John Dickson at the ABC: Theology is so sophisticated that it doesn’t need a subject

At the “Imagine No Religion” meetings in Kamloops, British Columbia, I was discussing “Sophisticated Theology”™ with ex-preacher and current Freedom from Religion co-President Dan Barker. And Dan made two quips: “Theology is a subject without an object” (that’s a grammatical double entendre, which I didn’t catch till later), and “Theologians don’t have an object to study, so they just study what other theologians say.” That sounds snarky, but it’s absolutely right. What good is a discipline that tries to tell us about the qualities of a nonexistent object? It’s as useful as a bunch of scholars trying to tell us about the characteristics of the Loch Ness Monster, or Paul Bunyan. Worse—the scholars want to tell us what kind of behavior Paul Bunyan requires of us.

Well, I thought I’d heard it all until reader Nick sent me a link to an article by John Dickson at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Drum site, a piece called “Why theology matters even if there’s no God.”

Yes, that’s right: the title perfectly sums up the content. The Theology Express has finally jumped the rails.  On the occasion of the death of German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, Drum is inspired to defend theology:

It’s as good a time as any, then, to offer a brief defence of this “queen of the sciences” against the taunts of atheists like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, who say that theology is not even a “subject”, let alone a discipline in a modern university.

“Queen of the sciences”? It’s hardly a science, so what loon thought up that Middle-Age monicker? It may have been okay before there really was science, but it’s laughable to use the term now.

And then Dickson shows why theology matters (his quotes are indented):

1. Theology requires lots of skills.

I have found ancient history much easier – as a discipline – than theology. Why? Because theology incorporates pretty much all of the basic skills of the historian plus a ton more. Today’s professional theologian will have a good knowledge of ancient languages, including Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, as well as full reading fluency in modern English and German (a requirement for all theologians today, regardless of nationality).

Not only must they be across the history of both the Old and New Testaments – that’s ancient near eastern history and Graeco-Roman history – they will have a thorough knowledge of church history, that is, the history of thought from Augustine, through Aquinas, to the modern day greats like Karl Barth, Jürgen Moltmann, Colin Gunton, Miroslav Volf, and the incomparable Wolfhart Pannenberg.

That’s just the beginning.

Virtually all academic theologians today have advanced training in philosophy. They are happy to talk to you about how the Aristotelian world view established and impeded medieval learning, or why empiricism flourished in 15th-16th century Europe under the influence of Augustinianism, or how the latest philosophy of mind impacts the Western notion of the “person”. I only know enough of these things to mention them, briefly, in an opinion piece, but my theologian friends could write you an essay and prepare you a reading list on all these topics and more.

All this shows is that some of theology’s practitioners are educated. It does not show that they are doing anything useful. True, Biblical scholars unravel the history of that document, and “church historians” can tell us about, well, church history; but neither of these areas are theology proper: they are history and literary archaeology. I looked up “theology” in the Oxford English Dictionary, and here are pretty much all the definitions:

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 7.50.26 AM Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 7.50.37 AM Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 7.51.11 AM Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 7.51.19 AM

That’s pretty much it. There’s no mention of Church history of Biblical scholarship here.  Theology is the study of God and his attributes, i.e., the study of the unevidenced divine.  Insofar as it includes “philosophy,” that philosophy is useful only as long as it’s not about God.

2. And theologians know a lot about the history and philosophy of science, too!

Some of the best theologians today also have expert knowledge of the history and philosophy of science. Yes, science. When my atheist friends have challenged me over the years about the “conflict” between science and Christianity, I’ve usually directed them to the three-volume Systematic Theology by Pannenberg, where readers will find an interlocutor thoroughly at ease with the questions thrown up by modern physics and biology.

Give me a break. There is an entire secular discipline devoted to the history and philosophy of science. Most of its advocates are nonbelievers, and it includes people who, unlike John Polkinghorne and Alister McGrath, don’t try to show how the disciplines are compatible, how they can be mutually supportive, or engage in other kinds of shady accommodationism. Can you seriously maintain that theologians make more of a contribution to the history of science (or any contribution to the history of science) than do real historians of science.? No—no more than theologians make real contributions to philosophy.

3. Theology makes real contributions to other academic areas.  To wit:

Practically no important field is untouched by the discipline of theology. How does brain science challenge the Western notion of the self? How was the Graeco-Roman notion of honour subverted by the New Testament emphasis on humility? In what ways do ancient and modern notions of martyrdom differ? How does the doctrine of the Trinity find expression in some of the great classical composers? How does time relate to eternity? What does quantum mechanics say about the notion of divine freedom, and vice-versa? Can innate human rights be grounded without a theistic framework? How does the biblical view of forgiveness contribute to modern attempts at reconciliation? All of these and more are proper theological topics.

I’m sorry, but we have no need of theology to answer these questions: they are the purview of the history of religion, secular philosophy, history by itself, musical history, and physics. As for questions like “what does quantum mechanics say about the notion of divine freedom?”, the answer is this: NOTHING.  Likewise about whether innate human rights require God for grounding, a question long ago answered in the negative secular philosophers. Remember the definition of theology above: it is the study of God and his nature.

4. Theology is “integrative”.

Theology is perhaps the most comprehensive integrative discipline around. It explores all important forms of human knowledge and probes how they shed light on Christian belief and, indeed, how Christian belief might shed light on them. And given that more than two billion people today identify as Christian, these attempts to integrate human knowledge are perfectly relevant and academically sound.

Christian belief is a fact; it is a phenomenon of the real world – just as Australian history is, or Shakespearean literature, or Aristotelian philosophy, or feminist studies, or anthropology, or musicology.

Christian belief as a phenomenon, as is any religious belief, is the purview of the history and sociology of religion, not of theology. Dickson takes great care to conflate all of these areas, so that anything involving the study of religion as a phenomenon, or or religious books and their origin, becomes “theology.” I suppose, then, that Dan Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell:Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is a work of theology, too. As is the work of many Biblical historians or scholars of religion, many of whom are atheists. In Dickson’s world, but not in anyone else’s, atheists can be theologians.

In the end, theology as defined above—the study of the nature and characteristics of God, and how he supposedly interacts with the universe—can reveal nothing that is true. What it can tell us is only what theologians think is true, and those views, of course, are in conflict with one another. There is no way to adjudicate between Muslim theology, Hindu theology, and Christian theology, all of which contradict each other.

Theology, in short, is a useless discipline—as useless as Paul Bunyan-ology. Theologians practicing the craft I’ve defined have contributed not one iota to human knowledge. They are useless intellectual appendages: as vestigial in modern times as are the muscles that move the human ears, muscles that serve no purpose but testify to the activities of our ancestors.

How sad that smart people, and many theologians really are smart, are wasting their time in such pursuits, and that respectable universities have schools of theology that are largely devoted to explicating and interpreting God. But now it’s time to put away our childish things and study areas that really matter. Even fields where there is little objective “truth”, like the arts and humanities, are far more valuable than theology, for they can bring some beauty into our lives and enrich our experience of the Universe. Theology does none of that; rather, it pretends to find truth. Think of how much more we’d know if theologians gave up their futile scribblings and went into truly meaningful disciplines!

The fatuity of Dickson’s thesis is summed up in its last line:

Even if there is no god, in other words, theology remains one of the most subtle and sophisticated academic pursuits on the planet.

That is no more a justification of theology than if a bunch of smart and educated people engaged in “Ancient Greek theology,” trying to discern the nature and will of Zeus, and how he interacted with the world. Or if there was a school of “Scientological theology,” studying the nature of Xenu, and and its implications for our behavior. We would see such endeavors for what they were: a waste of time. We should see Abrahamic theology as a similarly useless endeavor. To paraphrase Laplace, we have no need of that discipline.

Do note that Dickson is described on his website as “a founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX), an independent research and media company promoting informed discussion about social, ethical and religious issues in modern life.  . “. The page also extols “[Dickson’s] passion for promoting the public understanding of the Christian faith.” He also has a degree in theology.  Is his assessment unbiased, then, or merely a defense of how he’s chosen to spend his life? I smell vocational apologetics.

 

238 Comments

  1. Posted September 9, 2014 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Certainly there’s nothing wrong with defending how one has chosen to live one’s life, even if others think there’s no value in it. If a biologist defends her profession does this “vocational apologetic” automatically discount her defense? It would from the perspective of an anti-evolutionist no doubt, but that only betrays the latter’s prejudice. Besides, one would expect people to be passionate about their chosen field don’t you think?

    • Posted September 9, 2014 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      Of course there’s something wrong in defending how one spends one’s life if that life has produced nothing of value but the defense pretends it has. I don’t engage in vocational apologetics because everyone knows that evolution is true; I don’t have to justify my work.

      And if you’ve accused me of prejudice, I’d ask you to apologize–unless you can tell me some real truths about the divine, and the universe, that theology has come up with. I can give you lots that evolution has, and that I have too.

      • Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

        It seems to me that you’re simply wrong that a theologian’s life and work can “produce nothing of value” unless you have a very restricted sense of “value.” Not only do theologians find great meaning in their work, people who read theology often feel their lives are transformed and enriched. It would be an odd definition of value that overlooks this aspect of human experience.

        As far as an apology… perhaps. It depends if you’ve ever been a theologian yourself, or even an earnest believer. I’m not sure what your background is. If you have I do apologize. Prejudice isn’t just about lacking proper reasoning before making a judgment about a matter (on the contrary you reason quite well), but actual experience as well. Without this experience I’m not sure on what basis you form your value judgments.

        I suspect one of your grounds (or THE ground) is your idea of “truth.” You mentioned the “true” or “truths” in your comment, and these seem to be paramount. Again I think you use the term in a restricted way to mean something like objective truth, or empirical truth. I see no reason why even this narrow understanding can’t be applied to religious experience. It is a fact, for example, that one of the possibilities of theological study is the increased sense of life enrichment I mentioned before. I’m sure this can be measured using empirical criteria. It’s beside the point whether one argues the reasons for this enrichment are based on myth or fairy tale. That already betrays a certain kind of value judgment, one that overlooks the reality of lived experience in favour of a narrow definition of the “true.” The experience as such is as “true” and meaningful as any other enriching life experience.

        • NewEnglandBob
          Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

          If deluding oneself or deluding others is a value for theologians, then I guess bald is a hair color.

        • GBJames
          Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:44 am | Permalink

          “Not only do theologians find great meaning in their work, people who read theology often feel their lives are transformed and enriched.”

          The same can be said for authors of other forms of fiction, too.

          • eric
            Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

            And readers of fiction! The defense of (the study and writing of) fiction is that it’s a form of artistic expression. Its commentary on the human condition. And that’s a great reason to read, write, and study it…IF that’s the reason you really do it.

