Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The atheist critique of theology

Atheists tend not to be that interested in theology — we're typically more interested in apologetics — but we do have something to say about theology itself.

The most common atheist critique of theology is that the literal meaning of the Abrahamic scriptures (Torah/Old Testament, New Testament and Koran) is rather disgusting from a modern ethical viewpoint (not to mention completely nonsensical from a modern scientific viewpoint). The Old Testament is a dead loss, exhorting the death penalty for just about everything, approving murder, incest, genocide, aggressive wars of conquest, human sacrifice, slavery and rape. The New Testament is a little nicer, but still explicitly condones slavery, establishes the inferiority of women and condemns homosexuality. It's also strongly sex-negative in general, and sexuality is an important and integral part of the human experience. The Koran is explicitly theocratic, anti-democratic, misogynist, and explicitly relegates infidels to second-class status. And of course the New Testament and the Koran establish the idea of eternal torture in hell, by definition the most immoral — by humanist standards — idea it is possible to promulgate.

Of course, the conclusions above follow from a fairly literal reading of the scriptures. Some theologians, however, hold that the literal reading is unjustified; that modern theology takes a more nuanced and subtle approach, and escapes such criticism. This defense, however, fails miserably.

There are, of course, tens or hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people who do indeed read their scriptures literally. It is ridiculous to assert that some criticism is specious just because the writer himself is not in the category being criticized. I might as well argue that criticism of Nazism is specious because I myself am not a Nazi. Indeed if I made such an argument, one might justifiably be suspicious that I had an ulterior motive for shielding Nazis from criticism.

But "liberal" non-literal theology also deserves criticism on its own merits.

First, liberal theology is very hard to read; it's mostly ambiguous and vague, awash in bullshit. It's a struggle just to find a simple, unambiguous declarative sentence... much less a whole paragraph that makes sense. An example trotted out by the liberal theologians is Tillich's notion of God as not a being but "Being itself" or the ground of all being. This idea is simply nonsense, a profound-sounding hook on which to hang a bunch of mystical mumbo-jumbo. Liberal theology is just another instance of mystical Deepak Chopra-style woo-woo. But it's woo-woo with a bite.

A fundamental problem with liberal theology is its methodology. It's all well and good to argue that the literal interpretation of a text might not be the best interpretation. I doubt anyone would argue that, "My lover is like a gazelle or a young stag," should mean that the lover has four legs and fur. On the other hand, the literal interpretation is always the facially simplest explanation; it requires a positive argument to establish an alternative.

The liberal theological methodology, however, seems to be that if the conclusion drawn from the literal meaning is objectionable, then the text is "metaphorical". If you can't find a plausible metaphor to rescue the text, then the text is "mysterious". The text always means what the interpreter wants it to mean, and if it can't mean that, then it means nothing. The truth or the correct moral opinion is formed externally, and then used as an interpretive schema.

There's no problem with determining the truth or ascertaining acceptable moral belief outside some scripture. The problem is trying to mangle a modern conception of scientific and ethical belief into the procrustean bed of iron age mythology created by barbarians who were, by modern standards, quite nasty people. Not their fault, they didn't know any better, and they deserve our pity more than our scorn, but they were what they were: nasty, superstitious, slave-owning, violent, murderous, xenophobic, war-mongering, woman-hating savages.

Why go to all the trouble of trying to interpret savages' mythology in light of modern science and ethics? Why not just say what you think is true and good and abandon the attempt to reinterpret ancient superstitions?

Nobody writes or speaks only because he loves the sound of his own voice. If that were the only motivation, he'd just sing in the shower. Everyone writes because he wants to be believed, to be taken seriously, to communicate — to communicate at least that he is an especially clever and profound fellow who deserves a six-figure tenured sinecure at a major university.

One of the easiest ways to be believed, to be taken seriously, is to piggy-back on some authority. It's not enough to say that Being itself or the ground of all being is an important philosophical concept; Tillich says that the Christian God is the ground of all being, and thus the concept is philosophically important. But to piggy-back on an authority is to lend credence to that authority and, more importantly, to lend credence to the general idea of ideological authoritarianism. So, by seeking to reinterpret scripture in light of modern science and ethics, the liberal theologians are reinforcing the authority of scripture.

The liberal theological methodology works both ways: If you're an authoritarian submissive, if you're neurotic and hung-up about sex, if women scare the shit out of you and fags creep you out, if you think black and brown people are dirty and stupid — and if the text means what you want it to mean — then your interpretation is just as valid as any liberal theologian's. And these ideas are generally well-supported by a literal interpretation of most scriptures; the scriptures unsurprisingly tend to reflect the atavistic prejudices present at the time of their writing.

