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.


  1. 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?

  2. 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.’

  3. 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.”


          • 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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?

  9. 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:


    • 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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

      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.

  13. 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

  14. 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

  15. 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.

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