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.