What is Bad Theology?

Is there such a thing as good theology?

“You shine with radiant light, in this circle of earthly existence. You shine so finely, it surpasses understanding. God hugs you. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.”                                                                                                                          St. Hildegard of Birgen, 1098-1179


“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or feet and be thrown into the eternal fire.”

                                                                                Jesus, Matthew 18:8


 “Religion is all bunk.”    Thomas Edison


The New York Times, 17 September 1994, in its Religious Notes column by David Gonzales, reported on the preparations for a college debate that would soon take place between a Hunter College team, and one from England touring the U.S. at the time. The topic: Is the world better off with religion?


I couldn’t resist saving the clipping, because I’m always on the lookout for examples of bad theology innocently stated. Mr. Gonzales introduced his readers to one of the debaters, 28-year old Daniel Mallon Durante, who was preparing to make the case that the world is better with religion. But the young Durante had been a “self-styled rebel, who went from school to pool hall and on to jobs as locksmith, plumber and printer before enrolling in college.” He had returned to his Brooklyn parish to find God, under the tutelage of Father James Zona. The rebel had been tamed: “Talking and praying with him, Father Zona helped him develop a deep and personal faith…”



How did Durante plan to stick up for religion? This is the gem I underlined—and for which I deemed the article worth saving: “Without religion, this whole life would be a bad joke. Through Father Zona I got a sense of what Jesus was all about. You don’t always do the right thing, but you can ask what Jesus would do.” 


I’ll address his attitude about Jesus later, but the first sentence is the major problem. Durante’s statement assumes that human need—human emotional craving—plays a role in determining the nature of the Cosmos. Really? Who do we think we are? So what we need—aren’t we lucky? —is just what the universe offers: it was arranged with us in mind (although humans didn’t arrive on the scene until more than thirteen billion years after the Big Bang). This approach is the expedient, the safe haven, for those who are distraught and repulsed by the idea that the universe is indifferent to humans, that no deity is even aware of us (“the spirit of a god dwells within us” is one way theologians have tried to work around this). 


It is hard to stomach that Homo sapiens are of no consequence in the scheme of things; we don’t outrank elephants, microbes, mosquitoes or cockroaches. We can’t wrap our mind around that, and theologians have thrived on our impulse to balk. Bad theology designs the god we crave, instead of reading objectively the data that the Cosmos presents about what is real, testable, verifiable. The universe is under no obligation to satisfy the needs of one special (or so we think) species of mammals, on one tiny planet locked by gravity to one star in a swirling cluster of 200-400 billion other stars. The sober fact—the overwhelmingly likely fact—is that we don’t matter, and no amount of bad theology (= wishful thinking) can cancel that reality.  


I suspect that many, if not most, Christians have put the raging god of the Old Testament behind them. When they refer to The Man Upstairs, they have a benevolent figure in mind. St. Hildegard of Bergen, apparently distancing herself from Jesus’ threats of eternal fire, set the tone for a gentler, softer deity when she wrote: “God hugs you. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.” A god who is permanently in a bad mood, pissed off at humans almost since the moment of their creation, and who has to be diverted—though prayer, begging, flattery, prostration, sacrifice—from beating up on us, just won’t do. But neither will it do to persist in believing in either a sinister or hugging god in the absence of reliable, verifiable, objective data. 


But Mr. Durante knew what he needed, and was convinced that religion was a good thing to rescue humanity from a bad joke. And through chats with his priest “…he got a good sense of what Jesus was all about.” Of course, no such thing could possibly have been achieved. He got a good sense of Jesus as the Catholic Church has imagined him. It’s entirely possible that Father James Zona, in his entire seminary career, failed to tune in to the upheaval in Jesus studies, on precisely this issue: what Jesus was all about. And this upheaval has not lessened in the 27 years since Zona coached young Durante. New Testament scholars have failed to arrive at a methodology for verifying any of the words and deeds of Jesus. But, of course, the priest could be trusted as an authority on Jesus. 


There is more bad theology here as well—or at least mediocre theology: “…you can ask what Jesus would do.” Deferring to the opinion of a supposed holy man can be dangerous, as is illustrated especially in the case of Jesus. Some of the things he taught were really awful: the “Jesus standard” has to be used with great caution. For centuries now, secular ethicists have been thinking and writing about what constitutes “good behavior.” They are more to be trusted. 


And, of course, there is no such thing as a holy man. This concept has been manufactured by religious bureaucracies, trading upon the talent of charismatic leaders to generate awe. It is part of the bamboozle. In his role as the divine pharaoh in the movie, The Ten Commandments, Sir Cedric Hardwicke got the best line in the movie. Lying on his deathbed, the old king retained a grasp of reality: “The servant who empties my chamber pot knows how holy I am.”  


