An Atheist’s Guide to What You Need to Know about Theology

June 4, 2010

An Atheist's Brief Guide to what you need to know about Theology

Part One. Do you feel the need to argue with a religious believer about why one should instead doubt God? To be effective, learn some theology (see Part Three). If you don't like arguing over God, then you don't need to know anything about theology. Your non-religious worldview is amply justified by common-sense, reason, and science. Relax and let others do any needed arguing.

Part Two. Do you feel the need to argue with religious believers about why religious belief has bad consequences or immoral implications? To be effective, you need to get good at "religious criticism" (rather than just match their opinion against your opinion), and you should acquire a philosophy that has rational standards of what is good/bad and what is moral/immoral (see Part Four). If you don't like arguing over religion gone bad, then you don't need to know anything about theology. Relax and smile at your religious neighbors, so they will wonder how an atheist can be so happy.

Part Three. Next, check whether this religious person is religious basically because this person enjoys their cozy worldview or this person finds religion morally satisfactory. If so, then proceed to Part Four instead. Still here? Then you are dealing with a religious person who could probably give you some frail arguments for why God exists. These arguments get complicated but they can be refuted, so learn some theology, and some corresponding atheology, for effective rational argument why one should be skeptical about God. Books by Dawkins and Dennett, for example, offer some atheology -- reasons why arguments for God are failures. Moral of the Story: Atheists can demonstrate how a rational worldview works, so why miss an opportunity? For an introduction, read my essay "Skepticism about the Supernatural" online here -- disproving God in less than 10,000 words. (a Book of World Records candidate?)

Part Four. If you have reached this part, I recommend a powerful philosophy called secular humanism . There are objective reasonable standards (not absolute timeless standards) for judging basic moral values without appealing to Gods or scripture or priests. When dealing with a religious person who prefers religion because of its beneficial consequences for human life, you are dealing with someone who has already surrendered to the broadly humanist standpoint, so you are dealing with a humanist "cousin" and not a fundamentalist. At this point, you won't be arguing over theology anymore, really, because God's existence and powers are being judged by our human needs. It only "sounds" like theology because these theologians have learned all this fancy terminology and need to keep up appearances. But now the issue is really just about how people can and ought to live their lives, according to whatever standards we deem are best. God really is irrelevant, since we are now judging God, not the reverse.

That's it. Pretty simple, really. Most atheists (especially 'apatheists' who just don't care) can live their lives just fine without any encounter with theology at all. If you do want to practice some atheology, or improve your secular humanism, keep reading about these subjects. So long as religion remains a powerful force, those theological arguments for God and those humanistic defenses of religion require rational confrontation in the public square of free speech. Neither ignorance, nor silence, will work. Nor would atheists do themselves credit by claiming a rationality that they won't display.

One further observation. There has been some blog chatter about whether atheists need to know any theology. I've already given my views. For a sampling from a humanistic theologian, in case you hadn't observed this sort of theologian, we can read Eric Reitan , philosophy professor at Oklahoma State (a former colleague of mine and a friend). Besides driving some traffic to his writing, what can be demonstrated here is how the logic of humanistic theology works. First, he really isn't fond of traditional theological arguments for God; there just isn't good evidence for God. He writes:

The task of deciding which worldview to embrace—and hence whether or not we should believe in some kind of transcendent reality or God—is an enormously challenging task that cannot be answered through empirical investigation.

So Reitan appeals to what pragmatically benefits us.

We test them [worldviews] by trying them on, trying to live them out, and then reflecting on how well they work as organizing principles for individual and communal lives. We test them not only in terms of their internal consistency and consistency with empirical facts (something that the best theologians always strive to maintain), but in terms of such issues as pragmatic impact on the quality of human life.

However, how religion affects human life IS an empirical question, one that humanism is designed to deal with, with assistance from the social sciences and humanities. Replacing supernaturalist religion with a sustainable worldview is noble work, and that is why atheists should be humanists.