Furthermore, because there is often no reason other than the objection to the conclusion to force a reinterpretation of the text, those who argue for a literal interpretation have a stronger case. Indeed if the notion of scriptural authority is to have any meaning, then by definition objecting to the literal conclusion is not a valid rebuttal. Just that I don't like the law is not an argument that the law does not in fact prohibit, for example, the possession of marijuana. Dislike might be an argument to change the law, but it's not a good argument to reinterpret the law away.

And that's the "bite" of liberal theology, and why liberal theologians must protect their literal, fundamentalist, extremist brethren at any cost in honesty, integrity and common sense.

The atheist critique of religion in general does not seek to undermine the literary value of scripture, its historical or sociological importance nor even its "spiritual" value. The atheist critique of religion seeks to undermine the authority of scripture, and an attack on the authority underlying the extremists' and fundamentalists' views is just as much an attack on the authority underlying the liberals' views.


  1. I would love to see a good, secular, analysis of the role religion played in the slavery issue. Christians take it for granted that faith was the deciding factor in freeing the slaves. This is of course ridiculous. The Bible was no different in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than it was 2500 years before. But for all that time, no one seemed to notice that God did not like slaves! Even 1800 years after the supposed life of Jesus, Christendom was still incapable of discovering even a hint in their holy texts that slavery was wrong. Jesus presented a supposedly radical new way to treat others, such as turn the other cheek and give a man your cloak and coat if asked. This new ethic was supposed to transform the world. But he could not remember to mention, "Oh, by the way, go ahead and free those slaves."

    When we finally freed the slaves the real factor that differentiated our culture from the earlier Christians was not a new message from God--there was no new New Testament; there was no new messiah.

    The factor that differentiated us was that we had just completed about 150 to 200 years of a secular enlightenment.

  2. I should clarify that in a sense people of faith did do much to free slaves. But, as you point out, as with most liberal issues, moderates had to go through a complicated set of hoops to find biblical agreement.

  3. Near as I can tell, the central moral figure ("god") in the Old testament is a spoiled, jealous, vindictive little brat with the moral sense of a two-year-old.

    But you are right - most atheists don't discuss theology much - I think this is because it is about as useful as a long, drawn-out discussion about the relative merits of Mighty Mouse versus Superman.

  4. I believe you have struck the very heart of the issue—methodology. By what method do we make any determination regarding a sacred writing? Worse—can that method stay consistent?

    It should be noted the liberal Christian retains the same set of scriptures as his/her Conservative partner. Thus both are declaring a claim (“some writing is accurately declaring God; other writing is not”) for which neither can come up with a consistent method for how we limit it to just that writing.

    The most basic question has been left perpetually unanswered: “Given a string of words, X; by what method do we determine X is God-breathed?”

    Secondly, the liberal Christian is left rudderless in determining the historicity of Jesus. Every one I have encountered does not hold to the strict literal history of the Gospels. Which is O.K.—but this eventually results in the claim that some of the story of Jesus is myth.

    Again—what method do we use to determine what is myth and what is fact? (Often the response will be “we don’t know.”) So part of what the person is relying upon is myth! Why are they teaching us to believe in a myth? Does anyone see a problem with that?

    But before the Conservative Christian chimes in, we see their inconsistent methods as well. Instead of rejecting the morals of the Tanakh with the Liberal dismissal; the Conservative rejects the morals of the Tanakh as being applicable to only that time and place. (And they question how WE don’t have absolute morals??)

    This is easily demonstrated in the oft-used claim by Conservative Christians that they can mock and deride others under the guise of “If Jesus did it to the Pharisees; I can do it too. Since I am allowed to act as Jesus did.” Well, their buddy Jesus ALSO ordered the genocide of the Midianites, except the virgin females and the gold. (Numbers 31) The exact same argument could be used (“Since Jesus did it; I can to”) to justify genocide! Yikes!

    How do they get around it? Dismiss it with “different time; different morals.”

    I vacillate between who is more inconsistent—the Liberal Christian or the Conservative. I think the Liberal Christian is more obvious, but both have some inherent issues.

  5. On Tillich: God is Being itself is supposedly the only non-symbolic statement about God. As Being itself it cannot exist as such. But I have always had a great deal of trouble understanding exactly how Being itself differs from nothingness, since they both seem to have the same properties, or lack thereof.

    I did enjoy his book The Dynamics of Faith, but when I ploughed through the two volumes of Sytematic Theology I was bemused to find that Lutheranism was the best religion after all.


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