The Chronicle Review

The Ethics of Being a Theologian

Jon Krause for the Chronicle Review

July 27, 2009

"Do you find, as an atheist, that you have difficulty defending religious beliefs to your students?" The question came from a professor of metaphysics whose views of reality, I had just confessed to him, strike me as self-evidently false. Perhaps I should have been more tactful. Nevertheless, his question took me by surprise.

This intelligent man had just made two false assumptions. Without sufficient evidence, he assumed that I am an atheist (for the record, I am theistic off the job and professionally agnostic) and that a professor of religion is an apologist for religious beliefs.

"We study religion, we don't practice it," I told him. This is what I usually say. Sometimes I try to be more gentle: "The study of religion is the study of people, and the gods are interesting to us only insofar as they shed light on the people who conceptualize them."

My encounter with that professor reflects a problem endemic to academe. Most people do not understand what religious study really is. Professors of religion are often confused with, or assumed to be allies of, professors of theology. The reason for the confusion is no secret. All too often, even at public universities, the religion department is peopled by theologians, and many of those theologians refuse to make the distinction that I am about to make.

In my view, the purpose of academe is to advance knowledge, or an understanding of how things are in the real world. I do not accept the trendy postmodern notion that we are incapable of achieving that kind of knowledge. Our colleagues in the natural sciences have an advantage over us, in that they are able to wrestle with reality using research tools unavailable to the humanities or social sciences. Nevertheless, when unencumbered by overtly ideological agendas, even those of us in the humanities and social sciences can advance knowledge.

Religious study attempts to advance knowledge by advancing our understanding about why and how humans are religious, what religion actually does, and how religion has evolved historically. (The latter is my subdiscipline.) Of course, each religion provides its own explanation about why and how the religion exists, but their answers to these questions depend on truth-claims advanced by the religion itself.

Our research is necessary because religion does not do what apologists for religion usually say it does. It does not reveal a god to us or enable us to achieve something referred to vaguely as enlightenment. One does not need to be an atheist to realize that each claim of divine revelation exists for some purpose not stated (or, in some cases, not even known) by the one who claims the revelation. A religious truth-claim can be advanced for any number of reasons. It might be a cynical political ploy or a sincere interpretation of genuine experiences that neurobiologists can help us to understand. Likewise, one need not affirm atheism to understand that sacred traditions, like any combination of cultural artifacts and human ideas, survive and replicate for reasons that have little to do with the truth-claims associated with those traditions.

Theology also views itself as an academic discipline, but it does not attempt to advance knowledge. Rather, theologians practice and defend religion. Theology is a set of words about a god; therefore, while theology is one of many objects of investigation for a religion researcher, it is the substance of the scholarship produced by a theologian.

There is nothing wrong with the practice and defense of religion, but it is not the study of religion. The best theologians are scholars who have immersed themselves in many of the same academic disciplines favored by religion researchers. Like good religion research, good theology is generated by the application of sound reasoning to empirical evidence. But there is a crucial difference. The religion researcher evaluates that evidence from within a tradition of secular, academic "wisdom." The theologian evaluates the same evidence from within a tradition of sacred, esoteric "wisdom." The distinction is not trivial and ought to be recognized and honored by religion researchers and theologians alike.

To clarify the difference between religious study and theology, consider the topic of religious ritual. From the viewpoint of religious study, a religious ritual is a ritual precisely because it is human behavior that accomplishes nothing except the construction of concepts about its own legitimacy. For example, Christians consume a wafer and wine (or some similar elements) "in remembrance of Christ," but they have debated for two thousand years about what this action accomplishes. Does it "deify" the Christian? Is it a "visible word" from the Christian god? Or is it a divine promise, a symbolic action, a signifier of membership in the group of believers, or simply ritual obedience to a divine command? The construction of concepts defending the action's legitimacy are legion, go in and out of favor, and frequently remain unknown to—or misunderstood by—most of the participants.

Since rituals do not accomplish what the religion says they do, the researcher evaluates them on the basis of what they actually accomplish, even when the doctrines do not acknowledge those accomplishments. At the most simple level of evaluation, rituals create a sense of community, maintain identity boundaries, and defeat inclinations to pursue heterodox behaviors. Experts in the study of ritual have developed more-complex theories, but from the viewpoint of a theologian, all such observations, no matter how well defended by data and argument, are dismissed as reductionistic. For theologians, the ritual's raison d'être is defined by its associated doctrines, or the alleged revelation or foundational myth upon which it appears to rest. In many cases, the ritual is defended as behavior that accomplishes genuine changes in the participant.

