Why am I reading theology?

Under the tutelage of the estimable Eric MacDonald, I have spent several weeks reading Christian theology.  And so far, I have learned only three things:

1.  I am spending my middle age reading drivel about beliefs that have no basis in fact. This seems a total waste of time.  I could be reading books about real things instead.

2.  Theologians can’t write.  A lot of what they have to say is postmodern or obscure bafflegab, and I’m starting to believe that this obscurantism is deliberate because of reason 3 (below).  I have for example, just opened my book (An Introduction to Christian Theology, edited by Roger A. Badham) to a random chapter, which turned out to be “Process theology and the current church struggle” by John B. Cobb, Jr.  (Process theology holds that god is not immutable but changes over time, and so does his creation, not totally under his direction.) And there I find this, in a discussion of Alfred North Whitehead (one of the founders of this “school”):

But each occasion transcends the causality of the past by responding to it with more or less originality.  This requires that physical prehensions  are supplemented by “conceptual” ones.  Thus, in addition to prehending past events, an occasion also takes account of possibilities ingredient in those events or closely related to them.  Just how it relates these possibilities to the actualities it feels is its “decision.”  That means that in a situation that is inherently indeterminate, there is a determinate outcome  Other possibilities are cut off.

Believe me, the book contains paragraphs far more obscure and pretentious than this one.  Can you imagine reading this stuff night after night?  Do you see why my head feels about to explode? Eric, why are you doing this to me?

3.  There seems to be no “knowledge” behind theology, and I haven’t learned anything—not even any clever philosophy.  One gets the strong sense when reading theology (and granted, I am biased) that everyone is just making stuff up.

I’m trying to learn theology so I can meet head-on the argument that atheists are ignorant of theology and hence unqualified to combat religion.  But it doesn’t take much reading to realize that we already know the best way to challenge theologians: ask them “how do you know that what you’re saying describes anything about reality?” and “How do you know that your take on reality is better than that of other theologians?”

But I persist, and am asking readers, particularly if they have some knowledge of theology, if they have any insight into the following questions.  I am dead serious here, and not looking for sarcastic answers.  I’m even hoping that some real theologians will read this and provide some answers.

  • What are the arguments for god’s existence in the new sophisticated theology that aren’t taken up and refuted in The God Delusion? I must say that I haven’t found any; in fact, there are few arguments for god’s existence at all in what I read: people just assume he/she/it is real and go from there.
  • Has theology really “progressed”? That is, has it gotten closer to some deeper and more accurate understanding of the nature of god, how that god operated, what that god is like, and what it wants?  As far as I can see, theology “progresses” only when it has to quickly regroup to deal with either scientific advances or changes in secular morality (e.g., it’s wrong to have slaves and oppress women).  So the idea—adumbrated by Francis Collins in yesterday’s post—that god uses evolution as his means of creating humans, is not an advance in theology.  It is a change in theology confected to accommodate an advance in science. Ditto with the 1978 “revelation” by Mormon bigwigs that it was okay after all for blacks to enter its priesthood.
  • What knowledge about the world (or about god) has theology produced? By “knowledge”, I mean “truths about the way things are”, and here I explicitly rule out philosophical advances that aren’t directly rooted in faith.
  • Is theology anything more than a bunch of smart people making stuff up and couching it in academic language? If it isn’t, then we already have the armamentarium to combat it:  requests for evidence.  If it is, what are its major accomplishments?

I know I’m repeating the frustration I’ve expressed in earlier posts, but I don’t want to waste months of my life reading this stuff if there’s nothing to be gained from it except the ability to say to my opponents, “Yes, I do know about theological schools X, Y, and Z.”  Why bother to torture our brains if we can simply ask theologians to prove, using evidence and reason, that their viewpoint is correct, and better than that of either atheists or other theologians?

I’m starting to think that modern theology is simply postmodern literary criticism applied to a single book of fiction.

322 Comments

  1. Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    Sounds very much like someone has offered you a plate of a substance they are calling paté, but which in fact is dog food… having already been processed through the gut of the dog. How many bites must one sample, before reaching the conclusion that it’s not the delicacy advertised on the menu?

    You could, of course, promise that you would only sample another dish if they actually show you how it is made first–show you where the assumptions come from, show you what evidence goes into the process to begin with–but of course, they hesitate, knowing that if they open the kitchen door, you’ll catch sight of a Great Dane in that stereotypical squat.

    • AT
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      love the analogy

      i would only add that one does mnot even need to actually sample the dish

      when we grow up it is not possinble for us to avoid the stink, the look and the ssampling of the dish

      therefore ythose of us who actually discover that there are other choices on the menue and tested them will never be able to come back to the “tog processed food”

      jerry is wasting his time.

      period.

      • ckitching
        Posted July 4, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        jerry is wasting his time.

        In more ways than one. Isn’t only necessary to have read this ‘sophisticated theology’, because there’s always some other ‘sophisticated theology’ he will not have read. He also has to believe it, or his critiques will continue to meet with the same courtier’s reply.

        Learning the origins of some of these strange statements people make in defence of their beliefs could be useful, though.

      • Sean
        Posted July 5, 2011 at 5:09 am | Permalink

        anal ogy…lol

    • Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      El. Oh. El. :D

      I will from now on eschew “pay no attn to the man behind the curtain” for “pay no attn to the shitting dog in the kitchen.”

  2. Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    Once again this reinforces my definition of theology as; “the practice of making nonsense sound important while solving nothing.”

  3. Chuck O'Connor
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    I’m starting to see that modern theology is simply postmodern literary criticism applied to a single book of fiction.” I think this is an apt description and also an “a-ha!” moment for me. I’ve wondered in my apostasy why I ever gave power to religious mumbo jumbo but, I think, in hind-sight, that the literary expression in its myth and the post-modern attempts to apply that myth to life, tweaked the playwright and former literature student in me.

    To answer question 1, I don’t know if Dawkins adequately addresses the Jamesian concept of God that drives the “higher power” notion found in 12 step recovery groups, and, the rhetorical arguments of “not religion, but relationship” found in mega-church theology and Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven Life”. This notion is the Modern form of faith found in pragmatism that William James espoused, where a belief in god is not determined in its ontology, but rather, in how useful that belief has on allowing the believer to make self-beneficial life choices.

    Maybe some of the aspects of confirmation bias Dr. Dawkins addresses does touch on this but I don’t know if he takes it on head-first. It is an easy argument to defeat although convincing the believer of their defeat is nearly impossible, seeing that the believer has tied their self-preservation to their belief-system.

    • Bryan
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:54 am | Permalink

      Do you defeat this argument by simply pointing out that “useful” and “true” have different meanings, or does the pragmatic argument somehow go deeper than that?

      • Chuck O'Connor
        Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:01 am | Permalink

        Yes, that’s how I defeat it philosophically but, the premise from which the believer in this type of “god” usually operates out of is a deep self-hatred or distrust and, therefore, any invitation to critical thinking is, for them, a path to self-destruction. Most of the people I know who believe this “god” have fallen victim to some form of addiction, prior to their belief, and therefore, assume they are powerless to stop their bad habits without the intervention of a “spiritual” deity. They think they think with something other than their brain when making choices and don’t want to let go of this “sixth sense”. They also choose to join groups that reinforce their confirmation biases and, in that context, “useful” is “true”. They, at base, are narcissists who use their self-centeredness in a mostly benign way and conform to status quo ideas of “good” and “nice”, therefore assuming they are moral. When they compare themselves to their former socio-pathic selves, they are.

        • Kevin
          Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink

          There’s a YouTuber who goes by Bornagain001 who this description fits perfectly.

  4. Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    This passage from Lucky in Waiting for Godot (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waiting_for_Godot) says it all:

    “Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the divine Miranda with those who for reasons unknown but time will tell are plunged in torment plunged in fire whose fire flames if that continues and who can doubt it will fire the firmament that is to say blast hell to heaven so blue still and calm so calm with a calm which even though intermittent is better than nothing but not so fast and considering what is more that as a result of the labours left unfinished crowned by the Acacacacademy of Anthropopopometry of Essy-in-Possy of Testew and Cunard it is established beyond all doubt all other doubt than that which clings to the labours of men that as a result of the labours unfinished of Testew and Cunnard it is established as hereinafter but not so fast for reasons unknown that as a result of the public works of Puncher and Wattmann it is established beyond all doubt that in view of the labours of Fartov and Belcher left unfinished for reasons unknown of Testew and Cunard left unfinished it is established what many deny that man in Possy of Testew and Cunard that man in Essy that man in short that man in brief in spite of the strides of alimentation and defecation wastes and pines wastes and pines and concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown in spite of the strides of physical culture the practice of sports such as tennis football running cycling swimming flying floating riding gliding conating camogie skating tennis of all kinds dying flying sports of all sorts autumn summer winter winter tennis of all kinds hockey of all sorts penicillin and succedanea in a word I resume flying gliding golf over nine and eighteen holes tennis of all sorts in a word for reasons unknown in Feckham Peckham Fulham Clapham namely concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown but time will tell fades away I resume Fulham Clapham in a word the dead loss per head since the death of Bishop Berkeley being to the tune of one inch four ounce per head approximately by and large more or less to the nearest decimal good measure round figures stark naked in the stockinged feet in Connemara in a word for reasons unknown no matter what matter the facts are there and considering what is more much more grave that in the light of the labours lost of Steinweg and Peterman it appears what is more much more grave that in the light the light the light of the labours lost of Steinweg and Peterman that in the plains in the mountains by the seas by the rivers running water running fire the air is the same and then the earth namely the air and then the earth in the great cold the great dark the air and the earth abode of stones in the great cold alas alas in the year of their Lord six hundred and something the air the earth the sea the earth abode of stones in the great deeps the great cold on sea on land and in the air I resume for reasons unknown in spite of the tennis the facts are there but time will tell I resume alas alas on on in short in fine on on abode of stones who can doubt it I resume but not so fast I resume the skull fading fading fading and concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown in spite of the tennis on on the beard the flames the tears the stones so blue so calm alas alas on on the skull the skull the skull the skull in Connemara in spite of the tennis the labours abandoned left unfinished graver still abode of stones in a word I resume alas alas abandoned unfinished the skull the skull in Connemara in spite of the tennis the skull alas the stones Cunard (mêlée, final vociferations) tennis . . . the stones . . . so calm . . . Cunard . . . unfinished . . .”

  5. Gregory James
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    Come on! Just “starting” to think that?

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for answers that are any more comprehensible than Mr. Cobb’s insights.

  6. Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    “I’m starting to see think that modern theology is simply postmodern literary criticism applied to a single book of fiction.”

    Jerry, for Ceiling Cat’s sake, please don’t give either camp any ideas about combining forces. The thought of a gang of obscurantist Derrideans using their b.s. skills to add to the already towering pile of flop that is theology….truly a doomsday scenario!!

    • Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

      I’m afraid YamaZaru that it has happened already. Modern Catholic theology is exactly this, and apparently Orthodox as well.

      Just look (if you can bear it) at Matt Dillahunty’s (from Atheist Experience fame) debate with Hans Jacobse (an Orthodox priest) and you will see how deeply entrenched this is. The first one of the series is in the link below.

    • Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      Theology and “postmodern/structuralist/literary/critical/theory” (or whatever the hell you want to call it) are offspring of the same divorced from reality, self-important, bald-assertion-making magical thinking.

      If you can dream it up, it must be so. No need for evidence or other external, objective verification.

  7. Neil
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    I’ve occasionally considered learning “sophisticated theology” for the same reasons. I’ve yet to make it though one of their dreary texts. I have no doubt that the bafflegab is purely a cover for mediocre ideas that could be presented in a 6 page pamphlet if they were written coherently. It wouldn’t look so impressive though, would it? I’ve found Bart Ehrmann’s books to be readable, but they are more history of theology than modern theology. Since most christians don’t have a clue about even the most basic theology, never mind the sophisticated version, they are still full of useful material.

    • Posted July 4, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      Neil, it might be useful to ask theologians who consider all of us naturalists to be such philistines to make a high-level quick guide to theological arguments; the Cliff’s Notes to theology. If there’s something of substance here, we’d genuinely like to know it I think. If they really want to change our minds, this seems to be worth their time. But I’m not convinced that:

      a) …they talk to us because they really want to convince us (I think they’re mostly doing it as a confrontation to the secular world to score points in their own community and make themselves feel awesome

      b) Plus, once we have such a quick-guide, then they lose the “they don’t understand sophisticated argument X Y and Z” retort

      c) And finally, incoherent mess doesn’t lend itself well to concise paraphrasing. An attempt at such a guide would quickly reveal this; but if there is such a guide that boils it down clearly, this would go a long way to making us take it more seriously.

      • Posted July 4, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

        “a high-level quick guide to theological arguments; the Cliff’s Notes to theology.”

        “Theology for Dummies”?

        But that invites the question – who else?

  8. Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    Reasons for God Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller provides an accessible well written piece with scholarly review. It juxtaposes atheistic academic viewpoints with theological viewpoints.

    • SAWells
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      Do any of the theological viewpoints actually provide any evidence for the existence of gods?

      • Posted July 4, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

        Don’t think they’re supposed to. Isn’t theology about the nature of God? It takes the deity’s existence as read. If it didn’t it would have nothing to obfuscate.

        • Posted July 4, 2011 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

          Ah, but sophisticated theology is smarter than that. Their god is beyond exitence or non-existence.

    • TruthOverfaith
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 2:03 am | Permalink

      Actually, Tim Keller’s book is often nauseatingly juvenile in its arguments.

      There’s a good critique of this book on Neil Godfrey’s blog: vridar.wordpress.com

      • EvolutionSWAT
        Posted July 6, 2011 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

        I also found it pretty childish and it seemed clear that Keller was not aware of the reasons atheists really disbelieve.

        He also uses the word ‘skeptic’ to refer to people who have never thought about their beliefs, or who believe that if there is no God you should be healthy and use drugs …

        I will have to check out that blog review.

        I am an atheist with a pretty good academic background and I find it very annoying when I am approached by Christians who think they understand my worldview and can re-convert me because they just finished reading Keller’s book.

  9. Matt
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    A few of my Christian friends and family are talking about some kind of “simulation” theology, where God is running the universe as some kind of grand simulation, and that it’s our “patterns in the simulation” which will be preserved after we die. This isn’t really anything new, of course (it’s just a different metaphor, possibly addressing some questions about dualism), but it reminds me a bit of Stanislaw Lem’s story, “The Seventh Sally”:

    http://themindi.blogspot.com/2007/02/chapter-18-seventh-sally-or-how-trurls.html

    • Badger3k
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      See if you can get them to provide the evidence that leads them to believe this might be true. I’d love to hear it.

      • Matt
        Posted July 4, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

        I think the argument is that it’s the most responsible way to be an agnostic theist. None of us knows, but if it were true this is the simplest form it could take (“all intelligence is artificial intelligence,” “all physics is simulated,” etc.). I recall hearing John Polkinghorne making similar arguments — that you can have resurrection without a soul and without mind-body duality, if you trust god to remember how you were put together… but of course this succumbs to the standard “who created God” (or “simulations all the way up”) infinite regress.

      • Posted July 4, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

        You have to take the blue pill. Or was it the red pill?

        • Steersman
          Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

          Go ask Alice; I’m sure she’ll know. In any case, remember what the Dormouse said …

    • piero
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      I had no idea “The Mind’s I” was online. Thank you for this. Is it legit, though?

      • Matt
        Posted July 4, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know if it’s legit, but it’s been exceedingly helpful to have available for certain discussions. I just stumbled upon it one day while I was looking for more work by Raymond Smullyan.

    • Matt
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

      Ha ha:

      ARGUMENT FROM “THE MATRIX”
      (1) We cannot prove that we don’t live in a Matrix-like world.
      (2) Therefore we cannot know reality.
      (3) If reality is contingent, then everything is possible.
      (4) Therefore, God exists.

      • Dan L.
        Posted July 6, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

        I turn this on its head.

        Theist: “You can’t be sure God doesn’t exist!”

        Me: “I am at least as sure that God doesn’t exist as I am that I’m not in the Matrix.”

        That’s the most certain I can possibly be; if none of my experiences are valid, no inferences made from them can be valid. I have neither the need nor the ability to be any more certain than I am of these things.

  10. Corda
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    Ditto with the 1978 “revelation” by Mormon bigwigs that it was okay after all for blacks to enter its priesthood.

    A tiny correction: there is only one such Mormon bigwig, and he has a direct connection with God. In 1978 God told the bigwig about the new policy on blacks, and then the bigwig told everyone else.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

      True, Mormons believe today that the current President is a “Prophet, seer, and revelator”. Joseph Smith Jr. had no less than three “revelations” (in God’s voice) declaring him to be a Prophet and leader of the Church. But he also “revealed” that God had named his brothers as prophets as well. Truly the most blatantly fabricated religion that had ever existed.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prophet,_seer,_and_revelator

      • Kevin
        Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

        I beg to differ. $cientology was deliberately created by L. Ron Hubbard as a tax scam. And succeeded beyond his wildest expectations.

        We don’t know if Joseph Smith was self-delusional or not. We do know that Hubbard openly acknowledged that he created his religion out of whole cloth because it was a good way to make money.

        • Bryan
          Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink

          I’ve been reading through the accumulated comments in my inbox, and I was waiting for this response to Bernard’s comment! I think I agree that Mormonism and Scientology are the two most ridiculous religions, but I’ve always been partial to anecdotes about cargo cults as well. Any other contenders?

          • Joan
            Posted July 4, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

            For ridiculous cults how about Christian Science? For about 10 to 12 years of my early youth I was exposed to this…but it didn’t take! I have Mary B Eddy’s book…I found it unreadable!

            • Bernard J. Ortcutt
              Posted July 4, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

              But it’s always hard to decide who was more delusional, Mary Baker Eddy or Seventh-Day Adventism’s Ellen G. White? 19th Century New England was the Silicon Valley of religious enthusiasm.

        • Helena Constantine
          Posted July 4, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink

          Actually, Smith created Mormonism in furtherance of various bank frauds and stock scams he was running, as well as counterfeiting, and also, like David Koresh, to have access to a large supply of young women. He certainly was not delusion in the sense of actually believing his so-called revelation. Smith was eventually in a position where he either had to face years in federal prison or become dictator, he chose the latter but was lynched before his somewhat fantastic ambitions could be realized. Young carried on the same way, and eventually had to move the whole operation to Mexico when the Marshalls were coming for him. After the war with Mexico brought Utah into the US, the government decided not to enforce the warrants for the arrest of Young and other leading Mormons because it would have meant another war, and it seemed easier just to let them live in their isolation.

          This is still the thing to read on Mormonism (despite the title it also deals with Smith):

          Hirshson, Stanley. The Lion of the Lord: A Biography of Brigham Young. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.

