A theologian at HuffPo informs me that theology “is not about God”

It is with a heavy heart that I sit down at my keyboard this morning, for I must spend the next hour locking horns (see previous post) with a theologian—one suffering so severely from cognitive dissonance that he argues that theology is not about God. Something is wrong on the Internet.

The misguided theologian, David Dunn, is described by HuffPo as an “Eastern Orthodox Christian, independent researcher, lay theologian, blogger, and dad” (his website is here).  And he’s ticked off because I criticized a piece in The Atlantic by Sara Isabella Burton arguing that we all need to study more theology.  And so Dunn sat down and wrote a longish piece for HuffPo called “Theology is not about God: An open letter to Jerry A. Coyne.” It even starts with “Dear Dr. Coyne.”

I really should stop here by saying simply, “Are you nuts? Of course it’s about God.”  But, as General Patton said, all true Americans love the sting of battle, and so I must engage Dunn in a bit more detail, if for no other reason than to show how a smart theologian, who has obviously spent years in his profession, tries to justify his existence by arguing that theology is about something different from what everyone thinks.  Further, Dunn’s piece is larded with humorous deepities.

I’ll pass over Dunn’s ad hominems; he clearly doesn’t like atheists except for ones like Marx and Nietzsche (whose atheism he calls “fantastic”). But he has no use for Dawkins and the New Atheists:

As a general rule, I avoid arguments with kitchen appliances, Christian fundamentalists, and atheists who think Dawkins makes sense. But I feel obliged to make an exception in this case. You pride yourself on being a reasonable person and on giving Christian theology a fair hearing, so I feel a scholarly duty, as one intellectual to another, to critique your recent screed against Sara Isabella Burton. She wrote an article in the Atlantic about why theology is useful for humanities scholars, whether or not they believe in God. You say you have spent the past several years reading Christian theology. Thank you for your efforts. It is important that we try to understand each other, which is why I am writing, because I think you still don’t know what theology actually is.

His argument is that theology is not about God, but about people, and takes me to task for that egregious mistake:

Dr. Coyne, you are correct when you distinguish between biblical scholars and theologians. You also correctly define biblical scholars as people who study ancient religious texts. But you go off course when you add that theologians “try to figure out what God is telling us through those texts.” This description of theology makes me wonder how much you were paying attention to what Burton actually wrote. For her, “[Theology provides] an opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history, and who–in the world outside the ivory tower–still shape plenty of the world today” (emphasis added). In other words, theology is not about trying to figure out the will of God from religious texts. Theology, in a sense, is not really about God at all. It’s about people!

. . . Theological studies is not about trying to figure out what God wants; it’s the study of how human beings respond to what they think God wants. That is why some theologians are atheists. To do what I do, belief in God is kind of irrelevant.

Well, that came as a surprise to me after two years of reading about theology, including theodicy, eschatology, and apologetics. What are those except attempts to analyze why God is doing what he does, what he wants, and how we should conceive of God and behave according to his will or his nature?

In fact, “studying how human beings respond to what they think what God wants” is to a large extent “figuring out the will of God from religious texts.” If it’s not, then what were people like C. S. Lewis, Whitehead, Plantinga, Karen Armstrong, Kierkegaard, Tillich, and so on doing? Theology is certainly more than studying how people act when they believe in God. The latter involves psychology and sociology, and while those may form a part of classical theology, you won’t find a lot of psychology and sociology in Aquinas or Augustine.

Now if you argue that theology is “about people” because it involves arguments about God filtered through the brains of theologians, then yes, it is about how humans respond to the idea of God. But Plantinga is not about sociology; he’s about apologetics: how we know God exists, why it’s rational to believe in him, and why God allows things like suffering. These people don’t write a lot about how the minds of medieval monks were affected by their beliefs.

And really, how many atheist theologians are there? I can’t think of one, except, perhaps, Shelby Spong.

I did in fact look up “theology” in the Oxford English Dictionary and found the following two definitions (the first ones):

 a. The study or science which treats of God, His nature and attributes, and His relations with man and the universe; ‘the science of things divine’ (Hooker); divinity.

b. A particular theological system or theory.

Where are the “responses of people” in there?

Perhaps Dunn spends his time, as does Burton, pondering the history of how people act when they think that there’s a God, but that’s certainly not the bulk of theology—at least not the sort I’ve read. What I think Dunn is up to is avoiding all the exegesis and apologetics because he senses that the arguments for God and the interpretations of his will are weak, confused, and conflicting. It’s much easier, and less controversial, to talk about how religious people have behaved—and martyred themselves—through history.

Dunn’s cognitive dissonance, resolved by arguing that theology isn’t about God, leads him down some strange paths:

Theologians sometimes focus exclusively on a narrow swath of the tradition, in the past, but many of us also work to explain to others how our tradition should shape the way we act in the present. Maybe this seems pointless to you. After all, the New Atheist mantra is that religion is dangerous. Okay! Let’s go with that for a minute. Let’s suppose the final solution to religion is to do away with it, but that does not really solve any immediate problems. Trying to convince Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current head of Al-Qaeda) to become an atheist is like trying to turn water into wine when you don’t believe in miracles. It is a pointless exercise. A Muslim theologian who can teach others about orthodox Islam is a more effective opponent of religious extremism than an irate evangelist for New Atheism.

