The Atlantic gives the world’s worst advice: study more theology

November 3, 2013 • 11:43 am

I’ve spent much of the last several years reading theology of all stripes, from the most fundamentalist version (e.g. Ken Ham), to versions slightly more sophisticated, like William Lane Craig, to the most rarefied and “sophisticated” versions, like those of Karen Armstrong, Alvin Plantinga, and Søren Kierkegaard. Now I admit I’m an atheist and have read these people’s work extremely critically, but it’s no different from the way I read scientific books and papers.

And what I’ve found has been appalling. “Sophisticated” theology is not sophisticated, but a misuse of intelligence and eloquence to make really bad arguments. These range from Karen Armstrong’s argument that God is a symbol for the ineffable, but yet He really exists, and is good (how the hell can she be apophatic and yet know something about God?), to Alvin Plantinga’s laughable claim that we’re endowed with a sensus divinitatis that is all that allows us humans to perceive truth—not just the “truth” of the Christian God, but scientific truths as well. (The sensus divinitatis is apparently broken in non-Christians and atheists, and God forgot to install it in anyone living more than two thousand years ago.)  You don’t learn anything from this stuff, except about the endless ability of our big brains to rationalize the most appalling kind of nonsense.  It’s a mug’s game: a bunch of smart people discoursing endlessly about things they can’t possibly know about.  It is a group of scholars making stuff up.  And it’s a waste of time, and money—the money of those people who pay theologians or buy their books.

If you’re a scientist, and schooled to doubt—to ask, whether it be scientific claims or other claims, “How do you know that?”—reading theology is an exercise in masochism. There’s nothing to learn about reality, except how smart people pull an intellectual con game, selling their delusions to others.  I am a bad person for saying this, but I despise the “sophisticated” theologians like Plantinga more than I do fundamentalists like Ken Ham.  For Plantinga is a very smart guy, and yet misuses his intelligence to deceive others and give “sophisticated” Christians justification for their beliefs. In contrast, Ham simple-mindedly advocates what he finds in the Bible; he’s not smart enough to use modal logic and the tools of philosophy to deceive smart Christians. One sometimes gets the feeling that the Sophisticated Theologians™don’t fully believe what they say: that they’re engaged in some kind of academic exercise to see how clever they can be. But I may be wrong. What is certain is that Ken Ham really believes what he says.

But enough ranting.  I suppose I’ve derived some benefit from my two years of torture, if only that I’ve earned the credibility of having come to grips with “sophisticated” theology and witnessed first hand its absence of clothes.  Nobody can accuse me of not having read theology’s “best” arguments. (By “best,” of course, they mean “those arguments couched in the fanciest language and most tortuous logic.” The “best” arguments for the existence of natural evil in a world supposedly run by an omnibenevolent God are no more convincing than the worst arguments.)

Yet in the continuing defense of theology, writer Tara Isabella Burton, who is doing a doctorate in theology at Oxford, extols the field’s virtues in a new piece at The Atlantic,Study theology, even if you don’t believe in God.”  Burton concludes that dismantling schools of theology is “throwing out the baby along with the bathwater,” and “an unfortunate example of blindness.” She gives two reasons:

1. Theology is a discipline that encompasses everything in the humanities. It’s the best way to get a broad education.

Richard Dawkins would do well to look at the skills imparted by the Theology department of his own alma mater, Oxford (also my own). The BA I did at Oxford was a completely secular program, attracting students from all over the religious spectrum. My classmates included a would-be priest who ended up an atheist, as well as a militant atheist now considering the priesthood. During my time there, I investigated Ancient Near Eastern building patterns to theorize about the age of a settlement; compared passages of the gospels (in the original Greek) to analogous passages in the Jewish wisdom literature of the 1st century BC; examined the structure of a 14th-century Byzantine liturgy; and read The Brothers Karamazov as part of a unit on Christian existentialism. As Oxford’s Dr. William Wood, a University Lecturer in Philosophical Theology and my former tutor, puts it: “theology is the closest thing we have at the moment to the kind of general study of all aspects of human culture that was once very common, but is now quite rare.” A good theologian, he says, “has to be a historian, a philosopher, a linguist, a skillful interpreter of texts both ancient and modern, and probably many other things besides.” In many ways, a course in theology is an ideal synthesis of all other liberal arts: no longer, perhaps, “Queen of the Sciences,” but at least, as Wood terms it, “Queen of the Humanities.”

The problem with this is that theology filters everything through God, so that any secular contributions to humanities are ignored. All nonreligious art, literature (most of it), and any history that doesn’t involve religion is ignored. What about reading the parts of The Brothers Karamazov (or, for that matter, Anna Karenina) which don’t deal with religion at all? Is there any theology in The Great Gatsby? And of course just studying theology, or even getting a degree in it, doesn’t require you to be a historian, philosopher, linguist, and textual interpreter. That, of course, depends on what aspect of theology you study, how smart you are, and how hard you apply yourself.

Remember, too, that schools of theology embrace two type of scholars: BIblical scholars, who figure out how ancient texts were constructed (many of these are atheists), and theologians, who try to figure out what God is telling us through those texts.  The former are involved in understanding how people came to believe in a nonexistent being, the latter are paid to rationalize the existence of that nonexistent being and to figure out what He wants.  Only the former is a useful exercise, as it’s part of human history. But it’s by no means the only part of human history and human culture.

Unlike Burton, I don’t see studying theology as the best way to embrace all of human culture. If you want to do that, study literature, history (including religious history if you must), psychology, and diverse courses in the humanities. Unlike theology, that will give you a balanced education.