In other words, the theologian maintains that there exists an irreducible element in religious ritual that we religion researchers cannot hope to comprehend. I expect every theologian to believe this and will never argue with theologians about it. It is not my place to tell religious people how to be religious, and theologians are within their rights to insist on their ideas about their own religions. However, our disagreement clarifies the difference between theology and religious study. Whereas the theologian advances ideas about the religious value of ritual, religious study attempts to advance knowledge about ritual. Moreover, research suggests that most religious participants either do not know or do not care about the theologian's ideas concerning the ritual's significance. They are content to construct their own ideas about ritual, which reveals an irony many theologians fail to comprehend: Not only are the theologian's ideas about ritual irrelevant to the religion researcher, they are irrelevant to most religious people.

In sum, the religion researcher is related to the theologian as the biologist is related to the frog in her lab. Theologians try to invigorate their own religion, perpetuate it, expound it, defend it, or explain its relationship to other religions. Religion researchers select sample religions, slice them open, and poke around inside, which tends to "kill" the religion, or at least to kill the romantic or magical aspects of the religion and focus instead on how that religion actually works.

Little wonder that many academics—and Richard Dawkins is merely the most vocal among them—dismiss the discipline of theology as "talk about nothing." A number of theologians have taken issue with Dawkins, but all of them seem to miss his central point, which is that talk about a god is, necessarily, talk that never advances knowledge. Regardless of one's opinion of him, Dawkins has done academe a great service by providing a quick way to identify a theologian in our midst. If you are uncertain with whom you are speaking, just inject the name of Richard Dawkins into the conversation. The theologian will be dismissive of him; the religion researcher will not.

Recently I met a man who identified himself as a religion professor from a university with which I was not familiar. While making chitchat, I asked him what he was researching. He said, "I am investigating the recent rise and fall of atheism." That intrigued me. "What evidence do you have for a recent surge in atheism and its collapse?" He responded like a theologian. His evidence for the surge of atheism was a list of books by atheists, most prominently those of Dawkins. Published responses to Dawkins by several theologians seemed, to this scholar, to represent evidence for atheism's collapse. Apparently he had not even considered checking demographic research, such as trends in religious self-identification, nor had he formulated his own research method for demonstrating the alleged "rise and fall of atheism."

The distinction that I have drawn between theology and religious study is not merely academic but ethical. In my view, the presence of a discipline within academe that does not attempt to advance knowledge but tries to defend a set of truth-claims for which empirical data are, by definition, unavailable requires of theologians greater ethical responsibility than most of us in academe already acknowledge. Academic theologians' pronouncements give the public a false sense that theology represents an advance in human knowledge. Recent embarrassments, like the rising influence of intelligent-design "science," demonstrate that claims made by theologians have consequences. Theologians must take a hard look in the mirror and ask if they can live with those consequences.

Theologians' failure to meet their ethical obligations is particularly significant with respect to the Bible and other sacred writings. The field of biblical studies includes a great many religion researchers but remains dominated by theologians whose pronouncements about the Bible routinely lead the less informed astray. Not infrequently, theological concepts are packaged as the conclusions of historical research. The problem is not merely that biblical characters like Moses or Jesus are presented to the public as figures of history on the slimmest of evidence, but, more insidiously, that biblical claims about human obligation to a god are presented as though they are supported by some kind of evidence.

Theologians who do not think of themselves as unethical nevertheless sell their pew-sitting laity a bill of goods. The failure of theologians to remind the members of their churches and synagogues that the Bible is an anthology of ancient literature composed by ancient people in an ancient culture has consequences. The laity are entitled to know that any god described in a biblical text is an ancient god, a byproduct of the ancient culture that produced the text. The god of the Bible is the sum total of the words in the text and has no independent existence. It would be reasonable to begin every theological discussion with the disclaimer "the god described in this sacred text is fictional, and any resemblance to an actual god is purely coincidental." This is not an outsider's dismissive opinion, but the reality, and theologians have an ethical obligation to teach that truth even if they also want to believe and teach, as is their right, that a god exists.

Am I trying to imply that theology is without value? Certainly not. I do not presume to tell theologians how to be theologians, and I will not attempt to define the value of theology. I simply request that theologians fulfill basic ethical obligations, such as the affirmation that theology is not knowledge and must position itself apart from those academic disciplines that try to advance knowledge, such as history, anthropology, religious study, and (perhaps especially) the natural sciences.

I now realize how I should have answered the philosopher who asked whether I had trouble defending religion to my students: "I explain complex religious doctrines to undergraduates every time I enter a classroom, and I've never had difficulty doing so. But I tell my students that my role is to explain and evaluate, never defend, religious belief and practice."

K.L. Noll is an associate professor of religion and chair of the religion department at Brandon University, in Manitoba. He is the author of a popular textbook for undergraduates, Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: An Introduction (Sheffield Academic Press, 2001).