Symposium Introduction

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).

*  *  *

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.

Clayton Crockett


How Hard Is Your Atheism?

THEOLOGY AFTER THE BIRTH of God is a political book about religion. F. LeRon Shults brings the insights of cognitive science of religion to bear directly on theology, to fashion an iconoclastic theology. The findings of cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology allow us to understand how religion is formed, as the selective adaption of the kind of minds we have. Our minds possess two basic mechanisms that enable us to construct supernatural agents, who are the objects of religion. The first is a Theory of Mind Mechanism, that posits other people and sometimes non-humans as possessing a mind, and the second is a Hyperactive Agency Detection Device, that drives us to ascribe agency to events even when they are absent. Taken together, these two devices explain why humans are so quick to give birth to supernatural agents, and why they persist to this day. Shults’s atheistic, iconoclastic theology recognizes the birth of God and gods—recognizes that we have borne them and asks us to take responsibility for them. What can or should we do with our gods? Let them go.

But it’s not quite that simple. In his magisterial book Religion Explained, Pascal Boyer, one of the cognitive scientists of religion on whom Shults draws, introduces us to “the tragedy of the theologian.” The theologian is a religious specialist who participates in a kind of guild, and desires to constrain peoples’ natural supernatural intuitions into a theologically correct form. Boyer says that the real tragedy of the theologian is “not just that people, because they have minds rather than literal memories, will always be theologically incorrect, will always add to the message and distort it, but also that the only way to make the message immune to such adulteration renders it tedious, thereby fueling imagistic dissent and threatening the position of the theologian’s guild” (285).

The guild theologian, who Shults calls a sacerdotal theologian, tries to discipline the natural intuitions people have about supernatural agents. To this tragedy of the theologian, however, can be contrasted the irony of the cognitive scientist of religion. The confessional theologian is forced to shape people’s natural conceptions to fit the mold of orthodox traditions. The sacerdotal theologian works with peoples’ instincts about religion, but cannot completely eliminate the gap between folk religious intuitions and the orthodox religious doctrines. The cognitive scientist is forced to swim against the tide of people’s natural intuitions, and this situation, which also applies to the iconoclastic theologian, creates a different problem.

According to Shults, a contemporary science of religion that acknowledges the results of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology distinguishes between anthropomorphic and sociographic prudery and promiscuity. We are shaped by our natural tendencies acquired through evolution to be exclusive in social terms and expansive in anthropomorphic terms—to see supernatural agents like spirits and gods everywhere, and to want to restrict them to one’s own tribe or group. The evolution of reason and science gives us tools to value anthropomorphic prudery, to diminish or eliminate supernatural agents, along with a more sociographic promiscuity. Sociographic promiscuity means something like multiculturalism or cosmopolitanism, the ability to tolerate and to affirm most human cultural and ethnic groupings. What Shults calls the iconoclastic trajectory in theology combines sociographic promiscuity with anthropomorphic prudery, whereas the sacerdotal trajectory does the opposite, pairing anthropomorphic promiscuity with sociographic prudery (56).

What the cognitive scientist of religion and the iconoclastic theologian tell us, repeating in a neurological way insights of the European Enlightenment, is that people are hardwired to believe in religion as defined in terms of supernatural agents. Rationalists, scientists, and iconoclastic theologians do not believe. They know better. They can explain religious belief but they cannot get rid of it. So the question is what is to be done? The naivete of the so-called new atheists like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens is the assumption that we can simply dispense with irrational supernatural beliefs. Many people engaged in the academic study of religion, whether they think of themselves as scientists or not, want to affirm their emancipation from belief in religion by jettisoning the term theology. The theologian believes in her religious ideas, whereas the scholar of religion remains at most agnostic.

Shults takes a riskier path, holding onto the term theology and redefining it. This move can be seen broadly as in the tradition of radical theology, even though Shults criticizes many contemporary forms of radical theology as not being atheistic enough (4). A radicalization of radical theology is an iconoclastic theology, a theology that openly affirms its atheism and naturalism. Atheism and naturalism are not simply methodological commitments, but even more strongly operate in metaphysical terms. Shults is clear: “gods do not exist,” and atheism designates “the affirmation of metaphysical naturalism and metaphysical secularism” (162, emphasis in original).

This is hard. It’s hard in two ways: first, because it’s difficult to counteract our natural tendencies towards taking supernatural agents as credible; and second, it’s hard in a more positive and heroic sense. Boyer does not lament the tragedy of the theologian; he is amused by this discomfort. Boyer also recognizes the fact that many people resist his and others’ explanations of religion for religious reasons, but he doesn’t care because he is a scientist. He is committed to explaining religion, and the fact is that it is not true. Gods don’t exist. There is something powerful and hard about science. It’s hard core. Atheism is hard core, and there exists in atheism what Ward Blanton calls a certain kind 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. Iconoclastic theology is hard, and so is atheism. It’s difficult to be atheist, and one can never be atheistic enough, as Christopher Watkins shows us in his impressive book Difficult Atheism.

Fundamentalism and certain kinds of theism are also hard. They require intellectual, social, and personal sacrifices, and they are not for the weak. Literalist theology is tremendously difficult to affirm in our complex and multifaceted world, and it’s only the certainty that it is right that allows one to maintain it in the face of so much opposition. This certainty is experienced by non-believers as arrogance, and the certainty expressed by cognitive scientists can also be taken as arrogant condescension. Christianity is hard. So is Islam. So is cognitive science. I am not equating Shults’s atheism with fundamentalism. What I worry about is not so much whether Shults is right, although I am very sympathetic to his project, but how the hardness of atheism can resemble the hardness of fundamentalism. And how the rejection of warm and fuzzy humanism or liberal theology is necessary because it is soft. Nobody wants to be lukewarm. Symbolic interpretation can be a squishy thing, and who wants to celebrate squishiness? The issue here with regard to the struggle between iconoclastic and sacerdotal types of theology concerns the ways that it links up with the academic struggle between scientific (hard) and non-scientific (soft) kinds of knowledge. Here scientific explanations carry along with them an implicit form of prudery, while non-scientific interpretations can seem more promiscuous. I appreciate the engagement with the natural sciences by many contemporary philosophers and theologians, and think this is important and necessary. But I don’t want it to become an either/or situation, where the rejection of fluffy beliefs becomes the prudish rejection of non-scientific modes of inquiry.

In claiming that Theology After the Birth of God is a political book, I am arguing that the primary practical concern for Shults is this sociographic prudery, which may or may not presuppose anthromorphic promiscuity. My question is to what extent the trajectory of iconoclastic theology necessarily stresses anthropomorphic prudery, and to what extent iconoclastic theologies may or may not make alliances with theologies of anthropomorphic promiscuity in their efforts to promote sociographic promiscuity. This question concerns the status of the prodigal trajectory of Shults’s quadrant graph (180). Shults contrasts a prodigal with a penurious trajectory via a reading of the film Avatar. He explains that the Na’vi in the film are “extremely anthropomorphically promiscuous” as well as sociographically promiscuous in opposition to the human corporatists and soldiers who are penurious in their prudery and devastate the planet. Back on Earth, Shults argues that there are no tree-goddesses to save us, which is true, but it raises the same problem Shults points out in his conclusion.