In my view, schools of theology or divinity shouldn’t exist. The Biblical scholars can be put in history departments, and any theologians (and there shouldn’t be more than one or two in any university) put in philosophy departments, where they will have to justify their activities in competition with people who actually practice rational discourse. If you want to train preachers, by all means send them to seminaries. But studying a nonexistent being is not a proper subject for a modern university, and there shouldn’t be departments for that. Recognizing this, Thomas Jefferson banned the teaching of theology at the school he founded: The University of Virgina. U. Va. should be proud of that. In contrast, schools like Harvard (and my own) simply harbor divinity schools as useless vestiges of bygone days, like scholarly wisdom teeth.

2. Theology helps us engage the mindset of medieval people.

Yet, for me, the value of theology lies not merely in the breadth of skills it taught, but in the opportunity it presented to explore a given historical mindset in greater depth. I learned to read the Bible in both Greek and Hebrew, to analyze the minutiae of language that allows us to distinguish “person” from “nature,” “substance” from “essence.” I read “orthodox” and “heretical” accounts alike of the nature of the Godhead, and learned about the convoluted and often arbitrary historical processes that delineated the two.

But for me, it allowed me access into the fundamental building blocks of the mentality, say, of a 12th-century French monk, or a mystic from besieged Byzantium. While the study of history taught me the story of humanity on a broader scale, the study of theology allowed me insight into the minds and hearts, fears and concerns, of those in circumstances were so wildly different from my own. The difference between whether—as was the case in the Arian controversy of the fourth-century AD—the Godhead should be thought of as powerful first, and loving second, or loving first and powerful second, might seem utterly pedantic in a world where plenty of people see no need to think about God at all. But when scores of people were willing to kill or die to defend such beliefs—hardly a merely historical phenomenon—it’s worth investigating how and why such beliefs infused all aspects of the world of their believers. How does that 12th-century French monk’s view of the nature of God affect the way he sees himself, his relationship with others, his relationship with the natural world, his relationship with his own mortality? How does that Byzantine mystic conceive of space and time in a world he envisions as imbued with the sacred? To find such questions integral to any study of the past is not restricted to those who agree with the answers. To study theology well requires not faith, but empathy.

The “historical mindset” Burton is discussing here is the mindset of a very few educated people: monks, ministers, and Church Fathers like Aquinas and Origen.  It has no bearing on the minds of the vast majority of people who were too busy scraping out a living to even think about theology.  Yes, they believed in God, Jesus, Heaven, and Hell, but only because their parents and ministers told them to believe that stuff, and their society was soaked in it. But to understand their willingness to kill or die for it involves understanding not religion, but the totalitarian mentality that undergirds not just religion, but ideologies like Marxism and Nazism, which might well be considered “religious ideologies.” It involves psychology: the way people can manipulate the minds of others.

As for how a 12th-century monk views the nature of God, really, is that more interesting than figuring out how 12th century French peasants viewed their existence? I don’t think so.  Try reading Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, or William Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire, and see if you think those don’t give a far more interesting—and balanced—view of medieval life. Both book are excellent, and the first a masterpiece.

Perhaps there’s room in academia for someone who studies religion to see how it affects the behavior of others, but that’s no justification for creating entire schools of these people, for they only serve to lend an air of scholarly verisimilitude to an otherwise bald, unconvincing, and entirely false narrative.

To study theology might not require faith, but I doubt it requires empathy, either. The main requirement is an infinite tolerance for reading stuff that’s simply made up by people with fancy degrees. Oh, and you have to be able to wade through the worst prose, and the worst logic, in the world.

102 thoughts on “The Atlantic gives the world’s worst advice: study more theology

  1. Burton concludes that dismantling schools of theology is “throwing out the baby along with the bathwater,”…

    Show me the bleeping baby!

  2. I think Tara Burton makes a lot of perfectly reasonable arguments if the study of theology is being done within the broader discipline of Religious Studies.

    Religious Studies is a legitimate field. Although it can be broken up and the pieces all placed within different areas like history, literature, psychology, philosophy, etc. there’s really no reason the various aspects involved in studying religion can’t all be collected together.

    The problem with placing the study of theology UNDER “Theology” is exactly what you point out.”Theology” is “the study of the nature of God” and it assumes that God exists. That’s not supposed to be a question. One wonders how it is that God exists: the discipline as a whole can’t be closely connected to or informed by what other disciplines say or it falls apart. The best the theologians can do is as you say “make theological virtues out of scientific necessities.”

    Burton’s advice to “not throw the baby out with the bath water” is good advice. But she misidentifies what is the baby and what is the bathwater.

    The study of pseudoscience and early science can tell us a lot about both human nature and science, how we think and how such thinking can go wrong. But a course on “Astrology” at a public university better not contribute to a degree in Astrology.

    1. Yes, this.

      No English professor is going to make the mistrake of thinking that Hamlet really was the Prince of Denmark; no film studies course is going to try to measure how strong the students are in the Force.

      It’s a very good idea to do formal study into the phenomenon of religion; it’s pure insanity to think that religious claims are true.


    2. There’s an old joke at McGill, where there is both Religious Studies and Theology: “theology is for those who believe”.

      Joking aside, I think it makes sense to have academic study of religion in universities but *not* clergy training, which is what Theology appears to be at McGill.

  3. Oh yes, please let’s get rid of these theology schools! I’ve often wondered why in this modern age we still have them. My alma mater had & still has one…I studied German in there for some reason.

    And everything that Burton studied in theology, I studied too but through a secular lens not a religious one so I think I got the better deal when I studied Classical Greek (and did some bible translations & Plato (yech)) & I think I got a nice look into religions & culture when I studied anthropology & philosophy. I also learned all about mediaeval thought through reading Chaucer and a bunch of other mediaeval writers (in the original language) & again all through a secular eye not a theological one.

    I really don’t like Burton’s tone – a “holier than thou” stance on how theology gives you so much more than other Humanities courses. Phooey to that!

    1. The French banned theology from all its state universities, including the Sorbonne, in 1905. And they blocked the creation of a chair in astrology, as proposed by a TV astrologer, some 10 years ago. I personally view people boasting PhDs in theology as intellectual frauds.

