October 26, 2010

Why theology is useless

Critics of the new/unapologetic atheist movement frequently chastise us for our supposed lack of awareness of theology. This criticism can come from surprising quarters such as fellow atheist John Shook, director of education for the Center of Inquiry who recently wrote: "Atheists are getting a reputation for being a bunch of know-nothings. They know nothing of God, and not much more about religion, and they seem proud of their ignorance… Astonished that intellectual defenses of religion are still maintained, many prominent atheists disparage theology."

His article spawned a fierce response, mainly because he did not name or quote a single atheist in support of his charge. Others pointed out that many of the most visible members of the new atheist movement actually do know quite a lot about theology. They just don't think much of it. That onslaught resulted in Shook issuing a sort of retraction and apology, though still not naming names.

If Shook wants the name of an atheist who disparages theology, he is welcome to use mine because as far as I am concerned, studying theology is a colossal waste of time. For example, just look at the kinds of issues that theologians spend their time on. All their efforts to reconcile their holy books with advancing science lead to similar exercises in futility.

But there are also theoretical reasons why theology is useless and in order to expand on that point, I need to make clear what I mean by the word. If one looks at the Merriam-Webster definition of theology, it says that it is "the study of religious faith, practice, and experience; especially the study of God and of God's relation to the world." (Italics in the original.)

It is helpful to split that definition into two parts. The first part 'the study of religious faith, practice, and experience' is better labeled 'religious studies' and constitutes a credible academic discipline. Religion has undoubtedly played an important role in the history of humanity, and how it originated, is practiced, and its consequences for society are not only important topics of study, but I would go further and argue that they are essential. The second part of the definition, 'the study of God and of God's relation to the world', is what we popularly consider to be theology and is what I consider to be useless for the following three reasons.

The first reason is because it seems pointless to study something whose mere existence has not even been conclusively established. We have no evidence that god exists in the first place and strong reasons to doubt it, so what is the point of studying it? As a parallel, no one would claim that 'the study of extra-terrestrial aliens and their relation to the world' is important unless they had first established the actual existence of such aliens. But even if aliens do not exist, studying why so many people believe in them is still worth doing. You can replace aliens with unicorns, leprechauns, ghosts, or any number of imaginary things to make the same point.

The second reason is that theology as 'the study of God and of God's relation to the world' is essentially an attempt to construct a theory of god using the empirical facts of the world as evidence. But any theoretical model of something presupposes that the thing being studied behaves in a law-like manner. For example, we can construct a kinetic theory of gases because the atoms in the gas behave in a law-like way. We can construct a theory of evolution because organisms exhibit law-like patterns of change. We can construct a theory of gravity because freely falling objects have law-like trajectories. The reason that law-like behavior is so important is because it is only then that the resulting evidence has enough systematic features to enable us to inductively assert the existence of an underlying pattern, and thus generate a theory.

But in the case of god, it is asserted that he is not subject to law-like behavior and can do whatever he likes whenever he likes. That is the whole point of being god and why believers say they cannot make any concrete predictions of what he will do in the future. Religious believers stoutly resist any attempt to make god obey laws (whatever the laws are) because they say that then he would not be god. This immediately rules out any possibility of constructing a theory of god. The best that theologians can do is create post-hoc 'explanations' of events.

The final reason that there can be no theory of god is because of his supposed uniqueness. Individual people, like god, also act capriciously and unpredictably, so that it is almost impossible to try and create a theory of any single individual in order to predict precisely how he or she will behave. But because we have so many people, we can hope to build statistical models that exhibit law-like behavior of populations, i.e., people in the aggregate. It is like the uncertainty principle in quantum physics. Because of it, we cannot predict with any great confidence the exact moment when any given radioactive atom will decay but if we start with a large number of radioactive atoms, we can predict with great accuracy what fraction of them will decay in any given time interval. The fields of sociology, political science, and economics are examples of fields in which we can build theories of human behavior in the aggregate. But with god we have supposedly a unique entity that can act capriciously. How can one create a theory about such an entity?

This lack of the foundations for creating a theory of god explains why despite thousands of years of effort by a vast number of very clever and dedicated theologians, there is not even the slightest consensus on what god is like. It seems like theology, like a well-stocked God-mart store, can supply any god for any need. You want a stern and even vengeful god who has no compunction about throwing even minor sinners into the torments of hell for eternity? Theology can supply that god. You want a loving god who will forgive and welcome into heaven all but the worst of people? Theology can provide that god too. You need a god who will console you in times of trouble? No problem, they've got just the god for you. You need a god who controls every aspect of your life? Theology can provide exactly what you need. You need a god who seemingly chooses to work only through the laws of nature? Yep, they've got some of those too. And if you order any one of these gods, they will include free-of-charge a deistic god who created the universe and all its laws at one instant and then retired. But wait, there's more! If you place your order within the next 24 hours, they will even throw in 'the ground of all being' and 'a plenitude of actuality'! So order now!

Is it any wonder that I think there is no field of study as pointless as theology?


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Religious studies too for a very long time have been driven by unacknowledged intent to describe, measure, and judge non-Abrahamic practices in terms of the Abrahamic traditions. In response followers of non-Abrahamic traditions have tried to create replicas of Abrahamic entities within their own, leading to a mishmash of ungodly (sic) proportions! So rather than religious studies the departments so named have been doing theology!