At the end of the book Shults confronts the difficulty of raising cries of catastrophe and ecological destruction due to the resistances such discourses face. For Shults, any atheistic theology, including his own, has to confront the fact that “announcing the ‘death of God’ or the probable imminent death of (some or all) humans raises mortality salience and automatically strengthens the evolved dispositions toward over-protecting kith and kin and over-detecting ambiguous agents who might help or hinder their survival” (201). Why refrain from announcing a coming ecological catastrophe (there is nothing that can save us) if it is in fact true, just because people are not disposed to believe it? It is paradoxically similar to the argument to refrain from promoting atheism because cognitive scientists have shown us that humans are not naturally atheistic.

Shults wants to acknowledge this tension and affirm atheism at the same time. In his conclusion he cautions theoretical discourses that contribute to sociographic prudery even if they may well be true, whereas earlier he insists on arguments against prodigality based on their invalidity even if they appeal to sociographic promiscuity. This paradox implicates the entire book. Shults continues to talk about religion (even though it is not true) and continues to use the term theology (even though there is no God) because as humans we continually generate ideas about supernatural agents and then find them plausible. Shults hopes that his analysis has therapeutic value, to help secularists understand why religion is so resistant to reason, and to help reflective, intelligent believers come to terms with how their ideas stem from their own minds. This is an admirable goal, even if it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to accomplish. Atheism is not hard for certain individuals, but it has proved extremely hard for larger groups of people, which makes Shults’s goal incredibly difficult even as he is to be commended for taking up this challenge.

  • Avatar

    F. LeRon Shults


    Who is Atheism Hard On?


    Many readers of Syndicate will know that I was a (more or less) progressive Christian theologian for the first quarter century of my career. Although my “atheist turn” had already become clear in several earlier articles (see http:/C:/dev/home/ for details), the publication of both Theology after the Birth of God: Atheist Conceptions in Cognition and Culture (Palgrave-Macmillan) and Iconoclastic Theology: Gilles Deleuze and the Secretion of Atheism (Edinburgh University Press) in 2014 offered a fuller presentation of some of the scientific findings and philosophical reflections that contributed to my further progression into atheism. For reasons that I tried to make clear in those books, I still consider myself a “theologian,” albeit a radically atheist one. Over the next few years I plan to continue contributing to (and integrating) the bio-cultural sciences of religion and the naturalistic philosophical trajectories opened up by Deleuze and others. I am grateful to Syndicate and to the six commentators for this opportunity to respond to critical engagements with my first major forays in this direction.

    Who is Atheism Hard On?

    I completely agree with Clayton Crockett’s assessment of the hardness of atheism. For most people, letting go of the gods is extremely difficult for all of the reasons discussed in chapters 2, 3, and 5 of Theology after the Birth of God. I also agree that atheism can be hard in a heroic and positive sense, especially if defined as the attempt to make sense of nature and act sensibly in society without relying on appeals to supernatural agents (as I put it on p. 3). I also appreciate Crockett’s observation that this volume is a political book about religion. He rightly senses that I find sociographic prudery a tougher nut to crack than anthropomorphic promiscuity. Crockett and I hold much in common (see my discussion of his work on pp. 194–95), and most of what follows are simply points of clarification in response to his commentary.

    First, I would like to clarify what I mean by sociographic prudery and anthropomorphic promiscuity. For Syndicate readers who have not yet seen the book, the “quadrant graph” to which Crockett refers is provided below in Figure 1 (see also the free downloads at: http:/C:/dev/home/ The horizontal line of this coordinate grid represents a spectrum on which one can mark the tendency of a person to guess “hidden agent” when confronted with ambiguous phenomena. Anthropomorphically promiscuous individuals jump at any opportunity to postulate humanlike entities as causal explanations even—or especially—when this requires appealing to counterintuitive disembodied intentional forces (i.e., to “supernatural agents”). Anthropomorphic prudes, on the other hand, resist superstitious interpretations of nature and hold out for non-intentional explanations.

    Figure 1.Figure1

    The vertical line plots the variation among individuals in relation to their tendency to prefer the norms of their own in-groups when evaluating ways to organize the social field. Sociographic prudes are happy to stay home with familiar others and are highly suspicious of the alien values of out-groups. The sociographically promiscuous, on the other hand, are more open to dating other cultures; they tend to resist appeals to conventional authorities that enforce segregative inscriptions of society.

    The integration of anthropomorphic promiscuity and sociographic prudery served our upper Paleolithic ancestors well in an environment where survival depended on quickly perceiving any predators or prey, and consistently defending the resources and values of one’s in-group. Shared imaginative engagement with axiologically relevant supernatural agents—religion—powerfully reinforced these biases and gave a survival advantage to hominid groups whose members had this aggregate of traits. The integration of theogonic (god-bearing) mechanisms, represented in the lower left quadrant of Figure 1, was an evolutionary winner.

    In more than one sense, gods were the “best guess” available to our early ancestors. Hypothesizing the presence of a “human-like agent”—even when there was no clear evidence that such an agent existed—was “best” because it provided further motivation to keep trying to detect hidden agents, which was necessary for survival. Given the importance of honing this hypersensitive disposition, it would have been better to keep believing that there might be animal-spirits or ancestor-ghosts in the forest than to guess that the cause of weird noises or movements was simply the wind or shifting shadows. Although these biases regularly triggered false positives, the guesses they produced were cognitively cheap and inferentially rich. Once the human mind thinks it has detected an intentional force, attributions of person-like qualities to the putative agent (e.g., “may be angry” or “wants something”) are easily triggered by other cognitive devices like mentalization and teleological reasoning.

    So, overactive cognitive defaults led to the mental appearance of god-concepts, but why did people keep socially entertaining them? Supernatural agents may be easily born in human minds, but it takes a village to raise them. The gods that stick around and become entangled within communal rituals are typically those that serve as “better guards.” As human groups get larger, it becomes more difficult to keep an eye on everyone and be sure that they are following the norms of the coalition. When the members of an in-group really believe in the existence and causal relevance of disembodied intentional forces who are interested in their behavior, and who have the power and desire to reward or punish them, they are more likely to follow the rules even if no other embodied agents are watching.

    Especially when resources are low or under otherwise stressful conditions, the most competitive coalitions are those whose members are able to cooperate and remain committed to the group. It is easy to understand why self-serving tendencies in individual organisms have been naturally selected over time. However, the societies in which individual human beings live, and on which they depend for survival, will fall apart if there are too many self-serving cheaters, freeloaders or defectors. Research in the bio-cultural sciences of religion suggests that cooperative commitment within some hominid coalitions during the upper Paleolithic was improved by the intensification of shared belief in and ritual engagement with potentially punitive gods. Vindictive supernatural agents would be able to catch misbehavior that natural agents might miss, and could punish not only the miscreants, but also their offspring or even the entire community. Accepting the existence of invisible or ambiguously apparitional “watchers” helps to enhance the motivation to obey conventional regulations and stay committed to the in-group.