      1. Good on France, but I suppose it helps that they really didn’t like the strangle hold the Church had on them and took action during the Revolution. I can’t see us in North America doing away with it anytime soon.

    2. Jerry writes

      If you want to do that, study literature, history (including religious history if you must), psychology, and diverse courses in the humanities. Unlike theology, that will give you a balanced education.

      To be fair, the British university system doesn’t really allow you to do that (Burton is writing from the perspective of an Oxford degree). Undergraduates do a course in history, or in literature, or in psychology etc; no overlap normally permitted.

      So you might say she has a point regarding UK universities. Which raises the question of why the article was published in the Atlantic in this form….???

  4. “1. Theology is a discipline that encompasses everything in the humanities. It’s the best way to get a broad education.”

    Neither sentence is true. Also a broad humanities education today produces non-productive people.

    “2. Theology helps us engage the mindset of medieval people.”

    This is true. Theologians have a medieval mindset.

    1. Sorry but I’m going to disagree on that statement that a broad humanities education produces non-productive people. I consider myself very productive and well paid for that productivity and I all of my colleagues who have similar educations would say the same.

      1. For that matter, I have a trumpet performance degree, presumably even worse than a broad humanities education. And my mortgage balance ($0) and other financial statements would belie the suggestion that I’ve been unproductive.


      2. Diana, I’m glad that you and Ben jumped on the ludicrous statement that studying the humanities makes one an unproductive person. An ability to think deeply and reason logically, inculcated both by science and by honest (read: non-postmodern) humanities, is probably as conducive to being “productive” (a word desperately in need of definition in NewEnglandBob’s criticism; unfortunately, normally when I see that word, someone is using it to mean “can sit in a meaningless office 8 hours a day, push papers, and not rock the boat”) as any other skill.

        1. I consider simplifying complex things something I learned from my Humanities education, among other things (like arguing effectively using logic and persuasion and critical thinking). I’m sure I would have received similar if I chose to go the Science route, I just would have acquired these skills differently.

          When I quickly turned around some work, which included communicating complex ideas in a simple way, in order to teach others, my peers remarked on my analysis and writing abilities and I replied, “yeah, I have an arts degree”. 🙂 I will always defend an arts degree.

          1. I actually typically go the other route…I like to joke that I used to think that I had the most useless degree on the face of the earth, until the time when I learned that there’s a university somewhere in Scotland that offers a bachelor’s degree…in bagpipe performance.

            But as soon as it gets beyond Pythonesque bragging about licking the frozen lakebottom clean of shrapnel, I point out that performance degrees are actually some of the most demanding of all at the university. You start with the full general studies requirements that everybody has. You’ve then got a rather rigorous and demanding academic music series to complete, including music theory, music history, and some esoteric variations on those themes. Then you’ve generally got to learn a couple other disciplines, usually including a couple years of piano and a year or so of conducting or the like; those are three-credit classes but usually require an inordinate amount of out-of-class practice and preparation time.

            And we’re only getting started!

            Next up are all the insane number of ensembles you have to participate in, almost all of which are a single credit hour even though they meet typically several hours a week and require yet another inordinate amount of outside practice and preparation time. And rehearsals often go late into the evening — 9:30 is not an unusual ending time — and those music theory classes are likely to start at 7:30 the next morning.

            And, finally, after all of that…is your private instrument studies, ostensibly the primary reason you’re there in the first place. And, yes — only a few credit hours, and ideally 20 hours a week of practice just for that.

            Is it any wonder that nobody gets a performance degree in four years, or that it took me nine years?



  5. A good theologian, he says, “has to be a historian, a philosopher, a linguist, a skillful interpreter of texts both ancient and modern, and probably many other things besides.”

    I am just now reading The End of Biblical Studies by Hector Avalos. He argues that Biblical scholars are doing a bad job of all those things, mostly because of their religionist bias. It might make you a “good theologian” to do a crap job of middle eastern archaeology(for example), but it does not make you a good archaeologist.

    1. Excellent!

      I remember (red-faced and horrified, but, at least it gave me the opportunity to contribute to discussions such as this one) my years in seminary and as an active fundamentalist christian teacher/missionary. There was nothing that we did not twist–languages, history, archaeology, science, philosophy, you name it–to match our accepted set of theological doctrines, and all without the slightest qualm of self-doubt. Smug ignorance.

      I realize that the more liberal denominations are not quite as unconsciously anti-rational as are fundamentalists, but, as Jerry points out, that does not mean that they have any more to say.

      1. There were several people from the Divinity College of my alma mater who studied Greek with me so they could read biblical Greek. There was one person who I named “Rasputin” because he looked just like Rasputin AND I imagined him in a weird cult because overhearing some of his conversations, he seemed to be part of an odd religion. I later learned my classmates referred to him as “god boy”. I think “Rasputin” was way more creative. Anyhow, the reason I’ve always remembered him is when my Greek teacher taught us the alpha privative (the “a” that negates stuff in Greek for those uninitiated in Greek) & he gave several examples; one of those examples was “agnostic” and he explained that is “not knowing”. This “Rasputin” spoke up and said, “can it also mean ‘idiot'”. We had also been taught, as you are in any language, not to be literal translators but to translate the meaning of something. I think “Rasputin” thought this was an acceptable meaning, given his experience with the word vis à vis god & religion. Of course, my Greek teacher told him definitively no, that it could not be translated as “idiot”.

        My long story here is to demonstrate that indeed the religious folks tend to twist everything – even Ancient Greek.

        Another example: one of my Greek professors told us a story of how a religious relative had asked her if one passage in the bible read as “grape juice” instead of “wine” (because his particular Christianity disliked alcohol). She explained to him that no one drank grape juice back then – it was always wine but she knew he would insist it was “grape juice”.

        1. religious folks tend to twist everything – even especially Ancient Greek.

