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Why Bother With Theology?5/09/2008 00:03:22
At the Richard Dawkins lecture the other day, I saw a familiar-looking man with a head of wild professor-hair: the mathematician from Temple University, John Allen Paulos. After the talk I went up to introduce myself and was grateful to find him very pleasant and willing a chat for a minute or two. I said I hadn't yet read his new book Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up. I had been planning on it because I'm working on a project on the same subject, arguments for the existence of God. Regardless we gabbed a little bit about the New Atheist scene, and in particular, the common criticism that the atheists don't know enough about theology to possibly criticize it (most notably, Terry Eagleton's review of Dawkins in the LRB).
Now that I've read Paulos's little, charming book (in the space of a bus ride from New York to Washington), maybe I can take up our conversation again here.
"Much of theology, it seems to me," writes Paulos "is a kind of verbal magic show" (47). He tosses aside the claim that in order to attack religion he needs to know everything about it:
To a certain intuition, on the one hand, this claim seems quite right. We don't need to have memorized the Illiad to know that we don't believe in Zeus. The idea simply isn't plausible enough to be entertained, and you can figure that our easily enough without dirtying hands with theology. On the other, though, two answers to Paulos's confidence come to mind:
Both of these leads to a kind of dialectic that I have explored before: the claim that if you don't believe what I believe, you simply don't understand it well enough. Paulos himself takes refuge in answer 1, especially in the use of Darwinian evolution against to arguments from design. The alternative to believing God made us, he suggests, is to learn about evolution and thus start to believe it made us. But the theologian in answer 2 is saying pretty much the same thing right back at him.
Though this dialectical trick might ring mischievously true for a moment, it quickly runs into trouble. In the article linked above I noted its resemblance to Anselm's ontological argument—(sort of) like Anselm's God, if you think of the concept in question rightly, it automatically comes true. As such, it is subject to the objection of Gaunilo, Anselm's eleventh century contemporary: you could make the same claim of all kinds of concepts, including ones we can all agree have no basis in reality. A reductio ad absurdum.
Then there is the (somewhat metaphorical) view from Gödel's incompleteness theorem, which nudges us to be suspicious of any claim for a system to fully justify itself (ironic, then, that Kurt Gödel attempted an ontological proof of his own—Paulos notes this several times in his book). This nudge can quickly be taken up by common sense. People live in multi-conceptual worlds. Nothing we take up, whether it be religion or science or juggling, occurs free of reference and contact and context with the others. Jugglers need to know a lot about juggling and can get away without doing calculus. But that doesn't mean a physicist who can't juggle couldn't show him a thing or two about parabolic motion and gravity.
Maybe, in exchange, the juggler might help the physicist with her juggling.
Let me bring this back to the point. I don't think the New Atheists are so profoundly wrong to attack theology without being thoroughly expert about it. But this is less because theology is complete trash than because theology is one outgrowth of a tremendously complex network of beliefs, habits, and social structures. With so many variables to keep track of at once, even the most uninitiated nonbelievers can see stark truths that may not occur as easily to the initiated. There is always something to learn from the view outside, because being outside makes certain connections easier to see.
It is too easy, especially for folks who feel smart, to fool ourselves into imagining our logical arguments as closed and self-sufficient things. I have proved it, so thus it must be! But human worlds are messier. What the enlightened, non-believing "bright" sees as idiotic in the theologian is perfectly equivalent to what the theologian may find idiotic in the bright. And no wonder, really.
And so, as in anything, we must be held responsible for what we choose not to learn about. There may be something quite interesting lurking back there that we're not seeing. Doesn't mean it's true, but not being true doesn't mean it isn't interesting.
re: Why Bother With Theology? - 5/09/2008 19:56:20
re: Why Bother With Theology? - 5/09/2008 20:04:29
re: Why Bother With Theology? - 5/09/2008 23:19:07
re: Why Bother With Theology? - 5/13/2008 12:51:44
re: Why Bother With Theology? - 5/13/2008 13:43:03
There is a God, Flew & Varghese - 5/13/2008 17:19:57
re: Why Bother With Theology? - 5/14/2008 08:24:50
re: Why Bother With Theology? - 5/18/2008 12:15:18