The Astronomical Cheesologist
Here’s a typical Christian claim (from A Christian on the Sidelines):
The Agnostic/Atheist is attempting to explain religion through empirical methods while Theists attempt the same by using theology. The mixing of these concepts into the other field is a clear injustice to both disciplines.
But is this really true? Is it true that theology sits on the primary, or even exclusive rights to say something about religion and gods? I happen to think that this is false; in fact, I think theology is little more than the rational analysis of theologians’ imaginations. Since theologians often have a rather good imagination, I will in this post use my imagination. For completeness, I’ve written about this before, but what I will say now isn’t exactly the same.
Imagine that I believe that the Moon is made of cheese. Now, being naturally curious, I start thinking about the implications of having a satellite made of cheese for Earth, and what current observations can tell us about the type of cheese that the Moon is made of, and countless other issues that a moon made of cheese would raise. After some time, I come to the conclusion that not only the Moon, but all other celestial bodies are made of cheese. Then I start publishing my investigations into the heavenly bodies and the material they’re made of. Only, I don’t publish my papers through the usual scientific means; instead, I found a whole new field, which I call Astronomical Cheesology.
Other believers start joining me, and pretty soon, a niche community based around the new, astonishing insight that all celestial bodies are made of cheese is thriving. Papers are going to and fro about the consistency of Saturn’s moon Titan’s outer layer of cheese, the origin of the hot cheese of the Sun and other such esoteric topics. Pretty soon, I have gained a noble following and quite a reputation, and I start appearing on TV shows and writing books on Astronomical Cheesology. When serious scientists tell me that there is no way that the Moon is made of cheese, because we have observed that it is not and besides a mechanism to allow the Moon to be a cheese would provide a radically different universe, I reply that while scientists attempt to say something about the Moon through empirical means, I attempt to do the same with Astronomical Cheesology, and the mixing of these concepts into the other field is a clear injustice to both.
This is the state theology is in today. Two thousand years ago, perhaps Astronomical Cheesology could have been quite the smash hit, but today it’s so obvious that such a field is built on a false foundation that no one would believe it. Theology, on the other hand, has had thousands of years to grow a following, and believers will still try to claim that it has some noble foundation that neither science nor traditional philosophy has, and thus has the exclusive rights to say something about gods.
The trouble, here, is that theology just like Astronomical Cheesology is built on a false foundation, and the method for discovering new things in theology must to a large degree depend either on pure imagination or on the interpretation of holy books. To make Astronomical Cheesology analogous, imagine I, as the founder of the field, wrote a book called Astronomical Cheesology: a New Foundation for Astronomy. Then Astronomical Cheesologists would divide their time evenly between interpreting the Foundation and conjecturing based on pure imagination.
If the Cheesologists had used empirical methods, two unpleasant things would happen: first, they would cross into scientific territory, thereby giving up the exclusivity they had worked so hard to attain; second, had they bothered to look, they would have been forced to admit that there is absolutely nothing that indicates that the celestial bodies are made of cheese, and there is plenty of evidence that suggests they’re not. The same thing happens with theologians: if they had used empirical methods, they would have to let science in the door, and they would also be forced to admit that little suggests that there is a god, and much suggests that there isn’t. In fact, supporters of theology as a valid field of study separated from philosophy and science, such as Justin in the quote above, admit that theology isn’t about empirical study: the Agnostic/Atheist is attempting to explain religion through empirical methods while Theists attempt the same by using theology.
What tools are left to study God, then, if not empirical methods? Theologians seem to divide their efforts remarkably close to the Astronomical Cheesologists: some study and interpret scripture, while others use their imaginations and conjure up purely hypothetical scenarios. Unlike mainstream philosophers, the self-appointed investigators in holy matters assert that they have some insights into hypothetical scenarios that hold true in reality, but nonetheless is outside of the reach of science.
This post has taken the form of a reductio ad absurdum: if the theologian is justified in saying that science cannot say anything about religion, then the Astronomical Cheesologist is also justified in saying that science cannot say anything about celestial bodies made of cheese. Both theologians and Cheesologists try to establish a premise that is very much about the empirical world, namely that there is a personal god that acts in the world and that celestial bodies are made of cheese, respectively. Both then try to claim that to mix science into these matters is an injustice to both fields.
A popular form of the argument Justin used in the quote above is called Non-overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). NOMA attempts to establish that science and (religion, theology, take your pick) are equally valid, non-overlapping fields of study: both have something important to say, but one cannot say anything about the field of the other. Stephen Jay Gould intended NOMA to resolve the supposed conflict between religion and science. He describes the principle: “the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).” This is essentially the same idea that Justin expressed in the quote at the top of this blog post.
But consider the idea of God. It says that there is a personal, intelligent being outside of space and time, that deliberately designed the universe and everything in it and to this day continues to work inside it. Is this not about “what the universe is made of and why it works in this way”? Isn’t the question, “does this supernatural intelligence exist?” something else entirely than “ultimate meaning and moral value”? In fact, religion says something about both the empirical world and the philosophical ideas of meaning and moral value. No theistic religion limits itself to questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. All theistic religions assert the existence of this personal, active supernatural entity. No theistic religion can withstand to go outside of its magisterium (Gould defines magisterium as “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution”).
It seems, then, that NOMA is a kind of double standard, a kind of hypocrisy, because its proponents demand that science stands by without saying a word as religion comes thundering out of its allotted magisterium and makes claims inside of science’s. The only way of consistently holding that science cannot say anything about religious matters is to say that religious matters are not empirical matters; gods cannot ever be part of the empirical world. In other words, only atheists can consistently claim NOMA. Seems like the poster boy of many theists is really just another argument for atheism.
Another criticism that can be made about both Justin’s view and NOMA is that the magisterium handed over to religion is really already occupied. Questions of ultimate meaning and moral value are really philosophical questions, and philosophers have been mulling over them since before the birth of Christianity. It seems that religion is not really needed: it spans over two magisteria (science and philosophy) that are both perfectly well occupied to begin with. Who would have thought that the very argument designed to make space for religion and resolve its conflict with science could be used to show that religion is obsolete?
The day theology becomes a valid field of study, I will begin writing my dissertation on Astronomical Cheesology (note: I here separate study of the Bible and general philosophy from theology).
Update: I’m closing this discussion off, both because it has moved far from the original topic and, more importantly, because I’m going away and won’t be able to respond.