Posted by kuraL on October 26, 2010 09:58 AM

The people seriously studying religion are anthropologists like Pascal Boyer.And indeed you will generally not find them in departments of "Religious Studies", though there may be exceptions.

Posted by Steve LaBonne on October 26, 2010 10:56 AM

I hadn't considered the point about the contradiction when theists, especially priests and theologists, say that they "learn to know god" and then later say that god is "unknowable" or "unfettered by laws."

This is actually an important point. If theologists really do believe that god has any properties (loving, etc.), then he is subject to some laws.

This is a specific problem to some theologists. I know that in Mormon theology it is generally believed that gods are certainly bound by laws. But if you start asking the right probing questions the "infinite and unbound" bait and switch still crops up. It's just too convenient an out even if it is inconsistent.

Posted by Jared A on October 26, 2010 12:32 PM

They might as well be studying Superman-ology by interpreting various issues of the comic book and trying to match it up with the real world. Why can we find no evidence of Metropolis and the Daily Plant newspaper? Oh, because Superman is not some caped superhero in the sky! (You're unsophisticated for even thinking that we would believe that.) He's really love. No, actually, he's really truth, justice, and the American way. Unless you're not American, in which case he's blah blah blah.

It's a freaking mythological story, people! Wake up and smell the ambrosia! When I read the Greek myths at the age of 9, I was effectively immunized against theism. I could never read the Bible or hear the story of Moses/Sampson/David/Jesus without thinking about "How is this any different than the stories of Jason and the Argonauts, Heracles and his tasks, Odysseus and his journey, Orpheus, Theseus, Perseus, etc. etc.?"

The Greeks once believed in their gods and heroes. Today we consider them mythology. I can't wait for the day when the rest of the world sees this obvious relation to today's religions/mythologies.

Perhaps we should rename theology as 'mytheology' or something like that.

By the way, Mano, I've recently started to embrace the fun/satirical term 'gnu' atheism. I noticed there's a 'U' in there, and I swear it's begging for a cute backronym ( ) involving the word 'unapologetic'. My first try is 'Galvanized 'n' Unapologetic Atheists'. Got any ideas or suggestions? Maybe we could host a contest like when Jerry Coyne asked for help coming up with 'faitheist'. :-)

Posted by Wonderist on October 26, 2010 03:02 PM

this morning while driving to work i listened to two commentator misdiscussing evolution. It see,s so many people- both pro and and con- always seem to espouse a telos or cosmos arguement regarding evolution. The commentator kept saying you know we believers ( in God ) just ask that child like question- why did fins stop growing, or why did giraffes necks grow longer,etc. And then they pat themselves on the back saying that they are engaging in critical thinking and how cool that is, and only if liberals would do this vis-a-vis god. Then one one them said something remarkable and telling- he said, " some of us just except what is taught and leave it at that." This was regarding religon. So he was saying it really is about brain washing.

Posted by peter on October 26, 2010 07:22 PM

It is interesting that two of the subjects you picked for developing theories on have never truly been proven.

The theory of evolution (defined as one species changing into another) and the theory of gravity have not fully been proven.

While we cannot measure God it does not preclude us from believing in Him.

I do agree that in most cases theology as taught by most schools is a waste of time. Do you conclude that the study of things such as the Big Bang theory are also a waste of time?

Just curious.

Posted by Scott Lovingood on October 28, 2010 03:07 AM

Evolution is not " one species changing into another." That is the typical belief and reflects poor science training in American public schools. If it were the case that one specis changed into another then we would have a " telos," an actual transcendent purpose to existence. Evolution is all about natural traits that are condusive to survival in an environment. Fins are not and advantage over limbs on land, the fins do not fall of, other entities with limbs just reproduce more, while those with fins slowly go extinct. I do note that sadly many a purpose was more then happy to approptiate Darwins' idea of competition for devious means to endorse suffering as natural.

Posted by pete on October 28, 2010 05:05 AM


NO scientific theory is EVER proven. What causes theories to be accepted as a standard paradigm is a confluence of evidence, predictive capacities, and fruitfulness. The big bang theory meets all those criteria. It may be wrong (as may the theory of natural selection) and be replaced in the future by a better theory but that is the way science progresses, with new theories replacing the old.

On the other hand, in the case of a theory of god, there is no evidence, no predictive power, and you cannot do anything with it.

Posted by Mano on October 28, 2010 08:43 AM

I was always under the impression that to study Theology one had to believe in "god". I have found out that is not the case.

I am a bedraggled refugee from the "Holy" Roman Catholic Church. I was born into a Roman Catholic Family, sent to a Jesuit "Concentration Camp", Xavier College in Melbourne, Australia. I never really swallowed all their religious bullshit, but stuck it out for 30 years for the sake of the family. I have officially been a proud Atheist for 40 years.
Roman Catholics know very little about Theology, only what the Church requires them to know and that is not much. Since becoming Atheist I have read Genesis to Kings II most of which I never did at school. I can see whay the Roman Catholic Church does not encourage reading it with it's mass slaughter and genocide ordered by the "Lord God".
The "Holy" Bible is the worst book of fiction ever written. It should be classified Horror/Fiction, not suitable for under 18.

Posted by Robert Tobin on November 2, 2010 11:46 PM