Can Atheists Simply Ignore Theology?

The other day, Terry Sanderson—president of the United Kingdom’s National Secular Society—published a short, scathing indictment of theology in The Guardian, a piece titled “Theology—truly a naked emperor.”

This title deliberately recalls H.C. Andersen’s famous fable, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and by implication its ongoing use by popular atheist critics of religion to defang criticism that they know next to nothing about theology. The fable was first made use of a few years back by atheist blogger (and biologist) PZ Myers in a bit of satire called “The Courtier’s Reply,” a response to H. Allen Orr’s scathing review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in the New York Review of Books. “The Courtier’s Reply” so delighted Dawkins that he quoted it at length in the preface to the paperback edition of his book.

In briefest terms, Orr’s chief complaint about The God Delusion is that it displays a profound ignorance of relevant theology. Myers’ satirical response runs as follows:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr. Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion… Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

It goes on, but that is enough to capture its flavor. Since Myers first published it, this bit of satire has been invoked widely by atheists who want to quickly dismiss those who think atheist critics of religion should engage seriously with important works of theology.

I became painfully conscious of this propensity shortly after Religion Dispatches published an interview with me about my book, Is God a Delusion? The link to that interview quickly appeared on Richard Dawkins’ Web site under the heading, “Another Flea,” invoking the practice of Dawkins’ supporters to call critics of The God Delusion “fleas.” The very first posted comment was this: “Just from reading the abstract it sounds like another book in ‘The Courtier’s Reply’ category.” The subsequent comments were riddled with mockery.

But can theology really be dismissed so readily? Myers’ satire has as its backdrop a story in which a pair of con men have pretended to make a new set of clothes for the emperor but present him instead with nothing but thin air, along with a cockamamie story to the effect that those who are stupid or unfit for their positions can’t see these fine clothes at all. Since no one wants to be accused of these things, everyone pretends to see what they don’t in fact see.

In Myers’ version of the story, this pretense has spiraled out of control, becoming an entire literary genre with recognized masterworks, all of it serving only to perpetuate the con game and silence anyone with the temerity to state the obvious.

Myers’ satire sees theology as a pretentious obfuscation: high-sounding nonsense whose only function is to obscure the obvious truth that there is no God.

But notice: Myers doesn’t argue for this conclusion. He seems to take it as an obvious premise—making one wonder whether this isn’t just a clever bit of question-begging. After all, there is no real attempt to look at works of theology to see if the judgment fits.

Terry Sanderson, in his recent Guardian piece, might be seen as trying to support Myers’ presumption by offering up some examples of theology’s pretentious obfuscation—or at least one, an example from Rowan Williams which Sanderson characterizes as “convoluted writing that nobody with their feet in reality can comprehend.” He describes watching the “theological” programs he finds on television as akin to having had “one of those strokes that make your native language incomprehensible to you. You recognize the individual words as English, but they have no meaning.”

And on the basis of this subjective assessment of some unscientifically selected samples, Sanderson is happy to embrace the premise underlying Myers’ “Courtier’s Reply.” In Sanderson’s words, “Theology is an excuse for grown men to spend their lives trying to convince themselves, and others, that ridiculous fairy tales are true.”

Put more simply, Sanderson has looked at some theology, found it incomprehensible, and concluded that this must mean it is meaningless nonsense whose only possible function is to hide fictional beliefs behind a cloud of obscurantism. I might as well conclude that string theory is nonsense, since it’s incomprehensible to me.

Fortunately, Myers’ more prominent follower is also a more careful thinker. Dawkins offers an interpretation of “The Courtier’s Reply” that, at least at first glance, lends it more plausibility. In the preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion, Dawkins distinguishes between two kinds of theology: the kind which presupposes God’s existence, which I’ll call substantive theology; and the kind that attempts to make the case for God’s existence. We might call this apologetic theology.

Dawkins admits he needs to take apologetic theology into account—which he claims to have done adequately and with “good humor” in The God Delusion. What he needn’t do, he thinks, is pay heed to the other kind of theology.

Now Dawkins doesn’t display any understanding of what this other kind of theology is, what its practitioners actually do. He hasn’t studied it, after all. Whatever it is, it’s something like fairyology, by which Dawkins has in mind the study of such things as “the exact shape and colour of fairy wings.” In other words, Dawkins takes it that this other kind of theology devotes itself to theorizing about what God is like. But since all such theorizing is premised on the assumption that there is a God, this other kind of theology begs Dawkins’ question—and hence can be ignored. This is what he takes Myers to be pointing out.

