But how? Part 13: Theology

Once again I’m denying that I painted myself into a corner by choosing the “But how?” tag for posts of this nature, though it worked so well for a while. Pretend it’s anything you want it to be, however, since we’re going to ignore it and tackle a frequent lament to atheists everywhere, which is, But you haven’t considered sophisticated theology.

If you ask me what comprises ‘sophisticated’ theology, I’ll have to admit I have no idea – there is no real definition available, it’s just the argument that is often brought up when the most common aspects of religion, the ones used by virtually every religious person daily, haven’t been standing up to critical examination. If we take the more apparent traits of the theological tomes and papers considered sophisticated, we’d settle on it meaning either “circumlocution” or “obfuscation,” (I prefer “logorrheic” myself,) and I really do believe this is one of the prime reasons underlying their selection; it means rebutting them may take a while, which is likely to be avoided, but even if it isn’t, it’s a way to make someone spend a lot of time on the task. But let’s not be unfair – some people really are impressed by examples of dense philosophical pondering without realizing that philosophy is capable of going absolutely nowhere, while others never even read it, simply figuring that so many words in support of their case must be conclusive.

There are two things that I will note right up front. The first is that the argument that nobody has answered any given theological principle is usually misdirection; only a tiny percentage of any religious folk are familiar with more than rudimentary theology themselves, much less having used it to form their belief system. It’s an interesting side argument: is religion about some abstract line of reasoning, or is it what people believe in and why? Rebutting any theological argument really doesn’t make much difference to anyone’s belief, but unfortunately, if it’s avoided, that’s considered a win for religion, having presented an argument that cannot be trashed.

The second thing is that theology is not even remotely a science, and barely a philosophy. It consists, to a vast extent, of trying to find ways to support a foregone conclusion: god exists. You may think this is being either unfair or selective, but that’s what this post is going to illustrate.

A significant part of theology is establishing that a creator might be possible, and if so, then the concept is worthy of consideration. From a scientific standpoint, this is putting the cart before the horse; a more important question is, what makes anyone propose a god or creator in the first place? This highlights the foregone conclusion part, since one could easily argue that a periodic fluctuation in physical laws might be possible, or a extra-dimensional leak of material – speculation is limited only by imagination, and it’s not really deep thought to take that speculation and then try to find ways to support the idea. Draw the right analogy, and virtually anything can seem to make sense. Instead, we typically look for things that are supported by evidence rather than speculation, and even speculation (in the form of the theoretical sciences) needs to be buttressed by something that it predicts or explains. For instance, if there was a periodic fluctuation, would this mean that gravity could be found to be in a state of flux, increasing or decreasing by a measurable amount as it goes through its cycle?

Another glaring failure of sophisticated theology is that most of the arguments have nothing whatsoever to do with the gods that anyone believes in, nor establishes any property that could be of any use. The ontological argument, for example, argues for a perfect being, but how does this tie in with the being that anyone worships? Does a perfect being answer prayers, or even care what happens to the human race, as imperfect as we are? Right here is where religious folk leap up and avow the caring of the creator, usually by our bare existence, but notice how haphazard it is – how many areas of the world seem to receive none of this, the question of how perfection could have anything to do with judgment or torment, how many badly mistaken people (every competing, contradictory religious standpoint) somehow remain untouched by this perfection, leading one to wonder just how badly the definition of perfection can be mangled to make it work for sophisticated theology. If we have to resort to poor philosophical arguments to establish a likelihood of a perfect being, isn’t that by itself a demonstration of imperfection? Perfection shouldn’t be able to be mistaken in any way, by its very nature.

Sophistry refers to explanations that seem logical or rational, but actually fail to make sense, and this appears quite often within theology, and to no small extent in philosophy as well. It’s easy to posit factors such as, “Everything must have a beginning,” (or “cause” if you prefer,) and we feel this makes perfect sense. But there’s nothing that proves this at all, and in fact, matter can become energy and vice versa, but we see the beginning of nothing at all – just changes in state. Such arguments are influenced more from the perspective of humans, beings with finite lifespans, and even that can degrade into examinations of what life actually is and how we define consciousness. Not to mention that, if everything much have a cause, then we must have infinite causes going back forever, or posit an initial cause at some point in the past. To say that an uncaused, eternal being is the cause is to demonstrate that this really isn’t a rule at all, and if the being can exist forever, why not matter? Essentially, what’s being proposed is a very specific state of affairs – that there’s a fundamental law of the universe that proves the existence of a being who’s exempt from that very law – without demonstrating that either condition exists.

