Once upon a time I wrote to Paul S. Jenkins in a comment on his blog and said, “Any time you are willing to debate, ‘Theology is Piffle’ let me know!” In response he asks, “Is it worth debating?” Answering his own question, he writes, “Probably not, because in order to ‘debate’ sensibly about something, both sides must be clear that they are discussing the same thing.”
Is it true that both sides in a debate must be clear that they are discussing the same thing? Probably not, and I can think of any number of debates where the participants thought that they were discussing the same thing, only to find out that they were not. There are likewise many examples of debates wherein the participants believed they shared a significant amount of common ground, or alternatively, thought they were vehemently opposed on some things, only to find out in the context of debate that they were mistaken. Formal debate serves to bring out such clarifications, and that is just one of the reasons it is so important. Perfectly sensible.
But in the case of Paul and me, would we be discussing the same thing? I do not know why anyone would think otherwise. I suggested that we debate the topic, “Theology is Piffle.” Paul would take the affirmative, and I would take the negative (Paul had dismissed theology as piffle in his post). What would we be discussing? Well, the subject of the debate proposition, of course, which is “theology.” I am clear on that. It is quite likely that Paul is as well.
In fact, Paul is kind enough to define theology for us, writing that, “Theology is ‘the study of the nature of God.’” I have no difficult agreeing with Paul’s definition of theology. So not only would Paul and I be discussing the same thing, we can agree concerning its definition. Now, Paul may disagree that anything like God exists, but that is quite beside the point Paul is concerned about, which is whether or not the debate participants would be discussing the same thing. The subject to be discussed is theology, and specifically whether or not it is piffle.
Paul goes on to comment further on theology, stating that, “as far as that goes it’s less useful than the study of Star Trek.” Well sure, I am convinced that Paul thinks that about theology. After all, he thinks that theology is piffle. But the fact that Paul thinks that theology is not useful has nothing to do with the fact that Paul is saying this of theology, the subject of the hypothetical debate. Paul’s comment actually assumes that his readers know what “thing” he is talking about, and that thing is theology. Paul is clear about that, and I am clear about that.
Paul then claims that, “Theology as a subject is no more than literary criticism.” Theology might involve literary criticism, but it is much more than literary criticism. Paul might very well agree, since he takes theology to be piffle. I do not believe he would wish to say the same thing of literary criticism in general, and so he has no reason for saying it of theology unless there is something else to theology other than literary criticism. But in any event, Paul has not provided any reason for thinking that he is talking about something other than theology. Theology is the subject that Paul is attempting to describe, rightly or wrongly, and it would be the subject at hand in the debate topic I suggested. Paul would argue that theology is piffle, and I would argue against him. We would be debating the subject of theology, and in particular Paul’s claim that it is piffle. I see nothing vague about the topic of discussion.
After a brief comparison of theology to Star Trek, Paul claims that, “Applying literary criticism to scripture, however, will not produce insights into the nature of God, because we don’t know that scripture was written by God, or that God even existed in the first place (regardless of whether scripture is factual, mythical or metaphorical).” Of course, Scripture describes God, whether God exists or not, so Paul’s complaint is off target. But he continues, “The best that theology might be able to offer is some insight into the cultural milieu of scripture’s authors — who were human.” Again I agree that theology offers insight into the cultures of its human authors though I obviously disagree that this is the best theology can do, since I take it that the words those authors penned in Scripture are God breathed. Like Paul, I can autobiographically recite my beliefs about God, Scripture, and theology ad nauseum, but doing so is not overly relevant to whether or not two people can debate whether or not theology is piffle.
Remember that Paul does not think a debate concerning his claim that theology is piffle is worth having because both sides must be clear they are discussing the same thing. So far Paul has only further clarified that he is discussing theology. He has defined it, talked about its parts, and evaluated it. As his debate opponent, I might disagree with his definition, his description, and his evaluation of theology and still be clear that the subject of the debate is theology. But I have gone farther than that here. I have granted Paul’s definition of theology and some of his description of it. I even recognize his negative evaluation of theology. Obviously I disagree with his negative evaluation of theology, but it does not follow that a debate concerning the topic in question is not worth having. Rather, the disagreement is cause for debate. Paul has not actually found an objection to debating the topic I suggested. Instead, he attempts to creatively dismiss an invitation to reasoned dialogue by reasserting his own position concerning the topic to be discussed. Paul is taking his claim that theology is piffle for granted and then offering it as his reason for thinking that his claim is not worth debating. Not too long ago Paul was curious about whether or not I would consider him a fundamentalist atheist. No wonder.
Paul continues, “Unfortunately theology persists in its claim that it is studying God, so its efforts are doomed from the start.” Why Paul does not see that one might just as easily say, “Unfortunately atheism persists in its claim that theology is not the study of God, so its efforts are doomed form the start” is beyond me, but Paul has already defined theology as the study of the nature of God. Paul is either terribly confused or exceedingly unclear in his writing. Either way it is still clear that the subject being discussed is theology and that we have disagreements concerning that topic that allows us an opportunity to debate. Paul holds that theology is piffle. I do not. Let’s have a reasoned exchange about it. That’s what atheism is all about right?
Paul concludes, “Until theologians admit that they are engaged in nothing more than literary criticism they can be left to their own insular devices, just like the more extreme end of Trek fandom, while the rest of us attend to the real world.” But the only thing Paul is saying here is that he is right because he says that he is right, and anyone who questions that is not worth his time. Paul is unwilling to debate whether or not theology is piffle, because he believes that theology is piffle. But nobody doubts what Paul professes to believe about theology. Paul’s rhetoric is not laudable, it’s bigoted. He first assumes that theology is piffle, and then when he is challenged on it, backs away with the excuse that both parties involved in a debate concerning his claim must be clear about what it is they are discussing. Well, they are. Paul and I are both clear that theology is the topic to be discussed. Paul has made it abundantly clear that he thinks theology is piffle. It is no more than literary criticism. It has nothing to do with the real world. Paul has made all of his opinions abundantly clear. I disagree with them. But Paul apparently has difficulty processing that anyone should disagree with him. Moreover, he is unwilling to defend a position that he holds so deeply he has an entire blog and podcast dedicated to it. Why? Because if theology is piffle, then theology is piffle. But that is just what I challenged Paul to debate.
Paul has not provided any valid reason for refusing to defend his claim that “theology is piffle” in debate. Instead, he falsely implies that the parties involved in the debate are not clear concerning the topic of debate and proudly restates his opinions about theology as though they settle the matter. Fundamentalist atheists might very well be satisfied with an epistemology of, “Paul Jenkins says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” but I certainly am not. And let’s not pretend that anyone other than narrow minded atheists are fooled by the condescending rhetoric about leaving theologians to “their own insular devices…while the rest of us attend to the real world.” Paul went out of his way to link to my post recommending God Without Parts only to say that his readers would not want to buy the book and make some claims about theology being piffle (claims he still refuses to debate). For a topic that has nothing to do with the real world Paul certainly spends his fair amount of time blogging about it and podcasting on it. The disconnect between the dismissive attitude of British atheists I have come into contact with over the last six months or so and the massive amounts of energy they put into running their generally unreasoned, insulting, a-theist blogs is nothing short of amusing. At the same time it is genuinely sad. Assertions are not arguments. It is clear that fundamentalist atheists frequently conflate the two. They do so to their own detriment.