Friday, 29 February 2008

Why do We Still Have Theologians?

Whilst dredging through the numerous - and very repetitive - stream of books published in response to The God Delusion (by Richard Dawkins, in case anybody has managed not to hear about it by now) I come across one particular argument quite frequently. It basically runs thus:
"Dawkins only ever deals with the easily refutable arguments. No theologian worth his salt uses those arguments any more."
The complaint is that Dawkins only deals with outdated or simplistic arguments for the existence of god(s), such as the ontological argument, the argument from design and Pascal's Wager. The theologians cry foul, claiming that they have newer, better arguments and that Dawkins is shooting at straw men. A couple of issues arise from this complaint that, certainly to me at least, reveal problems with the whole concept of theology.

1. The disconnect between what theologians believe and what normal people believe

My experience is that most "theists on the street" - warning, anecdotal evidence alert! - who have stopped to think about the existence of god(s) at all will convince themselves with one of the aforementioned easily refutable arguments, or with something equally simplistic.
Theologians, however, have much more complicated looking arguments that talk about god(s) in much more abstract terms. Often these arguments resemble the cosmological "first cause" argument. Even if the first cause argument weren't crap (which it is), the only thing it claims to prove is the existence of a being of indeterminate origin, nature and power who flicked a switch at the start of the Universe.
Many of the theologians' other arguments run along similar lines. What they "prove" bears very little resemblance to what the person on the street believes. The theologian will then, with dubious logic, show how this nebulous "first causer" (or whatever) is in fact the Christian god (or Muslim, Jewish, Hindu etc.).

2. Theology is totally self-justifying
The only arguments in favour of theology as a discipline are theological in nature. Theology exists to investigate a phenomenon the theologians tell us only they can correctly define. Over the centuries they have created and perpetuated their own little reality within which they perform their "investigations", which generally amount to nothing more than empty philosophical ravings. They talk about concepts like god(s) and the afterlife for which we have no proof. In fact, one of the chief jobs of the theologian is to ensure that the definitions of these concepts remain conveniently outside the sphere of scientific enquiry.
If theologians examined the societal effects of god-belief they would more properly be called anthropologists or historians. If they examined its effect on individuals they might be psychologists or neuro-scientists. There is no rational element of religion that cannot be explored within genuine academic disciplines. This leaves the irrational stuff; the province of the theologian.

It seems to me that theology exists only to perpetuate itself. Why not just let the philosophers, anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, psychologists and neuro-scientists get on with exploring why we believe and how? In fact, science and philosophy are much better equipped (ie. with open minds) to answer the questions posed by theology in a rational fashion.

For reference, books I have ploughed through include God's Undertaker - Has Science Buried God? by John Lennox, The Dawkins Delusion and Dawkins' God by Alistair McGrath, The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day and Darwin's Angel by John Cornwell.


Isaac Gouy said...

... created and perpetuated their own little reality within which they perform their "investigations" ...

string theory? :-)

Stephen Bain said...

As far as I'm aware, string theory differs significantly from theology.

For a start, it is quite widely criticised within the scientific community because it hasn't yet provided any experimentally testable predictions. However, it is still studied because it has potential. If the theory can be fully fleshed out it would be a way to unite the major areas of physics.

It has also produced several indications that it is worth pursuing. For example its consistent model for quantum gravity. However, the various branches of string theory are incomplete.

Most scientists are aware that string theory is just a hypothesis. It will be discarded by science in the fullness of time, should it either be falsified or fail to make any useful predictions.

Anonymous said...

Drop the science stuff. Its all poetics.

Metaphors. Metaphors. Metaphors.

And we all know it.
And it doesn't matter.

Let religion be its own beautiful animal. Except when its gets bad. Then punish it with a military.

Otherwise, if it says to Love, then let it be.

Stephen Bain said...

"Drop the science stuff. Its all poetics."

Either that, or it's the most effective system we have for understanding the Universe.

For a metaphor, it does a pretty good job at curing diseases and producing technological innovation.