To speak of ontology is to speak of being, to say what exists, or how it exists, or how the things that exist are related, while to speak of gods or God is what is called theology. Every theology is necessarily a form of ontology – it takes a specific position on what exists – but not every ontology is a form of theology. However, every ontology is and must be, at the very least, a non-theology. Which is to say, you can’t talk about being or existence without at some point crossing into religious territory, however tangentially.
Let’s get some helpful maps for entering this rather contentious territory.
Either you have an image of God, or of gods, in your mind, and it matters to you, or you have an image of the impossibility of deities and that matters to you, or you do not find images of divine entities are of any particular relevance for how you think about existence. These three positions are those of the religious and non-religious positions of theism (e.g. Christianity, Islam), atheism (e.g. secular humanism, Marxism), and non-theism (e.g. Theraveda Buddhism, Jainism). That makes it sound as if you cannot get by without positioning your view of existence (your ontology) in respect to images of God or gods, even though you quite obviously can – it is just that when you are confronted about theology, whatever stand you take must be positioned somewhere within the space of this particular game.
But it is not just theology that everyone is forced into a position upon, ontology is equally inescapable: everybody who speaks has an ontology – even if it just all the names of all the things that they know about. Your ontology is the set of things you can say exist, and this process is well established in us long before language gives us names for them. Some philosophers develop quite intricate systems for describing how things are, or for setting the limits of what can be known about how things are, in what could be called technical ontologies. However, despite the care with which it is practiced, ontology is not a subject prone to widespread agreement: the number and kinds of ontology are limitless, and all of the more sophisticated ontologies come with a recognition of the limitations of this kind of thinking.
Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) sets the pattern here. While ontology in one form or another goes back at least three millennia to the Sanskrit scriptures known as the Vedas and to the ancient Greek philosophers, the way we think about technical ontologies remains coloured by the work of Kant during the Enlightenment. As Theodor Adorno has commented, Kant recognised that an ontology “exists only for others” and thus has no meaning outside of lived experience, while he simultaneously tried to conduct a “salvaging of ontology” as something beyond experience. The tension between these two elements of Kant’s ontological work has never gone away.
Today, philosophers can be broadly divided into two camps. Firstly, there are those who have continued to pursue Kant’s project of ontological rescue who are engaged in trying to construct ontologies that can be claimed to go beyond experience. My personal favourite of these is Alain Badiou, who identifies ontology with mathematics (set theory in particular), and then reasons about ontology by using maths as his foundation. On the other hand there are those who are engaged in Kant’s project of ontological critique, who are primarily engaged in situating ontologies (including theologies) as elements of a plurality. Here I have a fondness for Paul Feyerabend, who found technical ontology less than useful, and was dismissive of what Terrance Blake calls “the detour through ontology”.
What ontology and theology have in common, what binds them together as conceptual sisters, is that both are about how we imagine existence. If we did not live in a world so heavily conditioned by theistic traditions, it might not even be necessary to distinguish between these two practices – but our intellectual inheritance is inescapably coloured by the Judaic concept of history, the Islamic reinterpretation of Greek philosophy and mathematics, and the Christian faith in truth, which descends from the earlier monotheistic practices and has given rise to the tradition of scientific investigation. The core danger of trying to paint our time as one where religion and science ‘fight’ is that the key battlegrounds are within the sciences and within religious (and non-religious) thought, as I drew out of the discussion within The Mythology of Evolution. Despite the ‘official story’, the majority of those who believe that the sciences uncover the truth about the world are Christian, and the most vociferously asserted theologies in the public sphere are atheologies that insist upon crossing out all gods.
Theology, including atheology, always possesses a moral element (or an aesthetic element – the distinction is not always important). Take any of the atheologies being deployed today and you will always find behind it a (moral) commitment to truth. Since gods clearly do not exist (the logic goes), we must commit ourselves to an atheology where gods are not an acceptable part of our thought. This position is undergirded by a prior commitment to the importance of truth. It is because gods are not true that we must reject them. The theological positions are generally more varied, and include those that are a direct inversion of the standard atheology (starting once more with the commitment to truth), as well as others in which God serves as a distant moral guarantor (which was broadly Kant’s position), or in which a moral order is otherwise given a divine foundation.
Now in the case of contemporary technical ontologies, the moral element may appear to be absent, and this could be taken as a justification for not linking these systems of thought with theology altogether. However, this is not as straightforward as it might appear. Many non-theological ontologies begin with the same (moral) commitment to truth as other theologies/atheologies, even if that prior moral claim is sometimes obscured by a claim to nihilism, usually developed with (or perhaps against) Nietzsche. But nihilism is essentially a self-negating position for philosophers: if it were plausible to void all truth and meaning, there would be no viable topics for any philosophy to address. Only the rather limited claim that ‘the universe in itself is devoid of value or meaning’ is available, and this is a terribly uninteresting observation until it enters theology, where it becomes a rather straightforward atheological claim.
Even those technical ontologies that do not begin with the moral commitment to truth cannot avoid entering into moral territory later. Once you make a claim for how existence is organised or can be understood it is hard to avoid this becoming a demand to understand in this way (or something like it) on pain of error. If the ontologist did not have this kind of commitment to truth before theorising, and they manage to avoid acquiring it afterwards, then what motive would they have for sharing their ontology? There is always a moral value here, even if it is concealed behind epistemic justifications. We should expect this: no-one is going to pursue ontology or theology without a motive, and that motive will always contain a moral (or aesthetic) element.
Tolstoy claimed that it was impossible for a person to have no religion, in the sense that this word means a relationship to the universe. This statement no longer seems as self-evident as it did a century and a half ago because the meaning of ‘religion’ has become mangled through its deployment as a caricatured ‘enemy’ to be fought… those whose self-image is founded upon ‘fighting religion’ are effectively barred from considering how this practice might also seem like a religion when viewed from the outside. It was for this reason that I began to talk of non-religions, and for equivalent but opposite reasons that others talk of ‘worldviews’. Technical ontologies scrupulously avoid overt religious elements, but they cannot entirely avoid operating as non-religions, because you simply cannot talk about existence without taking some kind of moral (or aesthetic) stand upon it.
Thus ontology can be understood as non-theology, as a means of conducting the same kind of how-and-why-things-are-this-way discussions that occur within theology – the ‘Queen of the sciences’ as it was once known – without having to take any particular positive or negative view on the existence or otherwise of divine forces. Except, of course, they always do. How can they not! You can’t have a system for summing up existence and yet never be required to take a theological stand when the vast majority of the planet constrains their ontological concerns to those of theology. These two practices are twinned; they are distinct, but they can never be separated while theology is still being practiced. Accepting this proposition doesn’t mean that everyone has to be a theologian – but it does mean that you can’t practice ontology without at least brushing up against theology. And good fences, as they say, make for good neighbours.
The opening image is David Chidgey’s Music of the Spheres, which I found here on his website Art Glass Mosaics. As ever, no copyright infringement is implied and I will take the image down if asked.