Does that last sentence strike you as strange? After all, it is the imams and Islamic clerics who incite and justify much of the violence of extremist Muslims.  We don’t see a lot of “Muslim theologians” decrying the censorship of The Satanic Verses or the violence that followed publication of the Danish cartoons. And how stupid is it to claim that we atheists are trying to change the minds of peolpe like al-Zawahiri, Pat Robertson, or Ken Ham? We aren’t going after them, but after the doubters and the people on the fence.

Dunn appears to see theology as a branch of history: the branch that explains how people behaved because they believed in God. Where I come from we call that “psychology”:

We do read historical documents (often in the original languages), study artistic and archaeological evidence, engage ancient and contemporary philosophy, and utilize a variety of other critical theoretical tools, but theology is not really about religion as sets of ideas, artifacts, or cultural-historical phenomena. (That is more the purview of religious studies departments.) Religion, as you rightly say, is something people kill and die for, but you only half understand why that is the case. History, anthropology, psychology, etc. can help explain the psychopathic corruption of religion as an instrument of murder, but it cannot do justice to Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Teressa of Calcutta, or St. Maria of Paris. For the record, I am not trying to make this a competition between religion and atheism or faith and science. My point is that only theology can begin to unravel the mystery of how these human beings could suffer and die for the love of a God they cannot see, and for people they can only believe are God’s handiwork. Ideology will make murderers, but it cannot make martyrs. Only love can do that! Only love can make a person give her life for the condemned, embrace the untouchables, and expose injustice by suffering violence without retaliation.

Only love can make martyrs? Really? Does he truly believe that? Because if he does, he’s ignorant of all the history behind martyrdom. Did the people of Jonestown kill themselves out of love? Did the 9/11 bombers act out of love? One might consider other factors, including ideology, group pressure, indoctrination and, yes, as in the case of the 9/11 “martyrs,” hatred. And, most of all, the belief that if you die for your faith—the right faith—you’re going to join God, Jesus, or Allah in the hereafter. These things are not love, but groupthink, fear, and indoctrination.

Now you might be able to twist the word “love” in such cases so it becomes the same thing as “conformity,” “indoctrination,” or even “hatred,” but that’s Orwellian doublespeak. But theologians are good at that.

And then comes Dunn’s most hilarious deepity:

Christians believe that God is love. So we academic theologians are not really studying God, because you cannot see love.

That is so amusingly puerile that it merits not a response, but a horselaugh. Suffice it to say that millions of believers throughout the world see God as more than the emotion of “love.” If Dunn simply means that God is a loving God, then he’s committed a deepity—one that completely sabotages his argument. This kind of argument wouldn’t pass muster in one of our introductory philosophy classes.

Dunn finishes off by reiterating his thesis, as if repeating it several times makes it true. (Geneticist J. B. S. Haldane’s armamentarium of wrongheaded arguments included what he called Aunt Jobiska’s Theorem: “What I say three times must be true.”) Dunn also adds a bit of snark:

Maybe God is imaginary. Maybe love is too. So what? The imagination matters. It shapes civilizations and the saints (and even the tyrants) they produce. Understanding what people imagine God to be demands an interdisciplinary approach that is only preserved in theological studies.

One day, New Atheists may convert the world to reason and usher in a thousand years of humanistic peace. When that happens, sure, let’s get theology out of colleges and universities. But until then, the academy needs theology precisely for what you fail to understand about it: theology is about people. So if theology does not matter, then your problem is not with an “imaginary” God. It is with human beings – marvelously flawed humans! Perhaps you wish, Dr. Coyne, that we were imaginary too.

I would suggest that if you want to understand why people martyr themselves over an imaginary God, you need to study psychology, especially ideology, indoctrination, and wish-thinking—not just theology. By all means let us teach religious history and the philosophy of religion in the academy. But what we don’t need are entire schools of theology, staffed largely by believers who occupy themselves with justifying God’s ways to man. Schools of theology do not, for instance, teach courses on “why people believe crazy things.” We don’t need schools of theology any more than we need schools of Marxism, homeopathy, or pseudoscience. Those schools are a waste of money and brainpower. Put the biblical scholars in history departments, and add a couple of philosophers of religion to the philosophy department. But deep-six most of the theologians.

In the end, any sensible person who actually reads theology can see that it is based largely on the idea that God exists. Given that belief, it falls to theologians to explain what kind of God it is, how he acts in the world, and how we should behave according to those lights. For it is God’s will, and his perceived nature, that determines how believers behave.  If you don’t believe that, look at how Catholicism has promoted the denigration of women and gays, played hob with people’s sex lives, and tortured them with threats of hell.  And don’t tell me these have nothing to do with God or his nature.

Liberal theologians claim the opposite, but the basis is still a belief in God and an interpretation of what his existence means for us. For this is what theologians are paid to do.

Maybe Dunn isn’t that kind of theologian, but he has no basis for claiming that he represents the whole baying pack.


