The car was having a lot of issues, so I took it down to Craig’s Garage and gave them my list of problems: leaking oil seal, transmission getting stuck in second gear, bad alignment on the left front wheel, the heater not working, gas gauge intermittent, electric window on passenger side stuck down, a bad rattle at higher speeds, and ratty wiper blades. Many hours later, the guy at the garage called me to come take a look at it. Proudly, he showed me how wonderful the wiper blades worked now.
“And that’s it?” I asked.
“What do you mean, ‘that’s it?’ They’re perfect wiper blades! Isn’t that enough?”
This seemed familiar. “You’re a theologian, aren’t you?” I hazarded.
If you’ve ever witnessed a long, drawn-out discussion on theology, chances are you know what I mean by this, since it’s a very common occurrence. A supremely large portion of theology consists of selecting just one of the myriad problems with religious posits (the problem of evil, the age of the earth, the lack of measurable effect, the contradictions of scripture, etc,) finding some way to explain or dodge around the select issue, and then feeling that this takes care of the whole lot and legitimizes religious belief.
And, unfortunately, enough people are perfectly willing to accommodate this entirely. There is no recognition of the numerous problems, there is only the delight in the victory, however small, and too often this isn’t even a solution, but more of a James Bond/Arnold Schwarzenegger quip – something that sounds good but really makes no sense: “Why are there still monkeys?!?!?”
It also bears noting that, in the centuries that theology has been wielded, we have yet to see any agreement on it or, god forbid, a complete theory. Talk to any five theologians, even on the exact same topic, and you’ll receive five different explanations. Sometimes more, if you ask again later.
“So what about the uneven tire wear on the left front?” I continued.
“That’s perfectly normal if you turn right a lot, so it’s not something that needs repairing,” said my theomechanic.
Another aspect seen far too often is, instead of providing some support or evidence for their own standpoint, theologians and the devout try to poke holes in the arguments/evidence against religious belief, and see this as sufficient. One example is the shroud of Turin, which has been carbon-dated (three times independently) to about the same time it appeared suddenly in historical records, some 1400 years after it was claimed to have wrapped jesus. It takes no effort whatsoever to find countless sources, none of them bearing any scientific basis whatsoever, that claim that the carbon dating tests were wildly skewed (yes, to an order of magnitudes) by contamination. Little niggling details like the cloth having been made on a loom that wasn’t to be invented for another six centuries, the image possessing wild anatomical inaccuracies, and it being both a flat-plane rendering and distinctly paint, aren’t sufficient to label the shroud a hoax – not in the light of a potential loophole in the carbon dating!
“What about the second gear issue?” I persevered, for some ungodly reason.
“Ah, here’s the story behind that,” said the mequinas. “That gear was certainly made from metal that used to be in a diesel train engine, and they have only two main speeds. Thus it would be resistant to shifting up out of second, since that’s an overspeed condition to trains.”
And when the scripture is lacking in any kind of adequate or relevant detail, it is perfectly permissible to simply infer (that means, “make up”) whatever details seem sufficient to promote your goal, and proceed as if this was just as much a part of scripture as the records themselves. Very few people seem to realize how little of any given current religious practice or imparted information is actually mentioned in their holy book. Religious practices throughout history have been shaped by what was popular at the time, from the proscription against women speaking without permission, to witch hunts (you do realize this is against one of them ten commandments, right?), up to the curious idea that the fossil record is a ‘test of faith.’ Even hell is barely covered, and not by name, only in the new testament. Then of course there are the countless changes to actual scripture through the centuries, which even if we accept the idea (see carbon-dating above) that those editors were divinely-guided, why did it have to happen so many times over the years? Yet the lack of relevant support for the catholic church’s crusade against condoms doesn’t clue in enough people that the church is making it all up as it goes along.
“Let me try and clarify the situation here,” I said with utmost patience. “You specifically hire yourself out for auto repair. I have agreed to pay you for just that. Your part in this is to repair the auto.”
The horn-poker simply waved his hands dismissively. “Listen, I spoke to every mechanic in the shop here, and they all agree that the car’s fixed now. You just don’t understand sophisticated auto repair.”
Failing to make any kind of coherent point, those arguing for the benefits of theology frequently fall back onto two particular arguments: The idea that a majority opinion supplants fact and evidence; and the implication that anyone not seeing the value of theology simply hasn’t understood theology. The former demonstrates an interesting avenue of psychological investigation, since the flaws with it are obvious the moment anyone actually stops to think about it, yet surprisingly few ever do. The latter is simply a matter of convenience, the pot of gold that you can obtain by reading the right books or listening to the right theologian, each of which naturally is not the one you just finished demolishing. Curiously, not only is this knowledge not a requirement for the churches brimming with people right now, but 99% of them can not enumerate any of the same arguments when asked – apparently such sophistication can be completely unconscious in the right people.
Let’s not forget how arrogant this attitude is, seasoned with irony. Those putting forth this rejoinder directly imply that you cannot grasp the nuances of their standpoint while being unable to explain it themselves. That might be adorable… coming from a three-year-old.
“Just fix the goddamn car,” I suggested, patience with such bullshit now having reached its limit.
“The car’s fixed; that settles it,” came the haughty reply.
I shouldn’t have to point out how little this would mean to anyone, who leaves no better off than before, and it certainly doesn’t demonstrate any useful skills or wisdom. Such arguments, which really are purchased as bumper stickers to display proudly to one and all, only make the sophisticated point that someone is both irrational and petulant. That churches actually promote and glorify such attitudes isn’t a mark in their favor, either.
We, thankfully, maintain some standards for people that fulfill useful functions in society, such as auto mechanics, so the chances of this conversation actually taking place are minute. In fact, I think anyone who tried such explanations would know they were courting a fat lip or a lawsuit, and certainly wouldn’t be keeping much business. It’s a shame we haven’t yet reached that minimal standard with theology.
Inspired, or provoked, by this post on the problem of evil at EvolutionBlog.