Randal Rauser on religious consensus

It's been a really long time since I wrote a post on one of Randal Rauser's arguments. But as luck would have it, it's a lazy Saturday, I was perusing his blog, and I found a recent post of his in which he links to the following video:
Do watch the video before continuing, because I'm not going to explain what it's about. Instead, I want to systematically address his arguments as well as discuss his response to me on his blog.

Just a heads-up on my own position: I think that the lack of a consensus is a serious problem for Christianity, for several reasons. First, it stands to reason that if holding true belief is integral to one's salvation, and if God loves all his human creations and wants them to be saved, it would be woefully counterproductive for God to allow humans to stumble into a vast number of schisms that often result from disagreements over basic doctrinal beliefs.

Sure, some Christians disagree about which day of the week the Sabbath is supposed to be observed, but when the issue is something like how a person is saved—you know, the whole way into Heaven in the first place—it seems like a pretty glaring oversight from an omniscient being.

This is normally the part where I point out that this is all very easily and logically explained by the idiosyncratic cultural origins of Judeo-Christian beliefs and how they intersected with a changing world over the next two millennia. It's only when you start insisting that this is part of a divine being's plan that the logic gets tricky. But I'm going to resist the urge to dive deeper into that topic and just talk about Randal's responses.

1. Theology and science are apples and oranges

Randal first argues that just as one ought not compare philosophical discourse to scientific inquiry, so too should we avoid comparing theology to science. There are a couple of issues to take with that response.

First, and most obviously, is that theology often deals in claims that are objectively true or false. Assuming some presumption of Christianity is true, there is an objectively correct path to righteousness, and many objectively wrong ones. The premise of the Reformation—that salvation comes directly to the believer through their faith, rather than through the church—is either true or false. And, I'd add, that's a pretty major thing to gripe about!

Theology does sometimes intersect with questions of values, aesthetics, etc., but those are tertiary to the central dogmas and doctrines that form the core debates among theologians. And if something is either true or not, then if it is to be of any meaning to us then we need some kind of methodology by which false beliefs can be sussed out. I argue that theology has no such methodology, but more on that in a bit.

The second issue is one that's really beyond the scope of this blog post, but it's the idea that there is a fundamental flaw in a conceit of much of philosophy: the idea that we can gleam profound truths about reality just by thinking about it. Science takes the position that we have to observe reality, not just think about it; and to the extent that philosophy deals with ontic claims about reality, it is very much in conflict with science.

Both longtime readers of this blog know that I'm a big fan of George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at UC Berkeley. In his book Philosophy in the Flesh, he argues that the fundamental processes of cognition are overwhelmingly metaphorical. Philosophers of antiquity essentially take a given metaphorical conceptualization of reality, then use the tools of logical deduction to reach conclusions about it. The problem is that like the man behind the curtain, we aren't aware of the metaphorical processes underpinning our reasoning.

The short version of all this is that philosophy that is not empirically responsible is useless. Lakoff argues that if philosophers of antiquity knew then what we know now scientifically about the brain, the body, and cognition, that much of ancient philosophy would never have existed. This isn't a "science has all the answers" argument, and I am staunch believer in the value of philosophical thought. But unless it's grounded by our evolving empirical knowledge, it runs the risk of being a masturbatory and futile enterprise.

A good example of this is the debate about the so-called "hard problem of consciousness." While that particular term was coined by David Chalmers, its origins go back centuries; it's primarily concerned with understanding the nature of subjective experience. But many scientists and scientifically-enlightened philosophers essentially view the question as a non-starter—they think that rather than being a problem, it rests on assumptions that are fundamentally misguided. This is analogous (and somewhat related to) a topic on my recent posts—William Lane Craig and his debate with Alex Rosenberg over the concept of "intentionality"; essentially, Craig though he had a good "gotcha" that Rosenberg couldn't answer, while Rosenberg thought Craig's formulation was founded on assumptions that are incongruous with our scientific understanding of the mind.

My point of all this is simply to say that philosophical inquiry does not exist independently from science; they are deeply intertwined. And if theologians are concerned with ascertaining what is true, then theology and scientific thought must be intertwined as well.

2. Christians do agree on stuff, and disagreement is fine anyway

Randal next argues that Christians do have broad consensus on a great many things, and points out that disagreement occurs all the time in philosophy and science as well. The mere presence of disagreement should hardly undermine theology as a discipline.

But this, in my view, misses the point. Disagreement is normal, but consensus implies an agreed-upon process of ascertaining truth that allows disagreements to be worked out over time. If no one can agree on how those disagreements ought to be resolved, then we ought to expect that discordance would increase over time as conflicting ideas are introduced and debated with no reliably agreed-upon methodology by which to resolve them.

This is, of course, precisely what we observe in Christianity. Over the last two millennia, Christianity has been subject to a vast number of schisms and is now an umbrella encompassing a staggering number of denominations. (I've heard 33,000 repeated often as a ballpark number, but I've been unable to verify it with a reliable source.) Some of these denominations are divided by minor doctrinal disagreements, others by very large ones. But it certainly is peculiar that God would not have provided a reliable methodology by which to bridge these disagreements. If one exists, humans have not found it.

Scientists do of course disagree all the time, and that's okay. But scientists have a broadly agreed-upon methodology they can use to test various claims against observation and assess the reliability of data. This has allowed scientists across all disciplines to form greater consensus over time on all manner of disagreements great and small.

