Theology Achieves Nothing?
by Paul Hazelden


    Introduction

        I don't usually mention individuals when responding to ideas, since my aim is to respond to the idea, not to criticise the person. In this case, however, the author seems to be going out of his way to be personally involved in preaching his beliefs, so why not?

        I make this response because he articulates a view, or maybe an attitude, that I have heard elsewhere, but seldom expressed in as clear or as straightforward a manner.

         

    Content

    1. Stimulus
      1. I was recently presented with a quote from Richard Dawkins:

        "The achievements of theologians don't do anything, don't affect anything, don't mean anything. What makes anyone think theology is a subject at all?"

         

    2. Response
      1. This quote is a typical extract from Richard Dawkins' writings. To put it into context, you probably need to read one or two of his books - I would suggest 'The Selfish Gene' and a later one, such as 'River Out of Eden'.

        I keep promising myself that one day I will work through his books and document the holes in his arguments - for a scientist, once he moves any distance from his area of study he becomes wonderfully opinionated and unscientific. He preaches against religion with a religious fervour that commands admiration. I often wish that I could believe as strongly as Richard Dawkins does.

        I imagine you have heard people argue that there is no God, and He is to blame for all the suffering in the world. There is a very similar 'argument' concerning theologians. Since many wars have been fought in the name of religion, and since it is clear (you don't have to demonstrate why it is clear!) that the doctrines people are fighting about have been invented and articulated by theologians, then it is obvious that theologians don't affect anything, and are responsible for all the wars in the world.

         

    3. The Effect of Belief
      1. It is trivially easy to demonstrate the effect on people of particular beliefs about God.

        The Aztecs who engaged in human sacrifice, butchering hundreds of thousands of people, were worshipping their gods, and following the teachings of their theologians. "God wants you to perform human sacrifice" is a doctrine about God. It is a doctrine, taught - or denied - by theologians, which has a deep impact on people's lives.

        Similarly, "Love your enemies" is a piece of theology that changes the way we live in a very practical way. If you believe that God is love, and loves your enemy as much as He loves you, then it is hard to follow through with the normal human desire to harm or kill your enemy.

        Since this point is so obvious, my best guess is that Dawkins would seek to re-define his terms, rather than deny it outright. A 'normal' response would go along these lines: the people who create and spread ideas about God are not theologians, they are social and political leaders who simply use theology as a tool for manipulating people, one tool among many.

        Certainly, there have been political leaders who have done this - September 11 will stand for a long time as a reminder of how people can use religious belief for political ends - but you have to ask if every theologian, every religious thinker and leader, was doing this. Was Jesus seeking to use theological ideas to manipulate people? I'll let you judge.

         

    4. Belief and World History
      1. The doctrines people believe do not just affect their individual lives - they affect the societies they live in.

        In history, it is a trivial task to trace the Reformation (a major political shift) from the teachings of theologians like Martin Luther and John Calvin. You can go on to trace the Renaissance from the Reformation, and to trace the modern world (including modern science and much of Richard Dawkins' own belief system) from the Renaissance.

        Again, it is a trivial task to establish the theological roots of the Trade Union movement, or the American Civil Rights movement. It would be a monumental act of blind faith to assert that the Christian beliefs of the founders of most of the world's charities were not expressed through the work of these charities.

        In brief, theology changes the world!

        The way people live is affected by what they believe - an obvious truth that Dawkins seems to find deeply disturbing. Which is odd, because his belief in Darwinism very clearly affects the way he lives - it affects the things he writes about, the way he spends his time. He writes to change peoples' minds, to make a difference to the world. Why, then, does he find it so hard to recognise that other people writing about their beliefs, can also make a difference?

         

    Postscript

        This is a guess. I suspect that, if Dawkins were presented with this article, he would agree that the quoted statement, as it stands, is not true. But he would claim it is a brief summary of a position that is true.

        He might amplify his statement and turn it into something like this: theologians, as people, can make ethical statements that affect other people and change the world we live in. Their ethical teaching is meaningful, but when they are teaching theology (ideas about God), their statements are meaningless.

        Following this line of thought: you can re-phrase some god- statements into ethical statements - for example, "God wants you to perform human sacrifice" really means "Human sacrifice is good." These god-statements would be meaningful and possibly important. But there will be some god-statements you cannot re-phase in this way, and these statements are meaningless.

        As I say, that is just a guess. The Logical Positivists attempted this task in the early part of the last century, and failed. But they carried a number of people along with them for a while. It remains to be seen how many people Richard Dawkins can carry along with him, in his foray into metaphysics.

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