We plugged it in and we turned it on… Peter Ellerton doesn’t know what Theology is, but he knows what it ain’t

Time for another entry on The Australian Book of Atheism.  I’m going to start jumping around through the essays a bit because some of them are so dreadful that any other response than a long stream of profanity seems like overkill.

Tim Minchin.  Seriously?  Seriously?

Anyway, this entry is a bit of a grey area.  Peter Ellerton wrote the entry ‘Theology is not Philosophy’ and it is a trainwreck.  It’s in a grey area because he admits, openly and frankly, that he’s a teacher.  Google brings up his place of work (I search for the authors because it usually reveals more context… Exhibit A).  Given the nature of the internet, can I rip through him knowing that this will probably end up on a Google search for his name?  Even if it means his students might be able to find what some anonymous person said about their teacher?

On the other hand, don’t his students have a right to know that their teacher is a complete goof?

And he sure is a goof.  Let’s get this ball rolling:

I would like to approach theology by considering its effectiveness as a tool for the development and deployment of critical thinking and reasoning skills normally developed in true philosophical thinking. […] This will provide, in my view, the ultimate test against which theology can be said to stand or fall as a valid branch of philosophy.  [Source: Peter Ellerton, ‘Theology is not Philosophy’ in The Australian Book of Atheism]

Wait what who what?  For some inexplicable reason, we are questioning whether theology is a branch of philosophy.  Why?  Nowhere in this opening paragraph (or, indeed, the rest of his article) does he explain why he’s writing this dreck (there’s a bit of ‘OMG, did you know some people teach theology in high school instead of philosophy?’ moaning buried deep in the article, but that’s about it).  This guy won an award for Critical Thinking and even he doesn’t bother to first answer the question: ‘What am I writing and why am I writing it?’

It’s easy to glide over some of his statements.  In the above mentioned passage, he vaguely signposts his test for a ‘valid branch of philosophy’ (as if there were invalid branches of philosophy): ‘effectiveness as a tool for the development and deployment of critical thinking and reasoning skills normally developed in true philosophical thinking’.  How can you spot true philosophical thinking?  By assessing its ability to develop and deploy critical thinking and reasoning skills normally developed in true philosophical thinking.  It’s like saying that you can tell what a horse is by assessing its ability to do things that horses normally do.  Later, Ellerton will whinge about theology being circular.  From the outset, it’s clear that he can’t spot circular reasoning.

Popular conceptions of philosophy tend to centre around its role as a tool for pondering the meaning of life with vague, hand-waving discussions about esoteric and largely irrelevant points.  As a teacher of philosophy, and of mathematics and the sciences, I take a completely contrary view.  Philosophy in the Western tradition is a coolly analytical, precise tool for the construction and dissection of ideas.  [Ibid.]

Name a philosopher.  Bets are on that you named somebody who was either not in the Western tradition or was not coolly analytical and precise.  Sartre, for example.  Socrates is another.  Never mind the huge collection of Eastern philosophers.  No, no.  They’re not really philosophers — or, if they are, we’re not at all interested in them.

But, for some unexplained reason, it is important to verify that theology is somehow a branch of this deformed, bizzaro-world ‘philosophy’.  Remember not to question why this is important.

After a lot of waffle about how he teaches teenagers (it was cringe worthy, so I’ll spare you), we get this bombshell:

I wrote in my opening paragraph that I could dismiss theology in its entirety as an argument whose premises assume its conclusions. […] The most unsubtle example in a theological context would be: ‘We can believe the Bible because it is the word of God, and we know it is the word of God because the Bible says so.’  No theologian of any training would use such a hopeless argument, but keep this one handy. [Ibid.]

And this basically forms the backbone of his ‘argument’.  Dismissing his vision of ‘theology’ as a strawman, he then relies on it extremely heavily throughout the article.  Ellerton does what is far too common in atheist literature: conjure a joke version of theology to attack.  Very little is cited to demonstrate that he has any knowledge of theology — the bits that he cites suggests that he is shockingly ignorant of it.  But that’s not a problem: both he and his intended audience have the same bogeyman version of theology in their minds.  He could say: ‘Theology is responsible for drowning kittens’ and his audience would unquestioningly agree (because they want to be great critical thinkers like this award winner).