          • Notagod
            Posted July 4, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

            I haven’t read Lion of the Lord but I have read Blood of the Prophets and it is good. It details the mode of operation that the mormons used to defeat the US army’s attempt to enter “their” territory and the incredibly (not that their actions against the US army weren’t) disgusting actions that lead to the Mountain Meadow Massacre in which the mormons slaughtered a wagon train of men, women, and children as they were leaving “mormon” territory (which the mormons have refused to take full responsibility for). The mormons are quite proud of the tactics that were used then and they practice the spirit of those tactics today as well. Blood of the Prophets also gives a good account of the beginnings of mormonism. After reading the book I think anyone might think twice before voting for a mormon. The book has received several awards.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_of_the_Prophets

            • Posted July 4, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

              “Trouble Enough” [Smith] and “This is the place”[Young] by Ernest H. Taves (Prometheus) are also good.

              • Posted July 4, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

                “Trouble Enough” includes a textual analysis of the Book of Mormon showing it has only one author (plagiarism from the KJV excepted). What it does not do is compare that with anything indisputably written by Smith.

          • Strider
            Posted July 5, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

            I much enjoyed the book “Under the Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer. It has an excellent history of Mormonism as a background to understanding a contemporary murder mystery.

        • MosesZD
          Posted July 4, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

          Smith was a convicted con-man who started a Church. The evidence that he made it up is overwhelming and reading Mormon Church History (and figuring this out) is the number one cause given on ex-Mormon forums for why the left the church.

          There is a great summation of his criminal/fraud here: http://www.bibletopics.com/biblestudy/162-4.htm

          It is not complete. But it is accurate.

  11. Hempenstein
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    I feel your pain. JBCobb is way worse than Thomas Dubay – I didn’t think that was possible. Not long ago I allowed myself to get goaded into reading “The Evidential Power of Beauty”, and in return the goader would read WEIT. I got 31pgs into Dubay (at which point he flatly declared that there were no intermediate forms) before my head exploded.

    Bafflegab persists because there’s nothing there, and that’s hard to attack.

  12. Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    Lest you forget the infinite potentiality of prehending the meta-narrative within a postpatriarchal paradigm.

  13. Steve
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    “Why am I reading theology?”

    The same reason you won’t admit it’s a blog? :-)

    • Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      Simple: Jerry does not have free-will. His will now appears to be in the possession of one Eric MacDonald. ;)

      • Notagod
        Posted July 4, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

        Lard works in mysterious ways.

    • Arthur
      Posted September 2, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      Maybe because you want to understand your opponents actual arguments?

  14. NewEnglandBob
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    …And they claim torture and self-flagellation ended in the middle ages. Bafflegab multiplies and oozes from wherever it is fabricated.

  15. J
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    I look forward to any answers to those questions! Hopefully we’ll be able to understand the answers…

  16. Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    “A lot of what they have to say is postmodern or obscure bafflegab, and I’m starting to believe that this obscurantism is deliberate”

    They have to resort to obfuscated lingual techniques and modes of thought-transference that are “post-modern” because, well, Latin is a dead language. Much in the same reason it used to be forbidden to translate the Bible from Latin into the local vernacular.

    Seriously, whenever I hear theological arguments, it puts me in the mind of Trekkies at a Star Trek convention where they argue the nuances of inter-stellar relations.

    In Klingon.

  17. Martin
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    “how do you know that what you’re saying describes anything about reality?”

    This really sums it up – they’re assuming the thing exists when debating the nature of it. It’s the difference between belief and knowledge. It would be like my debating _why_ my favourite hockey team is sure to win the Stanley Cup this year without waiting until the season is over to see if they actually win it.

    Is there any mention at all of the need for observation and evidence to understand the nature of god? Or is it assumed that all you need is language and the thoughts in your head to “know” why god, say, doesn’t want you to eat pork?

    • Rob
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      No. It’s more like debating why the Yankees will win the Stanley Cup.

  18. Egbert
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    You’re not seeing the emperor’s full dash of vibrant and sublime threads and embroidery. Anyone who claims there are no emperor’s clothes is obviously ignorant of the finer points of modern emperor fashion.

  19. Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    You could make the same criticisms about philosophy and some other academic subjects.

    • Marta
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      Well, yes. And?

    • AT
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:11 am | Permalink

      oh there is so many academic subjects that are not “science”

      and philosophy is not “science”

      and religion is not “science”

      jerry likes pain :) and is meddling with mental health when he trying to read theology

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink

      Academic Philosophy in the United States isn’t Postmodernist. You have to go to Comparative Literature, English, or Religious Studies Departments to find “Continental Philosophy”.

      • Posted July 4, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        Also cult studs, and probably anthropology.

        • Posted July 4, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

          Oh, I didn’t realise straight away that “cult studs” meant (?) “cultural studies” … I imagined some kind of uncritically venerated jocks…

          /@

          • AdamK
            Posted July 4, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

            Muscle boys with cryptic tattoos.

  20. Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    What knowledge about the world (or about god) has theology produced?

    Heck, by this point, I’d settle for any theological claim that 90% of theologians could agree on – other than “God exists and he is important”, of course.

  21. Erp
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    As far as I can see, theology “progresses” only when it has to quickly regroup to deal with either scientific advances or changes in secular morality (e.g., it’s wrong to have slaves and oppress women).

    Or philosophical ideas, in the early days, Platonism, later Aristotle.

    I would consider theology more like art than a science. It has different types whose views may well clash (consider any Christian theologian versus any Muslim theologian). It also asks many questions some of which may be worthwhile but don’t necessarily need a God and generally overlap with philosophy (think ethics which both theologians and philosophers claim or how to live a worthwhile life). BTW even before asking whether God exists, the question what is the definition of God being used must be asked and either held to or explicitly redefined.

  22. Nicolae C.
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    “I’m starting to think that modern theology is simply postmodern literary criticism applied to a single book of fiction.”

    Um, excuse me, postmodern critical theory is very super important and meaningful and if you disagree you’ve just been blinded by your precolonial analytical philosophical bias.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go describe something obvious with lots of syllables and arbitrary distinctions.

  23. Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    This is a waste of time. Theology is all marketing and sales discourse — whatever triggers behavior is used.

    Internal consistency and logic are irrelevant. It’s all about triggering the desired behavior-feelings — like all magical discourse.

    Since thee are no material references to the words they are nonsensical and meaningless.

  24. Coel
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    “I’m starting to believe that this obscurantism is deliberate”

    It sure is! “Theology” is the making up of excuses for why there is no evidence for the existence of God.

    Obscurantism is a deliberate and necessary tactic, aimed at giving the impression of a deep, erudite wisdom beyond the ken of the kid who says the emperor has no clothes.

  25. Marta
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Theologians can’t think straight. Why should they write better than they think?

  26. Steve
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    We’re always told that we are attacking a straw man idea of religion and this claim is usually accompanied with the statment that that’s not “real” religion. So I’ve come up with a simple short definition of “real” religion.

    Real religion is whatever modern society lets religion get away with.

    • AT
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      I would refine your definition

      to

      “Real religion is whatever current state of institutionalization of science leaves to it”

      At the moment very few areas are approaching “PURE SCIENCE”

      The examples would be “scienitst in their lab doing mathematics, physics, evolutionary biology”

      As soon as those scientists step out of their lab they turn into “laymnen” who would regurgitate “goo of institutionalized ignorance” in order to be “successful” and “climb-up” the “pyramid of pecking order” that we can observe in animal kingdom and that is the basis for aristocratization in mankind

      Most of the “soft sciences” are not sciences at all: economics, political science, etc. are only slightly different from religion since all the pronouncements and opinions there have no connection to reality of human condition when the latter examined from phenomenological positions of pure science

      • Bryan
        Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink

        Are you suggesting that economies and politicians have the same standing in empirical reality as “god”? I disagree that these “soft sciences” have “no” connection to reality. It may, at times, be a tenuous connection, but it still has a greater connection than theology.

        • Tacroy
          Posted July 5, 2011 at 12:34 am | Permalink

          Yeah, I’d disagree with that too. A political scientist can rest assured that politicians actually exist, and an economist has small physical representations of economical value in his wallet.

          Theology doesn’t try to pass even this low bar. That is, in my opinion, why it is full of “bafflegab” – the “hardness” of a science is a function of how often the soft rock of theory is never brought up against the grindstone of reality. The softer the science, the less often it is tested against reality (and there may be practical reasons why this is so – you can’t create a control country, after all).

          In theology, they seem to say “we’ll just assume that the grindstone doesn’t exist, and continue on from there”.

  27. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Deepities, all the way down.

  28. Rob
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    “What are the arguments for god’s existence in the new sophisticated theology that aren’t taken up and refuted in The God Delusion?”

    Jerry Coyne is just so silly and unsophisticated. He is still hidebound by his crude evidentialism.

    Seriously though, Coyne’s questions do presuppose certain commitments to what counts as knowledge, and those commitments are exactly what is in dispute.

    It is a waste of time to ask a post-modern theologian for arguments and evidence for her beliefs, because she thinks arguments and evidence are unnecessary.

    • Hayden Scott
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      So what should Jerry and others ask post-modern theologians? What is necessary to the beliefs of such theologians?

      • Rob
        Posted July 4, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

        That would be a better place to start, rather than asking questions from a perspective of evidentialism that they have already rejected.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

      Seriously though, Coyne’s questions do presuppose certain commitments to what counts as knowledge, and those commitments are exactly what is in dispute.

      In dispute among whom? They seem to have been resolved pretty satisfactorily to me.

      It is a waste of time to ask a post-modern theologian for arguments and evidence for her beliefs, because she thinks arguments and evidence are unnecessary.

      Then the burden on them is to show how it is possible to gain and confirm reliable knowledge any other way, something no philosopher has ever been able to do.

      • Rob
        Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

        truthspeaker,

        You are preaching to the choir. The dispute is with the theologians he is reading, and the dispute is about epistemology.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted July 5, 2011 at 7:44 am | Permalink

          I would argue that once they admit that their belief is not based on facts or evidence that they have conceded our point. A belief not based on facts is a delusion almost by definition.

  29. Finbarr
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    Having studied theology at Cambridge myself, I feel remotely able to try to answer your questions (bear in mind that I am an atheist, so my answers will not necessarily be those of theologians):

    1. What are the arguments for god’s existence in the new sophisticated theology that aren’t taken up and refuted in The God Delusion?

    -Honestly, there aren’t any. Either theology uses some sort of god-of-the-gaps argument or it defines the word ‘God’ as meaning something totally different and vague, a ‘Ground of Being’ for instance. This God is so far removed from the God of the Bible that it seems intellectually dishonest to use the same term. At best (and it’s pushing it) theology presents arguments for some kind of moralistic therapeutic deism, not Christianity. As you point out, most theologians assume God as axiomatic (think of Plantinga and ‘properly basic’ beliefs) and proceed from there.

    2. Has theology really “progressed”?

    -Not in the sense of finding out new knowledge about God (as there is no such knowledge to find out). Theological ‘progress’ seems to be measured in the ability to reconcile religion with new, real, progress in science. Progressive theology is ‘progressive’ in the sense of being able to read religious myth as myth rather than as literal fact.

    3. What knowledge about the world (or about god) has theology produced?

    -As above, no knowledge of God, but I would argue that theology has produced knowledge of the (human) world in as far as it studies and comments on the beliefs held by millions. See theology as anthropology and it can be considered as a way to understand how the religious think.

    4. Is theology anything more than a bunch of smart people making stuff up and couching it in academic language?

    -Yes, Sometimes it’s a bunch of dumb people who have convinced everyone they are smart by being able to use obscure language!

  30. daveau
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Empiricist that JAC is, I see why he has to make the attempt. To go back to Cuttlefish’s answer at #1, it is a waste of time. But not because there are no facts to be found (which is probably the case), rather because the people with whom he is arguing are not remotely interested in facts.

    • lylebot
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      I am now convinced that the only reason they say we have to read “sophisticated theology” is that they’re hoping to distract us for a while. They don’t actually know anything about it either. Once they’ve realized that argument is a non-starter, they’ll just move on to some other distraction.

      We should all follow Jerry and start demanding that they read this “sophisticated theology” and tell us what’s supposed to be so sophisticated about it.

  31. Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    You can stop torturing yourself since I’ve done the work for you, just visit the theology page at Nat.Org, where there’s considerable analysis, supplementary to Dawkins’ and other’s, of the epistemic shortcomings of theists, http://www.naturalism.org/theology.htm

    As you suggest, the central question is whether empiricism has a rival in giving us reliable grounds for beliefs about the world, for instance the existence of God and (contra-causal) free will. Theologians generally claim it does (e.g., in our access to “first person data”), or they claim that the project of knowing requires supernatural backup to block the self-refuting skepticism brought on by naturalism (e.g., Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism). When theologians and their students take these approaches they can actually be engaged in useful philo-scientific debate, some examples of which are at http://www.naturalism.org/theology.htm#worldviews , http://www.naturalism.org/objectivity.htm
    and http://www.naturalism.org/Heritage%20Christian.htm

    • Posted July 4, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      Your last link here is pure gold, and should be read by everyone! Really well-written, clear and open, a perfect example of how to engage with people who takes truth seriously. (It’s a shame the latter part of my sentence – people who takes truth seriously – is the biggest problem we face in this world …)

  32. MadSimon
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Don’t sink in the stuff before they give you a reason to do it, Jerry. It’s not knowledge, in the sense that it has no validation other than its own self consistency and That, alchemy has it.

    You have a method that supports every claim with sh*tloads of evidence, has predictive power in time, dispenses huge benefits to mankind, achieves stunning, otherwise irreplicable results (going to the moon), expands the senses hugely, and has found and put to use a number of unseen patterns in nature(again, supported by evidence and useful).

    We have indeed some powerful method & knowledge. If any other subject is to compete on the ground of who’s right/wrong, it should first argue for its validity.

    What did they deduce-discover that is tangible, what use is their subject, what power do they have on reality, what superior perception-grasp do they have(AND which is reliable)

    In short, what does this do, that a completely made up piece of pseudoknowlege doesn’t?

    If you want mine, they’re just trying to deny all of the above :) By exhuming epistemological cliches (can’t trust yo senses)
    Or arguing that science is “only a description” (to which i say, find me a “mere description” that does all of the above)

  33. William Stewart
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    A good source of arguments for the existence of god (and convincing refutations) is Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s “36 Arguments for the Existence of God.” I also have wondered if the supposedly more sophisticated theological arguments would refute Richard Dawkins’s arguments in “The God Delusion.” Steven Weinberg wrote that theological questions never get settled because they are not about anything real.

    • Posted July 4, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      William, I’m glad you mentioned that book. One of the best “novels of ideas” I’ve seen in the last few years. HIGHLY recommended, first and foremost for sheer enjoyment.

    • Posted July 4, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      Clarificatin – by “that book” I meant Goldstein’s 36 Arguments.

  34. Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Why am I doing this to you? For a very simple reason. Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, et co. have been accused of ignoring an important part of the argument, namely, the substance of what theologians have to say. Badham’s book is an introductory text, a collection of essays, by modern theologians. Once you have read them you will see precisely what you have seen, and you cannot now be accused of ignoring theology and its argumentation, but have an armoury filled with torpedoes, land mines, and other ordnance that can be used whenever someone says that you are an unsophisticated lout who couldn’t be bothered to read some serious theology.

    One of the things that Badham’s book makes clear — and you need to be clear in your mind about this — is not only how insubstantial theology really is, but how it is, in a sense, a kind of a Jungle Book of “just so” stories, each of them trying to make theological ideas consistent with the world the theologian takes himself or herself to be living in. Some of this is done in response to science, some to social change, some in response to intellectual fads like postmodernism, some to take into account what biblical scholars have concluded by a critical reading of the Bible, and so on. To have this clear in your mind should help to put your theological opponent in a very invidious position vis-a-vis you.

    It won’t be time entirely wasted, because you will have a greater familiarity with just how wide of the mark theology is, and how internally inconsistent it tends to be. The tensions within theology are implosive. It’s not like disagreements in philosophy, which can go on for ever, but at least have a purchase on the real world, and how the meaning of what we say needs to be clarified; theology is truly in self-destructive tension all the time, and in the end it arcs back to a kind of conservative search and rescue operation, because the source of all theology lies in the scriptures and/or the tradition of the religion. That’s where new age woo comes in, because it’s not tied down to anything at all, and so can say anything it likes, but there are parameters in theology, even if they are unclear, because ancient scriptures have to be given contemporary expression.

    The introduction to the collection makes the irrelevance of theology pretty clear, I think, and the various papers in the book simply back up this original impression. I know, you’d be better off reading other things, but if you read this your opponent can’t simply blow you away with the easy, “Well, I can see you are theologically unsophisticated. Theologians would say ….” And even if, as DiscoveredJoys says, it’s deepities all the way down, you’ll see how deep the deepities go, and how little is accomplished in the process.

    • Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      The Hermeneutics of Suspicion.

      • Posted July 4, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

        Indeed, precisely what is needed. But using the hermeneutics of suspicion helps to turn what might be wasted time into time well spent. It exercises the “little grey cells”, as Poirot liked to say, and it helps to see more clearly just what kinds of tales people have to tell themselves in order to go on believing that that they really do believe.

    • Hempenstein
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      Eric,
      Just curious, do you have a sense of what % of your erstwhile/former colleagues do you suppose have come around to/secretly admit to your conclusions?

      • Posted July 4, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        I wouldn’t even hazard a guess. I know that at least some of them have beliefs which they believe, if they were to speak about them frankly, would be thought, by those whom they serve, not to be Christian at all. But I suspect that few of them would be prepared to go quite so far as I have gone — and I may not have done it either, if I had not had a covergence of several factors which conspired together over a period of years to force the issue for me. Belief in belief is very very strong, especially for those who were caught young, and heavily indoctrinate.

        • Hempenstein
          Posted July 5, 2011 at 6:43 am | Permalink

          Thanks. Indeed, early indoctrination seems to be a powerful factor, as those who started the whole business probably learned long, long ago. Catholics seem to have particularly perfected the process.

          My question was partly motivated by a lifelong friend’s comment, that he had come to feel that his father, a Methodist minister, no longer believed any of the mythology.

  35. Jack van Beverningk
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Does one really have to read all Sylvia Browne’s dozens (!) of books, in order to refute her?

    If not: how are theologians’ books different in that respect?

    • Jack van Beverningk
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      Err.. never mind, I think Mr. MacDonald, above, just answered that question.

  36. Greg Myers
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Not a professional theologian, but in the course of getting an M.Div., I wrestled with a lot of these questions. With regards to Christian traditions, yes, theology often assumes the reality of its subject. Some theologians hold that the very ability to believe is an act of grace from God. Though the substance of the theology comes from witnesses (the Bible, the community of the faithful), the starting place is God’s act of reaching out to an individual, enabling them to believe.

