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Theology Should Get Real

Entry 1652, on 2014-05-15 at 22:11:57 (Rating 3, Religion)

I am often critical of various professions and wonder how much actual reality they involve. For example, I have wondered in the past whether economists genuinely study the real world, whether accountants just work with made up numbers, and whether philosophers are just dabbling with interesting but irrelevant intellectual trivialities. But none of these even begin to approach the level of silliness and just pure pointlessness of theology!

I recently listened to a podcast discussing the Christian "Trinity" of God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost (whatever that is, because I still didn't know even after listening to the podcast). The only thing I could compare it with is some fantasy geeks discussing the finer points and the deeper meaning of The Lord of the Rings, or some similar work of fiction. It really is that silly!

I'm not saying that studying fiction, or fantasy, or mythology is a bad thing, but I am saying that when that discussion sounds exactly like a discourse on something that actually exists in the real world it all becomes somewhat surreal.

I mean the discussion over what the Trinity represents is really quite a simple one and doesn't deserve all of the deep analysis and intense thought which goes into it. The answer is simple: early Christians were Jews but they had created a figure (Jesus, who was probably loosely based on a real person) which they endowed with the status of a god, so they had to make something up to explain that situation (because monotheism was a prerequisite to them) and voila! the Trinity was created! Yes, as I said, I still can't figure out where that third component comes from.

I should say at this point that I don't have any really strong objections to theology, or economics, or accounting, and especially not to philosophy. It's just that we should be careful about how seriously we take them. And there is another point too: many of these areas are deeply divided between groups which are more firmly based in a real-world, scientific view, and those (usually with more traditional views) who live in what I might rather unkindly suggest is "Cloud-Cuckoo Land".

For example in philosophy the group who follow analytical philosophy are far more likely (in my opinion - they would probably disagree) to make a useful, practical contribution to knowledge than those who might be seen as Continental philosophers. And theologians who examine religious belief realistically: as an interesting social and psychological phenomenon, or as a highly speculative form of philosophy, are more likely to make useful contributions than those who start with the (apparently false) assumption that a god exists at all.

When you talk to theologians (and I have because I work in a university with a theology department) it's hard to get a straight answer about anything. For example, I once asked if theology starts with the initial "fact" that god exists. After about half an hour of convoluted explanation I still wasn't much wiser about the subject.

I agree that not all questions can be answered simply and many require an answer with a certain degree of nuance, but at the same time making a simple question more complicated and obscuring a simple idea with needlessly complex reasoning is sometimes a sign that there's a certain amount of deliberate obfuscation of the lack of profundity involved.

So theology is fine but it belongs in the same category as mythology, literature, and (at best) highly speculative philosophy. Let's have the discussion on theological topics but clarify the fictional aspects of it with plenty of phrases like "according to the Biblical myth" and "in the story about Jesus" and "early Christians believed". That way we can keep the whole topic in the right perspective.

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Comment 1 (3948) by richard on 2014-05-16 at 22:58:42: (view recent only)

I wonder why you seem genuinely surprised that Theology is so vague. A quick lookup of one online dictionary tells me Theology is: 'The study of the nature of God and religious belief'. Obviously any study of the range of religious belief in the world about a God, multiple Gods (or that there is no God) is always gonna be incredibly varied, and there are 'Theologians' from all those starting 'perspectives', including yours.

Yes, you do have a theological position after all, which is what you affirm, when you express the purely 'theological' opinion that your particular perspective on how we should clarify the 'fictional aspects' of it, is in fact the 'right' perspective.

Well, it may or may not be, but your approach is a common philisophical mistake called 'Begging the question'. It would like someone requesting that we clarify the obviously mythical status of 'alien intelligence', when discussing SETI, an enterprise trying to deduce whether alien intelligence exists or not. It assumes the outcome of the very topic under debate in advance. In case you are wondering, I would object to that treatment of SETI too for the same reason. :) Fun reading though. Cheers, Rich.

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Comment 2 (3949) by OJB on 2014-05-17 at 13:22:50:

So if theology is "the study of the nature of god..." it seems to imply that god exists as a pre-condition to the study existing. Compare this with the study of SETI: the first step is to design objective experiments which can establish if ETI even exists.