            JP and Dickson’s defenses of theology do seem to follow the ‘sophisticated theology’ pattern. Publicly declare its not really about X, it’s about Y. Then defend Y to critics while never contradicting (and sometimes supporting) believers who say it’s about X. Here, the X is ‘nature of God’ and Y is ‘enriching experience of reading stories about the human condition.’

            • Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

              Additionally, literary studies that include looking at works of fiction is not at all analogous to theology. The object of the study is the very real, very existent novel, fictional though it’s plot may be.

        • Mike
          Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

          Theologians have never, to my knowledge, based the value of their work solely on whatever enrichment people may feel from reading their work. If that were so, they would be on par with campy romance and pulp fiction novelists. Instead, theologians speculate on the thoughts of the creator of the universe and claim to produce truth on that subject. To never produce a shred of verifiable information over the entire history of that discipline and fall back on “at least I feel enriched by my work” is a substantial failure. Authors of cheap fiction, by contrast, do not claim to know the thoughts of gods.

          Your reference to “truth” is also strange to me. Conflating empirical, verifiable truths about the universe that can be confirmed by anyone regardless of religion or place of origin with a religious experience does a terrible injustice to the word “truth”. I think you are talking about “emotional experiences”. I must disagree with you since I see many, many reasons why any useful definition of “truth” cannot be applied to religious experiences. While a valid part of the human experience, it serves no purpose to confuse these experiences with knowledge accumulated painstakingly about our world that is true whether an individual chooses to believe it or not. A dream may be a profound emotional experience, but it is not comparable to real world observations that inform us about that world. In other words, there is a reason theologians of different faiths (or even of the same faith) never agree: there is no truth involved, they are all just making things up based on their imaginations. Theology is literally made up stuff about other made up stuff.

          • Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:57 am | Permalink

            What makes you think the theological discipline is about producing “verifiable information” of the kind you mean? Again there is an assumption here regarding the value or primacy of a certain kind of truth. To be sure theologians have been interested in this notion of the true, but it’s not the only measure of a discipline’s worth.

            • Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:06 am | Permalink

              How would the discipline be different if it were centered on Apollo instead of this theos it purports to study?

              Would the value be identical? Why?

              If all it is is conjuring up comforting fictions, then why the pretentions and University departments and so on?

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:12 am | Permalink

                Apollo and the Jewish, Christian, Muslim god(s) are quite different. It follows that the discipline of their study would also be different, and in fact it is.

                As far as whether the value of their study would be identical or not, it depends.

                It’s not all about conjuring up comforting fictions. That’s an assumption made by some here, but it’s not what I’ve indicated.

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

                So you are not going to answer?

                All I’ve heardc you say so far is that some people like it. Well, yes, obviously. Is there anything beyond that?

            • rickflick
              Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:09 am | Permalink

              JP, can you give and example of a truth not based on facts?

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:13 am | Permalink

                I’ve already done that. See above.

              • eric
                Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:18 am | Permalink

                No, you haven’t. Below is your ONLY example of a truth. Very ironically, you go out of your way to point out how it is based on facts. You spend a whole paragraph insisting your truth is (or could be) fact-based.

                “It is a fact, for example, that one of the possibilities of theological study is the increased sense of life enrichment I mentioned before. I’m sure this can be measured using empirical criteria. It’s beside the point whether one argues the reasons for this enrichment are based on myth or fairy tale…The experience as such is as “true” and meaningful as any other enriching life experience.”

                So you haven’t presented any non-fact-based truths. In delicious irony, when defending a truth of your own choosing you chose to defend its truthiness based on its fact-based-ness.

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

                I was merely suggesting that it is possible to demonstrate the value of theological practice empirically. This was for those of you who insist this is the only kind of truth worth holding to.

              • GBJames
                Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:32 am | Permalink

                JP, what you provided was not an example of theology, it was an example of sociology or perhaps psychology. You described the observation of practitioners of theology, a very different thing from theology itself.

                You would need to offer an example derived from the discipline, not about it, to satisfy the request.

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:33 am | Permalink

                I wonder what you assume “theology” is?

              • GBJames
                Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

                I don’t need to assume. My dictionary tells me it is the study of the nature of God.

                If you think it is the study of humans participating in religious behaviors, then I think you’ve gotten your disciplines mixed up. One studies real-world phenomena. The other studies a being, the existence of which has never been demonstrated.

                So, no, you haven’t provided an example that satisfies the request.

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:42 am | Permalink

                I suggest you look further than a dictionary to do justice to the theological discipline.

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:50 am | Permalink

                You know, it really all comes down to the question of whether or not there’s any θεός / Theos / Δίας / Deus / Zeus / Deity for the Zeus-knowledgers to knowledge anything about.

                You could, if you wanted, settle the whole matter by demonstrating the existence of such an entity…but, if the entire field hasn’t been able to do so over the course of several millennia at least, it seems reasonable to suggest that you yourself are exceedingly unlikely to succeed.

                I mean, you don’t think we’d be having this debate if the gods were demonstrable, do you? Faith is a vice outside of religion and other confidence scams; were the gods real, we wouldn’t be exhorted to have faith in them.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:53 am | Permalink

                Again, you make the assumption that theology is interested in “demonstrating the existence” of a god, but this reflects the values of an empirical science i.e. your own value interests.

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

                But how can you possibly study something if you don’t even know what it is you’re studying, let alone if it exists outside your imagination?

                And how on Earth can a subject be so thoroughly studied for several dozen centuries and yet we know no more about it today than we did then?

                Or maybe I’m missing something.

                Can you tell us one single thing that we know today about the gods that wasn’t known in the time of Euclid? Euclid did brilliant work in geometry, but Newton exploded that work into his Mechanics — and Newton’s Mechanics was again exploded into Quantum Mechanics and Relativistic Mechanics about a century ago. And the team at CERN is perhaps poised for yet another such explosion.

                But what (of substance) does the modern theologian know about her gods that the ancients didn’t know about theirs?

                And with an answer of, “nothing,” why pretend that you’re “studying” something and somehow gaining knowledge about it?

                b&

              • NewEnglandBob
                Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

                Or maybe I’m missing something.

                What you are missing is that some people are experts at deluding themselves. Their work is worthless, their life us a complete waste, so they need to delude themselves and pretend they are relevant.

                In the distant past, these theologians had affects on others, some good and some bad, but now they are just irrelevant.

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

                You’re still thinking in terms of object study.

                I’m signing off from this discussion. No doubt this will be portrayed as a kind of flight away from answering tough questions. But the reality is the vast majority of the commenters here have only an inkling of how theology functions as a discipline. Theology has always drawn on what we now think of as the disciplines of psychology, history, political science, etc. It may be true that today these disciplines in themselves can think their subject matter better than theology, but the point is theology has always known them all (and perhaps even helped create these sub-disciplines). Theology then is not a monolithic thing, but an enterprise that combines what we now think of as separate disciplines. It always has. This is precisely why theology HAS changed since Euclid, especially with the rise of the empirical sciences. Theology hasn’t ignored the sciences, but it has pushed the limits of their interpretation. One should expect change if theology really is taking these sciences seriously.

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

                It may be true that today these disciplines in themselves can think their subject matter better than theology, but the point is theology has always known them all (and perhaps even helped create these sub-disciplines).

                I’d like for all the philosophy apologists here to read this bit of JP’s again and let it sink in. Every time a philosopher claims that all science is a subset of philosophy and that philosophy gave birth to science, a theologian claims that philosophy is a subset of theology and gave birth to philosophy.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • NewEnglandBob
                Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

                That is the argument from “No True Scotsman”.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted September 9, 2014 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

                It certainly seems that the majority of schools that offer divinity/theology degrees, do so mainly to prepare people for seminary and god spreading:

                Acadia’s BA in theology is described on its web site as:

                The Bachelor of Theology (90 credit hours, three years if full-time) is designed to equip those who are called to leadership roles in the Christian community. In addition to giving an exciting introduction to the Biblical Studies, Christian Theology and History, this program also provides an introduction to current and proven ministry approaches that make a difference in the lives of people.

                Even a degree in theological research is used to spread the word of god as listed in this school’s “what can I do with a theology degree” section next to MA in theological research:

                Foreign missionary
                Ph.D. candidate
                Religion editor/publisher

                So, what aren’t we understanding about theology degrees?

              • GBJames
                Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:50 am | Permalink

                If theology is not the study of the nature of god, then just say so and we can stop playing footsie.

              • GBJames
                Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:58 am | Permalink

                Whether theologians are interested in demonstrating the existence of God or not seems irrelevant. They assume such.

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:59 am | Permalink

                You must have missed out on another conversation. Not all theologians are believers. If you find this impossible to believe, you don’t understand what theology is or how it’s practiced.

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

                Are you seriously suggesting that a substantial proportion of theologians aren’t believers? Yes, you may find a handful, but for crying out loud, stop trying to make a point by citing the rare exceptions. I’ve read a ton of theology in the last 2.5 years, mostly about science and religion, so I’ve selected the readings without regard to the belief of the writer. Neverthelss, every single one of those theologians has been a believer.

              • GBJames
                Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

                It seems, JP, that you conflate theology with religious studies.

              • eric
                Posted September 9, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

                JP: “I suggest you look further than a dictionary to do justice to the theological discipline”

                GBJames: “It seems, JP, that you conflate theology with religious studies.”

                Well,I looked beyond the dictionary, and I found this American Academy of Religion description of the difference.

                The writing is opaque and focused on Christian theology to the exclusion of other theologies, but if you can get beyond that, Jerry and GBJames and everyone else has it basically right. The second paragraph is the key one: religious studies is about the meaning and truth of religion (writ large). That would (IMO), include stuff like sociology of religious practces etc… Theology, in contrast, is about witnessing a faith; finding the truth in a religion.

            • Mike
              Posted September 10, 2014 at 3:46 am | Permalink

              Let’s say I have a dream with profound and intense emotions. I wake up convinced it was real. It is true that I experienced a powerful dream. That does not automatically mean the content of the dream was true, unless I can actually fly. The study of theology is real; the object of the study is not. To confuse the two is self-delusional, incompetent, or straight up dishonest, depending on the individual.

              Theologists are like teachers of literature who simply assume the events in Gulliver’s Travels actually occurred and are therefore unwilling to discuss it because after all, it is fun good reading literature, isn’t it?

            • Mike
              Posted September 10, 2014 at 7:23 am | Permalink

              “…a certain kind of truth.”

              You are pretending you have a special kind of truth which is immune to analysis or reason, one which only you can understand or explain. Total nonsense. And a mainstay of theology.

          • Sastra
            Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:45 am | Permalink

            It is I think worth noting here that this equivocation between “truth” as in “accurate model of reality” and “truth” as in “richly lived experiences which enhance and resonnate with ones life” is probably THE most popular dodge among the New Age-Spiritual-pseudoscience-woo crowd. Once you blur the distinction between objective and subjective truths then pretty much anything goes as advocates get to flipflop between taking their views seriously and only taking themselves seriously.

