In lieu of the Nietzschean madman’s famous proclamation “God is dead! And we have killed them,” LeRon Shults declares instead, “The gods are born—and we have borne them” (2, 183). Theology After the Birth of God is Shults’ candid and engaging attempt to “have ‘the talk’ about divine reproduction”—that is, to answer the question: where do gods come from?
While appreciative of Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, as well as that of Marx, Feuerbach, and Freud, Shults is interested in a different atheistic strategy, noting that “God seems to have survived his death without much difficulty” (2–3). He wishes to move beyond natural, secular, and death-of-God theologies to a “postpartum theology” that “lets go of the gods”—along with “mentally repressive” and “socially oppressive” religious imagery—and takes up a “nonviolent iconoclasm” that is more successfully “theolytic” (god-dissolving) than postmortem theologies have been (202).
Drawing on such theorists as Stewart Guthrie, Roy Rappaport, and Pascal Boyer, Shults situates his project within the biocultural study of religion and offers a synthesis of anthropological, cultural, and cognitive-scientific studies. His central claim is that “supernatural agent conceptions are naturally reproduced in human thought” because of 1) “evolved cognitive mechanisms that hyperactively detect agency when confronted with ambiguous phenomena,” which are then 2) “culturally nurtured” through “evolved coalitional mechanisms that hyperactively protect in-group cohesion” (3). Shults refers to these “theogonic” (god-bearing) dynamics, respectively, as “anthropomorphic promiscuity” and “sociographic prudery.” The process of “god-bearing” is twofold: “gods are both born in human cognition (do to an overactive detection of agency) and borne in human cultures (due to an overactive protection of coalitions)” (50). In other words, from an evolutionary biological perspective, humans are hardwired to look for intentional agency in the natural world and interpret it axiologically in a way that increases group cooperation and commitment thus promoting survival (22, 27).
Shults argues that, together, the processes of anthropomorphic promiscuity (overdetection of intentional agency in nature) and sociographic prudery (overprotection of group interests and cohesion) are what give rise to the “sacerdotal trajectory” of the dominant monotheist theologies. While there was a time when these forces and their resulting religions may have been useful for human existence, Shults deems them psychologically and socio-politically counterproductive today. So he proposes a “radical” or “iconoclastic” theological trajectory that predicatively inverts the promiscuity and the prudery, encouraging instead sociographic diversity (openness to alternate normativities) and anthropomorphic restraint (resistance to conceiving the transcendental as conciousness). Here he commends science for its general immunity to our evolutionary defaults (37). Pointing to atheist philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, he expresses his hope that this “discovery of the ‘birth of God’” will also liberate theologians to venture “more plausible hypotheses” and “more feasible strategies” for engaging and shaping “our axiological worlds” (202).
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In the following symposium on Shults’ work, these claims are queried from five distinct perspectives, ranging from broad agreement to direct opposition.
Philip Clayton—a panentheist, process theologian working at the intersection of metaphysics, the philosophy of science, and epistemology—regards Shults’ sense that “he has broken the DNA code of theology” as another permutation of functionalism. He suggests that functionalist arguments must “cut both ways” because “the psychological reasons for being anti-metaphysical are surely as complex, as interesting, and as efficacious as are the motivations that incline others of us toward metaphysical affirmations.” Although coming from the quite different position of analytic Christian philosophy, Aku Visala similarly asks whether Shults’ secularist critique implicates his own project, since it is a fact of the “believing condition” that we have no metaphysically neutral way of “assessing whether a belief-forming mechanism is reliable or not.” He rejects Shults’ “evolutionary debunking arguments” against rational belief, warning readers that they may lead to “wholesale skepticism.”
Clayton Crockett, whose primary field is postmodern theology and continental philosophy of religion, describes himself as “very sympathetic” to Shults’ project. But in his contribution “How Hard is your Atheism?” he also draws attention to the sort of “outbidding in reference to one’s claims to be hard, to be tough, to be strong-minded in one’s resistance to the siren song of religion” that makes “hardcore” science appear as the new prudery. Hollis Phelps, author of Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-Theology, likewise finds much to agree with in Shults’ critique of religion. But, just as Crockett questions the dichotomy between hard/scientific and soft/non-scientific ways of knowing, Phelps is disinclined to accept the strict opposition between “supernatural parochialism” and “atheistic secularism” or between “belief” and “unbelief” that Shults’ “all or nothing approach” seems to assume. Phelps commends Deleuze, one of Shults’ central figures, precisely as a model for “charting a constructive, iconoclastic” way forward that doesn’t stop at the critical moment but moves on to a “creative appropriation and use of religious and theological notions.”
Katharine Sarah Moody’s response “The Church Emerging After the Birth of God?” marks a distinct approach to Theology After the Birth of God as it contextualizes Shults’ argument in terms of his own relationship to the Emerging Church Movement. She invites Shults to respond to the potential for radical trajectories within his “religious family of origin.” In particular, she points to the work of Kester Brewin and Peter Rollins and their “atheist adaptations” of the theological forms they inherit. Moody follows Slavoj Žižek’s Hegelian, materialist interpretation of religion in concluding that, “Where religion has pointed to a fictional reality beyond the world, it can now be understood as an icon onto the world.” In other words, Moody, like Phelps, wants to know whether Shults thinks the kind of radical theological trajectories he is interested in can in fact be carved out within particular religious communities, discourses, and traditions rather than over against them.
Together, these pieces raise a host of thoughtful questions about human cognition, truth, science, finitude, and religious practice. They certainly press us to further consider the ongoing significance of the public interplay of theological commitments and value systems in an increasingly pluralist society.