Snoring through Theology


I have studied lots of theologies: Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu. I have dabble in others including Islam, Shinto and Taoist. And over the years I have come to see theology as stories; stories to help a believer accomplish something like: reinforce moral systems, secure tribal bonds, offer comfort for loss and suffering, explain away troubling uncertainty and more. More nefariously, theology can also used by religious professionals to secure their status and money-making ability. See my diagram to the right which illustrates all the modules that “God” fulfills for people (see the related post).


So when I listen to religious folks theologizing, I simultaneously search to understand how their systems translate into methods to secure these essential human goals. I don’t believe their stories, but I think their narratives (even if wrong or delusional) can serve concrete, practical functions for them.

But we can talk about all these common shared human desires without using parochial theological chatter. Theology only adds an unnecessary layer of abstraction. In my previous post, I called this a “theology knot”. Pic to the left.

Theology_KnotSo when I question people about their theology, I am looking for these basic human functions or obvious inconsistencies or both. But I am often not as patient as I’d like to be.   For after too much god-talk, I inevitably tire.

I actually find theology aesthetically unappealing — mainly because I think it is boring hogwash.  It is not that I mind fiction, but this stuff is usual ridiculous.  I try to remind myself that it somehow serves important functions for the person I am listening to but sometimes the person I am discussing theology with mistakenly feels I am actually deeply interested in the details.  They forget that I have absolutely no belief in spooks, spirits, demons, saints or gods.   It is at times like those, when I have burned out my god-talk neurons, that if the conversation gets carried away, all I hear is “Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah ….”.

In my next post, I will put up the question, “Why is Theology so Hard?”.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

20 responses to “Snoring through Theology

  1. Still tracking with you, Sabio. In those conversations I’m always looking for the metanarrative to get to the heart of what someone is really saying (or not saying) when they talk about their beliefs. Why is it so hard for them to just admit it works for them and/or makes them feel good? I’m actually mostly ok with that. If it’s more than that, then tell me why it’s vital that I change my belief (or lack thereof). If I’m wrong, I want to know it, especially if it means eternal damnation. So far the evidence is wholly unconvincing.

  2. I appreciate your perspective here. It is essentially the set of views that I was raised with, and it came very naturally to me. It is my own ‘common sense’ that I came to question. I agree that religion can, and does, do these various things. But why do you feel convinced that this is all that it does, or even the core of what it does? Specifically, why do you think it is distinct from the search for truth?

    I have become suspicious of what look like unjustifiable, reductionist tendencies here. IE: I have this set of things that I think religion does, so I conclude that these things are what it is really all about. Nothing more to say. I think this kind of reductionist tendency is generally used to give a false sense of security, allow people to find a tribe to belong to, feel a sense of hope, and wave a banner. (And that is ok, and doesn’t mean it is all that is going on. But it makes me suspicious) Ultimately, I think this kind of reductionism can only rationalize (in the psychological sense) an unfortunate reality that should not be rationalized: that is that an infinite regress of good questions, and at some point we simply have to choose some priors and proceed from them.Recognizing this (and I see that you did a post on it), doesn’t it seem to be a bad faith move to pretend that you have good reasons for your priors? You may not believe in ghosts, but I don’t believe in rational priors. While ghosts might be debatable, I can’t conceive of a way in which someone actually has rationally grounded priors. For the most part, academic philosophy has moved on from the foundationalist dreams of the Enlightenment (without abandoning rationalism), but this post seems to be stuck in the past.

  3. *that is that an infinite regress of good questions is raised by any topic,…

  4. I feel the same in a lot of ways. Over my years of discussing and debating religion, my realization of the infantile level of intellectual depth has left me uninterested in the discussion these days. I have just come to the thought that I would rather spend my time not discussing such an obviously false topic. Yeah, I do occasionally get a little fire and debate from time to time, but certainly not as often as I used to.

  5. @ Dan Heck

    (1) “why do you fell convinced that this is all that [religion] does”? I never said that. It can do much more.

    (2) I don’t think there is a core of religion — see my definition. We need definitions to talk on that.

    (3) “Search for truth” is one of the most abuse phrases in the religious world.
    I think searching for knowledge is valuable. I would like to know more about the causes of cancer and how to get cheaper energy.

    (4) I won’t get into “priors” with you except on concrete issues — not conversations based on abstractions. I find the topic of priors in the abstract boring. I also don’t believe people have rational priors for many things, including morals. But I don’t want to get into that conversation here.

  6. @ michael2232
    Well stated. In India I had fun debating Hindu theology for the first year — already by the second, I was bored. In Japan & China I had a couple Buddhist sects try to convince me of the contrary theologies. I loved learning all the nuances at first. But then I like learning new games too. But I look at them like games — human contrivances. But games get boring. I no longer like Tic-Tac-Toe, for instance.

  7. Cool, I was hoping to get into a concrete prior. To keep it secular and (I think, actually plausible), let’s talk about the simulation hypothesis of Nick Bostrom.

    If the simulation hypothesis is plausible, I think it becomes hard to dismiss much of anything as “hogwash.” Do you accept this as plausible, dismiss it as implausible, or take some other position on it?

