Theology of the Emperor’s New Clothes

Atheists are often criticised for being ignorant of theology. Terry Eagleton’s angry review of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion in the London review of Books, for example, starts with: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” Reviewers like this seem to be saying “How can you criticise the concept of God without a thorough understanding of the theory of God, of theology.” (David B. Hart takes a similar approach in his, also angry, review of Daniel C. Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon). It’s true, Dawkin’s doesn’t show theology any respect. He has said, “I have yet to see any good reason to suppose that theology (as opposed to biblical history, literature, etc.) is a subject at all.” He maintains that theologists are no more qualified to answer deep cosmological questions than are scientists (who freely admit that they can’t).

I have tried to follow some theological arguments and find them frustrating. In part this is because theology starts by assuming a god. If that is its starting point how can it be used to investigate this existence? I also feel the whole approach of theology in giving logical argument a supremacy over evidence is distasteful. It’s as if the whole discipline was developed to handle a situation which modern knowledge has made untenable. Arguments are used to avoid the seemingly logical consequence (revise your original belief) and cognitive gymnastics used to create a mental fog to cover up the problem. Empirical evidence is avoided and the discipline argues that this avoidance is a virtue!

Stagnation

This reminds me of the political, economic and social theories advanced by communist theoreticians to support the rule of Leonid Breshnev in the USSR (1964 – 1982). People in the street could see the problems. They talked about the times as the “period of stagnation.” But the regime’s theologists theoreticians blithely talked and wrote about the period of “advanced socialism”, the formation of the “new Soviet man”, “socialist democracy”, etc., etc. Argument and logic were used to justify and explain the situation. Mental gymnastics helped to cover up the problems and avoid drawing the real lessons of the history of the country.

Of course, mental gymnastics are not all that unique. It is a human failing to attempt to substitute wishes for reality, to argue in support of a group, political party, ideology or religion in which one has invested substantial emotional commitment. And it is difficult to break out of that mental straight jacket, to fight through the web of logical fog in which one has willingly immersed oneself. It is too easy to go along with the pack, give credence to the arguments and repeat the falsehoods. After all, it seems warmer inside the tent than outside in the harsh climate of reality.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Fortunately, there are always people for who truth is more important than the warm fuzzy of social acceptance by a group. In the USSR there were Communist Party members who were able to break out of that cozy web and point out the problems. Sure, opponents of the regime outside the party played a significant role but debate and political activity within the party (as which was, after all, the only legal political organisation) was crucial to the eventual (largely peaceful) political transformation. And much of that debate took place without the declared removal of the implied foundations of the communist “faith”.

Perhaps this questioning is what is going on in some of today’s religions. Old dogma is being challenged, concepts of “god” and the role of religion in modern society are being debated. Very few debaters are openly challenging the theist foundations of faith but removal of these foundations may well be the result of this debate for some “believers.”

I’m all for people who have the courage to stand up against the “wisdom” of the group and support evidence over ideology. Surely this is the lesson of the small boy who pointed out that the emperor’s new clothes were non-existent.

Related Articles:
Science and the supernatural
Questions science cannot answer?
Debating science and religion
Putting Dawkins in his place
Limits of science or religious “fog”?
Can science enrich faith?
Miracles and the supernatural?
Should we teach creationism?
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Intelligent design/creationism: Postscript
Richard Dawkins and the enemies of reason
Limits of science, limits of religion

17 responses to “Theology of the Emperor’s New Clothes

  1. And quite right too.

    Theists fall into the error of assuming that atheists simply don’t know enough theology to be convinced of the “Truth” because many of them simply cannot understand that those arguments that convinced them are not convincing.

    Never mind that they don’t accept the tenets of other religious belief systems, and never mind that other theists don’t accept their beliefs, they take this proliferation of different theistic inventions as being evidence of the underlying “Truth” of theistic belief.

    One of the most fascinating aspects of theist arguments is that manny seem to shift the actual nature of their deity to suit the purposes of argument. This is not so much a slippery slope as it is a slippery concept.

    Obviously, Biblical Literalists are quite intransigent about the nature of their deity. Instead of changing the nature of God, these Concrete Believers tend to shift the nature of other elements in the discussion. For example, science morphs into a cultlike religion, creationism ceases to be relgious, creationism becomes verified science that proves their point, legitimate science becomes utterly unreliable, and so on. The most fascinating aspect of all of this is that they appear not to even notice that they are doing it. It’s as though they have nailed their brain to God and are spinning around that fixed axis.