          There, FIFY. If you only knew the contortions into which we twisted the Greek so that it would support our shade of madness, and not that of the liberal protestants, or the catholics, or the JWs, or the mormons, or, for that matter, the presbyterians (we were baptists)…

          it was always wine but she knew he would insist it was “grape juice”.

          The pastor at the church I attended taught that; looking back I realize that his “interpretation” was nothing more than his personal preference (which was ironic, because he once criticized “fundamentalists” for confusing their personal preferences with “biblical absolutes”).

  6. … to analyze the minutiae of language that allows us to distinguish “person” from “nature,” “substance” from “essence.”

    That sounds about as useful as a degree in the study of the properties of Phlogiston.

    1. Phlogiston was in fact a first attempt to give a physical explanation, and not a metaphysical explanation, for the phenomenon of combustion. The concept explained some aspects, but was in contradiction with other observations, just like the concept of dark matter today explains certain phenomena (such as gravitational lensing) but not the rotation curves of some galaxies.

  7. Civilization (society) has afforded us the protection to believe in imaginary beings and hold delusional ideas at little or no cost to ourselves.

    1. My guess is that pre-historical people were pretty deluded about many things — but not about the things that mattered, like how to find food, and how to outsmart your enemies.

  8. “1. Theology is a discipline that encompasses everything in the humanities. It’s the best way to get a broad education.”

    If you want to force yourself to get a wide background in philosophy, epistemology, ethics, history, science, literature, AND theology — then try to get very good at debating against the existence of God.

    As a friend of mine puts it “It’s where the action is.”

  9. Scholars should always be in quotes when referring to the bible. The real scholars have learned that the bible and religion are pious frauds.

  10. T.I. Burton’s assertion that theology helps us engage the mindset of medieval people is a complete howler. It is also at least 80-90 years behind the times.

    English-speaking readers tend to overlook all to often the considerable work of the Annales school, or to concentrate just on the pioneering quantitative history. The Annales contribution to the histoire des mentalités was equally groundbreaking. Just read Marc Bloch‘s studies of peasant mentalities and life in rural France in the longue durée for an appetizer. You’ll be hooked.
    Or read Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie‘s study of the Cathar village of Montaillou, seen through the prism of the Inquisition: a wealth of practical anthropology and social history of the 13th-14th century in the Pyrenees, digested from ecclesiastical sources — interrogation records, mainly — that Burton would regard primarily through the semi-opaque and distorting mirror of theology.

  11. “Thomas Jefferson banned the teaching of theology at the school he founded: The University of Virgina. U. Va. should be proud of that.”

    Jefferson would be appalled to learn that the UVA Religious Studies department has become a Divinity school in disguise, with almost all of the faculty being devotees of one faith or another.

  12. “theology is the closest thing we have at the moment to the kind of general study of all aspects of human culture that was once very common, but is now quite rare.”

    Isn’t that anthropology?

    Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, or William Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire

    I’ve read the first, and like all her books that I’ve read, it is excellent. The second is in the queue.

      1. Hi Brian:

        My comment is exactly the same (the Tuchman book is excellent; the Manchester is in the queue), except that my pile is in the computer/reading room!

  13. The ranty bits at the beginning are sure fun to read!

    I never understood why universities have departments of theology. First there is the fact that they do not actually have any way of finding anything out. Then there is the fact that what they study does not exist.

    But third, especially for public ones, that means that the state is funding the training of priests of particular (thus favored) religions. Of course in my home country the government also collects the membership fees for two Christian sects with the taxes, but in more secular countries that arrangement should be more surprising, no?

    writer Tara Isabella Burton, who is doing a doctorate in theology at Oxford, extols the field’s virtues

    Might there be a bit of sunk cost fallacy going on here?

    1. I don’t think there are any state universities in America with theology departments, though I could be mistraken. Most, if not all, will have religious studies departments, but those (at least theoretically) all take a decidedly anthropological perspective on religion.

      You might be confused by the fact that a significant number of well-known American universities are private institutions, and many of them have theology departments and offer advanced degrees in divinity. Jerry mentioned his own University of Chicago. Harvard and Yale both have divinity schools. The University of Denver is another example that I happen to know about. And, of course, there are the explicitly religious (private, church-run) universities, such as Notre Dame, Fordham, Georgetown, Gonzaga, and far too many more to mention.



  14. There’s nothing sophisticated about theology itself – it can’t be; there’s nothing there – but the combination of tapdancing, handwaving and shall game sleight-of-hand ‘theologians’ engage in to distract people away from that fact, on the other hand, is very sophisticated indeed.

  15. >As for how a 12th-century monk views the nature of God, really, is that more interesting than figuring out how 12th century French peasants viewed their existence?< And if I may, the writings of the French historians Le Goff and Braudel are extremely readable and informative. A History of Private Life is also a wonderful series. The Cambridge Illustrated History of The Middle Ages is an exceptional work (and a translation of a French work) that also includes Arab/Islamic topics.
    Art History is immersed in theology, and IMHO is a much better topic if you want to understand the relationship of people to each other and their contemporary societal structures.

    1. Besides. Even if you are more interested in 12th century monks than 12th century peasants, becoming a theologian yourself isn’t the best way to understand them. Even for the monks, there was a lot more to life than just their theology….


      1. Precisely. For one, I’ve always been an admirer of medieval monks’ skills in fermentation, particularly the Trappists.

  16. After reading the post and the thread, I’m convinced that Burton is engaged in fractal failure, so it isn’t much of a point of me adding much specific responses to her.

    More generally, as Sastra, Reginald et al discusses, there is a separation between the study of religion as is (biblical studies) and religion (study of religion). It was a huge advancement in Sweden then those two got separated.