    In this context, much of theology would be akin to the explanations offered by scientists when they make up a story that describes the potential advantages of an evolutionary adaptation, and so offers an opinion as to why a particular trait was selected.

    How do we “know” that God has a particular trait, or that the soul exists, or how substitutionary atonement works? We don’t know in any demonstrable sense, and theology is not intended to provide knowledge on that level. Perhaps what it offers should be termed satisfaction- after wresting with a particular theological idea, we may become satisfied that a particular way of looking at something is accurate (with our degree of required certainty determined by our level comfort with ambiguity).

    Instead, we have faith that certain revelations are true, and use theology to “process” those revelations into ways of explaining our particular understanding God and the life of faith (what does it mean, for example, that “God is love” or that baptism is a meaningful act).

    Of course, others will insist that they do have certain knowledge of what they believe, because they assert there is only one way to interpret their revelation. The multiplicity of interpretations, and the impossibility that any one sect provide any compelling evidence (or even reason) for a particular set of beliefs underscores the speculative nature of theology.

    What do we know as a result of theology? At best, what a particular theologian thinks.

    Does theology progress? No, it adapts to the times and culture it finds itself in.

    Can theology demonstrate the existence of God, or any theological concept? No, because theology is at base the explication of revelation- of things that would be hidden but for God breaking into the world and providing information and direction. It is, in this context, the relationship between the person and the divine- something to be accepted, not demonstrated.

    I suppose the final question is “Does theology refer to anything that actually exists?” From my perspective, only in that many of us have a hunger for transcendence – in the sense that Sam Harris commends. It seems very unlikely that any supernatural being exists, so theology is fiction. But like some fiction, theology can be engaging, to the degree that it addresses the understanding and practice of transcendence. Of course, given that transcendence is not a theological issue at all, theology is probably not the best venue in which to develop our understanding and practice.

    • Steersman
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      It is, in this context, the relationship between the person and the divine- something to be accepted, not demonstrated.

      Seems then to be a fundamental if not unbridgeable divide between science and religion. William James said that we should “never forget that the natural-science assumptions with which we started are provisional and revisable things”. Theology – religion at least, particularly of the fundamentalist type – starts with an assumption that it will only revise, much less abandon, at the peril of its soul – and those of its adherents. It starts with a hypothetical premise – “If god exists …” – and leaps, eliding and jettisoning all sense and reason, to “god exists”. Terribly problematic and decidedly dangerous.

      But like some fiction, theology can be engaging, to the degree that it addresses the understanding and practice of transcendence.

      Certainly fiction has some significant and profound benefits, but it is quite dangerous, I think, to be blurring the lines between fact and fiction – “that way madness lies”. If the Bible was printed with a preface stating that “this is a work of fiction; any correspondence between characters herein and real people or entities, living or dead, is entirely coincidental – and highly improbable” then many of the problems due to that “strain of psychopathology known as fundamentalism, whether Texan or Taliban” would be obviated. That theology does not emphasize that distinction then to that extent I think it is equally culpable.

      • Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

        Our transcendent experiences serve to confirm what we already believe. The social context of belief (church, synagogue, mosque)reinforces and rewards that belief.

        Theology is the process of explaining how what we believe is true. Because of the intimate and communal nature of belief, there is very little incentive to question, let alone revise, our understanding of faith – I suspect that most of us are simply too busy to be bothered, or perhaps unwilling to pay the price in risk to relationships and social status.

        • Steersman
          Posted July 5, 2011 at 12:40 am | Permalink

          Interesting and informative perspective on your experiences – thanks. Although I think most here are likely to have different criteria they would use to confirm or test what you apparently already believe to be true. While you didn’t indicate which religion or church you’re part of, it seems like the Catholic Catechism is likely to provide a reasonable approximation to a common set of beliefs. And a central one seems to be the belief in the literal crucifixion and resurrection and the “life everlasting” for those who believe. So, how do you confirm that that is the case? What possible rewards are there simply for believing, particularly in the absence of evidence? Would look like being bought off with cheap trinkets, at least in comparison, if it’s not true.

          As for “theology being the process of explaining what we believe is true”, that really isn’t evidence that it is true – simply believing something is true does not make it so, or the world would be flat and at the center of the solar system, and humanity wouldn’t have abandoned the thousands of other gods we’ve believed in over the millennia. And while I’m sure there are some significant benefits just from being part of a community, that is no guarantee that the community is ethical or has the least handle on the truth or is even sane – as David Koresh and the Branch Davidians should attest. Every place of refuge has its price.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

        “That theology does not emphasize that distinction then to that extent I think it is equally culpable.”

        And that’s the main beef I have with “liberal” and “moderate” believers. By remaining silent on the distinction between fiction and reality, they cede the point to those members of their traditions who insist that the stories represent reality.

        • Steersman
          Posted July 5, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

          An entirely reasonable beef – part of a whole herd of course, so to speak … :-)

          But I find it rather interesting and somewhat amusing how various religious groups across the spectrum try to fit science, evolution in particular, into their traditional religious dogma. And some actually seem prepared to accept a more metaphorical interpretation, at least, to the latter.

          For example, you may be aware of this group, the Clergy Letter Project, which accepts evolution and tends to support a non-literal interpretation of Scripture, although I haven’t figured out yet how far that goes. But Francis Collin’s BioLogos looks a little more unable to disentangle itself from its fundamentalist and literalist roots – shows some evidence of being a shot-gun marriage that’s never going to work.

          But I have to give them credit for trying and give what assistance I can – Rome, and the Roman Catholic Church weren’t built in a day and it won’t be torn down in a generation – although the Soviet Union, another equally fascist complex, collapsed in a rush …

          Which suggests one of my own beefs. One might reasonably forgive – to some extent – many of the faithful for their delusions on the grounds of being unable to deal with the issues – time, skills, inclinations. But theologians and priests seem to have no such excuses. Looks like in many if not most cases the flocks are being badly served, if not egregiously fleeced, by their shepherds …

          • jay
            Posted July 6, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

            I have a real objection to groups like that, they misrepresent both evolution and religion and muddy up the discussion.

            Let’s be hones. The fundies are right evolution is not compatible with religion. Period. When you understand evolution you realize there is no divine plan, our existence is the outworking of many events and circumstances. Evolution has no need for heaven, hell, or a soul. Evolution demonstrates that we are simply animals, smart apes, with no link in an ineffable divine. We are not created in anyone’s image, we have no obligations to anyone (other than each other). We have no original sin. We have no ‘purpose’ either as individuals or as a group.

            Pull all that out of religion and what do you have left? a chess club?

            • Steersman
              Posted July 7, 2011 at 12:07 am | Permalink

              I have a real objection to groups like that, they misrepresent both evolution and religion and muddy up the discussion.

              While that is no doubt true of some groups, I don’t think that it applies to them all. As you suggest and as I have argued, it is the fundamentalists, those who are Biblical literalists, who are the most problematic, but I am not willing to tar all forms of theism with the same brush and risk, as the saying goes, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

              For example one “Christian” minister, Gretta Vosper, wrote a book titled “With or Without God” wherein she argues, among other points (I haven’t read it yet), for a “post-Christian church” and that

              “Those who recognize the Bible’s claim to be the [literal] word of God as the monster in the tub with the baby are the ones who must throw that monster out with the bathwater” [MacLean’s, March 31, 2008].

              In addition, even Dr. Coyne apparently holds out the hope or idea that some degree of rapprochement with less dogmatic faiths is possible:

              Now I am not claiming that all faith is incompatible with science and secular reason–only those faiths whose claims about the nature of the universe flatly contradict scientific observations. Pantheism and some forms of Buddhism seem to pass the test.

              Personally, I would add panentheism to that – which may be encompassed by Buddhism – as that would seem to elevate the phenomenon of consciousness to a more central, if not fundamental, role in the scheme of things. Although that is, of course and at best, just a conjecture …

    • Posted July 4, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      I generally agree with you on the last point, that offering “transcendence” or catharsis or spirituality or whatever might be important, but I state that as a lot of religious groups do a horrible job of providing that in the first place, and what they do provide has nothing to do with (and often runs right in the face of “complex theology) theology, that to say that theology provides it I think rings rather hollow.

      • Posted July 4, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink

        I should add that I strongly believe that because so many religious groups fail so strongly at this, it results in people having to “try harder”, I.E. fake it which really elevates the negative aspects of religion. Be it atheist/gay/race bashing or terrorism or whatever.

        • Posted July 4, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

          Greg Myers wrote

          In this context, much of theology would be akin to the explanations offered by scientists when they make up a story that describes the potential advantages of an evolutionary adaptation, and so offers an opinion as to why a particular trait was selected.

          That’s sort of like the creationist use of Darwin’s remarks about the eye: It ignores the next paragraph. In this case, the next paragraph reads something like “And that opinion constitutes a testable hypothesis which provides predictions of Intersubjectively observable phenomena which one can then go into the field or laboratory and systematically assess.” That’s the step that theology inevitably misses and is why it cannot in the end contribute anything reliable to the sum of human knowledge..

          • Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

            “That’s the step that theology inevitably misses and is why it cannot in the end contribute anything reliable to the sum of human knowledge..” Theology can add to the sum of human knowledge, but not through providing accurate information about God (or gods).

            The things that people do in a religious context often involve a search for such things as purpose, significance, right action (both personally, and as a community) and consolation. Theology offers guidance and direction for people who want to know how to live well – in fact, a life well-lived may be viewed as one of the chief consequences of a religious life. Theology ends up offering quite a lot of information in this arena, much of it fairly successful.

            That this guidance is anchored in a view of the world that we have come to recognize as inaccurate does not change this fact. These inaccurate assumptions (as to the existence of gods, and what it is that these imaginary beings want us to do) do create any number of problems, both as to the quality of theology’s guidance, and theology’s inability to deal with new information. I do think this limits the usefulness of a lot of theology, especially when theologians attempt to keep the assumptions and perspectives a particular religious tradition, yet find themselves unable to assert that the original revelations are factual and authoritative.

    • Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

      “With regards to Christian traditions, yes, theology often assumes the reality of its subject. Some theologians hold that the very ability to believe is an act of grace from God.”

      This reminds me of the BIOS of a computer, that pulls a start programme from the hard drive, that starts other programmes, and so on. “God exists” is in the BIOS, and pulls the whole labyrithine (sometimes literally Byzantine) edifice, be it Muslim or Jewish or Reconstructed Latter Day Saints, together and makes it stand up like a Pop-up book.

      So is atheism more like Linux or a Mac?

      (Obviously the nasty, shonky kinds of religiou are Gatesean….)

    • SAWells
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 3:06 am | Permalink

      Please specify how exactly God “breaks into the world” and “provides information and direction”, and who this “God” is anyway. Always apply the Santa Claus test; would it make sense to study how Santa breaks into your house and provides presents?

      • Greg Myers
        Posted July 5, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think God breaks into the world and communicates anything. I think God is a hypothesis that, like N-rays (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N_ray), appeared to be a real thing, but ended up being an artifact of our perception.

  37. dguller
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    If you want to read something that is actually written in a clear and compelling fashion that might contest some of your beliefs, then I would highly recommend Ed Feser’s “The Last Superstition” and his “Aquinas”. And that is coming from an atheist who has read lots of theist and atheist literature.

    • Rob
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      I have read “The Last Superstition” and hardly found it clear and certainly not compelling.

      If you dig down into Feser’s arguments, you discover that he is doing exactly the same thing these modern theologians are doing: just making stuff up.

      The difference is that Feser, who buys into old school natural theology, at least thinks that arguments and evidence can “prove” that God exists. But, he builds his arguments on a foundation of made up non-sense.

      • dguller
        Posted July 4, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

        Any examples of arguments of his that were based upon nonsensical premises? I certainly thought his elucidation of aquinas’ first three ways were really compelling. I couldn’t find any flaw in his reasoning. That being said, that doesn’t prove God at all.

        • Rob
          Posted July 4, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

          It’s been a while sense I read the book, but I can recall one of the arguments relied on something called an “essential series” or maybe an “essentially ordered causal series”. Whatever he called it, it was completely made up.

          Also, please realize that the overwhelming opinion of philosophers is that Aquinas’s arguments fail. This is even the opinion of many if not most Christian philosophers. That is why most of these modern guys have given up natural theology.

          Feser is a very fringe, even for someone in the already fringe discipline of philosophy of religion.

          • Eric
            Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

            “but I can recall one of the arguments relied on something called an “essential series” or maybe an “essentially ordered causal series”. Whatever he called it, it was completely made up.”

            How so? You haven’t been specific at all. All you’ve said is, “It’s made up”; you haven’t actually shown (1) that you properly understood it, and (2) precisely what’s wrong with it. Could you perhaps be clearer?

            “Also, please realize that the overwhelming opinion of philosophers is that Aquinas’s arguments fail. This is even the opinion of many if not most Christian philosophers. That is why most of these modern guys have given up natural theology.”

            There are a number of separate issues here that you seem to have muddled up a bit.

            First, there’s the obvious problem of appealing to a ‘consensus’ that I don’t know how you justify. Can you point me to some data on this? I ask because even philosophers are often unaware of the state of the discipline on a particular issue, even when that issue is one concerned with their AOS. For example, Dennett has claimed that there are hardly any dualists in philosophy today, which is patently false. (Just take a cursory glance at the literature and you’ll see a host of dualists, of all kinds.) That is, he seems to mistake the fact that the among the more prominent philosophers of mind, few are dualists, for the notion that there are few dualists among all philosophers.

            Second, among those who reject Aquinas’s arguments, how many are specialists in philosophy of religion?

            Third, there’s a huge range involved in the vague notion of an argument ‘failing.’ For example, I might reject an argument *as S formulated it*, but find some new formulation compelling. Or, I may reject the notion that an argument strictly *proves* its conclusion, but still think that it gives one good reasons for accepting the conclusion. Or, I might concede that an argument has some force, but reject the conclusion on other grounds (think of David Lewis here, whose arguments for modal realism are almost universally acknowledged to be very strong, but which very few accept. Or think of Boswell’s remark about Berkeley, viz. that his arguments are irrefutable but unconvincing). or one may reject an argument because while one thinks it supports its conclusion, the conclusion isn’t necessarily what one might suppose. So, some people may find Aquinas’s arguments strong, but reject them because they don’t prove that the god of the Bible exists, and so reject them on that ground. And so on. So, in which of these senses do most philosophers think Aquinas’s arguments fail, and how do you know this?

            Fourth, I think you’re very much mistaken about natural theology. If anything, there’s a resurgence of natural theology, not a rejection of it. Think about Swinburne, Craig, Almeida, Leftow, Moreland, Hasker, Davies, Haldane, Mawson, Collins, Linville, Mavrodes, Pruss, McGrew, Ward, Adams (Marilyn and Robert), Koons, O’Connor, Stump, and so on.

            “Feser is a very fringe, even for someone in the already fringe discipline of philosophy of religion.”

            In what sense is he on the fringe? Because he’s a Thomist?

            Anyway, I’d second Dguller’s recommendation, and add a second, which I actually think should be read first, i.e. Feser’s “Aquinas.” I think it’s a better introduction that “The Last Superstition,” since it focuses primarily on developing Aquinas’s Five Ways in some detail, it engages more with current critiques of Aquinas, and it shows in greater detail how we go on to reason from the conclusions of the Five Ways to reaching conclusions about the attributes of God. I simply couldn’t recommend the book highly enough to someone with no serious philosophical or theological training who wants to understand the best arguments for the existence of God. (My only caveat would be this: It’s a book for *beginners,* so, even though it does engage with modern critiques of Aquinas, don’t expect it to address every possible concern you may have. After Feser, I’d recommend reading Stump’s “Aquinas” and Gilson’s “The Christian Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas.” From there, if you’re still interested, you should be able to make your own way.

      • Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

        In one way, God seems like and absurd creation of the imagination and easily dismissed. Indeed that’s what I did at age 12 or so. I kept being told by my liberalliberal protestant scripture teachers that God was real and a force in nature, something that seemed as realistic as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Since then I haven’t seen any reason to suspect otherwise.

        But on the other hand, it’s apparently equally obvious to others that God exists and plays a personal role in their life, and in the world as a whole. I’m concerned that I’m missing something, and i’m worried that my rejection of God is clouding my ability to take the arguments and evidence objectively. If smart people can justify otherwise irrational beliefs, how can I be sure I’m not doing the same?

        Part of my problem is that I don’t know what God conceptually means anymore. I used to have that intuitive sense that God is an immaterial being of massive power and intellect – who is an active force in this world, playing its part in the happenings of people and events. Yet when I listen to theologians like William Lane Craig and talk of God as an abstract, transcendent, outside of time, etc. I have no clue what that could possibly mean. And if I don’t know what they mean, I don’t feel comfortable rejecting it. I’m not sure how I can move on, I’m sick of being told I’m arguing a straw-man while people defend what seems an incoherent conception of God while making arguments that, to me, only make sense in that traditional theistic sense of agency that I’m told repeatedly isn’t what they mean!

        • Wowbagger
          Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

          That’s probably because the standard theological argument is to use whichever definition of God is best suited to the discussion they’re currently having.

          Basically, a good apologist’s God will always be the one that’s the answer to a question that’s not being asked – a wonderfully oleaginous combination of special pleading, category error and goalpost shifting.

  38. yesmyliege
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    “Has theology really “progressed”?

    Yes it has.

    What was once a good gig, useful for procuring ascetic food, drink, a roof over one’s head, the indulgence of publication, and the fellowship of other men has become a great gig with untold riches, global power, academic respect, and the fellowship of other men – and, possibly, young boys.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      And young girls. Let’s not pretend that the rapists in the Catholic priesthood only raped boys.

  39. caf
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    The best work of theology I know of, and have been told by others, is The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, which is a dialectical work.

    I have read very, very little theology of the last couple of centuries, and especially contemporary theology. But post-modern opacity remains the dominant style of much writing in all the humanities, as in, try reading articles in Artforum.

    Can’t help thinking by that the humanities can’t get over getting knocked off the high-prestige seat by the sciences. And Post-Modernism is their biggest volley in effort to get it back.

  40. Max
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Theology is fan fiction.

    • Tacroy
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 12:40 am | Permalink

      I’ve always said that the New Testament is a poorly written God/Mary slashfic.

  41. Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Professor Coyne,

    Verily, I say unto you –

    The answers to your questions are: none, no, none and no.

  42. Steersman
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    I’m trying to learn theology so I can meet head-on the argument that atheists are ignorant of theology and hence unqualified to combat religion.

