Sunday, April 28, 2013

No One Actually Cares About Theology

Like many non-religious people, I've noticed a strange disconnect: that many actively evangelical religious people will tell you it's not possible to be a good person without following their religion, but then when you ask them the most basic questions about their own religion, they frankly have no idea. How does your denomination differ in its teachings from the one across the street? What are the basic, foundational doctrines? Most people are clueless. What you find is that when they do attempt an answer, the response comes in terms of the people: "Well, Methodists are just nicer. They just have more faith." And you try to bring it back to "But what are the teachings that are all-important that you live your life according to, and you want me to live according to as well?" Something that I think both theists and atheists agree on, I hope, is all this is about how to live the best life possible. There's a practical impact of these beliefs.

Unfortunately, very often, people get upset when they realize they have no idea what their own denomination teaches, but of course they can't say that out loud, so it turns into: "Well you can't explain it." "You just have to have faith." "Well I'm sorry that you just don't understand it." This is consistent with my own limited experience at church services. Not counting funerals and weddings, I've been to one Protestant service in my life, and one thing that struck me was the almost total lack of truth claims in the sermon. Narratives, analogies, but few truth claims - just a warm and fuzzy feeling at the end that some nice stories were told. If this were a movie, the theology of the denomination would have been an uncredited extra. It's very hard to believe that theology makes a difference when the vast, vast majority of religious believers can't even reproduce the most basic tenets of their own religion's foundations. My guess is about half of Lutherans would have heard of the 95 theses, but I bet less than 5% could name a single one. (Don't get me started on the Diet of Worms. No it's not a weird paleo diet fad. But it's okay for you not to know, since you're not Lutheran. Unless you are. In which case, you still don't know it, and don't care.)

Which brings me to the reason for this post. There's been an interesting discussion going on between a few online public intellectuals, and Razib Khan put in print what many of us suspect, which is that theology is really just "intellectual foam":
The key insight of cognitive scientists is that for the vast majority of human beings religion is about psychological intuition and social identification, and not theology. A deductive theory of religion derived from axioms of creed fails in large part because there is no evidence that the vast majority of religious believers have internalized the sophisticated aspects of their theologies and scriptures in any deep and substantive sense.
Great example: I once pointed out to a Catholic that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception applies not to the conception of Jesus, but of Mary. Needless to say this was resisted. Sending the actual Papal declaration on the matter seemed not to convince them. Why? Because this has nothing to do with being Catholic, that's why. Being Catholic as about the rituals and trusting the moral authority of the Pope and his employees, and not about the Bible or the Papal Bulls. And that's the most central stuff there is, never mind theologists scribbling away at academic centers. And for that matter, is there such a thing as an "advance" in theology? Many Christians and Muslims claim that their texts are perfect and literal. If that's the case, how can theology ever create anything new? The only thing to do would be re-copy the text. Of course, some religions have done exactly that.

Based on Christians' behavior (literalist or otherwise), it's absolutely not a living enterprise - since a whole new gospel, previously lost, was re-discovered in just the last few decades and Christians don't care, period. I know I would be a little disturbed as an American if I find out there was a missing page of the Bill of Rights we'd misplaced. It would make a difference to our daily lives. It's not just legal scholarship where a new discovery like this would actually matter: if suddenly a new medical text by the old European physiologists like Trousseau or Virchow surfaced, you bet it would be scoured for lost observations. These fields make a practical difference in daily life, and their texts matter. In theology, this is not the case. It's window-dressing. Incidentally, you can apply this more specifically to creationists: where are the creationist pharmaceutical companies? The creationist medical schools? Creationist discoveries of any kind, as opposed to just making excuses after the fact for someone else's discovery when they were doing real work? (Another interesting point that Khan makes is how any religion's theology quickly diverges when its writers are in isolation from each other, another sign that it's hogwash. That doesn't happen with say, astronomy. Somehow the Mayans and Mesopotamians converged on the same sets of observations for the planets, and they never even met in the first place. Has an Amazonian hunter-gatherer ever thought real hard about things, and independently discovered Christianity or Islam? No? Strange, for such a central truth of life.)

