One of the most common attacks on non-theologians who criticize religion is that we aren’t professional theologians, or that we haven’t fully marinated ourselves in the tedious lucubrations of people like Duns Scotus or Tertullian. This, of course, is basically an ad hominem argument, dismissing criticisms of religion based on the writer’s perceived lack of credentials. And, as you know, I spent over two years reading this stuff, so it’s not like I’m thrashing about blindly in the muck of theology.
The refutation, of course, is simple: a lack of professional training in an area doesn’t mean that your statements about that area can be completely disregarded. (I wonder if Sean Carroll, who talks a lot about philosophy and theology, gets this kind of email?) This is especially true for theology, in which expertise is demonstrated not by mastering knowledge about the divine, but mastering speculations that other people have made about the divine. As ex-preacher Dan Barker likes to say, “Theology is a subject without an object. Theologians don’t study God; they study what other theologians have said about God.” So it’s perfectly proper to point out the lack of evidence undergirding the whole attempt to understand gods and their ways, as well as logical fallacies that any sentient person can spot in many theological arguments, Sophisticated™ or not.
We biologists understand that. When a philosopher-theologian like Alvin Plantinga says, for instance, that natural selection could never have given humans the ability to have true beliefs, we don’t dismiss him by saying, “Oh, pooh! Where’s Plantinga’s formal training in evolution?” Rather, we calmly take apart his claims, as I do in Faith versus Fact. Ditto for accommodationists like John Haught, who regularly writes about evolution. In fact, some of Haught’s writings on the topic, like his critiques of intelligent design, are perfectly fine. Other theologians, like William Lane Craig, regularly make statements about science that would embarrass a first-year graduate student in physics or biology, but I’ve never heard his claims dismissed solely because he lacks formal training in science.
Nevertheless, when my book comes out I fully expect that the faithful will go after it on grounds of insufficient expertise, as this professor of philosophy—at a Catholic college in Florida—did in an email to me yesterday.
Dr. Coyne,Good afternoon. I have come across your lecture where you extensively address not only theology but morality at length. Do you have any training whatsoever in theology or philosophy?
What are your qualifications in these fields? I have searched extensively to see if you are one of the leading figures in these fields of study and have not come across anything so far.
Please point me to the right place so that I can understand why you are an expert in the history of philosophy.
Professor of Philosophy