As I said, I'm not against philosophical musings on what type of gods could exist, but the uncertainty has to be made very clear just like any discussion of the nature of extraterrestrial intelligence would be prefaced with a disclaimer on how we have no good evidence it even exists.

Also, a real discussion of the possible philosophical and metaphysical aspects of a potential god and some pitiful fantasy about the Trinity are two different things. Theology talking about a ridiculous, childish concept like the Trinity would be like a SETI researcher talking about little green men building canals on Mars!

And I'm not begging the question. I don't start off with the assumption that a god doesn't exist. I reach that conclusion because there is zero good, objective evidence of one. Before a discussion on the nature of god can be reasonably had we should establish if one even exists.

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Comment 3 (3950) by richard on 2014-05-17 at 19:14:30:

Not really wanting to split hairs here (and this may be I admit), but I am not sure your first rebuttal is true, when the definition of theology is taken as a whole - a study of God AND religious belief. If the study of 'Aliens and religious belief in them' had a name (does it?!), I don't think Aliens have to actually exist for the study of 'Aliens and belief in them' to be a perfectly fair definition of that field of study. True, it does require a debatable use of the first occurrence of the word God (or Aliens) in the definition, rather than simply trying to cause trouble. :-)

I certainly don't see that in the same category of justification as the begging the question I referred to, because it is simply dishonest of you to completely dismiss the enormous number of theologians who disagree with you on the question of objective evidence (which has nothing to do with whether you personally agree with their reasoning on the topic. Clearly there is much debate, hence the field of study. Not really sure what the beef is there.

And as for whether you can't have a discussion on the nature of God (or Gods) before you have established whether one exists - why not? I am pretty sure I have seen discussions on what types of aliens might exist well before their existence has been proven and I am sure this type of discussion happens in lots of other fields of study too. I'm certainly not complaining about that - what's the problem?

I agree with you that any and all discussion topics have to stand on their own merits. Nothing wrong with that. but why would you actually want to restrict discussion in this way?

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Comment 4 (3951) by OJB on 2014-05-17 at 21:17:51:

OK, let's really split hairs: I guess it kind of depends how you interpret that word "and", doesn't it? You've done programming, right? How would it be interpreted using Boolean logic?

Theology has nothing to do with objective evidence. Science does. How much science suggests a god exists? That would be none I think (or very close to none depending on your exact interpretation of the question). Admit it: there is no good objective evidence for god, that's why faith is always so important to religion.

As I clearly said above, I'm not against these discussions as long as it is conceded at some point that the existence of the phenomenon under discussion is uncertain (at least). I also said that a reasonable discussion on possible types or attributes of gods is fine but I find discussion of ridiculous dogmatic points like the Trinity totally embarrassing for all concerned.

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Comment 5 (3954) by richard on 2014-05-19 at 07:40:29:

Your use of the words 'I think' in paragraph 2 and 'I find' in p3 are appropriate and required clarification, because of course there are a huge number of perfectly intelligent people who have different opinions. I actually agree with you that Theology includes discussing some topics without objective evidence, but not with a statement that it has nothing to do with 'scientific' evidence. BTW 'Scientists' are not immune to discussing things without any objective evidence either, but I ain't the one complaining about it, just acknowledging it :). There are multiple arguments for Gods existence based on such evidence and you know that. It's just that 'you think' it isn't enough for you. Which brings us right back to the real point of truth that your article is not 'objective truth' about Theology as a discipline, but is subjective truth - about your opinion of it. Located within what is your own Blog Site that subjective opinion is absolutely fine, but claiming to know objective truth of your opinion puts you in a very 'exclusive club'. - in fun - Cheers.

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Comment 6 (3957) by OJB on 2014-05-19 at 22:21:48:

Yes, that was my whole point. If the theologians used words like ("I think" and "I find") to qualify their statements then we would all know which parts of their work are based on presuppositions, personal opinions, and mythology. At least I'm honest enough to use those where appropriate.

Yes, scientists do discuss things without good evidence (string theory would be a good example) but eventually they look for ways to confirm those ideas. It seems to me (note that qualification) that after thousands of years theology is no further ahead and there is no way it ever will be further ahead because you can't test myths.

None of the arguments for god's existence are credible. if they were the subject would be an intense source of scientific research. It isn't. Maybe that will change in future but it's very clear to any unbiased person that the current logical conclusion is that god doesn't exist.

