Pharyngula

Another courtier speaks up

A couple of years ago, I sat down one morning, bemused by yet another bit of empty apologetics from god’s sycophants, and banged out a short bit of amusement called The Courtier’s Reply. It got picked up everywhere, to my surprise. I mean, seriously, I have to confess that I whipped that out in 20 minutes, no edits or rewrites, just shazam, it’s done. I’m really peeved at myself for anguishing over this book I’m working on, because apparently, all I’ve got to do is get a big glass of root beer, pop some bubblegum in my mouth, put something bubbly and light on the stereo, and once I enter a zen trance, the book will be done tomorrow. I’m going to try that right after this.*

Another apologist is quoting it now. One of the most amusing consequences of its popularity is that so many theists get it completely wrong: they see the Courtier’s Reply as an attempt to excuse atheists from bothering with theology at all, when it’s quite the opposite: it’s a rebuke to theologians, pointing out that going on at length about rarefied epiphenomena and delicate points of dogma is a waste of time when you haven’t even established the central point of the matter, a reasonable justification for believing in a god or gods, period. I’ll give credit to Eric Reitan for seeing that point, dimly, although he ultimately decides that it’s all about avoiding intellectual responsibility.

It is, of course, but he’s picked the wrong target. It’s not the atheists who are shirking that responsibility, it’s the blind theologians who spin elaborate fables out of air.

What Reitan does in his essay is an interesting sidestep. He acknowledges that there are two kinds of theologies — “apologetic theology”, which attempts to address the reality of god’s existence, and the misleadingly named “substantive theology”, which he claims is about the operational consequences once we’ve assumed god’s existence — and he simply waves away apologetic theology for now. He still claims there’s good reason to believe, but it’s not the topic here — it’s exclusively about whether we can dismiss “substantive theology”, which is what the Courtier’s Reply argues.

His mission, then, should be to justify that word “substantive” and show us exactly how this kind of theology can be useful and worth pursuing, even if the existence of a deity is unverifiable and unevidenced. He fails. He falls into the same waffly, weebly, worthless noise that all the modern excuse-makers do, whether it’s Karen Armstrong or the Dalai Lama.

But belief in God isn’t primarily a belief about the contents of the empirical world. It is, rather, a certain holistic interpretation of our experience, one that offers an account of the meaning and significance of the empirical world and the lives we lead within it. To believe in God is to understand the world of ordinary experience in terms of an interpretive worldview that posits the existence of “something more.”

Let me clarify that for you, Dr Reitan. You are saying that religion is a nice fairy tale that makes you feel good.

That’s not enough for me. I stand with millions of unbelievers everywhere who demand something a little more, who expect that the ideas that we will use to guide our lives will also be true. Theologians seem to have decided that truth is optional and irrelevant.

That abandonment of the truth is the heart of his argument, and he goes on at some length to justify parity between supernatural and natural worldviews. He tries to claim that theology is just like naturalism, equally unjustifiable and ultimately arbitrary, and simply a matter of convenience and compatibility with our personal philosophies. We have to “try on” different philosophies about the universe in order to determine which one fits, as if the universe is a rack of clothes with different sizes for different folks, and we have to each pick and choose to determine which universe is best for us.

How can we even begin to answer such a question without seriously “trying on” the alternatives? In its broadest terms, theology is the intellectual project of developing and exploring a range of alternative worldviews that all have something in common–namely, they include belief in a transcendent reality that is in some way both fundamental and good. As such, theology falls within a much broader intellectual project, one that develops and explores not only theistic worldviews, but other worldviews as well, such as the naturalistic one endorsed by Dawkins, Myers, and Sanderson.

Of course, an interpretive worldview has to fit with our experience, including what science teaches us about the world. And not every theistic worldview meets this criterion (Young Earth Creationism comes to mind). But while a specific formulation of theism might have to give way before scientific evidence in just the way that a specific version of Darwinian theory might need to give way to a more nuanced and comprehensive version, the overall theological project–to shape a theistic worldview consistent with experience–remains viable regardless of what science teaches us. What this means is that in a broad sense a theistic worldview is empirically unfalsifiable…just like a naturalistic one.

Stark raving naked bullshit. This is what you get when you try to pretend that reality is a “worldview”.

The views of theologians are obviously unfalsifiable — they’ve been tedious exercises in futility for millennia, always going in circles and spitting out ever more bizarre and arcane dogmas that lead to a constant splintering of interpretations. The big difference between science and religion here is that science is a tool focused on assessing the validity of its propositions. Religion has absolutely no way to test any of its ideas, and its proponents seem to like it that way — it gives them free rein to promote imagination over evidence and revelation over experiment.

So, tell me, Dr Reitan: are theologians working on a grand project to reconcile Christianity and Islam? Even Protestantism vs. Catholicism? Is that too much, should we narrow our goals to resolving smaller sectarian differences, like the Wisconsin vs. Missouri synods of the Lutheran church? Which particular sect has the worldview most consistent with experience?

Reitan’s “substantive theology” seems to be particularly unsubstantive — it relies entirely on avoiding any kind of grounding in reality in order to excuse this idea that an objective, unyielding external reality is irrelevant.

And so we must struggle to assess the relative merits of the alternatives available to us–something that we simply cannot responsibly do by ignoring those thinkers who, as part of a rich traditional of rigorous inquiry, attempt to construct plausible theistic world views and uncover the explanatory power of theism in relation to the full breadth of our human experience.

And there’s the problem: constructing “plausible theistic world views”. How does one determine that a particular theistic world view is plausible? Are virgin births and resurrecting rabbis plausible, while dwarfs forging magic rings or galactic overlords throwing criminals into volcanoes are implausible? They only seem plausible if you uncritically except the “apologetic theology” of a Jehovah or Niflheim or Xenu, and Reitan is right back to his original attempt to separate these into two different domains of theology. One cannot exist without the other.

Furthermore, he misses the other failure of theology. Scientists construct “plausible world views” all the time: we call them hypotheses. The difference is that we then commit ourselves to trying to disprove our hypotheses, and we revise them as we test them. Reitan wrote his little essay in reply to a piece by Terry Sanderson, and unsurprisingly completely neglects this telling and relevant point:

I look at it this way. If science disappeared from human memory, we would soon be living in caves again. If theology disappeared from human memory, no one would notice. Theology is a completely and utterly useless pursuit. It is self-indulgence of the first order. It grieves me that public money is spent on theological colleges while real education struggles to gain the funds it needs to maintain itself.

Science provides tangible evidence of its accuracy and importance. Religion makes excuses for its absence of the same. There is no “rich tradition of rigorous inquiry” in religion, as we can see from its lack of progress, and the apologists are deluding themselves when they claim there is.

You want intellectual irresponsibility? Turn to the fools who build elaborate claims of fashionable nonsense. Reitan does understand what I was saying with the Courtier’s Reply:

Myers’ satire has as its backdrop a story in which a pair of con men have pretended to make a new set of clothes for the emperor but present him instead with nothing but thin air, along with a cockamamie story to the effect that those who are stupid or unfit for their positions can’t see these fine clothes at all.

Exactly. When the worldview fits, wear it, Eric Reitan.


*Look for the critics to quote that comment once the book is out, too.