Thursday, May 27, 2010

Responding to theology's critics

For those interested, I have a new feature article in today's Religion Dispatches. In brief, it's a defense of the discipline of theology and its relevance to the question of whether a transcendent reality or God exists.

Let me say a few words about this. For as long as there've been theologians trying to develop and refine theistic pictures of reality in the light of human experience, I'm sure there have been critics of particular theological ideas or theologians. But there is a growing trend these days towards a much broader criticism, one which thinks theology as such is worthless. An example appears in an essay in yesterday's Guardian, in which Terry Sanderson, the president of the UK's National Secular Society, dismissed the entire field of theology as so much drivel.

These critics aren't just saying that theology isn't for them, or that they don't understand it. What they're saying is that the field itself is valueless, nothing but a waste of time.

I think the best way to refute such criticisms is to have the critic read several major works in theology with the guidance of a reputable theologian who can help to introduce the novice to the technical language and the historic and intellectual contexts in which theological arguments evolved, and who can help navigate the way through the nuances of abstract arguments and ideas. In other words, real exposure to and understanding of theology, of the sort one gets by taking a couple of theology courses from good theology professors, offers the best answer to those who dismiss theology out of hand. The problem, of course, is that those who are already convinced that theology is nonsense aren't going to do that.

Another strategy is to attempt to briefly explain what theology is and then try to sketch out why one cannot legitimately ignore its work, even if one doesn't happen to believe in a God. A substantive and detailed account, one that walks through specific theological works and highlights their main themes and then shows why they matter, would end up being a work of theology and so would be the kind of thing the critics in question refuse to waste their time on. So one can try for something a bit more general, something with just enough substance to challenge the critic and, perhaps, inspire them to investigate the matter a bit further.

That is what Nick Spencer does in a contrasting article to Sanderson's in today's Guardian, and what I do in today's Religion Dispatches. But, looking at the dismissive comments that follow both articles (comments that systematically ignore the principle of charity), it's not clear that this strategy has any more hope of being effective.

So--for those who refuse to crack any of the great works of theology but think they are competent to make definitive pronouncements about the value of the field (as well as definitive pronouncements about the kinds of questions theologians wrestle with), is there any approach that is likely to shake their attitude of prejudicial dismissiveness? And if so, what would it be?


  1. I like your approaches. It's kind of like asking anyone to take a look at a particular issue from another perspective. How do you get a Democrat or Republican to look at an issue from the other's perspective? They have to first be willing to honestly engage with another perspective, or at least admit the potential validity of another perspective. And that type of thinking is sadly hard to come by these days.

  2. Eric,

    You write: “ is there any approach that is likely to shake their attitude of prejudicial dismissiveness? And if so, what would it be?

    I have found that a good idea is to ask questions about naturalists’ own worldview, or point out how naturalism fails much more seriously the high epistemic principles naturalists demand of theism. Here is a list of ideas:

    1. When a naturalist claims that theism is ill-defined or vague, ask them for the definition of naturalism. I find it amazing how naturalists can’t get themselves to define naturalism positively, but only as a rejection of supernaturalism, as if supernaturalism were the more concrete or easier to understand concept. A good question here is: “Imagine a civilization where religions and other supernaturalistic ideas had never evolved. How would naturalistic philosophers in that civilization describe their ontological beliefs? Surely, it’s not like they would have to first imagine and describe supernaturalistic ideas just in order to define their ontological worldview as the rejection of them.”

    2. When a naturalist asks what the evidence of theism is, ask in turn what the evidence for naturalism is. – I did not know about the “principle of charity”, but I have always used it, not so much out of a charitable disposition, but simply in order not to waste my time. So I try to search out for the best authors, defenses, or interpretations of naturalism, and I feel quite frustrated about how little I can find. (If you can recommend any good books or sources in defense of naturalism, please let me know.) I had high hopes when I ordered the “Cambridge Companion to Atheism”, a 2006 anthology edited by Michael Martin, but it contains only one essay about the definition of, and evidence for, naturalism, namely “Naturalism and Physicalism” by Evan Fales. The definition was the super-weak and indeed misleading “Naturalism is the commitment to the claim that there are no disembodied minds”. And the evidence? First, that we don’t ever observe disembodied minds. But we never observe embodied minds either (that’s why philosophers have to deal with the problem of other minds), so that evidence does not actually exist. And, secondly, that theists have failed to show any good evidence that disembodied minds exist. – If that’s the best a naturalistic philosopher can do, then clearly there are in comparison much better theistic arguments.

    3. When a naturalist claims that the natural sciences support naturalism, then point out that they support theism even better, because the naturalist must accept the principles on which science rests as brute facts, whereas theism can explain them. As Alvin Plantinga argues in his essay “Religion and Science” in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the epistemology of science is much more at home in a theistic worldview than in a non-theistic one. I would add that scientific knowledge too is more at home in a theistic worldview; for example in a theistic worldview there is no “mystery” in quantum mechanics.

    4. When a naturalist argues that the contradictory beliefs of theists show that theism is not an objective field of knowledge, then point out that in comparison naturalists disagree much more among themselves about how reality is, indeed have not reach agreement even about the basics. For example they don’t agree whether reality is deterministic or not, about whether causality works only forwards in time or not, or even about whether there is one universe or many – and if many about whether they have the same physical laws or not.

    I could go on. The general idea is to turn any naturalistic attack against theism back towards itself, and ask the naturalist to demonstrate that naturalism fares better under the same standards proposed. Or, as it sometimes happens that naturalists know little about naturalism, demonstrate that naturalism fares worse under the same standards.

  3. In my previous post I argued that a good way to get naturalists to value theology is to help them realize that the alternative of naturalism often works much worse than theism under the same epistemic principles, and that therefore theology is at least worthy of serious consideration. The idea then is to shift the discussion into a direct comparison between alternative metaphysical worldviews thus dispelling the illusion that naturalism is the plausible/objective/scientific/unproblematic worldview. So, to continue the previous list, one may ask what naturalism explains, point out that science has falsified a lot of previously sacrosanct naturalistic intuitions, point out the naturalism of the growing gaps, and so on.

    Now one issue that will turn up sooner or later is the problem of evil. Here too, arguably, naturalism suffers from a worse problem than theism. Theism’s problem is well known: Given our sense of the horrible evils in the world it is difficult for a theist to explain how the world can be the creation of an all-good and all-powerful being. But naturalism suffers from a problem of evil too, namely, on naturalism our very sense of “horrible evil” becomes incoherent, and this is arguably a much harder problem. Why? Because it’s one thing for the theist to recognize the problem of evil and try to solve it, and quite another for the naturalist to recognize that her identification of evils in the world and strong emotional response to them is all nonsense, one more kind of illusion created by her brain, similar to her sense of free will or of personal responsibility. Whereas there is no good reason to assume that theism’s problem cannot be solved, and indeed there are some clear advances towards a solution, naturalism’s problem is unsolvable and is simply reduced to noting the fact that our brain is fooling us in matters as critical as the very existence of good and evil.

    Leaving naturalism behind, I’d like to point out that if God exists then the problem of evil cannot but help us discover truths about God. For example, when one realizes that the Irenaean theodicy works much better than the traditional Augustinian theodicy one will also have more reason to believe in universal salvation, as it is entailed in the former. Or, if one realizes that the idea that God is the only subject of animal experience solves the problem of animal suffering, one will also have more reason to love God. For those who suffer are more worthy of love. Which by itself may be part of the solution to theism’s problem of evil.