  1. Posted November 10, 2013 at 7:12 am | Permalink


    • francis
      Posted November 10, 2013 at 7:14 am | Permalink


      • jimroberts
        Posted November 10, 2013 at 7:31 am | Permalink


        • teacupoftheapocalypse
          Posted November 10, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink


        • gbjames
          Posted November 10, 2013 at 8:19 am | Permalink


          • Rich
            Posted November 11, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

            What is up with these “subscribe” threads? Oddity peculiar to this site AFAICT. Shrug. 🙂

  2. Mel
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    An imaginary god in an imaginary heaven couldn’t provide a real salvation. The Xn nonsense is killed at its root.

    • Posted November 10, 2013 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

      It could, if the salvation is also imaginary, which is exactly the case. Most elderly people I know stick to their religion since it “gives them peace- knowing that something good waits for them on the -other side-” .. when you prod a bit, most of them either do not want to discuss it at all, or actually doubt the reality of the promises (“but I have a lot to lose..”).

      Yes, it is a promise of imaginary salvation, for a lot of people grasping at an imaginary straw (especially if you have been holding that straw forever), is better than nothing.

      That’s an area of “theology” we should study. When you have invested all of your imagination in one thing, spend most of your time, teaching your kids and grandkids the lies, spending efforts money and time forever … do you think you will be willing to part with it easily?

      Actually should you? For the sake of their own sanity / psychological well being, should they?

      Not everybody is capable of understanding (be it shortcoming of time, chances, or brainpower) the real science.

      This is one of a few real reasons for the hatred of atheism among the religious, they feel threatened. I am not saying that we have to accomodate the ignorants, not at all, we just need to understand what makes them tick, in the same way we need to understand why a wasp buries its eggs in a living insect….

      • Jim Jones
        Posted November 11, 2013 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

        > when you prod a bit, most of them either do not want to discuss it at all, or actually doubt the reality of the promises (“but I have a lot to lose..”).

        This is Powerball theology : “Yes, I know there’s almost no chance but … you never know”. Many if not most Christians are Powerball Christians.

        • Posted November 12, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

          Pascal’s Wager, in other words. And done without any of the faux-sophistication, either.

          Incidentally, for the sake of my work with CFI I was going to start looking to see if I can figure out the original intent of the PW. There’s a consensus in the literature (or at least a common position) that the Wager was meant purely “motivationally”, which would be curious since it does seem to have that effect.

  3. Matt G
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    His time would be better spent arguing with kitchen appliances. I wish he and his ilk would just come out and say that he thinks most people AND most theologians are wrong about what theology even IS. They focus on their disagreement with atheists to avoid dealing with their squabbles with each other. Of course bashing atheists is GOOD for the cause, while criticizing each other is not.

    • ttch
      Posted November 10, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink


  4. Bruce S. Springsteen
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Is it any wonder that conservative theologians tear their hair out at the sound of liberal ones? This kind of “marvelously flawed” contortion act almost makes me want to call a plain-dealing bigot like Fred Phelps and thank him for his candor.

  5. NewEnglandBob
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    David Dunn has a sad life, but being so self delusional, he wouldn’t even notice.

  6. Posted November 10, 2013 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Jerry, you’re missing the poit! Don’t you realise that theology [erase; replace with biology] isn’t about God [erase replace with organisms] at all, but about how people study and think about God [oops! Organisms]. In fact, nothing is about what it’s about, but only about what people think it’s about, and hence, by iteration, what people think about what people think … in infinite regress and equally infinite disconnect from reality.

    • Posted November 10, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      I like your thinking. This Dunn fellow has a point: theology is not about god, but he is wrong that is about people. It is in fact about what people think of god and gods and then an attempt by some of them to condense the thinking into something coherent called a religion or a belief – often in books that are then dubbed “holy”. Problem is nobodies condensation makes any sense and therefofre theology remains one of the most incoherent disciplines. It cannot be called a science – not even one of the humanities.

  7. Andrikzen
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Re-branding Theology – not about God but about people.

    Sorry it’s been taken, the godless, human side of religion already exists; it’s called secular humanism.

    • Rich
      Posted November 11, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      I recently saw Reza Aslan describe religion as “the conversation people have about transcendant experiences.” This was in a debate with Sam Harris last year. Religious thinkers dart here and there and never rest on a solid thought.

      • Posted November 12, 2013 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

        And this unwillingness to stake it as a claim is gravely insulting to millions of believers. Even “folk religions” (while less dogmatic) make factual claims, which the traditional subscribers would want to hold in some form or other. “There really *is* a void between the worlds.” is presumably what one would say if they were cornered – though I have yet to meet a Inuit-religion fundamentalist. 🙂

        (On the other hand, the Inuit don’t train propositionally in quite the same way. Only the mentally slow, including visiting anthropologists, would normally get things *explained* in quite the didactic way that literate religions do.)

  8. Posted November 10, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    Well Jerry, Dunn got your attention and our attention, and achieved his aims. No doubt he brushed off your rebuttal, proud and unaware of his critical wounds.

    • gluonspring
      Posted November 10, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      The exchange metaphorically illustrated:


      “I’ll bite your legs off!”

  9. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Is a liberal theologian someone who does not believe in a god, but still studies the proposed god(s)?

    Or is it more like some new agey bullcrap about how everything *gasp* loves you?