But I think the important lesson here is really that if we think we're going to change people's minds by pointing out the complete malarkey of their theology, we're wrong. Because they don't care or believe in it anyway. It's just that they can't admit this out loud to you or themselves, because the textual window dressing helps bolster the moral authority of their organization, and it's really about social identification with a group a people. In the paleolithic, you didn't determine if someone was in your tribe by whether they adhered to the same core beliefs, it was whether they followed the same rituals and moral rules - and this is no different at all. And to that end the best thing we can do to expand reason is to show by example that it's a good way to live your life. To some extent, we all use moral shibboleths to identify ourselves to each other. The challenge is to make sure they're based on coherent truth that we're confident enough to subject to scrutiny in the light of day.


Razib said...


Michael Caton said...

Thanks, although I do request that readers keep comments to a reasonable length.

Anonymous said...

Hi there. A mutual friend of ours with the initials GK introduced me to you. I thought I'd make a couple of comments on this post.

You say: "...that many actively evangelical religious people will tell you it's not possible to be a good person without following their religion,..."

I think this reflects a common misunderstanding of the Christian's argument regarding morality. The argument is NOT, non-Christian's can't be good. Rather, the argument is there is no rational justification for the existence of moral facts without God. It's a meta-ethics discussion, not an applied ethics discussion.

You say: "I've been to one Protestant service in my life, and one thing that struck me was the almost total lack of truth claims in the sermon."

I guess this wasn't my church's Protestant service. You're welcome to visit. ;)

Unfortunately, I have to agree with you that a great majority of American Christians are not intellectually with it. You might find a better intellectual interaction with people from the Reformed circles like me. I'm fairly certain I could answer most of the questions you raise here.

Regarding the discovery of a new gospel, I think you're ignoring or unaware of many of the central Christian doctrines regarding the canon and God's nature. Christians believe that God is in control of history and that He has revealed Himself in scripture. Part of that revelation tells us that the canon was closed and completed in the 1st century. His providence would tell us that He hasn't left His church with less than His fully intended revelation for 2000 years, hence new discoveries are not part of the canon.

Could I be convinced my Christian beliefs were all based on falsity? Could you be convinced that your atheistic beliefs were all based on falsity? I think we might both say that it is highly doubtful but that we could imagine scenarios that could make that happen. For me, just to get started, I'd have to see how atheism could rationally provide for human experiences we all take for granted, such as knowledge, morality, induction, logic, etc. As it stands now, I think the rejection of theism puts you into a very difficult epistemological position. If atheism were true, I don't believe you could know that atheism were true.

Michael Caton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response. I can't tell you how much I appreciate a well thought out comment like this.

You say: "...we all defend each others' right to freedom of conscience so we can work these things out by free and uncoerced discussion between individuals..."

I very much agree.

Regarding the Plantinga reference and the idea of discursive finitude, I am aware of that, but don't agree. Instead, I agree with you that even though our knowledge is fallable, it is still knowledge. However, that still doesn't solve the naturalist problem of how their can be such a thing as knowledge at all in their worldview.

I look forward to meeting you someday. :D

Michael Caton said...

Theonomist, thanks for your comment. Oh boy, that GK sending trouble-makers to my blog! :)

First, thanks for the invite to your church. The one I went to was nothing but welcoming as well. As to the question "if atheism were false, could I be convinced of it?" - I certainly hope so. Atheism is one conclusion that many people have arrived at from trying to pin one's beliefs as close as possible to empirical reality, regardless of preconceptions. If I can be shown that I'm wrong, I absolutely 100% would change my mind (and would want to do so). I would hope that everyone would want the same thing in this regard.

At the end you seem to be alluding to the naturalism vs epistemology argument, to which Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel have been the most recent adherents. It boils down to "if naturalism is true, human minds are imperfect machines, therefore we would be unable to apprehend the truth, therefore atheism and naturalism are mutually defeating". It is clearly true that our minds are not perfect proposition-evaluation machines. They're constrained by their construction, and they're able to contain false beliefs. But not having absolutely certainty is not the same as having no knowledge. This is why the most effective ways of reasoning separate the beliefs from the reality they're trying to describe, in part by assigning degrees of confidence to them.

It seems like you've thought about these things, but if so you're in a small minority of Christians based on survey data I've seen and (for what it's worth) my own anecdotal experience - and the Christians I know are in general solid, well-educated folks. If well educated Christian has ever come to the faith or had their faith significantly reinforced by these arguments, than just about nobody has. And that was exactly my point in writing this post. Alvin Plantinga will not be starting a mega-church based on his arguments any time soon.

At the end of the day the most important thing is that we all defend each others' right to freedom of conscience so we can work these things out by free and uncoerced discussion between individuals - which is something that many religious people I know do understand.