    All of this helps to explain why Crockett and I think that atheism is hard, that is to say, why it is difficult for so many people to accept. In the remainder of my response, I want to clarify my position by pointing to two places where I think he has slightly misread me—or at least where our use of terms is slightly different.

    First, Crockett worries that my approach might lead to a hardening of an academic dichotomy, which he refers to as “the academic struggle between scientific (hard) and non-scientific (soft) kinds of knowledge.” He is right that “scientific” explanations (and here he seems to have explanations in “natural science” in mind) “carry along with them an implicit form of prudery, while “non-scientific” interpretations (and here I think he means disciplines in the humanities and some “social sciences”) can seem more promiscuous.” Crockett is concerned that this could lead to an either/or in which the rejection of “fluffy beliefs” entails the rejection of all “non-scientific” modes of inquiry.

    Here it is important to clarify what I mean by science, which is closer to the German Wissenschaft (or the Norwegian vitenskap) than to the way in which the term is typically used in the U.S., where it often connotes “hard” disciplines like physics and chemistry. In my European context, science (vitenskap) refers to all organized modes of academic inquiry that lead to positive knowledge, including fields as diverse as, for example, literature, pedagogy, and, yes, even theology! My current position is professor of theology and philosophy, and I am considered a “scientist” (vitenskapsmann). In the book I pointed out that most chemists would not immediately guess “ghost” if something strange happened in a laboratory experiment. But it is also the case that most literary scholars would not appeal to a supernatural agent (such as the ghost of the author) to defend their interpretation of a particular text. Anthropomorphic prudery does not mean being suspicious about all knowledge that is not tied to a “hard” science like physics; it means being suspicious about any sort of knowledge that claims to be scientific, that is to say “academic” (vitenskapelig), while appealing to the alleged revelation of a disembodied spirit ritually engaged by a religious in-group.

    Second, Crockett seems to have read me as proposing that we “refrain from announcing a coming ecological catastrophe . . . if it is in fact true, just because people are not disposed to believe it.” He also interprets me as cautioning against “theoretical discourses that contribute to sociographic prudery even if they may well be true” (here I think he has in mind the truth, for example, of the severity of climate change). My intention was not to argue for refraining from making such true announcements nor to caution against theoretical discourse around them; quite the opposite—throughout the book I pointed out the increasing urgency of having “the talk” about religious reproduction with as many people as possible.

    My only call for restraint had to do with the “tone” we take. If activating people’s anxiety about the survival of their in-group triggers the tendency to scan for supernatural agents as explanations for ambiguous phenomena (and vice versa), then “the talk” should be pursued in a way that avoids (as far as possible) shaming or attacking those who want to continue bearing gods. But it is still important to be direct.

    I have just completed an article on the way in which religious credulity and congruity biases exacerbate the problems facing the human race as a whole in a pluralistic, globalizing, ecologically fragile context—problems like extreme climate change and excessive consumer capitalism. It is titled “How to Survive the Anthropocene: Adaptive Atheism and the Evolution of Homo deiparensis. Once it is published, I will provide a free link to it on my website.

    Yes, atheism feels too hard for many people, especially those tightly bound up within religious in-groups. In some countries (and regions) it is quite difficult for atheists to “come out” and express their identity as secularists and naturalists. In a growing number of contexts, however, atheists are becoming harder or more “heroic” (in Crockett’s sense) as they gain the courage to stimulate healthy, pluralistic intercourse about plausible interpretations of nature and feasible inscriptions of society without appealing to supernatural agents.

    • Clayton Crockett

      Clayton Crockett


      Not Just What You Believe, Also What You Do

      I want to thank LeRon Shults for his book and his engagement with this Symposium and with my response. I really appreciate his clarifications, especially his explanation of his broader view of science and his acknowledgment of the paradoxical tension in many of these discussions about religion and atheism. In the United States (but not only the US), I worry that part of the return to prominence of the natural sciences coincides with an institutional attempt to delegitimize and marginalize the humanities and liberal arts, as a result of the ongoing corporatization of the university. One result of the so-called “science wars” is that scientists are becoming more vocal and outspoken in response to religious extremists and their denigration of science, and in this way, as in all wars, we all lose.

      This is why I take some distance from atheism as a metaphysical and political project even though I endorse it in a philosophical sense. That is, atheism literally means non-theism, and I am not a theist—I do not believe in a God who is a personal being with a mind and a will and powers. Of course, we could define God into existence as whatever ultimate reality, and that’s fine, but many people want to define a certain minimal conception of God and then get a more maximal payoff from that. That said, I still think that the word/name/event of God or gods is an important source of theoretical reflection for secular and religious people, including as fiction such as literature or poetry. At the limit, all of these oppositions—atheism and theism, religious and secular, hard and soft—deconstruct, insofar as they are oppositions. Even if atheism is hard, I don’t want to have a hard on for atheism. I want to recuse myself from most of these polarizing debates of atheism vs. religion in our society, and instead attend to what such terms and debates might mean in terms of philosophy, politics and ultimately ecology. This is a context of generalized ecology because everything we do occurs within a natural environment that is increasingly becoming an issue of concern, crisis, and even possibly survival.

      There is a lot of turmoil in the city of Baltimore right now, as righteous anger, frustration, and desperation rage. I am a helpless spectator, and am living an incredibly sheltered and privileged life as a white American male who benefits from a racist society built upon the crushing of African-Americans. I know that there are people who are atheists and people who believe in God who are working for justice on the streets of Baltimore, and I would rather support them than divide them. Many of the most compassionate and selfless workers are Christians, just as many of the most selfish and greedy people who are contributing to the destruction of people’s lives are Christian. So there are Christians and there are Christians, just as there are atheists and there are atheists. Religion is linked to sociographic prudery here, although it is not a straightforward connection. Religion is not just what you believe, it is also what you do. I would like to make links and build bridges between iconoclastic and liberations theologies and theologians, despite being relegated to an ivory tower, even if it is coming ever more under siege. This is why I do not want to dismiss the prodigal trajectory of his quadrant graph.

      So I welcome Shults as a fellow iconoclastic theologian, and share most of his goals and even endorse most of his strategies, even if we sometimes disagree on tactics. That is not to even mention our shared commitment to the philosophy of Deleuze and its value for radical theological thinking, and even though I haven’t discussed it here I want to affirm the importance of his book Iconoclastic Theology: Gilles Deleuze and the Secretion of Atheism.



The Church Emerging After the Birth of God?

THEOLOGY AFTER THE BIRTH OF GOD is born of the claim that, while radical theologians and philosophers of religion might still be talking about the death of God, religious practitioners are bored to death with the death of God proclaimed by Nietzsche’s madman. According to Shults, a different strategy—talking instead about the birth of God—will achieve the madman’s goal of disrupting “people’s reliance on supernatural agents to make sense of the world and act sensibly in society” (3).

