How theologians are like lawyers, and vice versa

Today my friend Jerry Coyne on his essay site “Why Evolution Is True” introduced me to a new heroic intellectual, a guy named Walter Kaufmann. Although Jerry’s focus on Kaufmann concerns Kaufmann’s critical view of religion, the last quote Jerry used is particularly fascinating to me, because in it Kaufmann links theologians’ arguments to the arguments of lawyers.

Here’s Jerry’s introduction to Kaufmann:

I’m reading a wonderful anti-religious book by Walter Kaufmann called The Faith of a Heretic. (Doubleday, New York, 1961). Kaufmann (1921-1980) was a colorful character and a polymath who knew tons about philosophy and theology. Raised as a Lutheran, he converted to Judaism at age 11 and subsequently rejected all faith, becoming an atheist and then a well known philosopher who taught at Princeton most of his career. His specialty was Nietzsche but he ranged over much modern philosophy. I’d never heard of him before, and came across the book by accident, but I’m sure some readers know of him.

And here’s the Kaufmann quote on how theologians argue like lawyers (there’s a nice photo of Kaufmann at the end; I think I’m in love):

Indeed, [theologians] resemble lawyers in two ways. In the first place, they accept books and traditions as data that it is not up to them to criticize. They can only hope to make the best of these books and traditions by selecting the most propitious passages and precedents; and where the law seems to them harsh, inhuman, or dated, all they can do is have recourse to exegesis.

Secondly, many theologians accept the morality that in many countries governs the conduct of the counsel for the defense. Ingenuity and skillful appeals to the emotions are considered perfectly legitimate; so are attempts to ignore all the inconvenient evidence, as long as one can get away with it, and the refusal to engage in inquiries that are at all likely to discredit the predetermined conclusion: that the client is innocent. If all else fails, one tries to saddle one’s opponent with the burden of disproof; and as a last resort one is content with a reasonable doubt that after all the doctrines that one has defended might be true.


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