Big Dummies Guide to Theology, Philosophy, and Ethics

A Starter Kit for Technoids

By Orrin R. Onken, aka "Simon"
Copyright 1995 - Orrin R. Onken

Chapter I


The Essential Vocabulary of Deep Thought

	"Blame those who corrupt religion, who flood it

	 with an army of formulas and definitions, and

	 seek to cast it into the fetters of a so-called system."

                                         F. Schleirmacher

One of the major drawbacks to understanding religion and philosophy is that the user interface is still the English language. That means struggling through with a case sensitive shell, an absence of icons, and nary a point and click in the whole system. The documentation on this particular interface is extensive but confusing, and use of the wrong word can often cause your listener to lock up or worse. One of the essential guides to this interface is called the dictionary. Let's start with it, and the concept of religion

re-lig-ion . . . 1 a (1): the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance . . . 2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs and practices

This simple definition seems a bit inadequate to encompass people as separated in time as Moses and Jerry Fallwell, such institutions as diverse as the Catholic Church and the Scientology, events as different as the parting of the Red Sea and the war in Bosnia, but in one way or another they all fall under the rubric of the simple word "religion." Unable to concern ourselves with all of these things, we will simply ignore most of it and climb down the directory tree a bit.

Let's skip past religious art, religious wars, church architecture, a lot of other stuff and stop where the rubber hits the road: the religious experience in the lives of individuals. Since the first hominid climbed down from the tree and stood upright, the religious experience has been part of humanity. Maybe it went something like this:

	"Hey, Arg, I just felt something.  It was like a presence. 

 Like there was something here looking over me."

	"Shut up, Uhg.  Probably the fermented bananas we ate."

	"Nah, Arg, it wasn't that.  It's something bigger, something

outside of myself.  I understand now, that our life has value 

and purpose."

	"Yeh, sure Uhg.  It was just the bananas.  If you value 

your life, shut up, 'cause my purpose for being here is to 

stamp out nonsense."

	"You just don't understand, Arg.  Here, read this pamphlet."

Arg and Uhg never come to any agreement about the experience, and their friendship slowly wanes. Arg bought an IBM clone, Uhg bought a Mac and the two of them are still arguing all across the internet today. Uhg, you see, was struck by "faith," and thus became a theologian. Arg was not, and took up philosophy. This anthropological tale brings us to one of the major branches in the directory tree: theology and philosophy. These are the fraternal twins of deep thought, so lets spend a bit of time with each of them.

This chapter begins with "Theology and Religion -- The Basic *.isms." However, if you have your own agenda you can jump directly to "Philosophy - The Evil Twin", or to the last section, "Ethics, and It Ain't Dear Abby."


Our good friend Webster defines theology as "the study of God and his relation to the world." The order is important. It is the study of "God." It is not the study of the world, and its relation to God. There are many other *.ologies and *.osophies that do this. Anthropology, sociology, psychology and political science all have something to say about man and how he relates to God, but we will leave these disciplines at the campus where they belong. Theology is the study of God. Studying God requires a few basic assumptions, including the assumption that God is in one way or another relevant to our lives. The attitude one brings to this problem of initial assumptions brings us to our first set of *.isms.

The dominant *.ism in theology is theism. For Webster theism is "belief in the existence of one God viewed as the source of man and the world, who transcends yet is immanent in the world." Most religious people are theists of one sort or another, believing in a single God who is the creator of reality as we know it and who has an ongoing relationship with mankind. The theist does not necessarily assert that God has physical characteristics in the same sense that a floppy disk has certain characteristics, or even that the concept of "existence" is appropriate for God, but the theist does, usually as a result of personal experience, feel that God has had and continues to have an effect upon the world.

