Saturday, December 29, 2012

What the hell is theology? Where are the theologists?

The fundamental problem with theology is that there are no theon--no gods--to study, a fact that sets it distinctly apart from the other -ologies. That leaves us with the question of what theology is, then.

The dictionary tells us that theology is either "the study of the nature of God and religious belief" or "religious beliefs and theory when systematically developed, as in 'Christian theology.'" Do these definitions make sense? Do they tell us what a person needs to know about the term "theology," given that the etymology (study of gods) is plainly misleading?

The first definition is the more interesting one to sort out, and along the way, we'll be able to handle the second definition in a sentence. "The study of the nature of God and religious belief." Well, that's two things, and we call the second one of those "religious studies," as "theology" means something else. Particularly, "religious studies" study the religions, which are social constructs that actually exist, and one certainly need not believe in any sort of God or gods in order to be an accomplished researcher in this field. Notably, such researchers are not usually called theologians. Wikipedia summarizes neatly:
While theology attempts to understand the nature of transcendent or supernatural forces (such as deities), religious studies tries to study religious behavior and belief from outside any particular religious viewpoint. Religious studies draws upon multiple disciplines and their methodologies including anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and history of religion.
That said, we can remove any confusion or illusions, sometimes proffered by theologians, sometimes intentionally, that theology is a study of religious belief. That is incorrect. "The study of the nature of God" is vastly more accurate, although theology can be considered to take on some of the question about how their beliefs play out in society, at least from an insider's perspective. This, by the way, is the long and the short of the second definition of "theology," although the juxtaposition in "religious theory" literally makes me cringe.

There's a problem with "the study of the nature of God," though, and it's exactly what I started this post with: there is no God, and thus no nature of God, to study.

[To stay within the boundaries of academic honestly, lest the academically dishonest brigade tries to shoehorn something in here, there is absolutely no good evidence upon which we can believe there are any Gods, the "nature of God" is not known and is often declared to be unknowable, certainly cannot be agreed upon by almost anyone, and we have absolutely no indications about what the supposed nature of God would be--unless we accept Irony, the Equivocator, as being God.]

So what the hell does a theologian study if there is no [known/knowable/defined/definable/agreeable-upon] nature of God? Their own thoughts on God. These are usually supplied in some vague sense by either the scriptures of philosophers, and then they are "studied" in the sense that they are taken by the theologian and wedged awkwardly into constructs used to understand reality. In other words, theologians study how to take a certain brand of make-believe and then how to cram it into people's minds with the nearly explicit goal of simply bypassing their bullshit meters. Theologists, then, are experts primarily in overcoming doubts.

Theology would be a subfield of philosophy, then, if we could meaningfully use the term "philosophy" to name the effort of attempting to force a class of fictions to be considered true. We cannot, though, without bringing the conditional with us through the door. That is to say that if theology wanted to qualify as a branch of philosophy, it would have to start essentially every one of its sentences about its central topic with "if God exists...." Here I'm even willing to concede the rest of that: "if God exists and does anything or in any other way holds any real meaning."

The rest of what theologians do when doing theology--at least the "sophisticated ones" (in God Doesn't; We Do, I argue that there are no sophisticated theologies since they are all sophistry instead)--is abuse terms and attempt to undermine other philosophical approaches, ironically by attempting to put them on the same base as theology. This is where they get into the deep-sounding definitions like "God is the necessary agent cause of contingent reality" and "God is the uncaused first cause." Oftentimes other notions are simply assumed as well, such as moral perfection, the ideal of love, perfect benevolence, etc. The theologian's -ology rests in trying to square these circles while dancing around the fact that it's all just a sticky, gish-galloping web of non sequiturs and question begging--until they establish their god with evidence.


Perhaps this is why we call theologians theologians instead of theologists, and perhaps it is time to unleash some theologists on the world. Theologists would be scientists that study evidence concerning theon. But, of course, there are no theon to study, and thus no evidence for them, so what would these folks study? They would study the negative evidence that makes it very difficult to accept these claims as true. This evidence is available in enormous abundance, and only pathetically flimsy arguments by their rivals, theologians, attempts to keep us from seeing it as such.

In the title, I asked "where are the theologists?" Doing better things with their time, of course.

The so-called "New Atheists" really stand out now because there are scientists, most notably Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger, Carl Sagan, and (more lately) Lawrence Krauss, (also Sam Harris, who came to science from philosophy because of this question) that have taken time from their otherwise busy schedules of figuring out how the universe actually works to illustrate that the lack of evidence for religious claims actually does constitute evidence against them. Other non-scientists, like Richard Carrier, carry this torch even further, making strong arguments about how the lack of evidence for the religious claims is strong evidence against them.

Generally, though, there are no theologists because theology is a waste of time--a waste of time that one can actually earn a doctorate in, making it a grand waste of time! It wastes the time of the theologians, it wastes the time of the laity, and it wastes the time of the would-be and will-be theologists that work to dismantle it. Ever since the concept of "burden of proof" has been invented, particularly when coupled with the bias-removing scientific method, theology has been a lost cause, a black hole that has swallowed innumerable hours of many of the most academically talented people to have ever lived (on both sides of the debate).

One day, I hope, we'll make better uses of our talents.


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