            “I only read astrology books for entertainment, history, and a useful prop for thinking about my life — unless it turns out that YOU are open-minded enough to like me recognize the validity of this ancient and wise science.”

            It’s either/or AND both.

            • Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

              And I don’t even recognize the latter as a genuine definition of “truth”. I always grimace a little when I hear Pharrell’s song: in what sense is “happiness” the “truth”? None. The answer is “none”. “Happiness” is an emotional state. It may be true that someone is experiencing happiness; “happiness” is not therefore “truth”.

            • DiscoveredJoys
              Posted September 9, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

              I’ll agree. Both theologians and philosophers (in general) don’t deal in factual truth but in conceptual worth. Unless those concepts are founded on provisional facts those concepts cannot be provisionally true, only (perhaps) worthy.

              If theologians and philosophers were aiming for ‘truth’ you would expect their ‘findings’ to converge. They haven’t so far. A case of “never mind what the words really mean, their beauty is in the calligraphy”.

        • Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:53 am | Permalink

          The point is that the disciplines proffered as lending legitimacy to theology have nothing to do with theology. You can’t say theology is a legitimate area of study because theologians know some history and can speak a few languages. Those other disciplines can be fully (better?) explored on their own, without the distorting lense of theology.

          • Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

            Sorry you don’t get to define the methods of theology.

            • Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:07 am | Permalink

              ?

              I’m not trying to define the methods of theology. I’m saying that the reasons given in (1) and (2) by Dickson (not by me) for theology’s legitimacy are non-sequiturs. If someone is asked to justify physics they wouldn’t respond “because we learn history (Newton, Leibniz, etc) in the process!”

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:15 am | Permalink

                History and languages are part and parcel of theological practice. Nobody is saying theology is “legitimate” because some theologians know history or languages.

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:17 am | Permalink

                @JP

                That is exactly what Dickson is saying.

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:21 am | Permalink

                If you can quote me the part of Dickson’s article that refers specifically to the “legitimacy” issue in regard to language I would be grateful.

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:59 am | Permalink

                Dickson:

                “Today’s professional theologian will have a good knowledge of ancient languages, including Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, as well as full reading fluency in modern English and German…”

                This is written in the context of trying to explain why theology is a legitimate area of study. Those things are ancillary! They do not bear on theology’s alleged raison d’être. If someone is proficient in many languages it’s ridiculous to credit theology for that. That person studied the language, just like others who speak it but dispensed with the extremely unnecessary theological middleman.

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

                Sorry there’s no mention of legitimacy there. Dickson mentions skill. Whether he’s trying to legitimize theology by referring to the skillset of its practitioners is up for interpretation. It’s simply a fact that theologians are often knowledgeable of multiple languages.

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

                Please stop intentionally missing the point. “Legitimacy” is the word I’m using. Dickson talks about “why theology matters” and is defending its status as a “discipline” or “subject”.

                In what way does my use of “legitimacy” misrepresent Dickson’s project in this article? Do you know what “legitimacy” means?

                In any event, your semantic quibble is irrelevant. I’ll be happy to substitute whatever other word you think describes what Dickson is trying to accomplish in this article. That bears not at all on my point.

    • Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      “Certainly there’s nothing wrong with defending how one has chosen to live one’s life”

      Really? Even for Pol-pot or Pablo Escobar? I think the results of one’s actions determine the virtue of defending one’s way of life.

      • Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

        Which is not to say that theologians are pol-pot. They’re just wasting everyone’s time mostly.

      • Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:22 am | Permalink

        Even for Pol-pot and Escobar. Everyone can defend their chosen profession. You would eliminate thinking itself if you eliminate the ability to defend your choices.

        • Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:37 am | Permalink

          Sure, they can defend them. I’m sure Pol-pot thought that the killing fields were entirely necessary, it doesn’t make what his regime did defensible. I’m all for freedom of thought, but that’s a poor defense for the killing fields.

        • josh
          Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

          JP you can’t be this obtuse. I call troll. No one is calling for an elimination of free speech. The fact that one is allowed to defend oneself does not imply that everything is defensible.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      It seems to me that this “defense” of theology is more like an after-the-fact rationalization of the disenchanted.

      “Okay, I just wasted my savings and several years getting certified as a Master in “Reiki” and it turns out the whole idea of “healing energy” is a pseudoscientific load of codswallop… BUT I made a lot of friends, learned a lot about anatomy, and discovered how delicious fresh herbs and vegetables are. So it’s not like it was worthless or anything. I can give a great foot rub, too.”

      • Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

        Only disenchantment doesn’t characterize the general attitude of theological inquirers (and of course the probability is that there are disenchanted individuals in almost every field of study).

        • Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

          That’s irrelevant to Sastra’s point. The point can be made without the would-be Reiki master feeling disenchanted. Whether s/he feels disenchanted it not doesn’t best on the fact that Reiki is baloney and the only real things you’re going to take away from studying are the ones Sastra listed. The point is you could do or have all those thing without the Reiki.

        • Sastra
          Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

          Do you think theologians who no longer believe in God would approach their subject with the same enthusiasm?

          I suppose this group would preclude any theologians who were atheists before they began — as well as any theologians who have managed to redefine “God” in such a way as to make it indistinguishable from atheism (“‘God’ is simply that name we give to our highest ideals!”)

          • Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:30 am | Permalink

            This is why I qualified attitude with “general.” Generally speaking it seems the greater number of practicing theologians would believe in God, but of course not all may. I’m not sure what enthusiasm has to do with whether one believes or not. It’s possible a believing theologian may not have much enthusiasm while an unbelieving one might.

            • rickflick
              Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

              “It’s possible a believing theologian may not have much enthusiasm while an unbelieving one might.”

              The possibilities are endless. Perhaps there are many who are believers on one level but think the enterprise is doomed and perform there functions out of habit and the keep paying the mortgage.
              Atheist theologians sounds like an oxymoron, but I strongly suspect there are many. Similar to Dennett’s Clergy Project, I think there must be those who’s life experience erodes early enthusiasm to the point that they hold up the pretense just because they don’t want to disappoint their friends and relatives.

            • Sastra
              Posted September 9, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

              I guess there is “enthusiasm” and then there’s “enthusiasm.”

              Like a Young Earth Creationist working in evolutionary biology and getting very excited over how well his research demonstrates the theory he doesn’t believe in, I can imagine an atheist theologian pleased to present a new manuscript which helps to illuminate the medieval views of a God which does not exist. Cognitive dissonance is sublimated by respect for skill and craft. But somehow the opposite situation comes harder for me.

              That is, anyone might get bored or frustrated in their daily tasks — no matter how ultimately noble they may be — but it seems to me that there’s some deep connection between believing in God and devoting one’s life to studying this God which would have to qualify as a kind of “enthusiasm.”

              Have you ever come across anyone who believes in God — and thinks God is irrelevant, dull, disappointing, or pointless? The more you genuinely embrace and/or connect with the Ultimate Divine, the more depressing the whole damn area of the sacred becomes?

              Frankly, I suspect that God’s significance — and our inescapable enthusiasm for it once we are made aware of it — might be one of the sine qua non defining aspects of a deity (especially a one-and-only one.)

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

                Frankly, I suspect that God’s significance — and our inescapable enthusiasm for it once we are made aware of it — might be one of the sine qua non defining aspects of a deity (especially a one-and-only one.)

                Indeed, that’s the very essence of the “So where’s my pizza?” argument for YHWH. Imagine the greatest thing possible; that’s YHWH. If you later imagine something greater, then this new imagination is YHWH, not the earlier one. And, by virtue of magic, if you imagine it, it will come, or something.

                b&

    • Stan Pak
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      One can defend theology as a sort of hobby, like chess, or rock climbing, which mostly affects directly the person who is performing that activity and pays any costs or bears any risks related to that activity. In that sense it can be viewed as valuable exercise for brain or muscles of the performer.

      Unfortunately this characterization is not applicable to theology, for it is a branch of apologetic which generates the reasons to maintain irrational beliefs in the face of adverse evidence. As such it provides ammunition to any irrational persons who do not want to do thinking part but are eager to do actions about these ideas. Theologians, in less sophisticated Islam, are enablers of various pernicious social evils, like gender inequality, violence, child marriage (which should be called perhaps child rape), martyrdom etc. The value of their work is thus less than zero. In fact it is far into the negative.

  2. Doug
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    The fact that many theologians are well-educated does not, in itself, prove anything. Many creationists, conspiracy theorists and holocaust deniers may be well educated, but if they use their education to promoting nonsense, then they are misusing it.

    • jay
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 8:37 am | Permalink

      Some astrologers are very skilled at celestial calculations. That doesn’t make astrology true.

  3. Posted September 9, 2014 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Queen of the sciences … in the republic of the sciences!

    But of course, when that phrase was coined, “science” referred to any field of study.

    /@

    • Tulse
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      Exactly — science isn’t a monarchy, it’s a meritocracy.

    • caf
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      I find that “Queen” of the sciences is quite apropos for theology if I consider British royalty. They offer nothing of substance and their position of privilege is a historical relic.

      • Sastra
        Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

        Heh, very good. Now I’m imagining theologians riding around giving that little half-spin handwave. Seems appropriate, somehow.

        • rickflick
          Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:37 am | Permalink

          The less sophisticated theologians, giving full-spin handwaves. Not so subtle.

        • grasshopper
          Posted September 9, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

          Half-spin? Wave? Quantum allegories are such a Bohr, even though the Queen may have charm.

          • Posted September 9, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

            Strange, that.

            /@

            • Posted September 9, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

              Ha!

              You could go up and down any thread here at WEIT, top to bottom, and not find a more gifted punster than our Ant!

              • Posted September 9, 2014 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

                ☺️

                In my day, t and b were still being called “truth” and “beauty”. But as it turns out, reality is neither true nor beautiful …

                /@

                PS. For consistency, s should have become “side(ways?)”; and c, “central” or “corner”.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted September 9, 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

              You have your charm.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted September 9, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

          Well some of them do seem to enjoy silky dresses.

    • rickflick
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      I like the more modern definition: Mathematics is the queen of sciences. As an abstraction, it could be said to be “about nothing”. But, its applications work, and otherwise it amounts to harmless fun.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted September 9, 2014 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

        Of course, Galileo said that Mathematics was the language of God, so a Galilean (I don’t mean a resident of Galilee) might not see that as a conflict with the classical claim.

        🙂

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      It’s a riddle, and we know the answer already: the Queen is not a subject.

      • DrBrydon
        Posted September 9, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

        Lovely. Well done, that man.

        • grasshopper
          Posted September 9, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

          I love the smell of Russell’s paradox in the morning, especially as the colour of his teapot is of such import to believers.

