Your Theology Isn’t Sophisticated So Just Stop It

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According to my own experience and an informal survey of every single other atheist that I know, the number one most frequent response to criticism of religion (especially Christianity) by believers is, “You just don’t know what you’re talking about.”  To wit:

  • “You cannot legitimately attack The Bible without a solid understanding of it. What I mean is that when you make claims ABOUT The Bible that are contrary to what it actually says it aptly demonstrates your own ignorance and illiteracy of it.”
  • “The problem with you atheists is that you don’t understand the will of The Most High.”
  • “My objection is not with what you do or do not believe, but rather that your post . . . appears to be written by a sophomoric liberal arts student with a chip on their shoulder.”
  • “This . . . illuminates the problem with majority of the article: a lack of understanding of what classical theists actually believe.”

And so on.  There’s no chance that maybe your religion is writing checks it can’t cash – if it stings or makes religion look bad, the only possible explanation is ignorance and a view of theology that is not sufficiently sophisticated.

This is complete and utter bullshit.

For one thing, this accusation is leveled even when the critique comes from a former pastor or priest, a lifelong believer who recently came to atheism, a seminary graduate, or someone with an advanced degree in comparative religion. Disagreement with any given theist’s understanding of scripture is tantamount to ignorance of scripture, no matter how much better the opponent actually knows it.  It is interesting to note that many theists take this tack not just with atheists, but with their fellow religionists as well, such as those “liberal” Christians who decry the behavior of the Westboro Baptist Church or Muslims who disavow child marriage.  Rarely if ever do we see an admission that those less palatable interpretations are legitimate, if unfortunate. Oh no, we are told – they’re just wrong.

For another thing, the vast majority of believers possess nothing resembling a “sophisticated” theology.  Let’s take Christianity in the United States as an example.

  • Three in four Americans believe that the bible is either the literal or inspired word of god. For Christians these numbers rise to a staggering 9 out of 10, with more than half (58%) believing that the bible is the literal word of god.
  • More than 40% of Americans believe that god created humans in their present form in the last 10,000 years. Another 31% believe that humans evolved but that their evolution was directed by god.  (Not surprisingly, these percentages correlate strongly with education.)
  • Among white evangelicals in the US, nearly 6 in 10 believe that natural disasters are a sign from god; more than half (53%) believe that god punishes whole nations for their citizens’ sins; and two-thirds believe natural disasters are signs we are living in the end times.
  • Nearly 3 in 10 Americans think god determines the outcomes of sporting events; among evangelicals this number rises to 4 in 10 who believe that god determines the winner outright, while about two-thirds say god influences the outcome by rewarding players of faith.
  • More than half of Americans say god is in control of everything that happens in the world.
  • The internet is replete with laments from Christian leaders (such as this article, or this one, or this one) that American Christians are increasingly biblically illiterate.

I don’t know about you, but belief in a god who sends earthquakes to punish people for having butt sex, chooses the winner of this weekend’s NASCAR race, and personally dictated the bible that you’ve never bothered to read does not strike me as especially sophisticated.

Here’s the real issue, though.  Ultimately, the claims of religion – the very story it’s selling – are wholly, unambiguously, ludicrously unsophisticated.  Christianity teaches that an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent supernatural being created the entire universe for the express purpose of being worshipped by humans; but he wanted their worship to be voluntary, so he gave them the gift of free will; but he subsequently and for generations punished them severely for not using their free will the way he wanted them to (but already knew they would); so in order to forgive humans for using their free will freely he created himself in human form, executed himself in a bloody spectacle, then came back from the dead and ascended bodily into the sky where he now presides over all human affairs and passes judgment; and that those whom he deems worthy will spend eternity in heaven with him upon their deaths, and those he deems unworthy are condemned to hell to be tortured for all eternity.  The rest of the details are window dressing – regardless of whether you take communion, speak in tongues, handle snakes, work on the sabbatth, forbid dancing, or allow women to be clergy, if you are a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word you believe in the divinity and resurrection of Christ and in the crucifixion as atonement for sin.  In other words, you believe nonsense.

