Examining Sophisticated Theology: The Questions Atheists Have That It’s Supposed to Answer.

Long title.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about looking more formally and in-depth at theology after seeing a number of posts on it, and recently on deciding to actually read something by Lonergan on it that Eric MacDonald both recommended and trashed. Basically, my view from an admittedly shallow look at theology through the lens of philosophy of religion is that there are interesting things to say in theology, and in “Sophisticated Theology” specifically, even if they aren’t always right, and so the charges of most of the Gnu Atheists that theology in general and “Sophisticated Theology” specifically are simply examples of “making stuff up” and are therefore utterly void of any valid intellectual content are just plain wrong. Now, I’m starting with Lonergan, and according to Eric MacDonald I need to read 1000 pages or so to get the full scope, and so far I’ve read 70. I have a way to go, but I want to start with some preliminaries while I’m waiting, and maybe get some suggestions for other things to read.

Anyway, here I want to talk about something P.Z. Myers recently said, replying to a discussion of whether we could have evidence if a God exists or not. Before I quote it, let me remind you that Myers is famous — or, perhaps, infamous — for coining the “Courtier’s Reply”, a label for the people who read works by the Gnu Atheists — particularly Richard Dawkins — and pointed out that they were not criticizing “Sophisticated Theology”, and so needed an education in that before they could comment. The Courtier’s Reply likens this response to one that the courtiers could give in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes: well, to really see that the Emperor is really clothed, we have to see the nuances of the fabrics and details and so you really just need to be better educated to see that, when the claim is that it is just obvious that the Emperor has no clothes. Now, I already think that this horribly represents at least the theology that’s taken seriously by philosophy of religion, but let’s put that part aside but keep this in mind when we look at what he thinks of the debate:

My position is that we cannot find evidence for a god, that the God Hypothesis is invalid and unacceptable, because “god” is an incoherent concept that has not been defined. I could claim that a spumboodle exists, for instance, and we could go around and around with you presenting hypothetical examples and listing potential entities or forces that are spumboodles, but we’ll get nowhere if I never tell you what the heck a spumboodle is or what it does or even how I recognize a spumboodle. Without that, the whole concept is untestable and unverifiable. It really doesn’t count if I insist that something undefined exists, and then keep jiggling between vague realities (it exists in our dimension! It has a color!) and contradictory guesswork (it’s transdimensional! And completely invisible!) designed to keep moving the spumboodle away from any possibility of honest evaluation.

The problem is that the whole point and purpose of “Sophisticated Theology” is to define and clarify that concept. That’s what it’s trying to do: determine what the concept and definition is so that we can then go around figuring out how to see if it exists. And like any concept, it’s always the case that at some point you will have different people arguing over what it is. Myers seems, here, to be using different theories against each other in claiming that it’s contradictory, as some views are more concrete and some are more abstract, and he assigns an intention to those arguing over it that probably isn’t there. So, as such, Myers here should be arguing for “Sophisticated Theologians” to step up to the plate and work this out, and thus should be encouraging them to work as hard as they can and talk as much as they can, because that’s the only way that we’ll ever get what he wants. But does he?

The only way to win this game is to not play. Don’t concede the possibility that X might exist unless you’ve got clear criteria for defining the bounds of X’s existence, and it’s up to the advocates for X to provide that basic foundation. If they can’t do that, reject the whole mess before you brain gets sucked into a twisty morass of convoluted theological BS.

Nope. Instead of essentially saying that he’ll get out of the way while they figure it out, and watching with interest, he advocates rejecting the whole mess and not conceding that there might be something that works or looks like that folk concept that we’re trying to suss out and not getting sucked into theological BS. But that theological BS is the process by which we will actually discover ourselves able or unable to determine if it’s just BS or if we can test it, and how. Ultimately, people like Coyne, Myers and the others should be encouraging “Sophisticated Theology”, even if it seems obtuse or confusing to them. They should be encouraging all the really smart and knowledgeable people to focus their time and energy on evaluating “Sophisticated Theology” and making those who practice it make sure their conceptions are clear and coherent. They should be overjoyed at the Templeton Foundation’s funding for these examinations, and advocate making these as public as possible because that’s the only way they’ll get that definition they want.

And yet, they don’t. Instead they dismiss it outright.

(To be fair, both Jerry Coyne and Eric MacDonald are at least trying to read and address it. I think, however, that Coyne is not knowledgeable enough about philosophy to do it properly, and I’m not sure if MacDonald is either. Hence my push to read them myself and comment.)


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