In this response piece, I invite reflection on how theology reconceived as a discipline that seeks to responsibly “engage the existential intensity encountered at the limits of our natural agency” might do so without the escapism of appeals to supernatural agency when such reflection on “this being-limited of thought—or this being-thought of limitation” (77)—threatens to activate the salience of mortality and, thus, our evolved tendencies to detect gods and to protect our religious coalitions with these gods when faced with our own and others’ finitude. In raising questions about the relationship between Shults’ reconceptualisation of theology and religion’s alleged transcendence of death, I work towards a brief consideration of the theological projects of two contemporary figures in light of Shults’ work. My choice of these figures—Kester Brewin and Peter Rollins—might in turn invite Shults to also reflect on the potential of certain trajectories within what he calls his own religious family of origin (evangelical Christianity), which might be seen as attempting to engender atheist conceptions at the more radical margins of the (largely post-evangelical) Emerging Church Movement (ECM) and to transform the actually existing churches into death-of-God collectives (Rollins) that gather around a God who doesn’t exist (Brewin).1

The ECM is a contemporary Western religious movement that is characterised by sociologists of religion Gerardo Martí and Gladys Ganiel as a distinct religious orientation built around the (not necessarily philosophical) deconstruction of inherited forms of Christianity.2 Participants are emerging from a variety of Christian traditions, but the most prominent protest of emerging Christianity as it initially developed during the late 1990s and early 2000s reflected what Mathew Guest identified in his study of English evangelicalism as the “frustration with the rigidity of mainstream evangelical churches and their reluctance to engage with significant cultural change,” which was a motivating factor in the connected emergence of alternative worship and post-evangelicalism in the 1980s and 1990s.3 Shults has his own relationship with emerging Christianity, having written (in 2006) a piece to aid the U.S. emerging church organisation Emergent in resisting critics’ calls for a doctrinal statement of faith regarding the propositional beliefs to which it assents.4 As part of my ongoing study of the more radical trajectories within the ECM, I’m able to offer here only the briefest of reflections on the ability of Brewin and Rollins to engender potentially atheist conceptions from within emerging Christian discourse and practice, engaging their work both critically and constructively in light of Shults’ Theology After the Birth of God, and I welcome his thoughts.

Hypotheses from the interdisciplinary field of what Shults calls the biocultural study of religion suggest that first-order intuitive religious ideas of a finite supernatural agent with limited knowledge and power are more easily intellectually comprehensible and more relevant to everyday “processes of evaluating and being evaluated” (9) than second-order theological reflections about an infinite intelligent intentionality that is incommensurable with human thought. Religion’s “theological incorrectness” explains the empirically observable disjunction between theological and doctrinal formulations, on the one hand, and the god-conceptions of religious practitioners, on the other. In other words, it explains why religious people believe what they shouldn’t.5 But Shults proposes that the biocultural sciences further explain that the Death of God movement (which he claims revolved around the mortality and moribundity of an infinite intentional force) failed to either adequately reflect or significantly impact the trajectory of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Christianity not because Christians remain wedded to the idea of an immortal God transcending the limits of space and time, but precisely because, in their lived religious practices, Christians regularly conceive of and ritually interact with finite god-conceptions that conform to the evolved tendencies of human beings to detect humanlike intentionality or agency amidst the ambiguity of the world around us (184). A finite God who suffers with humanity or who must wait and see how things turn out is much easier for most Christians to bear than the maximally counterintuitive proclamation (meaning that it violates too many of the default expectations we have) that their transcendent God has somehow died (4). The churches ignore or immunise themselves against the theological hypothesis that God is dead and go about their business.

Shults suggests that talking about the birth of God can achieve what talking about the death of God cannot by exposing the cognitive and cultural mechanisms through which we tend to detect supernatural rather than natural agency in the world—to make the guess (or abductive inference) “god”—and to protect the cohesion of our in-groups or coalitions with such gods through out-group antagonism (3). While these theogonic (god-bearing) mechanisms were vital to our historical evolutionary development, they are now psychologically and politically damaging within our contemporary pluralistic contexts. If religion involves imaginative engagement with those supernatural agents that are detected by a coalition when faced with ambiguous phenomena and that are deemed to be axiologically relevant for them (that is, relevant for that coalition’s determinations of intellectual, aesthetic, and ethical values), then a theology that lets go of both supernatural agents and supernatural coalitions would involve criticism of the plausibility of those theoretical explanations of the world and normative inscriptions for the world that appeal to such agents and coalitions (52). But it would also involve the construction of hypotheses about “the conditions for axiological engagement” (12) and about alternative ways of “conceptualizing that which originates, orders, and orients” our “value-laden practices” (181) without recourse to supernatural agents or coalitions. Both of these theological tasks together could complement the theolytic (god-dissolving) effects of the efforts of those working in the biocultural study of religion (78).

However, it is possible to discern in Shults’ presentation of research within this field a potential obstacle to the efficacy of theolytic theology; namely, mortality salience, which “automatically strengthens the evolved dispositions towards over-protecting kith and kin and over-detecting ambiguous agents who might help or hinder their survival” (201). Shults references studies that suggest that thinking about mortality accentuates anxieties and stresses and that religion provides “causal resolution to the existential fear of death by evoking possible worlds of avoidance.”6 Our evolved theogonic mechanisms are activated by reflecting on the finitude of our existence and religions offer a variety of ways to escape these limitations, including “an alleged transcendent Reality after death” (142). But Shults proposes that theolytic theological hypotheses revolve around precisely just such a reflection on our being-limited-ness and, in particular, on “the empirical experience of axiological limitation”: “theology theorizes ‘about’ the intense experience of being-conditioned, the being-limited of human knowing, acting, and feeling” (77). So how might theolytic theological reflection on limitation forestall the activation of powerful evolved theogonic tendencies that tempt us to try to transcend our being-limited-ness through religious engagement with supernatural agents and coalitions? Shults suggests that this will require resisting the “iconic vision” according to which religion points to a supernatural reality beyond the natural world (142). Might this mean that this newly conceived theology after the birth of God radically reconceives religion after the birth of God? If so, it might primarily redress religion’s alleged transcendence of death, in order to reduce the salience of mortality for the activation of theogonic mechanisms (176).

Elsewhere, I have framed the theological projects of both Kester Brewin and Peter Rollins as attempting to constitute subjectivity in relation to the death and decay of God and to create transformative collective practices that can reconcile participants to their own death, decay, and fundamental nothingness.7 Brewin’s current work examines our obsession with transcendence and he characterises our quest for physical, intellectual, and spiritual altitude as a quest for the transcendence that would overcome death. What Julian Barnes refers to as “the sin of height” and what Brewin further describes as “our fascination with transcending our limited finitude” translates into a quest for altitude through technology, pharmacology, and theology: “The hope of flight is the hope of overcoming death.”8 But, for Rollins and Brewin, Christianity can refuse to take flight; it has the potential to reconcile us to our finitude and, thereby, decrease the salience of mortality and the efficacy of the theogonic mechanisms.