    And there is a problem with putting Biblical scholars in history departments, as one can see from Wikipedia. The area is pseudoscience, based on taking the religious texts literary and pattern search for confirmation as opposed to falsification. You have to click through to a more basal layer of historicity of the religion, and of course there isn’t much of one.

    Even up to the point that you can see how historians are actively barred from researching the veracity of religions. (Latest a project to study the historicity of Jesus from Nasareth got shot down, its funds retracted or some such.)

    But when scores of people were willing to kill or die to defend such beliefs—hardly a merely historical phenomenon—it’s worth investigating how and why such beliefs infused all aspects of the world of their believers.

    As opposed to Burton I don’t think that the ongoing brutality of religions are much of an advertisement for theology.

    Even if it was, I heard somewhere (YMMV) that you can’t really grok the thinking of historical cultures in all nuances. It may be worthwhile, but it seems fraught with difficulty.

    1. Whenever somebody protests that “Those closest to Jesus were willing to <breathlessly>die</breathlessly> for Him!” I generally concede the point, and congratulate them on simultaneously proving the Ultimate Truth™ of the principles of Raelianism, Branch Davidianism, Jim Jones, and all the rest. There really was a spaceship hiding behind Hale-Bopp! You could see the comet, so why is it so hard to believe that there was a spaceship behind it, especially given that these people were so convinced of the fact that they died for it? And this was just a few years ago, and on TV, not millennia ago in some remote backwater of the Roman Empire only recorded on copies-of-copies of fragments of fragments of zombie snuff pr0n fantasies.

      Christians are generally nonplussed with my response.



      1. I think that you are missing the point that they are making.

        I don’t agree with the point, but it is not the one you think they are making.

        1. OK, I’ll bite. How has Ben misunderstood their point? It seems to me that he has drawn an accurate analogy: People are willing to die for their belief –> that belief is true; christians use that argument; why not apply it to the other species of lunacy he mentions?

          The if-then statement is utter nonsense, of course, but how is that *not* the point?

          1. The point that is mostly being made when people point out that the early Christians were willing to die for their faith is simply that it counts against the proposition that they were lying.

            So, for example, if they say that they say they saw the risen Jesus then they are either mistaken, lying or really did see the risen Christ.

            So the lying option is ruled out by their willingness to maintain the claim in the face of the threat of death.

            They try to rule out the “mistaken” option then, which is where they lose me.

          2. But the point is, they don’t use the willingness to die for their beliefs to rule out that the early Christians were simply mistaken. They use different arguments for that.

          3. Well, OK, but I’m sure that Ben can express himself clearly. Possibly I misunderstood; in any case, I have no trouble with the idea that they were mistaken. Paul apparently suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, and as for the rest, most of it is made up from whole cloth (possibly delusion, possibly lying), and the appeal to “eyewitness testimony,” as well as being mostly fraudulent historically, is of no value in any case; Elizabeth Loftus has taught us that eyewitness testimony, far from being unimpeachable, is in actuality just about the worst kind (in the sense of “least accurate”) evidence.

          4. As I said I don’t agree with the argument, I am only pointing out what the argument actually is.

          5. The point that is mostly being made when people point out that the early Christians were willing to die for their faith is simply that it counts against the proposition that they were lying.

            Not at all.

            I mean, sure, that’s their argument, but it’s still pure bullshit.

            Wanna take a bet on how many scam artists have risked — and even lost — life and limb while persisting in their lies?

            How’d you like a contemporary, relevant example?

            I refer, of course, to that notorious rascal, Peregrinus, who lit himself on fire in front of the stadium at the conclusion of the 165 CE Olympics. Yes, the same Peregrinus whose notoriety came in large part from conning the oh-so-gullible Christians into accepting him as one of their own, taking him in and protecting him — and, by way of repayment, he even taught them many of their deepest mysteries (all completely borrowed from contemporary Pagan stories).

            Read his story here.



          6. “Not at all.

            I mean, sure, that’s their argument,…”

            All I said is that it is their argument. I am not sure what the Peregrinus story is supposed to prove. It does not seem to say what you say it does.

            And exactly which deep mystery was he supposed to have taught the Christians?

          7. Peregrinus is an example of somebody who knowingly died for a lie, thus trivially demonstrating the pure bullshit nature of the argument that nobody would ever knowingly die for a lie.

            And we don’t know for certain what name the Christians called Peregrinus, though many have their favorite candidates. But if you’d like examples of the Pagan mysteries the Christians adopted (by whatever means), just read Justin Martyr’s First Apology and scan for “Sons of Jupiter.”

            The short version, of course, is that everything in Christianity was stolen from their neighbors — but that’s hardly surprising, as that’s how new religions were formed in those days (and, to a very large extent, ever since).



          8. Basically the Lucian account that you link does not bear scrutiny.

            Even on the most sceptical, minimalist approach there are, for example, five letters from Paul which are almost universally agreed to be genuine and to date from 55 CE. In these we can see the complete set of Christian practices and beliefs.

            Add that to the Gospels and Acts and we can see that, unless he had a Tardis, Peregrinus did not add squat to the Christian religion.

            So you have a source that is clearly hostile, both the Peregrinus and the Christians and containing claims that are obviously false and therefore the entire account is clearly unreliable. We can know very little of Peregrinus but for some bare facts.

            You have got to be careful of these pagan borrowing accounts. For example you will hear that the Jesus story was borrowed from the Attis story.

            However if you read pre Christian sources for Attis, (like Ovid), the story does not even slightly resemble the story of Jesus. The same goes for sources just after the time of Jesus. It is only when you get to late antiquity, when Christianity was gaining traction, that you see similarities to Christianity creep in. So given that we can reliably date Christian beliefs to the first century CE the borrowing was clearly the other way around.

            Christian beliefs are largely an explicit and intentional borrowing from Jewish beliefs. We can, perhaps, credit paganism for the concept of a son of God but even that might simply be a corruption of a concept in Jewish scriptures or even a little of both.