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  2. This really fails at appreciating the objections theologians make. The problem is that Dawkins often presupposes or even directly states an understanding of Christian theology (e.g. his views on what faith is) which is just flatly mistaken because Dawkins is uninformed.

    It’s not just theologians in the chorus here. Dawkins’s book is largely about philosophy, a subject that he is also unqualified in. See for example Alvin Plantinga’s less than appreciative review of The God Delusion here.

    So the problem is not that he doesn’t “respect” theology or regard it as a source of knowledge. The problem is that he makes claims about theological views that he quite literally doesn’t understand, and the same holds for his rather embarrassing forays into philosophy.

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  3. My point was not to understand the objections of theologists but to show why theology, as a discipline, is similar to the political apologetics we often come across (I used the example of the Breshnev stagnation period). It is an example of trying to impose ideology onto reality. What I am arguing is that real knowledge works the other way around – we derive our ideas from reality.
    Because theology is apologetics rather than a field of true investigation it doesn’t qualify as a way of investigating reality.
    I agree with Dawkins point – if we can’t find an answer using the proven methods of investigation (science) why on earth should we believe that theology could have any better success.

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  4. Hi Ken. Just letting you know that no phylosophy can compare to someones experience. I’ve had plenty to know Jesus is real. Not only do I believe, I know Him in a personal way. Nothing on this earth compares to His love & the peace He gives. Praying for you that you will experience God’s incredible love for you & come to know Him in a real way. Jesus loves you so very much. He is the only way to eternity. I really care for your soul. God bless you abundantly in every area of life. Have a great day.

    Love in Christ,
    Jenny

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  5. hi

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  6. Jenny, the problem is that your experience is not a reliable source of evidence. There has to be some sort of independent verification. Otherwise you are asking us to “take your word” for it. It is an arrogant position (to declare that you know and we have to take your word for it) and certainly not a way of understanding reality. Your (unrelated) experience may be OK for you (although that can present problems) but you are going to have to do better than that to argue a case.

    Your offer of prayer – is this malicious? I ask because the scientific evidence on the efficacy of prayer in general shows that it has no effect. But, one study did show that when people undergoing surgery were prayed for the only effect was a negative one on the group were were told that they were being prayed for. The result is probably an aberration but I imagine some people could see this as a way of harming someone by praying for them (if they wanted to be harmful). Anyway, I don’t take it seriously.
    But thanks for looking in and you have a good life too.

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  7. Dear Ken, my offer of prayer for you is genuine love & care for you, as a valued person who Jesus loves and died for. I’m not trying to download my experience and sell it to you as truth…that would be arrogant! I’m just praying to God to give you the same experience so that you will come to know His love in a real way. The truth is that Jesus loves you and He died for you. God bless you.

    Love in Christ,
    Jenny

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  8. “I’m not trying to download my experience and sell it to you as truth…that would be arrogant! “
    Then why do you feel the need to communicate that? Especially as there is no substance in the communication – you are not relating any experience. To sell the lack of experience as a truth is even more arrogant than arguing for an experience, surely.

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  9. I’m truly sorry you feel that way Ken. The truth still remains that Jesus loves you & died for you. He will never stop loving you. All the best in your quest for truth. Keeping you in my prayers because I care. God bless you… have a good day.

    Love in Christ,
    Jenny

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  10. Looks like it’s working again, Ken!

    As a Jesus-follower, I can appreciate Jenny’s heart, but understand your frustration Ken…

    Experiences are interesting, aren’t they? Is it proper to insist that they are subjective? What does it mean to say that? I experienced a flat-white this morning (a very ill-poured one by me, in fact!). What good is it to say that my experience is subjective?

    Your real objection to Jenny’s experience (vaguely communicated as it was) is not only that it can’t be verified, (lot’s of one-off experiences cannot be verified) but that your naturalist worldview would say that her experience didn’t involve a God, but rather her imagination. You don’t believe things like that CAN happen…

    Cheers,

    -d-

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  11. Dale, my objection to Jenny’s comments were because they were a personal declaration, adding nothing because no information (beyond the personal declaration) was conveyed.
    Jenny may have had an experience -I have no way of knowing or even judging if it is worth my time objecting or not. I can’t make a judgment on it. But, perhaps a similar case may be the guy in Christchurch whose experience is that God told him to drive into the crowd of teenagers. Society will have to deal with him and his experience. Are we going to criticise the courts if they find either he is lying or is mentally challenged? Are we going to say we should take his word for it? Are we going to say we should believe him because it is the nature of his experience that it can’t be verified? And if he is mentally ill, shouldn’t he have the opportunity for treatment and for the illness to be considered in his trial? Why assume we should accept peoples’ delusions as somehow factual just be cause they include a god?