  10. Diana
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Subsuming work already done well in the Humanities (History, Classics, Archaeology) and Social Sciences (Sociology, Psychology) while clearly stating that theology is about people (soylent theology?) isn’t a very creative way to rebrand theology. If you’re going to rebrand yourself, it’s best not to steal so blatantly; you’re proving yourself redundant and uninventive. Also the ad homs don’t really help either (implying you can’t understand god if you con’t understand “love”. What? Abstraction with abstraction as a subtle way to say, “if you disagree, maybe you’re a sociopath”.

  11. jwthomas
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Some “theology” of the Dunn stripe that does an excellent job of clarifying the mindset of adherents to a religion: Lawrence Wrights’s “Going Clear.” http://tinyurl.com/kq7t8oz

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted November 10, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      “Going Clear?” … oh, depressingly it’s primarily a Scientology reference, and not some interesting link into the peculiar mind of ‘Laughing’ Leonard Cohen.

      • Pete Cockerell
        Posted November 10, 2013 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

        Well the two things are connected. The “Did you ever go clear?” line in Famous Blue Raincoat is a reference to Len’s flirtation with the criminal cult known as Scientology, apparently.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted November 11, 2013 at 2:10 am | Permalink

          Yeah, so I found out. But I saw the phrase, heard the bell go off inside the head, and a few seconds later out popped “Famous Blue Raincoat” (random access memory ; gotta love it!). So I hoped there’d be some interesting story there.
          Laughing Leonard : smart guy; spent some time as a monk ; clearly knows the ins and outs of thinking about religion. So he picked up Scientology, looked at it for a few months, then dropped it like a coprolite that is rather too fresh. Amusing, but not exactly surprising.

  12. Posted November 10, 2013 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Trying to square a circle that never existed requires an unquantifiable level of Euclidean creativity. Dunn may be right. It takes the imaginative belief of many people to successfully operate an apophatic compass on the non-existent grid of collective delusion while supporting the diameters of Dunn’s occupational conviction.

  13. Rune Bjerke
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    So if theology is not about gods, but about people – and is an enabler of thinking the hard questions and so forth – then clearly it is just another branch of philosophy, and thus can be dismissed on the same grounds as we dismiss other branches of philosophy we find defunct in various ways? Right?

    But, aha! It is a very SPECIAL philosophy, ie HAS something to do with gods, so it cannot be dismissed! I can hear it already..

  14. bpuharic
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    Theology makes economics look like experimental quantum physics. For every comment a theologian makes, another will contradict him. What hope can atheists have of making sense of theology when its practitioners can state the study of god doesn’t involve god!

    • DrBrydon
      Posted November 10, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      Well, if god doesn’t exist then Theology is literal about nothing.

      • DrBrydon
        Posted November 10, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

        Gah, “literally”….

      • gluonspring
        Posted November 10, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

        Seinfeld Theology, we should call it.

      • Richard Olson
        Posted November 10, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

        The use of ‘literal’ is not entirely misplaced here, I think. Not a correction, but instead a slight modification: Theology quite frequently seeks to positively affirm literal untruth, which is far worse than merely spouting gibberish about nothing.

    • teacupoftheapocalypse
      Posted November 10, 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      The very nature of theology means that anyone describing themselves as a ‘theologian’ can pretty much make it up as they go along. This, of course, accounts for the crazy notions that adhere themselves to the various religions.

  15. MNb
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    “he senses that the arguments for God and the interpretations of his will are weak”
    I think you’re mistaken here. It seems to me that theologians try to justify their profession, because they have become aware of the success of the scientific method. They want a place in the scientific sun. Continuing to do what they have done for 17, 18 Centuries – explaining the divine word – obviously won’t help them anymore to earn one. So they desperately are trying to find new ways.
    Compared to a few centuries or even a few decades ago theology has become fringe. It’s practioners don’t like that. The only escape route they see is jumping the scientific bandwagon.
    It’s pathetic if you think about it.

  16. Mark
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    I’ve run into this kinds of word games before. The misappropriation of words like theology, god (used to mean nature), reverence, grace (in the forgiveness sense), sanctification, etc. into secular words is an academician’s trick to justify his/her existence in a world of higher learning where literalism is mostly (but not completely) dead.

    This plays well in the echo chamber at the heart of the ivory tower, but rings hollow on Main Street.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 10, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      I agree. But I think the main people theologians are trying to fool with this tactic is themselves.

      Once they successfully fool themselves, then the rest is honesty.

      Sort of like the flip side of Feynman’s characterization of science, when you think about it.

  17. potaman
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    wait wha? I thought theo-,div-,dev- has had to do with gods in all the indo-european languages. and now a word that says study of theos is not about theos? Wonder, how the theologists read ancient texts…

    • Tulse
      Posted November 10, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      Exactly — it says what it’s about right on the tin.

      • ttch
        Posted November 10, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink


    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 10, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      I think those who advocate theology is about people are really swooning over anthropology. 🙂

      • Kevin
        Posted November 10, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

        And swooning over psychology and philosophy and materialism and…theologians want to conquer everything with nothing.

  18. Grania Spingies
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Because I am one of those rude atheists who finds herself mostly in agreement with Dawkins after reasoning myself out of Catholicism and even reading some theology of various persuasions; my reply would be less scholarly:

    Dear Mister Dunn

    You are sending your letters to the wrong address.

