“Theology is Piffle” – Paul S. Jenkins on Debate

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.


3 Comments

Rosemary Lyndall Wemm

1. Formal debates are poor method of determing the truth of something. That is why they are not included in the methodology of academic investigation. The more complex the topic the less likely it is to cover the essentials of the area under discussion. The more accomplished the debator the more likely they are to “win” the debate on the basis of arguments that would fail to be pass muster in sound academic debate.

2. Your writing style is repetitive, aggressive and simplistic. This suggests that you are not a person who is worth debating on any topic.

3. You have made it quite clear in this article that you do not, in fact, understand what “theology” is. You clearly assume that it pertains only to the study of your particular version of the Christian god and your particular interpretation of the particular set of sacred writings accepted as divinely inspired by your particular version of your particular religion. This is so restrictively exclusive that it would be pointless trying to argue with you. You would miss the boat from the very beginning.

If you had given your topic realistically you would have noticed that you were including all the theological opinions of those you would be quick to dismiss as “piffle”. What you really want to debate is the exclusively non-piffle status of your own restrictive concept of legitimate theology. But you clearly did not get that far in your thinking.

Therefore I have to conclude that Paul was correct in his assessment of both you and your topic: neither you, nor your topic, are worthy of debate, especially a “formal” one. On the other hand, both you and your topic are worth trouncing by the usual academically competent means. Consider it done.

Rosemary Lyndall Wemm

THEOLOGY: from L. theologia, from Gk. theologia “an account of the gods,” from theologos “one discoursing on the gods,” from theos “god” (see Thea) + -logos “treating of.”

Thus the word covers the study of ALL gods and ALL versions of the study of a particular god, or god collection.

C.L. Bolt

“1. Formal debates are poor method of determing the truth of something.”
I disagree for a number of reasons, but this is your claim. Do you have anything to back it up, or is it meant to be merely an assertion?

“That is why they are not included in the methodology of academic investigation.”
This is just blatantly false. I trust you are able to use Google without my help.

“The more complex the topic the less likely it is to cover the essentials of the area under discussion.”
I’m not sure what the referent of “it” is, so I’m not able to comment. It may be that “it” refers to “debates,” but you have spoken of them in the plural, and referring to them as “it” is just exceedingly poor grammar.

“The more accomplished the debator the more likely they are to ‘win’ the debate on the basis of arguments that would fail to be pass muster in sound academic debate.”
That depends upon how the winner of the debate is determined, and it also depends in large part upon the subject matter of the debate. Also, you speak here of “sound academic debate,” but you just finished stating that debates are, “not included in the methodology of academic investigation.” Which is it?

“2. Your writing style is repetitive, aggressive and simplistic.”
You misspelled “determining,” probably referred to a plural noun with the singular “it,” and are inconsistent regarding the existence of academic debate. Oh, and your mother is fat.

“This suggests that you are not a person who is worth debating on any topic.”
Even granting that my writing style is repetitive, aggressive, and simplistic, it does not follow that I am not worth debating on any topic. That’s some funny logic. Could you spell out the reasoning you are using to reach that conclusion from my writing style?

Repetition is for emphasis, I was not aggressive in the post (though Paul sometimes uses rather pointed rhetoric), and the post is only simplistic insofar as the source I am quoting from and commenting upon is simplistic.

“3. You have made it quite clear in this article that you do not, in fact, understand what ‘theology’ is.”
In the post I only accepted the definition of theology provided by Paul arguendo and went no further concerning more nuanced or personal understandings of the definition of theology, so I have no idea where you are getting your alleged clarity from.

“You clearly assume that it pertains only to the study of your particular version of the Christian god and your particular interpretation of the particular set of sacred writings accepted as divinely inspired by your particular version of your particular religion.”
“You clearly” struggle with more than proper spelling and grammar. If you had read the post more carefully then you should have understood, again, that the definition and description of theology were provided by Paul and accepted in my post arguendo. Now, it may be that I agree with Paul’s definition and description of theology on a personal level, but whether I do or not is irrelevant to the subject matter of the post. I am not ignorant of various non-Christian systems of theology. Your presumptuous attitude does not serve you well.

