The Birth Of Theology


500,000 years ago

Night time

Around a flickering fire sit Thag, Og and Clug, cavemen.

It's a clear night, the starts are out and there's a full moon casting a wan light over the landscape. Around them are the sounds of the savannah on which they eke out their existence. It's a daily struggle for existence. Recently, their companion, Morg, was eaten by a tiger.

The cavemen are feeling, for want of a better word, philosophical.

Thag: You know, Thag miss Morg

Og: We all same, Thag.

Thag: Make you wonder what it all about really, doesn't it?

Og: What Thag mean?

Thag: Well, it like, one minute Morg here, next, Morg tiger food. Thag feeling the tenuous and insecure nature of existence more keenly than usual tonight.

Og: Og know what Thag Mean. Thag feeling like Thag not control own existence, Og right?

Thag: Og right. It like Thag not shape Thag's own destiny, and this make Thag scared. Thag fear for the future. Thag, frankly, worried. Thag probably die too, one day. Thag fear this.

They gaze at the fire for a while. It took them 45 minutes to kindle the flame, one working to raise a spark while the other two watched for predators, crude spears in hand, ever fearful of the tiger

Og: Og often wonder about why world way world is. Og find world to be cruel and merciless place. Struggle for existence bear down on Og's mind daily

Thag: Tell Thag about it.

As Thag and Og stare at the flames, Clug stirs

Clug: Clug have idea about all that.

Og and Thag pause. Clug hasn't been talking much. He's been thinking, and occasionally muttering to himself. Clug has always been thoughtful, for a caveman, but this is new

Thag: Clug really have idea?

Clug: Yes. Clug believe man in sky control world. Clug believe man decide when we born and die. Clug believe man in sky control weather, and seasons and movement of herds. Clug believe man in sky look after Clug and Thag and Og, and Morg. Clug believe man in sky took Morg because it Morg's time to go. Morg now hunting with man in sky, and we see Morg again in future. This idea make Clug feel safe. This idea make Clug less afraid. Man in sky Clug's friend.

Thag and Og look at Clug. this is new. Clug usually doesn't have much to offer in the way of conversation, the usual fare being hunting stories, speculation about the movements of herd animals and mating prospects with cavewomen in small leopardskin outfits.

Clug: Furthermore, Clug believe man in sky favour Clug, and talk to Clug at night. Clug talk back. Clug believe talking back to man in sky bring favour on Clug's tribe. More Clug talk to man in sky, more man in sky reassures Clug. Clearly, man in sky with us. Clearly man in sky wants Clug and Thag and Og to be happy.

This is definitely new. Thag clears his throat

Thag (leaning inwards): Tell Thag more about man in sky

Clug: [begins to speak, interrupted by a cough from Og. Og seems skeptical]

Og: (raising a hairy eyebrow) About this man in sky then...

Clug: Yes?

Og: If he really is how Clug describe him, then Og should see clear evidence of existence. Og not see evidence of existence. Also, Clug's tribe clearly not actually favoured. Clug's tribe actually have major social dysfunction as outlined by cave violence statistics and tribal crime figures, refuting Clug's hypothesis that man in sky help Clug's tribe. Also, while Og lack instrumentation to observe weather patterns, seasonal rhythms and herd animal migration properly, Og strongly believe they perfectly natural phenomenon that not require man in sky to explain. Also,  based on observation of previous deaths, none of whom we've ever seen again, we never see Morg again. Ever. Morg gone, Morg not coming back. Clug sullying memory of Morg by using Morg's death to make cheap bid for authority. Morg gone. Og be gone sometime. Og live with it, not need man in sky for self-validation.

Clug: Ah, well, you see.... Og not have sophisticated understanding of nature of man in sky. Clug explain...

And as soon as that "Ah, well, you see..." was uttered, theology was born. A non-subject devoted to the diligent study of a particular phenomenon without first demonstrating that the phenomenon actually exists. A bunch of men (mostly) sitting round in rooms with the unspoken agreement that we do not talk about first principles and devising ever more convoluted justifications for their presence in that room when they should be out with the rest of us doing something constructive. The entire subject is essentially "ahwellyouseeology".

I have a natural contempt for theology, I'm afraid. And I'm not the only one. Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience often comments that he believes that many theologians are actually atheists who just keep doing it because it's all they know to do. Call-ins to Matt's show often consist of christians who wish to outline a complex theological argument but who just cannot propose premises which don't clash with reality. Dan Barker is in contact with many priests and theologians who have confirmed Dillahunty's speculation in letters. Peter Ellerton, philosophy teacher and all-round smart guy is of the opinion that theology is not even philosophy, and he outlines this in the Australian Book Of Atheism, recently published by Warren Bonnett of Embiggen Books. Buy one. Really. These are all arguments from authority, sure, but they all have sound reasons to dismiss "sophisticated" theology.