The nature of science is to establish that not only is a proposed scenario/trait/law likely, any other possible scenario is ruled out at the same time; not just an explanation, but the only one that fits. Theology makes no such efforts; the argument above (known as the cosmological argument) fails to rule out that all proposed traits therein can simply not exist and the exact same results can be achieved. The idea of a sensus divinitatis, an actual biological input like smell or touch that allows humans to pick up some inkling of the divine, is almost alone in theology in that it is actually based on a bare scrap of evidence: that most cultures around the world have developed some form of religion. The rot sets in when you attempt to get any more refined than the broad term “religion,” since none of these cultures agree on what is being sensed in any detail, unable to even pin down the number of divine beings. Meanwhile, the concept of agency has been carefully examined within the sciences and can even be seen in other species. It’s not hard to create an explanation for anything; the real skill (and value) comes in determining that it’s accurate and even useful.

It is worth noting here that the value of a logical argument for religion is rather haphazardly wielded. While considered important for sophisticated theology, which is used by adherents as needed to reinforce their position, most religious practices and the scriptural stories they’re based upon are so far removed from logic that it’s ludicrous. Original sin, worldwide floods, reincarnation cycles, and in fact, any trial or test of mankind by a creator not only defy logic, they defy any explanation whatsoever, and are maintained solely by assertion and claims of divine mystery. To conflate any theological concept with the religions practiced the world over shows that no consistent standards are being maintained in the slightest.

To go just a wee bit deeper into the philosophical end of it, we must realize that even logic is not the property we assume. It is limited by our own knowledge and experience, and in fact, that’s really all it is: observation leads to inferred property, which may be extrapolated into physical law or overall truth. But in the absence of adequate information, logic can and does fall flat. The history of science has countless examples of logical, perfectly sound explanations that were later found to be completely wrong – we simply did not have enough information to go on, or no previous experience with the effect, so even a logical argument is not proof of anything; this isn’t mathematics. While here, I’ll address the argument that religious folk have used against science: that it changes so often, which certainly makes it sound unstable. But science is not the properties of the universe, it is the pursuit of understanding them. Knowledge, of course, must progress, unless one possesses omniscience, in which case one would hardly need an argument to make a point. Meanwhile, contrast this all against religions where no information, and few predictions, are ever developed in the first place, and in order to make the premises work, mystical, untouchable, unknowable realms are wielded with great confidence. It is easy to say that beyond the Andromeda Galaxy sits a golden chariot, and this assertion will never be proven wrong if we never get that far – that’s considered pretty solid in religious circles. But it’s never proven right either, which is the minimum standard of any science. While the religious may find satisfaction in vague wordplay such as claiming that a creator lives ‘outside’ of any place we could see or find, happy that the definition precludes any further demonstrations, the rules change whenever anyone dares to say, “There is no god.” Abruptly, being unable to prove this wrong is no longer a solid argument; protests against making such a definitive statement, and cries that logic has been violated, are issued immediately. Yet theology is nothing more than making such definitive statements.

[I’m going to backtrack slightly to throw out two curious side observations here about the “science changes but religion always remains the same” argument. First off, there isn’t a religion on earth that hasn’t changed drastically, much less lacks countless devoted adherents who cannot agree on what, exactly, isn’t changing – I can walk less than ten minutes in any direction from where I sit now and find churches for six different interpretations of christianity alone. Second, science does indeed have some unchanging concepts, known as the laws of physics – it is precisely these that the religious deny are laws in the first place, circumvented by a creator and a realm of afterlife and countless other ideas. It doesn’t appear as if “unchanging” is as important a trait as claimed…]

Very often, a prime criteria of any theological concept is its compatibility, either with an existing religious belief or currently understood science, or both – this is especially true of the cosmological argument. But this really isn’t much of a hurdle – I could spit out a dozen nonsense theories in a half hour that could accomplish both, but this would not make them likely in any way, or anything more than creative imagination. Note that few, if any, theological concepts have to be compatible with each other, and this raises an interesting perspective. It’s easy to find protests that science has not considered the so-and-so principle, and this is taken to mean that the principle is capable of universal acceptance by everyone except those stubborn scientists. But the protest never involves whether hindus or buddhists consider it; the difference of opinion among various religions is not somehow considered important enough to merit the attention. I’ve made the point that a sound theological principle should easily be accepted by all of those who already feel that religion is important; that seems to me to be the first goal one would want to reach. If it’s true that theology is intended as explanatory, this would be a minimum standard; instead we have the search for places to hide supernaturality, itself a concept that relies on inexplicability.

This highlights the incredibly vague definition of religion in the first place, and this also makes sophisticated theology a questionable pursuit. Wouldn’t one, firm definition be a reasonable start? If we allow for the devout, personal savior attitude of christianity, and the deity-free precepts of buddhism, and the multiple deities of hinduism, and world-consciousness and karmic cycles and all of the others… what, exactly, are theologians even trying to establish? What’s the common denominator, what principle should we all be agreeing on? Most of the world’s religions have to be wrong in the details – there’s too much contradiction, extending even to local sects – so what value is theology supposed to bring? If we cannot even establish that major practices are correct or delusional, instead aiming only for the indulgence of all of them, why should anyone care? People can be right no matter what the hell they believe? You’ll pardon me if I cannot find the sophistication that this embodies.