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Comment 7 (3959) by richard on 2014-05-20 at 16:55:06:

As usual we are in general agreement Owen :-). I totally agree theologians and scientists alike should use such qualifications as and when they are necessary. Thanks for being careful to add them on occasion (your qualifications noted :-), but I just find it a bit 'intriguing' at which point you choose to leave them out. I speak specifically of the phrase 'None of the arguments for Gods existence are credible'. Clearly that one requires 'It seems to me'.

Actually 'it seems to me' (note that qualification) that Gods existence IS still the source of intense scientific research. There is both plenty of scientific study on the inference TO Gods existence occurring, and there are also areas of scientific study specifically 'devoted' to trying to disprove the logical arguments that already exist in favour of Gods existence. For example the Multi-verse theory has not a shred of basis in scientific evidence, but was motivated primarily in an attempt to counter the purely scientific study of fine-tuning of the Universe, that has a very clear philosophical implication in Gods favour.

The question of bias in forming an opinion on the credibility of such evidence it itself perhaps open to philisophical bias - it seems to me (ntq).

You say Theology is no further ahead after thousands of years, because you can't test myths? I disagree. Surely all 'research' of any kind (Science and Thology) is just as much about testing myths as it is about testing truth. Every courtroom on the planet spends far more time testing multiple myths than it does testing the singular truth. Of course myths can be tested - and found wanting.

The clear difficulty for Theology is that it deals with (yes both myths and reality) much of which exists outside of the realm of physical/material evidence - which is the only realm that 'science' is capable of working within by our strict current definition. That gives Science a much easier ride, I think (ntq)!

The cool thing is that progresses in Science have significantly aided Theology too. Richard Dawkins made his famous comment about Evolution saying (roughly) that it 'allowed him to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist'.

Personally, (ntq!) I have found that the progresses in science over the last 60 years or so (in all its fields), has allowed me to be an intellectually fulfilled Theist.

I say that not because I think it will convince anyone, but merely that because I am not alone in that conviction, your last statement: "it's very clear to any unbiased person that the current logical conclusion is that God doesn't exist" also requires an 'It Seems to me'. At least 'it seems to me'... Cheers!

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Comment 8 (3960) by OJB on 2014-05-20 at 20:23:34:

No, I deliberately left out any qualifications regarding the arguments for the existence of god. The consensus amongst those who study reality (ie, scientists) is that there is no evidence worthy of being reported in scientific publications.

There is no scientific research I know of which attempts to either prove or disprove god. The multiverse theory naturally arose from string theory, quantum theory, and inflation. It has nothing to do with god. I think you give your god a bit too much importance to those who aren't already believers through faith.

In fact myths can't be tested because they make no specific claims. As soon as one myth is shown to be untrue it is re-interpreted, discarded as "metaphorical", or just accepted despite the facts. Can you give me a single significant example of progress made by theology in the last few hundred years? Let's compare that with science, shall we?

If you think the progress of science supports theism in any way you're just kidding yourself. As our reality based knowledge gets bigger superstition must get smaller, do you not agree? Your god of the gaps is running out of gaps to hide in.

If it was possible to conclude logically that god exists there would be plenty of science supporting god's existence. There isn't.

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Comment 9 (3961) by OJB on 2014-05-20 at 20:26:46:

One more thing: you seem to be getting the word "myth" and "hypothesis" mixed up. They really aren't the same thing.

myth (noun)
1 a traditional story, esp. one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.
2 a widely held but false belief or idea.

hypothesis (noun)
a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.

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Comment 10 (3962) by richard on 2014-05-21 at 17:37:51:

Hmm - In comment 8 you state Myths can't be tested because they make no specific claims. The premise 'God Exists' is clearly then not in that category, because it is a very 'specific claim' & thus a hypothesis according to your own definition, (Irrespective of the truth ie. whether He exists or not). You are trying to suggest that it's a myth, only because you think (ntq lol)it matches the definition of 'a widely held but false belief or idea'. The problem is, that is begging the question before the result is in (in the opinion of many - ntq).

