Who needs theology?

Lately, a dispute has been simmering in one of the comment threads about whether a thorough education in and understanding of theology is necessary before one ought to disagree with religious people. Specifically, this was brought up in the context of whether Richard Dawkins is justified in dismissing theology as analogous to the study of leprechauns. Surely — it was argued — such a person could not possibly be a good representative of the atheist “side” (such as it is) in a debate against theists.

I find this line of argumentation very misguided. After all, what is theology?

1 : the study of religious faith, practice, and experience; especially : the study of God and of God’s relation to the world
2 a : a theological theory or system <Thomist theology> <a theology of atonement> b : a distinctive body of theological opinion <Catholic theology>

The study of God and of God’s relation to the world. The study of God. Let’s let that sink in for a moment.

I agree that there is plenty to argue about, in the broad subject area of theology. You could argue about which religion’s version of God is most accurate, though I think most theologians work in a narrower scope than that. You could argue about different ways in which the death of Jesus by crucifixion could atone for all humanity’s sins. You could argue about what constitutes sin. You could argue about God’s abilities, and the extent to which God chooses to use them.

And if you’re a nonbeliever trying to convince a religious person to stop being religious, it can be useful to argue within these frameworks. After all, if you are able to demonstrate to a Christian that there is no plausible mechanism by which Jesus’ death could provide atonement, you’ve brought down basically the entire religion. If you’re able to demonstrate to a Muslim that Allah cannot be both “the Omnipotent” and “the Loving” at the same time, you’ve made Islam into a logical impossibility. And so on.

However, I think it’s really important to remember that while logical contradictions and general incoherence are common properties of religions, and definitely good evidence that those religions were made up ad hoc by people trying to control other people — you could certainly imagine a religion with explanations that were all internally consistent. You wouldn’t be able to argue against followers of this religion using their theology; they could always beat you. Yet this is not a problem for atheism.

Why is it not a problem? Because before we start arguing about how Jesus’ death on the cross might atone for human sin, we have to establish that Jesus was a real person, that God really exists, that Jesus was somehow the son of God and also God at the same time, that “sin” is a meaningful concept beyond a poetic term for “bad stuff,” that there is some sort of grand punishment and grand reward waiting for us after death, that we have anything to “atone” for in the first place, and so on. Really, most of this boils down to: “that God really exists.” If there is no God, arguing about all these other details is pretty silly.

I realize that when Dawkins uses the word “leprechauns,” it’s easy for overly sensitive people to dismiss it in a huff. Leprechauns are silly! Dawkins is just being a “clown.” But the silliness is exactly the point of the analogy. Imagine that we had a university department dedicated to the study of — well, let’s not say leprechauns for a moment, let’s say to the mechanisms behind the philosophers’ stone. Professors there theorize about the ways in which this legendary substance could be used to turn lead into gold, and to create an immortality potion. They argue about the ethics of using the stone. They write long treatises about the symbolism and philosophical significance of each step in the recipe.

What a waste of time! you’d probably say. Why devote yourself to theorizing about something that’s completely made up? Those recipes don’t work. No one’s ever actually seen the philosophers’ stone or used it. They’ve just heard what are essentially urban legends about your best friend’s cousin’s neighbor’s grandfather who knew a guy who used it. Before you delve into the study of alchemy, you had better make sure alchemy is even a thing! You could definitely mount a good argument against the study of alchemy before you’ve read all these treatises on the symbolism of the recipe.

The same thing is true of theology. I understand that some part of theology is devoted to the basic arguments for the existence of God, but this is really a very small part. When you set out to study the nature of God, you’ve already presumed the existence of some deity. Some atheists do find it productive to engage with theists on the precise details of their theology, but extensive study of it is clearly not a prerequisite for defending the atheist cause.

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13 Comments

  1. I think a background in philosophy, including the philosophy of religion, would be far more helpful to atheists than theology.

  2. Really, most of this boils down to: “that God really exists.” If there is no God, arguing about all these other details is pretty silly.

    and

    When you set out to study the nature of God, you’ve already presumed the existence of some deity.

    Exactly! Thank you.

  3. As you said, theology can be useful to untie the knots of theology, but most religious folks don’t embrace their faith for intellectual reasons. Though perhaps among web denizens theology is the cloak they wear over their emotional attachments.

  4. I think that careful observation of how a person’s religion serves them is a good starting place for dialogue.

  5. As vjack said, it’d be great if people even had a basic understanding of philosophy, but to the extent that philosophy can ask and probe questions about ideas and formulations of god, clearly, one also needs to know those theological significances.

  6. Sorry, Andrew. There is no “theological significance” until god exists. Until then, it’s still philosophy.

  7. I think the reason many people have an issue with Dawkins’ proclamation here is that he frequently demonstrates that he has no idea what religious people actually believe. If he had wanted to go about showing that revelation ought to be measurable, that miracles are impossible, and that atonement doesn’t make sense (and he attempted all three in The God Delusion), he’d have been better off if he had disproven versions of these that most people actually believed in, rather than the versions he used. So when he later claims that theology is irrelevant to his arguement, I have to disagree. His arguement, as he structured it, could have used a much better knowledge of theology.

    Also, disproving God to an extent requires that you understand who or what God is supposed to be. That is, if I wanted to go about disproving the existence of leprechauns, I had better know what a leprechaun is (or isn’t). Otherwise I may find myself trying to disprove the existence of Irish people on the one hand or pixies on the other, missing my mark entirely.

    (This would be for trying to convert folks to atheism, of course. Simply disagreeing requires no defense at all, and therefore no theology. And of course above commenters are right in that religious belief, and the lack of it, just as often has to do with emotional and social factors as it does intellectual ones.)

  8. yes, the underlying question in theology is what is god. much of that answer is couched in terms of trust, ie faith. faith and trust are central to the fabric of every culture. philosophy cannot satisfy the necessary movement of the texts of faith informing the life of community. agnostic, atheist and the theist all share certain values informed by this faith, preserved by these texts. perhaps it is the the agnostic who prematurely convinces the atheist that they need to maintain distance from theology at the expense of their own method of reason.

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