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!
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.
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