      • reasonshark
        Posted September 9, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        + 10 for spotting that, since I do love word games, and it’s rare to find a clever pun on the Internet.

  4. Posted September 9, 2014 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Theology: Divine justification for eternal obfuscation.

  5. Matt G
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Thomas Paine doesn’t pull his punches with this one:

    The study of theology, as it stands in the Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authority; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion.
    – Thomas Paine

    • Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      I hadn’t come across this quote before, thanks for sharing it! I’d like to see a theologian’s defense of this critique.

      • Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        My guess is that most would point out Paine’s dismal funeral scene and his censure by the sea of Christians around him as proof of the wrongness of his ideas. It has worked before.

    • Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      However keep in mind that while Paine opposed Christian theology,
      Paine did hold to theology of a different sort.

      Like Jefferson, Paine was a committed theist.
      And he wasn’t a deist in the sense some people say, as viewing God not involved in the world.

      Paine argued that God supported justice and the American Revolution!

      Check his writings. (I used to teach Paine every semester to students.)

    • Posted September 9, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      And yet, we have in this very thread seen it confidently proclaimed that…

      a theologian’s life and work can “produce nothing of value” unless you have a very restricted sense of “value.” Not only do theologians find great meaning in their work, people who read theology often feel their lives are transformed and enriched.

      Theology is the Queen of Sciences in the very same sense that homeopathy Foundation of Medicine. What bullshit.

      • Posted September 9, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

        …that homeopathy is the Foundation of Medicine.

        • Matt G
          Posted September 9, 2014 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

          It’s like they want to make babies, and they think that masturbating is the right way to go about it.

          • Posted September 9, 2014 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

            Woah — steady there! Don’t want to get her pregnant with sextuplets!

            Better to just thumb through a Victoria’s Secret catalog. No…even that’s too much…just make it the fall fashion guide for the well-dressd medical professional and call it a day.

            b&

  6. GBJames
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    I always liked Dan Barker’s quip.

  7. Posted September 9, 2014 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Wasn’t this exact argument made by someone at the atlantic a few months ago. Come on people, find something new to do!

  8. Posted September 9, 2014 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    “The Theology Express has finally jumped the rails.”
    ___

    🙂

    Unfortunately Theology is not too sophisticated to have authors.

    Decades ago, when Catholic nuns radically changed their dress, the older women were allowed to continue to wear the traditional costume because it was too psychologically painful for them to accept such change as habitually adorning yourself thusly becomes a part of your identity. Theologians share in this limitation; they can’t throw away their fancy though imaginary emperor robes. Unfortunately they are shivering in the cold nude and don’t know it!

    • rickflick
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      My d*g is black with just a little white trim on the neck. When I remove her collar for cleaning, she becomes restless and fiddles with here feet. I show her the cleaned loop and she quickly pushes her nose through. Just like that, contentment is restored.

    • Kevin
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      Science makes these people nervous and uncomfortable, because its based on facts.

      It is my wish to see in my lifetime, the metaphorical nudity of theologians (apologists) overwhelm them. I do not mind if they keep trying to make arguments, but they have not provided any useful information and any suggestion that they have so far is delusional.

    • Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      About the nuns… you point out something in a way I had not thought of before. It is the oldest habits which can be the most difficult to change.

      • Matt G
        Posted September 9, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        Especially if you’ve put on a few pounds over the years!

  9. Barry Lyons
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    A favorite line: “Theology, in short, is a useless discipline — as useless as Paul Bunyan-ology.” I just used that when tweeting this post.

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

      My favourite line on theology comes from Ophelia Benson; some years ago, exasperated by the aggrandizing claims of theologians in combination with their inability to demonstrate the theos part of theology, she defined the discipline as “the ology without an ology”.

  10. Richard Bond
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    My immediate reaction was to recall Peter Medawar’s comment, in his review of Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man, about “a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought”.

    Incidentally, this review must be the finest demolition ever written ever of a pseudo-scientific poseur: well worth reading, and including many other memorable quotations.

    • Richard Bond
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      Silly me: Teilhard is de Chardin’s christian name. I went to Medawar’s essay, in which he referred to “Teilhard”, in order to to check the spelling.

    • reasonshark
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      Appropriately apt! In fact, Medawar’s opening paragraph – if paraphrased – could be a succinct description of theology itself:

      “This little bouquet of aphorism, each one thought sufficiently important by its author to deserve a paragraph to itself, is taken from Père Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man. It is a book widely held to be of the utmost profundity and significance; it created something like a sensation upon its publication in France, and some reviewers hereabouts called it the Book of the Year — one, the Book of the Century. Yet the greater part of it, I shall show, is nonsense, tricked out with a variety of metaphysical conceits, and its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself. The Phenomenon of Man cannot be read without a feeling of suffocation, a gasping and flailing around for sense. There is an argument in it, to be sure — a feeble argument, abominably expressed — and this I shall expound in due course; but consider first the style, because it is the style that creates the illusion of content, and which is a cause as well as merely a symptom of Teilhard’s alarming apocalyptic seizures.”

  11. Posted September 9, 2014 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Theology is the greatest excercise of the imagination that the human species has ever undertaken, but just because its a discipline with no foundatation doesnt mean it can produce some worthwhile observations or understandings of the human condition.
    After all…the early astrologers did produce useful star maps

    • rickflick
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      Of course it is possible for theologians to do useful work as a side effect of their delving. It occurred to me while reading the post that to confine oneself to the nature and will of nothing would drive you pretty bonkers pretty quickly. But, its not likely anything useful would come directly from their core concern.

      • caf
        Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

        “Of course it is possible for theologians to do useful work as a side effect of their delving”

        It occurred to me that Dickson’s argument was essentially two-fold: That theologians were proficient in several different disciplines, and that they produce good work related to those disciplines. Its an argument for an integrated interdisciplinary holistic approach to some subjects, but not to theology specifically. One could achieve similar effect if they start out with the goal of eventually making the future of Star Trek come true (while acknowledging is fictional nature). God as Cavafy’s Ithaki

        • Matt G
          Posted September 9, 2014 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

          Exactly. He claims X and then proceeds to defend Y.

  12. Posted September 9, 2014 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    My definition: Examining one’s own thoughts and deciding what one would like one’s god be like.

    • Kevin
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:00 am | Permalink

      Good. Or something like this:

      “Hey guys I have thought really long and hard about this problem, and I know history, boy do I know history. Listen up, I speak from privileged authority, when I say that I know what the Epic-Almighty wants us to know…about life, the universe, and everything.”

      • Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:09 am | Permalink

        Psssst … “42” (!!!!!!!!)

  13. NewEnglandBob
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    John Dickson is a consummate Liar For Jesus. His lie density is extremely high per paragraph. Theology is a house of cards built with hot air and glued together by lies.

    • DrBrydon
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      Lying for Jesus is a time-honored occupation, as the terms “pious fraud” and “mental reservation” remind us.

  14. Roger
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    He should add “mind reader” to his qualifications since he knows that Genesis wasn’t meant to be taken literally. The only way he could possibly know that would be if he could read the minds of the Genesis story tellers. Theologians are great mind readers.

    • Felix
      Posted September 10, 2014 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      Funny how historians have no doubt the same views about Earth’s shape and place in the cosmos as described in the “Old Testament” were taken very literally by every culture surrounding the Hebrews in their own works. Apparently just this one tribe of not remarkably scholarly people happened to use the same words as a metaphor nobody else got.

  15. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    And Dan made two quips: “Theology is a subject without an object”

    That is not original to him, it’s an old joke. Even Pope Benedict has used a version of it.

    Faith, Reason and the University
    Pope Indulgence, University of Regensburg
    12 September 2006

    “… I began teaching at the University of Bonn. That was in 1959 … The university was also very proud of its two theological faculties. (Catholic and Protestant, I assume) …
    This profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason was not troubled, even when it was once reported that a colleague had said there was something odd about our university: it had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God…”

  16. clarkgwent
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Theology is like a discussion about “who would win in a battle between Marvel and DC superheroes?” except the latter would be more entertaining and have neat artwork.

    • Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      💥

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      DC superheroes, no contest!

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Moreover, the argument for the various super heroes could be used to demonstrate skills in analysis and critical thinking, both of which may be called into question if you thought the super heroes were for realz.

  17. Helen Pluckrose
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Theology is useful to historians but not as a discipline in itself. I focus on theology a lot because its an ongoing conversation about a man-made superbeing. Seeing how this god in whose image man was supposedly made changes is one of the best sources for understanding how man’s perception of himself changed and social norms and ethics changed.

  18. KP
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Theology is the study of how to make shit up in order to give religious belief the illusion of being intellectually rigorous.

  19. Ken Mann
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Theology is not completely without value. It is the oldest form of fan fiction. The difference is that writers of spin-off stories know that the characters do not actually exist. One can imagine a film like “Galaxy Quest” involving theologians interacting with genuine divinity.

    • Rikki_Tikki_Taalik
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      Never Give Up, Never Surrender

  20. miohippus
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    “The Theology Express has finally jumped the rails.” Thank you Dr Coyne. I just had to clean the coffee off the screen of my computer.

  21. still learning
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Applying a Gertrude Steinism: “There’s no there there”.

  22. Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Same logic applies to comics and their now complex past for any “comics’ connoisseur” (I’m not). Ask Stan Lee if the Avengers, Daredevil, Fantastic Four, Hulk, Iron Man, Spider Man, Thor or X-Men are real and he will tell you “now they are.” That is, fictional characters brought to existence by a human creator, all with a complex past, thousands of texts, images, films, stamps, cards, t-shirts, fans, devotees, worshipers, scary followers, etc. Worldwide, there are thousands of comic fictional “personas,” perhaps not as many as the hundreds of thousands —or millions— of gods, who share with the gods the common foundation of not being real. Now applying numbers 1-4 to comics: Number 1: studying comics (which psychologists, educators, among other scholars, actually do) requires lots of skills, including languages, fair understanding of comic history, social impact, psychological influences during child development, etc. Number 2: And comics’ specialists know a lot about the history and philosophy too… of the comics industry, of course, its branches all over the world, the generation of characters adapted to the local cultures and manners, their interconnectedness with spirituality, pseudoscience, local or regional beliefs, etc. Number 3: comics’ specialists make real contributions to other academic areas, yes, for example, child psychology, desensitization of our youth to human-suffering, tolerance to violence, bullying, depression or suicide. Number 4: Comics are integrative, and this is true, for sure: integration of knowledge about current socio-economic trends to the complexity or simplicity of the comic’s industry; always adapting to new scientific discoveries, the market, technology, space explorations, science and science-fiction. My point is that Numbers 1-4 are applicable to any area of interest, from serious scholarly work, like science, or the science of food preparation… to more trivial, like the multibillion dollar industry of fictional characters that disrupt, distort, delay or even stop the correct comprehension of reality when acting as cultural pollutants. Just like “belief” (=supernatural causation). Now, society can do numbers 1-4 without any, or all, of those fictional characters. But if we do numbers 1-4 over the souls of fiction, we ought to acknowledge that it is fiction. And if we do it, fiction should be replaced with reality.