    If theology is about people, it is a shame that so many people don’t read it. And mostly they don’t read it because it tells them absolutely nothing useful, and certainly not in any accessible way – i.e. not without their eyeballs bleeding after two chapters of special pleading and aphorisms and brain-numbing twisted metaphors. Perhaps with your benevolent guidance you could get a few Theology Departments to sort that one out.

    But trust me on this one, theology is emphatically not the only thing that “can begin to unravel the mystery of how … human beings could suffer and die for the love of a God they cannot see”. It isn’t much of a mystery, just basic human psychology, and it is knowledge that can be ascertained through a little bit of research remarkably independent of having spent many years of laboring through the School of Making Stuff Up.

    I realize that when one has spent one’s life earning one’s keep by writing this sort of stuff it is a bit disconcerting when someone points out that the stuff is bunk and deserves to be relegated to a nice sunny rest-home in Florida. However, you seem to have a talent for snark so perhaps you could try your hand at script-writing for Broke Girls or something.

    Yossin Seerly

  19. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    The most famous guy to say theology is not about god but people was an atheist trying to psychologically “deconstruct” Christianity,
    Ludwig Feuerbach. Christians were not happy campers when he said that. We now live in strange times.

    Theologians who write specifically about spirituality could be the sort Dunn is describing, but that’s only one branch of theology. It might include st. Francis, but certainly not Aquinas!

    I like the “soylent theology” reference above.

      Posted November 10, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink


      Why don’t you use your thorough knowledge of the history of ideas to tell us who Feuerbach was, and what his message about theology was.
      Don’t forget that this name is foreign to most of our generation, who believe that whatever happened before our time didn’t really exist.

      • lamacher
        Posted November 10, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

        Feuerbach, a German intellectual during the flowering of German humanism, stated in 1841, that ‘Religion (is the) projection by man of his own essential properties and powers into a transcendental sphere in such a way that they appeared before him in the shape of a divine being standing over and above himself.’ – from Watson, ‘The German Genius’,
        And, I might add:’Scotch does more than Milton can/To justify God’s ways to man.’

        • gluonspring
          Posted November 10, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

          Excellent quote re Scotch.

        • jimroberts
          Posted November 10, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

          Houseman’s poem says:

          And malt does more than Milton can
          To justify God’s ways to man.
          Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
          For fellows whom it hurts to think.

        • Posted November 12, 2013 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

          There’s more.

          He’s a precursor of Durkheim (who is far more famous for the same sort of thesis), both holding that the *social arrangements* postulated as holding in the religion’s “divine realm” are delayed representations of the social group’s social and political structure. So the Chinese folk religion is bureaucratic and such, for example.

  20. Posted November 10, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Is it still “mansplaining” if the man doing the ‘splaining is talking down to another man?

    To avoid sounding like haughty condescending jerks, faithiests, apologists and compatibilists would to better to stick to some basic rules: don’t try beating up on The Horsemen since you don’t really understand what they are about, it always comes off as a sneering dogwhistle and cheap shorthand; don’t speak for anyone but you and your tapeworm, especially when what you are saying represents an entitled snobby minority viewpoint; and, building on the previous point, start your declarative sentences with “To me,” “Tor me,” “In my opinion,” “I feel,” “My philosophy is,” etc.

    Their woo and Deepakities would be no less substantive, but a little humility and respect would go a long way toward making it seem like they actually care about, you know, “love.”

    • gluonspring
      Posted November 10, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      Their sputtering is useful, though. Long before I had fully worked through the arguments against belief I could tell which side had the upper hand in the argument merely from the dishonesty, disarray, and alarm of the apologists.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted November 10, 2013 at 4:08 pm | Permalink


  21. Posted November 10, 2013 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    He seems to think theology is all about studying other people’s theologies. It’s like a philosopher reading about other people’s philosophies but not having any of his own

  22. Achrachno
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink


    There is typo in the middle of this: “committed a deepity—arone that completely sabotages …”

    And more importantly — I wish you’d submit this to HuffPo as a response to Dunn. You’re really on fire here, and more people need to see what you have to say — not just us in the WEIT choir. HuffPo may not pay, but we don’t pay you much to keep us amused either. And maybe the exposure there would draw more people over here.


  23. DrBrydon
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    What Dunn seems to be saying is that Theology is a kind of special branch of Sociology, which would raise the question of why it needs to exist as a separate discipline.

    Clearly, though, Dunn is making an argument to preserve a place for his view of god among traditional Theologians of established sects who would also say that what he describes is not Theology. This is a case of Modernism trying to say it has a place in the discussion alongside Fundamentalism.

    As Athiests we often forget about Modernism in religion because it seems so inocuous. It isn’t strident, it makes no doctrinal claims, and, except for providing cover to fatheists, it largely isn’t a part of the debate.

    I have plenty of Christian friends who would argue that what Dunn is talking about is not only not Theology, it’s not Christianity.

  24. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Ah! Theology is not about the existence of the Emperor’s New Clothes it is about the reactions of the Courtiers.

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted November 10, 2013 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

      Nicely put. You should submit this to HuffingtonPost.

  25. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Second comment.