    I admire your willingness to confront that baffle-gab – jeopardizing your sanity in the process – and wish you well in your endeavors – keep us posted from the front-lines. But as a point of reference and echoing several of your positions (I think, not having read them all), I ran across a review of The God Delusion by some “theologian” [precious little logic therein] and a cogent observation thereon by A.C. Grayling:

    Terry Eagleton charges Richard Dawkins with failing to read theology in formulating his objection to religious belief, and thereby misses the point that when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises. For example, if one concludes on the basis of rational investigation that one’s character and fate are not determined by the arrangement of the planets, stars and galaxies that can be seen from Earth, then one does not waste time comparing classic tropical astrology with sidereal astrology, or either with the Sarjatak system, or any of the three with any other construction placed on the ancient ignorances of our forefathers about the real nature of the heavenly bodies. Religion is exactly the same thing: it is the pre-scientific, rudimentary metaphysics of our forefathers, which (mainly through the natural gullibility of proselytised children, and tragically for the world) survives into the age in which I can send this letter by electronic means.

    Same sort of thing with alchemy and the earth-air-fire-water chemistry of Aristotle – not much point in analyzing the constructions based on invalid premises, except maybe as a source or method for understanding the evolution of related concepts. And sometimes there are even a few nuggets that have some utility in later theories.

    But I had a “discussion” with a theologian recently wherein he accused me of being a “”right” fighter”, in the sense of me wanting to be right, to know what was true about religious perspectives and arguments, to actually have some facts – apparently he would rather be wrong and keep his dogma. He, and theologians and religious literalists in general, really seem ticked off about asking them for evidence and leveling accusations and suggestions at them that their beliefs are tantamount to if not outright delusions. Which is somewhat dangerous too – sort of like trying to take a bone from a dog, though one that has long-since had any meat on it – as this page on Dawkins’ site will attest. Seems there’s a profound desperation to hang onto those delusions – at any cost and regardless of consequences to them or to the surrounding society.

    • SAWells
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 3:12 am | Permalink

      … he actually used “you want to be right about facts” as a criticism?

      Oh dear.

  43. 386sx
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    I know I’m repeating the frustration I’ve expressed in earlier posts, but I don’t want to waste months of my life reading this stuff if there’s nothing to be gained from it except the ability to say to my opponents, “Yes, I do know about theological schools X, Y, and Z.”

    They would have a tad more respect, but it won’t do much good other than in the respect department. The main thing is they don’t have any good evidence and they’ll always complain when people ask them for evidence, or at least claim that evidence isn’t the point.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

      Seems to me they’d be dead in the water; as “you know nothing about sophisticated theology” is just about their only argument in response to gnu (& other) criticism.

  44. Posted July 4, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Hang on, Jerry!

    I serendipitously have found you the answer. An imminent move has necessitated clearing out the clutter, including piles of books belonging to my daughter. I came across “Conversations with God” by Neale Donald Walch. It’s straight from the horses mouth (if that’s not disrespectful) and not at all taxing! In fact, you can have this copy if you want.

    • Posted July 4, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      Heh, I actually believed that series for a while. Some of it was actually interesting, while some was (even to my mind back then) complete bupkiss. At least that God had a sense of humor. He also flat out said that Neale was getting some of it wrong, but God would let it slide for now because he would understand it when he was older (i.e., went through a few more reincarnations).

      Still total fiction though, and I’ve wondered since then if Walsh actually believed he was talking to God.

      • Alan Fox
        Posted July 4, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

        Yet why should we consider Walsch less credible than other authors of dogma, such as the sources for the various Bible anthologies, the prophet Mohamed or Joseph Smith?

        Seems to me producing convincing dogma is a widespread human ability, only surpassed by the ability of other humans top succumb to it. Oh and there is the odd correlation between religious belief and ethnicity.

  45. AT
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    the goo of religious nonsense multiplies much faster than the number of scientists
    this is simply due to the fact that to become a scientist one needs to be fortunate to be exposed to certain experiences during formative years that will later be the basis of graduation to scientific method
    with religion and goo of institutionalized ignorance every one of humans is a “scholar” as soon as he is born and learns any of the languages
    this is why i will always insist that first order of priority for scientists should be to look for their own kind and only engage in discourse with those who are genuinely curious and exhibit potential to “graduate to science”
    next order of priority would be to _move into government_ and influence laws that institutionalize science and are conducive to youth becoming “scientists”; and when i talk “scientists” i do not talk about profession or occupation of “making money with science” – i talk about _living_ science in personal life and the way we think and talk
    it seems to me that scientists who are most vocal against religion and who are labeled “gnu atheists” do not pay enough attention to omnipresence of “the goo of institutionalized ignorance” and as such they inadvertently contribute to “replication of the goo” as soon as they step out of their labs

  46. Posted July 4, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Your last line says it all and is brilliant.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

      + 1

      Though it’s a tough choice–the post is full of eminently quotable passages.

  47. Dominic
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I did not realize that Whitehead was ‘religious’ after a fashion. The fact that he gave the Gifford lectures is interesting.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gifford_Lectures

    It will be illuminating to consider the Gifford accommodationist slant & mission, & that among recent lecturers were Eagleton & Rees.

  48. Posted July 4, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Jerry wrote:
    -snip-
    “I’m starting to think that modern theology is simply postmodern literary criticism applied to a single book of fiction.”

    Probably more accurate to call the book a collection of “fan fiction.”

  49. Spencer
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    “What are the arguments for god’s existence in the new sophisticated theology that aren’t taken up and refuted in The God Delusion?”

    Answer: http://www.amazon.com/Blackwell-Companion-Natural-Theology/dp/1405176571

    The arguments in the book are far more sophisticated than anything in the God Delusion.

  50. Spencer
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Here are some interesting papers by philosopher Peter Van Inwagen, some of which pertain to the philosophy of religion: http://www.andrewmbailey.com/pvi/

  51. Derek
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    “What are the arguments for god’s existence in the new sophisticated theology that aren’t taken up and refuted in The God Delusion?”

    If you are looking for arguments for the existence of God I suggest Reasonable Faith by Dr. William Lane Craig. He has both a doctorate of theology as well as a doctorate of philosophy. There are plenty of arguments here that refute what Dawkins has to say against the existence of God. The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day is a book written by a non-theologian (actually I believe he is a game design expert) that directly deals with the refutations Dawkins attempts to make against Christianity. Though I haven’t read it, there is a book out called the Dawkins Delusion by Allister McGrath that is a direct response The God Delusion.

    Blessings,
    Derek

    • Posted July 4, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      If WLC is such a great theologian and philosopher, why should he resort to such palpably weak arguments as the Kalam cosmological argument?

      As for McGrath, Paula Kirby has dealt with him (and others) already.

      /@

      PS. Vox Day I don’t know.

      • Grania
        Posted July 4, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

        Vox Day as in Vox Dei (Gettit? Gettit?!).

        Also known for writing complete bollocks which is right-wing reactionary when it’s not being flat-out ignorant. He couldn’t argue his way out of a wet paper bag.

        Can’t think why Derek thought he should recommend him. Then again, he recommended William Lane Craig. The same William Lane Craig who got his ass kicked by Sam Harris recently, and whose standard modus operandi when debating is to lie & make false claims. http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-god-debate/

        Neither of those is even remotely competent to successfully refute Dawkins’ points about god(s) not existing.
        Allister McGrath doesn’t fare much better, even though he has about ten times the brain power than Vox & Lane put together.

        • Posted July 4, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

          Well, if he thinks “Deī” [ˌdeɪ] sounds like “Day” [deɪ] he’s certainly not much of a Latin scholar!

          /@

        • satan augustine
          Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

          I remember picking up Day’s book, The Irrational Atheist: Dissecting the Unholy Trinity of Dawkins, Harris, And Hitchens in a Border’s a few years ago out of curiosity.

          I opened to a random page.

          He recounted a miracle he had witnessed.

          I closed the book and reshelved it.

          No point in reading anything else from someone who honestly believes they experienced a miracle. They’ve lost all credibility. Or in this case, failed to establish any to begin with.

      • Posted July 5, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink

        Eep! I provided the wrong link for Paula’s article. This is correct: Fleabytes.

        /@

    • Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      I’m sorry, but the credibility of your other sources fell straight through when you mentioned the Dawkins Delusion by Allister McGrath, which is – hands down! – the shittiest book I’ve ever had the displeasure of getting through. It’s a short one, filled with nonsensical and theological waffling, zero epistemology, just ontological masturbation, and never actually addressing anything Dawkins put forth in his book. It is a truly dreadful book. If nothing else, it has an accurate title; McGrath has huge delusions about what Dawkins is actually saying. Oh, and his writing style is crap. It was a few hours of my life wasted, even more sad because I wanted to read something meaty, I tried very hard to take it seriously. Brrr.

    • PeteJohn
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      Craig believes himself qualified to speak on all number of things and then gets upset when others dabble in philosophy. He believes the Kalam Cosmological Argument trumps all the research and knowledge Stephen Hawking, Leonard Mlodinow, and Lawrence Krauss have done on the origins of the universe. When he tries to play historian he argues that because the gospels agree on a few points that Jesus was resurrected, but ignores the problems inherent with using the gospels as primary sources. In debates he throws out a gazillion bits of nonsense and claims victory when his opponent refutes gazillion-3 bits of nonsense. “Ah but nonsense piece twelve, 2005, and 1,678,541 went unrefuted, therefore I win and therefore God!” He’s an apologist, plain and simple, who cares more about tallying debate wins and defending his chosen woo-woo than actually getting at the truth of anything.

  52. Aqua Buddha
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    I’m reminded of an amusing test I read in Language Log that could be applied to “process theologians” on their knowledge of Whitehead:

    ‘My colleague would open one of Derrida’s works to a random page, pick a random sentence, write it down, and then (above or below it) write a variant in which positive and negative were interchanged, or a word or phrase was replaced with one of opposite meaning. He would then challenge the assembled Derrida partisans to guess which was the original and which was the variant. The point was that Derrida’s admirers are generally unable to distinguish his pronouncements from their opposites at better than chance level, suggesting that the content is a sophisticated form of white noise. On this view, as Wolfgang Pauli once said of someone else, Derrida is “not even wrong.”.’

  53. steve beck
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Recently I emailed a prominent Catholic theologian and asked him how he knew there was a god and how he knew his religion was right. He replied by asking me what I meant by “knowing,” and said he would talk to me only after I read 3 books that he had written. So, I browsed these books in Google Books and Amazon, and learned such goodies as that the universe is bent on expanding its inherent beauty, and that Christ “gathers the entire universe physically into his eucharistic body.” For some strange reason, I can’t quite bring myself to read any more of this. I guess I will miss out on conversing with this noble and giving religious aristocrat who is willing to share his wisdom with those who have carefully studied his words at his feet.

    • Steersman
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      … that Christ “gathers the entire universe physically into his Eucharistic body.”

      Marvelous; no wonder that P.Z. uses the word “incoherent”.

      Theologians, religious literalists and philosophers – “Emperors” (of the North Pole) as naked as the day they were born (if not hatched), the lot of them …

      Which makes it remarkable to find an honest one, this philosophy professor (of religion) acknowledging that “the case for theism is a fraud” …

      • steve beck
        Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

        Parsons is an atheist.

        • Steersman
          Posted July 4, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

          Hadn’t realized that, although still a philosopher, even if professor of. But I guess Diogenes will have to still keep looking, at least for an honest theologian. Interesting Parson’s comment on that point:

          No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest.

          Which is somewhat questionable – curious psychology there though. You’re probably aware of Feynman’s aphorism “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool” which seems very much in play – the fooling – in the religious perspective. Along with panic and desperation and fear – “the mind killer” …

    • Brygida Berse
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      […] that the universe is bent on expanding its inherent beauty, and that Christ “gathers the entire universe physically into his eucharistic body.” For some strange reason, I can’t quite bring myself to read any more of this.

      I can’t imagine why. Sounds promising.

    • PeteJohn
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      Well that solves everything.

  54. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Hundreds of Proofs of God’s Existence

    Example:
    #16: ARGUMENT FROM BELIEF
    (1) If God exists, then I should believe in Him.
    (2) I believe in God.
    (3) Therefore, God exists.

    • Posted July 4, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      or . . .
      1- If God exists, then I should believe in Him.
      2- I don’t believe in God.
      3- Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

      Hey! I like this theology stuff!

    • daveau
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      Very entertaining link. Thank you.

    • Matt
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

      Best thing I’ve seen in a week. Thanks!!

    • Steersman
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      LoL – I particularly like the “Arguments from Blindness” (#30).

      As a variation on the theme from the Monty Python one (#312), I will offer, of some current relevance:

      (1) Men and women have wildly divergent perspectives on sexuality, including in the context of elevator etiquette;
      (2) Such divergence is irreducibly complex;
      (3) Therefore God exists, though with a seriously twisted sense of humour … giving everyone a good ribbing from day one (or was it day six?) …

  55. khan
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/07/04/why-am-i-doing-this/#comment-115630

    Mentioning “Vox Day” = -100 IQ points.

  56. Steven
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Post modernists simply have penis envy. The see scientists talking in jargon and big words about what they work on and think to themselves “hey, we can do that”.

  57. Gayle Stone
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    I love your use of the word ‘adumbrated’ to describe these “shadowy’ words because that is what they are, somewhat like the fog in an old british movie on the moors. To clear you head I suggest you return to some really old “freethinker’s” straightforward approach of the 1920’s like Marshall J. Gauvin’s ‘Did Jesus Christ Really Live? GOTO http://www.infidels.org/library for his papers at the University of Manitoba or just Google M. J. Gauvin. I have also tired of your posts of these Mystic’s drivel and now your rebuttles. As teenagers a few of us found some of Marshall’s stuff, became agnostics and now are all radical atheists. Currently I have gone back to Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Like the lady said about a douche, it’s so refreshing!

  58. Posted July 4, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always thought of theology as philosophy that assumes the existence of god. Philosophy, while having some intellectual interest, doesn’t bear much fruit in the real world. So adding an assumed god to the mix just makes it less satisfying.

  59. Posted July 4, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Ever noticed that when you get a theist (full-on theologian or otherwise) on the ropes, they retreat to what I like to call the “poor-man’s Derrida”? “Well, what is truth really,” they say, “Everyone has a priori assumptions, so we can all have our own truth.” The Conservapedia article on evolution actually said this. (Oddly these people forget all about their sudden relativism when they’re telling you who you’re allowed to have sex with.) If you point out to theists that they sound JUST LIKE a bunch of European po-mo sophists, or double-talking political demagogues, or moral relativists, or just plain dirty hippies when they start talking like this, they can get quite upset. There’s a reason that nerve is so raw.

    The kind of postmodernoid mumbo-jumbo that Jerry is pointing out is what all these species of arguing-from-authority-obscurantists resort to sooner or later when they have to pretend to defend their claims to special knowledge from inconvenient interlopers like us. The theists are no different from the rest; it’s just that they use a special class of rhetorical objects that the rest of those charlatan types don’t use (the supernatural) that winks in and out of discussability as it’s convenient to them.

    • Rob
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      “Well, what is truth really?”

      As soon as the apologist makes this move, he is doing what Stephen Law calls “going nuclear”.

      • Matt
        Posted July 4, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        “What is truth really?” IS an important subject, but it hardly counts as an argument.

  60. Posted July 4, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    “I’m starting to think that modern theology is simply postmodern literary criticism applied to a single book of fiction.”

    No. No, no, no, no. Wrong. Dead wrong.

    It’s actually applied to a handful of books of fiction. There’s more than one religion out there, after all.

  61. steve oberski
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    I am spending my middle age reading drivel about beliefs that have no basis in fact. This seems a total waste of time. I could be reading books about real things instead.

    Look on the bright side, you could have pissed away your entire life on this crap. Instead you have increased human understanding of reality.

    One gets the strong sense when reading theology (and granted, I am biased) that everyone is just making stuff up.

    What is your bias here ? I fail to see one.

    If this had been a book on astrology, alchemy or phrenology would you have been equally biased ?

    These are all fields that assert the truth value of various propositions without (and often in the face of contradictory) evidence.

    I think you are giving theology unwarranted deference.

  62. Posted July 4, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    This cracked me up! I think a great phrase that applies to what you’re talking about, is one used by Al Gore “…they are indifferent to facts.” I loved theology in school, just to see what all of the different religions believed. It’s quite interesting.

    • steve oberski
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      History has the relation to truth that theology has to religion—i.e. none to speak of. ~ Robert Heinlein (Lazarus Long).

  63. Jan
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    @ 49 “The arguments in the book are far more sophisticated than anything in the God Delusion.” Hahaha!

    Well, there is a not so subtle difference between science and theology. Science starts with some axioms and assumptions and by argument as easy to follow as possible gets to conclusions.
    Theology has given conclusions and tries to get to them from plausible assumptions so that the mistakes in the process are not obvious. As soon as somebody challenges assumptions, it changes them to some more plausible, and as soon as somebody points out mistake in reasoning process, it makes it more “sophisticated” so that the mistake is not obvious. It is just a cover-up, all the honesty is missing. It is not real attempt to explain anything it is rather the attempt to obscure religious shortcomings.

  64. Posted July 4, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, until you familiarize yourself with the career of Jaxxon the Lepi smuggler and Anakin Solo’s contribution to driving away the Yuuzhan Vong from the world of Yag’Dhul, you really aren’t justified claiming that Star Wars is fictional.

  65. Wowbagger
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    If they were honest they’d simply admit that their beliefs are held purely for emotional and/or sociocultural reasons, and there’s no rational or intellectual basis for them whatsoever.

    And if they were really honest they also admit and that, deep down, the only reason for this desperate, pseudo-intellectual posturing is to try and a) deflect criticism for the lack of rationality behind their faith, and b) alleviate the cognitive dissonance amongst those faithful prepated to contemplate that.

  66. sailor
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    I tried to listen to some Christian theology, but could not take more than half an hour. It struck me that it was like someone creating castles in the air, then climbing up into them and pulling away the ladder.

    “I’m starting to see think that modern theology is simply postmodern literary criticism applied to a single book of fiction.”

    same thing

  67. stvs
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    I just competed a run along a route that goes past the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge MA. I noticed that their campus is undergoing some reconstruction and that EDS has a bunch of new signs featuring Lesley University’s (also in Cambridge) “Brattle Street” campus.

    Googling confirmed my suspicions: EDS was wasting (beautiful) real estate and sold a bunch of their buildings to LU.

    You may be wasting a few evenings reading bullshit, but universities everywhere have dedicated expensive resources to house people waiting their lives producing the bullshit. Why?

    Sure, Harvard was established to perpetuate the Puritan ministry, but there is precisely as much evidence for witches at Cotton Mather’s trials as there is for the nonsense crap taught today at the Harvard Divinity School. What a waste.

