Saturday, December 22, 2007

"Good" theology

A frequent criticism of atheism is that we concentrate on the "bad" theology. George Carlin's notion that
[T]here's an invisible man who lives in the sky and watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And who has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do.

And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to remain and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry, forever and ever, till the end of time. But he loves you!
is obviously absurd, and atheists are doing a disservice to religion by focusing on such absurd notions.

Let's — at least for the moment — take theologians such as John Haught at their word. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that these theologians have indeed constructed a viable, sensible, not-too-illogical theology that, while it might not engender agreement with atheists, at least legitimately escapes our obloquy.

Even granted this assumption, though, something goes thud instead of ding. If it were really the case that the good theology could escape the atheist critique aimed at ridiculous "invisible man in the sky" theologies, why do the good theologians spend so much time criticizing atheism?

There are hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people who really do believe in theologies which at best differ from "invisible man in the sky" theologies by a little obfuscation of the underlying absurdity. Jerry Falwell, Ted Haggard, Fred Phelps, Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, etc. ad nauseam have millions, tens of millions of followers. There are millions of cdesign proponentsists, and they have tons of money, and they have taken over several school boards, including the entire Texas state education bureaucracy. And that's not to mention hundreds of millions of Muslims. I could go on, but we all read the news; you know exactly what I'm talking about. I know that not everybody believes this nonsense, but a hell of a lot of people do believe it.

If the "good" theologians could really escape the opprobrium and criticism atheists such as Dawkins' level at "bad" theology, why not make common cause with us? It's not like The American Atheists put out press releases reading, "Protest scheduled after minister says, 'Jesus is love.'" We go after the people and ideas that the "good" theologians ought to agree are bastards, assholes, hatemongers, and outright con-men. The atheist critique of religion is motivated by the suffering that the "bad" religions impose and the happiness they prevent. As far as humanism goes, we're all on the same side, we just contextualize it differently. We atheists would be doing nothing but driving people from "bad" religion right into the arms of the "good" theologians. And this would be a good thing, right?

Apparently not. All of these "good" theologians — without any exceptions that I'm aware of — go after atheism. Earlier this year, I was treated to a supposedly "good" theologian — a philosophy professor, no less — who assured me that God did not exist, and then spent thousands of words criticizing (quite dishonestly) The God Delusion for... wait for it... trying to prove that God did not exist.

The "good" theologians have to go after atheism, because we atheists and rationalists are aiming at the foundation of both "bad" and "good" religion: lies and bullshit. The "good" theologians know we're coming after them next. They can defend themselves from atheist, rationalist critique only at the cost of defending "bad" religion from the same critique.

The difference between "good" and "bad" theology is the element of humanism: "Good" theology is humanist: it concerns itself with human happiness and well-being. "Bad" theology is anti-humanist to the degree that it tolerates human suffering for supposedly "transcendent" reasons. But "good" theology really is just somewhat more humanist than "bad" theology. If it were completely humanist, it would cease to be any kind of theology at all. I don't care whether or not God wants me to be happy; I want to be happy all on my own.

Supposedly "good" theologians are — like "bad" theologians — engaged in a "bait-and-switch" operation. They want to first convince you that God wants you to be happy, and then they want to tell you what it means to be happy. It's what they say God says happiness is. But the notion is absurd: You already know what it means to be happy. A person can be in the dark only on the point of how to achieve happiness, and how to reconcile their happiness with the happiness of others. These are the domains of psychologists and politicians, not theologians. It is indeed the case that the clergy — to the extent that they are not simply useless parasites — are indeed nothing more or less than psychologists and politicians.

Any theologian, good, bad or indifferent, to be writing as a theologian and not as a politician or as a scientific psychologist or sociologist, has to convince you that he knows what God thinks is good (or that he knows what schizophrenic iron-age barbarians knew what God thinks) in a way that you fundamentally cannot know. To do so, he must employ lies and bullshit, because there is (at best) no way to detect falsity in theology.

The problem with lies and bullshit is not that they always lead to immediate badness. You can justify anything, good, bad, or indifferent, using lies and bullshit. You can even justify completely rational, scientifically justified ideas using lies and bullshit. And that's the deeper problem. Once someone learns to like the taste of bullshit, they will actually swallow anything. Even the best theologian can justify only good ideas, but he won't live forever and the next bullshitter might not be such a great guy.

Pope Ratzo is a nicer guy than Fred Phelps (I know, not a high bar). In just the same way, Deepak Chopra is more sincere and helpful than outright frauds such as Silvia Browne or Uri Geller. But the nice, sincere people must protect the frauds because what undermines one undermines the other. Take away the lies and bullshit, and Ratzo would have to get a real job, Chopra would have to do actual research, and that's hard work. They're not going to jump off the gravy train just because a few assholes are hanging on.

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