The amateur apologists who wag their fingers at us unsophisticated atheists have to compensate for the fact that the proposition of religion is absurd on its face.  The resulting theology, alas, all boils down to a single argument: We don’t have to understand because god.  Of course this does not prevent them from claiming to understand a great many things – indeed, claiming to know them – as they are forever making unequivocal proclamations about god’s desires, intentions, and emotional state.  But when push comes to shove, the argument invariably comes down to nothing more than good, old fashioned rationalization:

  • “That doesn’t apply because it’s the Old Testament.”
  • “God cannot be judged by human standards.”
  • “That has to be read in the context of history.”
  • “That’s meant to be metaphorical.”
  • “That’s caused by humans.”
  • “You are thinking in terms of the material world instead of in terms of eternity.”
  • “You must feel the holy spirit to truly understand.”

William Lane Craig himself trumpets the need for apologetics in a post-enlightenment world where “emotion will only get you so far,” declaring his dark arts necessary to counter the corrosive impacts of science and secularism on religious belief.  Said another way, the truth claims of religion are so manifestly preposterous in light of what humanity now knows about the universe that linguistic sleight of hand is required to ensnare the innocent and hold onto the indoctrinated.

No doubt this column will be met with a chorus of smug accusations of, “She doesn’t get it!  See how unsophisticated she is?!”  And those folks will simply be proving my point: If people won’t buy what you’re selling unless it’s wrapped in layers of double-talk and obfuscation, you’re selling a lemon.  That’s intellectual dishonesty, and there’s nothing sophisticated about that.

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Godless Mama

Godless Mama writes about religion, politics, feminism, and the importance of evidence-based thinking with the goal of improving the world her daughter will inherit.

12 thoughts on “Your Theology Isn’t Sophisticated So Just Stop It”

  1. Your point is well taken, the majority of people who say things like “you just don’t understand the Bible” have barely read it themselves. And the certainly haven’t spent any time reconciling what it says with what it could ACTUALLY mean today. Which is to say, “we know that literalism is bullshit.” I don’t want to downplay the importance of addressing literalism, it informs a lot of dangerous action and public policy around the world.

    So while I understand the importance of educating folks on this, i personally find it boring. I find it boring because it seems to me that atheists spend the mass majority of their argumentative energy on destroying the most easily destroyed religious arguments. I am more interested in well informed, intellectually honest atheists/agnostics, engaging with well informed, intellectually honest theists.

    I feel like that’s where we all can learn something.


    1. Well, here’s the thing: “the most easily destroyed religious arguments” are the most common and the most pervasive and the ones held by the vast majority of religious folks. You are sort of proving the point of the article by saying atheists shouldn’t focus on these arguments because that’s not “real” theology, when in fact it is the theology embraced by most believers. I would also argue that the literalists are, in fact, the most intellectually honest theists. Apologetics is intellectual dishonesty from start to finish.


    2. That doesn’t help. If your god can’t tell us what he wants us to know in a way that’s clear enough not to create thousands of sects with violently opposing ideas then he’s not very good, is he?


    3. And WHERE ON EARTH do you find these “well informed, intellectually honest theists” with whom to discuss anything? NOWHERE. They are all too terrified to honestly engage in rational discussion, because that would risk giving up their religion. They’re not philosophers after the truth. They’re children after comfort or bullies after a doctrine with which to dominate or punish others.


  2. Last time I engaged a Christian, and quoted problematic Bible verses at him, he actually told me: “[because you are a non-believer,] God is showing you flaws in the bible that actually don’t exist. If you had faith he would show you why your presuppositions are totally incorrect.”
    This is a new low in disgusting, twisted, hold-on-to-your-precious-delusions-at-any-price insanity.


  3. We’re only here for a finite number of years. Who among us really has the time to waste trying to educate the “believers”. There are too many of them, and they are just too dumb to bother with. If they wish to kowtow to some imaginary god, let ’em. I have better things to do.


    1. This may be true but I am glad for those that engage the topic. In fact, I can’t thank them enough since I was once a mildly indoctrinated and doubting believer. I don’t think I would have stayed that way but posts like this moved me along nicely. I simply never knew that non-belief was an option, strange as this seems now.