Regarding 'Theology' and 'progress'. Two problems with your line of argument here. First, they are completely different 'categories' of thinking, so you have to define 'progress' for each differently. I agree with you that in terms of which discipline has made more 'obvious' impact to our daily (purely physical) experience, then science wins hands down, but that is simply because Theology doesn't operate in that arena. Therefore comparing the two in that way is pointless. It's up to theologians to decide whether there has been 'progress' in theology in the last few hundred years, not scientists, and what progress there has been won't mean much to scientists (or me for that matter, because I don't claim to be a bona fide theologian either). Out of interest though - What would you define as 'significant progress' in Theology?

Secondly, 'progress' also depends very much on what the destination is, and how far away we are from that destination. One could say (perhaps unkindly LOL) that we are able to make much more progress in Science because we still have so much more to learn, and are starting from such a 'dumb' position (here I simply mean 'relative to how much more we can know', not being nasty at all), whereas wrt Theology, this doesn't necessarily apply. IF God exists, there may not be much more He requires that we know (according to His purpose), and if He doesn't exist then obviously there ISN'T any more we can possibly know, and any apparent 'progress' is an illusion anyway.

I completely agree with you that as knowledge increases superstition MUST get smaller, but attributing that to God is the same question begging as above and so is an irrelevant distraction. Just because Superstitions (non-truth remember) have been shown as such by new scientific knowledge in the past (thunder etc), doesn't mean you can automatically assume something else is a superstition, because you don't yet have clear scientific evidence to disclaim it? It simply doesn't help at all.

Quite the opposite though, 100 years ago, Science hadn't yet provided us with the NEW and irrefutable evidence of the magnitude of specified complexity (i.e. information) present in the very first life forms - for which science has absolutely no satisfactory physical mechanism to explain. It is science however that has given us a universally experienced, universally tested (i.e. it has ONLY ever been this way in all scientific testing) and acknowledged (every scientist understands it) single source for real 'information' - that of mind (intelligence). It hadn't provided us yet with the astonishing number of universal constants and measurements that are fine-tuned to such an infinitesimal degree, in order to make even the universe possible, let alone support life, that it absolutely defies all naturalistic probability. There IS plenty of science that supports Gods existence - oh yes - 'it seems to me' :-) Fun discussion.

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Comment 11 (3963) by richard on 2014-05-21 at 17:50:57:

Sorry - I meant also to (sincerely) ask, can you explain in fairly simple terms because I admit physics ain't my strong point, exactly HOW a multi-verse theory arose naturally from string theory, quantum theory, and inflation. Secondly, Does that mean then that according to those theories, the multi-verse is not merely an optional idea - in that our single universe could also be the true reality and align with them, but an absolutely required feature of 'string/quantum/inflation reality'? I am not sure I have heard that expressed before? That means little I know - LOL!

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Comment 12 (3964) by OJB on 2014-05-22 at 09:33:43:

You're right "God exists" is not a myth. It is a statement (most likely an incorrect one). The myths I'm talking about are detailed stories which might have metaphorical or literal meaning depending on your perspective. For example: creation, the crucifixion, Exodus, etc. Note that if you look at these myths literally then they are clearly untrue but when they are subject to the reinterpretation which seems normal for myths then nothing can be concluded either way.

I agree theology and science are very different, but don't both claim to seek the "truth"? Look at the many deep truths science has uncovered: relativity, quantum theory, etc. What can theology claim to have given us in comparison?

What would I accept as significant progress? How about this: does god exist and if it does, is it one of the gods the major religions have or something else?

I have never started with the premise that god doesn't exist therefore I have not begged the question. My simple conclusion has always been that there is practically zero evidence that a god exists therefore my current conclusion is that he doesn't. All I need is evidence to change my mind on the subject.

So you're invoking the good old anthropic principle as evidence for god. Fair enough. I do have to say that I find that very interesting too. But it really is a god of the gaps argument: we don't know why the constants are the way they are, so god exists. See, not very convincing, is it?

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Comment 13 (3965) by OJB on 2014-05-22 at 09:43:53:

Well I am also not a physicist and only someone working in the area would understand the maths. I can give you some links to articles aimed at a more basic level though...

Multiverse Controversy Heats Up over Gravitational Waves.
The Multiverse Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.
5 Reasons We May Live in a Multiverse.
A Physicist Explains Why Parallel Universes May Exist.

