“Theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance.”

It remains the study of human guesswork about god(s)

I was a Bible geek when I was in high school and college, but when I arrived at graduate school, Boston University School of Theology, my study of the Bible moved into higher gear. In my PhD program, among other things, I had to achieve reading competency in German, because German-speaking scholars were at the forefront of biblical studies and theology (if theology can be said to have a forefront)—and had been for generations.

One Swiss theologian who commanded a lot of attention was Karl Barth (1886-1968), who authored a 14-volume work, Church Dogmatics over a period of 35 years. That’s a lot of theology, and one of my professors couldn’t resist voicing a bit of skepticism/cynicism: “Nobody knows 8,000 pages about God—not even in German.”

Yes, it is funny: how could anyone have come up with enough God-information to fill 8,000 pages? But hold on a minute. What about one page? Don’t you face the same problems? The smart-ass professor didn’t make the offer he should have, namely, “Here’s how we know one page about God.”

That turned out to be a defining moment for me. One of those stopped-dead-in-my-tracks moments. Not that I’d never thought about these issues before, but when it is somehow okay to ridicule the idea of 8,000 pages about God, we do come face-to-face with the question of how God information is obtained. Quantity really isn’t the issue; how it is done is the issue.

And the more we think about the traditional ways that humans have claimed to gaze into the divine realm, the more our hearts sink. There are many stopped-dead-in-our-tracks moments when we’re asked to give a thumbs-up to revelation, visions, meditation, prayer, and scripture. We now know enough about the human brain to know that perceived communications with god(s) may come from inside our sculls. Period. Of course they appear to us as the real god-thing.

So this is a challenge I have posed many times to theists: I will rethink my atheism when you can point me to reliable, verifiable data about god(s). We will be able to say, “Oh yes, I see—your source of god-knowledge is testable, the data are clear, the standards for evaluation are objective.” So far, revelation, visions, meditation, prayer, and scripture have failed to qualify. Let’s consider two examples.

Experiment 1, Prayer: We can make a selection of a thousand pious theists, those who have nurtured a life of prayer for years. Everybody can see they’re really holy people. We want them to come from all branches of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism (though, given how much these four major faiths have splintered, a thousand may not be enough). We’ll give them this prayer assignment: go into the most serious prayer mode you can muster and “let God speak to you.” Try to discover God’s will about the following: (1) gay people and marriage equality, (2) women’s rights and birth control, (2) global warming and….(4) was Jesus really the son of God? If all these folks really are in tune with God—if prayer is genuinely a source of God-knowledge—there should be unanimity when the post-prayer tally is made. But what are the chances of that? This experiment would verify or falsify prayer as a means to know God. Any takers?

Experiment 2, Scripture: We can ask this same broad sampling of pious people to identity the passages of scripture (i.e., from the Old Testament, New Testament, the Qur’an, and Book of Mormon) that they all agree represent the Mind of God. They don’t have to agree with the message of the passage—or agree on its interpretation; they just need to agree that, Yes, indeed, this text was divinely inspired: here is the mind of God.

This is a text that I would propose as a test, a quote from Jesus in John 6:53-58:

So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

I suspect that transubstantiation was invented by devout Catholics who were deadly serious that Jesus-as-God spoke these very words. Would devout theists of the Jewish and Muslim brands agree? I think it’s pretty clear that scripture, like prayer, falls far short of being the sure-fire channel to God that theists claim.

One of the most common pushbacks I hear from theists is that reliable, verifiable data about God cannot be obtained because God cannot be detected by the tools of science. Which would have to be utter nonsense if it is true that God acts in human affairs, e.g., cures your nephew’s cancer, saves one person from a plane crash that killed 100 others, helps a baseball player get home runs. How can it possibly be true that the most awesome, ubiquitous force in the Cosmos, who supposedly helps people all the time, “can’t be detected by science.” That makes no sense whatever. Theists are playing games with us: “Oh yes, God is there, but only people with theistic sensibilities have access.” How convenient.

Theism is a gigantic pooling of ignorance. Its knowledge of God is an illusion, and thus Sam Harris’ comment that is the title of this post: “Surely there must come a time when we will acknowledge the obvious: theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance” (The End of Faith,p. 173). I suppose that theology can cling to some legitimacy as a study of human guesswork about God, but, beyond that, it’s just smoke and mirrors. Theology’s ignorance about God remains absolute—not that the profoundly pious don’t keep trying to make their case: A theologian is like a man going into the depths of a cave at midnight on a moonless night, without a flashlight, searching in the darkness for a black cat that isn’t there, and yelling, “I found it.”

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.