Remember: I’m an atheist with a background in both philosophy and theology.  Ellerton only claims knowledge of one of the fields he is butchering.  Throughout his waffly, largely irrelevant article, he never spends any time with theologically relevant points.  If this is the sort of ignorant rubbish he teaches (and, as he boasts in his article, he chairs a board which oversees philosophical teaching in high schools), perhaps we should question the worth of these courses in our education system.

A (blessedly) brief visit to a website that makes available an encyclopaedia of Catholic doctrine provides some of the other logical fallacies that lie only a scratch beneath the surface of theology.  [Ibid.]

He doesn’t cite any ‘logical’ fallacies (perhaps he should Google that term before using it again) but he does mock the concept of ‘The Blessed Trinity’ in about two sentences.  You know, because that’s all the intellectual time theological concepts require.

But his main problem seems to be this:

‘Proof’ is a definable term that cannot be realised by using justifications from scripture, tradition, or dogma.  Indeed, the idea is contradictory and counterexamples abound.  [Ibid.]

It’s clear that he’s talking through his hat.  Ellerton wrote a lot of waffle about premisses and how important they are.  Theology uses scripture, tradition, and dogma as the source for the premisses.  It doesn’t use them as the mechanism for establishing a proof.  Ellerton might want to say that all arguments derived this way are unsound (somehow, arguments related to scripture are incorrect — magic is the only known process by which this could be the case) but he can’t jump to the claim that all arguments derived this way are invalid (because there’s no logical machinery necessitated by the premisses).

Let’s say I have a religion based on Batman.

1.  If the Batsignal goes off, Batman will rush to the rescue.

C. Therefore, if the Batsignal goes off and Batman is dead, Batman will rush to the rescue.

That, weirdly enough, is a logically valid argument (strengthening antecedent: P->Q; (P&R)->Q).  But you might say that the premisses are invalid because they’re based on fictional works.  So the argument is valid, but the argument is not sound.  You might also want to say that something is a bit spooky about strengthening antecedents (and you wouldn’t be in poor company: there are thousands upon thousands of essays written every year about the material conditional and why it’s black magic).  Ellerton seems incapable of distinguishing these.  Why?  Because theology is all fairies and mermaids and unicorns, amirite?

We can skip quite a bit of his article.  He gets very confused about teleology and what it means.  He claims that real philosophy isn’t teleological.  This is a problem if you’re Aristotle or Hegel.  Sorry guys, but Ellerton has asserted and you’re no longer on Team Philosophy.

We get a few more nuggets buried in the swamps of his prose:

Theology must of course reject any questioning of free will… [Ibid.]

That’s why there are no Christian groups which reject free will… Oh wait!  Yes there are!  Whoops.

Theology must of needs base its morality (duty, obligation, et cetera) on the text of its holy books.  [Ibid.]

What’s weird is that Ellerton disproved this earlier when he said that there were proofs by tradition, proofs by dogma…  Did he also fall asleep while he was writing this?  Isn’t there some critical thinking commandment to have consistent arguments?  Or is it, as I suspect, that he has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.  One would hope that he’d expect a student of his to cite some evidence for his claims.  No, no.  Award-winning critical thinkers don’t need evidence.

He then rehashes some severely rebutted garbage about the golden rule (proving again that atheists have difficulty understanding ‘secular’).

Just in case you weren’t already sea sick from the way his essay swings hither and thither, he comes to ‘Faith and Reason’.

I will sharpen my view here and speak of how this tendency to match a vagueness of language has a more sinister side, and one that I think nails the cognitive colours to the mast of theology.  I speak of the central role of faith.  Since St Anselm, theologians have considered their work to be that of ‘faith seeking understanding’.  [Ibid.]