  68. Scott
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    I studied theology for eight years in a Catholic university, taking a BA in general theology and a MA in Biblical theology. You correctly assess that it is largely postmodern criticism of fiction, often layered with the hermenutic “theology is faith seeking understanding, ” ie, faith is required for genuine theological understanding. The scholastics offer a rigorous system, if you’re willing to swallow the Aristotelian worldview.

  69. Notagod
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Coyne is getting jesused! Oops, snicker snicker.

    You may feel better to know that I was cornered by a baptist christian this morning for an hour and a half! He wanted to give me laminated jesus papers.

  70. Brian
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    I spent far more of my life studying theology than I wish I had, so I thought I’d weigh in here. I’ve skimmed through the comments here and saw a lot of good answers to the questions posted, but I thought I’d add a little more. Apologies if these point have already been made by anyone else.

    To answer the questions in order:
    What are the arguments for god’s existence in the new sophisticated theology that aren’t taken up and refuted in The God Delusion?
    I think that modern “sophisticated theology” arguments rely on the self-confessed experience of God not only by the individual, but by the overwhelming majority. In other words, if most people claim to have experienced God in some way, the best explanation is that he exists. John Newman made the analogy of the steel cable. Each individual’s self-confessed experience is weak, but when combined by others, there is strength. I think this argument fails because evolutionary biology and psychology indicates that the “best” explanation might not be God after all.

    Has theology really “progressed”?
    I think the “progression” lies in things like process theology, which you’ve already mentioned. Most of the progress has relied on a weakening of either a) God’s power over the world or b) our ability to know God. Basically, “sophisticated theology” has embraced ambiguity and “mystery” to such an extent that it avoids any real claims about reality that could be tested.

    What knowledge about the world (or about god) has theology produced?
    Nothing. Theologians have offered an incredible amount of knowledge about the world, often times in an attempt to understand God. That knowledge came from secular pursuits however.

  71. Posted July 4, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Well it seems I might be the lone voice crying in the wilderness here. I think it might be useful, and terribly important to define what is meant by “theology”. If you operate under the basic assumption that there is no God (excuse me for my capitalization), it will do you little good to read complex theories about the nature or character or activety of Him. It will do me no good to read twelve fantasy novels about the sordid affairs of fairies in order to bolster my conviction that there are no such beings; this is foolishness. If you want a greater understanding of why people believe there is a God, then read books to that end.

    As to the specific point of your contention that there is no evidence, I would submit that you probably contend that you exist now, and your existance is dependant on at least one thing (namely your parent’s existance), if not many things. Now, if you exist because, if nothing else, the fact that your parents existed, and they because of theirs, and so on all the way back to the primordial soup from which our ancestor supposedly emerged, and those blessed carbon-filled waters might owe thier existance to that of the planet itself, and the planet to the universe from which it sprang. I would submit that there is not one single thing in the universe that does not owe its existance to some other thing. That raises this question: If everything is dependant on something else for existance, must there, of neccessity, be something above and beyond the universe, upon which its very existance, and everything within it, rests? ex nihilo nihil fit, Out of nothing, nothing comes. Follow that reasoning in your reading rather than cerebral waxings on the number of angels that fit on the head of a pin.

    • stvs
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

      It’s difficult to take your lone voice seriously if you fail to engage with current physical understanding that undermines your argument, or age-old philosophical arguments that also undermine it. Google “universe ex nihilo” then come back if you have a worthy response to the physics. But without necessarily doing any further reading, do us the favor of telling us where God came from, if everything had to come from something else.

      • Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

        I see I’ve met a much more hostile audience here than I anticipated.

        I am proposing God as self-existant; the “uncaused first cause” neccessary for the existence of anything. Poor, simpleton Christians are accused of assuming the existence of God and allowing that assumption to affect the rest of their worldview. Let’s not pretend preconceived notions do not exist in the world of science. I would lay the same charge at proponents of the string theory. “Assuming the non-existence of God, we don’t really have a good answer to our ontological dilemna, so we’ll just kick the cosmic can down the road and call it a day.” At some point, philosophical naturalism breaks down and when no one is willing to admit its weaknesses, we must take steps into irrationality to proceed.

        If there is not something that transcends the universe, then we must believe that it has always existed, created itself, or doesn’t actually exist at all; none of these are rational possibilities.

        • Wowbagger
          Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

          I see I’ve met a much more hostile audience here than I anticipated.

          Clearly you’ve never tried peddling your woo at Pharyngula. I heartily recommend you give it a shot; it’ll put things into perspective.

          Let’s not pretend preconceived notions do not exist in the world of science.

          Except those ‘notions’ are being subjected to testing, and will – like every other scientific theory that is demonstrated to be wrong – be thrown out if it fails.

          What equivalent testing would you propose to determine whether or not your god exists?

        • Steersman
          Posted July 4, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

          If there is not something that transcends the universe, then we must believe that it has always existed, created itself, or doesn’t actually exist at all; none of these are rational possibilities.

          How are those possibilities – at least the first two – any less rational than the one you’re offering, that god is self-existent. Do you have any calculations of probabilities along with test results that show that they are less likely, less rational, less reasonable than yours? You may wish to “take steps into irrationality to proceed”, but to me, practically by definition, “that way madness lies”.

          As for the string theory comment, that really isn’t one yet – only a collection of hypotheses and some plausible or consistent mathematics. While there are obviously assumptions in many of our theories and world-views, the question is how much evidence there is to justify them, what is the quantity and quality of the evidence provided. Great reams of evidence that, for example, nature is subject to the rule of law – no proof mind you – and 10 trillion cases – evidence – for the Riemann hypothesis. But not a single solitary shred of evidence for anything even remotely resembling any god, particularly the Abrahamic ones.

          And, in passing, how do you see god? Even seen him, heard him? Her? It?

        • stvs
          Posted July 5, 2011 at 3:44 am | Permalink

          Your beliefs are built on sand if you feel that pointing to their obviously unsound foundation is an act of hostility. Perhaps you live in a community where no one criticizes the flaws in each others thinking, but here in the real world, that’s the only way to make any progress understanding that real world.

          Your list of “rational possibilities” for the universe really is insufferably arrogant: you don’t get to choose the “rational” way physics should work—how “rational” is quantum mechanics?!—and by your own logic God’s existence isn’t a “rational possibility” either. Just replace “the universe” with “God” in your sentence to see your mistake.

          I’ll ask again because you failed to answer the first time: if everything must come from something else, then who made God? Please do not continue to ignore this question.

          As for the physics of a universe from nothing, you clearly are unschooled in current theories about how this might work if you trot out string theory. We’ve analyzed WMAP measurements to achieve an extraordinary understanding of the properties of the Big Bang without any string theory at all—just a lot of GR and QM. I suggest that you read a good book or two on the subject before ignorantly dismissing the field. One I recommend is Alan Guth’s The Inflationary Universe, in which Guth says,

          The question of the origin of the matter in the universe is no longer thought to be beyond the range of science—everything can be created from nothing … it is fair to say that the universe is the ultimate free lunch.

          There are more recent popular treatments as well. So please learn a thing or two about how things actually work before dismissing them out-of-hand. We know what you’re doing and it neither reflects well on you nor the beliefs you are attempting to defend.

          • Posted July 5, 2011 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

            Alright, clearly my knowledge of the field of physics is woefully inferior to yours. In my defense however, I was really attempting to discuss “meta” physics, as it were – a realm whose existence you’ll not even allow. I’m not exactly sure there is even a way to continue a dialouge in which both sides foundamentally disagree with the most basic premise of the other.

            And now I will bow out of this conversation. Not because I think my reasoning inferior, but because I am willing to admit the limitations of my own knowledge and ability (which limitations do not necessarily negate the reasoning) to participate in this conversation.

            • Steersman
              Posted July 5, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

              … I was really attempting to discuss “meta” physics, as it were – a realm whose existence you’ll not even allow …

              I don’t think it is a case “allowing the existence of that realm”, more a question of asking for proof or even evidence of its existence. Which no theologian or person of faith has ever been able to provide even the merest hint of a glimmer of an inkling of. The only evidence that seems to be on the table is that fact.

              You may know that string theory – one version apparently from the very little that I know – postulates 7 additional physical dimensions, for which there is as of yet no proof or evidence to justify that idea. However, science – one might say – still “allows the possibility of the existence of such realms”, but still demands some facts that would be consistent with that hypothesis – and largely only consistent with that hypothesis, or most readily explained by that hypothesis – before investing the time and effort required to make it a full-fledged theory.

              Seems to be quite different from a theological perspective which simply asserts the existence of an intangible realm of its own and then proceeds to populate it with various entities, provides no evidence for their existence and claims that faith is all that is required to make them real. Simply believing something is true does not make it so, something which science has found to be the case time after time after time.

              I’m not exactly sure there is even a way to continue a dialogue in which both sides fundamentally disagree with the most basic premise of the other.

              I’m not sure if it is the premises of atheism or of science that you are disagreeing with. I’ll concede you may have a point regarding the first, depending on your definition of atheism, but I think it would be rather difficult to disagree with those of the second given the benefits it has provided – in contradistinction to the premises of theology.

            • stvs
              Posted July 6, 2011 at 5:42 am | Permalink

              But we were attempting to engage you in a metaphysical discussion, as well as a physical one. You said that everything must come from something else. We said: Okay. Then who made God?

              You have ignored this metaphysical question two times now. Will you deny your God thee times and ignore the question again?

              Hopefully, you’ll see the corner you’re in: metaphysically, if it’s possible that God is something that somehow can exist without needing a creator, then it’s possible that other things might exist without needing a creator too, things like the universe.

              Now what’s the more parsimonious explanation for the universe’s existence: it began as a black-body resonant quantum fluctuation that “came from nothing” or some universally powerful all-knowing sentient God popped into existence out of nothing, then that God created a black-body resonant quantum fluctuation that has the appearance of coming from nothing.

              Like Laplace two hundred years ago, there is no need for the (fantastically ridiculous) hypothesis of a God that came from nothing.

              And we haven’t even gotten to fact that God will torture you forever if you don’t believe. If you’re a Christian, then we know from the direct Word of God that you are an infidel who will burn forever in hell for your disbelief.

              But Ceiling Cat has opened a door above you for you to escape the corner you’ve put yourself in: abandon theism and embrace atheism for both its sound physical and metaphysical reasons.

        • Rob
          Posted July 5, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

          There are known uncaused events in science. Why is a first cause necessary?

          • Observer
            Posted July 6, 2011 at 5:55 am | Permalink

            Could you give an example or two?

    • truthspeaker
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

      That’s what you brought, the Cosmological Argument? Did you really think anyone here hadn’t heard that one before?

    • Notagod
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

      You’ve completely missed the whole point of why Dr. Coyne has an interest in the gobbledygook.

    • SAWells
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 3:22 am | Permalink

      The argument that “everything needs a cause so there must be a God that doesn’t” is incoherent from the start.

      And we have no evidence that it’s possible for the universe not to exist or that it needs any kind of cause.

    • Greg Myers
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      I think one of Jerry’s complaints is that theology assumes the existence of God. The difficulty with that assumption is that there is no evidence for the existence of God, especially a god as laid out in any of the world’s religions. Theologians, cognizant of that fact, have begun to try to identify what kind of God COULD exist and not run afoul of what we know about the universe, and like you, they tend to focus on weakly interacting, non-contingent gods. Remote First Causers, Designs indistinguishable from natural selection or space aliens, “our best sense of self.”

      Of course, these are not the gods of any actual religious tradition. Rather, they are an attempt to salvage something from the discredited claims about causation and agency presented by various religious traditions, after things like creation stories and cosmologies have been shone to be false.

      Could there be a god who does nothing, does not interact with the universe, or whose interactions are indistinguishable from the laws of physics? Of course- but this is no religion’s god.

  72. Paul Gnuman
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    I wish you would read Caesar’s Messiah by Joe Atwill. (That’s why I mailed you a copy, obviously.) I wish Eric would too, although I didn’t send him a copy. Both of you, and everyone else, can download the first edition for free from esnips. The new edition, which has a nice new chapter identifying 34 in-order parallels between gLuke and Josephus’ Bellicum Judaicum (aka Wars of the Jews), is now available from amazon as a paperback, and as a kindle book.

    I think this will open a lot of peoples’ eyes and hasten the coming of a more rational world, if it could only get a fair examination.

    • exrelayman
      Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

      Thank you!!

    • Steersman
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      Born again atheist? :-)

      Interesting book and interesting sets of reviews, many from the usual suspects. Though it does seem to fit reasonably into the conspiracy theory category including The Da Vinci Code – definitely seems to be a bit of a growth industry.

      But the bottom line seems to be a question of probabilities which, of course, aren’t easily, if at all, quantifiable, particularly considering various biases. For example this fellow is quite certain that it is less probable that “Jesus had an unknown evil twin who faked his Resurrection appearances” than that “the Resurrection actually occurred”. “Straining at the gnat and swallowing the camel whole” is, I think, the relevant aphorism.

      • Paul Gnuman
        Posted July 5, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

        I think it is not necessarily all that difficult to get at the probabilities in an objective fashion. Atwill sometimes argues this. You get a roomful of people (and ordinary people not bible scholars) and you pick out bible passages and then they compare them with selected episodes from works of literature from any period (that are offered by friends and enemies of the thesis) and the people rank or score them (subjectively and/or objectively) for similarity to the selected passages. Then the works can be ranked according to most parallels. Then works can be further ranked based on ordering for likelihood that they can be accidental.

        But that’s the hard way. The short way to seeing it is to look at the literary quality of the parallels themselves. Many of them are quite rich, and reflective of the Flavian malice towards the Jewish rebels.

        Take for example the Demonaic of Gadara parallel. Objectively there are various elements that could be simply counted, like the number of rebels being similar to the number of demons that spring from the demoniac’s head, that many rebels and demons drown, that there is a wild charge. (I should note that there is also always some kind of scrambling to obscure things. So the number of demons that drown is not the same number as the number of rebels that drown. The number of demons is the same as the number of rebels that are captured. But there is drowning and mad charging and the number 2000 (or whatever it is) in both stories. Also it happens in the same general location – near Gadara.) But the literary richness is that Josephus tells us that demons are none other than the unclean spirits of the wicked, that out of the rebel leader John’s head sprang the lies that corrupted thousands, and there are two rebel leaders in Josephus and so two different demoniacs across the Gospels.) Also John is said to be taken prisoner while the Gadara deomonaic after being cured is said to go to the Decapolis to proclaim the miracles of Jesus. Is this telling us that John the author of the Gospel is really John the rebel leader, imprisoned and forced to write a gospel under threat of death? The Caesarian Cult (the acknowledged forerunner of the RCC) had a major presence in the Decapolis and would certainly have been involved in the creation of the gospels.

        The literary character of the parallels is what makes it such an enjoyable experience to read the book. Atwill has brought all of these major elements of the gospels that are the ones taught in Sunday school or talked about in the popular media, and given them a much more convincing and unifying meaning than they have ever been given previously.

        I believe even as a non-bible-scholar I can accurately judge that it is all real. I think I have something that bible scholars apparently usually lack and that is a willingness to objectively consider that the whole thing can be a deliberate hoax rather than an authentic movement. (Ehrmann does not even seem able to consider that Jesus might be a mythical character; listen to the Infidelguy interview.) But we know with certainty that religions are sometimes successfully cooked up from scratch for self-aggrandizing purposes of a small group.

        Anyhow you should go up on scribd.com and search for Caesar’s Messiah and download it and read some of it. If you’re in a hurry I would advise starting in the middle rather than the beginning because the beginning is just the set up and circumstantial part of the argument. The good part is in the details of the parallels. You don’t even have to register and it won’t cost you a thing, and I am pretty certain Atwill is aware of it being there and would like you to download it so maybe you will decide to buy the new edition. Sorry I don’t have the link handy.

        • Paul Gnuman
          Posted July 5, 2011 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

          Sorry, I should have said esnips is where the first edition is free. Scribd is the new edition available electronically for $12. But the kindle edition is now out for $10, and a paperback for $20.

        • Paul Gnuman
          Posted July 5, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

          I haven’t gone to the link to be sure, but I think I recognize the URL as the J. P. Holding review. He is a Christian apologist, not a dispassionate bible scholar, I think, and also if there is an intellectually honest Christian apologist somewhere, I don’t think it’s him.

          A negative review by somebody more people here can probably relate to is by Robert Price. Price also pans it but I can’t see what is substantive in his rejection of the thesis. He just can’t seem to take it on board. He calls Atwill brilliant, I think, in it. Certainly he did in the discussion he had with Atwill on the Infidelguy show.

  73. Paul Gnuman
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps I should add that it isn’t just a case of explaining how Christianity originated as a Flavian Roman hoax. Rather, it’s a case of the hoaxers wanting posterity to know with certainty that they did it, and so left unambiguous evidence of their deed through parallel writings in Josephus with the Gospels. Note, Josephus was an adopted member of the Flavian family (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus), and Bellum Judaicum was dedicated by Caesar Titus himself. Therefore, if Jesus’ Galilean ministry exactly follows (or is constructed to appear to foresee) the military campaign of Titus there, it can only be due to Flavian intention.

    So, what I think is that there is clear proof that Christianity is a hoax available, but it is being ignored not just as expected by those who wish Christianity to continue, but also by those who would like to see it become a “dead” religion.

  74. Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    I know I’m repeating the frustration I’ve expressed in earlier posts, but I don’t want to waste months of my life reading this stuff if there’s nothing to be gained from it except…

    Reading The Closing of the Western Mind, I was stunned to think of what a tragic waste this has all been. Between the people excluded from scholarship altogether and those “wrestling with clouds” (thanks, Henry Gee *ahem*), the intelligence and creativity squandered in pursuit of this nonsense is incalculable. It’s difficult to think of what a different world it would be had Christians not gained power.

  75. Kolmogorov
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    Reading theology is a total waste of time. Stop now and don’t waste another minute on it!

    Few Christians read theology, fewer still take it as authoritative. The Christians who are influential these days, the Evangelicals, certainly don’t pay much attention to theology. So if you want to be knowledgeable of the influential beliefs these days, read something else. Evangelicals read the Bible itself and a select set of popular books like The Purpose Driven Life. The Bible at least has the merit of being culturally referenced frequently and you can quote it to people who only think they have read it. On the other hand, it’s quite long and the style is not easy. Probably a better way to get a good picture of the Bible without reading the thing, and be maybe a little entertained on the way, would be to read a good gloss like “God: A Biography”, by Jack Miles.

  76. Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    In one way, God seems like and absurd creation of the imagination and easily dismissed. Indeed that’s what I did at age 12 or so. I kept being told by my liberal protestant scripture teachers that God was real and a force in nature, something that seemed as realistic as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Since then I haven’t seen any reason to suspect otherwise.

