*Theology by Herb Silverman
It has been said, with some justification, that philosophy is “questions that may never be answered” and “religion is answers that may never be questioned.” But some questions in philosophy have been answered— by science. Branches of science sprang out of philosophical questions, many of which were once thought to be empirically impossible to test, like the idea of an atom propounded by Greek philosopher Democritus, as represented by the above picture. Ancient Greek philosophers concerned themselves with deducing what matter is made from, what the nature of the stars are, and concepts like chemistry and physics. These were regarded as philosophical issues, but many such questions have been explored and answered by scientists.
Philosophy, religion, and science are each involved with a search for truth. Science describes the way the world is. Philosophy and religion attempt to answer questions about what ought to be and why. But religion, unlike philosophy and science, is usually based on divine revelation and authority.
The word “theology” comes from the Greek words theos meaning God and logos meaning the word about (or the study of) God. Theology assumes that the divine exists in some form, and evidence for and about that existence may be found through personal spiritual experience or historical records of such experiences as documented by others. In short, theology is the study of God and of God's relationship to the world.
I consider myself to be an expert on theology. Why? Because I think the number of experts on any topic is inversely proportional to the evidence available on that topic. And by that criterion, we are all experts on God because there is absolutely no evidence for her/his existence. Many theologians make up stuff about God or quote stuff from books made up by others. My acknowledgment that I know nothing about God makes me more of an expert than those who claim to know God or to know about him/her.
Nobody can produce evidence that God is more than a thought or belief. Scientists can see stars that have been dead for billions of years and can document microscopic bacteria that lived on Earth eons ago. But of God we have no trace, except reports about God that neither the writers nor those around them ever witnessed, and the faith of millions who convinced themselves that God lives and reigns somewhere in the sky. If I told people I have an unverifiable, invisible friend that I speak with, they would think I have an overactive imagination, if not outright insanity, unless I named this friend “God.”
Most theists recognize how intellectually feeble faith is when they see it applied to anything other than their personal god belief. Competing and contradictory claims for thousands of gods by billions of people throughout history only says that humans can believe just about anything. Religious belief is not a logical conclusion arrived at after researching all the world's faiths and deciding on the most sensible one. It usually comes from childhood indoctrination and is wrapped up with values and loyalties developed at that time. People don't make a rational choice to believe in a god, so they are unlikely to make a rational choice to stop believing in that god, though some do if they become evidence-based.
In debates, I've had with Christian theologians my opponents use what is called “apologetics,” a branch of Christian theology that defends Christianity against objections. Scientists don't need apologetics because nobody must believe in science for it to exist. When I provide debate opponents with biblical contradictions or questions they can't answer because no answer matches reality, I sometimes hear the unfalsifiable response “God works in mysterious ways.”
Confirmation bias also plays a large role when interpreting passages in “holy” books. For example, some theologians claim that the Bible has it right in ways that prominent scientists had it wrong. Many scientists once believed in an eternal, steady-state universe before we learned about the “Big Bang” and an expanding universe. Genesis opens with “In the beginning,” which some Christian apologists interpret as scientific evidence that the Bible describes a Big Bang beginning. I point out that Genesis goes on to say that God then created two lights, the greater to rule the day, and the lesser the night. Almost as an afterthought, God then made stars (which biblical writers did not know were other suns, many larger than our sun). The Bible contains so much anti-scientific nonsense because it's a product of an Iron Age culture, and the Bible has no more knowledge in it than the people of Mesopotamia had at that time.
I think there is a place for teaching the philosophy of religion in academia, including by religious studies departments at public universities. Also, perhaps, in theology departments, depending on how the topics are taught. Philosophy of religion is a branch of philosophy concerned with questions regarding religion, including the nature and existence of gods, the examination of religious experience, the analysis of religious vocabulary and texts, and the relationship of religion to science. A good religious studies program should expose students to all kinds of religious beliefs, and some students might realize that the religion in which they were raised makes no more sense than do a lot of other religions.
A fine book for philosophy of religion or religious studies is Karen Armstrong's A History of God, though more accurately it should be called “A History of God Belief.” Within authentic academia, in the absence of proof of the existence of something that something must be deemed not to exist until verifiable proof is found. So “God” should be held not to exist pending some sort of verifiable evidence.
College theology departments that mainly promote apologetics in religion-affiliated schools do not undertake a legitimate search for truth. At such schools, I like to see what science courses are in the curriculum if any. Some religion-affiliated schools “teach” why evolution is wrong. I don't so much mind theological viewpoints that incorporate legitimate science, but too many don't. It is difficult, I would even say impossible, for apologists to show how their “holy” book is consistent with modern scientific findings. I remember a time when people would feel a little embarrassed when they admitted they knew almost nothing about science. I never expected to hear what I hear from so many today, that they don't believe in science, as if science (like religion) is no more than a belief. Ignorance is not bliss and refusing to accept what we know is ignorance squared.
* From Nov/Dec 2022 Freethought Society Ezine