I locate both Brewin and Rollins in the tradition of radical theology, understood as a broad trajectory of loosely associated theologies whose philosophical heritage can be traced back to the death of God attested to in the work of great atheist critics of religion like Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud and, in particular, in a range of readings of Hegel and/or Nietzsche.9 This strand of theology therefore includes not only 1960s Death of God theologians such as Thomas J. J. Altizer, but figures like Mark C. Taylor, Gianni Vattimo, John D. Caputo, and Slavoj Žižek, among others. Conceived of in this way, therefore, the extent to which any radical theology might be characterised as methodologically naturalist and secularist (excluding appeals to supernatural agency in theoretical descriptions and normative prescriptions) and metaphysically atheist differs according to different conceptualisations of the death of God.10

In their most recent publications, After Magic and The Divine Magician, both Brewin and Rollins reference Žižek’s portrayal of the death of God using the dialectical structure of a magic trick. This threefold structure—depicted in Christopher Nolan’s (2006) film The Prestige—is the pledge (the thesis), the turn (the negation of the thesis), and the prestige (the negation of the negation). The example that Žižek gives occurs early in the film, where a bird (the pledge) is made to disappear from within a cage on a table (the turn) and to reappear in the magician’s hand (the prestige). We see, however, that the apparently reappeared bird is not the bird that disappeared, which was squashed inside the collapsible cage. Just as the dead bird remains dead, God has really died (or never existed); crucifixion is final. That is the bad news of Christianity. But the trick is that this is a form of bad news/good news—when it is understood that there is another bird; God is resurrected as another subject, another agent, the “Holy Spirit,” the community of believers. “When the believers gather, mourning Christ’s death,” Žižek writes, “their shared spirit is the resurrected Christ.”11 This is why Brewin often says that we are the prestige: “The prestige is presented not as a supernatural return of the body, but as the material return of it as bodies working sacrificially, lovingly as a distributed material community.”12 In a magic trick, that which has the appearance of having reappeared is not precisely that which disappeared; what is revealed to us is something that is similar but different. What we get back after the death of God is not a supernatural agent but the natural agency of a social body. As Žižek says, “God is nothing but the Holy Spirit of the community of believers.”13 After the disappearance/death of God (or of what Rollins calls the virtual or fictitious sacred-object that we imagine promises wholeness and satisfaction but that never really existed in the first place since it is created precisely by our sense of loss and lack), there is not strictly a return of the sacred as this “fictional thing we can never touch,” but, rather, a revelation that the sacred is “a depth within things we can touch.” It is “the experience of depth and density operating in things” and “of care and concern for the world.”14 Where religion has pointed to a fictional reality beyond the world, it can now be understood as an icon onto the world. It is realist and materialist, rather than illusionary and escapist.

Where Brewin states his disbelief in a personal god and in divine salvation, Rollins maintains in his writings a distinction between disbelief in God’s existence and the felt absence of God’s presence, conceiving of the crucifixion as a moment of existential rather than intellectual atheism. Brewin is therefore more explicitly metaphysically atheist than Rollins. But findings within the biocultural study of religion about the mutually reinforcing nature of supernatural agency detection and religious in-group protection challenge the efficacy of even atheist theological conceptions that are tied to the symbolic world of a specific religious coalition (42). For Žižek, the community of believers in which the death of God (or, rather, the negative moment in which we experience the non-existence of the big Other) continues to resonate or reverberate is not the church but the revolutionary emancipatory collective. But attempts by both Brewin and Rollins to engender materialist rather than escapist conceptions remain more closely tied to the potential of the Christian family (from which they are emerging and to whom they write) to give material existence to this subversive negativity. This means that, while Žižek, Brewin, and Rollins all challenge inherited supernatural god-concepts, their theologies nonetheless inhabit the Christian symbolic world, and the inherently Christian shape of the death of God narrative within which these theologies are articulated can extend a measure of immunity to this supernatural coalition. I have noted elsewhere how Rollins’ work in particular risks being (mis)read as a way of discovering the God beyond the idol “God” and a richer faith beyond the ideology of “religion,” especially when his later more potentially radical work is read through the lens of his earlier more apophatic theology, in which, for example, God’s absence is an icon to God’s presence.15 Such ambiguous references to the orthodox Christian symbolic world in the midst of an ostensibly radical theology mean that, in turn, these theologies risk reactivating the supernatural agent detections that they are intended to overcome.

In order to avoid the reactivation of evolved tendencies to detect supernatural agency and to protect supernatural coalitions, we might suggest that theology must be liberated from religion and that figures like Brewin and Rollins should begin to construct conceptions that emerge beyond the Christian symbolic world. This would, then, be a theological but not religious atheism (162) that advances without reference to God (however reconceptualised). Talk of either the birth or the death of God can be colonised by religious coalitions who continue to detect supernatural providential agency within both and who can thereby immunise themselves against both projection and detection/protection critiques of religion (5).

If postmortem theologies are met with a bored disinterest, postpartum theologies are likely to be met with defensive inductive and deductive arguments about the supernatural conditions for axiological engagement that are grounded in the abductive inferences of religious coalitions that guess “god.” So Shults suggests that the theolytic theologian should not confront religious practitioners by trying to press their adoption of metaphysical atheism. “The goal should not be to force people to adopt atheism into their families of origin,” he writes, “but to invite them to adapt by nurturing the reflective and innovative capacities they have had all along” (164). Following Murray Bowen’s family systems theory, such an adaption to atheist conceptions might be engendered through differentiation of self, which is aided by identifying and resisting the automatic methods of dealing with anxiety within one’s religious family of origin, maintaining emotional contact with this family whilst resisting the “togetherness forces” that operate within it, and intentional encounters with people from other families of origin (129–30).16

I want to end this engagement with Theology after the Birth of God by suggesting that both Brewin and Rollins operate strategically within the Christian symbolic world precisely because they recognise the efficacy of indirect intervention over direct confrontation, or, to use Shults’ language, of engendering adaption over enforcing adoption.

According to Scott Atran, religious language is only quasi-propositional, having the characteristics of an ordinary logical proposition but supernatural referents that prevent its empirical evaluation and that, therefore, permit the multiple interpretations and reinterpretations that sustain supernatural coalitions over time: the open-endedness of religious symbolic worlds “allows their learning, their teaching and their exegesis to go on forever.”17 This insight from the biocultural study of religion enables Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley to argue that the Death of God movement dissipated so quickly because, while it tied itself to the Christian symbolic world, it linked those symbols to the specific context of 1960s America, thus preventing the endless interpretation, application, and manipulation of flexible symbolic worlds that the imaginative engagement of religious coalitions requires.18 This theological movement could therefore not hold the interest of Christian coalitions or sustain their ritual interactions (70).

I have previously understood the ambiguity of Rollins’ use of religious language to be a negative thing, since it provides the space for Christian supernatural coalitions to (mis)interpret references to God and, especially, God’s death on the cross as pointing to Christianity as the religious symbolic world that best exposes our need and our ability to let the gods go, thereby enabling them to ultimately immunise themselves against his potentially theolytic theological project. However, engaging the biocultural study of religion through Shults’ work has enabled me to see this very ambiguity as having a more positive function. While Rollins’ equivocal use of Christian words and symbols risks the activation of coalition-favouring god-conceptions, the very openness of this religious language to interpretation (and what might very well be misinterpretation) enables him to strategically remain within the wider emerging church conversation as he sets about indirectly engendering potentially atheist conceptions. His work provides enough room for (mis)interpretation to keep his audience engaged in a way that (Lawson and McCauley’s characterisation of 1960s’) Death of God theology could not.

