What is the value of theology?

Dan Barker, co-President of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, cleverly defined theology as a “subject without an object”.  That presupposes that there is no evidence for the “subject”: gods, prophets like Jesus, and so on, and I think most of us agree with that. So does the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives this as a definition:

I find the word “science” in the above definition offensive.

But some people consider “religious studies” or “Biblical history” as part of theology as well, and those areas don’t presuppose the truth of religious beliefs.  Further, those areas can be wide-ranging. Have a look at last year’s course list at the University of Chicago’s theology school, which includes courses like “Anthropology and Sociology of Religion,” “History of Religions,” “Islamic Philosophy”, “History of Judaism,” “Christian Iconography,” and so on. Since religion has been an enormous influence on history, art, and sociology, I have no problems with these, though I don’t see why they can’t be folded into history, anthropology, philosophy, and art departments. And of course studies of the history of the Bible and Qur’an, as well as Hindu scriptures, are also useful since these books have been so influential and connect Christianity and Judiasm with Islam and the myths of other faiths and early non-Abrahamic religions.

But there are also courses like “God and the Good Life” and many courses on “Religious leadership and practice,” which appear to be courses preparing one for a life in the ministry. These, of course, presuppose the truth of gods and of the dicta of specific religions. Here’s one that looks a bit suspect (my emphasis):

RLST 20901 – Interpreting Jesus

This course examines the on-going mutability of portrayals, images, and narratives of Jesus in ancient Christian gospels and later art, literature, drama, and film. Our investigation will begin with the New Testament gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We will then discuss the lesser known gospels according to Thomas and Mary. This in turn allows us to consider how literary and dramatic works, art, and films frame, narrate, and interpret Jesus and the stories about this controversial figure as he appears in these later receptions in a variety of guises. Works to be examined likely will include Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial 1955 novel The Last Temptation of Christ; a variety of artistic portrayals of Jesus at the Art Institute; The Gospel at Colonus (in conjunction with this spring’s production at Court Theater); and films by Scorsesi (The Last Temptation of Christ), Monty Python (Life of Brian), and Van der Put (The First Temptation of Christ).

I mostly object to the part in bold, which assumes that there was a real Jesus-person. I don’t see any courses that are about “The Myth of Jesus,” but I haven’t looked closely. Yes, there’s some interesting stuff in here, but is there any questioning of whether Jesus even existed as a person, divine or otherwise? If he didn’t, then this course is like “Interpreting Paul Bunyan”, “Interpreting Zeus”, or “Interpreting Leprechauns.”

Here’s another:

RELP 40800 – Field Work Practicum III

The Practicum sequence complements the MDiv Congregational Placement and offers opportunities for students to engage in critical reflection of their respective practical experiences of ministry leadership. In addition to this element of personal and practical reflections, students will engage a range of readings, written exercises, and classroom conversations to assist in articulating and refining their own practice of ministry.

Why should a university be in the business of helping its students promulgate religious mythology? I hasten to add that ministers serve sociological and psychological functions, and can be a form of social glue, but I doubt that that’s all these field work courses involve.

I’m sure I’ll get pushback from the people at the Divinity School (and I like some of them, having talked to them when I was writing Faith Versus Fact), but I’ll pose my own view on theology in the next three paragraphs in bold (I’m taking “theology” here to apply only to Abrahamic religions):

Insofar as “theology” encompasses philosophical, sociological, and historical studies of religion, which do not presuppose the existence of anything divine or supernatural, these studies can be valuable and should be taught in universities. But I don’t think they need to be lumped together in a divinity school. Remember that Thomas Jefferson, when establishing the University of Virginia, specified that it would be a nonsectarian school lacking both schools of theology or even places of worship. (And yet there is a Department of Religious Studies at U.Va, though it seems to exist to produce academic scholars of religion, much like a virus that uses a larger organism to facilitate its own replication.)

In other words, “theological” studies that have bearing on secular issues like philosophy and history, or reveal something about human actions and beliefs, or discuss religious influences on literature, art, and music, are justifiable—so long as nobody argues that the objects of theology, gods and prophets and unsubstantiated and unevidenced religious claims, should be taken seriously. Likewise, “theology” that is like “New Biblical Criticism”, dissecting Scripture as a human document, examining its genesis (so to speak), its influences, and its connections with history and other faiths, is also justifiable. 

