Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

All my enemies are turning into my teachers… in defence of theology

My last post attracted some interesting quips from the mouthier atheists who haunt this substandard blog.

The best comment was a plagiarised ‘Theology is just like Fairyology’.  It seems to be a fairly common attitude among the ‘new atheist’ (whatever that is; the public image of ‘new atheism’ seems to be old white guys).

On ReligionDispatches.com, Eric Reitan outlined the attitude of ‘new atheists’ towards theology.  While I think he accurately identifies the problem, I disagree with his analysis.

The other day, Terry Sanderson—president of the United Kingdom’s National Secular Society—published a short, scathing indictment of theology in The Guardian, a piece titled “Theology—truly a naked emperor.”

This title deliberately recalls H.C. Andersen’s famous fable, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and by implication its ongoing use by popular atheist critics of religion to defang criticism that they know next to nothing about theology. The fable was first made use of a few years back by atheist blogger (and biologist) PZ Myers in a bit of satire called “The Courtier’s Reply,” a response to H. Allen Orr’sscathing review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in the New York Review of Books. “The Courtier’s Reply” so delighted Dawkins that he quoted it at length in the preface to the paperback edition of his book. [Source: Eric Reitan, ‘Can Atheists Simply Ignore Theology?’ on ReligionDispatches.com]

Instead of arguing that Dawkins did understand theology, presented it fairly, and dealt it a fatal blow, Myers mocks the criticism.  There’s nothing inherently wrong in mocking criticism.  Many of our finest minds do it.

Oh hey.  See what I did there?  If you link something to something dubious, you don’t need to provide evidence that the two things are anything alike.  ‘Proof by humorous connexion’ is a well-known tool in critical thinking.

More seriously, the ‘proof by humorous connexion’ shields us from having to take criticism seriously.  There’s no need to intellectually engage with the claims of our ‘opponents’ because their claims are ridiculous.  We don’t even need to know what those claims are.  All we have to know is that they’re ridiculous.  Don’t question the apparent paradox which arises: how do you know the claims are ridiculous if you don’t know what the claims are?  Down that path lies madness and critical thinking, and that’s not what critical thinking is about!  No, sir!  Critical thinking is about finding ways to avoid criticism and evaluating claims based on your prejudices and biases.

Reitan also notes the inability of ‘new atheists’ to take criticism seriously (or, at the very least, respectfully).

The link to that interview quickly appeared on Richard Dawkins’ Web site under the heading, “Another Flea,” invoking the practice of Dawkins’ supporters to call critics of The God Delusion “fleas.” The very first posted comment was this: “Just from reading the abstract it sounds like another book in ‘The Courtier’s Reply’ category.” The subsequent comments were riddled with mockery. [Ibid.]

This is where I think Reitan’s argument goes pear-shaped.  After noting two ways in which ‘new atheists’ shield themselves from criticism (mocking the criticism and belittling the critic), Reitan tries to show why the comparison isn’t apt (the fairy story has a different meaning to the imputed meaning) and why theology is intellectually substantive (‘It is, rather, a certain holistic interpretation of our experience, one that offers an account of the meaning and significance of the empirical world and the lives we lead within it’).  Both responses fail to be persuasive.

First, who cares what the actual meaning of the story is when the imputed meaning is more relevant?  Imagine you say, ‘Mark, thank you for inviting me ’round for dinner.  The meal was terrific.’  It would be downright weird for me to check to see if you were in shock or inquire which part of the meal inspired fear.  I don’t think my actions would be justified by appealing to the original meaning of the word.  Similarly, the ‘new atheists’ don’t much care for the original meaning of the story or the minutiae of the fairytale.  Mere details. If there’s one thing busy atheists lurking on PZ Myers don’t have time for, it’s details.  They’re too busy agreeing with each other and chiding fringe theists.

Second, the defence of theology has to be more persuasive than ‘theology is the holistic interpretation of our experience’.  The smackdown response to the ‘new atheists’ is to show why theology is intellectually meritorious.  So why hasn’t this been forthcoming?

Most serious theologians don’t give a toss what Dawkins and Myers think.

