Atheists Need to Understand Theology

Stephen Hawking

I joined Facebook recently. I did it in a moment of panic because I saw that FranklyCurious was available. So if you are on Facebook, you might friend or like or whatever the hell it is one does on the damnable thing. Here’s my account: FranklyCurious.

A guy named Steve Hall posted the image above. It’s quite well done. At the same time, it made me bristle. The quote is from Stephen Hawking and it reads, “What was God doing before the divine creation? Was he preparing hell for people who asked such questions?” It appears to have been said during a talk at Cal Tech three years ago. And I’m sure he said many smart things during that talk. But these two sentences are stupid.

Fundamentalists’ Frame

Although amusing, this kind of statement puts the discussion in the fundamentalists’ frame. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas well understood that such a conception of God was both facile and heretical to the Catholic Church. This is a good example of why I find myself a very lonely atheist. How can I be part of the atheist community when the vast majority of people in it think about God and religion with as limited a frame as the most backward fundamentalist? If atheists can’t address eight century old thought, what good are they?

“What was God doing?”!

Really?! That’s what Hawking thinks the nature of religious belief is? Would he ever ask the similarly silly question, “What was the universe doing before it sprang into existence?”?! Yet he seems to have taken spiritual guidance from people who know even less about theology than Pat Robertson.

Negative Theology

The only kind of theology that I’ve ever been able to get my head around is negative theology. This is a form of theology where people try to understand God by determining what God cannot be. And the most basic idea in negative theology is that God cannot be a thing in the sense that the Sun is a thing or even the multiverse is a thing. Such a conception of God denigrates the concept. God is simply something powerful. “I am God to my pet rat,” for example.

This is also why atheist proofs are so silly. “Could God create something so heavy he couldn’t lift it?” Such paradoxes are based upon the conception of God as we see it in cartoons: a white bearded man on a throne in the clouds. I understand: this is indeed the way most theists look at God. One of the biggest problems with religion today is that most believers would not see a problem with the question, “What was God doing before divine creation?” But that is their problem, not mine. I am no more interested in arguing with them about such theological caricatures as I am in discussing Bigfoot.

Atheists Need to Learn

But here is a very big problem with the atheist movement. They’ve been pretty good at converting fundamentalists to atheists. But I don’t consider these new “atheists” as believing anything but that their former religious beliefs were silly. What happens when they get a clue? What happens when they learn that there is more to religion that the dogma of a controlling and power hungry church?

One day, atheists will have to sit down with serious theists. As for now, they mostly ignore them. And when they don’t, the atheists are so ignorant of theology that they can’t even understand what the theologians are talking about. And the atheists — with great hubris — take this to mean that the theologians must be wrong. It’s pathetic.

One can’t be an atheist without knowing what it is to be a theist. And most atheists don’t seem to even know what God is supposed to be. What they seem to be against is ignorant people with childish beliefs. If that’s the case, we should call such people areligious. They don’t know or care enough to have an opinion about God, and thus don’t deserve to be called atheists.

23 thoughts on “Atheists Need to Understand Theology

  1. If Hawking said it he was paraphrasing:

    Book 11, Chapter 12 of the Confessions of St Augustine. Augustine said he would not say this, but said that somebody else had. In one translation:

    Behold, I answer to him who asks, “What was God doing before He made heaven and earth?” I answer not, as a certain person is reported to have done facetiously (avoiding the pressure of the question), “He was preparing hell,” says he, “for those who pry into mysteries.”

    I am both atheist and anti-religious, though I do understand that they are two different things.

    Though I am very anti-religious if I were a super-powerful world ruler I would NOT outlaw religion. I would put certain restrictions, so one religion can’t interfere w/ everyone else, but I wouldn’t outlaw it outright:

    1: I believe in various forms of freedom, including the freedom of others to choose to worship something I believe to be wrong.

    2. If you oppress a religion you can concentrate it, make it stronger, make people more convinced they’re right. Look at how eager American evangelists are to claim to be persecuted, when they don’t even know the meaning of the word.

    3. I’m certain god as we conceive it doesn’t exist, but I myself am not omnipotent. I’ve been wrong before.

    • Yes, but the statement is clearly an act of propaganda, not of theology. But I’m glad that you brought my attention to it. This is certainly what Hawking was referencing. It still comes down to a basic fallacy of not arguing with the best thinkers. This is, ultimately, my complaint with atheists. It is a sad fact of our brotherhood that the best theists are far more knowledgeable and sophisticated than the best atheists. And this was not true 200 years ago.