Insofar as “theology” includes courses that presuppose the existence of the divine, take seriously the existence of God or Jesus, or prepare people for the ministry or to promulgate religious beliefs, then those courses not only have no place in a University, but are exercises in delusion. Now I think the higher-class divinity schools, like Chicago’s and Harvard’s, have very few of those courses, but there are some.  They should not be part of a secular university. 

Maybe I’m missing something here, but it seems to me that Hitchens’s razor is correct: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” That applies to any form of theology that takes gods or superstitions as real. Universities should not be in the business of taking seriously those myths that have no evidence behind them. They can, of course, teach myths, but at no point should they imply that there is evidence for their truth.

I’m sure others disagree here. Some will say I don’t go far enough in dismissing theology; others will say that I don’t give theology enough credit. And expressing your view is what the comments are for on this Christian Sabbath.

63 Comments

  1. BobTerrace
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Your take seems about the right mix. There are some serious books about the myths of gods.

  2. savage
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    By dissecting the Bible through the historical-critical method, theologians have spread the knowledge that it is highly unreliable. And when aspiring Catholic priests and certain kinds of Protestants are required to study theology at a proper university before entering their professions, this also seems to have a moderating influence on their faith.

  3. GBJames
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    As someone who argues a lot, I find nothing to argue with here.

    • rickflick
      Posted June 21, 2020 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      Same here. Nothing to complain about. The study of religion, even in lower educational levels is something Dan Dennett advocates. If done early and objectively, that would go a long way toward reducing delusional belief generally. Then there’s astrology, crystals, etc., which should also be beaten with the stick of science.

  4. Posted June 21, 2020 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    You’re preaching to the converted here, PCC.

    • Posted June 21, 2020 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      I just wanted to put in print what my thoughts are, and I suspect not everybody here is “the converted.” And I wanted to hear other views; maybe I missed something.

      • GBJames
        Posted June 21, 2020 at 10:14 am | Permalink

        Eric MacDonald probably would have offered you an argument, back in the day.

    • Posted June 21, 2020 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      That’s a great choice of words, though I am happy to say that I have never been converted.

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    I suppose in a truly private institution they can have whatever they want. It is their dime to waste it on if religious study is what they are after. After all, we are assuming any of these courses are elective. However, in a public funded school there should be none of this. Either you believe in the separation or you don’t. You cannot say you do and then pay taxes to subscribe to it.

  6. phoffman56
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    “…appear to be courses preparing one for a life in the ministry. These, of course, presuppose the truth of gods and of the dicta of specific religions.”

    Any justification for such courses would surely also recommend courses for the training of homeopaths. And of course that’s a long ways from the end of the list of bullshit professions–bullshit to the customer, not so much to the money-grubber ‘expert professional provider’.

  7. Posted June 21, 2020 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    I do believe that the historical person Jesus existed, also because his name is mentioned in non-Christian sources, such as the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the Roman Tacitus.

    But nevertheless what was said about Jesus, that he could perform miracles and that he was the Son of God, is nothing but a religious myth and secular universities should not provide space and resources to teach it.

    • Posted June 21, 2020 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      He is not, or at least not easily recognized as such – the texts in Josephus are *massively* edited by Christian interpolation at best. Tacitus is in better shape but still rife with problems – including dating after the events. (It reads to me as second hand and a report of *Christians*, which is something else, but that’s another story.)

      • Posted June 21, 2020 at 10:56 am | Permalink

        Since Tacitus was born in 56 BCE, anything he thought he knew about the alleged crucifixion would have to have been second-hand, wouldn’t it?

      • Posted June 21, 2020 at 10:57 am | Permalink

        In Flavius Josephus there are two passages where Jesus is mentioned.
        The first place (XVIII 3, 3) of his mentioning, in the so-called “Testimonium Flavianum” is considered controversial, because it is proven that it was heavily revised by Christians, but it is no longer regarded as a complete forgery by Christian revisers, as it used to be.

        But the second place, ( XX, 9, 1 ) is today considered authentic by most scientists: . “He therefore called the high council to judgment and had the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ, Jacob by name, as well as some others whom he accused of transgression of the law, led to stoning.”

