Thursday, January 03, 2008

Theology and apologetics

The New Atheists, especially the "Four Horsemen", are sometimes criticized for not addressing "modern" theology. For instance, H. Allen Orr says that, "The God Delusion... never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins's book..." In her interview with Hemant Mehta, author Becky Garrison asks, "How can anyone pen a book critiquing God and yet refuse to engage with contemporary theological thinkers such as N.T. Wright, Jürgen Moltmann, and Walter Bruggeman?"

This criticism misrepresents the focus of the atheist critique. Atheists are not interested in critiquing theology, which assumes (at some level) truths about God. We are interested in critiquing apologetics, which at least purports to establish truths about God. Typical atheists, myself included, do not seem particularly interested in digging into gazillions of words of bullshit theology to extract some argument that might be construed as an actual apologetic (and when refuted, would just be recast as theology anyway).

If these supposedly sophisticated theologians wish to be evaluated as apologists, they need to present their work as such directly to a skeptical audience. All I ever see — from Orr, Garrison and various bloggers — are vague references to particular authors with dozens of books to their credit or simply to an enormous body of bullshit theology.

Apologetics achieved its zenith in medieval times. The arguments employed by Aquinas, Anselm and Pascal are still in wide currency; only a minuscule fraction of today's religious believers are (unlike most atheists) even aware of subsequent philosophical apologetics, such as Gödel's ontological argument, James' "leap of faith", Van Til's presuppositionalism, Swinburne's "least explanation", or Plantinga's modal argument. The only contemporary apologetics which receive much popular currency among believers are the Kalaam Cosmological argument ( just a tweak of Aquinas') and thoroughly discredited pseudo-scientific apologists such as Josh McDowell and William Lane Craig. If these sophisticated modern theists have contributed anything of substance to apologetics, they are keeping their contributions well hidden not only from atheist critics but also religious believers.

I'll repeat my request to those who claim that atheists are ignoring modern apologetics. Show me a link to a modern apologetic argument which is presented as apologetics. It would be nice if you could summarize the argument, but I'll just take a link. Hell, just give me the title of a book that I can purchase for $20 or less. (If it costs more than $20, buy it yourself and mail it to me.)


  1. The problem, as I see it, is that most theists don't know the difference between 'God', biblical allegories, religious dogma, theology, and apologetics. It's all one big shifting blur.

    Besides, if they admit that apologetic arguments are not "proofs of God's existence" but are refuted defenses of "God", then they must, like the Fideists, concede defeat.

  2. Arcanum: At Thoughts from a Sandwich, Dagood explores this "shifting blur" in considerable detail (especially in the comments).

  3. Here's a review of Thought and Reality by Michael Dummett, which apparently concludes with a novel philosophical argument for the existence of God. I haven't read the book, I've only skimmed the review, I'm not very interested in Michael Dummett and I don't believe in any deities. So, basically, I don't vouch for any of this. But you did ask.

  4. My first impression of Murphy's review is that Dummett has just sexed up Godel's ontological argument.

    For a statement to be meaningful, it must be truth-apt. For a statement to be true or false, there must be an authoritative statement to use as a standard of comparison. Our own epistemic standards are insufficient, because we have to discover that some standard works epistemically by independently verifying the truth of its conclusions. Therefore not only must reality exist, there must exist also external true statements about reality, which can only be provided by God.

    There are two obvious counter-arguments to my summary of Murphy's summary of Dummett's thesis. First, we have defined God into existence in our definition of meaning, which seems unsatisfyingly circular.

    More importantly, even under (summaries of) Dummett's thesis, we don't actually know that any of our statements are actually meaningful, because, as Murphy notes, the evidentiary standard that comparing different world views does not give a jumble, is itself a statement susceptible to falsity: We might be just as mistaken in our beliefs that different world views are consistent as we are about any of our other beliefs. Even if we accept Dummet's conditional, we are no more certain of the consequent than we are of the antecedent.

  5. I'm not sure what Becky Garrison sees in the like of N.T Wright, if this circular argument is anything to go by.

    He goes to some length the deconstruct the evangelical use of the bible as 'authoritive', concluding that the real authority comes from God. And how does he establish this? By references to the bible, such as:

    "Beginning, though, with explicit scriptural evidence about authority itself, we find soon enough—this is obvious but is often ignored—that all authority does indeed belong to God. ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’. God says this, God says that, and it is done. Now if that is not authoritative, I don’t know what is."

    And of course all this assumes God exists in the first place and that the bible is in fact a narrative you should believe.

    I think this type of argument was pretty much what Dawkins et al were criticising. This was a 1989 lecture, so maybe I'm doing him an injustice and maybe Garrison thinks Wright has improved since then. But, since the whole Christian faith is still stuggling with this stuff after a couple of millenia that's unlikely.

  6. Ron Murphy: It's a longish piece, so I'll have to read it carefully when time permits.

    First, its unclear at least from reading the introductory remarks whether Wright's piece you cite is intended as theology or apologetics. If it's theology, if Wright assumes the reader accepts a priori that God exists and that the Bible consists in some sense of God's word, then it doesn't seem to require an enormous amount of thought to assign the authority to God.

    I suspect, just from reading some section headings, that in this piece Wright may be conflating authority in the normative sense with authority in the epistemic sense. (Einstein is (in a loose sense) the epistemic authority on Relativity, but he's not forcing anyone to actually believe it.)


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