The demarcation of humanities from pseudo-humanities. Or, is Theology the queen of the pseudo-sciences?


I’m interested in the question of whether it is possible to specify a demarcation of the humanities from pseudo-humanities, and the related question: if so, how? One valuable outcome of settling these questions is that it would counter all the wacky theorizing out there – such as reptilian shape-shifting overlord conspiracies, vaccine conspiracies, 9/11 conspiracies, and theology.

But the basis for a demarcation has been notoriously difficult to arrive at, even in the “hard” sciences.

What Michael Mahner points towards in the quote below – in a discussion of theology – seems like a good basis for demarcating pseudo-scholarship from genuine scholarship within the humanities.

The main problem with theology is institutional, because theology is by its very essence denominational: the theologian is the representative of some particular religion and is therefore expected to accept its creed as a given. The core of this belief system is not open to revision as a matter of principle, wherefore it must be regarded as a form of unscientific dogmatism. Thus, it is impossible that, as a result of internal progress in research, Christian theology will come to the conclusion that Christianity is actually false and Hinduism is true after all. For example, in the past 200 years the research of many theologians has contributed to demolishing the authority of the scriptures by putting them in a proper historical perspective, but this has not led them to abandon Christianity. Rather, it has spawned a hermeneutic industry of apologetics, attempting to save the Christian faith by reinterpreting and re-reinterpreting its tenets, often in unintelligible terms.

– Martin Mahner, “Demarcating Science from Non-Science”, pages 515-575 in Theo A.F. Kuipers, ed., Handbook of the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 1, General Philosophy of Science: Focal Issues (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2007), p. 551

To summarize: good scholarship in the humanities tests every idea; bad or pseudo-scholarship in the humanities begins with ideas that it seeks to defend, and finds ways to continue to defend those ideas, being forced to dismiss or relativize any conflicting evidence.

In practice, however, this difference becomes difficult to measure. Tendentious people don’t think they’re any more tendentious than anybody else. Is it tendentious if one assumes that the laws of physics are universal, applying everywhere and for all time? Is it any more tendentious if my research takes it as properly basic that God exists, that he is a triune being comprising three persons, that the Son is co-eternal with the Father, that all people are sinners and do not deserve eternal beatific life, and that the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth results in the salvation of certain people?   It is always possible to point to certain seemingly “core” understandings within any field of research which seem to be beyond challenge. So is support for a certain body of knowledge – e.g., chemistry, physics, biblical studies, history, theology, mesmerism, reiki – just a matter of personal preference? Do they all provide knowledge, yet just of different kinds?

I don’t think so. Instead of a hard and fast demarcation, it might be better to think of the divide between pseudo- and genuine scholarship in the humanities as one of degree. Up one end of the scale are disciplines that have generated a lot of knowledge over the past couple of centuries, both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences. Down the other end are those fields which seem bent on construing any facts to serve their theories, while ignoring or relativizing those facts which don’t so easily fit with them. I think it is possible to work out the grounds for such a distinction – albeit a contentious one.

In this regard, theology must be the queen of the pseudo-sciences. For it is the domain in which the most human energy has been applied in order to defend a significant body of assumptions which no longer cohere with knowledge derived from the commonly accepted genuine sciences. No doubt theologians will disagree…


6 thoughts on “The demarcation of humanities from pseudo-humanities. Or, is Theology the queen of the pseudo-sciences?

  1. “In this regard, theology must be the queen of the pseudo-sciences…no doubt theologians will disagree…”

    Well: maybe not all theologians will disagree :) Thank you for your work, I am very much enjoying this blog.

    The characterization here of the theologian as inherently beholden to and uncritical of her dogmatic or doctrinal resources and responsibilities is inaccurate. But for certain: if theology does contribute value and/or knowledge to the universe of continually maturing human thought…theology is doing a very poor job of showing it these days.

    Speaking as a Christian theologian (i.e. one who engages in critical religious studies from a religious perspective shaped primarily by the language and legacy of Hellenic θεός): one of the tasks of the Christian Church is to faithfully render itself obsolete. There’s a lot to unpack in that word “faithfully” but many (probably not most) theologians are dedicated, rigorous scholars who welcome any and all critical discourse.