        At the time of Jesus there were many jewish itinerant preachers, and the narrative about the one called Jesus has prevailed. So what? Ultimately, everything is based on a lie, more solemnly expressed, about a religious myth. It does not matter in the end which historical or non-historical person a religious delusion is based on.

        • Posted June 21, 2020 at 11:56 am | Permalink

          “… but it is no longer regarded as a complete forgery …”

          Why not? What is the evidence that there was an original prior to being tampered with? Pretty much none.

          “But the second place, ( XX, 9, 1 ) is today considered authentic by most scientists:”

          Historians are the more relevant people. And, again, some dispute that this is authentic.

          • Posted June 21, 2020 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

            That would go too far here, the controversies can be read on the Internet.

            But as I said above, it is ultimately irrelevant whether a religious delusion is based on the existence of a historical person or whether it arose without the existence of that person.
            The decisive point is: A delusion remains a delusion.
            For example: Aristotle believed in spontaneous creation, i.e. that animals such as mussels, jellyfish or eels were constantly being created in water and earth under the influence of heat and air.
            Assuming that it is proven that Aristotle did not bring this error into the world, the error would still be an error, that is the crucial thing.
            Did Jesus exist or did he not exist? It doesn’t matter, since he was not the son of any god anyway.

            • Torbjörn Larsson
              Posted June 21, 2020 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

              The existence of historical persons should not matter, but it seems to matter for you: “I do believe that the historical person Jesus existed”.

              Historicity is subjective, so people will never agree on it.

              Is it likely that a “Jesus” existed? Not very, since the concurrent source of myth that should have met him or someone that knew him, constructed it as a myth based on earlier myth [Saul of Tarsus]. We can, based on expectation and observation both. conclude that myth is always myth, never actual persons.

              Coincidentally later potential sources such as Flavius Josephus do not mention a recognizable individual – you mention a known forgery that now is not considered “complete” [by whom? and does it matter?] and a reference to one of the many Messianic figures around at the time – and it is first in the religious mythology the idea is later specifically constructed.

              Also, what “scientists” would be involved in dissecting mythology!? If memory serves [I don’t have a handy reference] I have heard that professional historians, which are not scientists, stay away from the subject since it is so infected.

    • Posted June 21, 2020 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      I do believe a historical person existed who founded Christianity and is the person on whom the stories in the New Testament are based. However, the argument that Josephus and Tacitus mentioned him and therefore he is real is quite flimsy.

      Tacitus tells us of the Christians being persecuted by Nero and says they followed somebody called “Christus” who was crucified by Pilate. That’s all very well, but he might have got that story from the Christians themselves. In other words, Tacitus is not an independent source. He confirms the existence of Christianity, but not its founder.

      Josephus mentions Jesus twice. Once in passing when describing the execution of “James the brother of Jesus, called Christ” and once in more detail in a passage called the Testimonium Flavianum. The latter is at least partially forged. The former would seem to confirm the existence of Jesus, but, again, we don’t know the source.

      These two writers show that Christianity existed by the second half of the first century but they don’t really tell us whether the gospels are about its founder or not and they certainly don’t tell us how much of what is in the gospels is true.

      • Posted June 21, 2020 at 11:13 am | Permalink

        Of course, we only have indications and hints that need to be weighted. And the mention of a name in the work of a historian (Flavius) , who himself is not in any relationship of dependence to the community that has a genuine interest in the spreading of this name, means a different weighting, as if one would only use the writings of the New Testament, which all originated decades after the death of Jesus with the aim to put the myth into the world.

        • JohnE
          Posted June 22, 2020 at 11:18 am | Permalink

          Again, Flavius Josephus was writing decades after the supposed death of Jesus, so he would have had no first-hand knowledge of Jesus. Moreover, nothing in his writing indicates that he interviewed eye-witnesses or did any other actual investigation whatsoever. Instead, he simply made passing references to what the Christian cultists happened to believe at the time he was writing. In this light, there is far more reason to believe in the existence of the Angel Moroni (which I don’t and you probably don’t either), given that we have a first-hand account from a person known to have existed (Joseph Smith). There is likewise far more reason to believe that the persons executed as witches in Salem had actually engaged in witchcraft. The extant documents include transcripts of the testimony of the actual witnesses at trials, as well as sworn affidavits of other witnesses.