“This is so restrictively exclusive that it would be pointless trying to argue with you.”
And yet, Paul provided the “restrictively exclusive” definition and description of theology, and here you are trying to argue with me. You’re a comedian right? This is just a joke isn’t it?

“You would miss the boat from the very beginning.”
Woe is me! Please enlighten this uneducated Christian dogmatist!

“If you had given your topic realistically you would have noticed that you were including all the theological opinions of those you would be quick to dismiss as ‘piffle’.”
Eh? I was realistically suggesting the topic, “Theology is Piffle.” I do not dismiss all theology as “piffle.” Paul does. By taking the affirmative position in a debate, Paul would bear the burden of proof for his position. He would be arguing that theology is piffle. I would not. I would be arguing the opposite. So I fail to see the relevance of your comment. It could be that you are suggesting I must likewise argue that some theology is piffle, but in the context of the debate suggested this would not follow either. Apparently you are confused.

“What you really want to debate is the exclusively non-piffle status of your own restrictive concept of legitimate theology.”
Actually, what I really want to debate is whether or not theology is piffle. Paul will take the affirmative position, and I will take the negative. You must be rather arrogant to ignore what I wrote concerning a debate topic and then make assumptions regarding what I “really want to debate.” Do you read minds? Do you still wonder why I use repetition and write “simplistically”?

“But you clearly did not get that far in your thinking.”
So you do read minds. That saves me from having to make some controversial remarks in a public setting.

“Therefore I have to conclude that Paul was correct in his assessment of both you and your topic:”
“Therefore I have to conclude” is redundant. You do not agree with Paul in his assessment of me or the topic of debate, so how do you conclude that Paul is correct in either one? Apparently you do not see that the understanding of theology you so harshly criticize was provided by Paul, not me, and that I only accept it for the sake of argument in the post. Like Paul, you arrogantly scoff at the prospect of debate, but fail to realize that you do so for completely different reasons than those offered by Paul. Finally, you have serious misunderstandings concerning how a debate is carried out with respect to the debate proposition, and apply these misunderstandings to your premature dismissal of meaningful debate. You’re boasting about a boat, but you forgot your paddle.

“…neither you, nor your topic, are worthy of debate, especially a ‘formal’ one.”
I can think of a number of reasons atheists like Paul Baird, Paul Jenkins, and you would want to say this, but they have nothing to do with the alleged reasons that have been offered.

“On the other hand, both you and your topic are worth trouncing by the usual academically competent means. Consider it done.”
Your contumelious comments are hardly indicative of academic competence.

You assume that theology can pertain to the study of gods other than the Christian god and sets of writings other than the Christian Scripture. You claim that theology, “covers the study of ALL gods and ALL versions of the study of a particular god, or god collection.” You provide an etymological argument to support your claim, but etymology, even when correct, does not always determine the meaning of a word. Further, you have to completely ignore the exchange with Paul to ascribe to me the definition of theology provided by Paul. Why not correct Paul concerning his understanding of theology instead of confusedly exclaiming that you are in agreement with him? Also, I have noted already that I appreciate the nuance involved in defining and/or describing theology, regardless of your pretentious assertions to the contrary. Finally, you conveniently overlook the exclusive nature of any definition. By defining theology as you have, you preclude definitions of theology which ascribe a theology, though a poor one, to atheists. You preclude definitions of theology which are taken to pertain exclusively to the God and/or gods which constitute its subject matter. The examples go on and on. It turns out that you are not only a sophist, you are a bigot, and I find that most unfortunate.

Articulate playground talk may work well around the atheist locker room, but it is not welcome here. Paul Jenkins makes a host of assertions that he is unwilling to defend in debate, such as claiming that theology is piffle. That is easy enough to understand without all of the alleged excuses.


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