A couple of other *.isms tend to limit the idea of theism. Deism, a related concept, acknowledges God as the creator but denies that God has any continuing hand in worldly matters. The God of deists simply double clicked the cosmic execute command and walked away. The program is still running and what happens to us is the result of what the program held when it was started and what we do here on earth. Pantheism arrives at a similar result by different means. The pantheists asserts that man, nature, and everything else for that matter, are elements or extensions of God. Pantheism plays a part in most major religions, but the powers that be keep quiet about it because, for the theist, saying that everything is God amounts to just about the same thing as saying that nothing is God. Both deism and pantheism are much to close to the dreaded atheism to suit most theists. A theist will often call someone a deist or pantheist when he or she wants to be pejorative, similar to the way one uses the word "bureaucrat" in reference to government workers. Therefore the use of the words often says more about the prejudices of the speaker than the subject of the speech. Deists and pantheist do have some intelligent advocates who may appear later, but for now we will simply place these two *.isms in a bit of the middle of the road that runs from theism to atheism.

Next on the list of *.isms is agnosticism. "Gnosis" is Greek for knowledge, and "gnosticism" has a small but dedicated following, the tenets of which remain mostly Greek to me. "A-gnosticism" is a lack of knowledge, in our case, lack of knowledge regarding the existence or nature of God. The agnostic claims that he doesn't know, and, in fact, it is impossible for anyone to know whether God exists. This lack of knowledge, of course hinges on the question of what constitutes knowledge and how one gets it. Theists fault agnostics for thinking of the existence of God as some sort of scientific problem, which it is not, and others fault agnostics for simply being wishy washy, which they often are. Most agnostics, however, treat theological questions much the way most people treat data compression. We download a three megabyte FAQ intending to learn all about it, leave the information on our hard disc for months without reading it, and finaally delete the whole thing because we need the disc space. It's not that they can't decide; they just won't decide without sufficient evidence, and they never get around to looking at the evidence. Agnosticism, however, gets us to the other side of the coin, the atheists.

In dealing with agnostics we said that sticking an "a" in front of a Greek word negates the word. Thus, agnostics have no gnosis. Well "atheists" have no theism. They are the theists sworn enemy. Atheists assert that there is no God, and that's that.

The polls don't really prove it, but there are probably as many atheists as there are theists. However, with the exception of places like China, where atheism is official government policy, atheists in most cultures are not all that visible. This is probably because they don't build churches and they seldom hand out pamphlets. While theists come in all shapes and sizes, atheists come in three basic types. Eighty percent of atheists are atheist because they just don't have the time or inclination to think much about God at all. These people are busy with other things. God has never bothered them or left them any money, so they figure he must be one of those tooth fairy deals that you outgrow when you get older and have to worry about making a buck. This kind of atheist exists, and has always existed, even in the most religious of cultures. He has opted out of the whole issue. He has no interest in theology, and frankly, theology doesn't have much interest in him. Ten percent of atheists are atheists because someone they admire is an atheist. These atheists are often college students who are trying to emulate the ways of a particularly clever professor, or people trying to suck up to an inheritance from a grumpy atheist relative. Theology doesn't have much offer these people either.

The remaining ten percent of atheists are the atheists who really give this *.ism the name. These are the atheists by conviction, the ones who be believe with all their hearts, minds and souls. They read the Bible so they have ammunition with which to attack Christians. They gather in public recreation centers and dormitory basements to plot a revolution of reason, logic, and the dreaded "secular humanism." These are the theologians of atheism. They think about God a lot, moreso than many a theist, but address their arguments to his nonexistence. As diverse as a club for people who don't like artichokes, they may be philosophers, scientists, artists, humanitarians or lunatics, but they all share a passion for probing the logical and ethical problems of theism. They fill the internet bandwidths, invading the religious discussions, offending the self-righteous, and generally making sure that there will always be something to talk about when it comes to religion. The world would be a far less interesting place without atheists.