And finally, there’s the remarkably inane concept that reality is established by popularity, or even by argument. This is no more sophisticated than blind assertion, and no more useful. Even if everyone in the world became convinced by some theological argument (good luck with that,) it wouldn’t mean that anything had been established other than convincing humans of something, which isn’t a huge accomplishment; we’re a species that believes a celebrity endorsement indicates the value of a product. For there to be any value whatsoever to theology, beyond the self-absorbed justification of existing belief, it should be capable of providing something that we can use to our benefit. It should not simply allow a belief system, but be able to explain, or predict, or even improve something in our lives – these are minimum standards of science, so religion should be able to meet these criteria handily. Yet, the value of any of the major theological arguments remains to be seen, especially since, as noted earlier, the vast majority of those who embrace religion cannot even relate the prime theological arguments.

That was all part one. Part two is why theology even exists. We, as a species, look for cause-and-effect, driven to understand how things work and why. More than a few people have put forth that science handles the how, but theology handles the why – except, it really doesn’t, does it? We only get answers like “god’s will” and “we’re not meant to comprehend,” which is a shitass version of why, if you’ll pardon my pointing this out.

Even worse for theology, however, is a very basic trait that science has revealed: we’re a species prone to seeing agency, or a specific, motivated, aimed explanation behind how things work. Not every time, no – prone does not mean perpetually – but we’re remarkably bad at personifying inanimate objects and random events, even finding order or patterns where none exists. This is demonstrated constantly in how badly people mangle statistics and odds, believing a change is “due” or a pattern of bad luck has to change. On top of this, we’re woefully biased towards human ways of thinking, to the point where we believe animals think like we do and that alien species will be able to communicate with us. All of these traits make it very easy for us to expect some form of guiding intelligence behind the universe; it just seems right. But it seems right because we evolved to think in anthropocentric ways.

We are one of many social animals, species that derive a benefit from a cooperative existence, and that sociability is provoked by the good feelings we receive from positive interactions, and the bad feelings from negative ones. An attractive stranger smiles at us and we’re pleased. We watch people’s eyes, we read their emotions through body language and tone of voice; many species do this. Some of us go so far as to believe trees strive for light and growth, and dolphins enjoy our companionship. Neither can charitably be considered the case; there’s no evidence whatsoever that this is true. We’re just biased in those directions, formed by nature to favor the explanations that feed the social instinct. The entire field of theology can easily be seen to be an extension of this, seeking explanations that provide a beneficent, kindred spirit. This is, in fact, the only thing that theology provides, since it explains nothing, predicts nothing, and is evidenced by nothing. It cannot be tested or falsified, and subverts the simple logical formula If A, then B – there is no B, unless it’s, “I’m happy.” This really isn’t a result that can lead anyplace, nor a reason to consider it a valid pursuit.

This ties in well with the certainty, mentioned above, that unprovable, indemonstrable supernatural traits exist – there can, of course, be no certainty of any such thing, unless we mangle the word to lose all meaning whatsoever. But there can be a desire for such conditions; affirmations of self-importance, or a beneficent overseer, or that we will ultimately be found to be good and thus rewarded. While it is frequently argued that having such emotions is indicative of higher meaning, we’re a species capable of extraordinary feats of denial in service to our egos and desires – this is easily seen in political arguments, and everyone wrapped in a bad relationship, gambling and addictions, justifying purchases, and even our diets. It’s hard to imagine something more ubiquitous, really. No one ever has confidence in a belief that is not self-affirming; the argument that faith is a path to Truth™ never recognizes the bare fact that most of the world does not agree on what this truth is. We should fully expect that there should be one world faith, and no religious conflict of any kind.

We come back to how sophisticated is defined. One might certainly think that human traits that can be studied and measured, that have analogs in other species, that are specific to the survival trials we face and can be shaped by natural selection as much as the unique behaviors of many other animal species, should be considered a hell of a lot more sophisticated than a collection of vague philosophical word games. That chemical and energy processes which can not only trace backwards 13.8 billion years to a period of utter simplicity, but also explain and predict the processes we can measure as far as light will carry, and allows us to manipulate atoms themselves and form computing systems based solely on varying resistance, could potentially earn the title of sophisticated more appropriately than explanations that can be interpreted at will. That taking speculation one step further, ignoring trust and instead considering predictable, dependable results to be paramount, which has led to the vast majority of advances mankind has achieved in medicine, engineering, manufacturing, energy, travel, [insert everything science has ever accomplished in here] – that this reliance on solid progress might, just might mind you, be considered somehow more sophisticated than justifying a foregone conclusion. Given all of this, it seems the label of ‘sophisticated’ isn’t really a comparative adjective, but a judgmental one – the frustrated insistence of the religious that their belief is impressive, rather than self-absorbed. This doesn’t mean anyone is obligated to take it seriously.