    • phoffman56
      Posted June 21, 2020 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

      To me, the assertion that ‘something’ exists must, at least implicitly, include a list of properties of that something about which the assertion is being made. There are undoubtedly a few people who call themselves Christian for which the list of properties, for the something we call Christ in English, is a pretty threadbare list indeed. Unconventional preachers from then and there surely existed.

      Quite apart from walking on water etc., the property of being a human who becomes dead as a frigging doornail for around 40 hours about 2000 years ago, and then becomes undead, is the crucial one, is ridiculous to think could happen, and for which a person not believing can hardly call themselves a Christian.

  8. Posted June 21, 2020 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    The parts that don’t assume gods exist are more rightly grouped with other subjects like history and philosophy.

    As for what theology is good for? A control group for science.

    -Ryan

  9. Posted June 21, 2020 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    I think it’s to be expected that the Serious Study of Gawd would be undertaken in our gawd-soaked society. For no other reason, there must be a steady supply of generous benefactors underwriting these departments (solicited by a cadre of eager professional fundraisers), as well as a steady supply of hopeful students. And good prospects for job placement when they emerge with their spiffy Theology degrees.

    Actually I think we are at the cusp of an exciting new era in Religious Studies — one driven not by articles of faith, but incorporating new discoveries in archaeology, ancient history, psychology, even political science. You know what I’m talking about — it turns out there never was a Moses, an Exodus, a King David, or a Jesus; Satan was not actually depicted as a baddie in the Old Testament, and the creation of the foundational texts of Christianity turns out to be far more interesting and illuminating than we were taught in Sunday School.

  10. Posted June 21, 2020 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    McGill, where I was an undergraduate, has a faculty of religious studies, an undergraduate BA series of programs related to religious studies, and a school of theology. There was a joke that circulated: what’s the difference between religious studies? In theology they still believe. (This is unfair to Professor Hori, who I understand is a practicing monk in some brand of Japanese Buddhism or other, but …)

  11. Ken Kukec
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    … ‘the science of things divine’ (Hooker) …

    I find the word “science” in the above definition offensive.

    I’m sure some hookers would find that definition offensive, too (though, in the early days when I was starting out taking court appointments, I did once represent a working girl whose nom de rue was “Divine”).

    Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

  12. Serendipitydawg
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Where are UC’s schools of astrology and alchemy?

    • BobTerrace
      Posted June 21, 2020 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      One is far out and the other transformed itself so it’s no longer recognizable.

  13. FB
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    There is more value in understanding why the different religions don’t make sense than in theology. Theology is on the whole a waste of time, but learning what the problems are with every religious belief is very valuable, and there is a lot to say.

  14. Steve Gerrard
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I was always puzzled by the existence of schools of divinity at major universities. It made more sense to me for it to be in institutions dedicated to that subject.

    Having said that, it does seem to me that if a university has a divinity school, they will spend very little time questioning the existence of god. It is rather taken as a given starting point, and all the energy goes into studying the consequences.

    Here is a line from the Classical Theories of Religion class at UC: “Thinkers to be studied include Kant, Hume, Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, Marx, Muller, Tiele, Tylor, Robertson Smith, Frazer, Durkheim, Weber, Freud, James, Otto, van der Leeuw, Wach, and Eliade.” And that’s just one class!

  15. Roo
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I think this would fall under something like “Deductive Philosophy” (as would various forms of Wokeness Studies). I think that there is a need for such types of philosophies insofar as they act as societal frameworks that make common referents possible (right now, for example, we often have two opposing narratives on things – but hypothetically you could have many more, to an extent that would make group cooperation extremely difficult.)

    But they are, of course, kind of a special case, as they by definition do not begin with evidence. So something must be used to explain the initial premise. Often, historically, it seems to me that this is either God or brute force (i.e., we do things this way because the emperor will cut your head off otherwise). In the Constitution it is ‘self evidence’, which I think is probably the most compatible with science, if the idea of certain truths being self evident actually holds. If they are not self evident to many people, that becomes an issue. I lean towards the ‘self evident’ line of thinking in both a secular and a ‘spiritual’ sense (in that I think if everyone went off and meditated for long enough we’d all agree on peace love and harmony in the end.) But if that turned out to be false, again, I think deductive frameworks and axioms are a special case where it is very hard to discuss them empirically, because the moment you do they become arbitrary and subjective, not really axioms at all – and yet are still, I think, needed for societies to function.

