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Ask the Patriarch 249
Teaching Theology in Denmark

from: Mette Frandsen

To give your own views on this question and reply for publication, please use the contact page to provide your comments.

I have a question.

In my country (Denmark) we are having a public discussion these days on whether or not we want to keep “Theology” as one of our university disciplines. We have a discipline called “The history of religion”, which is a scientific study on the different religions, their history etc. The Theology discipline is a religious study and it is where our protestant priests are educated.

In the light of this discussion, I have been talking to my own friends about this issue. For me theology has no place at a Danish university as we separate religion and state. We don’t offer state funded education to the priests of other religions and I can’t see why we should keep funding the Protestants just because we did so before we separated state and religion.

It’s not that I mind that people are religious as long as they don’t try to force me or others to live by their religious rules.

Anyway, an argument I meet all the time is that there is no difference between logic and reason on one side and religion on the other. The former is a position based on science and the later is a position based on metaphysics. Hence “not believing” is the same as “believing”.

I have tried to argue against this idea by using analogies like “Not collecting stamps, is not a hobby” and stuff like that, but it doesn’t seem sufficient.

So, my question is: Why is it fundamentally different to believe in reasoning and logic as opposed to metaphysics. And, why is the former not just a version of the later (meaning, what qualifies reasoning and logic over metaphysics).

Thank You,

The Patriarch replies:


Thank you for your interesting question. I decided it was a little more than I wanted to handle personally, so I passed it on to Paul Sharkey who was formerly chair of a university department of philosophy and religion. Following is his response

Dear Mette:

Your inquiry raises many interesting and thoughtful issues.  I hope I can address them in a thoughtful, if not interesting, way.

I was aware that the separation of church and state has been a contentious political issue in Denmark for some time but I was not aware that such a separation had in fact been Constitutionally declared.   My understanding was that the official Church of Denmark (The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark) is supported by governmental funding but that no-one other than the Royal Family are required to be members.   I can well sympathize with those who might view this as an injustice by having to financially support a church/religion that they themselves do not belong to or believe in.   Your query, however, seems more to the issues of

(1) whether a state supported university should be required to have a department of devotional theology as well as one  or more which treat the study of religion in an historical and/or scientific manner and

(2) whether “believing in reason and logic” is better than believing in “metaphysics” and if so, why?

As to the issue of university departments:  Legally, this all depends on whether a separation of church and state -- including an explicit exclusion of state financial support for religious purposes – has in-fact been Constitutionally effectuated and does in-fact exist.  If it does, then this becomes a legal matter that should be comparatively easy to resolve through litigation.  If it does not, then irrespective of the “justice” of the situation, you may be stuck with a Department of Theology as well as one or more devoted to the historical or scientific study of religions.   An economic argument can sometimes be made that such a situation is wasteful (by duplication) of precious educational resources but that probably will not work if the state is providing additional funds explicitly for the religiously devotional (theology) program.   It is however quite possible to provide non-sectarian and historically and scientifically objective courses in everything from the history of religions to the art of liturgy and from the psychology of religious belief and personal counseling to the analysis of religious scriptures without requiring or expecting any particular devotional attitude or commitment on the part of students.  The latter is a matter of consideration for “ordination,” not education.  In other words, there is no reason that students could not become well educated, even with respect to “their own” devotional traditions, in such secular educational programs.  Just as many students might be “commissioned” in various military services upon the successful completion of their education in a non-military academy (albeit it with additional training and commitments) so too could they be “ordained” in their respective religious traditions. However, whether they would continue to believe in that tradition after such an education is quite another matter, which brings me to your second concern: “reason vs. metaphysics.”

First of all, the term “metaphysics” is unfortunately notoriously vague, imprecise and ambiguous.  The term has been used to denote everything from the quite rigorous study of the foundations of physics (literally: meta-physics) to the belief in astrology, alchemy and all other manner of “occult” superstitious claptrap.  In other words, “reason and logic” and “metaphysics” are not necessarily antithetical and presenting them as such represents a false dichotomy.    Quite the contrary, like everything else, good meta-physics depends upon rigorous logical reasoning and appeal to best evidence.  Unfortunately, a lot of what goes in the name of religion, let alone metaphysics, does neither.   On this point and on the superiority of reason and evidence over superstitious belief you may find another of today’s posts: “Analytic Science or Intuitive Religion?“ to be helpful.

Finally, you raised the issue of how to address the claim that “‘not believing’ is the same as ‘believing’” as far as one’s beliefs about religion are concerned.  However, here too we find an example of a false dichotomy because of an inherent and commonly misunderstood ambiguity in the phrase: “not believe.”  There is a huge difference between saying, “I believe ‘not –X’ ” and “I don’t believe ‘X’.”   The first is indeed an example of a belief of the same kind and on the same level as “I believe ‘X’.”  In fact, you will note that both are literally identical insofar as they assert a belief about something; in the first case, ‘not-X’, in the second case,  ‘X’.  Both are very different however from saying “I don’t-believe ‘X’” (or for that matter, “I don’t-believe ‘not-X’”).  We agnostics run into this confusion all the time, both from theists and atheists alike.   However, anyone who says that ‘believing’ (‘B’) is the same as ‘not-believing’ (‘not-B’) has either committed this fallacy of ambiguity by confusing “not-believe” with “believe not” or is asserting the flat-out contradiction that ‘not-B’ is identical to ‘B’.  In either case, to say that  “not believing” is the same as “believing“ is anything but logical or rational.   But then there are a lot of illogical and irrational people in the world, especially when it comes to religion.  

Paul W. Sharkey