I suspect the question only popped into my head because I’ve been reading too much Borges lately, but it occurred to me to wonder if it would be possible in principle to develop a worthwhile, intellectually respectable form of theology. After all, theologians over the centuries have engaged in a great deal of complex, rigorous and even beautiful thinking, only to have their efforts dismissed as worthless because their premises – the existence of a single omnipotent deity, for example, or the fundamental truth of the New Testament – are so obviously dodgy.
Philosophers realized long ago that the way to deal with this kind of problem was simply to come clean. Admit that your crazy premise may not be reflected in empirical reality, and you’re suddenly “doing a thought experiment” rather than engaging in unwarranted speculation. One can play with an idea, work out its implications, and use it as the foundation for a spectacular edifice of logical deduction, all without ever seriously engaging with the tiresome issue of whether the idea is correct. I’m describing the procedure in rather flippant terms, of course, but I do think it has real value. This kind of intellectual work can clarify the implications of particular ideas: if you’re going to believe A, then B, C and D follow, as implacably as bloodhounds on the scent, while E and F are firmly excluded. If you yearn for E and F or can’t stand B, C and D, then you’d better find a worldview that doesn’t include A as an essential component.
If A is something directly testable, like the infamous statement “all ravens are black”, the next step is to go out and collect evidence. Cases in which A is not directly testable, but B, C, D, E and F are, will probably prove more interesting to a scientist, detective or historian. Philosophers come into their own when testability doesn’t even enter the picture – when A is something like “we ought to always act in a way that minimizes the amount of suffering in the world” or “the entire cosmos was created two minutes ago, complete with misleading evidence of a long prior history” – or when A is patently false but still interesting enough that contemplation of what would follow if it happened to be true can comfortably fill a few academic papers.
Theological values of A are statements along the lines of “one benevolent god exists” and “humans have a soul that persists after death”. Many of them are basically untestable, but others are at least vaguely susceptible to refutation on the basis of facts and logic. If this one god is so benevolent, for example, then why is prayer hardly more useful than buying a lottery ticket, and why is indiscriminately distributed suffering so much a feature of mortal existence?
A proper theology would be a skeptical philosophy and science of religion. Theologians would devote some of their time to testing testable claims about gods and souls, and some to playing around with untestable ones in the way that philosophers play around with other moral and metaphysical propositions. Actually believing in gods, in the absence (likely to be maintained indefinitely) of a damn good reason, would be highly detrimental to such a theologian’s career.