      1. Agreed. Although there is the stipulation that tolerance of intolerance is not acceptable. I don’t believe that simply because 51% of the people want to enslave the other 49% that it is acceptable. There must be rights beyond democracy. At the same time, I get tired of the constant whining of most of the right and many on the left that we live in some kind of hellscape.

      2. We’ve seen this in communist countries. I think perhaps we should feed a couple of Christians to the lions. It would just be a little reminder that people have suffered for their cause, but today, Christians in this country are just a bunch of whiners. (Note: that’s the Arrogant Bastard talking; I’m not seriously suggesting harming anyone.)

      3. Right. Even Dawkins admits this. Everyone should know about Russell’s teapot.

  2. The problem is that the word ‘God’ (especially when capitalised) is inextricably associated with the gods in known religions. Even the “the-” in ‘theology’, and the “de-” in ‘deism’ mean that too.

    ‘Theology’ doesn’t stick to questions like prime movers, the initial conditions of the universe, or what ’cause and effect’ might mean when time is one of the things you are considering as possibly ‘created’. It inevitably gives the god(s) a role inside the universe, along the lines various religions claim – observing what individual humans do, and having an idea of ‘good’ or ‘evil’.

    Most theologians are members of one religion, and their claims are specific to that religion. And each religion has made their idea of gods up not from any evidence of what the universe’s past was like, but for their purposes of morality, or an interesting yarn. A few have tried to adapt a bit as evidence has appeared, but they cling on to things like “humans disobeyed God”, because they’d be out of a job without it.

  3. If I have made an honest effort to read and listen to theologians, do I have your absolution if I say I cannot take them seriously? I’m deeply unimpressed.

    I think the theologians are talking about nothing. I’ve listened, I’ve read, I’ve listened again. I’m also impatient with smart-ass sledgehammer arguments against theology. But I’m still unimpressed. Because unless you are sympathetic to begin with, they don’t have any real arguments. Smoke. Mirrors.

    Of course I have no problems with people’s freedom to worship, just as I have no problems with people’s freedom to believe Elvis is alive, or that Earth was seeded with life by space aliens as described by van Danikan.

    As I see it, there is no such thing as ‘atheist knowledge’. Science is secular, not atheistic.

    But I think atheists really ought to ignore theologians who are as I see it, holders of professorates that ought instead to go to people who have something to say. The key word in the phrase ‘erudite bullshit’ is ‘bullshit’. Don’t care how much Hegel he read or how much Daly she read. Coercive and incogent.

  4. I think the biggest problem is that of the “worst theology” and how predominant it is over the “better”. For example, it would be best, I think, to accept your dictum of “non-overlapping magisteria”; that there are physical mysteries best contemplated by observation, deduction, and induction – that is, by scientific methods – while there are spiritual and/or philosophic mysteries that can best – or at least, validly – contemplated by spiritual, philosophic, or theologic methods. The two don’t HAVE to conflict. You can be an astronomer and still believe in the mystery of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path.

    BUT…the break point comes where the theologians insist on the Bronze Age “explanations” for physical phenomena. So no. There was no Flood. The textural references to it are stories made up by people who saw things they didn’t have the intellectual tools to understand. There’s no point in “debating” that.

    But. This sort of “Answers in Genesis” theologian are all over the place, and their nonsense contributes mightily to the very real damage that religion does in the public square. THAT’s why atheists go after them, I think. Not because they’re a “worthy” opponent…but because, as rubbishy as they are, their sort of “theology” is much more destructive than the theology of the sort of people of faith willing to start from the NOM standpoint.

    It’s all well and good to recommend going up against the boss in an epic struggle. But it doesn’t help when the damn trashy little minions are running all over the place wrecking the joint…

    Ah. OK. Just read your piece on NOM. I had no idea that there was such a thing as “New Atheism” and that it was trying to force the issue of science-versus-religion.

    And, yeah, that IS stupid. So I’m with you on this one. The minions are a nuisance. But that’s NOT the way to go after them.

    • Right — it’s really the minions who are the trouble. There are lots of good congregation leaders who exhort listeners to be kinder and more tolerant, and those people are very important. But long ago in America business interests decided to financially back & promote religious spreaders of hate as a means of undermining the solidarity that supported the New Deal.