    • DrBrydon
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Excellent point, and I could pull in No. 16 above, I would just like to ask that theology really needs to address questions like, Who would win in a fair fight, Lucifer or St. Peter?

    • Matt G
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      So much could be accurately represented by replacing “God” with “my idea of God”. Was Bach inspired to write this or that piece by God? No, he was inspired by his idea of God. I would not dispute in the slightest that Bach’s idea of God is real.

      • Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

        +1

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted September 10, 2014 at 5:01 am | Permalink

        Moreover, Bach’s idea of god is not only historically real, but extant and available on YouTube!

  23. Diana MacPherson
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Oh good grief, many Humanities degrees provide that same level of learning that he outlines. An advanced degree in Classics requires study in Latin, Ancient Greek as well as a couple of European languages other than English with close to if not complete fluency in one. Of course, you also should have archaeological training but your specialty would determine the level. The same would be the case with Ancient History and Philosophy.

    But the nicest part is none of the professors are under the illusion that the gods are real and you’ll probably meet a walk of atheists!

    • Sean
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      I would not have made comment 24 if I had read comment 23 🙂

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted September 9, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        🙂 I meant “whack” of atheists not “walk”. Damn phone.

        • Posted September 9, 2014 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

          Sounds like your phone’s out of walk. Have you tried jogging its memory?

          b&

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted September 9, 2014 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

            or it’s running out of phun

            • Posted September 9, 2014 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

              Then it’s likely time for it to swim with the ghotis.

              b&

              • grasshopper
                Posted September 10, 2014 at 1:20 am | Permalink

                Shaw, why not?

        • rickflick
          Posted September 9, 2014 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

          “a walk of atheists”
          Better than a gaggle or a murder. I kinda like the sound of “a walk of atheists”.

          • Matt G
            Posted September 9, 2014 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

            Now THAT would be a fun contest: see who can come up for the best term for a group of atheists!

            • rickflick
              Posted September 9, 2014 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

              And you expect a group of atheists to agree on the best term? Ha!
              OK, how about a dissent of atheists? I win!

            • Posted September 9, 2014 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

              Ratio.

              b&

          • Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

            Clowder, surely?

            /@

            • rickflick
              Posted September 10, 2014 at 5:26 am | Permalink

              (Unfair. A sly aim at a likely judge)

              • Posted September 10, 2014 at 5:44 am | Permalink

                Well, it’s often said that atheists are as hard to herd as cats!

                /@

          • John Scanlon, FCD
            Posted September 10, 2014 at 5:04 am | Permalink

            Peripatesis of atheists, while we’re going classical.

            • rickflick
              Posted September 10, 2014 at 6:10 am | Permalink

              Yes, but it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.

    • reasonshark
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it’s sadly tell-tale that Dickson defends theology by totally invoking everything other than theology. A critic could have made the same points with pointed sarcasm, and it would actually be clearer how the points don’t work as apologia.

      “It’s good to study Indian unicorns, sir, because we require you to learn ancient Indian languages, culture, literature, archaeology, and the philosophy of biology and science, and bring them all to bear on the subject of… erm… to bring them all to bear. Hey wait, why are you crossing Indo-Unicornology off your list?”

  24. Sean
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Dickson says:
    “Even if there is no god… theology remains one of the most subtle and sophisticated academic pursuits on the planet.”

    I think he has made a typo It should read:

    “If there is no god, theology is just MYTHOLOGY.”

    • Erik Verbruggen
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      I really like the use of the word “subtle”. How can you be proud of that? It is a euphemism for “making no significant progress”.

      • Sean
        Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:41 am | Permalink

        lol! I didn’t even pick up on that!

        It’s a good thing nobody has said the same of other academic pursuits. Imagine if the advancements in medicine, engineering or computer science had been subtle!

        • TJR
          Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

          I bet Theology is “nuanced” as well.

      • eric
        Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

        Yeah, he’s really treating a bug as a feature. Of course its subtle and sophisticated. It has to be, because the obvious and simple answer is that there is no god.

    • josh
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      The thing is, what he’s describing isn’t subtle or sophisticated at all. It is a shotgun approach to justifying oneself with a litany of orthogonal accomplishments and no indication of depth.

      ‘Yeah, well I know German! And I took a semester on Greek archaeology! Plus I once wrote a term paper comparing Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to The Matrix! It got a B+.’

  25. Joe L
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    The saddest thing about theology is the horrendous number of human lives that have been erased because of it.

  26. Joe L
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    By the way, as a Pacific Northwesterner I’m tired of Paul Bunyan being treated as if he doesn’t exist! I’m sure there’s a community college in northern California that offers an A.A. degree in the study of his Flannel Holiness. 🙂

  27. Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    *Some* of this could be interpreted as a plea for religious studies broadly construed, but …

    Also, even if the objcet of the study existed, it would not follow that it was a great and wonderful subject and in the best of shape. For example, it could be filled with bad arguments and poor uses of evidence. IMO the first is true regardless of content, so …

  28. Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    It might be a waste of time as far as real knowledge goes, but if someone enjoys something, it’s not a waste of time to them. We don’t have to justify what we spend our time doing to the world. And it’s obviously not a waste of time what theologians do to the millions who read theology. I read physics, which is a waste of time to the billions who don’t. A subject doesn’t have to be about something real to be worth pursuing, if you or others find value in it. Maybe you’re just objecting to the claim that it’s about something real and should be in a university. If so, than I agree, it’s not and shouldn’t.

    • eric
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      Remember that Jerry’s original question was “what good is a discipline…” The question was not ought we allow people to study theology, but rather is theology useful.

      If you want to compare it to some activity people do for fun, then yeah, certainly people should be allowed to study it. But that isn’t the issue being contended here.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      But here’s the interesting question: would the people who passionately pursue theology (or religion itself) happily agree that its truth doesn’ t matter to them as long as they’re enjoying it?

      I seriously doubt it.

      Your point is an excellent one if we’re talking about pastimes, tastes, preferences, or lifestyles. If someone takes great delight in strolling along the beach, playing video games, or collecting street car transfers who the hell are we to say that they’re “wasting their time?” To each his or her own. Value is what we value, and so forth.

      But few people who profess to care passionately about ‘God’ are eager to put that into the same classification as a hobby or guilty pleasure. God needs to exist or they’re atheists performing historical reenactments.

      • eric
        Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:34 am | Permalink

        Actually, theology-as-hobby finally lets me understand why they are so upset at vocal atheists. Imagine you just spent the last several years building up your MMORPG character…and then because of the atheist movement, most players desert the game. They stop playing it and move on. You might get pretty upset at them, too. 🙂

        • reasonshark
          Posted September 9, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

          Ha! Studying the being who’s allegedly deeply wedded to art, culture, morality, spirituality, the mind, the mysterious, humanity, existence, and the transcendent is supposed to be a mere hobby? I think this is too feeble an explanation for their indignation.

          They’re not upset because we spoil their devoted fun. They’re upset because our even suggesting it’s fiction is too “foolish”, “insulting”, “boorish”, “naive”, “fundamentalist”, etc. for them to accept. We expose their delusions and cons for what they are, and call into question their nonsensical and self-righteous puffery, their self-awarded claims to (monopoly and/or supremacy of) the higher things in human life. They make the most obnoxiously serious Stop Having Fun Guy and the most insanely deluded can’t-tell-fantasy-from-reality fanboy look like noobie amateurs.

        • reasonshark
          Posted September 9, 2014 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

          To put it briefly: reducing theology to simply a hobby – by destroying its pretensions to serious academia – would actually be an improvement.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

        “God needs to exist or they’re atheists performing historical reenactments.”

        re: reenacting civil war battles. All dressed up. Nietzsche from behind a bush, takes aim… “God is dead!”. Nobody wants to fall since that ends the game for them.

    • josh
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      Whether or not you read physics, you should be damn glad that someone does. Theology, you should be afraid that other people are reading it.

      And of course, the question is ‘If they knew it was a fiction, how many people would consider theology a waste of time?’

  29. MAZMANIANAC
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    My short take: the job of the theologian is to spin horseshit into gold

    • rickflick
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      Yessss!

  30. Danbite
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Great article! I wish I could share this on Facebook. I would probably lose half my friends.

  31. phar84
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    sub

  32. phar84
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    sub + check box

  33. eric
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Seems like a silly defense. So, let’s say I start a major, “snipe studies.” I require everyone in the snipe studies program to take all 100 and 200 level courses, and become equally well educated at the graduate level….plus, they gotta learn about snipes.

    Then someone comes out of my snipe studies program and (in part because they are very well educated – consider the prerequisites!) does some good work in history. Or art, or science, or whatever.

    Now certainly such a result could point to the value of a broad-based education. But it wouldn’t point out any value in learning about snipes. And it really doesn’t reflect any value in the ‘snipe studies’ major.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      Depends on what you mean by “snipe.” If they’re studying the fine art of sneering and making wry jests and cutting digs then I can see some residual value in that particular major in all sorts of areas.

    • Erik Verbruggen
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      It would probably prove that snipe study is so subtle it requires another 2000 years of academic endeavour. Perhaps it would contest theology for the throne of “subtlety”

    • rickflick
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      “…‘snipe studies’ major”.

      You are referring of course to the excellent program at the Paul Bunyan School of Esoterics in Wisconsin.

      • GBJames
        Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        Hey…. That school is in Minnesota! 😉

        • rickflick
          Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

          Wisconsin, Minnesota, what’s the difference? Besides, Minnesota has Lake Wobegon, where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all children are above average.

  34. Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    When I was young, I thought theology was the study of Kojak. I wasn’t far wrong, was I?

  35. eric
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    It’s as good a time as any, then, to offer a brief defence of this “queen of the sciences”

    Theology is the Red Queen of academics – they have to run full speed just to stay in place.

    • Matt G
      Posted September 10, 2014 at 2:55 am | Permalink

      There’s also the one about looking for a black cat in a dark room which isn’t there.

  36. Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Without a complicated theology to support it, how would the Catholic Church ever get away with this kind of thing–

    “A former child migrant who was transported from a care home in Derry to western Australia revealed at the historical institutional abuse inquiry that “our faces were painted black to make us look like Aborigines” as part of on board “entertainment” for paying passengers.”

    http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/sep/09/northern-ireland-children-shipped-australia-painted-black-aborigines

  37. Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Theology would be an awesome field of study…

    …as an exercise in literary criticism.

    Where it goes off the rails (and how!) is in mistraking fantasy for documentary history.

