Eric MacDonald, who knows his onions about theology, is doing a series on the critics of Dawkins’s The God Delusion, showing that they’re largely misguided. His most recent installment deals with the review, published in the 2007 New York Review of Books, by H. Allen Orr. Orr was my first Ph.D. student (now a distinguished professor at The University of Rochester) and still a dear friend, but we nearly came to blows over his piece—at least as close as one can come to blows in a telephone conversation. I vividly remember that two-hour call, for we wound up yelling at each other, with Allen finally telling me that we were never again to talk about religion (we haven’t).
Many of the criticisms that Eric makes were ones I brought up in that call, including Orr’s denigration of The God Delusion as “middlebrow” and his criticism of Dawkins for not engaging the best and most sophisticated arguments of theology. We all know the response to that one: sophisticated theology is merely smart people using jargon to gussy up their ignorance. But I want to highlight two places where Eric makes a good point. The first involves the tenacious hold that religion, especially of the Christian species, has on many people. Remember that Eric was once an Anglican priest, who left the church when he could no longer abide its doctrines:
As a priest it was impossible for me not to notice the contradiction between what I often said in church and how I lived the rest of the week. That is simply unavoidable, and anyone who is a religious believer is often struck by the inconsistency between life as it needs to be lived, as, it seems, it can only be lived, and life as one’s religious beliefs demand that it should be lived. There are all sorts of fudges used to hide the inconsistency, but it would be foolish to deny that the inconsistency exists. The inconsistency, of course, leads to a perpetual state of dissatisfaction and sense of failure, which is why, no doubt, at the centre of the Christian liturgy lies the acknowledgement of sin and the desperate appeal for salvation.
This seems especially true of Catholicism, which keeps its grip on Catholics by inculcating them with an endless cycle of guilt and retribution. For a very personal look at how this works, read Miranda Hale’s essay, “A dirty little girl, hanging her head in shame.” Sex is one of the best ways to do this. Given the power of the sexual impulse instilled by natural selection, who can avoid being “sinful” in that area? And of course that keeps you going back to church and confession time after time.
Eric’s second point, which will be familiar to anyone who reads modern theology, stems from theologians’ response to philosopher J. L. Mackie’s arguments about the problem of evil. Apologists circumvented this theological difficulty simply by asserting that god was not “personal” (i.e., an agency), so god wasn’t responsible. Eric’s take on this:
Now, my point is this. Here is a kind of theological argumentation. A philosopher takes the standard understanding of god as a personal being who acts, whose purposes are benevolent, and who is all-powerful. Given that understanding, the problem of evil appears insurmountable (as I believe it is). So, what must the theologian do? Simple. Just redefine god. Call god the ground of being, or, as one theologian does, “secure a distinctive locus for Divine personal agency by deploying the spatial metaphors of distinct axes, planes, or levels,” (68) and — what do you know? — problem solved! I don’t want to overdramatise the point, but clearly the theologian believes that, whatever else god is, the concept of god is to an astonishing degree a plastic one which can be moulded into various shapes in order to deal with objections that are brought to bear against this or that aspect of god when seen in relationship to earthly things and happenings.
How true! And this is why theology is not a serious academic subject, for there is no way for its practitioners to test or falsify their assertions about god. I’ve read my share of “sophisticated” theology—granted, not, as Terry Eagleton requires, “Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope”—but there’s nothing there that would lessen the force of Dawkins’s arguments.
When I read this stuff, I’m always asking myself three questions:
- Do they adduce any new evidence for the existence of god?
- Do they adduce any evidence for how they’re able to discern the characteristics of god?
- Do they suggest a way to test and falsify the two claims above?
And the answer to all three questions is always “no.” Yes, they can suggest ground-of-being gods, gods that allow the universe “freedom,” gods that don’t do much, or gods about whom nothing can be said, but this is all simply making stuff up, or redefining god so he can withstand the advances of science. There’s never any evidence, and there haven’t really been any new arguments for god in the last several centuries. It’s an endless process of definition and re-definition, and that’s what constitutes “advances” in theology.
The reason theology is not a fit subject for academics—and I have to admit that it’s studied at my own university—is that its adherents have no way to answer this question:
How would I know if my understanding of god is wrong?
That’s why theology can’t really make “progress”—except to tweak its parameters so it remains compatible with science—and why modern “sophisticated” theology is no advance over the lucubrations of Aquinas or Duns Scotus. Eric is right on the mark when he says this:
Models of god may help us to skirt the issues raised by philosophers, but without any means of assessing whether the model is actually a model of something — even if this some “thing” does not exist in the ordinary sense as one entity amongst others, but underlies them as their ground — does theology have a subject matter? I don’t think Orr or Eagleton (and others) take this problem with sufficient seriousness.