While thinking about theology and the various *.isms, you should keep in mind that philosophy is always close at hand. Philosophy is not the study of God but rather the science of making generalizations that encompass all or most of the human experience. If that experience includes God, then so be it. Science does a similar thing on a more mundane level. For example, if you grab a red hot poker several times, and each time you do so you burn your hand and suffer excruciating pain, you might, if you are a scientific type, come to certain generalizations about the relationship between grabbing red hot pokers, charred flesh, and excruciating pain. If you had bothered to take notes, you might even be able to develop some reasonably specific generalizations about heat transfer and the degree of seared flesh based upon the duration of the contact. If you were even more insightful, you might have discovered valuable facts about the psychological conditions that cause people to do really stupid things over and over again. In any case, you would have engaged in science and would have come up with certain generalizations which could be passed on to and even tested by others. It's really not that far from gabbing the hot poker to being published in Scientific American.

Philosophy is the attempt to make generalizations that will apply to all of human experience, or at least an important chunk of it. The methods of philosophy are largely scientific. Thus, the philosopher attempts to begin with the absolute minimum of preconceived notions and work from those notions by mental gymnastics or observation of natural phenomena toward some sort of reasonable conclusion. Thus, Rene Decartes, who was sort of the Bill Gates of philosophy, began with the famous assertion, "I think, therefore I am." (Note that this is not a logical conclusion, but a presupposition.) From this he worked though a series of allegedly coherent deductions to a philosophy that encompassed man, experience, ethics and God. A nice piece of work, frankly, and he has been revered for it by philosophers ever since.

Descarte, through a form of scientific reasoning, allegedly demonstrated the existence of God. Thus, he was a philosopher, a theist, and in certain respects a theologian. You see, a philosopher can be a theist, a deist, an atheist, or anything in between. However, because a philosopher is a theist, does not neceessarily make him a theologian. The methods are different. Philosophers use a linear method of reasoning, such as working from Descarte's, "I think therefore, I am." to conclusions about man, God and the human experience. Theologians begin with different assumptions and employ a reasoning that is unashamedly circular. The theologian brings to his study his own faith in and experience of God. The questions he addresses concern the relevance of faith has in the modern world. The answer, however, after much discussion, is always the same as the question, "faith in and experience of God." This circular reasoning drives philosophers and self righteous scientists absolutely crazy. However, most human thought about concepts such as love, justice, morality, and politics is circular in exactly the same way. For example, the assumption that any good judge brings to the courtroom is the assumption of justice--it exists and can be accomplished. A trial is the dispute over how justice is relevant to the case before the court, and in the prounouncement of judge and or jury the answer is given. Justice is both the question and the answer. If this aspect of theology really bothers you, get over it. People do this sort of thing all the time.

Philosophy is very difficult to do, and the works of the major philosophers are often difficult to understand. Those who make a name in the field are as often as not mathematicians or other intellectual types who have become bored with making new discoveries in psychology or theoretical physics. Good philosophers appear very seldom, hence philosophy, as a field of study, changes very slowly. Academic philosophers, the ones who populate the philosophy department at your local university, seldom actually engage in philosophy, but rather study the works of the people who do and torture the undergraduates who aspire to study them too. Theology is arguably less difficult, due largely to wider variety of acceptable methods, but advances in theology don't come much faster than those in philosophy. In the meantime, the two borrow from each other and fight like a pair a fraternal twins. More on this battle later.

The field of philosophy has as many *.ologies an and *isms as does theology, most of them representing a certain philosophical school or outlook. The *.isms have names like realism, naturalism, rationalism, utilitarianism, idealism, pragmatism, and logical positivism, just to mention a few. Even experienced philosophers, however, have a tough time accurately explaining the differences between these schools of philosophic thought, so as a beginner it's not necessary to concern oneself a whole lot about them.