    It’s not something I’m personally into, but I’m all for the whole fandom scene. But at least they (almost always) have the decency to realize that they’re stepping into a fantasy world, and to step back out of it to reality when the con is over.

    b&

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      The problem then is that for the churches, the cons are never over.

  38. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Oh, rich!

    Some of the best theologians today also have expert knowledge of … philosophy of science.

    Dickson seems to think that is a positive characteristic …

    Theology is perhaps the most comprehensive integrative discipline around. It explores all important forms of human knowledge and probes how they shed light on Christian belief and, indeed, how Christian belief might shed light on them.

    So now there is one form of buffoonery with a larger mouth than philosophism, and it is theologism! I guess I should celebrate. (O.o)

  39. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Carl Friedrich Gauss: “Mathematics is the queen of sciences and number theory is the queen of mathematics. She often condescends to render service to astronomy and other natural sciences, but in all relations she is entitled to the first rank.”

  40. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Roughly 30% of the Wikipedia article on theology is devoted to criticisms of this kind that it is an empty discipline.
    The oldest cited critic is Protagoras from ancient Greece, but Jerry Coyne and Dawkins both get a mention.

  41. DrBrydon
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I can’t believe I had nothing to do all day (well, sort of), and I missed this until now! I am surprised that no one has ferreted out the origin of the Queen of the Sciences appellation. I see if referred to as being Aquinas, but have found no actually citation. Searching for it, though, will cause you a lot of groans.

    Interestingly, Ambrose Bierce has an entry on Theosophy in The Devil’s Dictionary, but not Theology. He does do Religion, though:

    A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.

    My own working definition is, The attempt to make reasonable to men what is unreasonable in the Bible.

  42. Erik Verbruggen
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    “Practically no important field is untouched by the discipline of theology. How does brain science challenge the Western notion of the self? How was the Graeco-Roman notion of honour subverted by the New Testament emphasis on humility? In what ways do ancient and modern notions of martyrdom differ? How does the doctrine of the Trinity find expression in some of the great classical composers? How does time relate to eternity? What does quantum mechanics say about the notion of divine freedom, and vice-versa? Can innate human rights be grounded without a theistic framework? How does the biblical view of forgiveness contribute to modern attempts at reconciliation? All of these and more are proper theological topics.”

    What are these questions? Are these really topics of actual inquiry or were some words simply mashed together? Some make some sense, but it is a stretch to say they represent “practically all important fields of Academia”.

    • Minyoung
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      That paragraph was really strange. The first sentence should have read the opposite way: theology is not untouched by any important field. Questions like “What does quantum mechanics say about the notion of divine freedom?” are questions in theology, inspired by physics; it’s not a question in physics, or any real discipline (though physicist may ask about what it says about non-divine free will). He even says in the last sentence that these are theological topics.

      • Erik Verbruggen
        Posted September 9, 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

        Yes, that seems much closer to the truth.

        The “how does time relate to eternity?” question is the best for me. That’s not even theology. It could be mathematics but very basic algebra in that.

        • Posted September 10, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

          Eternity has a useful meaning within physics and mainstream philosophy of time. Unfortunately also it has a bastardized meaning used by religious apologists which I have not been able to figure out. It has something to do with escaping the crazy implications of asserting that god is timeless, or something.

  43. Bob Michaelson
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    The OED may not be the last word in use-based definition of theology. For example, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines it as “1 : the study of religious faith, practice, and experience; esp : the study of God and of God’s relation to the world.” Setting aside the part after “esp” – which doesn’t, after all, mean “entirely,” this is a reasonable discipline that embodies history, sociology, psychology, literature, etc. As another use-based example: the faculty of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago
    http://divinity.uchicago.edu/faculty-area
    Of course some people are listed under more than one heading, but what you find chiefly is people whose discipline is history of religions, philosophy of religions, anthropology and sociology of religions, etc. Even those listed under “Theology” often study things not encompassed under OED’s definition, e.g. “protest and transformation as religious sensibilities and projects, partly as enacted in political and cultural movements, and particularly as thematized in contemporary feminist and African-American theologies and, historically, in Protestant theologies.” Martin Gardner, in his semi-autobiographical novel The flight of Peter Fromm and elsewhere, ridiculed professors at divinity schools (especially at his own University of Chicago) who didn’t believe in god, but I disagree – not that I’m suggesting that none of the faculty at the UChicago Div School believe in a god, but it wouldn’t bother me at all if they didn’t. In any case, it seems that they mostly are studying interesting and useful things (e.g. it isn’t possible to really understand western literature through the early 20th century without a knowledge of the Bible), and why not have them in a divinity school or department of theology? Finally, to Ben Goren @37, what you say about theology has often been said, with at least as much truth, about Freudian psychology. Unfortunately, few Freudians agree.

    • Erik Verbruggen
      Posted September 9, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      Regarding your point “why not study e.g. history in a divinity school”, I have some reservations about just that. There is the risk that the two branches get disjunct, and for instance in the case of historical jesus in bens post last week we saw that different standards of evidence are used in history and theology, where the last one claims to engage in history as well. So in my view, yes, there is potential harm in developing what should result in the same methods of enquiry between different fields, without enough crosstalk.

    • Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

      « few Freudians agree »

      I never dreamt they would.

      /@

      >

  44. Minyoung
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    When you have to defend a discipline by arguing how learned in other subjects its practitioners are, you know it isn’t making any contribution of its own…

  45. Diana MacPherson
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    I found the Association of Theological Schools web site. This is from their “About” section:

    More than 270 graduate schools of theology in the United States and Canada form The Association of Theological Schools. Member schools conduct post-baccalaureate professional and academic degree programs to educate persons for the practice of ministry and for teaching and research in the theological disciplines. These schools differ from one another in deep and significant ways, but through their membership in ATS, they demonstrate a commitment to shared values about what constitutes good theological education. Collectively, ATS member schools enroll approximately 74,500 students and employ more than 7,200 faculty and administrators.

    My alma mater’s Divinity College is a member of this association (cringe).

    Bad news: check out all these schools!

    The good news: get ’em while their old – seems people 50+ are the main age group going into theology as stated on the site, the over-50 crowd is the fastest growing age group among theological school students.

  46. David Evans
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    There are, no doubt, facts about “how the Aristotelian world view established and impeded medieval learning”. But they are not facts about God, and therefore not properly part of the subject matter of theology.

    Unless one argues that since God created the universe, every fact about the universe is a fact about God. That would make Theology in principle able to include all knowledge, and be worthy of the name “queen of sciences”. Unfortunately the only way to establish those facts is through the existing secular fields of study, making the specific methods of theology irrelevant.

  47. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.
    — H. L. Mencken

  48. Posted September 10, 2014 at 2:41 am | Permalink

    The problem here is that you’re working with a very narrow definition of theology. Sure, it’s in the OED. But the reality is that modern theology is much more than just “thinking about God” – just look at any theological curriculum at any well-respected university. As an atheist, I still think there is value in the integrative approach, with the concept of the divine as a central theme. Many fields draw from others as an inspiration, so there is no reason why theology can’t use material and methods from, say, psychology or archeology, and publish material with a “God” theme. There is no reason why ONLY main-stream psychology should have the sole right to study how religious beliefs influence our thoughts about the world and the cosmos. Theology can use the same methods and data that psychology uses, and actually contribute academically. I think the real reason why you’re so against theology as a field of study is that its very existence gives credibility to god belief. That I can understand, so why not just state it up front?

    • reasonshark
      Posted September 10, 2014 at 4:17 am | Permalink

      Then package it under religious studies, or the other relevant subjects. It doesn’t matter how many other fields it integrates with: the subject itself is rooted in nothing substantial and shouldn’t exist, much less claim the privileged position it does.

      I think the real reason why you’re so against theology as a field of study is that its very existence gives credibility to god belief.

      Assuming for the moment that, by “gives credibility”, you simply meant “appears to give credibility” and did not mean that the existence of the subject somehow proves it has something to it, then this has it backwards. It’s the unspoken assumption that religious belief, specifically god belief (or any belief in the existence of the divine), is credible that enabled and still enables a subject like theology to get its “credentials” in the first place.

      • Posted September 10, 2014 at 4:26 am | Permalink

        I couldn’t have answered better myself. I should add that, as a scientist, I’m offended that an entire field of study is predicated on something that lacks evidence, and, as you said, theology begins with the notion that there is indeed a divine being.

        It’s a waste of time, too.

        I could say that the problem with gideonthewarrior is that he’s expanded the notion of theology to include other evidence-based fields that aren’t what I meant by theology. I have no opposition to Biblical scholarship or to the study of religion as a phenomenon, but really, given all the efforts of all the theologians over millennia, what have they added to our knowledge? I would say: almost nothing.

        • Posted September 10, 2014 at 4:43 am | Permalink

          « almost nothing »

          Almost?!!!

          /@

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted September 10, 2014 at 5:18 am | Permalink

          This whole ‘subject without an object’ thing also used to be said of astrobiology (that may have been the attraction of both subjects for Paul Davies, I dunno), but we have yet to hear of any theologians attempting to recreate divinity in the laboratory.

          • Posted September 10, 2014 at 5:42 am | Permalink

            « we have yet to hear of any theologians attempting to recreate divinity in the laboratory »

            Awesome!

            /@

            >

      • Posted September 10, 2014 at 4:42 am | Permalink

        >> Then package it under religious studies, or the other relevant subjects. It doesn’t matter how many other fields it integrates with: the subject itself is rooted in nothing substantial and shouldn’t exist, much less claim the privileged position it does.

        What you said would be true if you defined theology as the study of an actual living breathing being, but that’s not what many scholars claim, is it? If you only referred to theology as a means to teach how to indoctrinate people in their respective holy places, then I’m in full agreement. The other aspects, all of which can be properly studied in other fields, are nicely packaged together in one domain called “theology” (the concept of god as a central theme).

        Here’s an example. I’m a computational linguist. All of what I do can be studied in computer science, linguistics or perhaps even artificial intelligence, but only parts of what I do. All the time, new fields develop which integrate the tools and knowledge from previously unrelated fields into one cohesive source of knowledge. This is a good thing, this means that you don’t have to have studied both A and B in order to research a topic where both A and B are relevant.

        >> It’s the unspoken assumption that religious belief, specifically god belief (or any belief in the existence of the divine), is credible that enabled and still enables a subject like theology to get its “credentials” in the first place.

        I’m with you on the origin of theology, but most if not all progressive, first-world secular and mostly unbelieving countries such as Netherlands and Germany have theology departments at their various universities. I would assume that they’re not getting extinct any time soon, given their centuries-long existence. I’m just wondering how they could still exist if most if not all of their students do not actually believe in gods.

        • eric
          Posted September 10, 2014 at 5:35 am | Permalink

          Such integration has value when there is an important object of study. Without an object, it just seems to be an obsolete program bent on perpetuating itself long after its usefulness has passed.

