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Philosophy vs.Theology

January 10, 2013

After a (very) long hiatus, I’m going to try to get back to some semi-regular writing…

When I tell people I have studied both philosophy and theology, the two subjects are often lumped together in an unintended way. A stylised conversation of the sort had with a fellow atheist goes like this:

Me: I find philosophy really interesting, but theology despite being very clever, doesn’t have much useful to say.

Other: Philosophy doesn’t have anything interesting to say that’s relevant to real life: both philosophy and theology are “ivory tower” academic disciplines that don’t impact anything important. Both can largely be ignored.

Me: [Struggles to find reasons justifying the usefulness of philosophy]

Philosophy and it’s practical implications are reduced to the level of theology, only relevant to those interested in it. In a similar fashion I find that theists will do the reverse – they will increase (in my opinion) the importance of theology until it is on the same level as philosophy, to be listened to when deciding what to believe in the religions sphere.

The implication is that if I dismiss theology for being esoteric or divorced from any form of usefulness, others are justified in dismissing philosophy for the same reasons. I obviously disagree with this conclusion, so want to try and use this post to clarify my thoughts on the differences between philosophy and theology, which I think are very real.

A quote from On What Matters by Derek Parfit serves as a useful starting point for this discussion. In a discussion of works by Kant he says that:

‘Consistency’, Kant writes, ‘is a philosopher’s greatest duty.’ That is not true. Originality and clarity are at least as important.

While both philosophers and theologians can be consistent and original, of the two only philosophers can display true clarity at the same time as making statements that we can examine rationally in order to learn the truth or falsity of that statement. For me, philosophy has the aim of clarifying our thought, making us aware of the grounds of our beliefs and forcing us to rethink them if they turn out to be groundless. In order to do this, philosophers aim to unpick what we think (and how we think). Having done so, they then move on to attempt to understand what exactly individual beliefs mean, how they interact, how they are formed etc. In particular, philosophy aims to make the definitions that we use when discussing ideas, morals, everything, as clear as possible.

I freely admit that some philosophers have a ridiculously obtuse style. Kant is the prime example of this (indeed, Parfit goes to say that Kant made obtuse writing fashionable in philosophy, not a debt to be proud of!) But consider philosophers such as Stephen Law, A.C. Grayling and Philip Kitcher, who write clear and lucid prose that in a few short pages can utterly change the way you think about a particular problem. This style of philosophy is philosophy at it’s best, and demonstrates that philosophy can be, and is, clear, accessible and important.

While philosophy seeks clarity, theology seeks to confuse. It is not hard to see why. With the advancement of both philosophical and scientific ideas that run contrary to religious claims, theology has had to move away from making empirical statements regarding the nature of the universe to making statements that are much less amenable to verification. Theology now has to make faith a virtue (I understand faith to mean belief without evidence, but this would be disputed by any number of different schools of religious thought. This is itself a problem – faith is a virtue but we don’t agree on what it is…) This leads to all sorts of problems, not the least of which is the amazing number of presuppositions that have to go into any theological argument. As I’ve written before, one of the biggest is that God (and in Christian theology the Christian God) exists. There’s also presuppositions about the privileged status of the Bible as a reference text, the nature of Jesus and any number of claims about the God whose existence is assumed.

Even ignoring these difficulties, theology for me has one insurmountable problem. It uses language in a way that is purposefully unclear. It does this (possibly unintentionally) by using everyday words in different ways than we would normally. Two example are metaphor and mystery.

What does the religious believer mean when they say “God loves you”? Does God love me the way I love my parents? My friends? No, we are told. God’s love for us is different from human love, and should be understood as a metaphor? But a metaphor for what? We have ways of understanding metaphors, but these don’t apply. If I said “you are my rock”, you understand both the features of the rock that I am probably referring to and what these imply about you – the rock is a solid, unmoving object that never gives way, much as you are always there for me and nothing can move you away. We understand the object, the subject and the relation between them. Not in the case of a metaphor about God though! At the end of the day the subject of the metaphor is indescribable, and the metaphor meaningless.

Next consider the phrase “God creates”. Does this mean creates in the way humans create? Is it analogous to creating, say, a watch? No, most theologians would answer. We might be told that God, outside time, creates “in a timeless way”. What does this even mean? We can pretend that it means something because the structure of the sentence makes sense, but as a concept, it is meaningless. We then have to take it that it is a “mystery”, something that God can do but that we cannot possibly comprehend from our limited perspective. Again, this renders the language meaningless.

Theology therefore displays the ultimate lack of clarity; words are reduced to meaninglessness, only appearing to mean something because they do so in our human existence. Theologians don’t invent words. They use words that we understand and we can fool ourselves that this understanding translates into an understanding of the subjects of theology, but it doesn’t. At the end of the day, theology is as meaningless as the language it uses.

I have said why theology is not the equal of philosophy, but it remains to be seen if philosophy is useful. Does philosophy have practical implications? Yes. As Russell says in his essay Useless Knowledge:

…action is best when it emerges from a profound apprehension of the universe and human destiny, not from some wildly passionate impulse of romantic but disproportioned self-assertion. A habit of finding pleasure in thought rather than in action is a safeguard against unwisdom and excessive love of power, a means of preserving serenity in misfortune and peace of mind among worries.

In our relationships with other people it is important that 1) what we believe about the world in which we find ourselves is correct; and 2) what we belief about the other (and what the other is feeling) is correct. This will only be the case if we are good at thinking, about ourselves and others and other beliefs. For this reason I strongly belief that when it comes to the ethics of belief truth as a goal that is good for it’s own sake. To quote Philip Kitcher:

Responsible action cannot proceed from beliefs that are adopted groundlessly, through wishful thinking, arbitrary choice, or through a “leap of faith.”

Out beliefs, if they are to guide our actions in a morally acceptable way, must be grounded in some way that makes them likely to be true. Philosophy can help us get closer to truth; theology only mires us in an impenetrable bog of metaphor and mystery.

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