Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sophisticated Theology

Atheists are often accused of being ignorant about modern sophisticated religion. We're supposed to be stuck in the middle ages attacking a strawman version of religion that has no relevance to the beliefs of 21st century theists.

This argument has always puzzled me since I seem to have completely missed all the modern sophisticated proofs of the existence of God that these people talk about. Richard Dawkins also apparently missed them all in The God Delusion.

Last September I embarked on a voyage of discovery where I asked for a brief description of modern sophisticated theology: A Challenge to Theists and their Accommodationist Supporters. You probably won't be surprised to discover that after 552 comments nobody came up with anything that was less than 500 years old.

But, in fairness, the big names of philosophy, theology, and science didn't contribute to that discussion on Sandwalk. So here's your chance to see what modern sophisticated theology looks like in the 21st century. Only this time it's the top thinkers in philosophy and theology who are giving us the answers.

Jerry Coyne has posted brief summaries of their answers at: 20 voices of belief. I urge you to watch the video yourself—that way nobody can ever accuse you of being ignorant of the very best arguments for the existence of God.

The image from The Emperor's New Clothes is a reference to The Courtier's Reply, which remains the best description of what modern sophisticated theology is all about.


  1. I am now an atheist, but in high school, the last time I believed, my faith was of a higher intellectual quality than the feeble-minded prattle showcased from the 20 "intellectuals".

    Which I suppose makes perfect sense. You can sustain a faith in Zeus, Thor, Huitzilopochtli, whomever, only if part of your brain in permanently preserved in jelly aspic. Which would limit the intellectual machinery that can be brought to bear on the issue.

  2. There might be a selection effect here. Most theists know squat about their intellectual history, and reading Barth, Bultmann, Gutiérrez, Tillich, Macquarrie, Rahner and Van Till is not something the usual folk theist does. Mind, I do not think these guys are always as sharp as their rep suggests, but they often are (Barth in particular is amazing; I and a friend used to read the Kirchliche Dogmatik together - we called it "reading in the Barth". He spoke Greek and Latin and I did the German.).

  3. "I urge you to watch the video yourself—that way nobody can ever accuse you of being ignorant of the very best arguments for the existence of God."
    Instead of being ignorant of the arguments, it'll be "not truly understanding the arguments" instead.

  4. Truly explain us then, Kel.

  5. On Wilkins' recommendation (who I respect, despite the tone of this post), I wiki'ed Barth. Here is what I found there:

    "His argument follows from the idea that God is the object of God’s own self-knowledge ... to ascribe the salvation or damnation of humanity to an abstract absolute decree is to make some part of God more final and definitive than God's saving act in Jesus Christ. God's absolute decree, if one may speak of such a thing, is God's gracious decision to be for humanity in the person of Jesus Christ ... Barth retains the notion of double predestination but makes Jesus himself the object of both divine election and reprobation simultaneously"

    It's been my experience, in every subject I've ever studied save one, that actual knowledge dispensed by knowledgeable people makes a subject clearer, not more muddled. The above quotes are typical of the one exception. It sounds like the stuff of college students trying to appear more sagely than they are after too many bong hits. If that's the best modern theology has to offer, you can keep it. The most dense treatise on quantum mechanics is more informative.

  6. that actual knowledge dispensed by knowledgeable people makes a subject clearer, not more muddled

    It has actually being the point of the cleverest theologians to make things as muddled as possible. For instance, Van Till's "best" accomplishment was the transcendental argument for "God," which is nothing but quite the muddled tricks to marrying logic and reason (and morality) to the biblical god also "solving" the problem of induction. That thing degenerated into a set of tricks for the unwary, a red herring that keeps honest people arguing about laws of logic and absolutes rather than figure out the true problems of such B.S. ... ahem ... I mean, of such "sophisticated theology."

    Anyway ...

  7. "Truly explain us then, Kel."
    What do I need to explain? Just saying, if the accusation is not ignorance in familiarity, it'll be ignorance in it's implications. You just can't win.

  8. This film doesn't contain what it proports to contain. No arguments are suggested or explored.

    I can only conclude that it wasn't put together sincerely. It's a joke. Viewers should it approach it that way.

    It contains vague references to; bogus miracles, unavoidable suffering, puzzling with limited intellect, satanic agnosticism, timelessness, Platonic forms, knowing the future, changing the past, nature poetically opening up to its own depths, a couple of darwinian primates with souls, effects without changes, cosmic doom, proving negatives, judging texts, defensive instincts, quantum consciousness, and negative theology.