    An interesting side effect of a criteria for distinguishing humanities from pseudo-humanities:
    theological academia will appropriate the language and apply it to discourse that distinguishes theology from pseudo-theology. Who knows? Maybe it will make us better theologians!



    • Thanks, Joshua. I would, also, want to distinguish critical religious studies from the (type of?) theology that I criticized. I acknowledge that some are comfortable with applying the term “theology” to both the dogmatic and critical types of religious studies and of describing even critical religious studies scholars as ‘theologians’. Yet I am not at all sure that the term “theology” or “theologian” has any meaning, or anything to add, as a description of critical religious studies, That is, if one aims to be rigorously critical, I do not know how the term “Christian theologian” could add to that description, except to delimit the potential for criticism. So to avoid confusion, I tend to reserve the term “Christian theologian” for those who hold to certain dogmas which they count as properly basic to their research.

      And yes, theologians (I mean of the dogmatic stripe) will appropriate the language of demarcation. It’s the inherent risk of criticizing the tendentious. Still, there are other, less tendentious, people listening.


      • Thanks for the clarification!

        My $.02:
        Theology in the broadest sense is less a body of knowledge, and more a body of literature. It is less like a science, and more like an ancient, complicated game. Everyone sort of knows the rules, meanwhile they interpret them differently (even to the point of mutually exclusive interpretations), modify them locally, reinvent and revise them across time and geography. Yet the players all remain gripped by the idea that the playing of this game is an important and worthy and valuable cultural investment, even though they disagree on the why and the how of the value. The activity of playing this game has consequences that ripple across the cultures that support it for centuries, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. For moderns to continue to play such a game seems absurd and indefensible from a Comtian frame of mind, but many of us who play it thoughtfully observe that the void left behind by attempts to unnaturally eradicate it tend to be as destructive as religiosity itself in its darkest days.

        Regardless, again, I appreciate your work here. I’m in the very, very early stages of beginning constructive work as a theologian after patiently allowing my perspective to mature for quite a few years (I took a break from PhD studies to care for a sick family member, and may not get back to the dissertation, but I realize now that needn’t stop me from reading and writing again).



      • What you said reminds me of John Caputo’s description of what became of the Ontological Argument for God in the modern age. He contrasts the “choreography” of Anselm’s formulation of it: Anselm is formulating the argument “on his knees”. Later Kant will subject it to the court of reason, losing the choreography in the meantime.

        I’m not so sentimental about the choreography, I admit, but I do agree that there are aspects of theology’s game that should be rescued and continued.

        Thanks, Joshua.


  2. As you note, there is in any field a set of assumptions which are considered foundational. In considering this demarcation between genuine and “pseudo” disciplines, particularly as it relates to theology, it would be worth asking what would be an analogously “basic” disciplinary assumption in, say biology or physics, to the disciplinary assumption of the existence of God in theology.

    It strikes me that a theologian rejecting the existence of God might be analogous to a physical scientist rejecting the idea that natural phenomena are best understood as interactions among entities in the physical world. It might, in some abstract way, be possible for a scientist to do so, or to imagine circumstances under which it would be done, but it’s exceedingly unlikely. To expect a theologian to embrace the idea of the non-existence of God as a possibility might be very similar.

    However, that said, I think that in this respect theology is more robust in calling its own core assumption into question than any physical science is, since a great deal of theology is occupied precisely with the question of the existence or non-existence of God, and more than one theologian has abandoned the existence of God, as commonly understood, as a premise of theological inquiry (John Caputo, who you note above, being one example). Though you also invoke Alvin Plantinga in respect to the question of what constitutes a “properly basic belief” in a philosophical sense.

    But I’d like to push the inquiry further by asking in what sense theology, as a discipline, has been “the domain in which the most human energy has been applied in order to defend a significant body of assumptions which no longer cohere with knowledge derived from the commonly accepted genuine sciences.” Can you enumerate some specific examples or thinkers, so I can understand what you mean by that?



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