    But on the other hand, it’s apparently equally obvious to others that God exists and plays a personal role in their life, and in the world as a whole. I’m concerned that I’m missing something, and i’m worried that my rejection of God is clouding my ability to take the arguments and evidence objectively. If smart people can justify otherwise irrational beliefs, how can I be sure I’m not doing the same?

    Part of my problem is that I don’t know what God conceptually means anymore. I used to have that intuitive sense that God is an immaterial being of massive power and intellect – who is an active force in this world, playing its part in the happenings of people and events. Yet when I listen to theologians like talk of God as an abstract, transcendent, outside of time, etc. I have no clue what that could possibly mean. And if I don’t know what they mean, I don’t feel comfortable rejecting it. I’m not sure how I can move on, I’m sick of being told I’m arguing a straw-man while people defend what seems an incoherent conception of God while making arguments that, to me, only make sense in that traditional theistic sense of agency that I’m told repeatedly isn’t what they mean!

    • Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

      And if I don’t know what they mean, I don’t feel comfortable rejecting it.

      Unformulated concepts should be dismissed. They don’t even rise to a level at which they can be rejected. In fact, I’m not sure they even rise to a level at which they can be dismissed. There’s nothing there.

      • Wowbagger
        Posted July 4, 2011 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

        It’s another example of the religious and their wanting to have their god-cake and eat it too; on one hand they want to insist on a nebulous, incomprehensible being but on the other they want to believe in Jesus and that God loves and cares for them and will take them up to heaven with him when they die.

        The two are completely incompatible – yet that’s what almost all modern ‘sophisticated theology’ is based on.

      • Posted July 4, 2011 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

        My problem, SC, is that I don’t want to take my lack of understanding of the concept to mean that the concept is meaningless. After all, many profess a devout belief in what I’m in-effect arguing that I find essentially vacant. I agree that meaningless concepts should be dismissed, my problem is determining whether or not it is meaningless. God means something to a lot of people, and I’ve been told over and over that I just don’t get it. They’re right tbh, because to me it seems like a projection of agency onto our ignorance where events are explained by invoking magic.

        • Posted July 4, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

          My problem, SC, is that I don’t want to take my lack of understanding of the concept to mean that the concept is meaningless.

          What concept? Isn’t it the responsibilty of the people claiming the divine reality of some concept to define the concept? If they don’t, why should we not call it meaningless?

          After all, many profess a devout belief in what I’m in-effect arguing that I find essentially vacant.

          Many people devoutly believe in all manner of idiocy. But this really is vacant (perfect word, btw).

          I agree that meaningless concepts should be dismissed, my problem is determining whether or not it is meaningless.

          What’s the meaning?

          God means something to a lot of people, and I’ve been told over and over that I just don’t get it.

          I don’t think it does. If it did, they could define it. Your being told that is a standard dodge.

          They’re right tbh, because to me it seems like a projection of agency onto our ignorance where events are explained by invoking magic.

          What? How would that make them right? About what?

          • Posted July 5, 2011 at 2:46 am | Permalink

            What concept? Isn’t it the responsibilty of the people claiming the divine reality of some concept to define the concept? If they don’t, why should we not call it meaningless?

            Think of it in the same way we think of dragons, someone says dragon we know what they’re talking about. God is something people can intuitively recognise, the word is about something – whether or not that’s a coherent something is another matter, and I agree the burden is on the theist to substantiate it.

            But this really is vacant (perfect word, btw).

            I took it from a philosopher (Adèle Mercier) in an essay she wrote about God being a hollow concept. To quote an extract:
            “[t]heir first-order beliefs can’t be of the sort that are about concepts, since the concepts about which they would purport to be are themselves undefined, indeed purposely so. The concepts making up their belief are essentially vacant.”

            What’s the meaning?

            That it’s about something tangible and comprehensible.

            What? How would that make them right? About what?

            They’re right that I don’t get it, I’m thoroughly confused.

            • SAWells
              Posted July 5, 2011 at 4:23 am | Permalink

              You seem to be making the false assumption that people have a clear conception of the things they claim to believe in. When they say “You just don’t get it” without providing any description of their god, it’s a defence mechanism which means that _they_ don’t really get it either and want you to stop asking because you’re making them uncomfortable. There is no clear concept behind the strings of words that believers repeat.

              Think of the way that theologians like Plantinga routinely describe a god as being “maximally great”. Is there any coherent concept behind this? Of course there isn’t. There’s just a vague feeling that god is, like, greater than, like, the greatest thing ever, really, like, wow.

              • Steersman
                Posted July 5, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

                There’s just a vague feeling that god is, like, greater than, like, the greatest thing ever, really, like, wow.

                LoL, like really!

              • Posted July 5, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

                Perhaps they don’t know what they’re talking about either (i suspect as much) but I’m trying not to take my suspicions as being fact. For all I know, God could mean something and be considered a coherent conception that can be understood by the human mind. The persistent handwaving by theists, the bad arguments, the way in which they come to believe, and the projection of evolved agency – all these are reasons for me to think otherwise. But that really could be because I fundamentally misunderstand what people mean by God – so all I can do is keep trying to understand.

    • Notagod
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      The baptist christian that I talked with yesterday bought an RV (fifth wheel) from a couple who’s tow vehicle was demolished in a tragic accident, the couples children all died. They had kept the RV for two years because it was a reminder of their life as a family, however, it was also a terrible and constant reminder of the accident. The baptist christian figures that his god was instrumental in the perfect timing of the event so that he got an RV that he really likes and the couple no longer has the constant reminder of the tragedy. I pointed out to him that the timing wasn’t all that perfect for the couple, as they have experienced worst pain then they might have experienced if they had removed the RV sooner.

      That is an example of how a christian mind is structured. First is their god then, include the evidence that confirms their god and dispose of any conflicting evidence. We all do this to some extent but the christians, in effect, worship that weakness of the processes of the brain while atheists, hopefully, try to minimize it by considering all the evidence, not just the evidence that we like.

      You can explore the workings of your mind, a bit, by considering sensory illusions and thinking about what the underlying causes might be. Also, you can think of your past learning experiences. In my learning experiences I sometimes get something wrong at a foundational level and I have to go back and relearn processes with the corrected foundational concepts. If I don’t do that, I sometimes end up with disconnected delusions that are the result of the improper connections that I had previously made. Sam Harris is brilliant and I will admit to being concerned for my own conceptual thinking when my understanding doesn’t mesh with his. However, I also know that no one is immune to the inherent imperfection of the brain’s workings.

      You can retrain your mind by the sustained and/or aggressive feeding of a stimulus. You want to believe in jebus? I know how to get you there. Do note however that changing stuff can have unintended side effects because it is rather difficult to know the impact the changes will have on seemingly unrelated connections, let alone the obviously related connections.

  77. Myron
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    “What are the arguments for god’s existence in the new sophisticated theology that aren’t taken up and refuted in The God Delusion? I must say that I haven’t found any.” (J Coyne)

    Try this book:

    * Ward, Keith. /Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins./ Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2008.

    • Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

      What are its “arguments for god’s existence…that aren’t taken up and refuted in The God Delusion”?

      Oh – and please define “god.” Thanks.

  78. Posted July 4, 2011 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    It baffles me, every time I drive by a mini/midi/mega-church of some kind of jesus or god. And believe me; here in the bible-belt, that happens quite frequent. It baffles me that such huge properties are built and funded by people basing their belief on no substantial evidence what-so-ever. And many of these “people” are highly educated and clearly able to be critical at some issues they encounter. Though not the bogus jesus dingy. It baffles me. And the only explanation I end up with is that mankind after all, is a primitive being not capable to handle the scary mind-boggling idea that humans are just as vulnerable, dead-able and vanish-able as any other critter on this planet. And, not accepting this, they just accept the ridiculous fallacy of god-belief. It’s just the way it is. And to seduce their minds and logic, they write stupid books like “Why There Almost Certainly Is a God” and numerous others.
    I salute your suffering, reading all the trash and mindlessness you have to endure reading those “books”. But somebody has to do it, and I’m enjoying you do it, rather than me. But please share your findings. That way, we all win. (Although you alone suffer).

    Good luck. Peace…..

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

      I salute your suffering, reading all the trash and mindlessness you have to endure reading those “books”. But somebody has to do it, and I’m enjoying you do it, rather than me. But please share your findings. That way, we all win. (Although you alone suffer).

      That’s how I see it. JAC is taking one for the team! I, for one, appreciate the sacrifice!

  79. Marella
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    Jerry my boy, you have been conned into the study of fairyology. Do not expect to learn anything of value. Fairies don’t exist. Don’t study theology, study the bible. Like the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy it contains much that is apocryphal or at least wildly innacurate, but it is at least a bunch of old stories which are informative about the times in which they were written and they offer a good basis for arguing with the religious. I suggest Bart Ehrman, his stuff is very good. ‘Lost Christianities’ springs to mind.

  80. Posted July 5, 2011 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    “I’m trying to learn theology so I can meet head-on the argument that atheists are ignorant of theology and hence unqualified to combat religion.”

    You’re making it much too difficult for yourself. Ask the theologian if he believes in Zeus, or Odin, or Quetzalcoatl. After he explains in detail why he doesn’t, tell him that that is why you don’t believe in his God. You probably know more about his God than he does about Odin, so he can’t say you can’t criticise his belief since you don’t know it in detail unless he also admits that he must be at least agnostic about Zeus and company.

  81. Posted July 5, 2011 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    Francis Shaeffer has some decent theology books that won’t make your eyes shrivel up in boredom. “The God who is there” engages in a philosophical dialogue and “True Spirituality” is his basic worldview. Simple and straightforward.

  82. John
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Unlike Jerry, I see no reason to read and attempt to “understand” obvious crapola; as with Bem’s recent JPSP piece claiming evidence for esp, the implications of its alleged truth undermine everything we otherwise know (and then some), and for that reason alone is enough to, as Tim Minchin said, “bin it”. Similarly, for any of this theological crapola to be true (other than nonfunctional deism), we would have to completely dispense with most of what we know from modern (and even less than modern) science. So, as that is not a reasonable intellectual stance (aeroplanes still fly), why even read the crap? When some fairyologist complains that I have no stance to claim she is a flaming idiot as I haven’t read and studied her fantasy writings, my response is: I can know you are a flaming idiot without reading your fairyology simply because there are no fairies. Jerry really should do the same. There is NO reason, other than unintentional hilarity, to read obvious bullshit. And, a priori, all of theology is and must be just that. I am with PZ on this: in this matter, Jerry is wasting his otherwise extraordinary intellectual powers.

  83. Graham ASH-PORTER
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    … and when they run out of ideas, they cry Blasphemy!
    Great article

  84. Rick Litherland
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 2:15 am | Permalink

    I did learn something from your quote from Cobb, namely that “prehend” is a real, if rarely used, verb. Its only living form seems to be “prehensile”, mostly used of tails. Re-reading the quote with this in mind I found amusing. This seems to be a case of using an obscure word when there’s a perfectly serviceable one at hand, for no good reason. It’s rather like using “kudos”, though without the worry that people might wonder if you know the number of the word.

    As for your bullet-point questions: in Latin, a question expecting the answer “yes” can be formed with “nonne”, and one expecting the answer “no” with “num”. English dearly needs an equivalent to “num”.

    • Posted July 5, 2011 at 2:26 am | Permalink

      I guess it has the same relationship to “apprehend” as “molish” has to “demolish”.

  85. Posted July 5, 2011 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    I prefer to listen to theology. That way I can turn off my hearing aid.

  86. Posted July 5, 2011 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    “I’m starting to think that modern theology is simply postmodern literary criticism applied to a single book of fiction.”

    Northrop Frye http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northrop_Frye wrote about the bible and literature: _The Great Code_ and _Words with Power_ and language and meaning in religion: _The Double Vision_. See Chapter Four – “The Double Vision of God” at http://northropfrye-thedoublevision.blogspot.com/

    Unlike theologians, Frye could write. For more information on Frye see http://fryeblog.blog.lib.mcmaster.ca/

  87. Valerie
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    Progress/advance in theology is definitely in the eyes of the beholder. My own journey to unbelief started with a close to fundamentalist upbringing to Methodism, then the Episcopal Church, then Buddhism. At each level I saw myself as progressing to a more ‘rational’ view of God, less defined, less legalistic, more accepting, unifying, etc. Earlier views I considered primitive, later views more sophisticated.

    I think that when Christians of the more liberal mindset criticize Dawkins’ take in the God Delusion is that they perceive his criticisms to be lumping all Christians together; and since they see themselves as having moved well beyond basic fundamentalist thiking, they are offended by his assertions that “this is what Christians believe.” They see themselves as more sophisticated, more evolved in their theology, and while, like Karen Armstrong and others, they are atheist in all but name, they still hold on tightly to their self-designation as Christian, for whatever reason. When I came to see this in myself, that was what triggered my own separation from anything even vaguely connected to faith in anything supernatural, and having studies theology for years, I can’t tell you how glad I am to be free of all that! I hope you will be free of it yourself soon–very torturous stuff, theology!

    • Posted July 5, 2011 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      A friend of mine who had been at least an agnostic and is now at least a regular CofE (~ episcopalian) church goer (maybe for family reasons?) readily admitted that the CofE was all but indistinguishable from deism.

      /@

    • Notagod
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

      It seems to me that the liberal christians are angry at their god-selves because their world views don’t line up and they are blaming the atheists for noticing It.

      Surely you don’t expect us to get a complete and detailed testimony from each christian as to which christian god is theirs? As you have shown each christian’s god isn’t even consistent over time. How do we know they aren’t rearranging their god to fit their own desires at any given time/place/purpose? How can any christian have any authority different from what is written in the christian holey book? Wasn’t the original christian god opposed to people messing with Its words?

      See, there is a clear dysfunction in the liberal christian’s position. They claim to know what their god wants but in reality their god is exactly themselves. So, and I mean this quite literally, each christian should address themselves as God. This christian dysfunction has an impact on society and it isn’t a positive impact. As an example: the word God is very potent when other christians hear it but, the GodUser is really just granting themselves special status that they have no honest justification for. You do understand how that gives the christian GodUser an unjustified advantage in social and political circumstances? Including, but not limited to; the christians that are uninformed simply follow the GodUser without having a clue of the potential damage that is done.

      This isn’t just about the dysfunction of christianity but, also about equal status for atheists and also a need to remove the christian god-ideas from the science classrooms.

      The christians have no justification for
      criticizing atheists for lumping them together. They do it to themselves by tagging themselves christians.

  88. Gavin Phillipson
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    As for asking what is theology about, or the point of it, it’s quite simple: part of it is philosophy dealing with the specific issues around the possible existence of God and ‘his’ possible attributes; part of it is I suppose anthropological – studying the practice of religions as culture; part of it (e.g. biblical studies (I don’t mean apologetics) is a form of historical criticism – in other ways trying to work out what the Bible – and Koran – means, given the history of the cultural and philosophical beliefs of the cultures in which it was written. Given that billions of people in the world believe what these books say, trying to get that as right as possible is plainly an important task, regardless of whether you are personally religious or an atheist.

    As for the query about what the ‘new’ arguments for the existence of God could be post-Dawkins, this mistakes Dawkins for someone who has made any genuinely new contribution to the area. I see Dawkins work as just a re-heated and popularised version of a number of common arguments about God and moral philosophy that have been around for a number of years. To get an idea of why philosophers and cultural commentators tend not to take Dawkins seriously outside his own particular field, try Terry Eagleton’s magisterial demolition of Dawkins and Hitchens together (he calls them ‘Ditchkins’) in Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Eagleton is a Marxist by the way, so not a Christian apologist! On the more scientific side of Dawkins, worth a look is John Lennox, Reader in Maths at Oxford, who has publicly debated Dawkins on a number of occasions – see his book: God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?

    As for the idea that there are no respectable philosophical defences of the existence of God, post the great Dawkins, all I can say is that the poster doesn’t seem to have done much research! He might try Anthony Flew, the godfather of modern atheism, whose 1950 essay, ‘Theology and Falsification’ became the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the last half century. The blogger might care to try his recent recantation of his atheism – There is A God (Harper) if he’s really interested in the arguments.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      “part of it (e.g. biblical studies (I don’t mean apologetics) is a form of historical criticism – in other ways trying to work out what the Bible – and Koran – means, given the history of the cultural and philosophical beliefs of the cultures in which it was written. Given that billions of people in the world believe what these books say, trying to get that as right as possible is plainly an important task, regardless of whether you are personally religious or an atheist.”

      That’s not plain at all.

    • Posted July 5, 2011 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      I haven’t read Eagleton or Lennox, but I’d be wary of putting too much weight on Flew’s There Is a God. Flew’s state of mind at the time is at least questionable and, as Eric MacDonald has noted elsewhere, there are strong indications that it was at least partly ghost written.

      /@

    • John
      Posted July 6, 2011 at 2:53 am | Permalink

      @Gavin Phillipson.
      So, what are the (new) arguments? How exactly do the sources you cite undermine or supersede Dawkins or any other atheist? Claiming the equivalent of “Fred wrote a charming book that demolishes all atheists for all times” is just idiotic. What arguments that Fred wrote actually do what you claim? Telling me (or anyone else) to read a book as a defence of theism is specious. Give me the argument. Tell me why atheism is incorrect, according to the source you cite. Merely citing a source as rebuttal is stupid, silly, and ridiculous, and you should be properly embarrassed to have done so.

      By your reasoning, my mere mention that my wife this morning provided me with a killer argument that all religion is 100% shite is sufficient evidence that it is (if you just listened to my wife). In fact, her argument is so good, I don’t even have to tell you what it is, but demand only that you listen to her at breakfast.

      Stupid is the only way to describe that kind of reasoning, and I would prefer that a) you stop it, and b) leave my wife and her breakfast alone.

  89. Posted July 5, 2011 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Having read Alfred North Whitehead and other process philosophy/theology before, that baffling block of text sounded somewhat familiar. It’s all still nonsense. Having read theology a fair amount, I have concluded that it is just rationalization of things accepted for no reason.

  90. Haymoon
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    But what about this though!

    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2011/0705/1224300089384.html

  91. Tom
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    As for asking what is theology about, or the point of it, it’s quite simple: part of it is philosophy dealing with the specific issues around the possible existence of God and ‘his’ possible attributes; part of it is I suppose anthropological – studying the practice of religions as culture; part of it (e.g. biblical studies (I don’t mean apologetics) is a form of historical criticism – in other ways trying to work out what religious books mean, given the history of the cultural and philosophical beliefs of the cultures in which it was written. Given that billions of people in the world believe what these books say, trying to get that as right as possible is plainly an important task, regardless of whether you are personally religious or an atheist.

    As for the idea that there are no respectable philosophical defences of the existence of God, all it means is that Jerry has done no research. I could direct him to Anthony Flew, the godfather of modern atheism, whose 1950 essay, ‘Theology and Falsification’ became the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the last half century. Jerry might also care to try his recent recantation of his atheism – There is A God (Harper) if he’s really interested in the arguments.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      He said *respectable* arguments.

