Thesis: Theological apologetics becomes more complicated in the presence of skepticism. In other words, arguments which theists make in defending their religious beliefs become more and more
convoluted sophisticated (and again) the better our questions about those beliefs get. But, of course, I have written about this topic before. Nonetheless, I have a few more things to say.
Thousands of years ago, some metaphysical ‘genius’ could proclaim that the universe was all fire, water, or made of god stuff and we, a very young intellectual species, would not have had the tools or understanding to question such claims without it turning into a ‘he said, she said‘ affair (assuming a ‘she’ would have been permitted to say anything). That is, there was once a time when truly there was no significant epistemic distinction between religious and skeptical claims.
Because there was no established skepticism.
But with many of the ancient urban societies where philosophical ideas were born–China, India, Greece, etc–came questions of how we know things. Eventually, intellectuals would begin to question the bases of religious thought, and would become subsequently revered and sometimes chastised by contemporary religious and governmental institutions. Here in the West, Socrates is the most well-known example of this. With this infancy of philosophy, but more specifically epistemology or the study of knowledge and how we know things, traditional knowledge became subject to suspicion. For an example, here is Socrates (well, Plato at least) when asked by Phaedrus if he believes in the myth of Boreas seizing Orithyia from the river bank upon which the members of the dialogue sit. Socrates replies:
I can’t as yet ‘know myself’ as the inscription at Delphi enjoins, and so long as that ignorance remains it seems to me ridiculous to inquire into extraneous matters.
This early form of questioning would lead to more direct skepticism, of course. And with it, theistic philosophers would be forced to do more than merely assert their positions. (Well, ideally it would lead to this, but the fact is that much of apologetics, even from the revered William Lane Craig, is full of bald assertions). And as history marched along, theology became a serious philosophical topic. What’s the phrase? That philosophy is the handmaiden of theology. Well, for centuries that was true, as to be a philosopher in Europe was to be a member of the church. No other intellectual institution was very influential for many centuries; no competition was allowed to survive, where the church had the power to stop them. Consider the Cathars, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo Galilei for starters. The Inquisition was not a period of increased curiosity, after all.
So, with the basic epistemic questions posed, the tools of logic and inquiry developed. The tools of skepticism were sharpened both by the luminaries of orthodoxy who defended the faith of their particular institution as well as those who quietly (or not so quietly) harnessed doubts. There is no doubt that Thomas Aquinas, an orthodox philosopher if ever there was one, was a genius. But let’s not forget such thinkers as Peter Abelard, William of Ockham, and Duns Scotus who, who were not in any meaning of the word ‘atheists’ but were openly skeptical of many orthodox theological ideas.
With the advent of the empirical methods which would lead to what we know today as the scientific method, the world of theological apologetics would receive a vital blow, even if it would not be felt by most people even now. The fact is that many people do not understand the implications of this methodology on theology, which is the basis for this argument between accommodationists and people such as Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, and of course humble ol’ me, is a testament to how little most people think about complicated matters such as philosophy. But it has always been that way, I suppose. But for those of us who consider such matters, the opposition to theology and theism in general is not mere distaste (although it is that too), but one of realized philosophical implication. Theological apologetics simply does not have the rational justification to stand up to the power of the scientific method.
This is not a debate over mere conclusions, but one about methodology and therefore justification. One method is simply superior to the other. When religion is subjected to empirical testing, almost none of is survives. Not even the happy and progressive liberal theology survives, even if it tends to be more accepting and friendly. it’s sort of how you prefer people who are nicer, even if they have radically different lifestyles or beliefs than you.
Recently, one of the buzz terms in the blogosphere in which I swim is “sophisticated theology.” The basic idea is that we atheists and skeptics are not sufficiently educated in the complexity, subtlety, or profundity of modern theological thought. Of course, every time we run into some deep thoughts a la theologian, all we get is either postmodern word salad or bold assertions without philosophical or empirical justifications. Here is an example of the sort of thing I am talking about which I discovered a few weeks back via WEIT (also via the link above)
The bottom line here is that skepticism has put theology up against the metaphorical wall, and theology is flailing around in an attempt to save itself. Now, the metaphor is not really apt, because skeptics are not figuratively (or literally) threatening theologians or apologists with harm, but we are merely tapping them on the shoulder and asking hard questions. Sometime, when they agree to sit down with us and debate or discuss the issue, we ask those hard questions in bold ways. And, of course, when we skeptics talk to each other those hard questions often are paired with humor, frustration, and flabbergastion (that isn’t a word, is it? meh…). And this, to them, looks aggressive. And in many cases it is aggressive, because we are frankly fed up with pseudo-intellectual crap and the fact that they have so many credulous people to believe them. It does not bode well for humanity.
Like someone who will say anything to not be harmed when they feel threatened, assertions will lash out like fists and feet, adrenaline takes over, and survival supersedes truth. It just may take centuries for the disease’s symptoms to be noticeable to everyone, but they are already felt by many. We skeptics, like doctors of the body of humankind, can already see the theological cancer spreading over the body of humanity and have made our diagnosis; it is malignant. If we as a culture and a species are to become healthy this cancer needs to be treated, and possibly removed. If it isn’t, we may survive, but we will continue to be infirm and weak.
But in the mean time, the arguments of assertive theologians will continue to maintain influence on millions of people. Their claims will continue to be complicated, intelligent, and profound-sounding. This, of course, will not lend their ideas actual justification, but that will not matter because it will still compel many. And the more complicated, in-depth, and meticulous these rationalizations are, the harder skeptics have to exercise their sharpened tools to demonstrate the lack of reasonable foundation of such beliefs. It is a game where those who care about influence over truth have the advantage over those that genuinely care about what is demonstrable.
And then the sharper skeptics make their criticisms, the deeper theologians dig themselves into the rabbit-hole of complex and erudite obfuscation.
Thus the viscous cycle, the intellectual ‘arms race’ (Richard Dawkins would be proud, perhaps), continues.
But the complexity and obfuscation don’t make theological arguments better, they only make them harder to follow. It allows them to live in their worlds where they pat each other on the back for being clever, but never actually demonstrate anything. They just become more convoluted, intricate, and find themselves tied in knots that nobody else wants to try and untie because it is a waste of time and we can see that. Then they can make the easy rhetorical point that we don’t understand sophisticated theology.
It’s all just silly, like games children play where they make up the rules along the way and then declare victory.
Intelligence is needed to compose such sophisticated theology, but it is intelligence applied to rationalizing a conclusion and not in utilizing or improving the best methodology we have at our disposal. For theologians to do that would be suicidal, and they must know that to some degree.
When pressed against the wall, survival supersedes truth.