Reader Opinion: Let’s Study Science Before Theology

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As a scientific world view, humanism is a post-theistic philosophy. For a secular humanist, to study theology is like an astronomer studying astrology, or like a chemist studying alchemy. Neither is needed to be an astronomer or a chemist, and most astronomers and chemists would consider studying them a waste of time. The same can be said about theology for humanists and atheists, since many humanists don’t believe in an intervening god.

If humanists need to study theology, it could perhaps be at a school of atheology―which would approach theology and theism critically and objectively as a mistaken theory. Perhaps we need to found a school of humanism, otherwise known as a good secular university. Whatever we do, let’s not study humanism and theology at a school that offers degrees in divinity and approaches theology as a possible true theory of the universe.

As humanists, I say we do not have a theology. We are not theists. We do not have a faith tradition.  While some see their humanism in religious terms, humanism is not itself a religion.

It may be very well for Unitarian Universalists, a large minority of whom are humanists as well, to study humanism at institutions such as the Meadville Lombard Theological School. I applaud them for doing so, and their theological school should offer courses and workshops on humanism and invite humanists to speak to them so they can be better UUs. But we humanists, nontheists, non-religious, and non-faith based, do not need to go to a divinity school to learn about humanism.

Why have humans conceived of, invented, believed in, and worshiped god(s)? To understand this phenomenon, we need to study human nature. This can best be studied via anthropology, sociology, psychology, etc.―i.e., science.  We can research and seek a theory to explain theophilia and theotropism.  Why are some humans attracted to gods, and some, like humanists, are not? A relatively new field, the cognitive science of religion (CSR), is where science-based humanists should look for explanations and understanding of theism and the gods that humans have invented.

It is my view that humanists would be better off studying the cognitive science of religion. The Psychologist, published by the British Psychological Society, released an article defining CSR as

a scientific approach to the study of religion that combines methods and theory from cognitive, developmental and evolutionary psychology with the sorts of questions that animate anthropologists and historians of religion. Specifically, CSR explores causal explanations of religious phenomena (thoughts, ideas, practices and experiences) across peoples and populations. It asks ‘How does ordinary human psychology inform and constrain religious expression?’

Thomas Paine said it best in The Age of Reason:

The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion. Not anything can be studied as a science, without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing.

I’m not suggesting that humanists shouldn’t study religion, theism, or the history of gods at all, but that we shouldn’t go to the practitioners and proponents of these ideas to get a fair and objective view or lesson about them. Especially when we already agree that those positions or claims are wrong. A theological school likely won’t give us an objective, critical lesson about theology, much less humanism.

I look forward to the day when we humanists can have our own educational institution, our own school of humanism to train our celebrants, our leaders, our members, or anyone, in the philosophy of humanism, applied humanism, and our long yet often obscured history. A school where a course in the history of atheism, humanism, and freethought is offered with a focus on our predecessors, our heroes, our champions, and their achievements and victories over our historic and contemporary theistic opponents and oppressors. A school where CSR is used to explain why so many were so wrong, about so much, and for so long, due to now debunked theories of theism. A school where theism is deconstructed as a mistaken theory, a pre-scientific and failed effort to satisfy emotional needs and the human curiosity to explain the world.

I hope this article will prompt discussions about how humanists can work toward that day.