The term can, however, be used for a variety of different disciplines or fields of study. Theologians use various forms of analysis and argument (philosophical, ethnographic, historical, spiritual and others) to help understand, explain, test, critique, defend or promote any of myriad religious topics.
Theology might be undertaken to help the theologian:
- understand more truly their own religious tradition,
- understand more truly another religious tradition,
- make comparisons among religious traditions,
- defend or justify a religious tradition,
- facilitate reform of a particular tradition,
- assist in the propagation of a religious tradition, or
- draw on the resources of a tradition to address some present situation or need,
- draw on the resources of a tradition to explore possible ways of interpreting the world, or
- explore the nature of divinity without reference to any specific tradition.
- challenge (ex. biblical criticism) or oppose (ex. irreligion) a religious tradition or the religious world-view.
It is seen by some to be a term only appropriate to the study of religions that worship a deity (a theos), and to presuppose belief in the ability to speak and reason about this deity (in logia)—and so to be less appropriate in religious contexts that are organized differently (religions without a deity, or that deny that such subjects can be studied logically). ("Hierology" has been proposed as an alternative, more generic term.)
Since the early nineteenth century, various different approaches have emerged in the West to theology as an academic discipline. Much of the debate concerning theology's place in the university or within a general higher education curriculum centres on whether theology's methods are appropriately theoretical and (broadly speaking) scientific or, on the other hand, whether theology requires a pre-commitment of faith by its practitioners, and whether such a commitment conflicts with academic freedom.
There is an ancient tradition of skepticism about theology, followed by a more modern rise in secularist and atheist criticism.
Criticism by philosophersWhether or not reasoned discussion about the divine is possible has long been a point of contention.
Protagoras, as early as the fifth century BC, who is reputed to have been exiled from Athens because of his agnosticism about the existence of the gods, said that "Concerning the gods I cannot know either that they exist or that they do not exist, or what form they might have, for there is much to prevent one's knowing: the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of man's life."
Lord Bolingbroke, an English politician and political philosopher wrote in his political works his views on theology, "Theology is in fault not religion. Theology is a science that may justly be compared to the Box of Pandora. Many good things lie uppermost in it; but many evil lie under them, and scatter plagues and desolation throughout the world."
Thomas Paine the American revolutionary, wrote in his two part work The Age of Reason, "The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion. Not anything can be studied as a science, without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing."
Ludwig Feuerbach, the atheist philosopher sought to dissolve theology in his work Principles of the Philosophy of the Future: "The task of the modern era was the realization and humanization of God – the transformation and dissolution of theology into anthropology." This mirrored his earlier work The Essence of Christianity (pub. 1841), for which he was banned from teaching in Germany, in which he had said that theology was a "web of contradictions and delusions".
A.J. Ayer the former logical-positivist, sought to show in his essay "Critique of Ethics and Theology" that all statements about the divine are nonsensical and any divine-attribute is unprovable. He wrote: "It is now generally admitted, at any rate by philosophers, that the existence of a being having the attributes which define the god of any non-animistic religion cannot be demonstratively proved... [A]ll utterances about the nature of God are nonsensical."
Walter Kaufmann the philosopher, in his essay "Against Theology", sought to differentiate theology from religion in general. "Theology, of course, is not religion; and a great deal of religion is emphatically anti-theological... An attack on theology, therefore, should not be taken as necessarily involving an attack on religion. Religion can be, and often has been, untheological or even anti-theological." However, Kaufmann found that "Christianity is inescapably a theological religion".
Critics of theology as an academic disciplineCritics dating back to the 18th century have questioned the suitability of theology as an academic discipline and in the 21st century criticism continues.
Jerry Coyne considers theology to be "beliefs that have no basis in fact", suggests that theologians are deliberately obscure and baffling, and queries how they know reality corresponds to what they say and how they know they personally are closer to understanding reality than other theologians. He feels theology confuses ordinary people.
Richard Dawkins, an outspoken member of the New Atheism movement, believes that theology is not a suitable subject for a university because it is not scientific, saying that "a positive case now needs to be made that it has any real content at all, and that it has any place in today's universities." Science enabled spectacular achievements ranging from space exploration through to development of vaccines and other life saving treatments for infections while, in Dawkins' opinion, theology has achieved nothing.
General criticismCharles Bradlaugh believed theology prevented human beings achieving liberty. Bradlaugh noted theologians of his time stated that modern scientific research contradicted sacred scriptures therefore the scriptures must be wrong.
Robert G. Ingersoll stated that when theologians had power the majority of people lived in hovels while a privileged few had palaces and cathedrals. In Ingersoll's opinion science rather than theology improved people's lives. Ingersoll maintained further that trained theologians reason no better than a person who assumes the devil must exist because pictures resemble the devil so exactly.
Mark Twain stated that several mutually incompatible religions claimed to be the True Religion and that people cut each the throats of others for following a different theology.