For the newbie, one should simply be careful to avoid the really basic errors. A philosophy is not something you own, lease or adopt. It is not at all like a Pentium 100 with a 750 meg hard drive and sixteen megabytes ram. It is a structured way of looking at the world so that the activities in one's experience make a bit more sense than they previously did. Secondly, philosophy does not usually provide people with much of a "guide for living." The golden rule is not a philosophy, however valuable it might be in helping one decide what to do in a particularly tight spot. Guides to living will get discussed in ethics, and, although philosophy, theology and ethics are related, they are not interchangeable. Lastly, philosophy cannot be avoided by simply not thinking about it. This is really an extension of the first two rules, and arises from that fact that the successful philosopher does not dictate how the world and the people in it relate to each other, but instead describes how that relationship operates. Thus, when our scientists researching the effect of a hot poker on human skin publishes his findings, he will, by the employment of scientific method, logic, and his insatiable thirst for knowledge have acted in conformance with one or more philosophical frameworks. Science without philosophy, that is, without a framework for inquiry, a method for coming to a conclusion, and at least some sort of reason for even doing the research in the first place, is nothing more than repetitive and meaningless data entry. Philosophy: you can't own it; you can't live by it; and you can't run away from it. In short, it's an annoying , difficult and absolutely unavoidable science.

Philosophy contains a variety of *.ologies as well as the *.isms mentioned above. Two of them are important enough that even the technoid should know the meaning of the words. The first is a branch of metaphysics known as "ontology." Ontology is the study of existence itself considered apart from the nature or characteristics of any existing object. Ontological investigations inquire into the different ways in which entities belonging to various categories such as physical objects, numbers, conceptions and abstractions may be said to "exist." Take, for example the Washington Monument. One could test its existence by driving a car into it and examining the respective damage to the monument and the car. This is a rather crude ontological inquiry, but it will work. Consider then the color of the monument. It is white. We all are familiar with the color white, but to what extent does the color exist apart from the Washington Monument and other specific examples. It is an idea, a perception, a recollection, an abstraction and a conception, but does it exist. The question is ontological. Now if white exists, how about a white Easter Bunny, the white whale from Moby Dick, or the white light of a near death experience. Although not the Washingtion Monument, these too may have some sort of existence either within or outside of the human mind. Thus, by certain ontological views, God may be more real to a fanatic atheist, than to a halfhearted theist. Ontology is the inquiry into these matters and is often the concern of both philosophy and theology.

The second *.ology one needs to be aware of is the field of epistemology. This is the branch of philosophy concerned with theories of knowledge, or "how is it exactly that we 'know' something." For example, you might know something because you read it in the newspaper, your mother said it, or the Bible tells you so. This is the simple stuff, reliance on trusted authority. You might know that your roof has a hole in it because there is rain water dripping from your ceiling. You know about the hole in the roof even though you didn't learn it from trusted authority and can't see the hole. You deduced it from the evidence. You know that your foot hurts because your senses tell you so, and you know that aliens circle the earth because you remember the time they abducted you and pierced your left ear with that hot poker. This is knowledge from experience. There is a lot to this stuff, and the question of when, how and to what degree of certainty someone can know something keeps philosophers hopping. These days epistimology is hot stuff in philosophy because "knowing" is arguably at the root of all science and religion. Thus, if philosophy can get a grip on knowing, it will establish itself at the base of the scientific directory tree, be assured of a permanent spot in the academic autoexec.bat file, and be returned to the glory it experienced in the eighteenth century. For the newbie, you should simply remember that epistemology is a difficult and active area in philosophy, and that if you think you have a simple common sense answer to the whole problem of knowing, you haven't thought much about it.


If you are breathing a sigh of relief because we have left the rarified air of philosophy and theology for something practical, don't relax. That guide to living you were looking for may be here, but it is not going to be easy to find. Ethics is generally the study of the basic concepts that are or "ought to be" found in particular areas of human activity. This "ought" is important, for the jump from "is" to "ought" is a precarious leap, and one of the most difficult in ethics. Ethics has three primary branches to watch as we wander the twisted streets of deep thought. They consist of moral philosophy, normative ethics and the strange and bizarre meta-ethics.