      I’m not aware of any either.

  92. Posted July 5, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    The difference between atheists and religious people is not a matter of rationality, it is a matter of axioms. Intelligent religious people (of which there are very few) recognize this and accept it, those that don’t write theology under the mistaken belief that one can construct arguments for the existence of god.

  93. Posted July 5, 2011 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    Your comments reminded me of an Amazon.com review I wrote several years ago about a book of essays on literary criticism. I found it so overwrought and pretentious I just couldn’t stand it.

    One of the conclusions I came to, which may apply to theology as well, was that the writers of these essays were writing in a more or less insular world of literary critics, basically writing to one another without much chance of “normal” people picking up their books and reading them. To that end, it was necessary for them to continue to produce ever more outlandish ideas in order for their opinions and writings to remain relevant.

    Maybe theological writing can be thought of in that way. Maybe the writers aren’t even all that convinced of what they are writing — it’s simply a career that they need to keep going and the way to do that is to continue producing this kind of back-and-forth writing that basically allows them to continue coming up with ideas indefinitely.

  94. Posted July 5, 2011 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    What knowledge about the world (or about god) has theology produced?

    Insofar as philosophy and theology were not cleanly distinguishable in Ockham’s time, Ockham’s Razor is a product of theology.

    • Posted July 5, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      In Ockham’s time and culture.

      But, given that, it’s nicely ironic! “Why not save a step?”!!

      /@

    • Posted July 5, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      Oh: I just came across this, following a link above…

      “most of the more penetrating thinkers of the Middle Ages were dissidents accused of or at least suspected of heresy: they included … William of Occam…”

      /@

      • Posted July 5, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        That’s a very interesting finding, and I think it speaks to the intrinsic reactionary qualities of organized religion. It’s hard to say if the conflict is within theology or between theology and something like secular philosophy. Wikipedia says that the extent to which Ockham’s falling out with Rome was due to his theology vs his politics is unclear. (Again, drawing such a distinction at that time isn’t easy given the divine right claimed by monarchs.)

  95. Posted July 5, 2011 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    The right question to ask is whence comes the authority?

    If one doesn’t already know what “knowledge” is at the obscured center of the doctrine and whether it meets valid criteria for being “holy” and “sacred”, then how do you know that the religion, its practices, and doctrine, is actually holy at all? If you don’t even know, then why would you a priori grant it the status of “sacred” or “holy”? Only because you wanted/hoped it would be something special, and because it is the world’s longest-running and most successful form of peer pressure. But once you’ve acknowledged this, you also have to acknowledge that you granted it the status of holiness, and you projected all of the the meaning into it yourself. And once you’ve acknowledged this, it follows that you must take responsibility for your own cognitive actions, including granting special status to the religion prior to knowing what it meant. You did it.

    If you wonder whether this is valid, try asking a Christian why it is ok to follow some of the scriptures but not other parts of it. Who gave anyone the authority to pick and choose which parts we keep and which parts we reject? If you grant yourself that authority, then for God’s sake acknowledge that you first held up the scriptures and judged them against what you already knew to be true. You’re now caught red-handed in the full light of awareness, trying to fool yourself into believing that you could pick and choose at will.

  96. Posted July 5, 2011 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    The right question to ask is whence comes the authority?

    If one doesn’t already know what “knowledge” is at the obscured center of the doctrine and whether it meets valid criteria for being “holy” and “sacred”, then how do you know that the religion, its practices, and doctrine, is actually holy at all? If you don’t even know, then why would you a priori grant it the status of “sacred” or “holy”? Only because you wanted/hoped it would be something special, and because it is the world’s longest-running and most successful form of peer pressure. But once you’ve acknowledged this, you also have to acknowledge that you granted it the status of holiness, and you projected all of the the meaning into it yourself. And once you’ve acknowledged this, it follows that you must take responsibility for your own cognitive actions, including granting special status to the religion prior to knowing what it meant. You did it.

    If you wonder whether this is valid, try asking a Christian why it is ok to follow some of the scriptures but not other parts of it. Who gave anyone the authority to pick and choose which parts we keep and which parts we reject? If you grant yourself that authority, then for God’s sake acknowledge that you first held up the scriptures and judged them against what you already knew to be true. You’re now caught red-handed in the full light of awareness, trying to fool yourself into believing that you could pick and choose at will but then pretend the authority of scripture came from an external source.

  97. TerryL
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    We are reading about religion because religion sells. So does Astrology, Big Foot and UFO’s.

    Follow the Money. And the IQ. And the Difficulty in Understanding Science.

    If people refuse to think for themselves, religion fills that vacuum.

  98. Ryan Vilbig
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    If you’re interested in reading Catholic theology as it relates to science, you may want to read the writings of 17th century Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher. Kircher thought that environmental pressures caused species to change over time, according to Professor Will Parcell of Wichita State University (http://georegister.org/publications/2010_presentGSA_Kircher.pdf). He also thought that God created a changing world because it “shows forth the infinite power of God and the incertitude of human fate.. [A]ll things are fleeting and subject to the variable fates of fortune and destruction so that [we] might raise [our] minds, studies, soul and intellect, which no created things can satisfy, to sublime and eternal possession, and gaze at God alone, in whose hand are all the powers of the realms and the destines of universal nature.” (translation of Kircher by Goodwin)

    In other words, Kircher proposed a modified version of Darwin’s theory 200 years before him and reconciled it with Catholicism.

    -Ryan Vilbig

    • Ryan Vilbig
      Posted July 5, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      You may also want to read the writings of Blessed John Henry Newman, who rejected Paley’s watchmaker argument with the following words:

      [T]he God of Physical Theology may very easily become a mere idol; for He comes to the
      inductive mind in the medium of fixed appointments, so excellent, so skilful, so beneficent, that, when it has for a long time gazed upon them, it will think them too beautiful to be broken, and will at length so contract its notion of Him as to conclude that He never could have the heart (if I may dare use such a term) to undo or mar His own work; and this conclusion will be the first step towards its degrading its idea of God a second time, and identifying Him with His works. Indeed, a Being of Power, Wisdom, and Goodness, and nothing else, is not very different from the God of the Pantheist.” (Idea of a University, page 454)

      • Ryan Vilbig
        Posted July 5, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

        You may also want to read Saint Jerome’s commentary on Jeremiah 13:23 “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots, then also you may do good who are accustomed to do evil” (RSV). Saint Jerome commented on on it thus in a letter to Oceanus, “By the reading of the prophet the eunuch of Candace the queen of Ethiopia is made ready for the baptism of Christ. Though it is against nature the Ethiopian does change his skin and the leopard his spots.” (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3001069.htm). In a letter to Paulinus, he wrote “[Jeremiah] speaks of a rod of an almond tree and of a seething pot with its face toward the north, and of a leopard which has changed its spots.” (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3001053.htm)

        • Ryan Vilbig
          Posted July 5, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

          Blessed John Henry Newman also thought that humans descended from apes: “Does Scripture contradict [Darwin’s] theory?—was Adam not immediately taken from the dust of the earth? ‘All are of dust’—Eccles iii:20—yet we never were dust—we are from fathers. Why may not the same be the case with Adam? I don’t say that it is so—but if the sun does not go round the earth and the earth stand still, as Scripture seems to say, I don’t know why Adam needs be immediately out of dust—Formavit Deus hominem de limo terrae [God formed man from the dust of the earth]—i.e. out of what really was dust and mud in nature, before He made it what it was, living. But I speak under correction.” (Letter to EB Pusey, June 5 1870)

  99. Posted July 6, 2011 at 2:38 am | Permalink

    Jerry,
    Whitehead’s philosophy is notoriously difficult. I wrote this in response to PZ’s defense of Kroto: http://footnotes2plato.com/2011/07/05/science-art-religion-the-role-of-speculative-philosophy-in-the-adventure-of-rationality/

    It may help clarify Whitehead’s “sophisticated theology.” What he means by “occasions” “prehending” both their actual past and their possible future makes sense only in the context of his cosmological scheme, where creative process has replaced our normal conception of reality as ultimately “made” of some material substance. There is no such thing as “substance” for Whitehead, only process. He is still an atomist, but each atom is a “drop of experience” with temporal depth. In other words, the final real things are simple “occasions” of experience, rather than fixed things or eternal ideas. It is unfortunate that only theologians paid any attention to Whitehead’s philosophical project, at least in America. His thought is extremely relevant to physicists, biologists, and philosophers of science.

    • Posted July 7, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

      Whitehead’s processual stuff is mentioned (and argued against) in passing in Mario Bunge’s _Treatise on Basic Philosophy_ (vol 3) and my MA thesis (University of British Columbia, 2001). There is a grave problem with positing events with nothing doing the change …

      Also, and I’d have to verify, but I believe D. M. Armstrong has also made similar remarks. Of course, Armstrong is Australian and Bunge and I are (now) Canadian, so maybe that’s why we paid attention (even if we disagree with some of it).

      • Posted July 8, 2011 at 3:20 am | Permalink

        The something that is doing the changing in Whitehead’s process ontology is Creativity. You could also call it Chaos. In Whitehead’s system, even God is subject to Creativity, a creature of Creativity.

        Might I find your thesis online somewhere?

        • Posted July 8, 2011 at 3:37 am | Permalink

          I found it on your website. In Whitehead’s mature philosophy, it is not “events” which are the basic things, but actual entities/occasions (Whitehead used these words interchangeably). He sometimes conceived of these entities as organisms, which are not substances with accidental properties, but subjects prehending objects. Prehension, or the most fundamental form of experience, is always a process of internal realization, never an external quality or changing property. Time, for Whitehead, takes place inside actual entities. Becoming, therefore, is not continuous, but atomic (not “the becoming of actual entities,” but “actual entities become”).

        • Posted July 8, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

          Admittedly, my question was ambiguous, but: the issue is not whether or not something is, so to speak, causing the changes, but rather what *undergoes* the changes. In a chemical reaction, electrons move around and atoms take on new spatial arrangements and couplings because of it. This sounds a lot like a changes in things, just as it would in an ordinary life example. I’m aware that Whitehead and the other “processualists” claim that the electron itself is an event (“occasion”) but that merely pushes the question a step back. This also seems to be contrary to what one discovers about it, too – what was I doing when I repeated J. J. Thompson’s experiment in a physics lab besides manipulating a *thing* (by changing its acceleration, but that’s another story)? Further, the argument that Whitehead presents is fallacious: from the fact that everything is changable it does not follow in the slightest that there is thereby no role for something undergoing the changes.

          • Posted July 9, 2011 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

            Measuring an electron is the discovery of something, but the local experimental condition that you arranged in your laboratory also played a constitutive role in what was brought forth.

  100. Posted July 6, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    I think everyone needs to read theology, to fully grasp the unbelievable nonsense that passes for profound thought. There is a wealth of material on line these days. I am particularly interested in the history of Christian theology. Dating back to early and late antiquity. The web site “http://www.ccel.org/fathers.html” has a fantastic collection of early writings. I am sure most Christians (or any religion actually)who even bother to think about theology, consider the writings to be very profound, mostly because they don’t understand a word of it. It does not seem to occur to them that it is, for the most part, made up nonsense. Reading the stuff by the early fathers is tough, but very instructional. And to fully appreciate it one needs to have some grasp of the historical events at those times. Read Bury and Gibbon on the later Roman Empire. How stupid nonsense and ignorance rotted society, and help cause a dark age.

  101. Posted July 6, 2011 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    Someone should do to theology what Alan Sokal did to postmodernism.

    • Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:01 am | Permalink

      sez bjarte foshaug: “Someone should do to theology what Alan Sokal did to postmodernism.”
      Is there any reason to think that hasn’t already happened?

      • Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

        I think they forgot to reveal the hoax. :/

      • Diane G.
        Posted July 11, 2011 at 12:33 am | Permalink

        LOL!!

  102. Matthew Dickinson
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    I too have tried reading theology for the same reasons, to say that I have and so have some qualification to rebut theological arguments. In a pleasant second guessing by a friend a was given a copy of ‘Science and Wisdom’ by Jurgen Moltmann, which while not quite as obtuse, still left me confused. Since then I’ve tried reading David F. Ford’s ‘Theology: A Very Short Introduction’ in case I had dived to deep. The language is much better and it lacks the pretension, but I gave up about a third of the way in when Ford explicitly admits that you can’t do theology unless you accept the assumption that god exists:
    ‘It is no obstacle to theology that it cannot aim at conclusive demonstrative proof of the reality of God – there are many other worthwhile intellectual goals. The richest theological engagements are between those who acknowledge where they are coming from and then patiently study, communicate, and discuss with others (whether of their own of different persuasions) about matters of importance.’

  103. Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Let’s be clear of the difference between Christian Theology, Biblical studies and Religious studies. The latter two (when done well) can be scientific and progressive.

    In my experience (largely with Biblical studies) most academics are functionally atheist (as well as being explicitly methodologically atheist). Though for reasons of employment, it doesn’t behove them to be anything but apologists for the idea of faith.

    The problem with confusing theology with biblical studies and religious studies is that you have shlocky hacks putting out anti-intellectual pseudo-research on topics such as the Mythical Jesus, and otherwise rather rational atheists lap it up as somehow a corrective against the theologically compromised status quo in biblical studies.

    • Chuck O'Connor
      Posted July 7, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      Richard Carrier and Bob Price are anti-intellectural schlocky hacks? The mythicist hypothesis might be marginalized but the work gone into it is far from superficial. You might want to investigate it further.

      • Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

        I’m sorry Chuck, but are you an idiot?

        I never cease to be amazed at how fast people turn all A’s are B’s into all B’s are A’s when they have a stick up their ass.

        • Chuck O'Connor
          Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

          I’m amazed how pretentious jerks try to backtrack their hasty generalizations with name calling. Your comment decried the mythicist hypothesis in totality and I simply suggested two excellent scholars promoting that hypothesis as more than what you insinuated.

          • Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

            No, it didn’t. Seriously go back. I didn’t say anything about the mythicist position in general.

            I could describe at length how Price’s mythicism is rather different than garden variety atheist mythicism, and why it is still wanting. But you wouldn’t read that comment either.

            • Chuck O'Connor
              Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

              “The problem with confusing theology with biblical studies and religious studies is that you have shlocky hacks putting out anti-intellectual pseudo-research on topics such as the Mythical Jesus, and otherwise rather rational atheists lap it up as somehow a corrective against the theologically compromised status quo in biblical studies.”

              Your quote condemns you or you need to learn how to communicate. Your assertion above is that “topics such as the Mythical Jesus” are “anti-intellectual pseudo-research” put out by “schlocky hacks”. Please point out where my interpretation is wrong.

              • Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

                We seem to have kissed and made up, below. But to answer the specific question.

                “Schlocky hacks” putting out “pseudo-research” on “topics” such as “the Historical Jesus”

                Transform this into:

                “Incompetent teens” putting out “terrible music” on “platforms” such as “iTunes”.

                And its pretty obvious, I think, that such a statement doesn’t imply the speaker thinks all music on iTunes is terrible and written by incompetent teens.

                Inverting specific statements into obviously ludicrous generalizations is a *very* common gambit when you want to portray someone as being ignorant.

                I haven’t found a Mythicist who could argue the full implications of their case convincingly without being hoist by their own petard.

                But some try. And a few do so using mainstream knowledge of the ancient near east, and established historiographical methods.

                But its the pseudo-scholars putting out badly-researched-crap that is full of quote mining and basic misunderstanding of history, language and scholarship, that nevertheless seems to garner endless plaudits from atheist blogs as somehow sticking it to those over educated know-nothing academic types, that gets on my nerves.

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

          Can we PLEASE avoid name-calling here. One can make one’s points without accusing another commenter of being an “idiot.”

          Thanks.

          • Chuck O'Connor
            Posted July 8, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

            Thanks Jerry.

          • Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

            Sorry, PZitis rubbing off. Your lawn, your rules.

  104. Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    The reason you should read theology, Jerry, is not to understand, much less accept, the theology itself. But to understand how theologians themselves conceive of the ground rules of their subject.

    That is the core mismatch.

    And until there are more atheists who can tackle theism from within that context, your scientific bluster is trivially dismissible. What has passed for theological criticism in the comments here and in some of your previous posts illustrate beautifully why (currently) the vast majority of atheists are theologically irrelevant and unable to land any blow.

    • Chuck O'Connor
      Posted July 7, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      “theologically irrelevant” depends on the terms you wish to make. As a lay-Christian within the Evangelical-Free Church conforming to reformed theology, all I needed was to gain Dr. Coyne’s perspective on Why Evolution is True to recognize that Paul’s argument in Romans was false. There was never a single man who fell therefore there is no need for a propitiate sacrifice. You assume too much when you expect the garden-variety believer to address technical theology. Heck, I didn’t even learn who Plantinga was until AFTER I became an atheist. Sounds to me you chose a field of study where you can’t be yourself and in turn are projecting that shame outward as justification for your error.

      • Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

        So, out of two replies to two comments you managed to read neither?

        Where did I say anything at all about the ordinary believer? Let alone my expectations of them.

        Seriously, you’re full of advice, but you could do with actually learning to read before sharing it.

        • Chuck O'Connor
          Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

          I quoted your piece and redefined the term to make it concern itself with who Jerry is addressing. Technical theologians have little influence on the mainstream religious while popular authors like Jerry and the New Atheists do a very effective job of dismissing the appeals to emotion most believers cling to. It seems that you are trying to give credence to your chosen field of study by making an implied claim that it has an effect on main-stream culture when there is little evidence it does. The level of “sophisticated” theologians most church-goers refer to are guys like Josh McDowell, Rick Warren, Ravi Zacchiarias or Pope Bendedict XVI. Implying that sophisticated and technical theology has any impact on anything but the margins demands more substantiation than you’ve provided here.

          • Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

            Well, it appears wrong then. Because you’ve completely mis-characterised my position once again.

            So here, let me spell it out in simple terms.

            I think that at least 99% of believers don’t give a shit about academic theology. EXCEPT. The existence of it can be used as a “get out of doubt” card. Because somebody with fancy degrees says that its not insane to believe in God, that provides cover to the naive belief of *some* (not all).

            I think 99% of atheist advocacy should not be about academic theology.

            But that’s no reason to say that the other 1% aren’t a royal pain in the ass. And if you want to address that, you need to actually understand academic theology.

            I’m looking forward to seeing how you can creatively misread this comment…

    • truthspeaker
      Posted July 7, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

      But why should we bother? If there’s no god, it doesn’t matter what its properties are.