It’s a weird standoff.  Just as Dawkins and Myers don’t really care about the claims of the Discovery Institute (and don’t spend vast amounts of time going through their ‘research’), why would theologians care about the ill-informed, belligerent, and oafish claims of Dawkins, Myers, et alia?  Dawkins and Myers want to have an intellectually serious position but they can only do that by redefining the game (‘only claims which can be verified using modern science are valid’).

And you can’t question the new rules because it’s impossible to do so using modern science.

In other words, they’re advocating positivism despite the fact that there are no intellectually serious forms of positivism.  Karl Popper (the guy who basically handed to us on a silver platter the distinction between science and pseudo-science) destroyed it decades ago: positivism considers only claims which are verifiable may be true, but the claim ‘only claims which are verifiable may be true’ is not itself verifiably true.  Nobody’s managed to start a positivism comeback tour.

Some even go a few steps further.  Sam Harris tried to play a new Humpty Dumpty game with language by trying to define all valid intellectual pursuits (for example, history) as science.  Screw falsification.

The weird thing is that a justification of theology is trivially easy to do.

Science provides a toolkit for evaluating specific types of claims: those which can be verified empirically.  There are claims which cannot be verified empirically (if you disagree, try to demonstrate that twice one will always equal two).  For those claims, we require different toolkits.  Theology (and atheology) provides a toolkit for evaluating religious claims.  If you want to make the claim that ‘God does not exist’ using theological arguments, you’re going to need to use the theological toolkit.

Oh, but why would you want to do it using theological arguments?  I have no idea, but this has not stopped Christopher Hitchens writing an entire book doing it, and Dawkins dedicating paragraphs of garbled jibberish attempting it.  If you’re going to make scientific claims, you need science.  If you’re going to make theological claims, you need theology.  Are all claims about God theological?  No.  But — and hold on to your hats, people, because this is going to get controversial — the theological claims are theological.

Woah/whoa.  Freak out.

But doesn’t this give a back door to ‘fairyology’?  Not really.  Nobody uses fairyological claims to dismiss the existence of fairies.  In the ‘new atheist’ world polluted with concepts like invisible pink unicorns and flying spaghetti monsters, it’s difficult to distinguish between the intellectually serious and the asinine.  This small fact makes it much easier to understand the plethora of rubbish ‘new atheist’ writings (for example, The Australian Book of Atheism).


2 responses to “All my enemies are turning into my teachers… in defence of theology”

  1. Bravo to this post! I was just musing to myself the other day how strange it is that more ‘new atheists’ aren’t rushing out to read things by the likes of Aquinas, Kant, etc. Why do you suppose that is – laziness, discomfort, both, other…? I can only speak for myself, but to me it seems to make more sense to actually engage the works of Christians, for example, even if I have a strong suspicion I will disagree with them. For one, it doesn’t seem very intellectually honest to outright dismiss something you haven’t even taken the time to read and consider. Yeah, i’ve read some silly stuff, and i’m not suggesting people read everything ever written by anyone that opposed their views. But the writings of serious and influential theologians? Of course we should give those proper consideration. Besides, if one is not so inclined towards an interest in reading theology, perhaps one shouldn’t be so loud during religious debates? XP

    I wish your blog had a Facebook share feature for the posts!

    • Public atheists used to be intimately familiar with the canon, but today’s public atheists aren’t the same species as those.

      The big atheists of the past were witty, intelligent, and somewhat roguish figures. Their writings lurked under the enormous weight of the religious infrastructure from which it arose.

      Modern atheism seems to be a response to a modern, American religiosity. Because modern atheists are now unaccustomed to engaging intellectually serious theism, we’ve become lazy and flabby. So our public mouths are shrill in order to screech above the ‘God wants you to send me $5’ religious-types.

      Modern atheists have no interest in Aquinas and Kant for two reasons:

      1. It’s too difficult. Humanities have to be condensable to a slogan in order to be worthy of attention. It’s why many of them think they can do philosophy just because they watched The Matrix and now have some Ideas about how epistemology works.

      2. It talks about things they no longer care about. Why spend all that time thinking about the world? Mere navel gazing.

      3. The modern mood is to consider only scientific facts worth knowing. Older writers challenge the absolutism of scientific triumphalism.

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