    It’s obviously a bit of special pleading and double standards to claim that secular social sciences can explain “bad” religion like Jim Jones, but cannot explain “good” religion like Gandhi. In religious times, there was plenty of theological explanation of bad religion- it came from devils!! Now, Dunn wants to relegate THAT to the scientists to explain.


    • Sastra
      Posted November 10, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      Note that the standard Dunn uses for what makes a “good” religion or a “true” martyr is a humanist one. Of course. It has to be because he’s making an appeal to the common ground, to the qualities and characteristics which would and should appeal to good people regardless of their religious beliefs. So he brings up poster-boy Gandhi.

      If that common area isn’t there then a theologian can’t (and won’t) bring it up with outsiders as prima facie evidence that religion can be and can inspire what’s good. Which entails that the unique stuff — the special aspects which the inner circle of the religious have and those on the outside do not — must suck.

      Assuming, of course, that you don’t want to deny virtue to the damned.

  26. Dermot C
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    As a matter of accuracy, the good theologian would do well to wander down the corridor and ask the History Department of the Theology Faculty how much lurve there is in the origins of martyrdom.

    Not much, from what I can see: it originates, as far as we know, in the Maccabean revolt in the second century BCE; in the martyred Jews who willingly chose death rather than disobey divine command. All fundamentally caused by which God was to be worshipped in the Temple: the God of Israel or Zeus, lamb or pig, iconic or aniconic, Hellenised or Hebrew.

    The only possible way that love comes into it is that the martyrs must have loved death more than life; it was around this time that the notion of eternal reward after death first entered Judaistic thought. And it would have had to, in order for martyrdom to become thinkable and heroic; fanatical thanatophiles.

    The seed of Jesus, Steven, Polycarp obviously; and of the defenders of Jerusalem in 66-70 CE and of Masada, all willing to die for the birthplace of the word ‘theocracy’ – as well as to immolate their own children for the same cause. The parallels with modern examples are stark.


    • gluonspring
      Posted November 10, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for this comment. I learned the highly useful word ‘thanatophile’.

    • Richard Olson
      Posted November 10, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      I learned ‘lurve’. It seems quite appropriate in this context. A book published recently. written by Notre Dame faculty member Candida Moss, argues Christian claims of Roman Empire era martyrdom are primarily myth anyway.

      • Dermot C
        Posted November 10, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

        Whether or not these very early Christian or post-Second Temple Jewish martyrdoms occurred, there were elements in both emerging religions which fetishized dying for the cause.

        Rabbi Akiva was said to have died smiling in 137 CE as his Roman torturers enabled him to fulfil Deuteronomic counsel to love the Lord. You can explain rabbinic support for the Bar Kochba revolt of 132-5 CE because the rabbis believed that the defeat of the Roman Empire was predicted in Daniel, and that Rome’s capitulation would precede the End Times.

        On the masochomanic Christian side, there is the ironically-monikered Speratus, allegedly martyred in 180 CE in North Africa. And the second century tales of martyrdom whether true or not, spread by the faithful, must have been pretty convincing for converting. Almost as conclusive as self-castration, which the Church Father Origen is said to have performed at the tender age of 18.

        But then again, we do know that some early Christians (as well as Jews) apostatized, according to the correspondence between Pliny the Younger and the Emperor Trajan in 110 CE. Natheless, in the Roman Empire generally, gentile Christians were punished not for praying to Christ, but rather for failing to sacrifice to the altars of other gods. In anticipation of later tax-dodging religions, Christians were exempt from the Empire-wide centuries-long tax imposed on all observant Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple – and the Christians accuse the Jews of usury!

        To find the real chief mourner and bank-roller of the Christian Martyr Industry, you need look no further than the usual suspect, Constantine, who built huge basilicas over the traditional shrines of their honoured dead.

        Thanks for the book tip on Moss, Richard; I’ll look it up.


  27. Tulse
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Theological studies is not about trying to figure out what God wants; it’s the study of how human beings respond to what they think God wants.

    …which is what so many theology departments have experts on Baal, and Odin, and Quetzalcoatl. Human beings responded to those gods quite a lot, so it’s good to know that academic theology encompasses them.

    That said, I’m not sure how many of their believers thought that their god was “love”…

    • gluonspring
      Posted November 10, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Permalink


  28. Barney
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    It’s amazing that Dunn can invoke the work of Muslim theologians and still try to maintain, with a straight face, that theology is about “how human beings respond to what they think God wants”.

    Does he really think for a minute that anyone who calls themselves a Muslim theologian thinks they are studying how human beings respond to what they think God/Allah wants? Ask any of them, and they’ll say they are themselves trying to find out what Allah wants – because they all take as axiomatic that Allah both exists and inspired the Quran.

  29. Posted November 10, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    What a macaroon.


    • Sastra
      Posted November 10, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      It’s pronounced maroon.

      • Posted November 10, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

        Not in Yiddish!


      • Richard Olson
        Posted November 10, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

        I wouldn’t be surprised of the old Looney Tune’s Bugs Bunny staple is obliged to give way to Moran.

        • Richard Olson
          Posted November 10, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

          Oops. No capital M with moran in this instance. The funny misspelling on the TP poster was all caps, and I went to school with kids from the Moran family.

      • Hopalong Cassowary
        Posted November 11, 2013 at 4:15 am | Permalink

        ‘Ignoranimus’ is also good.