If their theological strategy is to encourage atheist adaptations within inherited forms of Western Christianity, Brewin and Rollins must surely remain in what Shults describes as emotionally neutral but intellectually active contact with this religious family (130). But their theological projects will always run the risk of allowing Christian coalitions to think that their religious family best embodies a mode of living in which we recognise that gods are born and borne, that they do not exist, and that we have (or at least can) kill them, thus activating the very theogonic tendencies that their theological hypotheses seek to dissolve: the detection of supernatural agents who can aid in the protection of in-group cohesion and the promotion of out-group antagonism and scapegoating.


  1. The comment by Rollins about the transformation of the existing churches into death-of-God collectives were made during a panel session on his work at the fourth Postmodernism, Culture and Religion conference, held at Syracuse University in April 2011. For Brewin’s remarks see Kester Brewin, After Magic: Moves Beyond Super-Nature From Batman to Shakespeare (self-published, 2013), 87.

  2. See Gerardo Martí and Gladys Ganiel, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

  3. Mathew Guest, Evangelical Identity and Contemporary Culture: A Congregational Study in Innovation (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007), 45.

  4. See “Doctrinal Statement(?)”

  5. See Jason D. Slone, Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

  6. Ara Norenzayan and Scott Atran, “Cognitive and Emotional Process in the Cultural Transmission of Natural and Nonnatural Beliefs,” in M. Schaller and C. S. Crandall, eds., The Psychological Foundations of Culture (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2004), 149–69 (cited by Shults on page 30).

  7. Katharine Sarah Moody, ‘Wither Now: Emerging Christianity as Reconciliation to Death, Decay and Nothingness,” Currents in Mission and Theology special issue, “Whither Now Emergence?” (forthcoming 2015).

  8. Julian Barnes, Levels of Life (cited in Kester Brewin, “On High: LSD, The Space Race and The Human Quest for Altitude,”; and Kester Brewin, “Work in Progress: On High” (April 10, 2014) http:/C:/dev/home/

  9. Katharine Sarah Moody, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity: Deconstruction, Materialism and Religious Practices (Ashgate, forthcoming September 2015).

  10. For example, when I say that God is dead I don’t mean that a specific idolatrous conceptualisation of God has been revealed as such. Nor do I mean that a distant God beyond space and time once lived but has now died in order to enter into the world through the unfolding of human history. I mean that God does not and never did exist as a metaphysical or supernatural entity. Something else is going on in the word “God”—something other than propositional representation.

  11. Slavoj Žižek, in Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?, ed. Creston Davis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 291.

  12. Brewin, After Magic, 74.

  13. Slavoj Žižek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the (Mis)Use of a Notion (London: Verso, 2001), 51.

  14. Peter Rollins, The Divine Magician: The Disappearance of Religion and The Discovery of Faith (New York: Howard, 2015), 90 and 95.

  15. See, for example, Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God (London: SPCK, 2006), 52. See Moody, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity.

  16. See Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (London: Aronson, 1978).

  17. Scott Atran, Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Toward an Anthropology of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 219 (cited by Shuls on page 63).

  18. Thomas E. Lawson and Robert N. McCauley, Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). It might be said that, further, this provided an opening for its claims (to secularisation, for example) to be empirically falsified.

  • Avatar

    F. LeRon Shults


    Emergent Atheism Is Born(e)

    Katharine Sarah Moody has not only accurately summarized my theory of theogonic reproduction, but also beautifully drawn out some of its practical implications through her engagement with the work of Kester Brewin and Peter Rollins. As Moody rightly intuited, the fifth chapter of Theology after the Birth of God (“Religious Family Systems”) is central to my psychological and political strategy for having “the talk” about where gods come from—and why so many people keep them around. I found her analysis quite compelling and happily take up her invitation to reflect further on the potential of iconoclastic trajectories within my own “religious family of origin” (evangelical Protestantism) for engendering atheist conceptions in cognition and culture.

    In fact, my first attempt at such reflection appeared last year (after the publication of Theology after the Birth of God) in a chapter for a Festschrift dedicated to Stan Grenz, whom the “old folks” in the emergent church movement (now in their 40s) will remember as the most important early theological voice who supported their cause.1 In that context I discussed the “scandal of the evangelical mind” (a phrase taken from the title of an influential book by evangelical historian Mark Noll), and argued that it cannot be separated from the scandal of the evangelical culture. Noll decried the lack of intellectual rigor in evangelical scholarship and called for a better balance between evangelical piety and an appreciation for the Christian intellectual tradition. However, this is only a symptom and not the cause of the scandal of evangelical scholarship.

    The deeper problem facing evangelicalism is one that is shared by all other religious coalitions. The material details of the varied expressions of evangelical doctrine are idiosyncratic, but they are formally shaped by the same aggregate of evolved defaults that have contributed to shared imaginative engagement with supernatural agents in every other known human society. Insofar as pious evangelical devotion imaginatively engages ritually mediated, discarnate intentional forces concerned about “our” in-group, it is simply one more instance of anthropomorphic promiscuity: the hyperactive detection of coalitional gods—postulated as causal explanations for ambiguous natural phenomena.

    Moreover, insofar as “evangelical activism” is driven by the motivation to participate in and expand the kingdom of “our” God, it is one more instance of sociographic prudery: the hyperactive protection of a supernatural coalition—interpreted as the best way to inscribe the global socius.

    In the Festschrift chapter mentioned above, I utilized the conceptual framework outlined in Theology after the Birth of God, represented in the coordinate grid of Figure 1 in my response to Clayton Crockett’s commentary, in order to evaluate the options for evangelical theology (cf. for free downloads). I pointed out that many (but certainly not all) evangelicals would laugh at the idea of a tree-goddess who controls animals and cares about a small-scale coalition (as in the movie Avatar).

    However, most evangelicals do imaginatively detect a whole host of ambiguously discarnate or contingently-embodied intentional forces whom they believe are interested in their coalition: angels, demons, disembodied ancestors (saints), the Spirit of Jesus, etc. They also believe in a powerful and wise Supernatural Agent (God) who will punish defectors and out-group members, and protect those who remain faithful to the in-group, rewarding them a place in an everlasting heavenly Coalition.

    It might seem like such beliefs are harmless enough. However, the god-bearing mechanisms that covertly generate them are reciprocally reinforcing. Superstitious inferences based on the detection of alleged supernatural agents activate segregative preferences based on the protection of allied supernatural groups—and vice versa. I describe some of the experimental evidence for this reciprocity in chapter 2 of Theology after the Birth of God and the forthcoming article mentioned in my response to Crockett. Unless these naturally evolved biases are unveiled and explicitly contested, they will continue leading to appeals to person-like, coalition-favoring disembodied spirits as the basis for explanations of natural phenomena (God sent a hurricane because he hates gays) and for strategies in the social sphere (Focus on saving souls instead of climate change because God will create a new heaven and a new earth).

