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?