Thursday, October 14, 2010

Atheist theology

A common criticism levelled at Atheists is that they aren't qualified theologians therefore cannot competently comment on theological questions, like the existence of God for example. It's a complaint that has cropped up on this blog several times, arguments fall off the empirical path into a fog of semantic pedantry about definitions and meaning. Most Atheists I know dismiss theology, sometimes kindly by saying something like "theology is study of the unknowable" or perhaps in the forthright language of Thomas Paine (who thought this about it 200 years ago)

"The study of theology as it stands in the Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principals; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and admits no conclusions."

Personally I think theology is an interesting thing to study if viewed through an historical or anthropological lens, all the major civilizations we know have had religions or supernatural belief systems, it is undoubtedly a part of our evolutionary heritage albeit perhaps more cultural evolution than evolution by natural selection and so worthy of investigation and deeper understanding even if not of obvious utility in itself.

I wonder though if the non-theologian argument is a valid one? Most Atheists I know think more about theological questions than most Christians I know, by a big margin, and so if it's valid to hold a belief without consideration for theology why is it not equally valid to not believe it without consideration for theology?

There is an interesting debate going on currently around the question "could evidence exist that would convince an atheist of the existence of God?" - superficially it seems that the answer to this should be yes, of course, but using  the power of "theology" (albeit Atheist theology) it is surprisingly easy to hide the question behind a shield of semantics and meaning all of which are logically sound and perhaps illustrate the true purpose of theology. The argument goes something like this (T=Theologian, A=Atheist),

T) Could there be evidence for God?
A) The question is undefined because "God" is a plastic concept that is twisted to evade evaluation.

T) What if a 900m Jesus appeared in Time Square
A) No religion even proposes such a thing, so such a being would not prove the existence of any prior concept of God.

T) What about the forces of nature we don't understand, like Higgs Bosons?
A) There are many things we don't understand, none are evidence for a God and anyway, once we do understand them they become natural and hence disqualified from Godhood.

T) What if something happened that was so intricately improbable that you'd have to agree it could only be the work of God
A) Human individuals are ridiculously improbable, the events that had to happen and the random recombinations of complex strands of DNA make us all utterly improbable, but we are not Gods. Also, no such impossible event has ever happened, even after millenia of observation, if such an event (like a healed amputee or flocks of angels) were the criteria for proof then all existing religions are therefore disproven.

T) What about Bible miracles, visions, revelations and unexplained phenomena?
A) There are always better explanations than God, our brains are clumsy, sputtering and inefficient, they are also easily fooled. Failures of our sensory perception are not evidence for an alternate reality.

Of course if you disagree with any of this then clearly the arguments are too subtle and sophisticated for someone with no Atheist theology training like you! ;)


gerrardus said...

I think you're right. You should only be allowed to comment on theology if you've a higher qualification in theology. And you should only be allowed to comment on science if you've a Master's in science.
So, if you'll *all* shut up and listen to me...

Steve Borthwick said...

LOL, exactly!