  8. Sorry, Dan, I may not be the guy for you and this may not be a site you’ll enjoy. You are doing a lawyer thing of trying to lead me to your prepared conversation. And I am not interested. I guess I am not intellectual enough. I don’t want to do long conversations — especially ones that I don’t think will lead anywhere.
    Sorry. Keep it simple and direct and focused on the OP or I’ll probably bow out. Others may engage you though.

  9. What am I trying to lead you into? Honestly, I think you have a lot of inaccurate intuitions about what I am doing. And these probably have something to do with infrahumanization. For some reason, it seems that you can’t conceive of me as someone who is curious and interested in playful, creative, analytic exploration. I have no idea where this would lead, and I genuinely hope to be challenged or shown a new perspective on things. At any rate, if you perceive all of my efforts to engage in good faith to be secret ploys and clever programs that I am running, you’re right…it isn’t really possible to have a playful, creative, analytical, exploratory conversation. If that is the case, though, I would recommend that you change your branding.

  10. Interesting attack, “Engage as I say, or you are a hypocrite.”
    Your last comment hasn’t felt “playful” at all. Good night, Dan.

  11. Fair enough. It wasn’t playful. I was seriously disappointed, and was expressing that. When I first looked at your blog, I thought you would be lots of fun to talk to, and that I could learn interesting things from you and find some interesting perspectives. I was an avowed atheist for a while, and I still have a lot of respect for the reasons that people adopt that identity and worldview. I think it is perfectly defensible, and want to better understand how people defend it. At any rate, I still think that I might learn something interesting from you someday 🙂 I’m very sorry if I have antagonized you. That was certainly never my intent. Sleep well.

  12. “Recent research has investigated how infrahumanisation influences behaviour. In a series of studies Jeroen Vaes and his colleagues investigated people’s reactions to outgroup members who attempt to ‘humanise’ themselves through the use of uniquely human emotions. They found that ingroup members reacted negatively to outgroup members’ attempts to humanise, offering less help and withdrawing faster than when the same uniquely human emotion was expressed by an ingroup member or when the outgroup member expressed a non-uniquely human emotion. ”

  13. @Dan, Sabio *is* fun to talk to I think you’ll generally find him to be one of the most cordial, accommodating and people out there. More specifically, he’s one of the most understanding atheists I know when it comes to the topic of religion and I’m proud to say I model much of my dialogue with believers after his style. If you’re implying that he is engaging in some sort of infrahumanisation by discussing his views on other religions – or religion in general – then you need to look around his blog a little more. Honestly. I’d also suggest taking a look at his rules and guidelines for the blog. He does a great job laying everything out.

    And for what it’s worth, as for atheism being an identity, I think you’ll find Sabio has a lot to say on that topic as well.

    Sorry for hijacking the thread, Sabio. I’m out.

  14. Feel free to fix the typos. Created this on my phone.

  15. @ MichaelB

    Thanks, and I agree that in the context of the rest of the blog, Sabio genuinely wants to respect religious people. He also seems intelligent, open-minded, genuinely curious, and interested in the world around him. In this particular instance, though, I think there are specific examples of him falling into standard patterns of infrahumanization. That is understandable, if that is what is happening. As he often says about these sorts of psychological issues, ‘We all do it.” In this particular case, I believe he began to predictably and irrationally misattribute motives to me once he categorized me as an ‘out-group’ member. The initial line of questions was fun, and my intuition was that he was trying to classify me as either ‘in’ or ‘out’. It was a bit ambiguous for a while, but once I was clearly classified as ‘out,’ by perception is that the infrahumanization began. Now, it wasn’t totally clear-cut: I think you can see him warring with himself, being understanding and kind one moment, but then refusing to attribute uniquely human motivations and emotions to me the next. I couldn’t actually be curious…I had to be using a tactic. I couldn’t actually be expressing disappointment and sadness…I had to be attacking. Although I’m disappointed, I really do understand, if that is what is happening. As he often says, we all do it. It is difficult not to.

  16. Thanx MichaelB:
    One skill in dialogue is learning how to avoid manipulations (conscious or not) of others and to stay focused and prioritizing our goals. And part of that skill is unfortunately learning what to ignore. Thinking about dealing with manipulation inspired another post I am writing now.

    Meanwhile, I put up the post we discussed during the Deceptive Knots post — where you wanted to discuss why a god wouldn’t make everything less complicated, hidden and contrary. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

  17. @Dan, I don’t see him doing that at all – not in the comments and certainly not in the OP where he expresses a goal of seeking to understand people better – but maybe I’m just seeing him from the same in-group, right? Or perhaps you’re the one engaging in the infrahumanization and just can’t see it?

    On a personal side-note, the only time I ever engaged in rampant or overt infrahumanization was as a believer. Everything was us versus them. In the world but not of it, and all that. Now, as an atheist, I’m more inclusive and understanding than I’ve ever been. I can’t speak for Sabio because I only know him from here, but I suspect the same is true of him.

  18. @Sabio, I launched my first volley over there.Thanks for creating it.

  19. @ MichaelB

    I totally agree that religious people frequently engage in infrahumanization. And this can naturally lead to spiraling versions of it: when you have been treated by less than human by a person, it is tempting and easy to respond in the same way. We can temper this tendency, but it is hard work.

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