“a professorship of Theology should have no place in our institution”
– Thomas Jefferson
Oftentimes when debating the religious, I encounter complaints like “Who might you be to criticize religion? You are not a theologian! What gives you the right or the ability to criticize a field you are not qualified in?”
It is sentiments like this that raise questions about whether or not religion is even a real field of expertise to begin with.
One of the things that make religion so strange is the claim that religious assertions cannot be tested or subjected to logical fact checking. This, religious apologists claim, is because religion is somehow “beyond” the reach of reason and evidence (as if this somehow elevates rather than denigrates it). “Well” I often answer “In that case, how can any person make any religious truth claims in the first place?” Furthermore, if these claims depend on faith rather than on reason and evidence, then they cannot in any way be objective truth claims, much less huge physical objective truth claims about the origin, nature, and purpose of the universe. One cannot keep eating one’s cake while continuously claiming to still have it too.
It should not go unnoticed that there is an ironic situation where religion seems to be granted the freedom to interject into scientific matters, and yet, science is accused of not being up to the task of “returning the favor”. It makes me cringe to see how debate panels on important issues like embryonic stem cell research pin some of our most prominent scientific researchers against people who believe in the literal existence of the iron aged tribal Middle Eastern deity Yahweh, and who’s only credentials are that they have studied about, and made a living of, propagating ancient superstitions into the modern world – as if these two groups are somehow on an equal level. I can only imagine how humiliating it must be for scientific giants like Steven Hawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Jerry Coyne, Steven Weinberg, and the late Carl Sagan to have to explain themselves and justify their hard earned scientific discoveries to people who believe in the divinity of a magic book that begins with a story about a talking snake. How frustrating must it be for a medical scientist who dedicates his/her life to helping people and curing illnesses, to spend decades on scientific research, to be subjected to scrutiny and pier review, and to finally emerge with a proven scientific theory that can make accurate explanations, predictions, and cures; only to face further criticism from people who proudly make untestable, unprovable, and unfalsifiable faith based assertions that some ancient deity is displeased with their science. To think that scientific geniuses have to be criticized by people who blissfully claim they do not need to adhere to reason and evidence because everything they could ever need to know has already been revealed to iron aged tribesmen in middle eastern deserts. To add further insult to injury, in the most ironic way imaginable, religious apologists will often claim that scientists are arrogant and closed minded. I myself would sooner ask a gardener about ancient geology than consult a religious cleric on matters of science.
To be clear, i am not claiming that scientists are above reproach when it comes to ethical maters, or that no one outside of the scientific field in question can criticize it. But for criticism to be given, it must be intelligible, and it must be based on reason and evidence. Thomas Jefferson said it best in his response to the theologian Francis Adrian Van der Kemp: “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them”. If religious truth claims about the universe are indeed not subject to reason and evidence, then they are not subject to sense itself and can safely be called nonsense. I consider it an honer to follow Jefferson’s wise words and ridicule the ridiculous.
It is important to remember that there is absolutely nothing that makes Yahweh any more logical or probable than Zeus or Amun-Ra, and no reason or evidence have ever been produced to indicate otherwise. Therefore, just as one does not need to be an expert in Greek and Egyptian mythology in order to refute the existence of these deities, no theological expertise is required to refute Yahweh’s existence either. Just as i do not need to be a certified wizard in order to claim that witchcraft is nonsense, i do not need to be an ordained religious cleric in order to claim that religion is nonsense too. If both religion and witchcraft are based on an equal amount of reason and evidence (or lack thereof), then they should be treated equally.
Next time you are confronted by the assertion that you are not qualified to criticize religion, kindly point out that in the complete absence of reason, evidence, and logical fact checking, there is no such thing as religious qualifications. If no reason or evidence were provided to support religious claims in the first place, then none need be given in order to criticize and dismiss them. As Christopher Hitchens famously said: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence”.