    Moody notes how emergent or emergent-ish thinkers like Brewin and Rollins work hard to challenge these problematic characteristics of the evangelical mind and culture. Like so many other progressives at the edges of evangelicalism (or just on the other side of its edges), their efforts clearly illustrate what I have called the “iconoclastic” trajectory. She is right to affirm their strategic decision to stay in emotional contact with their religious family of origin—despite the fact that they might qualify as “atheists” given a broad definition of the term.

    Moody is also right to worry that a lack of directness, that is, a failure to explicitly deny the existence of supernatural agents ritually engaged in religious sects, runs the risk of “allowing Christian coalitions to think that their religious family best embodies a mode of living . . . thus activating the very theogonic tendencies that their theological hypotheses seek to dissolve.” This is why I propose being direct as possible, whenever and wherever it is appropriate.

    I want to make clear that I do not think that iconoclastic theology necessarily leads to the destruction of the social groups that are currently held together by ritual engagement with supernatural agents. Continuing to believe in God or completely dissolving emergent evangelical coalitions are not the only options. The emerging church movement has played an important role in developing strategies for caring for human persons and promoting social justice (among other things). The hard work ahead for the iconoclastic theologian (or activist, or contemplative) is to imagine and enact new and creative ways to live in community that do not rely on the mechanisms of the sacerdotal trajectory. This may very well include forms of axiological engagement that are inspired by exemplars like Jesus of Nazareth (among others).

    There are in fact a growing number of movements worldwide in which atheists (or agnostics) are beginning to explore new ways to congregate and commune (e.g., the Syntheist movement in Scandinavia, the Sunday Assembly movement in Great Britain and elsewhere). This illustrates the fact that one can be an atheist without ignoring the real intensity of the human experience of being-limited, the intense reality of being-conditioned in all of our axiological engagements. Reflecting on these really intense experiences of encountering infinite intensities remains an important task in human life.

    Moreover, the atheist can also embrace “theology,” defined broadly as the critique and construction of hypotheses about the conditions for axiological engagement. Sacerdotal theological hypotheses appeal to supernatural agents or authorities; iconoclastic theological hypotheses do not. Given the challenges facing the human race as whole within an ecologically fragile, economically imbalanced global environment, challenges exacerbated by religious credulity and congruity biases, it is becoming increasingly important to invest in emerging iconoclastic theological strategies of the sort Moody endorses.


    1. For a more detailed discussion of what follows, see F. LeRonn Shults, “Theology after Pandora: The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Culture).” In Revisioning, Renewing, and Rediscovering the Triune Center: Essays in Honor of Stanley J. Grenz, edited by Derek J. Tidball, Brian S. Harris, and Jason S. Sexton, 361–81 (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014).



After God’s Birth, Play

REMINISCENT OF NINETEENTH- AND early twentieth-century anthropological and sociological theories and contemporary scientific theories, Shults defines religion as “shared imaginative engagement with axiologically relevant supernatural agents.”1 Although Shults makes it clear that religion can be and often is conceived in other ways, it is a common element of all religions: engagement with supernatural agents, in other words, entails religion and vice versa. For Shults and the biocultural study of religion more generally, of which Shults provides a critical yet accessible overview, religion so understood is deeply rooted in the biological and sociocultural history of human beings.

Belief in supernatural agents, that is, is an evolutionary trait and tendency, meaning that gods and the like are byproducts of adaptive and survival strategies. Specifically, Shults argues that supernatural agents emerged as useful fictions from highly evolved cognitive mechanisms designed to detect intentionality in and behind ambiguous phenomena. Such detection has an obvious advantage at a material level, since it allowed our ancestors to protect themselves from external and internal threats; when combined with the need to maintain in-group cohesion, it amounts to a good recipe for selective advantage. Religion, Shults argues, emerges from these cognitive mechanisms that modulate adaptive and survival impulses with the environment when intentionality is abstracted and transposed onto a supernatural realm. Although it is not clear to me that Shults provides an adequate explanation for exactly how natural detection morphs into the positing of supernatural agents, nevertheless the point is that belief in the latter is a felicitous mistake, one that enabled survival and, once established and overlain with complex moral and ritual structures, enforced group cohesion. Religion at its root, in this sense, coincides with “anthropomorphic promiscuity” (i.e., the tendency to posit intentional, agential causes to and behind otherwise natural phenomena) and “sociographic prudery” (i.e., the commitment to in-group norms and parochial forms of social cohesion) (18-19).

Shults’s more constructive move on top of this basic biocultural understanding of religion is to argue that religion’s utility has run out. Although it certainly used to be useful, perhaps even essential, to group survival and internal cohesion, for both smaller, underdeveloped coalitions and larger theopolitcal ones grounded in monotheism, Shults argues that that is no longer the case. Indeed, continued belief in supernatural agents, that is, in religion, may actually be counterproductive, intellectually but also socially and politically. The goal, in other words, is to move from the anthropomorphic promiscuity and sociographic prudery that is at the root of religious belief to “anthropomorphic prudery” to “sociographic promiscuity” (18–19, 149–82). The move ultimately involves “letting the gods go,” as Shults puts it, the upshot of which is the assertion and construction of an unapologetic, atheistic secularism. Shults secularism, of course, does not involve the forced dissolution of religious beliefs, but he is clear that, all things considered, religion should now and in the future have no real place in knowledge construction and sociopolitical arrangements, at least in any substantial sense.

Before offering my critique of Shults’s position, let me say that I am sympathetic to what I take to be some of the motivating factors behind it. Like Shults, I do not have much time for the anthropomorphic promiscuity and sociographic prudery that often goes hand in hand with certain types of religious belief, and I find Shults’s discussion of how these trajectories shape religious dispositions helpful. To put it bluntly, if that is what constitutes religion, then we would be better off with out. I also share Shults’s palpable frustration with much theology, understood as critical reflection on the presupposed content of religious belief. Even the most forward-thinking confessional theologies, including some heterodox “radical” theologies, ultimately limit themselves to the purview of revelation, which usually results in selective appropriations of non-theological discourses and more or less veiled claims to self-sufficiency. So if the choice is between a supernatural parochialism and its theology and an atheistic secularism, then I am more inclined to side with Shults and go with the latter. However, I do not think that we are limited to only these options, and so, onto the critique.

As already mentioned, bioculturally speaking religion tends to foster anthropomorphic promiscuity and sociographic prudery, two tendencies that help explain the utility of religion for adaptation and survival. Although religion for the most part no longer serves that role, as selected-for behavior it is deeply ingrained at a basic level in the biocultural history of humanity—and so too, it seems, is its tendency toward supernaturalism and insularity, with all the deleterious effects that go along with these. Shults does acknowledge that religious belief itself is diverse, and especially in some modern and postmodern guises, may lean in the direction of the anthropomorphic prudery and sociographic promiscuity that he posits as desirable. Nevertheless, Shults suggests that such tendencies still remain limited to the extent that they ground themselves in a religious conceptuality and that, moreover, they could be had without religion.

For instance, when discussing religiously motivated peacebuilding practitioners, that is, religious individuals who seem to embody the sociographic promiscuity that he desires, Shults notes that “makes good sense,” but he then asks rhetorically, “But in what sense is it ‘religious?’” (178). Even the best of intentions ultimately remain conditioned and, frankly, stained, by appeals to supernatural origination and motivation and the out-group antagonisms the latter foster. Shults thus asks, rhetorically again, “How can we ever hope to facilitate peaceful interaction within and across religious families of origin if we continue to ignore the anxiety-generating triangulation of gods that binds their emotional systems together precisely by activating the sociographically prudish hostility that alienates them from other groups” (178, original emphasis).