Mr. Durante assumed that his priest was a reliable source of guidance, but we have reason to believe that—at least in the U.S.—many Catholics ignore priestly advice on birth control and divorce, and now, even the church’s dreadful position on gay rights; the ongoing worldwide sexual abuse scandal has further damaged the reputation of the clergy. Anyone who wants to perform due diligence on his or her faith—really probe to find out if it’s true—should realize that the priest is the last person to turn to since he is a paid propagandist: That’s what he was trained to be and hired to do. Never rely on a priest to provide objective analysis of his theological product. He always has a used car to sell. 


My article here last week was titled, The Bad Theology of Favorite Bible Verses, and brought this comment on Facebook from Chris Farnet: “I wonder how you distinguish ‘bad theology’ from ‘good theology.’ I would classify theology with the likes of alchemy, astrology, and phrenology. Are there really good ways to practice these things?” I am sometimes tempted to say, “Yes, there is good theology.” Hildegard of Birgen’s affirmation about God comes to mind, i.e., theology that seemingly does no harm. But is that, in fact, the case? Encouraging people to believe in a benevolent spirit that watches us day and night can’t be a good thing. That kind of faith bias is not reality-based thinking. (On this, see especially, Richard Carrier, What’s the Harm: Why Religious Belief Is Always Bad.)


Theology has roots in the free reign of human emotion, as the latter finds expression in visions, prayers, scriptures/revelations, trances, and the supposed insights of prophets and seers. Anything that anyone comes up with, under the influence of religious fervor, is fair game to plug into diverse theological systems. Bad theology (allow me to be blunt: BT = BS) prevails most of the time. Here are a few examples that come to mind.


·     Anything that looks like rationalization of Stone Age barbarism, e.g., human sacrifice, the death of Jesus to enable a god to forgive, is BT = BS. Christianity gets major demerits for having this ghoulish barbarism at the heart of its faith. 


·      BT = BS projects the worst aspects of human personality onto deities, e.g., a god is angry or jealous.


·      BT = BS claims to know more than we do know or can know, e.g., “God exits outside time and space.” How would anyone know that?  


·      BT = BS pretends to know about god(s), but fails to demonstrate, beyond reasonable doubt, that its sources of knowledge of god(s) are reliable and verifiable. When I pick up a book about theology, I want to read on page one how the author knows what he/she is about to tell us about god(s). But theologians commonly skip this step, or right away defer to the Bible, prayer, visions, revelations or meditation. BT = BS is not far behind.


·      BT = BS assumes the validity of personal opinions based on feelings about god(s): “I feel Jesus in my heart.” Sound epistemology is not based on feelings; feelings are evidence for what you’re feeling—and count for nothing when we’re trying to find out how the Cosmos works.


·      Theology that emerged from twisted, fanatical minds is BT = BS, e.g., Joseph Smith and Mormonism; the apostle Paul and the early Jesus cult.    


·      BT = BS comes up with sophomoric excuses for why an all-powerful god allows so much suffering and evil in the world, e.g., god punishes people, gives them pain to improve character. Or god is let off the hook because we have free will, he has a rival (the devil) who causes the trouble; or even, god can’t help it. All of these excuses are deeply flawed.


·       BT = BS makes promises about what will happen when people die. Humans are commonly terrified by the prospect that, at death, consciousness ceases forever; they don’t like the idea of oblivion. Religious bureaucrats, throughout history, have traded on these fears. They offer promises and threats about the afterlife based on no evidence whatever. The intuitions—and craftiness—of priests and preachers just aren’t good enough. In fact, the afterlife pitch is an aspect of theology that is dishonest and immoral.


·      “God of the gaps” is BT = BS: phenomena that cannot yet be explained are credited to god. We cannot yet explain cosmic origins—what ignited creation—but cosmologists keep searching for answers because “a god did it” is no answer at all.


·      Theology that can’t come to terms with advancing knowledge and scientific findings cannot be good theology. Timothy Ferris chose an appropriate title for his 1988 book, Coming of Age in the Milky Way. We have been coming of age during the last few centuries. It’s no good trying to pretend that Edwin Hubble’s discoveries in the 1920s—that our immense galaxy is not the universe after all, and that the universe is expanding—didn’t change the way we are compelled to contemplate the Cosmos and our place in it. The knowledge revolution of the last couple of centuries especially has generally put theology in a defensive position, especially Christian personal theism, i.e., the god of the cosmos is tracking the thoughts and sins of every human.


It’s baffling that Christians themselves don’t grasp the incoherence that is obvious to observers outside the faith: It makes no sense whatever that Christianity has splintered endlessly, if it somehow is custodian of truth. Any such claim has been falsified repeatedly by Christians fighting each other over theology. The most devout, those most ardent believers, can’t agree on what the Christian god is like, what he expects of humans, and how he wants to be worshipped. There are now more than 30,000 Christian brands that show no signs whatever of reconciling, “coming together as one.” That old hymn lyric, “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship to love throughout the whole wide earth,” is bunk. Theology that is this fractured is bunk.  



David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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