  16. Historian
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Wikipedia has an entry on the University of Chicago Divinity School and states this:

    “A distinguished Semiticist and a member of the Baptist clergy, Chicago’s first university president William Rainey Harper believed that a great research university ought to have as one central occupation the scholarly study of religion, to prepare scholars for careers in teaching and research, and ministers for service to the church. He brought what was then the Baptist Theological Union seminary to the University, making the Divinity School the first professional school at the University of Chicago.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Chicago_Divinity_School

    Another Wikipedia article states:

    “The first president Harper, an accomplished scholar (Semiticist) and a member of the Baptist clergy, believed that a great university should maintain the study of faith as a central focus, to prepare students for careers in teaching and research and ministers for service to the church and community. As per this commitment, he brought the Morgan Park Seminary of the Baptist Theological Union to Hyde Park, and the Divinity School was founded in 1891 as the first professional school at the University of Chicago. And yet, although founded under Baptist auspices, the University of Chicago has never had a sectarian affiliation.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_University_of_Chicago

    Thus, the university was established by the Baptists in 1890 and opened in 1892. Wikisource has the article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica on the university that states:

    “CHICAGO, UNIVERSITY OF, one of the great educational institutions of the United States, established under Baptist auspices in the city of Chicago, and opened in 1892.[1] Though the president and two-thirds of the trustees are always Baptists, the university is non-sectarian except as regards its divinity school.”

    https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/Chicago,_University_of

    This leads me to conclude that it is quite possible that there is some provision in the charter of the university that requires it to maintain a divinity school. If so, it is highly unlikely that the divinity school will be going away anytime soon.

    • Posted June 21, 2020 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for this. I knew about the Baptist foundation but not in this kind of detail. The President, however, is not a Baptist, but a Jew!

  17. boudiccadylis
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    This all reminds me of when I was in my first year of college. Late 50’s. Incredibly innocent and very naive. One of the classes required at my school was a survey of religion. I was for all intents and purposes a non-participating catholic. In the class various questions arose which were of course answered by “look it up or check it out.”. One of my questions regarded the epigrapha and the apocrypha . Well I thought to cut corners, as I didn’t know where to look, was to haul myself to the local catholic church priest and ask about these books. He had no problem talking about the epigrapha and even referred me to some sources of information. He, however, refused to discuss the apocrypha

  18. David Harper
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    The founders of my alma mater University College London stipulated that there was to be no department of theology. That was partly a reaction to the overtly religious nature of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which were founded as centres for theological training and which, as late as the 19th century, still admitted only members of the Church of England.

    • phoffman56
      Posted June 21, 2020 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      Among some modern day changes on this at Cambridge, the story of Crick’s resignation related to Churchill College is worth repeating though many here have heard it.

      “….At Churchill, some founder Fellows were deeply hostile to the proposal to build a chapel, and Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, resigned his Fellowship in protest. His letter to Winston Churchill explaining his resignation is one of the most intriguing ever sent by a great scientist to a great statesman.”

      In a reply thanking Churchill for writing, but misunderstanding his resignation, Crick proposed a ‘similar’ addition to the chapel:

      “… I enclose a cheque for ten guineas….My hope it will be possible to build accommodation to house a chosen selection of young ladies in the charge of a suitable madam…an amenity which I am sure many in the college will enjoy very much….open not merely to members of the Church of England…”

      See

      https://www.chu.cam.ac.uk/about/history-churchill/cultural-revolution/

      for the entire letter and more.

      • David Harper
        Posted June 22, 2020 at 4:05 am | Permalink

        Oh dear. That kind of suggestion would have gotten Crick fired these days, and deservedly so. Disdain for women is another medieval attitude which survived well into the 20th century at Cambridge. It didn’t award degrees to women until 1948.

        • phoffman56
          Posted June 22, 2020 at 6:35 am | Permalink

          It appears that you completely misunderstand the point being made by Francis Crick to Winston Churchill. Read that entire section of the included URL (and also the part about Churchill College pioneering the Cambridge initiating of co-ed colleges, for that matter).