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  12. I think you’ve presented a classic false choice there, Ken.

    It is a false choice to have to choose between blindly believing someone’s experience on one hand, and saying that all such experiences are a result of mental incapacity on the other hand. A rather large middle-ground is left when you present such false choices. We like things simple, so we often ‘choose’ such false choices. But reality is more interesting than that.

    Theists say ‘God did this’ or ‘God said that’ or ‘God told me’ a lot, and it really annoys me most of the time. But I think it’s a false choice to say that you have to choose between ALL such experiences being mere imagination on one hand, and ALL such experiences being totally true on the other.

    For example, I’m not 100% convinced by each argument that popular author Lee Strobel makes in his writings, but nonetheless, he tells of a time when he (however subjectively) felt a strong sense to give a specific amount of money to a specific woman in his church. He and his wife gave her the money anonymously. She pretty much lived week to week, having just enough to get by, and it turned out that her car had broken down, and needed repairs. The money had come at just the right time, and was just the right amount for the quote she had got.

    Now, Lee could be totally lying. But that’s a significant story, presumably verifiable by Willow Creek church members (really trustworthy people, huh?). Of course, it could have been a random notion of Lee to give money that happened, by chance, to be the right amount and at the right time. But it also could have been a ‘divine nudge.’

    Do I understand things like this? No. Do I naturally want to find ways to differentiate between nice stories like this and the Christchurch fanatic? Yes. Can I do so? Not very well.

    What I can do, however, is suggest that this ‘divine nudging’ may happen, and that it may happen differently than is often imagined.

    Now, the deist god lives at the corner of the universe, and humans pray across that distance to awaken it, and convince it to do something miraculous, or whatever… In this god-scheme, a ‘divine nudge’ is a miraculous, supernatural thing, where the deist god is zapping you with a ‘supernatural’ thought…

    Then, of course, you have the naturalist view that says that the ‘divine nudge’ is at best a coincidence, and at worst a sick trick of imagination played on their own mind.

    I am not a deist nor a naturalist. I think the Creator God doesn’t need to ‘interrupt’ the biology he created in order to ‘nudge’ people. I don’t think God is hanging out at the corner of the universe. I think he can whisper in human minds using synapses and circumstances; using (to refer to the Lee Strobel story) a natural, ordinary ‘generous thought’ in Lee’s mind to cause ‘nudge’ him to act. The choice between ‘supernatural’ and ‘natural’ is (in my view) yet another false choice.

    Now, humans (not least many Christians) get excited about such things, and (I say carefully) have a tendency to ‘script’ God into their lives in ways that really bother me.

    The reason it bothers me, is because they speak of God’s guidance in terms of a deist god, that has ‘supernaturally’ told them this or that, or found this parking space for them, or whatever…

    This comment is long enough… but suffice it to say that I detect a false choice here, and the false distinction between nature/supernature is once again rearing its ugly head…

    Cheers,

    -d-

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  13. We all have to make choices in life. Jenny’s comments to me were a waste of time, they contained no content, didn’t relate anything. Possibly if she had presented some information my choice would be different. But we do this every day – we choose what articles to read in the newspaper, on the internet. What books to read, etc. There is so much out there but so little time.

    I must admit that, by now, I find some of the arguments very tiresome and switch off. This may support your point but it is really because I’ve heard the arguments so many times before. “Imagine you are walking along and find a watch on the ground!” Really! The number of times I have had that imposed on me by people knocking at my door. And there is a lot of that around. I choose to ignore it because it has no value. (I usually try to develop the discussion beyond that level if I have time – sometimes that works, sometimes not, depending on the door-knocker).

    In contrast, I find many of your points stimulating. And that can be true of discussion with many people with religious beliefs. We all belong to the same species, after all. Providing there is respect (which Jenny’s comments lacked) then it’s possible to have a meaningful discussion and to learn something. Just because I don’t accept the beliefs that some religious people have doesn’t mean that I see no value in traditions which go back thousands of years. Of course I can learn from investigating and considering these.