  30. bric
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Re atheist theologians, Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou (Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at Exeter University) comes to mind.

  31. Posted November 10, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    As with the definition of religion. Many restrict it to theistic forms and many include atheistic forms. Mox nix… take your pick.

  32. Simon
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    I ran into something like this a while back,associating with a former professor from a christian college. He is now an atheist, but still considers himself to be a theologian. I queried him on this and he explained that theology is “the study of the discourse about God”. Just goes to show that language is fluid and not everyone holds exactly the same definitions as everyone else.
    BTW, his interesting blog is seeingfrombelow.blogspot.com

    • Sastra
      Posted November 10, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      Hector Avalos is also an atheist with a theology degree. Of course, he uses his background to argue for The End of Biblical Studies.

  33. terryln
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Huffington Post deletes all of my posts, and not for profanity or trolling, but because I dared argue against Bill and Melinda Gates spending millions vaccinating children instead of supplying women in Africa with birth control.
    Vaccinating children destined to starve or succumb to other illnesses and/or breed more children is pointless.
    I’m not sure why you respond to any religious nonsense from Huffpo.

  34. Sastra
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Dunn is using a Window Argument.

    Atheists: “There is no good reason to believe that God exists. Studying “God” is therefore pointless.”

    Theologian: “Hey — look out the window!”

    Iow, let’s change the topic. And — in this case — let us once again use one of the most damning criticisms of religion (we can explain belief in God without God) as if it were a weapon against atheism.

    Frankly, I think any theologian who insists that theology is not about God ought to be required to admit to being an atheist before we believe them.

  35. kelskye
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    “Theological studies is not about trying to figure out what God wants; it’s the study of how human beings respond to what they think God wants.”
    If God doesn’t exist, then it’s pretty easy to figure out the answer to this question – nothing, as non-existent things cannot by definition have the property of wants, as wants require a mind to want things.

    I’m not sure how one could be an atheist and continue on with the charade of people thinking about what God wants for people. Isn’t there less useless disciplines for thinking about people, like sociology, psychology, and even philosophy? You can just cut out the pretence it’s all about God’s wants and work out better what works for people…

    • Rob
      Posted November 11, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      You’re answering a different question than what was asked, but you’re right that it’s more the bailiwick of psychology.

      See the recent article on Satan, I think Dr. Coyne posted about it as well. Belief is powerful, so analyzing that belief and its ramifications is important.

      • kelskye
        Posted November 11, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

        “You’re answering a different question than what was asked”
        I’m not sure how that’s the case. If the question is how people respond to what they think God wants, existence is very much a necessary property of God to make that quest tangible.

        • Rob
          Posted November 11, 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

          No, it doesn’t assume the existence. You’re asking what people think of something and how it influences them. People, and their thoughts are known to exist, and we know that people have thoughts about false things all the time. They also can act on these false thoughts (lucky clothing, putting milk out for elves, etc.). “What god wants” requires the truth of god; “what people think god wants” only requires people thinking.

          • kelskye
            Posted November 13, 2013 at 4:37 am | Permalink

            “You’re asking what people think of something and how it influences them.”
            You’re missing my point.

            “”what people think god wants” only requires people thinking.”
            Yes, but it’s people thinking about a nonsensical proposition. My point isn’t that “what God wants” requires the truth of God, but that “what people think God wants” requires the truth of God to make it a coherent thought. It’s like saying “unicornology isn’t about the medicinal properties of unicorn horn, but what people think are the medicinal properties of unicorn horn.” Now it’s not discounting that the premise in question is that it’s a matter of people thinking about unicorn properties, but that the thought about unicorn properties doesn’t get anywhere unless there are such things as unicorns to have properties.

  36. Charles Jones
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    What a bizarre argument Dunn makes. The University of Pittsburgh has a Religious Studies department, and it studies largely the broader context that Dunn and Burton include within theology. Why try to redefine theology when a) The word already has a well-established meaning and b) Fields like history and religious studies already have the broader context covered?

    Their motivations seem fishy. Hiding their religious beliefs under a mantle of academic respectability?

  37. Larry Smith
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Re: “(Geneticist J. B. S. Haldane’s armamentarium of wrongheaded arguments included what he called “Aunt Jobiska’s Theorem”: “What I say three times must be true.”) Dunn also adds a bit of snark:”

    Clever (or subconscious?) reference to “The Hunting of the Snark” and the Bellman’s “what I tell you three times is true”!

  38. David
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    This man’s triple delusional starting point for who he is and what he does should make everyone be still for a moment of silence in order to pity the poor man. First he believes there is a God. Then he believes that his own voice in his head that he calls the voice of God ACTUALLY IS the “voice of God”. Finally he believes that his path, his becoming one of “the truest theologians” means that his voice that he calls his own voice has become so close to his voice that he calls the voice of God that they have become one: “he can no longer tell the difference between God’s words and (his) own”. Can you imagine the magnitude of the delusional twists necessary for a person to truly believe this and then base a career on it! And that appears to be his starting point!

    But then that is what theologians do. Each theologian pulls out of his butt a definition to use for who he is and what he does. And then he proceeds “in the name of” whatever when thrown three times sticks against the wall.