Now, the distinction Dawkins makes here seems reasonable enough. But there are some important questions. First, does Dawkins really understand and appreciate the force of apologetic theology in all its diversity? In fact, I think it’s quite clear he doesn’t. But since this is an issue I take up at some length in my book, I want to set it aside here so I can focus on another question: Is Dawkins right that he and other atheist critics of religion don’t need to take substantive theology into account? Are Myers and Sanderson right that they can justifiably ignore theology’s perplexing techno-babble, making no effort to learn the academic language of theology, on the ground that these theologians are simply assuming as true the very thing that atheists are calling into question?

I think not. First of all, the kind of question we are asking when we ask whether or not God exists is a very different kind of question than we are asking when we wonder about the emperor’s state of undress. Belief in the existence of the emperor’s pantaloons involves belief that the empirical world we encounter with our senses includes (among other things) a garment of a certain shape and size draped over the emperor’s nether parts. But if something lacks all empirical properties, then it can’t have a size or shape, let alone cover the emperor’s naughty bits, and so it can’t be a garment.

And so if we conduct an empirical test on the emperor and fail to detect any empirical properties consistent with his wearing pants, then he isn’t. To be a garment requires the possession of empirical properties. Take those away, and there is no garment.

But belief in God isn’t primarily a belief about the contents of the empirical world. It is, rather, a certain holistic interpretation of our experience, one that offers an account of the meaning and significance of the empirical world and the lives we lead within it. To believe in God is to understand the world of ordinary experience in terms of an interpretive worldview that posits the existence of “something more.”

In this respect, belief in God is more like belief in metaphysical naturalism—by which I mean the doctrine that the empirical world exhausts what is real. Whether or not there is more to reality than meets the empirical eye isn’t a question we can answer through empirical investigation, the way that we can answer whether the poor emperor’s fruits are hanging free.

So how do we address this kind of question? The answer, I think, is that we have to “try on” alternative interpretations to see which offers the best fit with the whole of human experience—not merely with what we experience through our senses, but also with the broader and ultimately more important dimensions of our lived experience, including our moral and aesthetic experience and our sense of the numinous. Is a naturalistic worldview, one which explains away these latter features of our lives (or at least the last), ultimately a better fit with the whole of human experience than some alternative which posits a transcendent element of one kind or another?

How can we even begin to answer such a question without seriously “trying on” the alternatives? In its broadest terms, theology is the intellectual project of developing and exploring a range of alternative worldviews that all have something in common—namely, they include belief in a transcendent reality that is in some way both fundamental and good. As such, theology falls within a much broader intellectual project, one that develops and explores not only theistic worldviews, but other worldviews as well, such as the naturalistic one endorsed by Dawkins, Myers, and Sanderson.

Of course, an interpretive worldview has to fit with our experience, including what science teaches us about the world. And not every theistic worldview meets this criterion (Young Earth Creationism comes to mind). But while a specific formulation of theism might have to give way before scientific evidence in just the way that a specific version of Darwinian theory might need to give way to a more nuanced and comprehensive version, the overall theological project—to shape a theistic worldview consistent with experience—remains viable regardless of what science teaches us. What this means is that in a broad sense a theistic worldview is empirically unfalsifiable… just like a naturalistic one.

Simply put, we don’t test our holistic worldviews the way we test whether the emperor is naked or clothed. We test them by trying them on, trying to live them out, and then reflecting on how well they work as organizing principles for individual and communal lives. We test them not only in terms of their internal consistency and consistency with empirical facts (something that the best theologians always strive to maintain), but in terms of such issues as pragmatic impact on the quality of human life.

We also assess them in terms of simplicity—a criterion according to which naturalism may have an edge (although some theologians argue otherwise). And all else being equal, a worldview that forces us to explain away huge swaths of our lived experience as nothing but delusion and error is less satisfactory than one which offers a meaningful and coherent account of those same elements.

The task of deciding which worldview to embrace—and hence whether or not we should believe in some kind of transcendent reality or God—is an enormously challenging task that cannot be answered through empirical investigation. It is a question which, in fact, will probably never be answered wholly or fully. But we cannot ignore the question, because which worldview we adopt makes a big difference for how we live our lives.

And so we must struggle to assess the relative merits of the alternatives available to us—something that we simply cannot responsibly do by ignoring those thinkers who, as part of a rich traditional of rigorous inquiry, attempt to construct plausible theistic world views and uncover the explanatory power of theism in relation to the full breadth of our human experience.

In other words, we cannot responsibly assess the question of God’s existence by ignoring in advance the work of substantive theologians. The strategy of satirical dismissal championed by Myers, embraced by Dawkins, and recently promulgated on the pages of The Guardian by Terry Sanderson, is nothing short of a formula for intellectual irresponsibility.