    In the end, it is respectful discussion about traditions and philosophy which may, or may not, create changes in my beliefs. So, yes, personal declarations about ‘supernatural’ events are a waste of time to me. Claims that God talks to someone (which we have to accept without evidence) are not going to change my basic beliefs. Society generally sees this as evidence of schizophrenia – I wouldn’t necessarily be so harsh as I think human perception is extremely complicated in even the healthiest mind. After all, even the US president claims God talks to him. I don’t think he would be judged schizophrenic but he has his own reason for being less than honest (perhaps we should just say being metaphorical) in this claim.

    So you might think that my choices are ‘false’. If they are then I would be the loser, no skin off anyone else’s nose. But, I like to have an interesting and valuable mental life, and I do aspire to having a good understanding of reality, so I argue that my choices are informed ones with that end in mind.

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  14. Cheers Ken. I hope my talk of ‘false choices’ wasn’t taken by you to mean ‘stupid’ choices. Perhaps a better term would be ‘needless’ choices, meaning (for example) seeing only 2 choices where there may be a 3rd or 74th possible choice. I see this all the time in many areas of life…

    I too have enjoyed the dialogue. Both respect AND frankness. A nice blend, and one that’s not seen enough in such exchanges!

    -d-

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  15. I am not going to argue in support of Jenny, but her initial comment does give me a springboard for something I’ve wanted to ask you but have not had an opening for. I didn’t want to just beat you over the head with religious minded questions out of the blue, because I know that would drive away most people (as it seems to have done with you and Jenny’s comments).

    Jenny talked about Jesus talking to her, and you say that is an unverifiable claim, pure hearsay. That is true, I can’t debate that.

    But what about your experiences? Are you open to any experiences that can’t be emperically tested and verified, or do you write them off as failings of your own sensory perception? You have an older post in this blog about seeing a train go into a brick wall, and you write it off as a fuzzy memory from childhood, perhaps clouded by fatigue.

    If it is your standard operating procedure to question your own senses when confronted with something that defies understanding, or happened once and can’t be revisited, can you say you are open to experiencing the supernatural?

    I’m not saying you need to be on the lookout for Jesus speaking directly to you, or giving you some grand sign that will make you stop and say “Holy crap, God does exist!” I don’t expect that to happen to you, it’s not quite how God works nowadays (according to my belief). But I would like to point out that there are many things science can observe today that it could not yesterday. Microscopic organisms, infrared waves, distant stars and planets.

    I don’t have to tell you that what we can’t observe with our naked senses we have been able to discover with evolving technology. Is it so radical, so crazy to think that there is still more out there within this realm we can’t witness yet?

    I know God, according to most any religion, is supposed to be outside our realm. But what Christianity and many other religions teach is that the supernatural does intrude on this realm. Maybe not all the time or continuously, able to be observed and tested the way gravity is, but it happens.

    I’m not trying to force anything upon you (it’s impossible to make someone believe anything), I just want to say it’s better to keep your mind open (no pun intended, given your blog’s name) on the off chance that you will experience something totally new.

    Now if you want to flame me, have at it.

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  16. Philip – you have not interpreted my post (♦ Miracles and the supernatural?) correctly. I didn’t “write it off as a fuzzy memory from childhood”. I used the words “I didn’t believe” and “maybe.” I purposely did this because I want to advance the position that we should never “write things off” just because they don’t agree with our preconceptions. (Of course, in a situation like this one has to balance the relative importance of the question with the effort and expense involved in collecting data to evaluate and understand a situation).

    You are not justified in saying that my “standard operating procedure (is) to question your own senses when confronted with something that defies understanding”. There are plenty of things that “defy understanding” and we make progress by investigating them, collecting relevant data and building hypotheses and theories, and further validating these theories experientially. It is unwarranted, and retards the progress of knowledge, to infer an explanation and leave it at that.

    When you talk about “supernatural” think about it. What do you mean? Aren’t you just inferring an explanation of an event or perceived event, and then “ring-fencing” the explanation by calling it “supernatural” and claiming it not able to be investigated and understood?

    I don’t think that is open-minded. I personally think it is arrogant to make such assertions about reality without any evidence, and without allowing investigation.

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  17. Pingback: Do you believe in a god? « Open Parachute

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