          9. This is in response to Robin’s post below, which I can’t seem to reply to directly.

            I detect in your comment a common apologetic strain found in biblical study today. It basically goes, ‘look, we’re fine with admitting that early Christians were influenced by the Judaism of the time, but any kind of influence from the myriad of pagan religions extant during the same period is simply unacceptable.’

            Such a motif is ALL OVER historical Jesus and early Christian scholarship, be it the conservative or liberal variety. It lends the field ecumenical cred, whereas before a good deal of scholarship viewed Jesus, if not parachuting into first century life directly from heaven, then lacking any historical antecedents with the cultural environment of the time. This is generally a good thing, but it can be viewed (and not uncynically) as simply providing a safe haven from far more disturbing areas of possible influence.

            For one thing, the Judaism of the time was probably far more variegated and open to outside (Hellenistic) influence than most scholars would like to admit, who generally tend to retroject later rabbinic Judaism back into the first century.

            Also, to suggest it is more likely pagan religions borrowed from Christianity is highly problematic. Look how Justin Martyr (c.140CE) argued against polemical enemies who perceived pagan parallels to Christianity: it was the work of Satan. If the borrowings were truly from Christianity to pagan religions, do you really think Justin would have made the suicidally bad argument that it was simply down to ‘diabolical mimicry?’

            Also, 5 letters that are authentic to Paul? I always thought the magic number was 7? And dating any Christian documents to the first century is full of problems, as nothing receives external attestation until the middle of the second century. Things simply aren’t as cut and dried as today’s scholarship insists.

          10. Daryl,

            I am not sure what you are saying about pagan borrowings. I will repeat (and I can find the texts if you really disbelieve me) that there were no parallels at all between Attis and the Jesus story in texts prior to Christianity (for example Ovid) and no parallels in texts just after Jesus’ life, even into the 2nd century CE.

            It is only in late antiquity that we see parallels creeping into Attis rites.

            So I cannot possibly see a case there for Christianity borrowing from the Attis cult. If so then where is the evidence?

            As for Paul, I am going with a minimalist figure for the texts considered authentic. I have never heard any serious contention about the first century date for these letters.

            And the Judaic influences have nothing to do with apologetics. They are explicit and deliberate in the Gospels, the Gospels even supply quotes for the references. They are pretty much the whole point of the Christian claim.

            But even in the unlikely case that they originate from the middle of the second century CE it still counts against Peregrinus having influence on Christian beliefs. That one is pretty much a non-starter.

          11. Robin, knowingly or otherwise, all you’re doing is repeating some quite transparently false Christian propaganda. That kind of shit just don’t fly outside of Bible School.

            Specifically, Justin Martyr, writing in the early part of the second century, included excruciating detail on at least a dozen Pagan gods and demigods from whom the Christians fabricated Jesus’s biography — though, to be sure, Martyr attributed it to evil daemons with the power of foresight mimicking Jesus centuries in advance.

            Martyr equated Perseus with the Virgin Birth; Mithra with the Eucharist / Last Supper; Bellerophon with the Ascension; and Hermes / Mercury with the Word / Logos, just to pick a few highlights. But once you go through Martyr’s list, you discover that he’s quite correctly and unmistakably identified the origins of every major and most minor bullet points in Jesus’s biography.

            And your dating of Biblical Canon is apologetically sorry, as well. The traditional logic goes that G. Mark came first; G. Mark refers to events that happened during the Roman conquest of Judea and the destruction of the Temple; the author of G. Mark was an eyewitness; and if he wrote it any later than the events he makes reference to he’d have been demented if not dead. Therefore, G. Mark was written by the light of the first of the burning Temple in 70 CE.

            But…amidst those dizzying displays of special pleading, they generally manage to direct attention away from the elephant in the room. Namely, G. Mark doesn’t mention the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in some sort of fuzzy postscript — quite the contrary. He sets the specific events of the destruction of the Temple as amongst the Signs and Portents at the moment Jesus gives up the Ghost at the Crucifixion. If we are to take Christian apologetic dating at its face, that’s as incoherent as having Davy Crockett meet with President Eisenhower in Trafalgar Square to discuss what should be done about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

            In other words, G. Mark, the oldest and allegedly most reliable source of biographical information about Jesus, is an absolute joke. It only makes sense when you realize that it’s written in Greek by a Greek for a Greek audience, with nobody at all remotely familiar with the region or its history, and intended from start to finish as a piece of pious fiction.

            Which is exactly how it reads. It’s the Christian answer to the Odyssey, with no more bearing in reality.

            But that, of course, means that Christianity is a lie — the exact same lie as all the other obviously false religions. And if people realized that en masse, they’d stop going to church — and, more importantly, stop filling the donation plate when it’s passed.

            So of course the conmen come up with all the same elaborate obfuscations are you’re repeating. It’s their stock in trade, their very livelihood.

            The only question you have to answer is whether or not you wish to be associated with such reprehensible deceit.



          12. Hi Robin

            “I have never heard any serious contention about the first century date for these letters.”

            A number of scholars in the 19th century, the most notable being the Dutchman WC van Manen, believed all the Pauline epistles were inauthentic and originating from 2nd century Marcionite circles. Today, this theory is argued by Robert Price and Herman Detering. The work’s to look at are Price’s ‘The Amazing Colossal Apostle’ and Detering’s ‘The Falsified Paul.’

            This is an unpopular minority viewpoint that has largely been ignored over the past 150 years (with good reason: no one wants to toss the REAL Protestant Messiah into the historical dustbin.) The mistake people have made, IMO, is believing that just because something’s been ignored that means it’s been refuted. In this particular instance, I don’t think it has. What Price, Detering and the earlier scholars show is if one use the same criteria that demonstrated the inauthentic nature of Ephesians, Colossians the Pastoral epistles, etc., and applied them to the supposedly genuine letters like Romans, Galatians and Corinthians, then pretty soon these particular letters also start looking very dodgy indeed.