      • Steersman
        Posted July 7, 2011 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

        I can see how it might be of some value in a discussion if such actually led to being able to track “Him” down – serve “Him” with a collective class-action suit for bad design – to start with. Sort of analogous to tracking down the Higgs boson – known energies, found among unusual suspects, certain sort of tracks: that sort of thing.

        But absent that objective in mind – and even any hope of reaching it which is decidedly unlikely given that the mug shot changes with every witness, sort of like a Rorschach inkblot – and some sort of method to leaven their madness the whole effort looks rather academic – in the pejorative sense.

      • Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

        Unfortunately, you’re rather making my point for me.

        • Chuck O'Connor
          Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

          How is that?

          • Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

            By framing the debate in ways that are theologically irrelevant.

            Its fine to do that, of course. But if the aim is to avoid the claim levelled at Dawkins that new atheism is theologically naive, then “why bother” is irrelevant.

            Its fine. Move along, there are plenty of battles to fight with ordinary believers who’s theology is far more naive than even Dawkins. In fact, as Dawkins and Harris have said in print, the “theologically naive” criticism coming from theologians is just as apposite for the vast majority of believers.

            But there is also atheistic hay to be made doing academic theology. But you don’t do that with crass caricatures.

            • Chuck O'Connor
              Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

              Did you read “The God Delusion”? Dawkins provides a very specific thesis on the god he is looking to falsify. His target is very clear and, sophisticated theologians decrying the book seem to be reacting with haste to validate their chosen profession. Dr. Dawkins profession gains nothing from theology and he has the evidence to show that. He also deals with how religion affects real-world concerns, like the teaching of science vs. obeying superstition. The fastest growing Christian movements BTW are violently anti-intellectual — the post-modernism of Mega Church life-style religion and the charisma of 3rd World Pentecostalism. You seem like you are defending your Ivy Tower, nothing more.

              • Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

                Seriously Chuck, can you not read?

                I said Dawkins did, and why he was right to. I said he was criticized by the ivory tower.

                Jerry’s post is about responding to that criticism by reading theology.

                My post was to say the ivory tower is also vulnerable, and what can be done about it. And why just reading theology isn’t that helpful alone.

                Please, for Pete’s sake stop putting the words of straw men into my mouth and read a bit more carefully.

  105. Posted July 7, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Nonsense, Ian. Here’s why you say that: because the whole point of theology is to s t r e t c h out one’s attention and to keep them occupied with a million trivialities whose sum is exactly 0. In the end, with no actual claim to divine authority, there is no reason to waste time with a 1st Century cosmology and many reasons to reject it. Same with all of the Postmodern quatropyloctomy. It’s an endless vortex of forestalling acceptance that some of the things we thought might be true when we were children are not true at all. The game of granting a little processor time to a religion is the game of denial and sublimation regarding one’s own mortality.

    • Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      Wow, thanks neaderthanproject. I’m glad that you’ve so easily ascertained the point of theology. Congratulations. And always nice when folks can read a couple of my comments and tell me why I wrote them. Your insight is quite amazing.

      Incidentally, you know all those folks who easily dismiss science as naive evidentialism? Or crass scientism. They didn’t study science, but they understand it very well. Its all about reductionism (and we’ve disproved that), or about the quest to make everything perfect (and WWI taught us that was foolish), or the determined and ultimately futile quest to deny that their is anything beyond human control.

      What’s that? Science *isn’t* about those things you say? Poppycock. Of course it is, you just refuse to admit it. And you wrap it all up with encyclopedia of mumbo-jumbo designed to distance the casual observer from the underlying nihilistic angst.

      Its easy to play the telling the other side what they believe and why card. It is much harder to find out what they believe and why.

      • Chuck O'Connor
        Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

        Ian, it makes sense that you would want to defend your choice of study but, it’s hard for naturalists and modernists to see anything other than make-believe in it. Why theology? Why not philosophy? Where you a believer when you began and figured you needed to keep going even after you lost faith? Theology is an interesting subject if the point is to understand how people create stories to ameliorate their mortality but, its over-reach (probably left over from when it held status before modernism) is annoying and hurtful to society.

        • Posted July 8, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

          Right, getting to some interesting points (as less misunderstandings I think).

          My “choice of study” was an undergrad in theology, but that’s a bit of a misnomer, because I did relatively little theology. My interest was and is in New Testament studies. I didn’t specialise in theology, because I didn’t believe in the God it described. I then pivoted, and my PhD was in evolutionary dynamics in non-biological complex systems.

          “Theology is an interesting subject if the point is to understand how people create stories to ameliorate their mortality”

          More than that. Theology is a *fascinating* subject if you want to understand human reasoning at a very deep level. I’d say it is the greatest edifice in post-hoc rationalisation that humans have come up with.

          But all that is irrelevant if the aim is to be able to stand up to criticisms of “theological naivity” levelled by theology. In *that* case (what I read to be the point of all this), actually just having read a bunch of theologians isn’t *that* useful (as I said). The key thing is to try to understand the groundrules of the discipline in their own terms.

          It is very easy to assume that, because after all there is no God, there is no internal structure to theology – it is purely arbitrary. That is a common accusation levelled by atheists, and I can categorically say is wrong.

          But I’m definitely not the guy arguing that doing theology is somehow a public service!

          “sophisticated theology is as empty as the shallow theology of naive believers”

          I don’t agree. As empty of testable truth claims, very true. As empty of human creativity, or of aesthetic charm? No. I’d disagree. When smart people (and there are very smart theologians) work hard within a formal system to be creative, the results can be impressive, if you’re able or willing to understand the formal system.

          It can still be a waste of time and no earthly use, and be brilliant and fascinating.

          • whyevolutionistrue
            Posted July 8, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

            And what would you recommend as a good way to learn the “groundrules” of theology? I’m serious in my question here.

            • Chuck O'Connor
              Posted July 8, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

              We are on the same page Jerry. See my comment below.

            • Posted July 8, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

              I don’t think it is a question of *what* you read, but of what you are looking for when you do read.

              I wanted to comment, because your original post seemed to be reinforcing your initial assumption that because there are no testable conclusions, that the process is arbitrary. I want to encourage you to read what you’ve been suggested looking for ways in which the process is non-arbitrary, rather than searching for testable conclusions. Because I think you’ll get further (with less mental torture).

              An example: My moment of epiphany came when I’d been asked to read “Fear and Trembling” as a sophomore – a classic work of theology. It is “about” the way god can suspend what is and isn’t ethical to some end. The so called “teleological suspension of the ethical”.

              So I wrote an essay about why F&T was a great work in theology, saying that. And got a B-. Being a straight A student, I borrowed an A graded essay from a classmate to see what I’d missed.

              She didn’t write about Kierkegaard’s conclusions at all. But about his method. F&T wasn’t important because it figured out that god’s ethics (as portrayed in the bible) are less than consistent. That’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s read the bible.

              The beauty of fear and trembling is the beauty of a chess game. He sets himself a problem (explicitly – how could god tell Abraham to sacrifice his son), gives himself ground rules (his absolute red-line is that he refuses to dehumanise Abraham, Isaac, or Sarah – he deliberately dwells on what could reasonably be assumed to be their acute mental distress at the situation), and then works through that to reach a point where he is forced to dehumanise God, in a very specific way. It is an honest and beautiful book that did theology in a way that was new.

              Kierkegaard never intended to prove the existence of God (in fact, he believes it to be strictly impossible, other of his works explore that). I don’t even think he intended it to tell us something deep about God (in other works he is pretty firm about the limits of what theological reasoning can know).

              To me, the facile criticism that all this fancy shmancy theology doesn’t make any concrete testable proofs of God’s existence *feels* of the same kind of category mistake as creationists claiming that we haven’t found a Crocoduck.

              Its true, but only surprising to someone who labours under a big misunderstanding.

              I’m not saying that the theology isn’t then *used* to bolster belief in God (it is, and there the Crocodock analogy breaks down), but I just think you’ll never in a million years land that blow against it, because to anyone with a passing knowledge it is so obviously not the point. However there *are* blows that can be landed. Much (if not most) of modern theology is rather atheistic (Kierkegaard, for example, can be read as making an argument *against* belief, surely!). *That* I think is where the weakness in theology lies. And where few atheistic folks are really stepping up to the plate.

              (Apologies for lack of brevity).

          • Chuck O'Connor
            Posted July 8, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

            This is well said. I agree. It might do us all a service here, if you could provide some of the foundational arguments or at least a glimpse at how the sophisticated theologians begin their process, (the ground rules) so we might have a better understanding how we are being “naive” relative to them.

            I’ve been listening to some debates lately between scientifically trained Christian apostate atheists and Christian Theology students. One thing I find fallacious with the theology students is they often misrepresent a scientific theory (e.g. claiming Evolution can’t work because of the 2nd law of thermodynamics but, when corrected how that only works in a closed system they still belabor the point) or falling to equivocation (how can we account that logic is logical without God as a ground for logic). Maybe I need to read some more sophisticated theology but I doubt that in my apostasy I will ever have the basis to see the work as anything other than wishful thinking. I’d rather read Dostoyevsky. At least in there are some crazy characters.

  106. Chuck O'Connor
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Ian, my apologies in misunderstanding your point about theology but, the value you gave it with your rhetoric made me think you were inflating its societal impact. Jerry’s point seems to be that the charge of “theologically naive” is ridiculous because sophisticated theology is as empty as the shallow theology of naive believers. For one to pursue theological sophistication is to wrestle gravity, there’s no there, there and little social impact within the fantasies. At least Dawkins meditation on theology, naive or not, was done to real purpose in exposing the Intelligent Designer as neither intelligent or a designer based on what we know to be true from evolutionary biology. He did a public service in defending a useful scientific theory. Theologians don’t do any of that.

  107. Chuck O'Connor
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    I agree with that point except I don’t think the 1% have any bearing on the garden-variety believer and most Christians have no idea who those people are. If they do examine the arguments the odds that the fideistic religion which is modern Christianity will resemble the work of Plantinga, Alston, or even William Lane Craig seems improbable. Also, your dismissal of comments towards religion here by atheists as impotent seems to support your argument that the 1% is meaningful, not to the effect these arguments have.

    • Posted July 8, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

      I think the 1% is very significant. Not because of their actual arguments. But because of their existence.

      For example. The Archbishop of Canterbury – the leader of the second largest group of Christians worldwide. Is a *very* accomplished theologian, of the 1% variety. If you read his work, you’ll see that what he actually argues for is *not* what the 99%ers believe. But the sophistication of that 1% means that they can (with only minor cognitive dissonance, it seems) then discuss the 99% theology in prima fascia terms. They are understanding it in slightly different terms, but their audience hears the naive theology they want to hear.

      Folks like the +Canterbury provide a powerful smokescreen for the naive belief of others. The fact that there is a dearth of credible challenge to the 1% theology means that leaders can always tell the 99%s not to worry, that folks far smarter and more learned have looked at this stuff, and still believe.

      The argument Dawkins ran into, that he only attacked naive theology, was explicitly this. And I’ve read exactly that response in several anti-Dawkins books. Don’t believe Dawkins, he has stereotyped God. Rest assured there are a bunch of folks as smart as Dawkins who have delved deeper into the nature of God, and they say he’s full of crap.

      To counter *that* you have to do academic theology.

      If you want to. But its fine by me if you don’t. As long as *someone* does, the rest of the atheist community can carry on addressing the naivity of the 99%.

      • Chuck O'Connor
        Posted July 8, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

        Point taken and I stand corrected. I agree with you. I think the phenomenon you describe however is inherent to Christian belief where an appeal to authority provides comfort when face with cognitive dissonance (and often the call to critical thinking). I don’t know if an atheist expertise in theology will unseat the sanctioned Christian “experts” but I do want to read JL Mackie’s “The Miracle of Atheism”. The challenge is that the books of academic theologians are all so damn expensive.

        • Chuck O'Connor
          Posted July 8, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

          Meant to say “The Miracle of Theism”

        • Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

          “The challenge is that the books of academic theologians are all so damn expensive.”

          Amen, brother.

          Your local university probably has a scheme to allow you to join the library. If it is a good research University, you’ll be able to access most works that way. Particularly if the university has a theology or divinity school.

          I pay for an annual membership to the university library here. It also means I get access to scientific journals online and inter-library loans.

          • Chuck O'Connor
            Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

            Good tip. I’m in Chicago. I wonder if our library system has any of these as well. If not, then I am pretty close to Northwestern University where they have Garrett Seminary.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted July 9, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

        “To counter *that* you have to do academic theology.”

        No, you just have to show that academic theology is completely vacuous – expose the smokescreen for what it is.

        And recognizing that a god is only relevant if it exists is not “naive”, it’s rational. If you can show believers that the academic theologians are atheists just like we are, then you can negate their smokescreen.

  108. Diane G.
    Posted July 9, 2011 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    @ Ian,

    But its the pseudo-scholars putting out badly-researched-crap that is full of quote mining and basic misunderstanding of history, language and scholarship, that nevertheless seems to garner endless plaudits from atheist blogs as somehow sticking it to those over educated know-nothing academic types, that gets on my nerves.

    Would you name names, please?

  109. ScientificDoberman
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne,

    Edward Feser, a Catholic philosopher who is apparently very well-versed in theology, particularly medieval theology, has proffered a detailed response to this post of yours:

    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/07/clue-for-jerry-coyne.html

    • Chuck O'Connor
      Posted July 12, 2011 at 4:29 am | Permalink

      Why does Mr. Feser always use the royal “we” when writing his posts? It seems odd to me.

      I made a comment on his post and asked him how he might falsify god and, for this former believer, that seems to be the difference between theology and science.

      I think I will read his book so I can ground myself in the arguments he defends.

  110. JBlilie
    Posted July 12, 2011 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    Dr. C.: Late to the party here (I was out of town for several weeks).

    I have read many apologists (though it seems never the particular one that any random Christian interlocutor insists has the Correct Theology™), many theologians, and most of the world’s “holy” books.

    IMO, they really do have nothing substantial to say. You have summarized it well, and I have seen no counter examples. They assume what they are required to prove. They make up concepts out of thin air and hang important-sounding titles on them and then claim you can’t show they aren’t what they say they are. These may help their coreligionists feel better; but they say exactly nothing about reality (outside of the head of the theologian.)

    No one has come up with anything new on “proofs” of gods’ existence (the most basic requirement of any theological discussion: If you can’t show me any god, why waste time speaking of such? Why waste time speaking of Kali or Ammon Ra, for instance?)

    All “proofs” or arguments for gods, IMO, fall into these categories, and they are all very bad and easily refuted:

    1. Popularity:
    a. People have always believed in gods, therefore it must be true that god(s) exist(s).
    b. All people at all times “felt the need” for god(s), therefore, like the other needs (hunger for food, thirst for moisture, lust for sex) the object of that need must exist, therefore it must be true that god(s) exist(s)

    2. Utility:
    a. Belief in god(s) provides comfort, social cohesion, social supports, moral compass, world view. Therefore it must be true that god(s) exist(s).
    b. Morality: It is asserted that morality is provided by god(s). Therefore it must be true that god(s) exist(s).

    3. Design:
    a. The life we see around us had to have been “designed” by god(s). Therefore it must be true that god(s) exist(s).
    b. The universe is “designed” for human life by god(s). Therefore it must be true that god(s) exist(s).

    4. Necessity:
    a. There has to be a god (or gods) that is the greatest thing imaginable. (ontological argument; Anselm)
    b. There has to be a god (or gods) that is the first cause. (cosmological argument; Aquinas)

    5. Personal experiences:
    a. I had this amazing “feeling of god(s)”, therefore god(s) exist(s).
    b. I have personally seen god(s) turn around lives, therefore god(s) exist(s). (Or god(s) turned my life around.)

    6. Science is unreliable:
    a. Science can’t explain everything, therefore god(s) had to have done the things we can’t (yet) explain. God(s) must exist to fill these knowledge gaps.
    b. Science makes assumptions about the universe (e.g. physical law continuity through time and space), therefore that’s faith, it’s the same as faith in god(s), therefore god(s) exist(s).

    Until someone comes up with something new (I’m not holding my breath) I will no longer waste any of my precious life’s time on theology or apologetics. New jargon and new meanings for standard English words do not count.

    All the best, and I hope you give it up soon.

  111. Aaron Baker
    Posted July 13, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    What are the arguments for god’s existence in the new sophisticated theology that aren’t taken up and refuted in The God Delusion

    I enjoyed The God Delusion, but I thought his treatment of the traditional arguments for God’s existence the weakest part of the book. I’m guessing that his contempt for these efforts is so great that he couldn’t be bothered to offer more than a glib, superficial, and at least one point inaccurate treatment. (Specifically, he conflates Paley’s and Aquinas’s teleological arguments, though they’re quite different: Paley wanted us to infer design from the complexity of organisms; Aquinas from the apparently goal-directed behavior of much of nature.)

    For a much better demolition, go to John Mackie’s Miracle of Theism. Not nearly as entertaining as Dawkins, but Mackie dismantles each “proof” in detail and, as far as I can see, perfectly fairly. It’s sad for many reasons that Mackie is no longer with us; but not least because he’d swallow and digest William Lane Craig in a matter of minutes.

  112. dwsmithjr
    Posted July 17, 2011 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    I do have some knowledge of Theology. I spent four years as a Conservative Presbyterian Seminary and graduated with an MDiv. degree. I spent another year and completed 90% of an MTh. degree in OT Biblical Studies. I was ordained and spent another sixteen years preaching and teaching in various churches. NOW I’m an atheist and have been for the last ten to fifteen years.

    Basically, yes, it’s a bunch of smart people who assume some sort of deity must exist and so they try to make sense out of how that is possible and might make some sense in the face of the advance of scientific and cultural evolution and sophistication.

    • Posted July 17, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

      #112
      Hurrah dwsmithjr for giving the simple, sensible reply and back it up with heavy insider knowledge and experience.
      I find most replies here try very hard to make logical arguments, thus leveling religious fiction up to a higher level than deserved.
      So, Mr. dwsmithjr, describing Theology as “…a bunch of smart people who assume….” makes a lot of sense to me.
      Thank you very much.

  113. Mary
    Posted August 13, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    I hear your frustration. Trying to figure out what exactly their argument is, is an exercise of futility

  114. M.B Vincent
    Posted September 9, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    I’m studying theology because I want to defend my faith and to abble to explain or share with others people.

    You theology allow us to have the just words in sharing Christ and to understand others with theirs cultures…

    Thank you

  115. Posted February 16, 2014 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    Some years ago I was in a similar mood to yourself and I did some research.

    One current and new argument that is in vogue is the modal ontological argument. You can look it up. It looks very complex, and indeed it is, since it relies on modern formal logic with an extension to deal with modality.

    After you have learned about it from some primary source, I recommend reading this criticism of it.

    http://analyticabstraction.blogspot.dk/2007/11/philosophy-of-religion-2-natural_14.html


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