  5. Or you can be an astronomer, or teacher, or other private citizen, who thinks that there is no special spiritual path to knowledge, and that the ‘mystery’ of the Eightfold Way is baloney.

    In terms of the sophisticated and learned theologians (not the “Answers in Genesis” crowd), the fact is that they don’t insist on Bronze Age explanations for anything. The AiG stuff is an obvious joke and this will be agreed to by the Terry Eagletons of the world. The AiG stuff is perniciously politically potent, but this is not what Frank is talking about. He’s talking about (mainly) academic theologians who honestly attempt to be open-minded and scholarly.

    None of them succeed in my opinion.

    • Indeed none of them succeed or can succeed! I’m sure I’ve mentioned it here, but a Mormon (who knew me as a science student) once told me that in heaven all the secrets of the universe would be revealed. That sounds like hell to me. Heaven is puzzle you are on the verge of solving — for eternity. Also barbecues.

      • Some “theologians” in academia aren’t apologists for religion, they’re more like religious anthropologists. Like, how this fable evolved and spread over time, that kind of thing. That work can be very high quality.

        • Actually, the vast majority of self-described theologians are not religious apologists at all, and some are not even religious! Still not impressed, and thinking that theology departments should be retired in favour of philosophy and social science.

          • Sure. If I ran a university I’d probably do the same. I’m far more interested myself in the social science aspect of religion. I’m reading Susan Jacoby on the history of conversion experiences written from a secular perspective; how most conversions are a matter of social factors. (But I’d read Jacoby on the history of phone books. I just like her prose.) I would make “World Religions” a mandatory course, though. Hell, I’d make it mandatory in high school.

            Where theologians seem most useful to me is in Christian colleges. Lots of devout Christians send their kids to these colleges, fearing they will be corrupted by secular universities. There are two kinds. There’s the loony ones that teach young-Earth science; most aren’t accredited, but they have strong connections to the right-wing establishment. The GOP and think tanks recruit staffers heavily from those. No useful theology (or anything else) in those places.

            Then there’s the reputable Christian colleges. If your kid wants to go into sports medicine, they can’t get a good pre-med program at a loony school. So you might send them to an accredited college run by Catholics or Lutherans or whatever. And there a good theologian can really make a difference. Having kids whose knowledge of their faith is basic at best examine its history and philosophical contradictions can help turn the kids, if not into atheists, into more liberal Christians. And we need all the liberal Christians we can get! I know several people who went to schools like that from staunch fundamentalist families and came out devoted to social justice. They’re still religious, but we all have bees in our bonnet.

            I know others who went to schools like that, were bored by anything they hadn’t learned at home, and are still self-righteous religious bores. You can’t reach everyone!

          • It used to be that academic theologians were almost never religious. Now, because of so much money pumped into “education” by evangelicals, most theologians are religious. This is one of the reasons that the Christ Myth theory has trouble getting traction: it’s almost academic suicide to argue for it. This despite it almost certainly being right.

            Theology is a branch of philosophy. You really need to read some hardcore theology. It’ll make your brain hurt, which is good for you!

        • Indeed, although I wouldn’t call them theologians; I’d call them religious historians. And all of that is great.

          It’s annoying. I’m trying to write a letter to Denys Turner about this issue. I find most religious thought repellent. But there is great beauty in much theology. What I bristle at is the extremely common attitude, “I’ve heard all this stupid religious talk so it must all be stupid!” It goes entirely against the ethos of Frankly Curious, because it’s saying that a subject is wrong and uninteresting without enough knowledge to say that. It would be fine if atheists simply dismissed theology as uninteresting to them. But if the New Atheists are not on a crusade, what is it they are doing? Spreading the word about evolution? Because really: that’s what a lot of it sounds like. Many of them seem to think that religion and natural selection are incompatible. That would come as a shock to any Catholic under the age of 60. Good God, I’m boring myself now.

          • Some of it may just be that arrogance is satisfying on a real basic level. Knowing (or presuming) you’re cleverer than others. “Hah! I can shred your argument in two sentences!” And I’ve done it. Particularly when someone’s been rude to you (which happens a lot online, as you may have noticed) the temptation to do it is enormous. But it really accomplishes very little. If you want to convince a young-Earther they’re wrong, it’s better to share your love of science than to sneer at them. If nothing else, you demonstrate that an atheist can be polite and respectful. And if they’re still threatened and rude because of your efforts, drop the conversation.

