Debating theology obscures the point

I’m long overdue to call attention to this excellent and delightfully snarky observation, via commenter Russ on John Loftus’s Debunking Christianity blog (now moved back here):

I have an idea! Since gods aren’t real let’s debate how the Christian gods are “universally reliable.” Shall we? After all, when a notion isn’t real, how does a charlatan best obscure that fact? Well, said charlatan debates the characteristics ascribed to it, in arguendo. As it relates to gods, one debates one of the traits a believer has assigned to his god deceptively leaving unstated the premise: for the sake of argument, assume this god, as defined, is real.

We could, for instance, debate the size of Thor’s hammer or how far Zeus could hurl a lightning bolt. Thor wasn’t real, but how big was his hammer? Zeus didn’t exist, but, whaddya think, he could throw lightning to the moon? Bible gods, Bible Jesuses, and Bible Holy Ghosts observably do not exist, so let’s work from the implicit assumption that they do exist while we debate how Father, Son and Holy Ghost are all the same, and, yet, all separate. Bible god doesn’t exist, so let’s debate how the Bible is the inspired, inerrant word of god. Leaving the assumptions unstated leaves those credulous Christians thinking our debate concerns things that aren’t imaginary. So, by all means, do let’s use “debate” as a tool of deception in our discussion about the trait of being “universally reliable,” which at least one Christian uses to define his god.

…Gods don’t exist, so let’s “debate” why gods allow suffering. Damn. Religious deception at its best.

This is advice I could stand to take from time to time. I’ve got to try to remember to keep the dialog focused where it matters and not get led off on too many rabbit trails. Rabbit trails can be interesting, sure, but they’re bound to be frustrating if that’s where you spend most of your time.

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  1. This is the reason for a lot of my disdain toward classes at the Christian college I attend. Not that I don’t believe God exists (and thus muddy the point by arguing about his non-extant attributes), but the fact that I do believe God exists and I struggle to this that we could possibly understand him as well as we say we do.

  2. “This” in the last sentence should be “think”. Clearly haven’t had enough coffee yet.

  3. Totally understand that sentiment, Adrian. In my experience Christians tend to be confident proclaiming a whole lot about the exact nature of God, but then describe him as fundamentally “mysterious” to our mortal minds whenever something happens that seems inconsistent with those attributes. Nobody wins when one takes that approach.

  4. I dunno. If the point is about whether or not God/gods exist, neither the atheist nor the theist has much ground to stand on, IMO. The theist cannot objectively prove that God/gods DO exist, and the atheist cannot objectively prove that he/they DON’T exist.

    (I’m an agnostic, can you tell?)

    “It’s just NOT TRUE!” is not a valid reason to shut down arguments about the divine, any more than “it’s just TRUE!” is a valid reason to dismiss doubts about the divine. One cannot prove either position. If there is to be any discussion at all, then, the theist must talk about how believing in something that cannot be proven benefits him/her, and the atheist must talk about the benefits of taking the default position of “if it cannot be observed, measured, demonstrated, proven, it doesn’t exist”.

    And is that not, at its core, a debate about theology, or lack thereof?

  5. Amaranth: There are a few different aspects of your comment that I want to respond to, and I don’t know where to begin, so I’ll just list:
    1. There are a number of theists who say they have substantial compelling evidence for their beliefs, not just blind faith leading them to accept religious claims. I suppose I’m really talking more about those people here.
    2. I think one should believe things that are probably true, and should refrain from believing things which are unlikely to be true. I don’t actually think it’s about “benefits” at all.
    3. In every realm besides religion, we all agree on the requirement of some basic evidence before accepting a claim as true. To me, it seems incredibly unfair to portray as equally unwarranted one side which asserts to have an invisible dragon in the garage and another side which responds that that makes no sense.
    4. I don’t expect “proof” of anything in the real world. You can’t prove that you’re not hallucinating all your experiences; you can’t prove that you’re not just a brain in a vat. But you can demonstrate a preponderance of evidence leaning toward one conclusion, and you can apply Occam’s Razor and argue that that is the most likely explanation for what you observe. On a related note, I don’t claim to have proof that there are no gods, that gods definitely don’t exist. I am an atheist because I don’t believe in any of the gods I’ve ever heard of (the claims I’ve heard have all been un- or under-warranted), and because I don’t see any reason or evidence to suppose that there are any gods.

    In my understanding, when people talk about “theology” they are talking not about whether their god/s exist, but rather about studying the nature of those gods (theos + logos). You can’t have theology if you haven’t established that there is/are god/s first, the same way it would be silly (as Dawkins has often pointed out) to study “leprechology” before we have ever observed a leprechaun.

  6. I have debated this issue before. As it seems, there are two approaches to debating a system:

    (a) question fundamentals
    (b) question details to show inconsistent (as would be expected of mistaken fundamentals)

    I think both methods can work and the best strategy depends on the situation. But understanding which strategy you are taking and why can be useful.

    And being upfront about your strategy can sometimes be useful, and sometime counterproductive. It all depends on what you are after.

    This is the same whether you argue against mistaken models of medicine, mistaken political views, mistaken religious views or mistaken views of romance ….

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