It takes a while for him to get to the meat of this.

Faith seeking understanding has an inescapably oxymoronic feel.  There is no sense in which we can reasonably articulate why we choose not to be reasonable; no way we can understand why we should forsake understanding.  Faith is belief without reason.  No matter what arguments are drafted to the cause of theology, there is no escaping this ultimate truth.  [Ibid.]

It’s hard to know where to start.  The philosophical term which articulates why we choose not to be reasonable is ‘akrasia’.  It’s a term used by Aristotle in the Nichomachaen Ethics.  One would think this would be standard reading for a philosophy teacher.  Apparently not.

But let that pass.  Ellerton got to this position via Kierkegaard (‘full acceptance of the Christine doctrine […] required […] a ‘leap of faith’) who isn’t like an undisputed authority in theology.  It’d be like quoting Friedman to say that economists are all libertarians.  Not all theologians are fideists (the position that God cannot be known through reason).  He then linked Kierkegaard’s quote back to Anselm’s out-of-context quote with a flourish ‘Ha, ha!  Take that theology!’

It’s utter garbage and can’t possibly pose as a reasonable argument.  It particularly bites that he used Anselm who very specifically and methodically explored his faith through critical thinking.  It’s beautiful work (even for an atheist like me).

That last point might explain the pettiness of my next gripe.

[O]ne of the most powerful moments in a philosophy classroom is when students come to the realisation that if they cannot explain why they hold a particular view then they have little reason to continue to do so.  [Ibid.]

But there’s no ‘law of rationality’ which mandates this.  Must all of our views be explicable?  Explicable to what extent?  Who says?  I can’t explain why I hold the view that I am me — Chuang Tzu (one of those philosophers Ellerton dismissed earlier as not a philosopher) is quoted out of context as wondering if he’s a butterfly dreaming that he’s a man and Kant (yet another philosopher dismissed for not being cool and analytical enough) argued that ‘I exist’ is not a proper premiss (to get out of Descartes’ cogito).  Does this mean I should stop believing that I’m me?  Of course not, but I guess it’s easier for Ellerton to teach his students glib nonsense than it is for a rich man to enter heaven… or something.

Swinging in yet another random direction, here’s Ellerton’s version of the cosmological argument.

Premise 1: All things (effects) have a cause, so all things which physically exist must be caused.

Premise 2: The universe exists.

Conclusion: The universe must have had a cause (sometimes called the prime mover), and this is God.  [Ibid.]

Yet another strawman.  He could have at least done theologians the courtesy of providing a logically valid argument to attack (the above isn’t).  Ellerton then goes to town on this joke version: ‘What caused God?’

Clearly, there’s stuff missing from his version of the argument.  Namely, see where he writes ‘physically exists’ in the first premiss?  What do you think that means?  Could there be other modes of existence?  In which mode of existence could God be?  See how he writes ‘effects’ in parentheses?  Is God an effect which needs a cause?  And so on and so forth.  But I guess Ellerton didn’t have enough time to do a proper treatment, what with sliding impotently across so many subjects at random.

After yet more waffle, he limps on to spouting aphorisms.

Conclusions only have merit insofar as they can be strongly argued.  [Ibid.]

When I read this, I wondered if Ellerton was taking the piss.  He completely and unabashedly made absurd assertions about theology, refused to provide any evidence of his claims, hand-waved and postured (mixing in a dash of prejudice for good measure) before claiming that conclusions only have merit insofar as they can be strongly argued!  Talk about cheek.

And so there you have it.  The holder of an award from a group of Australian atheists cobbling together baseless assertions pitched at the bigotry of his intended audience.  What a great group of people we Australian atheists are.  So reasonable, rational, and such excellent critical thinkers.

Atheism isn’t a branch of philosopher either, Ellerton.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

3 thoughts on “We plugged it in and we turned it on… Peter Ellerton doesn’t know what Theology is, but he knows what it ain’t”

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