A question from a reader

I got the following question from a reader:

>”isn’t it begging the question in favor of religious theism to think
that someone with theological training is an “expert” qualified to have
a credible opinion? After all, if there are no gods, then theology
itself is a field of inquiry with no object to study.”

My first reaction would be this. Begging the question occurs in the context of an argument. It’s hard to see what the argument is here. Second, not many theologians are literally “God speakers” as the name might suggest. Many theologians study religious traditions, texts, and histories. Whether these have a supernatural character remains an interesting question, but it’s hardly the only one. And, at least as theology is studied where I come from (The Land of Jesuitica), that’s not one that gets asked in the theology department. Finally, I wouldn’t know either what is meant by “credible” opinion in this instance. The theologian, as any expert, as a legitimate claim of expertise over a certain material–say, a religious tradition or text–that expertise is not diminished by their being no God–that would be. But the mere existence of theologians does not itself constitute an argument for the existence of God. Some philosophers of mind argue that there are literally no minds at all, merely brains and their processes. Would it be the case, then, that psychologists “beg the question” by their mere existence against reductionism? I don’t think so.

Too often charges of “begging the question” are just confused ways of making burden claims: the person who makes the charges claims that it’s incumbent on the, say, theologian, to prove the existence of their object of study, and until they do, they beg the question. Alternatively, some claim that anyone who does not articulate every single assumption inherent in their view–does not prove their starting point–begs the question. Both of those charges are misplaced and ultimately self-refuting. To the second, no one can prove their own unprovable starting point (and this does not mean they’re all the same), so getting my Cartesian than Descartes will only wind you up in the loony bin (as Descartes himself suggested and as Foucault and Derrida–I bet you never thought you’d see their names here–famously discussed). To the first, argument analysis is best limited to specific arguments. If someone assumes something his conclusion to be true then proves it, fails to prove an obvious assumption, or simply restates his conclusion in different words, he begs the question. If he does not address your objection, he does not address your objection. He doesn’t beg the question against you.

More certainly could be said on this topic. Perhaps another time.

26 thoughts on “A question from a reader”

  1. thanks for this. i think this one of the hardest fallacies to identify on a consistent basis (at least for myself), perhaps due to the fact that it is unfortuantely named. additionally, i think it is often used in a non-technical sense, even in philosophical writings, so as to futher bastardize it’s meaning.

  2. I’ve thought about this before, and came to a very similar conclusion. Theologians aren’t experts on the ‘Existence of God’, but rather, on religion. They are just experts within a framework which pressuposes the existence of God.

  3. I wouldn’t say the framework “presupposes” the existence of God. It presupposes the existence of religion. It presupposes, in other words, the object of its study. Theology is a broad field–so some is concerned with history, some with scriptural texts, some with comparative religions, and so on. Don’t forget, of course, that there are religions without gods (or with many gods or gods wholly unlike the Judeo-Christian God).

  4. If we speak only of Judeo-Christian Theologians, and those of other traditions, or with purely secular interests (historians, anthropologists, etc), must it be true that a theologian’s study pressupose the existence of God?

  5. Dear Steve,

    You write:

    >If we speak only of Judeo-Christian Theologians, and those of other traditions, or with purely secular interests (historians, anthropologists, etc), must it be true that a theologianís study pressupose the existence of God?

    Answer: absolutely not. Theologians, as I think I’ve pointed out, don’t really study “God.” Some are even atheists. Some don’t share the views of the religion they study.

  6. Its not that a personal belief in a supernatural deity is essential for a theologian in his day to day life, but rather, it is the religion that he studies which pressuoposes the existence of God. While the theologian operates under a religious framework of study, he doesn’t change the nature of that framework. It’s the Judeo-Christian tradition which presupposes the existence of God, then he theologian can only operate meaningfully when he too accepts (for the purpose of study) the elements of the religion he studies. One of those tenets in Judeo-Christian doctrine is a belief in an omnibenevolent deity. Thus, when a Theologian, in the professional sense, must presuppose God’s existence.

  7. then you should be explicitly clear that you are speaking of Judeo-Christian theology and the practices of Judeo-Christian theologians and not of the much broader field of theology and the much broader community of theologians.

  8. “If we speak only of Judeo-Christian Theologians, and those of other traditions”

    That’s how I began my post. I really don’t see how I could have been clearer.

  9. “Itís the Judeo-Christian tradition which presupposes the existence of God”

    Here’s another line from one of my posts.

  10. but then you pull the Fish move and equivocate by using the generic term “theologians,” after you’ve only qualified it at the opening. clarity is the life of writing.

  11. “Thus, when a Theologian, in the professional sense, must presuppose Godís existence”

    there’s a line from your post

  12. “While the theologian operates under a religious framework of study, he doesnít change the nature of that framework. ”

    there’s another

  13. Fair enough, I probably should have been more explicit. I would correct it now, if that were a feature offered on this site.

  14. Steve,

    Nonetheless, what you say is false. The theologian does not presuppose (even remotely) the existence of God. Think of it like studying Roman mythology. No one presupposes the existence Jove.

  15. In order to operate under that framework, wouldn’t the Roman theologan have to presuppose this? I don’t see how one could contribute to the study of Roman theology, without accepting the fundemental presupositions of what he/she is studying. Sorry, for the reduandancy, but I’m not sure that I understand your point.

  16. i have to go with jcasey here: theology doesn’t need to presuppose God. even if i were to work as theologian of evengelicalism, i don’t need to presuppose the existence of God. in fact, i might focus my theological study on why evangelicals choose to believe in such a being. in that case, i need only accept that they believe; i don’t need to believe myself, nor do i even need to presuppose, for my inquiry, that such a being exists. or, i could study the portrayal of dieties in sacred texts, either in a singl tradition, or, comparitively, across traditions. i don’t need to presuppose these dieties exist. i simply focus on textual portrayals. if i were writing about huck finn and jim’s latent homoeroticism (as leslie fiedler did), i don’t need to presuppose that huck and jim exist; i’m only studying their portrayals. in the same manner, when i go to study portrayal of dieties in sacred texts, i can treat them as characters in wonderful stories, much as i might treat huck and jim. or i can just study the idea of God. again, i don’t need to presuppose that God exists even for this. i can study the idea of doggycorns, without ever presupposing they exist. i can do the same with the idea of God. the presupposition just isn’t necessary. that is not to say it lacks a heuristic value, but it’s not integral to theology as such.

  17. I suppose this point is more or less moot, then. I’ll just stick to presupositions of the religion and not the theologian. I think I’ve absorbed your point.

  18. moot: having no practical significance. From my original post, I agreed with your anaylsis of the reader’s question. So it’s moot.

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