A terrific article from The Chronicle from K.L. Noll, (via a not-surprisingly miffed An und für sich) that addresses the issues that I covered here. Noll brings considerably more depth and distinctions than I did and on some points may disagree with me, but has the same basic perspective at many essential points. Check it out:
In sum, the religion researcher is related to the theologian as the biologist is related to the frog in her lab. Theologians try to invigorate their own religion, perpetuate it, expound it, defend it, or explain its relationship to other religions. Religion researchers select sample religions, slice them open, and poke around inside, which tends to “kill” the religion, or at least to kill the romantic or magical aspects of the religion and focus instead on how that religion actually works.
Little wonder that many academics—and Richard Dawkins is merely the most vocal among them—dismiss the discipline of theology as “talk about nothing.” A number of theologians have taken issue with Dawkins, but all of them seem to miss his central point, which is that talk about a god is, necessarily, talk that never advances knowledge. Regardless of one’s opinion of him, Dawkins has done academe a great service by providing a quick way to identify a theologian in our midst. If you are uncertain with whom you are speaking, just inject the name of Richard Dawkins into the conversation. The theologian will be dismissive of him; the religion researcher will not.
Theologians’ failure to meet their ethical obligations is particularly significant with respect to the Bible and other sacred writings. The field of biblical studies includes a great many religion researchers but remains dominated by theologians whose pronouncements about the Bible routinely lead the less informed astray. Not infrequently, theological concepts are packaged as the conclusions of historical research. The problem is not merely that biblical characters like Moses or Jesus are presented to the public as figures of history on the slimmest of evidence, but, more insidiously, that biblical claims about human obligation to a god are presented as though they are supported by some kind of evidence.
Theologians who do not think of themselves as unethical nevertheless sell their pew-sitting laity a bill of goods. The failure of theologians to remind the members of their churches and synagogues that the Bible is an anthology of ancient literature composed by ancient people in an ancient culture has consequences. The laity are entitled to know that any god described in a biblical text is an ancient god, a byproduct of the ancient culture that produced the text. The god of the Bible is the sum total of the words in the text and has no independent existence. It would be reasonable to begin every theological discussion with the disclaimer “the god described in this sacred text is fictional, and any resemblance to an actual god is purely coincidental.” This is not an outsider’s dismissive opinion, but the reality, and theologians have an ethical obligation to teach that truth even if they also want to believe and teach, as is their right, that a god exists.