And I have to say I agree. Theology, in my opinion, is the study of rationalising away objections to a premise with the express intent of not abandoning that premise, no matter how poorly supported. It is the opposite of philosophy, and by far the opposite of honest inquiry.

Science, for example, a mode of inquiry with a rich philosophical framework and healthy culture of debate, discards hypotheses and premises to which too many objections exist. Theology puts the cart before the horse by retaining the hypothesis and instead attempting to remove, or magic away, the objections.

And to my mind, that makes it an utter failure as a mode of inquiry.

It is "ahwellyouseeology" and there's no two ways about that.

We need more Ogs and fewer Clugs. Please, make this happen.


p.s. If you are christian, think twice before you reflexively post an "ah, well, you see..." argument in response. You may just be confirming my hypothesis.

posted @ Friday, December 3, 2010 12:02 AM


Comments on this entry:

# re: The Birth Of Theology

Left by David Ould at 12/3/2010 1:59 PM
well, there's another knock-down argument - particularly because in your vast objective engagement with religious claims you're aware that there's not one single historical claim amongst the lot of them. They're really all just a bunch of blokes sitting around making stuff up. And then, every so often, a bunch of them think that the stuff they've made up is actually worth dying for.

I'm sure the choir are, again, applauding. Bravo sir, you've knocked it out of the park. Let us all know when you want to play for real.

# re: The Birth Of Theology

Left by Chris at 12/4/2010 1:45 AM
Largely a correct analysis of the phenomenon of religion. It's actually fascinating to study history and see how different theological views developed from an original problem using this method of "ahwellyouseeology."

# Prehistoric religion was much more down-to-earth

Left by Ben Finney at 12/4/2010 5:12 PM
You're right that it sounds ridiculous for prehistoric humans to come up with ideas like Clug's. Clug's life would have been rather too busy to dream up uselessly complex concepts like that.

Rather, the history of religion strongly supports the idea that religious ideas were never more complex than needed to satisfy the questions being asked at the time.

Hence, the pantheon is modelled closely after the human societies that invent it, at the time when they invent it.

The evidence suggests prehistoric humans had much more down-to-earth beliefs; not omnipotent sky-fathers, but animistic spirits of animals and natural forces. Just enough to come up with quick post-hoc rationalisations for why those forces behave as they did.

There doesn't seem to be any evidence that the concept of all-powerful rulers in heaven was dreamed up any time before settled civilisations. It was only at that point that such a concept becomes useful, to men who decided they wanted all-powerful ruler status on earth and used religious beliefs to leverage authority for themselves.

# re: The Birth Of Theology

Left by Lad Litter at 12/7/2010 3:36 PM
Excellent blog, this one.

Your thoughtful post reminded me of a scene from Bedazzled (1968): Peter Cook is the Devil and Dudley Moore asks how he got kicked out of heaven. Cook tells him to pretend Cook is God and please dance around him and heap praise and worship. Moore complies but after a while tells Cook "Ere, I'm getting a bit tired of this, how about we change places?" "Now you see...." Cook replies.

# re: The Birth Of Theology

Left by Jason at 12/8/2010 5:28 PM

two things

1: akismet hates your comments, and always sees them as spam. You might want to perhaps use a different email address

2: You seem to have a major boner for "historical claims" yet never cite one. The only "historical claims" I'm aware of tend to either fall down for lack of evidence or are presented in a manner that makes it impossible to distinguish them from fiction. Please feel free to enlighten us as to any claims you have which are actually, you know, corroborated by some evidence. And relevant.

# re: The Birth Of Theology

Left by Ric at 1/22/2011 12:36 PM
I kind of like an idea I once had. It is possible that our ape ancestors were started down the evolutionary track towards the Homo species by getting pushed out of the jungle and into the plains (nothing new so far). In the plains there is less food but there is every now and then mushrooms and especially the magic variety. This could explain a few things about how we evolved and would explain a bit about how we became stupid enough to invent a god. (See John Marco Allegro's "The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross)

# re: The Birth Of Theology

Left by jo5ef at 1/28/2011 4:28 PM
Found link through mediawatch. While i admit that Ben Finney has a very valid point, i reckon this is pretty damn funny, a good piece of writing.
Well done
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