            This viewpoint is radical and may seem completely far-fetched,(why it should be I don’t know; even a ‘mainstream’ scholarship opinion of the New Testament is that pseudepigraphy is the RULE and not the exception) but if you’re seriously interested in this subject then it behooves you to check these authors.

  17. I’m not a frequent commenter, but this was said beautifully. I had never heard of Barbara Tuchman, but just ordered A Distant Mirror on your recommendation.

    Thank you, I always learn something here.

    1. Another book worth reading is “The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga which I read
      years ago, and is now available in a new translation. It was somewhat demanding but engrossing reading and a great addition to Tuchmans work.

  18. > And of course just studying theology,
    > or even getting a degree in it, doesn’t
    > require you to be a historian, philosopher,
    > linguist, and textual interpreter.

    But it does require gullibility,
    gullibility… to the nth degree.

  19. Or as Sam Harris once remarked, “The history of theology is the history of bookish men parsing a collective delusion.”

  20. I would say that the study of theology is not necessary unless you are going to offer an opinion about it.

    For example Lawrence Krauss opines in one of his books that a century ago most theologians and philosophers would not have complained if you said that empty space was the same as nothing.

    I wonder who he had in mind because no philosopher or theologian I know of would have said that.

    Not even Aquinas. In fact Krauss even refers to the part where Aquinas speaks of empty space as having material qualities.

    Bad logic or not, I cannot think of any philosopher or theologian who would not have concluded that something which had properties could not be “noting”.

    So for all the silly things philosophers and theologians have said over the years, only one that I know of has been silly enough to say that empty space was “nothing” – Krauss himself.

    So are you referring to actual theology as written by actual theologians, or straw theology?

    1. Nothing is analogous to God and just as BS. The greatest nothingness one can perceive is not proof that it actually exists. Sound familiar?
      To believe of nothing or everything, you need a real set if physical things to include or exclude from this set. Otherwise, we are talking about the supernatural.
      Two sides of the same coin of unsubstantiated claims (with unicorns somewhere in between) with absolutely no evidence.

  21. Actually Augustine is pretty good prose for the most part. Funny even.

    And his logic about time is reasonably good.

    1. Ugh! My least favorite classic Christian writer, although he has a snappy style. But he’s horribly misanthropic.

  22. “Theology is the making up of bad reasons for what we are going to believe anyway.”
    — G. E.Moore

  23. And don’t assume that the medieval monks and the peasants were a mutually exclusive group. Nicole Oresme, for example, likely was a peasant.

  24. You can probably get a good grounding in the basic beliefs of a religion merely by reading famous sermons and catechisms.

    However, some theologians have had a significant effect on Western culture and are as such probably worth studying. My least favorite Christian writer, st. Augustine wrote “city of God” which had an enormous influence on medieval politics. Kierkegaard had some influence on secular psychoanalysis.

    However, it is harder to make the case for theologians whose influence was confined to their own churches such as liberal Catholic Karl Rahner.

  25. I must admit I have not yet read the modern theologians mentioned, Craig, Plantinga, Armstrong. And Ken Ham. Why on earth would anybody read him?

    Having submitted myself recently to Krauss, Dawkins and Hawking who appear to use excruciatingly bad logic when stepping outside of science, I think I can spare myself from their theistic counterparts.

  26. But I want to study ‘the endless ability of our big brains to rationalize the most appalling kind of nonsense’ and why we did this in certain ways at certain times and what purpose it served and how this was disseminated through society and what impact it had on everything else.

    I am doing so with Augustine at the moment.I could call this history or philosophy because it is all so intertwined but this would only lead to a lack of clarity because history is the massive category into which theology falls and philosophy is a different subcategory. I want to look at how man created God in his image and the only word for this is ‘theology.’

    1. Astrology and magic have been studied in the context of science history. There are no university departments dedicated to them unless I am very much mistaken.

      It’s obvious that man created God in his image. Accepting this then why would a theology degree not fit naturally within religious studies departments? Theology as encompassing the history, philosophy and psychology of theistic religion.

      1. If theology could go into another history department and remain intact that would be perfect. However, if the complaint against theology is that ‘it flters everything through God’ then the aim seems to be to remove that filter. This would kill theology and we’d lose the chain of ideas and beliefs which governed most important events in European history between the 6th century and the 18th. Of course beliefs in God are not the only aspect of history – that is why we have historians who are not biblical scholars and they don’t believe their area of interest is the only aspect either. But theology isn’t history and it isn’t philosophy and it isn’t sociology or psychology or literature or mythology or anthropology but something which takes in aspects of all of these with the common thread of scripture and Christian tenets through the ages – a continuous argument building on or refuting or in some way addressing previous ideas.

        1. I’m returning to check what I said and have just found your reply so it’s likely that you will not get to see this. For what it’s worth, you appear to be saying that it’s not the general humanities stuff that really counts as theology, it’s Christian thought itself. But to take the stuff at face value is to be a believer. To take Christian thought as content for the humanities does involve precisely your list – and nothing else. The extra-plus of theology is Christian belief and the wish to be part of the tradition of Christian exegesis.
          Those who want to do the humanities stuff could do so perfectly well within the ambit of religious studies. Believers, on the other hand, don’t see theology in those terms at all.

    1. This is just stupid. Barron is trying to do and end run around the simple fact that 99.99% of all believers, including all of the noxious ones, believe in a god identical to the one that Hitchens and Dawkins (and I) reject as non-existent (which, by the by, is all that keeps him from being a moral monster). This look-how-sophisticated-I-am crap is appreciated by us atheists for two reasons only: (1) he is not the kind of person to fly a plane into a building, and (2) he makes is *so* easy to see how vapid so-called Sophisticated Theology™ really is. His “argument” is just another variation of the Courtier’s Reply, and was already thoroughly eviscerated by Richard Dawkins in the second edition of The God Delusion:
      “If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible. To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell, or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men, they are all too influential, and everybody in the modern world has to deal with them.”

