Monday, December 7, 2009

definitions and the value of theology

Canto: So, Williams rejects Grayling's definition of religion simply because lots of people would disagree with it, because everybody has her own concept of it, and it's notoriously difficult to define. Williams doesn't attempt to define it himself. And yet, though he can't or won't define religion, he has no hesitation in saying this:
With Keith Ward, I think it clear that: ‘religion does some harm and some good, but most people, faced with the evidence, will probably agree that it does a great deal more good than harm, and that we would be much worse off as a species without any religion'.
Unfortunately, without a clear or even a vague definition of religion to go on, nobody can assess the truth or falsity of this claim. It is, quite simply, meaningless.
Jacinta: Good point, Canto, and what's to stop a person defining religion as 'that which makes me do good things and think good thoughts'? If only philosophizing were always this easy. So now let me go on with Williams's attempt to undermine this claim by Grayling:
‘Apologists for faith are an evasive community, who seek to avoid or deflect criticism by slipping behind the abstractions of higher theology, a mist-shrouded domain of long words, superfine distinctions and vague subtleties, in some of which God is nothing… and does not even exist… But religion is not theology; it is the practice and outlook of ordinary people into most of whom supernaturalistic beliefs and superstitions were inculcated as children when they could not assess the value of what they were being sold as a world view; and it is the falsity of this, and its consequences for a suffering world, that critics attack.’[9]
Williams's first objection is that theology, as a specialist field, naturally uses specialist language and engages in necessary subtleties, and he quotes some abstruse terminology that Grayling himself has engaged in to prove his point. He objects, of course, to the inference that theologians are intellectually irresponsible, which he considers 'a hasty generalization at best and a straw man at worst', and grumbles that Grayling provides no evidence for this suggestion of intellectual irresponsibility.
Canto: An absurd objection, in my view. Grayling doesn't provide evidence for this logic-chopping and evasive abstraction because he assumes this theological habit to be self-evident. He assumes everyone will recognize what he's talking about.And I certainly do. I mean, does William seriously imagine for even a split-second that it would be difficult to find such evidence? Read Augustine of Hippo on the existence of the soul, read Anselm of Canterbury on the so-called ontological argument, read the interpretations of Moslem theologians in Karen Armstrong's History of God, just to name a few examples familiar to me, but really you'll find a superabundance of this sort of thing in just about any work of theology, to such an extant that theology and evasiveness might be considered synonyms.
Jacinta: Yet theologians might be quite sincere in their ink-wasting labours to square the circle, to turn faith into reason. Their evasiveness might be a genuine search, their distinctions without differences may make all the difference in the world to their subjective sense.
Canto: Yes, this is a problem. But is it a theological one?

Text being criticized: 'Contra Grayling', by Peter S Williams

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