A few weeks ago biology professor Jerry Coyne debated Catholic theologian John Haught at the University of Kentucky. The topic was a stomping ground of Coyne’s: are science and religion compatible? Unsurprisingly, Coyne’s rational, evidence-based arguments trumped Haught’s rhetorical obfuscation and unsupported claims. Post-debate, scandal erupted when Haught refused to allow the organisers to upload the video of the debate (he eventually relented after a justifiably severe public backlash, so you can watch the debate here, and the subsequent Q&A session here). Russell Blackford has given his thoughtful take on the Coyne-Haught drama.
Coyne and Haught’s debate is a good example of how theology crumples under the pressure of demands for evidence to support its foundational premise: that a divine being exists which we can theologise about. How do theologians know that God exists, and is this knowledge objectively verifiable without appeals to emotion or ‘gut feeling’? Ophelia Benson asks these questions and others, like the following:
What are the criteria for theology as an academic discipline? How do practitioners tell good theology from bad? Is there such a thing as “wrong”? Is there falsification? Is there peer review? Are there any boundaries – any checks on what we outsiders see as making stuff up?
Theology cannot answer these reasonable demands coherently or convincingly.
So what exactly is the impotent enterprise called theology good for? Nothing at all, according to Richard Dawkins:
What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them. I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false. If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference? Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work! The achievements of theologians don't do anything, don't affect anything, don't mean anything. What makes anyone think that "theology" is a subject at all?
And here’s the 19th century humanist orator Robert Green Ingersoll on the respective benefits of theology and science:
We have already compared the benefits of theology and science. When the theologian governed the world, it was covered with huts and hovels for the many, palaces and cathedrals for the few. To nearly all the children of men, reading and writing were unknown arts. The poor were clad in rags and skins - they devoured crusts, and gnawed bones. The day of Science dawned, and the luxuries of a century ago are the necessities of today. Men in the middle ranks of life have more of the conveniences and elegancies than the princes and kings of the theological times. But above and over all this, is the development of mind. There is more of value in the brain of an average man of today - of a master-mechanic, of a chemist, of a naturalist, of an inventor, than there was in the brain of the world four hundred years ago.
These blessings did not fall from the skies. These benefits did not drop from the outstretched hands of priests. They were not found in cathedrals or behind altars - neither were they searched for with holy candles. They were not discovered by the closed eyes of prayer, nor did they come in answer to superstitious supplication. They are the children of freedom, the gifts of reason, observation and experience - and for them all, man is indebted to man.