            There’s a place for militancy; standing up to defend yourself from real harm. What harm are atheists suffering, besides online rudeness? Who’s getting killed or denied a job because they’re atheist? If you go around at a Hobby Lobby trying to convert all the dumb Christians, you’ll lose that job, maybe. But that’s just bad workplace behavior.

            Now, OTOH, I love it when atheists (or believers!) use humor to attack religious extremism. But then again humor goes well with anything.

            • I do think that there is prejudice against atheists. But it’s mostly due to ignorance. At one time, I wanted to be someone who could bring theists and atheists together. But all I found myself doing was getting into fights with atheists. I just went through it on Twitter with a guy who was saying that I had to show him a god and then he could tell me whether or not he believed in it. He was unwilling or unable to see that God was a concept, not a being. I finally told him if he wanted to have a real discussion to come here where we could talk in more than 160 character bursts. Of course, he did not.

              The truth is, I’m not that much against closed-minded people. But I’m very against them when they claim to be enlightened and open-minded.

                • Very amusing article, although it seems more like it belongs here than Twinkie Town. I think a lot of internet fights go on because no one wants to be seen as admitting defeat by not responding. That’s how that last argument ended. He had his say and so got to win because I didn’t counter it. I got to say we had to move the fight if he wanted to continue it. I was actually glad he didn’t come here because I don’t think any amount of exposition would make it clear. As I’ve noted before, the atheist community is filled with ex-fundamentalists and so that’s what they’re reacting to. The issues I’m talking about might as well be physics for all they care.

                  Elizabeth is really good at ending internet fights. But that may be because she has an amazing amount of experience with internet fights!

                  I did find it amusing that it was only a month ago that you learned phones had voice-to-text. I’m generally the last to know everything and I found out a couple of years ago. “You are f-ing priceless!”

                  • Sorry about that. You don’t have a lot of fights here, and they do. I was honestly trying to curb them a little. Shall I pronounce my incredible success? Hell no. Nothing changed.

                    Like, the very next day or so, someone got into it with me. It’s all about knowing what buttons to press. Their claim was (and I only mention it because it was so wild) the following: 1. Autism turns people into super-geniuses, and all brilliant people throughout history are therefore, autistic. 2. Ergo, all CEOs are autistic; they are brilliant and antisocial because of their autism.

                    Oh, my God. Leaving aside the claim that CEOs are antisocial (they seem to socialize perfectly well with other members of their class) and brilliant (if you want to believe that, God help you) I tried correcting the misperceptions about autism. I mentioned 20 years of success and failure learning more about how different people are affected by autism.

                    Response? My experience was exactly what made me a fool; only a true outsider with no experience can see the truth. If anyone with autism does not become a successful scientist or artist or CEO, it’s due to people like me who were too incompetent to help them correctly.

                    So, buttons sufficiently pushed, I got drawn into it for a while, until I realized how pointless it was. In short, I should have given the thing to you, it was wasted there. My judgment is less than rock-solid these days.

                    I didn’t ask, but I’ll bet you a signed Hank Aaron baseball that arguer is a libertarian.

  6. This is an excellent post and right on. As someone who straddles the divide between christianity (where I was raised and where most of my family/friends are found) and theistic/atheistic agnosticism (depending on the day) I am often frustrated by how both sides of the argument talk about, rather than to, eachother. There are very serious thinkers in each group who could argue me into intellectual submission faster than I care to admit.

    • Maybe you can be the person to create the equivalent of an interfaith dialog between theists and atheists. I think my problem is that I do see myself on Team Atheist. And because of the kind of person I am, that makes me really critical of my team. But you are right: there are good atheist thinkers. Of course, none of them have written bestselling books. But I should do more to reach out to them. It would improve my opinion of atheists.

      Part of my problem is also that I find the questions of existence fascinating. And so few people (theists and atheists alike) are similarly interested. When Denys Turner said that he thought that why there was anything was the most important question in the world, I knew he was a kindred-spirit. Yet there he is a theist and here I am an atheist. But why do I have to turn to a professional? Shouldn’t there be tons of atheists who find the question as fascinating as I do?

      But as I’ve noted: I’m also a mystic. I’ve seen universes created and destroyed in the world of math. So all of this stuff is like the greatest playground in the world. There are no answers — only better and better questions.

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