          Then think about the parallels in providing, on the one hand, a chapel as an extra perk for C. of E. poobahs at an ostensibly new college concentrating on Science, and, on the other, providing there a ‘facility’ for those who avail themselves of prostitution. This has nothing to do with denigration of women. Given Crick’s obvious contempt for religion, I would have thought that, if anything one way or the other, his letter implies a similar contempt for the men who patronize so-called houses of ill repute.

          I never expected that this needed to be made explicit, especially as it spoils the “bad joke”, as Crick himself calls it.

          Those in the most unfortunate byways of the woke community today, including a few who call themselves feminists but go to some ridiculous extremes, might most easily be detected by completely lacking any sense of humour.

          • David Harper
            Posted June 22, 2020 at 10:19 am | Permalink

            I read the whole piece, including the full text of Crick’s letter, and I assure you, I do understand the point that Crick was making. In the context of the time, almost sixty years ago, it would probably have been a fine joke among the predominantly male community of scholars at Cambridge. But you don’t have to be among the Woke to cringe at how badly a joke about providing prostitutes to male faculty has aged.

            • phoffman56
              Posted June 22, 2020 at 11:48 am | Permalink

              And you really think he was seriously proposing this?

              The mentioning of prostitution, whether in the middle of a joke or not, is the mentioning of a fact about the world now, then, and pretty much every time, including the foreseeable future.

              The joke was, if at the expense of anybody, certainly not at the expense of any women. I’m quite sure that Crick was more than intelligent enough to have included male prostitutes had he been concerned about a situation including both female and male adults, such as the faculty and senior administrators at most present day institutions of learning and research.

              I trust your worry is not that he might have forgetfully neglected anyone within a tiny, somewhat obscure, minority community with respect to sexual cravings.

  19. Jon Gallant
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Readers of this website are no doubt well aware that we already have many theological departments, in the form of the various Wokeness Studies subjects. Maybe there is no escape from the constant pressure to contrive academic comfort zones of one kind or another for believers. If both old and new theological subjects somehow disappeared, the
    the next year departments of Leprechaun Studies (or perhaps Critical Leprechaun Studies) would spring into being.

    • savage
      Posted June 21, 2020 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

      The difference being that academic theology is irrelevant, while woke studies teach the dominant ideology of the US and other Western countries.

  20. Mark R.
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I agree with your stanzas in bold.
    I took one religious-related class at a community college: Comparative Religion. It was interesting and I learned a lot, but it wasn’t as interesting nor did I learn as much as in Biology 101. Yet no mention of evolution in my B101 course. That’s as far as I got in natural science courses however. Maybe evolution was taught in subsequent classes. It’s still strange to me to not mention the very reason there is biology in the first place.

  21. Charles Minus
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Can’t help noting a lack of critical thinking in that course description: “Our investigation will begin with the New Testament gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” There must be at least one scholar in that department who knows the the gospels are anonymous documents that were only attributed to these apostles a generation or two into the current era.

  22. Ugo Corda
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Most of the oldest and most prestigious American universities were founded with a religious focus (that was the way to go back then). For example:

    Harvard – in 1643 the school’s purpose was defined as “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust”

    Yale – founded in 1701 as an effort to create an institution to train ministers and lay leadership for Connecticut

    Princeton – founded in 1746; its purpose was to train ministers

    Habits and traditions change slowly. Sometimes it literally takes hundred of years for them to be replaced by something else

  23. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Differenet nations will differ in this. I can only describe how we handled it here in Sweden:

    History
    The historical forerunner of the religious sciences in the Western world has been Christian theology. [6] Historically, theology was practiced by Christians who studied and reflected on issues relevant to Christianity. [4] The modern religious science was founded by Friedrich Max Müller, who coined the term “science of religion”. Müller’s subject area was aimed at seeking “objective” knowledge of the world’s religions, without any religion being considered more important than others. Müller’s studies in Sweden came to be called “history of religion”, a subject that was placed at the Faculty of Humanities (not theologically) at Swedish colleges and universities. [6] The subject then included the study of world religions, except Christianity, since Christianity was studied within theology. [7] In the United Kingdom, the first faculty of religious science was established by Ninian Smart in 1967. However, the term “theology” has continued to be used by several British universities, even after the subject was broadened to include more religions than Christianity, for traditional reasons. [5]

