A few days ago, I posted the following statement in a tweet:
“When atheists make claims about God’s non-existence, they are making theological statements. So when they categorically disparage theology — as so many do — they also inadvertently disparage their own theological opinions. That’s called cutting off the branch you’re sitting on.”
The essence of my point is summarized in four words: Atheism is a theology.
Judging by the response that the tweet received, it would seem that many atheists didn’t like hearing that they have a theology. And so I added a footnote:
“I keep getting pushback from atheists who insist that denying God’s existence is not a theological position. That’s like saying ‘There is no such thing as good or evil’ is not a metaethical position or that saying ‘Nobody knows anything’ is not an epistemological position.”
I’m now going to recount a couple of exchanges with atheists who were indignant at being told that they have a theology. The first is a lady named Mareile:
Mareile: Doesn’t theology mean “the study of god”?
Randal: That’s the literal etymology (also “words about God”). A claim that God does not exist (as well as the supplemental evidence provided to support the claim) pertains to that field of discourse.
Mareile: Hard to study something that doesn’t exist, I would think.
Randal: Think carefully: the implication of your statement is that theology doesn’t exist at all. Perhaps you’d like to reformulate your thoughts?
Judging by her response to that last tweet, I don’t think that Mareile grasped the point. Perhaps you missed it as well, so let me unpack it. If one’s response to the point that “God does not exist” is that theological statements cannot exist if God doesn’t exist, then it follows that there is no theology at all if God doesn’t exist. Of course, that’s absurd.
Admittedly, it’s also possible that Mareile was simply making an irrelevant point — a non sequitur. But I was trying to be charitable by assuming that her statement was somehow intended as a rebuttal to the point that “God does not exist” is a theological statement.
Next up, Counter Apologist:
Counter Apologist: Is saying unicorns don’t exist making a unicornology statement? Or is unicornology a field that does not exist if unicorns do not exist? Are there then any (infinite?) number of possible fields of study for entities that don’t exist?
Randal: The only place that “unicornology” is a field is in Richard Dawkins’ imagination… Should we also deny that history, philosophy, and literature are fields of discourse by invoking “unicornology”? Good grief…
Counter Apologist: The point is that making a statement about the existence or non-existence of a thing does not mean that thing has a field of study about it. I could disparage unicornology all I wanted without invalidating the statement that “unicorns don’t exist”.
Randal: Um, I never made the claim that “making a statement about the existence or non-existence of a thing means that thing has a field of study about it.”
Counter Apologist: Ah ok, so it only matters if there is a made up field of study already? So if I demean astrology does that similarly undermine my statements that astrology is false? Or maybe it could be the statement that “astrology is false” could be construed as another kind of statement.
Randal: “so it only matters…” *What* only matters?
Counter Apologist: You said that disparaging theology undermines the statement “god doesn’t exist” because that statement is a theological one.
Randal: So you really don’t understand what I’ve said here? Frankly, your responses are mystifying. Do you not understand that saying “There is no knowledge” is an epistemological statement and that “There is no God” is a *theological* statement?
Counter Apologist: You may construe “there is no god” as a theological statement, but it is also a philosophical or metaphysical statement. One can disparage theology without undermining the statement in a way that is not analogous to saying “there is no knowledge”.
Randal: Yes, it’s a theological, metaphysical, and philosophical statement. (Metaphysics is a field of philosophy and theology and philosophy overlap.) So atheists who disparage theology simpliciter are foolish since, by definition, *they’re in the field*. You really don’t get that?
Counter Apologist: Atheists would say theology is a field studying a fictional entity. The previous tweet I made about astrology is directly analogous. Am I undermining my statement that astrology is false because “astrology is false” is an astrological statement?
Randal: “Astrology is false” means that a particular theory of how planetary orbits affect human beings is false. “Theology is false” doesn’t mean anything since “theology” isn’t a theory. *Theism is*. If you say “Theism is false” *you’re doing theology*.
Counter Apologist: No, the atheist would say they’re doing philosophy; not theology because they’re not studying something that doesn’t exist. As a non-believer in astronomy do my disparagement of astronomers take away from my statements that mercury being in retrograde will not affect my mood?
Randal: Please don’t say “the atheist would say”. That’s what *you* say. Now you’re playing semantic games. When a theist says “If God exists, God is omnipotent” it’s a theological statement but when the atheist says it, it’s a philosophical statement? What about the agnostic?
Counter Apologist: Fairology used to be taken seriously, it *was a field*. If I disparage the field do I undermine my statement that fairies don’t exist because I’m making a fairological statement?
Randal: Oh dear, I didn’t realize you were still stuck in Richard Dawkins’ garden. Disappointing.
Yes, I was sad to see that Counter Apologist ended with a new atheist talking point. But then, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised since he also began with a new atheist talking point (i.e. unicorns).
So to conclude, yes indeed, atheism is a theology. Theology is not theism, i.e. a particular theory of ultimate reality (as Counter Apologist seemed to think with his misbegotten astrology analogy). Rather, it is a field of inquiry into ultimate reality that welcomes all and sundry: theists, pantheists, agnostics, and atheists.
Well, maybe not all. Ignosticism is a position that this inquiry is nonsensical or hopelessly confused: in short, ignosticism is a vestige of logical positivism, kind of like those folks who still play records (except that records have some redeeming value in the warm tones of the sound, the nostalgic crackle of the needle, and the big album covers and luxuriant liner notes; ignosticism has no such redeeming values).
Oh, and there’s also apatheism, the position that the whole inquiry is not worth pursuing or forming an opinion on. But if an apatheist believes that God doesn’t exist, they still have a theological opinion, even if they believe it isn’t particularly important.
So one more time and in unison: atheism is a theology.