We New Atheist types are often lectured about the need for studying theology. The idea is that if we tuned out the distressingly popular and highly vocal forms of religious extremism and pondered instead “the best religion has to offer,” then we would not be so hostile to religion. Recently, Jerry Coyne called the bluff and started studying theology. He reported on his findings in this post. Short version: He’s underwhelmed. This led Edward Feser, a Roman Catholic philosopher at Pasadena City College, to throw a temper tantrum about how unserious he was in undertaking this project in the first place. Jerry has replied here.
Ordinarily I don’t like to insert myself into private disputes between other people, but this one touches on so many issues I care about that I just can’t resist.
I am far more hostile to religion today than I was ten to fifteen years ago. I have been an atheist for as long as I have been old enough to think about these issues, but until relatively recently I was inclined to give religion the benefit of the doubt for at least having some plausible intellectual foundation. I suspect that if the books by Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris had been available in the late nineties, I would not have enjoyed them as much as I do reading them today.
Just to prove that I am not romanticizing the past, or exaggerating for dramatic effect the change in my views, let me refer you to this essay I wrote for Skeptic Magazine in 2000. It was a review of Ken Miller’s book Finding Darwin’s God, and it was my first published essay on the subject of evolution and creationism. I wrote:
Much of what Miller has to say is simply excellent. Like Miller, I deplore the rhetorical excesses of people like RIchard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett who would blur the line between methodological and philosophical naturalism. Though I would quibble with a few of his specific examples, the chapter Miller devotes to these excesses is one of the best in the book.
Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I no longer hold this view (though, overall, I still like Miller’s book quite a bit). I changed my view precisely because I began studying Christian theology in a serious way. In fact, I can point to the precise book that started me down the path to where I am today. It was Michael Ruse’s Can A Darwinian Be a Christian? which I read in 2004. Granted, he’s not a theologian. But the book certainly addresses theological questions. His book showed me that the conflicts between evolution and Christianity went far beyond questions of proper Biblical exegesis. It also showed me that the arguments made by theologians to reconcile evolution and Christianity were — how shall I put this gracefully? — not very good.
Since then I have read a fair amount of highbrow theology. I have read my share of Augustine and Aquinas, Barth and Tillich, Kierkegaard and Kuhn, just to pick a few names. I have read quite a lot of Haught and Ward and Swinburne. I did not go into this expecting to be disappointed. Conversion seemed unlikely, but I expected at least to find a lot of food for thought. Instead, with each book and essay I read I found myself ever more horrified by the sheer vacuity of what these folks were doing. I came to despise their endlessly vague and convoluted arguments, their relentless smugness towards nonbelievers, and, most seriously, the complete lack of any solid reason for thinking they weren’t just making it up as they went along. I thought perhaps I was just reading the wrong writers, and that I would eventually come to the really good theology. But I never did.
I came to see theology as a moat protecting the castle of religion. But it was not a moat filled with water. No. It was filled with sewage. And the reason religion’s defenders wanted us to spend so much time splashing around in the moat had nothing to do with actually learning anything valuable or being edified by the experience. It was so that when we emerged on the other side we would be so rank and fetid and generally disgusted with ourselves that we would be in no condition to argue with anyone.
Now, I happen to have at hand the book An Introduction to Christian Theology, by RIchard Plantinga, Thomas Thompson and Matthew Lundberg (Cambridge University Press, 2010). They write, “Theology is generally understood today as `reasoned discourse about God.’ (6)” A skeptic immediately wants to know why we should believe that God exists at all. If theology wants to be taken seriously as a way of knowing, I’d say it bears the burden of proof here. Of course, you’re welcome to say that God’s existence should be taken as axiomatic, but only if you’re also willing to demote theological discussion to the level of a debate over who would win a fight between Captain Kirk and Captain Picard. After all, within the confines of the Star Trek universe, such a discussion is entirely meaningful.
Feser has some thoughts on that matter:
Traditionally, the central argument for God’s existence is the cosmological argument, and (also traditionally) the most important versions of that argument are the ones summed up in the first three of Aquinas’s Five Ways.
Well, I’m glad we got that clear. I’m surprised Feser doesn’t mention the design argument, which has rather a long history and is far stronger than the cosmological argument, if only in a twice nothing is still nothing sort of way. If the cosmological argument is the best theology has to offer then we atheists do not need to worry that we have overlooked a good argument for God’s existence. Feser seems rather taken with it, but there are many strong refutations to be found in the literature. Off the top of my head, I found Mackie’s discussion in The Miracle of Theism and Robin Le Poidevin’s discussion in Arguing for Atheism to be both cogent and accessible. There’s a reason most philosophers are atheists.
Even taken at face value the cosmological argument only gets you some sort of necessary being to set the whole chain of causes in motion. It certainly does not get you the Christian God specifically. That conception of God is strongly challenged by, among other things, the problem of evil and the problem of divine hiddenness. So it looks like the Christian theologian has more work to do. But, for the sake of argument, let’s stipulate not just the existence, but the character of God as well.
The next question is how we can presume to know anything at all about God, even having granted His existence and attributes. Any Christian answer to that question must, I would think, refer to the Bible. So this brings us to the next question: Why should we think that the Bible is anything more than an anthology of purely human documents serving a variety of purely human needs? Once more the theologian has some work to do, and I have never encountered a decent argument for presuming the Bible’s divine authorship. But without such an argument, it is unclear how Christian theology even gets off the ground.
But just for fun let’s also grant the Bible’s divine authorship. Still we have work to do. We must wonder how we can ever be certain that we know what the Bible means. Christians don’t even agree on proper hermeneutics, after all. Is the Bible the infallible Word of God, never affirming anything that’s false? Does infallibility only relate to the Bible’s spiritual teachings and not to its scientific assertions? For that matter, is infallibility itself really a required belief for a Christian? Perhaps the Bible is of entirely human authorship, but reporting on genuine encounters with God. Those are just a few possibilities. Of course, it is a commonplace to find intelligent and sincere people coming to diametrically opposed conclusions about what the Bible teaches. And given the track record of theologians dogmatically asserting that the Bible taught certain things (say, that Adam and Eve were real people and were the only people on Earth after their creation) only to have to recant later, how can we have any confidence that the theologians actually know what they are doing?
So for the skeptic there are four levels of difficulty before Christian theology even gets off the ground: Does God exist? If He exists, does He have the attributes Christianity says He has? If yes, does the Bible provide correct information regarding His desires and intentions? And if yes to that, how are we to understand the Bible? Theologians need strong, compelling answers to these questions if we are ever to be confident that they are not just reasoning idly within an implausible axiom system. They don’t have those answers. Worse, in each case there are strong reasons for thinking the correct answers to those questions are not what the theologians would like them to be.
The bulk of Feser’s post is an hypothesized dialogue between a scientist and someone who is skeptical of science. Alas, at several points the dialogue badly misses its mark, and at any rate bears little resemblance to what Jerry actually said. And since this post has already gotten a bit long, we’ll save that for part two. Stay tuned!