Randal argues that there is a growing consensus about some big doctrinal issues in Christianity, but he neglects to explain how this consensus has been achieved (aside from a vague reference to evidence and argumentation—the former suggesting that theology is very much a science of a sort); he also neglects to provide any hard data for his claims, so I'm skeptical that what he's alluding to really has permeated Christian thought to any meaningful degree. Schisms are still happening all over the world, and if there's any evidence of a global trend toward a unified theology of Christianity I'm definitely not aware of it.

3. Atheists are just as guilty

Randal argues that atheists are concerned with a lot of the same questions Christians are—the fundamental nature of reality, the nature of purpose, truth, meaning, etc. And that's absolutely true, but it doesn't really have anything at all to do with the original poster's point. Randal is employing a red herring here.

Broad existential questions transcend all systems of belief (or lack thereof). Atheism is simply rejection of belief in God—and, usually, specific religious claims. Atheism doesn't have a doctrine, or a creed, or a dogma. It can't! Of course, atheists can adhere to other beliefs that do have those qualities, but they're nonessential to atheism itself.

More importantly though, atheists reject religion in large part because they aren't convinced it is equipped to provide answers to those problems—and its inability to develop consensus regarding what are often basic doctrinal truth claims is a major reason why they feel that way.

4. Our understanding can be changed

Randal's final argument is a peculiar one, because I feel like he's kind of making his interlocutor's point for them. He simply points out that at many times in history, what was once considered near-certain scientific knowledge was upended and ultimately disregarded. He points out, for example, the belief that knowledge of physics was considered to be almost complete before the 20th Century, which saw Einstein's theories of relativity and the advent of quantum mechanics.

Yes, that's very true—popular scientific wisdom is sometimes upended. But it's true precisely because science has a methodology by which erroneous theories can be identified and discarded. Science is always, in principle, amenable to evidence. Radical changes in a theoretical framework become increasingly improbable as more and more evidence is acquired in support of it. In the case of physicists who believed that the science was nearly complete, the discoveries of relativity and quantum mechanics didn't undo the validity of Newtonian mechanics so much as they simply clarified their scope. But this happened because scientists are always in the process of testing ideas against observation, making predictions, and collecting data.

Randal assumes that his interlocutor believes that science reaches "settled conclusions that will never be upset again," but I don't think that's a charitable reading. Consensus simply means that the weight of available evidence—underpinned by a fundamental agreement on how evidence should be collected—allows scientists to find systematic agreement. Consensus, like all science, can change to fit the evidence.

Can theology? Can theologians disregard old theories in light of new theological evidence and systematically build agreement? If so, why has Christianity—and religion more broadly—trended in the exact opposite direction for its entire history? If a method for reliably building consensus exists, Christians don't appear to have discovered it. But again, these schisms are precisely what we'd expect if the claims of Christianity are fundamentally untrue, and instead rooted in cultural and historical tradition.

Addendum: the "you're out of your depth" objection

I offered a short comment on Randal's blog, and Randal replied in part by describing the multitude of theological disciplines and how they are discussed in academic journals. He suggested I familiarize myself with them. No thanks, I can think of a thousand better uses of my free time.

I've talked about this type of objection in the past, and it takes many forms: "read my book," "study these disciplines of philosophy," "read these authors," etc. etc. The message is this: if you had done your homework, you wouldn't be bothering me with these pesky questions. Randal predictably opines that if one is going to criticize (say) theology, one ought to familiarize themselves with the academic writings on the subject.

But this objection is a red herring, and fundamentally meant more as a dodge and conversation stopper than a genuine attempt at a "teachable moment." Academic journals are intended for other academics, and do not exist to debate the assumptions on which they are founded. The British Medical Journal, for example, does not contain detailed exposition on the philosophy of science and how it applies to evidence-based medical research. If your doctor gave you dubious advice and, when you objected, simply told you to start reading medical journals, you should probably find a new doctor.

For example, a sub-discipline in theology is systematic theology, which Wikipedia describes as follows:
"With a methodological tradition that differs somewhat from biblical theology, systematic theology draws on the core sacred texts of Christianity, while simultaneously investigating the development of Christian doctrine over the course of history, particularly through philosophy, ethics, social sciences, and even natural sciences. Using biblical texts, it attempts to compare and relate all of scripture which led to the creation of a systematized statement on what the whole Bible says about particular issues. 
Within Christianity, different traditions (both intellectual and ecclesial) approach systematic theology in different ways impacting a) the method employed to develop the system, b) the understanding of theology's task, c) the doctrines included in the system, and d) the order those doctrines appear. Even with such diversity, it is generally the case that works that one can describe as systematic theologies to begin with revelation and conclude with eschatology."
Non-believers would not be interested in reading academic journals in the field, because those journals would be focused on internal debates among academics—such as how various Biblical passages convey a specific message. They'd be more interested in things like the methods of developing a system and how it's decided which doctrines to include in said system. How can any such system avoid deep-seated biases? How does one parse out the correct presuppositions? A theologian ought to readily be able and willing to explain such things to laypersons rather than waving them off and telling them to read more books.

I think the lack of consensus does indeed present a serious problem for Christianity and for religion in general. And it's not simply because there doesn't appear to be any sort of reliable methodology for sussing out false theological beliefs; it's because in the case of Christian theology, we're usually dealing with the presumption of a maximally powerful deity who loves everyone and wants them all to believe in Him, be saved, and go to Heaven. One would think an all-powerful, all-knowing deity could get his message across more clearly.


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