A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

The Empty Vase

Religion has nothing worthwhile to say on anything.


Theology is the art of knowing the unknowable. It is an immensely vast and complicated area of study requiring much careful research and dedicated learning to master. Many great minds devote their lives to the subject, gaining qualifications and passing on their wisdom to new students. It is, however, comparable to a large, antique vase: huge and striking, intricate and ornate, ancient and mysterious, but ultimately empty, and created entirely by human beings. I would like to use two modern cultural examples of proxy-theologies to demonstrate this point.

The first of these examples is the Klingon race, a fictional creation within the Star Trek science fiction stories. (I would just like to state for the record that I myself am not a Trekkie, although I do fully acknowledge the right of Trekkies to be Trekkies, as long as they are Trekkies behind closed doors and keep their Trekkieness to themselves.) A quick browse down the Wikipedia article reveals that, far from being represented by a few quickly assembled individual characters on a TV show, the Klingons come complete with biological details, culture, government, legal system, thousands of years of history and, perhaps most astonishingly of all, a complete artificially constructed language. There are many Star Trek fans who have learned to speak this language fluently, and regularly attend conventions speaking no other language for the duration. Many of these same Star Trek fans are experts on the Klingon race, and can relate their knowledge with all the scholarly grace of a learned professor.

The second example I’d like to use, is the land of Narnia, C. S. Lewis’s fictional creation. (For the purposes of this exercise, I am going to ignore the fact that Lewis was a Christian apologist, and that his Chronicles of Narnia were a Christian allegory. It has no relevance to the point I am trying to make.) Once again, we have a vast subject. Again, we have fans who truly dedicate themselves to the details of the subject, including Narnia’s geography, cosmology, history and mythological creatures and other inhabitants. Again, these enthusiasts attend conventions across the world to interact with one another. The study is taken extremely seriously and these people talk about their subject with great conviction, passion and command.

But the thing about the Klingon speaking Trekkies and the Narnia enthusiasts, is that they know it’s not real! It is just a hobby, albeit one that they take very seriously, and they are under no illusions that either the Klingon people or the World of Narnia actually exist in the real world. It is, to coin a phrase, just a bit of fun.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for theists. They are well and truly under the illusion that the characters of their study are, or at least were, real. Some of them believe it so strongly, that they are prepared to die in the name of that belief, and to take the lives of others who do not share it. Just like the Klingons, they have an intricate web of detail, names, dates, places, events and even mythological creatures, all of which they attempt to use as an elaborate distraction from the fact that they are without any actual evidence for the truth of their claims. It would be bad enough if they simply wanted us to believe that their fairytale were true, but it doesn’t stop there. On the basis of this elaborate fictional story, they want to tell us how to live our lives, what we can and can’t do, and that what we have learned about the universe through hard, scientific work is wrong. To the theologian I say: thank you but no thank you.

If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference? Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work! The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything. What makes anyone think that “theology” is a subject at all?

Richard Dawkins

14 Responses to “The Empty Vase”

  1. Well said, tobe. I forwarded this article as supporting material in an ongoing debate I’ve been having.

  2. och!..what is it with your admiration for Dawkins? A total Romulan if ever there was one!

    Theology is simply a wordy explanation for the interaction and experience that occurs between man and the Divine.

  3. Lisa – I think that was Tobe’s point… since there is no interaction between man and the devine. It’s imaginary.

  4. Slightly off-topic, but to continue the Star Trek conceit: Theists spend their lives intoning “Beam me up, Scottie,” but they never think to ask for evidence that Scottie is actually there.

  5. Any more Star Trek references and my mind will suffer a warp-core breach, assuming I am unable to modulate the deflector shield frequency to the inverse resonance harmonic of a dechyon deflector pulse.

    Great article Tobe. I love the quote by Dawkins. It reminds me of another quote by Hitchens (or was it also Dawkins?) that if all the accomplishments of man were lost and we had to start again from scratch, at what point would we need to rediscover that Jesus was born of a virgin?

  6. Except everybody knowstht Scottie is always there! 🙂

    How many times did he push the warp drive just a little faster….into extra-super-duper warp drive!
    “I donaught think she can ‘andle any more Cap’n”

  7. Slightly off topic, but I’ve always had a relatively soft spot for Wiccans (used to be married to one which made for interesting “debate”). I’ve met quite a few and when pressed they will often say they don’t actually “believe” in magic, or the goddess or whatever. It’s more of away of thinking about the world that works for them, the feminist principle an all that. Bit like your trekkies really.

  8. Dawkins = a Romulan? No Way! Perhaps a Cardassian. I know for sure he’s not a member of the Dominion! 🙂

  9. …otherwise he’d be 60,000 light-years away, and that’s just daft!

  10. getting really scared now !!

  11. wikipedia defines a Romulan as passionate, cunning, and opportunisitc.

    If the ears fit…wear ’em! 🙂

  12. Do I doubt that theists will be able to frighten themselves enough about their nonbeliever neighbors to justify a pogrom against them?

    I don’t doubt it for a minute They’ve already started.

    It’s a shame that believers have deliberately chosen fear instead of courage, violence instead of treating their neighbors decently.

    What atheists, militant or not, want is for everybody to live lives free of fear.

    Sorry we scared you by getting so “uppity.”

  13. It is true that we can, through the mind, choose to believe any relative truth (klingonism (?), religion, atheism, scientific materialism, etc.) and thus experience it and make it real, that doesn’t mean the mind has any capability to understand Absolute Truth.

    The mind is simply the wrong tool for the job.

    You can find evidence to support any theory, any conclusion, which is why people are so easily fooled into believing this or that.

    The mind is designed to allow us to experience a multitude of realities and have a variety of experiences, not prove whether or not something is ACTUALLY real or not.

  14. “If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference? ”

    In fact, yes. We would probably notice that cancer had already been cured, along with many other diseases. Our knowledge of science and the universe in which we live would be far in advance of what it is today. Native Americans would still be living on their own lands. The World Trade center would still be standing. And there would be nobody who lived in fear of being tortured in hellfire for all eternity. To name but a few.

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