    Parallel to the fact that the elementary school’s Christianity teaching was replaced by religious knowledge, the topic of theology at most of the Swedish educational institutions was changed to “religious science” during the years 1969-1976. “Theology”, however, lives on in the title of academic degrees: theology doctor and theology candidate, doctor and candidate in religious science, as well as as the name of three of the confessionally independent Swedish university’s religious science faculties and institutions; Faculty of Theology and Department of Theology at Uppsala University [8], Faculty of Theology and Center for Theology and Religious Studies at Lund University [9] and Department of Religious Studies and Theology at Gothenburg University [10]. Four other Swedish educational institutions run by individual educational organizers offer religious studies mainly under the name of theology and are then aimed primarily at students who are preparing for professions in church and church, but the term religious science may also exist. Some universities in Sweden that offer the subject of religious science emphasize its secular, humanistic and non-denominational character, in direct opposition to the traditional theological subject, for example religious science at Linnaeus University, [11] Södertörn University [12] and Halmstad University. The discussion about the content and nature of the topic is ongoing. History of religion is the subject of religious science that most clearly marked a non-denominational study of religion as a trait.

    [ https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religionsvetenskap ]

    TL;DR:

    While elementary schools replaced Christianity teaching with “religious knowledge”, the topic of theology at most of the Swedish educational institutions was changed to marked a non-denominational study of “religious science”.

    It was a fairly clear break, only theological schools continue religious studies.

    But some people consider “religious studies” or “Biblical history” as part of theology as well, and those areas don’t presuppose the truth of religious beliefs.

    I would say that the pseudo-area [pseudo-history?] which is “Biblical history” presuppose exactly the truth of the myth texts. It’s cherry-picking to shore up fictional ‘fact’ in – and supposedly behind – them.

    History is a subjective, soft science but as long as generic historians are proud of their efforts I would not fold any superstition into it.

    Anthropology is, outside of US I think [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropology ], considered a natural science and should not suffer from mixing with superstition.

    Archaeology can recognize pseudoarchaeology when it sees it [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudoarchaeology ].

    Comparative religion study should be some form of fine-grained ethnology, I guess.

  24. jezgrove
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    Of course religion (and by extension, theology) has value. It’s measured in the $$$billions, sadly.

  25. hectorburleeives
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    What I have a hard time understanding is how ostensibly (well, I guess it’s ostensible) intelligent, no doubt in many cases even brilliant, men and women can be so sure of what they write and teach about their faiths, particularly Judaism and Catholicism. Try as I might, I can’t shake the fear — yes, fear, especially at night, lying there imagining all the horrors of eternal punishment if I don’t follow Pascal’s advice –, the fear that these people actually know what they’re talking about. How can it be possible that humans would persist in teaching fantasies for thousands of years unless there be compelling arguments for them? As much as I try to de-program my Catholic brainwashing from childhood and twelve years of Catholic school, I haven’t yet located the plug to which the hardwiring of the Church’s catechism terminates.

    • Historian
      Posted June 21, 2020 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

      You have taken the first step in escaping the metaphorical hell that Catholicism has imposed on you by admitting that the Church brainwashed you. You have intellectually accepted that you were taught superstitious nonsense for many years. The final and more difficult step you must take is to psychologically and emotionally liberate yourself. Keep in mind that millions of people have achieved freedom from superstition who were brainwashed such as yourself. If you have read this site on a regular basis, you know that many commenters were in your position, but no longer. So, I urge you to seek counsel from those who can help you. There are probably websites you can identify than can get you started. Good luck.

      • hectorburleeives
        Posted June 21, 2020 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the encouragement. Of course, until I reach the next level of enlightenment, I can still imagine Satan greeting me postmortem: How’s this metaphor — hot enough for you?

        • Paul S
          Posted June 22, 2020 at 9:10 am | Permalink

          I’d think heaven would be more hellish than hell. This is the scenario I postulate to my religious friends when religion comes up. I base this on the premise that everyone who talks about heaven / hell assumes that you will be meeting dead relatives and watching your still living friends and family.

          You’re in heaven watching your grandchildren playing, growing up, going to church. Then you see a child being molested or .