  39. Peter
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Someone is wrong on the internet 🙂

  40. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    One day, New Atheists may convert the world to reason and usher in a thousand years of humanistic peace.

    If people manage to do that, it isn’t because they are atheist but because nature is.

    I think Dunn has painted himself out of the corner of old style gods-of-the-gaps theology and sat down into today’s homeopathic postmodernist theology of the gods that physics has diluted to nothingness.

    “We don’t need schools of theology any more than we need schools of Marxism, homeopathy, or pseudoscience.”

    Redundant description is redundant, theology has become homeopathy.

    • hank_says
      Posted November 10, 2013 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps I’m just paranoid, but could Dunn’s usage of “thousand years of humanistic peace” and “Let’s suppose the final solution to religion is to do away with it,” be whistling for Godwin’s dog?

      Again, perhaps I’m jumping at shadows, but vocal atheists being lumped in with humanity’s most infamous is not without precedent.

      • M'thew
        Posted November 11, 2013 at 7:07 am | Permalink

        If you are paranoid, then so am I. Perhaps there’s more substance to it than just a shadow.

        • Chris
          Posted November 11, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

          Agreed. “Thousand years x” does have a whiff of the Godwin about it.

          • Posted November 12, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

            Also Christian; think of all the stuff about “the millenium”!

  41. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    Apparently, I’ve been teaching chemistry grad about the chemical applications of group reprentation theory all wrong:

    [The theory of group representations when applied to electronic structure provides] an opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose [research] shaped so much of chemical physics, and who–in the world outside the ivory tower–still shape plenty of chemistry today” (emphasis added). In other words, quantum chemistry is not about trying to figure out the properties of molecules. Quantum chemistry, in a sense, is not really about molecules at all. It’s about people!

    • Timothy Hughbanks
      Posted November 10, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

      grad students

  42. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    And really, how many atheist theologians are there?

    Honestly? Probably many more than we know.

    What do you do if you’re 48 years old and for the last decade you’ve been struggling with the growing realization that you’ve been shoveling bullshit your entire career? As the Clergy Project has shown us, there are plenty of pastors/priests/ministers etc. who are closet atheists. It seems likely that while a few theologians have admitted that they’re atheists and have somehow continued to call themselves “theologians”, most of the atheist “theologians” are in hiding.

  43. Posted November 10, 2013 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    Theology is definitely on decline, because it no longer gives dividends. Historically it was an important branch of knowledge, followed by laymen through obscure layers (maybe a lot assumed the CERN engineers plays that same role nowadays – while we know they are actually totally different).

    People like Dunn has invested a lot on these. They are supposedly to be humble and non-provocative (which was not shown on the tone of the letter to Jerry) considering the status of their trade, but they are most likely acting like standard old-geezers, obstinate, stubborn know-it-alls ….

    I believe we should add a chapter of History of Past Theologians, on the general History books. They did their part in human history (no longer needed though).

    BTW, totally agree with Jerry’s positions.

  44. scottoest
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    I tweeted Dunn your response to him, and he clearly got it: https://twitter.com/DrDavidJDunn/status/399738317425876993

    • Chris
      Posted November 11, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      Looking at his response… no, he didn’t get it.

  45. hankstar
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    We’re already familiar with criticising Christianity and getting theologians of all sorts coming out of the woodwork to tell you you’re attacking a caricature, no matter what angle you take. Apparently ignorant of how the majority of believers actually practise their belief, they say “read sophisticated theologian X to gain a deeper insight into Christianity’s Truths™.”

    So, like many others, Prof Coyne humours them – and finds it wanting. And so he criticises theology.

    And now we’re seeing the exact same phenomenon with theology. “You’re criticising a caricature of theology!” Dunn cries.

    Sigh. I’m wondering just how far down the No True Scotsman rabbit-hole we have to go.

    • M'thew
      Posted November 11, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      I’m wondering just how far down the No True Scotsman rabbit-hole we have to go.

      Until you come out at the other end and everything is upside down.

  46. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 2:31 am | Permalink

    Hmm, ao if stamp collecting is really about people who collect stamps, what is not-stamp-collecting really about?

  47. Hopalong Cassowary
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 4:27 am | Permalink

    Others have mentioned the ludicrously inept yet still truculent knight of Monty Python. But the final defiant paragraph quoted in the OP also has the flavor of Otter’s speech to Dean Wurmer just before all his fraternity brothers rose as one to march out of the assembly humming The Battle Hymn of the Republic. We can attack Dunn all we want, but he’s not going to sit idly by while we trash Imagination & Love!

  48. michieux
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that Mr. Dunn has written a soothing bedtime story; a personal mythology with which to pacify an itch that cannot be scratched.

  49. Posted November 11, 2013 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    If David Dunn responds, please let us know, as most of us will be VERY interested in how he will defend his unique view of theology as being NOT about God, NOT “the field of study and analysis that treats of God and of God’s attributes and relations to the universe; study of divine things or religious truth; divinity” [dictionary.reference.com], if indeed he does try to defend his unique view, THANKS!!

  50. Jim Jones
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    > theology “is not about God”.

    Unusually, I agree. Theology causes god, not the other way around. Part of it is a mistaken belief in agency, but there’s more to it than that.

  51. Posted April 28, 2014 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    This website was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I have
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