Theology: A Skeptical Primer

An excerpt from the online hypertext Human Knowledge: Foundations and Limits.

Theology: the study of universal being and knowing.

God is supernatural agency or unity, often considered necessary, perfect, timeless, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent, and personal. A deity is a supernatural person, usually considered immortal, that demands or deserves human worship or reverence and that wields supernatural influence over human affairs.Divinity is the property of being supernatural and sacred. Sacredness is the property of being worthy of reverence or worship.

Humans have no credible evidence or convincing proof of any deities, including a God, Creator, First Cause, Perfect or Necessary Being.

Humans have proposed philosophical proofs of God as an alternative or supplement to historical revelation of God's existence.

None of the proofs of God is generally accepted as convincing, due to various counter-arguments. Many humans claim to have evidence of revelation from their god(s). Any god could trivially inscribe or authenticate its revealed message through supernatural patterns (in cosmological or quantum phenomena) or ongoing miracles (such as prophecy or communication with a spirit world). There is no credible evidence that any such revelation has been competently attempted by any god(s).
Most humans believe that some form of reincarnation or immortality awaits them after death. Humans have no credible evidence of reincarnation or any kind of afterlife.
Faith is belief based on revelation and exempt from doubt. Skepticism involves zero faith because it holds not even a single belief that is based on revelation and exempt from doubt.  Skepticism holds that truth is not simply revealed but instead must always be subject to doubt, demonstration, and rederivation.  This belief about truth is itself neither revealed nor exempt from doubt, but is instead subject to continual test.

It is possible (but unlikely) that this epistemological belief could one day stop yielding satisfactory results.  For example, if God appeared and started violating physical laws, predicting the future, punishing infidels, and rewarding believers, then faith would suddenly be more satisfactory than skepticism. Until such a development, skepticism continues to be more satisfactory than faith.

Faith is not simply an absence of doubt, because tautologies are beyond doubt and yet are recognized not revealed.  Faith is not simply any confident reliance on authority, because an authority can be relied upon even confidently without being held exempt from all doubt. Faith is not simply any provisional hypothesis believed without complete evidence, because a proposition can be provisionally believed without being held exempt from all doubt.  Faith is not simply any affirmation of values, because to affirm a value is not to posit a proposition but to make a valuation. Faith is belief based on revelation and exempt from doubt.  Fideists often say skeptics too have "faith" in science or reason, but this corrupts the definition of 'faith'.  Faith must be embarrassing if its only defense is the claim that everybody is guilty of it.

Origin of faith.  Humans' propensity for faith derives perhaps from their dependence on teaching by parents and society. In the absence of a biological mechanism for offspring to inherit knowledge directly, a predisposition for unquestioning belief in authority might help spare each generation from having to rediscover or verify everything.

Mysticism is belief base on private and direct experience of ultimate reality.  Mysticism holds that belief can be justified simply by the intensity or directness of an experience, and without a showing that the experience has any objective basis or consequences.

Rejecting objectivity and the distinction between the experiencer and the experienced, mysticism thus mistakes feeling for knowing. Mystics are forever free to claim that anyone who doesn't feel what they feel is somehow "doing it wrong". The conclusions of mysticism are usually unfalsifiable or inconsequential and thus propositionally meaningless.

Some mystics compare meditation to advanced mathematics and claim that both yield conclusions that can only be verified by adept practitioners. This claim is misleading. It is true that creating and even comprehending advanced mathematical conclusions usually requires specialized training. But all mathematical demonstration is by definition subject to verification through mechanical symbol manipulation. This symbol manipulation is not necessarily private or "interior" like the experience of a mystic, but is expressly public and exterior.

Origin of mysticism.  Humans' propensity for mysticism derives perhaps from their nature as intelligent social animals who survive by detecting patterns and especially intentions in an environment dominated by their social interactions.  Humans appear biased to see intentionality not only in friends, foes, predators, and prey, but also in weather, the heavens, or the universe itself.  This bias is perhaps related to the general human tendency (known in psychology as the Fundamental Attribution Error) to incorrectly emphasize intentional explanations over situational or circumstantial ones.

Religion is any system of belief based on faith or mysticism, or involving worship of or reverence for some deity.

Science and Religion.  A common misconception is that science might be an alternative to religion for answering questions about meaning and value.  Those questions are the domain of philosophy, whereas science deals with objective phenomena. Science depends on the epistemological principle of skepticism, and any "conflict" between science and religion is really a conflict between skepticism and faith (or mysticism).   Religion can be made superficially compatible with science by restricting itself to questions that are a) scientific but unanswered or b) philosophical.  However, religion can never be compatible with the skepticism on which science -- and all epistemologically valid philosophy -- is built.