          What then? Do you beg god to intervene? We know that doesn’t work, if it did someone would have done it before you. Do you turn away and let it happen? if so, what does that say about you?
          Worse yet, do you continue to watch in horror.

          Either heaven is filled with the most callous among us or unimaginable horror.

  26. Posted June 21, 2020 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    It just so happens that I am rereading “Misquoting Jesus” by Bart Ehrman. I have read most, if not all, of his books. Ehrman grew up as an Episcopalian, converted to born again Christianity in his teens, and went on to study Christianity at Moody, Wheaton and Princeton.

    Evangelicals believe that the Bible “is the inerrant word of God”. As Ehrman studied, he became aware of all the mistakes in the Bible, and that the books of the New Testament were written many years after Jesus (if he lived) lived and died. Written works were copied by hand and mistakes were made, or different beliefs were added or removed. There are no contemporary writings about Jesus. There’s no proof that any of the books were written by Apostles, especially since all were likely illiterate as most people were at that time.

    And many more books were written that once were considered sacred by certain Christian groups, but were jettisoned when the New Testament reached the form it’s in now. (It took hundreds of years for the Catholic Church to become Catholic, and even now Western and Eastern Catholicisms are different.) Ehrman studied Greek and Hebrew so he could read Biblical works in the original, but there are no originals that survived. Just copies. So much for the “inerrant word of God”.

    Whether Jesus existed or not, if he did, he was a Jewish rabbi, not the son of God, and he believed what Jews believed. Because he is supposed to have had a brother, James, who was the head of Jesus’ Jewish congregation in Jerusalem after Jesus died, I tend to believe James was real and, therefore, think that Jesus may have been real. But, not the Christ, Son of God, etc.

    • Ugo Corda
      Posted June 21, 2020 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

      There is a book by Bart Ehrman titled “How Jesus became God” where he claims that Jesus never said he was the son of God: that was something added after his death. It’s an interesting idea.

      • Rowena Kitchen
        Posted June 21, 2020 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

        Virtually everything Christians have believed about Jesus was created long after his death. If you haven’t, read sometime how it came about that the church decided Jesus’ mother was a virgin impregnated by God. And all the rigamarole about Jesus not having any siblings from Mary and Joseph. And, how Jesus became a tripartite God: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The history of Christianity, whether Catholic, heretical or Protestant is fascinating as to how disparate beliefs were woven together into some strange composite belief.

  27. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Theology! Oof!
    What is it good for? Oof!
    Abolutely Nothing! Oof!

    • jezgrove
      Posted June 22, 2020 at 4:25 am | Permalink

      Say it again!

  28. Peter (Oz) Jones
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    I have always liked this quote.

    Henry Louis Mencken, American journalist:

    “Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable

    in terms of the not worth knowing.”

  29. Posted June 21, 2020 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    My problem with Jesus as a historical person is that there is too little in the Bible to conclude this. Except for his crucifixion during the reign of Tiberius and the Judean governship by Pontius Pilate (did he do pilates?), there is nothing left to describe a non-divine historical Jesus. In other words, Jesus is defined only by his miracles, so if we take them away, what is left?

  30. Posted June 21, 2020 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Ok religion, theology had something to do with learning and knowledge in the past… now IT don’t, IT has stuff-all to contribute to any way through our future problems, known and unknown.
    IT is a slow idle to mystical nothing and like statues that mean more in a zoo of defects and defunk values… there, should be theology.
    I don’t believe we have to be nice to IT anymore.
    Study IT in your own time but don’t waste any universities on crap thinking.

  31. Posted June 21, 2020 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    EXACTLY! I’ve always been amazed at the 3 universities I studied at that they had a religious studies dpt.
    But then I’ve always been a godless battleax!
    cheers,

    D.A., J.D., NYC

  32. Timoty Trais
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    In the history of humankind there is no evidence of interaction with anything supernatural.We seem to exist only in the natural universe.

  33. Posted June 22, 2020 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    Though I’m a non-believer in any of the so-called “faiths”, I’m still fascinated to learn about how they originated, from authors like Bart Ehrman, Paula Fredrickson, and many others. I think it’s important, because, though the ideas behind these religions are ridiculous, so many people in the world believe them.


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