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Comment 14 (3966) by richard on 2014-05-22 at 13:11:56:

Once again, it wasn't my intention to steer this thread onto a 'Does God Exist' discussion, I was really trying to play fair and stick to thinking about the topic you raised of 'Theology getting real'. In that light, this was where I was posing the question about what you would regard as 'progress' for Theology. Thanks for the reply, which I understand completely, and actually agree with it wholeheartedly, but my concern was/is that you have made it abundantly clear many times in the past that the only evidence that would ever convince you, is not theological evidence, but physical (scientific) evidence.

That is why I am suggesting that maybe it's difficult (or near impossible) for Theology to meet your personal progress expectations, because as stated earlier it simply doesn't work in that category of knowledge. I should have clarified perhaps and asked you what sort of 'theological evidence' would you say would answer the questions you say would show significant progress for Theology? Many theologians (imo lol) would claim an abundance of theological evidence (knowledge that ) for rationally inferring some kind of 'Mind over matter' worldview shall we say, but according to your previous it is of course all lost on you. That isn't really the fault of 'theology' though is it, when you consider its constraints. Fun to muse over though.

Just to mention though too about the gaps thing (your last paragraph in comment 12). I hate to harp on about begging the question again, but you have kinda done that again by smuggling your prior philosophy (i.e. not evidence) into the statement (as you have phrased it) to unfairly bais towards the 'gaps' argument.

Your statement actually expands as: "We don't (science doesn't) know why the constants are the way they are, (BUT we 'know' ALREADY (science declares already) that God simply CANNOT be the answer to WHY the constants are the way they are, because that particular answer is not allowed in my restricting world view) and so any attempt to suggest that we COULD in fact POSSIBLY know WHY they are the way they are by saying 'God Exists' is simply adding God into the Gap, without any scientific JUSTIFICATION (that last word is the key component here).

Rather, the argument itself relies on the FACT that it HAS justification for answering the question based purely on SCIENCE and repeated scientific observation. Science (I assume we can also includes Maths here) has abundant prior evidence that shows that in EVERY case of scientifically recorded history, artifacts that laws of probability shows simply cannot occur via natural unguided processes are the result of a MIND. We are happy this applies to a well shaped prehistoric stone tool, a space shuttle, Mount Rushmore, why does this same scientific principle not apply to a Universe?

Now of course this doesn't absolutely answer the question of whether God actually exists, but we must remember that when talking about the Universe we are in a tricky spot. By definition we cannot OBSERVE anything outside the Universe, but it IS perfectly fair to assume that some basic principles still apply. The (scientific) principle that states 'Whatever 'thing' had a beginning ALWAYS (in our universal experience) has a cause sufficient to explain the thing' should sit in that category.

When viewed in that light, we also have to remember that when a gap in our knowledge is there, 'something' MUST always fill it, and filling it with 'an unknown physical cause or even worse NOTHING LOL' is actually just as much a GAP answer as God is (when thinking about the Universe itself as we were). However, to arbitrarily assume some material cause or NO cause, we actually must DISMISS all previous scientific historical knowledge of causes for similar complex artifacts - so in fact saying NOTHING caused the Universe is far MORE of a GAP argument than simply suggesting it too was the result of a mind.

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Comment 15 (3967) by OJB on 2014-05-22 at 13:34:43:

What exactly is "theological evidence"? It's difficult to say how seriously I would take it before I know what it is. Regarding "physical/scientific evidence", and I have said this before: most believers think their god interacts/has interacted with with the universe in some way. If he does scientific techniques will detect it, if he doesn't then he really doesn't exist in any meaningful way.

Can you tell me some sort of progress which you think theology has achieved?

If the evidence shows some supernatural source for the constants being the way they are then I will accept that (and I think so would most scientists). Can you think of an experiment to show a god was responsible rather than other explanations which might possibly be tested?

Many objects seem to be the result of an intelligence but after further research that is clearly show to be untrue. That's why creation and intelligent design are no longer taken seriously. I would have thought that if the universe was designed to encourage life it would be a bit more friendly than it is! How many different ways are there for life to be wiped out? Hundreds!

Actually you're wrong again. Just coming up with a childish, trite answer like "god did it" is not the same as saying the universe had no cause (a principle with support from quantum theory) or that we are part of a multiverse which is infinite in time, so had no beginning (like inflation observations suggest). The god answer just isn't on the same level at all.

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