  4. Godless Mama has this to say:

    “It is interesting to note that many theists take this tack not just with atheists, but with their fellow religionists as well, such as those “liberal” Christians who decry the behaviour of the Westboro Baptist Church or Muslims who disavow child marriage. Rarely if ever do we see an admission that those less palatable interpretations are legitimate, if unfortunate. Oh no, we are told – they’re just wrong.”

    Yet she goes on to directly contradict the above by asserting that, “if you are a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word you believe in the divinity and resurrection of Christ and in the crucifixion as atonement for sin.”

    On what basis does Godless Mama make these two claims? Just to take two examples, both Christadelphians and those Christians who subscribe to the Racovian Catechism are unitarian – they deny the deity of Christ. Yet they are still recognisably Christian. She refuses here the validity of unitarian Christianity and other forms as well that do not fit her view of what a “Christian [is] in any meaningful sense.” As an aside, I am orthodox in my views so I accept for example the Trinity – but I would not deny or claim that Christadelphians and other Unitarian Christians are also Christian.

    In this regard, I think Godless Mama is but yet another example of the intellectual dishonesty prevalent amongst so many anti-theist atheists. I note that most atheists I converse with would not make the assertion that she does about what a [meaningful] Christian is and instead will note (correctly in my view) that Christadelphians and similar are as Christian as anyone else such as Catholics. Of course, in a discussion, one can discuss what might count as “orthodox”, “heterodox” or “heretical” (whether such terms are helpful is another discussion) but none of this seems to be understood, given her claims.

    Godless Mama is also intellectually dishonest in her assertion in a comment that: “I would argue that the literalists are, in fact, the most intellectually honest theists”, especially given that literalism was not a feature of Christian history until the late 19th century. It is effectively a form of “No True Scotsman” that she invokes here but again, this is part of her [meaningful] Christian schtick.

    I think anti-theists in general are intellectually dishonest as a rule because of their anti-theism, not because they are atheists. Most atheists I find are usually intellectually honest. From the above article with respect to her claims about what a meaningful Christian is, Godless Mama does not qualify as intellectually honest.

    As for the rest of the article, I don’t have a problem with it – it is mostly spot on with its criticism.

    The above is part of a discussion on a Facebook thread in discussion with several atheists.


    1. Considering that you either don’t understand Christadelphians or have deliberately misrepresented their beliefs (they do, in fact, believe in the divinity of Christ and in the immortality of the soul following his return), I find it curious that you are accusing anyone else of “intellectual dishonesty.”


  5. Dan Barker’s latest book “God, The Most Unpleasant Character In All Fiction” is recommended reading, and should be compulsorily ordered to be read next to the bible. .The problem is that it is “preaching to the converted” (us atheists) and will be like “water off a ducks back” to the theists. Why would ANY believer read such a book, when for the last two thousand years, they (mostly) haven’t even read the single text book they have already been given?


  6. In response to Danny Klovopic, I have only this to say:

    If the Bible is the inspired OR the literal word of God, and all Christians think that the Bible is a true representation of God’s characteristics and possible….*ahem*…..”benevolence,” then it is up to those non-literal Christians to explain why they do believe some stuff but disavow other stuff. Accepting one thing and rejecting another when it all comes from the same source is theologically inconsistent. If we’re considering “intellectual honesty” here, then perhaps you might have an argument that Godless Mama is “intellectually dishonest.” But that’s not actually what we’re talking about here, and you use the concept of “intellectual honesty” the same way she did, so you’re a hypocrite. You didn’t actually explain WHY you thought that Godless Mama was being “dishonest.” What we’re talking about is “theological honesty” – not “intellectual honesty” (because there is absolutely NO “intellect” in religious belief) – and if we treat it as “theological honesty,” she is absolutely correct that biblical literalists are theologically honest, and biblical liberalists are not theologically honest. She’s right, you’re wrong. End of story.

    While it is true that the only actual measure of whether someone is a Christian is whether or not they think that Jesus died on the cross to supernaturally save Christians (Jesus-believers) from sin (which is an entirely different and very problematic concept), the possible divinity of Jesus isn’t actually the issue here. You railed on honesty, and then trumpeted a whole lot of crap that was window-dressing and details, and didn’t actually speak to the issue of honesty.

    YOU are exactly the person she was talking about, moron.

    As for the rest of what you wrote, it’s bullshit.


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