Although ethics is a branch of both philosophy and theology, many people confuse it with custom and law. Take for example the ancient religious prohibitions against using weapons to rob convenience stores. As a custom of ancient times, it had the practical effect of keeping the peace and assuring a fair supply for twinkies and beer for everyone. In modern times, robbing convenience stores has simply been made illegal, and there are a host of police, prosecutors and judges on duty to dish out justice to those who violate this law. Law and custom are the behavior standards that we depend upon for an orderly and predictable society. They are standards of morality, rules for living, and methods of avoiding jail, but simple knowledge of these things is not a knowledge of ethics. If you doubt this, next time you are accused of a major felony, get rid of your lawyer and hire a ethicist or philosopher. You will learn the true nature of ethics and be given time to thoroughly master the subject while serving your sentence in the local penitentary.

One of the more common type of ethicist is the moral philosopher. This fellow takes a particular set of attitudes, customs, or laws, whether in use by a particular group or merely invented by another philosopher, and attempts to explain and anzlyze the basic tenents of the ethical system. Note here, that the word "morals" comes into play. Morals and ethics are the same thing. Arguably, the concept of "morality" carries a bit more religious baggage than does the idea of "ethics," but there is no substantive difference. Folks who make arguments based upon differences between morals an ethics are engaging in a linguistic slight of hand rather than coherent argument. The moral philosopher, who you hired instead of the lawyer, will explain to the judge the how the prohibition against convenience store robbery arose in western culture, what values are enhanced and protected by the prohibition, and how such prohibition contributes to the aspirations of the individuals and groups within the society. The judge may be enlightened by the discussion, but you might do better with a good alibi.

Normative ethics is a bit closer to rules to live by in that it concerns itself with justification of moral principal in light of the facts of life. It you had actually hired a lawyer instead of a philosopher in your felony case, you could tell your lawyer about all the other convenience store robberies you had committed and the lawyer would be prohibited by his professions ethical rules from turning that information over to the police. This ethical rule seems to conflict with the idea that we should all contribute to apprehending criminals and solving crimes, however, the rule is "justified" by the fact that a lawyer must have all the information about you in order to help with your case. He would not get that information if you, as the client, knew he was going to take it straight to the cops. Thus, an ethical standard for lawyers which is different from that for the rest of society is "justified" by the goal of promoting justice through full and fair legal representation. This is not too difficult. The real challenges in normative ethics are when one wants to justify broad based ethical rules based upon the goal of creating a completely fair society or being the perfect person. As the goal becomes more distant in time and more ambiguous in definition, the job of justification becomes much more difficult.

The final arena of philosophical ethics is that of meta-ethics. This unpopular area deals with the appropriate kinds of reasoning for ethical questions. Meta-ethics might concern itself with questions about whether morals are subjective, like a person's response to the Grateful Dead music, or objective, like the relation between gravity and falling rocks. Meta-ethics similarly deals with the relation between factual beliefs and moral beliefs. This is where the leap from "is" to "ought" becomes a problem, for it is in meta-ethics that one attempts to decide when what is natural and normal, what "is," should become the obligitory "ought." Maybe we have been wrong all these years. Robbing convenience stores is actually a positive thing. At the very least, it is a positive and valuable experience for the person who does it, and if morality is in the eye of the beholder . . .? Note here, that meta-ethics swims in the same pool as our old friend "ontology" in that the way in which moral and ethical values exist, whether as facts, ideas or opinions, has a lot to do with the meta-ethical problem of what constitutes a coherent argument when it comes to "ought," and without coherence all you say will come to "nought."


Only in books about deep thought do you get a conclusion to the introduction. Here goes. We learned about theology: the study of God. We saw that peoples belief's about God, or at least about his existance make up the theological and philosophical *.isms of theism, agnosticsim, atheism and the shadings in between. We took a look at philosophy and a couple of the interesting *.ologies. And finally, we took a look at ethics and the various ways we ought to think about "ought." With a firm grip upon all this, it is time to venture into the arguments that destroy friendships, start wars, and provide us with the comfort of knowing that chaos will always prevail over order.

So Pick One