          Here’s two contrasting examples. It makes sense for many Universities to set up cross-disciplinary Environmental Studies programs, because people recognize that managing and understanding environments – including their biology, chemistry, geology, atmospheric physics, etc – is valuable. But no University has set up a cross-disciplinary Snipe Studies program, because there are no Snipes.

          • Posted September 11, 2014 at 10:09 am | Permalink

            Actually, there are snipes. “A snipe is any of about 25 wading bird species in three genera in the family Scolopacidae.” Wikipedia

        • reasonshark
          Posted September 10, 2014 at 7:10 am | Permalink

          Here’s an example. I’m a computational linguist. All of what I do can be studied in computer science, linguistics or perhaps even artificial intelligence, but only parts of what I do. All the time, new fields develop which integrate the tools and knowledge from previously unrelated fields into one cohesive source of knowledge. This is a good thing, this means that you don’t have to have studied both A and B in order to research a topic where both A and B are relevant.

          Your analogy fails because it requires ignoring what theology is actually based on. We can talk about conceptions of divinity in religious studies, just as we can talk about ancient cultural beliefs and fantasy elements in literature. But theology also takes the extra step of assuming divine things like gods actually exist, and then either proceeds on said assumption or handwaves the assumption.

          There’s already a perfectly good and neutral alternative. We simply don’t need theology any more.

          but most if not all progressive, first-world secular and mostly unbelieving countries such as Netherlands and Germany have theology departments at their various universities. I’m just wondering how they could still exist if most if not all of their students do not actually believe in gods.

          The fact that those countries have more unbelievers than believers doesn’t automatically stop the latter from keeping theology alive and well. Not to mention the number of “New” or “Strong” atheists is still pathetically low compared with those who are willing to “respect” religions.

      • Posted September 11, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink

        Religious studies does not cover theology, and yet theology, whether we like it or not, has consequences. If we don’t know how it’s done, and no one but adherents of religions study it, we are at the mercy of argumentation which only they understand. Most theology is not about God or gods specifically, but — certainly amongst textual (“revealed”) religions — about the implications of beliefs specific to the individual religions (or branches thereof) for our understanding of the world and each other. Very often these studies are carried out with the assistance of other disciplines: history, sociology, anthropology, as well as biblical studies, history of theology, etc. And what is a history of theology without knowing how it is done, and what constitutes an argument within a particular theological tradition. In the absence of any knowledge in these areas we are at the mercy of those who do have such knowledge, or can at least pretend to it. So, we end up with the kind of theological statement such as was recently made by Barack Obama and questioned astringently by Sam Harris in a recent essay (released today), “Sleepwalking towards Armageddon” (well worth reading, by the way). Here’s Obama:

        Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim…. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple.

        Actually that is false, but ignorance of the theology of Islam allows this kind of falsehood to be repeated again and again. Also, a lot of things about Christianity and Judaism, said by atheists, is often false as to the theology of those two religions. Theology is a complex discipline, including philosophy at its basis, but comprising all sorts of historical and scriptural knowledge, as well as theories deriving from such knowledge, as to how religion functions (or should function) in relation to others, whether believers or unbelievers. Some things that Tillich says in his Systematic Theology, while some of it is quite local to Christianity of a liberal type, has value to others. For example, his notion of idolatry is pertinent to many departments of human knowledge, understanding and practice. Idolatry, for Tillich, is giving absolute value to anything which is itself finite. This sometimes strikes me in the exaggerated way that some people regard science.

        Of course, basic talk about God or gods is a matter for philosophy, or that department of philosophy called metaphysics. Whether or not metaphysics can, as Aquinas thought, prove that there must be an absolute cause of reality (being) which is in itself pure actuality (and therefore in need of no cause for its existence outside itself) is a question for that department of philosophy (theology). Even if it has been demonstrated, it is doubtful that it can be know what has been shown to exist. But to rule out the study of it from the start seems a mite presumptuous.

        I think the cavalier dismissal of theology is a mistake. We need theology, since religion is still such a powerful reality in the world and in the relations between peoples. Presupposing that it has no value at all is leaving oneself open to being blindsided by beliefs one does not understand, and has no means of understanding (even in part), like Obama waxing eloquent about what is definitely not Islam. He has been blindsided by this ignorance for his whole term and a half as president. Surely not wise in a world where theology is an ongoing intellectual programme of so many. Merely saying that theology is a subject without an object will not save you from the effects of avoidable ignorance.

        As for other evidence-based fields, as I have suggested, Jerry, theology makes use of them all the time, which is all the more reason why people should seek to understand what theology is and how it is done. I know you think that most of it is empty verbiage, but it’s not, really, and theology constitutes, in many instances, a use of reason within a field defined by the specific belief content of the religions. It has its disagreements, just like philosophy, and methods of argument and sometimes refutation which are shared within the theological community. Whether it belongs at the university of not is a matter for universities to decide, but by divorcing theology from what is done at universities does not diminish its effects on thought in the universities or in the societies that universities serve. To criticise religion it is not enough merely to deny the existence of the gods of the religions, since theology extends much farther than this simple existence claim.

        I wasn’t going to comment, but couldn’t help myself!

        • Posted September 11, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

          My first claim (about religious studies not including theology) is perhaps a bit strong. But it does not include theology as a discipline.

        • GBJames
          Posted September 11, 2014 at 11:18 am | Permalink

          Knowing how “things” are done and doing “things” is not the same thing. We can study and research how Ebola operates without being an Ebola virus. We can learn about (for example) the history of theology without being a theologian and gazing at God’s navel.

          Religious studies allows us to study religion in all its variety, including theological forms. We could do that even in the absence of a single living theologian still existing. And we could do it even in the absence of a single living religious believer. (Not that I think either of those conditions is ever likely to occur while humanity remains.)

          • Posted September 11, 2014 at 11:30 am | Permalink

            Sorry GBJ, this is silly. Theology doesn’t stare at God’s navel. Understanding theology is in part to be able to do it. Just studying the conclusions of a theologian will not tell you whether that is an acceptable chain of thought within that religion. So when someone says that in Islam jihad does not include fighting unbelievers, we need to have some insight into how theology is done in Islam and how such decisions are made. Even now I’m not altogether sure how Islam makes such decisions, and because I and others do not know this, we are liable to be misled by what others say. In the absence of a single religious believer all we could know is what believers in the past thought, and this would have no consequences for us today, at least no obvious ones. But in cases of living religions, this is not the case, and the only way to approach closer to what religions (as such) have to say (and this is the level at which these questions have to be asked, since our neighbours of that religion may have only a glancing acquaintaince with their religion’s theology) is to study their theology, and in order to do that we need people who can think theologically (within that religious tradition).

            • GBJames
              Posted September 11, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

              I think you are just wrong.

              Or maybe I’m wrong because God doesn’t have a navel?

              Do we need to behead infidels to understand jihad?

              To understand how automobiles work do I need to be a mechanic?

              Your definition of understanding things means you can never have a clue about the near infinity of things that your aren’t a practitioner of.

              • Posted September 11, 2014 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

                Your definition of understanding things means you can never have a clue about the near infinity of things that your aren’t a practitioner of.

                GBJ. No, not at all, but you do have to have some idea of the practice. You can’t even begin to understand something like evolution if you have no idea whatsoever about the way biologists go about showing why the belief in evolution is a reasonable explanation for the existence of multiple existing species all genetically related to each other. This is not something that even people who think they understand evolution very often make a success at explaining. In the same way, if you ask a Roman Catholic what the immaculate conception is, you have at least a 3 in 10 chance that they will think of it in terms of the conception of Jesus. (That’s only a rough guess, but I bet it’s not that far from the truth.)

                So far as jihad goes, there are some Muslim theologians who will tell you with a straight face that the ISIL or ISIS or just plain IS interpretation has nothing to do with contemporary Islam (as Obama so confidently asserts), and unless we have an idea how decisions like this are made in Muslim belief, we will not easily make the case that this is a contemporary understanding of Islam. And if it is, then the West is idiotic to let so many Muslims immigrate to the West, because if this is orthodox contemporary Muslim teaching, then we can be sure that a significant percentage of Muslims in Canada, the US, Britain, and the rest of Europe, etc., have this kind of jihad in mind when they immigrate here. Not a majority perhaps, but a minority who know that this is a perfectly reasonable contemporary understanding of jihad. So, either Obama is right, or he’s wrong, and if he’s wrong he’s very very wrong, and we should know how to find out about it.

                So stop being simplistic about issues of this kind, and stop talking about gazing a God’s navel, because that’s not what theology does. It makes decisions about abortion, and bases it logically on a train of reasoning (mistakenly, to my mind, but that is another issue altogether). Or it makes decisions about jihad and the proper procedures which guide its prosecution. And if we don’t know what is what, then we need to be able to find out, and make this very very clear. It is so tiresome, to be quite frank, listening to atheists crow simplistically about religious belief without an idea about what religious belief consists in, and how it is discerned and enforced, who think that theology is merely talking about a non-existent object. Because the object of theology is real to different degrees to those who speak of it, and with the scriptures attached to that being’s name, all sorts of complex conclusions are drawn from belief in that being’s existence. God can function just like numbers do for mathematicians. S/he doesn’t have to have the quality of existence; in fact, most orthodox theologians don’t believe that s/he does, for a being who existed would require an explanation, and God can’t need explanation, otherwise the presupposition of God could not serve to explain anything else.

                And it’s not all silly, either, as some of the values taught by Christianity should have already told you. Sure, people came to the defence of slavery based on their reading of the Bible, but the slave trade was dismantled chiefly by Christians for a whole slew of different reasons, from the fact that the ownership of black women encouraged unlawful sexual relations, to the fact that the ownership of human beings went directly contrary to Christian beliefs about the rights of human beings created in God’s image (see Aquinas), which, whether we know anything about God’s image or not, meant that what we loved in God we were called to love in each other. And that’s not simply foolish talk, for it changed a lot of lives, even though hosts of Christians have yet to hear the message. It’s not even clear that we can maintain some of these values without the theological beliefs that attend them, as the ravages of capitalism and the depredations of science work their harm on our world without seeming to make the slightest difference to the questions that we address either to economics or science.

                Humanism, despite everything, depends on certain beliefs about human beings, many of them derivative from Christian and Jewish beliefs, and slowly many of those beliefs are being reduced to mere movement of atoms in the void. AC Grayling says that humanism depends upon free will, which I think is true, and he assures us that this can be established, but what I hear is more and more reduction of self, freedom, and other things that made a difference to the way that we used to see ourselves and the world to a complex of biological and other physical laws, and then we are told that some things are right and wrong, even though we have no choice about what we do! It’s simply an illogical mess. At least theology, as I understood it, made some sense, but reductive materialism makes no sense at all to me, and the silly cynical remarks made about religion seem about as rational as the rest of the sorry mess all put together and juggled around haphazardly in a brown paper bag, which leads me to see why Plantinga thinks that a strict form of naturalism, by itself, could never lead us to the truth. I sympathise with this view.