      Even though it is the fundamentalists who are causing the bulk of the havoc, it nevertheless gets easier and easier to see why thinking atheists are fairly often heard to opine that they prefer honest fundy crazies (like Ken Ham) to this sort of “merde dans un bas de soie.”

  27. Great thread, and many clever responses. Sometimes it seems like we are all in Jerry Coyne’s luxurious lounge, sitting in leather club chairs and chatting before a log-fire while the discrete staff serve cocktails and snacks. Most moving, I think was this post, Mark Joseph’s account of his seminary…

    “There was nothing that we did not twist–languages, history, archaeology, science, philosophy, you name it–to match our accepted set of theological doctrines, and all without the slightest qualm of self-doubt”

    I sense a growing boldness and muscularity among atheists as we learn how to ‘expose them to our incredulity’ – Sam Harris.
    Up at Oxford I encountered many theological students; often upper class twits who had not the intelligence to compete for a place in a normal subject. Oxford qualification on the cheap. I used to insist that theology was no more a source of knowledge than counting the grass-stems in Magdalen deer park. They did not get it. They never got it!

    Puzzling to hear Lane Craig suggesting (in cleverly couched language) that “great work is being done by a new generation of Christian apologists at Oxford!” I don’t think so. He was claiming allies where there are none. But I do wonder how someone like WLC can continue steering the battered fantasy ship when the sea of refutation is all around him.

    Here are some of the things I heard said by ‘First-Class brains…

    • (I mentioned that I once worked in a factory) “You didn’t!! There are no factories now. That was in the nineteenth century!”
    • ‘The chief subject of study in the sciences is astrology!’ (divination of the future by the position of the stars)
    • ‘There are no Working classes anymore. Everything is made by machines!’
    • ‘I saw a Working Class girl serving in Woolworth’s. That’s unusual!’
    • And to my question, ‘How would you make a space-rocket? “I would consult the classical writers; there has been nothing new since Classical times!”
    • The widespread belief was that the materials that make-up the universe were essences with Greek names that operated by mysterious supernatural forces. My sketch of the Periodic Table (which I knew by heart) was met with dismissive incredulity.
    • Working Class people were human inferiors who should never aspire to education. They were best suited to work for the comfort of the moneyed classes.
    • Working Class people could not comprehend the great truths of the religious and spiritual world because they lacked spirituality.

    One contemporary, a Catholic historian, wrote pieces for national newspapers such as The Times of London, helpfully explaining that there was no need for birth control since there is so much food in the world. Very odd that he always forgot to mention his role as a Catholic apologist. But like the owners of bogus bible-school qualifications, the opinionated religious must hide their origins to claim credibility.

  28. “Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, or William Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire

    Excellent choices, two of my favorite history books.

  29. “…the endless ability of our big brains to rationalize the most appalling kind of nonsense. It’s a mug’s game: a bunch of smart people discoursing endlessly about things they can’t possibly know about. It is a group of scholars making stuff up.” Same argument can be made about philosophy.

  30. Thomas Paine summed up theology perfectly nearly 300 years ago in ‘The Age of Reason’:

    “The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion. Not anything can be studied as a science, without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing.”

  31. I did an undergraduate degree in Literature, an M.A. in Philosophy and now I am doing my PhD in Theology. The article is sheer b..t, grey advertising for Oxford Theology Faculty. They are looking for students in USA. Overseas fees!

  32. I’m in one of those universities whose Div school lends it a vestigial air, whose so-called theologians are happily under-strapping other disciplines–history, literary analysis, anthropology, language studies, sociology, and more.

    However one’s garden grows, it seems, a theologian may saunter by, plunk down a kind of lawn gnome in the midst of it, then venture to explain how everything else in the garden relates to the ornament.

    Carpetbagging wankers.

  33. JAC: “But studying a nonexistent being is not a proper subject for a modern university, and there shouldn’t be departments for that. Recognizing this, Thomas Jefferson banned the teaching of theology at the school he founded: The University of Virginia. U. Va. should be proud of that.”

    I checked. UVA does teach theology. It’s an academic type of theology that seems to have sneaked in the back door through the “Jewish Studies Program”: “RELG 2475 God” and “RELG 5559 Postliberal Theologies” among others.

    As one who jettisoned my sensus divinitatis, I remain interested in theology having once trained as a fundamentalist theologian. As an atheist such an understanding helps me to gently and somewhat knowledgeably open up Christians’ beliefs for them and savage them one building block at a time… wherever they choose to start. I watched the video debate of William Lane Craig v Lawrence Krauss; had Krauss understood Craig’s beliefs a bit better, he could have easily spun Craig like a top rather than seeming to lose the debate. Thanks for recommending the Kaufman “Critique..” book. I learned a lot about how sophisticated theology is composed, or better “decomposed”, from its fundamentalist roots.

  34. Presumably you haven’t read The Brothers Karamzov if you think it has any significant non-God, or at least non-religion related bits.

    And plenty latter atheist philosophers got a lot out of Kierkegaard, seeing as he’s one of the founding father of existentialism.

  35. I agree theology is not a ‘real’ discipline though and doesn’t belong in modern universities in theory, although in practice I suspect many of its scholars have expertise in the history of religion and religious thought which is worth having.

    It’s not ‘fraud’ though as some people in the comments are implying. Fraud implies deliberate deception. I don’t share you suspicions about Plantinga either. Just because a belief is obviously false to the unbiased doesn’t mean a very smart person can’t hold it. Think otherwise involves a naive model on which individuals are either smart and therefore automatically rational, or stupid and automatically irrational, which isn’t borne out by the data (i.e. conspiracy theorists for example, are often quite bright.)

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