Ask Dr. Silverman 14 — The Logician, The Philosopher, the Scientist, and The Theologian
Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition of America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. Here we talk about science, religion, philosophy, and logic.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: As far as I can discern, in professional/non-mediocre academic circles, oftentimes, theologians simply get put in the position of philosopher, where philosophers cover a wider range of material unencumbered by religious dogma, e.g., assertions of the inspiration of purported holy texts by the divine or the transcendent and fundamentally mysterious, and theologians amount to philosophers plus religious strictures of one form or another in the guise of “the study of God” and its relation to the world & humanity/”Mankind.” The logician dealing with a branch of philosophy. A scientist using the tools of the logician, intuitions and inferences of the philosopher, and then with the inclusion of the scientific method in a 21st-century sense with advanced algorithms and vast computational power (both continuing to improve) and large expert teams with wads of cash. Science is powerful, but theology is not in it. Unless, one sees one’s work as a devotion to God or the universe as God and, therefore, one’s work as delving into the nature of God through examining the nature of nature. What are some of the last refuges of theology in the academy? How did science annihilate most of the theological explanations of the world? How does the work to re-establish theology from the inside of the academic system through, for example, philosophy tread a thin line of intellectual legitimacy and illegitimacy? We see, as well, charlatans, cranks, and grifters in pseudointellectual movements attempting to garner legitimacy through, often, discounted or non-scientific untenable stances cooked up with some margins of truth to become palatable to a desirous few. It creates problems for the general population listening to and respecting science, and scientists, and creating minor to medium openings for the forced insertion of supernatural notions of God back into the academic system. I suspect this will be taken advantage of — for political and social reasons for fear of increasing irrelevance of theology and its associated worldview and comprehensive life practices seen in much of the world and history.
Dr. 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, such as the idea of an atom propounded by Greek philosopher Democritus. Ancient Greek philosophers concerned themselves with deducing what matter is made of, what the nature of the stars is, and considered concepts like taxonomy, chemistry, and physics. These were regarded as philosophical issues, but such questions have been explored and answered by scientists.
Philosophy, religion, and science form the basis of humanity’s search for truth. Science describes the way the world is. Philosophy describes the way the world should be, can be, and is thought about. 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 two 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 that evidence for and about it may be found through personal spiritual experiences 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. In fact, my acknowledgement that I know nothing about God makes me more of an expert than those who claim to know God or to know about him.
Nobody can produce evidence even as large as a mustard seed that God is more than a thought. 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 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 told people I had an unverifiable, invisible friend that I spoke with, they would think I had 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 says only that humans are capable of believing 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 wrapped up with many values and loyalties developed at the time. A believer who does not make a rational choice to believe is unlikely to make a rational choice to stop believing.
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 has to believe in science for it to exist. When I would provide debate opponents with biblical contradictions or questions they couldn’t answer because no answer would match reality, I would sometimes hear the unfalsifiable response, “God works in mysterious ways.”
I think 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, scientists who once believed in an eternal universe. Genesis opens with “In the beginning,” which some allege to be scientific evidence that the Bible describes the Big Bang. 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 actually 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 has no more knowledge in it than people of Mesopotamia had at that time.
When it comes to academia, I think there is definitely a place for teaching the philosophy of religion, including in religious studies departments at public universities, and perhaps 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 God, the examination of religious experience, analysis of religious vocabulary and texts, and the relationship of religion to science. A good religious studies program should expose students to all kind of religious beliefs, and some students might realize that the one 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 legitimate 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.
When it comes to college theology departments that mainly promote apologetics in religion-affiliated schools, I doubt that they undertake a legitimate search for truth. At such schools, I also like to see what science courses, if any, are in the curriculum. 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, even for apologists, to show how their “holy” book is consistent with modern scientific findings.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.