Music Scholars, and Art Scholars aren’t actually producing much that is applicable to the larger world outside of their narrow domain? Are those fields also dead?

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Hermes April 21, 2010 at 9:42 pm

[ many good words cut to keep this brief]

You’re begging the question. You’re asking, “Why aren’t ideas based on religious claims accepted by people who reject those religious claims?”

Request: Please quote using *single* quotes to show you are not directly quoting someone. If you want to quote a summary of what you think I meant, use single quotes — ‘ — not full quotes — “. When you use full quotes, you are saying that I wrote/said *precisely* what you placed between the quotation marks.

I’m not begging the question. The rules are clearly set out, and they apply to all comers — no just Theologians employed as Theologians.

Additionally, your summary — something that I did not and would not say — is not accurate. I’m not asking for ideas at all. If they happen to be ideas, great. Good for them.

What I asked for was explicit and neutral. I asked for knowledge or procedures.

As for innovations, Theologians have a 100 year time frame. What were the innovations? Specifically? Could they be classified as knowledge or a practice? Is there evidence that these innovations ‘benefited everyone’, and if they did should that metric also be required for all other fields/… ? If so, how?

That said, I think the examples you are giving are from larger society and not from Theology. As I am focusing on a distinct field in this instance, I am not too concerned about if a more nebulous group gets it or not. I’m not cynical, so I usually think people do indeed get it (even in the situation where I have to ignore evidence in front of me, such as having to cite my own words to identify what I intended).

As for “Philosophers, Literature Scholars, Music Scholars, and Art Scholars”, I’d answer;

Philosophers – the field passes, though some areas are stillborn

Literature Scholars – pass (literature criticism has been frequently horrid over the last 50 years)

Music Scholars – unknown to me

Art Scholars – this is a large group; do you care to narrow it down?

Note that *if* all 4 groups were as bad off as Theology, that would be interesting but would not detract from the investigation of Theology as a field. This is not an all-or-nothing analysis where Theology is on one side and everything else is on the other. All fields/… that don’t show knowledge or practice examples should be identified. They don’t need to have anything to do with Theology or related fields.

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Atheist.pig April 22, 2010 at 4:32 am
lukeprog April 22, 2010 at 5:37 am

atheist.pig,

Nice.

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Hermes April 22, 2010 at 11:49 am

One last point that I want to emphasize. If the fruits of Theology are so hard to locate, why is the focus of Theology — various religious ideas and traditions — said to be so boundless and stressed as singularly important above all other subjects? With any topic that has such a self-described wide reaching scope and importance as Theology, I would expect that these types of questions would be stunningly simple to address.

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Zeb April 22, 2010 at 12:24 pm

They are so hard to locate because you are an atheist. As I said religion is largely about establishing right relationships of all kinds. So ask religious physicists how theology informs and inspires their work, or religious artists likewise, and the same for religious peace activists, lawyers, environmentalists, farmers, physicians, therapists, etc. Each sect will necessarily have its own take on the theology of work, the theology of nature, the theology of love, the theology of justice, etc. The theologians of different sects may adapt ideas and techniques from each other, but they will necessarily end up developing knowledge and techniques specific to their own unique stock of revelation. It would be a very interesting research project in religious studies to interview religious people in all fields and stations of life and find how much and in what ways contemporary theologians have influenced them. I doubt the answer you’d come back with is that theology has really only served to keep the sheep within the paddocks and otherwise has been pretty useless.

Thanks for the correction about using quotation marks.

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Hermes April 22, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Zeb, I finally got back to the incorporeal souls discussion and addressed some of your comments (more later in that thread);

The Death of Pascal’s Wager

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