                And it’s theologians, Ant, not theologists. So it should, reasonably, be an atheologian, and an atheologian would have to be able to think theologically, for theology is precisely what an atheologian would want to argue against, with an emphasis on the word ‘argue’. Just saying that there is obviously no god simply isn’t enough, as most atheists have known for a long time. There are arguments, and they are not so simply dispensable as Dawkins thinks, though he made a good first rough draft for public consumption. But if he wants to argue against Aquinas, then he’s going to have to try to understand Aquinas, which he doesn’t. So, he’s really going to have to start with his ABCs. Even Dan Barker knew this, though if he thought one book was enough to end the argument, then he doesn’t understand philosophy, which is what this is really all about. Oh yes, I know, he’s made contributions to anthologies, etc., but if evangelical Christianity is a dead end, as both Loftus and Barker say, which, I suggest, was a dead cert from the beginning, how about other forms of Christianity, which Barker and Loftus don’t really consider in any detail. I find it all pretty thin, and the gruel is getting thinner if you think that talking about navel gazing is a summary of what theology does.

              • GBJames
                Posted September 11, 2014 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

                Lordy, Eric! Do you have an over active filibuster gene? How do you expect someone to interact if every comment is met by an 87 page treatise? I don’t have the stamina required!

              • Posted September 12, 2014 at 5:42 am | Permalink

                Well, GBJ, perhaps you’re right, although it took me at most 10 to 15 minutes to write. Never say anything in five words, if 500 will do! It’s like driving. Never go at 50 km per hour if 120 km per hour will do!

              • reasonshark
                Posted September 12, 2014 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

                It’s simply an illogical mess. At least theology, as I understood it, made some sense, but reductive materialism makes no sense at all to me, and the silly cynical remarks made about religion seem about as rational as the rest of the sorry mess all put together and juggled around haphazardly in a brown paper bag, which leads me to see why Plantinga thinks that a strict form of naturalism, by itself, could never lead us to the truth. I sympathise with this view.

                Ah yes, the truth comes out at last. Uncle Eric disassociates from the excesses of new atheism because the solution to picking apart and clarifying such issues as free will and morality is to resort to “more things in heaven and earth” super-naturalism. Just look at the myriad incompatible religions, superstitions, urban legends, folklores, and postmodernist pap. They’ll clear it up.

                This drunk-on-romanticism shrug of the shoulders explains so much about your “anti-scientistic” and “against new atheist” posts that it’s not even funny. Especially your obnoxious suggestion a few weeks back that new atheists would dehumanize and destroy all that is good and human if they ever got hold of the arts and humanities. Yes, just like science and reason destroyed the heavens, the moon, rainbows, elan vital, and the ghost in the machine, I expect.

                If we’re down to pooh-poohing reductive materialism as an excuse to keep idle naval-gazing about grace and beauty in academia because the practice apparently is a vital contribution to abortion ethics and secular humanism, then you might as well hand in your intellectual honesty badge. You’re reduced to defending flat-out woo. If the notion of free will utterly depends on Christian spiritualist hogwash, as you seem to claim, then so much the worse for free will. Don’t defend spiritualist nonsense just because it comes to a conclusion you like. Next, you’ll be telling us astrology was behind the rise of astronomy, and should be a valid subject… or explaining why astrology and Christian belief are oh so different, and thus completely miss the point.

                If your new-atheist-bashing comments so far are anything to go by, you’re more interested in demonstrating your “belief in belief” credentials and admiring feel-good, obscure, and absurd pretzel theology than in actually critically evaluating this lot. You keep saying how important theology is, but your examples range from feeble pseudophilosophical twaddle to claims that said pseudophilosophy is “not as illogical as material reductionism”… and then display as dismal a demonization of material reductionism as has come out of the most uneducated creationist’s mouth. Anyone who really thinks free will is clarified by discarding biology and social science for theology is behaving as much like a pretentious quack as Deepak Chopra, especially when he allies with the embarrassingly pseudo-rational drivel that Plantiga promotes.

                Having previously encountered comments from fellow users praising your intellect and lamenting your leaving new atheism, I’m starting to suspect compartmentalisation is involved.

              • Posted September 12, 2014 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

                Awesome!

                I followed *Choice In Dying* in its early days and I understand why Eric made the break with religion, but I’m afraid Eric’s thinking is still deeply suffused with religiosity, too deeply wedded to theologising that he’s unable to provide the properly objective critical analysis of theology that he bemoans the lack of.

                /@

            • Posted September 11, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

              « to study their theology, and in order to do that we need people who can think theologically »

              But, really, does that person have to be, themself, a theologist? Or just a “theology-ologist” (“metatheologist”?)? 😄

              /@

              >

        • Posted September 11, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

          « Also, a lot of things about Christianity and Judaism, said by atheists, is often false as to the theology of those two religions. »

          The, arguably (and without much difficulty), a lot of things about Christianity and Judaism, said by Christians and Jews, respectively, is often false as to the theology of those two religions, given that atheists generally criticise what believers profess and do (in the name of their religion) or what they themselves did, or were taught by priests, nuns, rabbis, &c., when they were believers.

          /@

          >

        • reasonshark
          Posted September 12, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

          Religious studies does not cover theology, and yet theology, whether we like it or not, has consequences.

          So does schizophenia, but no one’s setting up a formal degree on the delusions entertained therein. In any case, I should think you of all people would be aware that the religions that have the biggest consequences are the popular ones, which are not the ones of sophisticated theologians but the ones of creationists, witch-hunters, and god-fearing, evolution-denying, bible-thumping folk. Be careful how you tread with this argument!

          If we don’t know how it’s done, and no one but adherents of religions study it, we are at the mercy of argumentation which only they understand.

          Quite apart from the fact that religious studies should comfortably cover such things, this seems to me to be a feeble point. Much as I agree that ’tis better to know thy enemy, their obscurantism does not warrant a course dedicated to traversing the inside of loony land. It requires basic communication etiquette on both sides; at most, public awareness of the cheap trickery involved. But that’s a long way from setting up a degree solely on the subject.

          Nothing else you say convinces me that you’re not really talking about religious studies, which is capable of studying delusion without joining in. What you call a “complex discipline, including philosophy at its basis, but comprising all sorts of historical and scriptural knowledge” is – from the extracts Jerry’s picked out over the years – pretentious, airy-fairy speculation masquerading as a high-brow and respectable subject, for no better reason than fallible human psychology enabled it throughout history. This is demonstrated by no better example than your taking Tillich’s idolatry concept as a way to boast your anti-scientism credentials yet again.

          I don’t mind the principle of knowing what is in a religious belief before criticizing it, but all theologians seem to do is multiply the number of religious beliefs (by adding their sophisticated theology to the mix of popular beliefs) and muddy the waters.

          To criticise religion it is not enough merely to deny the existence of the gods of the religions, since theology extends much farther than this simple existence claim.

          If your Aquinas example is anything to go by, that’s philosophy, and pretty poor philosophy at that. Wouldn’t mind seeing that part of it questioned and challenged, too, if not actually removed as well, though it’s hard to read about Aquinas’ final cause talk without also recalling his abysmal arguments (or, if you insist, “coherent principles” or whatever Alister McGrath calls them) for God.

          The cavalier dismissal of theology is long overdue. The subject strikes me as unhelpful to anyone but a fuzzy-headed romantic of the New Age character, or a deliberate obscurantist charlatan.

    • eric
      Posted September 10, 2014 at 5:26 am | Permalink

      I think Minyoung’s comment is applicable to your argument, Gideon. If what makes theology a worthwhile discipline is all the non-God’s-nature-analysis contributions it makes, that would seem to indicate a problem.

    • GBJames
      Posted September 10, 2014 at 5:29 am | Permalink

      Remove the “thinking about God” part. What’s left can reasonably be called “religious studies” and not “theology”.

      The “thinking about God” part is why the theology is unlike more respectable disciplines. Abandon that part and there would be little we’d be arguing about.

  49. kelskye
    Posted September 10, 2014 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    I really don’t get why people try to save theology. What ever happened to using the reason and evidence appropriate for the discipline in question?

    This came home to me recently when someone made a similar case on a philosophy group I run. The argument isn’t so much that theology does anything, but we need to guard against the excesses of scientism in such a way that theologians can shed light. Strange.

  50. Posted September 10, 2014 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    On the “incomparable Wolfhart Pannenberg”, the Wikipedia notes…

    Pannenberg is an outspoken critic of the approval of homosexual relations by the Evangelical Church in Germany, going so far as to say that a church which approves of homosexual practice is no longer a true church. He returned his Federal Order of Merit after the decoration was awarded to a lesbian activist

    A man with principles. Of course he could still be right on theology. Except he is not. His argument is that “history is relevation” — yet another niche where theologians can move their god into, outside the reach of sciences (that is observation).

    When your time has come and you reach the end, you’ll know about God, Christians argue (and pagans claim you’ll drink with Wotan, meet Zeus…). And Pannenberg takes it to a next level and does this to the zeitgeist. Once the zeitgeist is dead we’ll know that it was all according to some divine plan.

    I can imagine how theologic inventions such as these get propagated by other theologians in dire need of additional rationalisations. They garb it in fancy philosophy–but not noticing that virtually everyone can do this with the most eccentric subjects. A Wittgensteinian and Quinean treatment of Batman and Jedi is something they’ll do in the 2080s, as it was privately revealed to me by Eris.

  51. Romulus Ledbetter
    Posted September 10, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Discussions like this always remind me of the hillarious classic story “Kissing Hank’s Ass” — http://www.jhuger.com/kissing-hanks-ass

  52. Posted September 11, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    In response to your last comment, Jerry, here is what Dickson says about his achievements in theology:

    Although I have an undergraduate degree in theology, I am no theologian. “Theology” proper – one of about 12 subjects in a modern Bachelor of Theology – was my worst subject. I was better at Greek, New Testament, philosophy, and church history. I found theology difficult, even daunting, which is probably why I pursued postgraduate study in ancient history, instead.

    So, in all fairness, you can scarcely accuse him of vocational apologetics!

  53. Posted September 15, 2014 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    Theology is useless:
    Am I right in assuming that Theologians presuppose the bible to be true and only discuss interpretations of the scriptures?

    Do they study the Quran for example and discuss it’s merits or compare it to the bible, or is the study of Theology in the west only Christian?

  54. Posted September 15, 2014 at 4:10 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on jtveg's Blog and commented:
    How is Theology a worthwhile discipline?


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