That is an extremely limited view of religion, but it also rests on a rather simplistic dichotomy between belief and unbelief. For Shults, one either believes in supernatural agents—in God, gods, or whatever else—or one does not, and any activity explicitly or implicitly based on the former necessarily carries with it pernicious psychological, social, and political tendencies, even if these are expressed in muted form. On the one hand, such a distinction plays in a very basic way into the “factish” certainty that Bruno Latour has recognized and criticized as endemic to modern rationality. As Latour points out, the notion of “belief” itself, especially when it is correlated with so-called religious or fetishistic behaviors, functions as a marker of identity, specifically modern identity. That is, the belief in the belief of the other and, conversely, belief in one’s own non-belief, functions as a means to reinforce modern identity, dividing the world into believers (religious) and non-believers (secular). Belief in belief, in other words, allows “the Moderns to see all other peoples as naïve believers, skillful manipulators, or self-deluding cynics.”2 Ironically, then, Shults’s own emphasis on belief as the marker of religion vis-à-vis non-belief repeats the “religious” gesture that creates out-group others according to a constructed in-group identity.

But, as Latour says, “No one believes.”3 Shults, I imagine, would charge me with trying to sneak in an “insider,” theological perspective at this point, but the whole point is that the sharp division between “insider” and “outsider,” between “belief” and “non-belief,” between a “scientific” study of religion and a “theological” one—and, I would add, between subject and object, on which the whole representative apparatus hinges—is the problem.

Nevertheless, despite Shults’s criticism of religious belief, he does not want to jettison theology, as reflection on religion, entirely. Rather, he wants to forge an “iconoclastic” trajectory in and for theology. Shults’s theological iconoclasm, however, limits itself to uncovering, tracing, and constructing secular hypotheses about how religion, that is, engagement with supernatural agents, emerges and maintains itself. Theology, in other words, should reconceptualize itself in terms of the biocultural study of religion as conderned with the conditions for axiological engagement.

There is nothing wrong with that per se, and I agree with Shults that the theological disciplines and the philosophy of religion would benefit greatly from critical engagement with the biocultural study of religion, so understood. However, it is again an extremely limited view, in that it fails to recognize any critical potential in theological concepts as such, precisely because these find their ultimate reason in a suspect religious conceptuality. This is clear, for instance, when Shults criticizes so-called radical and secular theologies and recent non-religious appropriations of theology in continental philosophy. Although Shults is clearly more sympathetic to these trajectories than traditional confessional ones, in that they appropriate in part the iconoclasm that he wants to unleash, their value as contributing to the weakening and dissolving of religious belief remains questionable, at best.

This is clear, for instance, when Shults discusses recent non-religious appropriations of Paul in continental philosophy and secular, death of God theologies. Although such appropriations (and Shults mentions Clayton Crockett’s specifically), read Paul from within an explicit materialist framework, they flounder in that they fail to pay adequate attention “to the apostle’s overriding concerns in his epistles: to convince his readers that a punitive supernatural agent (Christ) is returning soon and to urge them to maintain the purity of their in-groups” (195). Indeed, it is just “this sort of ‘fairy tale’ that has motivated the vast majority or ‘religious’ people in human history, including St. Paul” (195). Without attending to that basic, fabulous element, religion and its pernicious effects persist and extend themselves in even the most “radical” of thinkers.

I think that is an unsubtle, too hasty take on Paul and contemporary appropriations of his thought, but more seriously it would seem to rule out any creative use of theological texts and materials because they are religious. Shults’s criticism seems to assume an all or nothing approach, one that desires non-religious purity and uses the latter as the primary or even sole indicator of discursive value. To be fair, Shults does say that it is necessary to engage with theological hypotheses and notions, but he can only imagine such engagement in the form of negation: it is important, he says, “not to become so distracted by abstract philosophical, psychological, and political analysis that we forget to have a concrete conversation about where the gods come from and why we keep them around” (195).

I find this an odd position to take for an acolyte of Deleuze,4 That is, Shults’s division between belief and non-belief, the religious and the secular, the immaterial and the material, sets up the former as off-limits, unavailable for any type of use. Although Shults does this for oppositional reasons, at a formal level it is the same, ostensibly religious operation, and, I think gives a so-called religious conceptuality what it wants, though by way of critique. Otherwise put, the way that Shults conceives religion and positions his discourse strikes me as still operating from within a “theological” orbit, his claims to construct otherwise notwithstanding.

When it comes to religion and theology, I would prefer, instead, to ignore such divisions entirely. Charting a constructive, iconoclastic trajectory within religious and theological thought, that is, does not occur primarily through criticism, although that may be a first step. It occurs, rather, through the creative appropriation and use of religious and theological notions, without regard to provenance or proper sense. We should, that is, play with religious and theological concepts, the way that a child plays with a disused object, without regard to where it came from and for what it was/is originally for.5 Indeed, if, as Agamben says, the sacred (God, the gods, etc.) maintains itself through attention, an attention that can also take the form of critique, then a more radical thinking with respect to religion would take the form of ignorance and neglect.6 That would allow us, in turn, to put religious and theological notions, themes, and conceptualities to new, immanent uses, uses that are just as theolytic, perhaps even more so.

  1. LeRon Shults, Theology after the Birth of God: Atheist Conceptions in Cognition and Culture (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), 10. Subsequent references to this work are given parenthetically in the text.

  2. Bruno Latour, On the Cult of the Factish Gods (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 7.

  3. Ibid., 11.[/foonote] Generally speaking, what I take Latour to mean is that there is no such thing as an abstract belief (in God, the gods, spirits, or anything else) irrespective of various networked contexts, which means that belief in and of itself is a largely unhelpful, uninteresting and, frankly, uncritical notion for understanding human behavior, religion included. One can push Latour too far, here, but the larger point is that we have to attend to the complexity of “belief” and our own beliefs about belief if we are to understand others and ourselves, and that means taking seriously how others describe their own activity.[footnote]See, for instance, Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

  4. See LeRon Shults, Iconoclastic Theology: Gilles Deleuze and the Secretion of Atheism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014).[/foonote] especially since Deleuze himself was much more open to treating and using a host of discursive materials as so many immanent materials in and for the construction of thought—not in spite of but because of his atheism. And at a more general level, I think that that is a more fruitful approach to take to religion and theology, at least when it comes to releasing iconoclastic and theolytic, or god-dissolving, mechanisms within them.

    Indeed, I think that, at the end of the day, Shults’s own position does not go far enough in what it wants to accomplish, because he still views religious and theological notions as sacred, that is, as separated from normal, human use, albeit in inverted fashion.[footnote]I am drawing here on the work of Giorgio Agamben, particularly his essay “In Praise of Profanation,” in Profanations, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Zone, 2007).

  5. This notion is found in numerous places in Agamben’s oeuvre, but I’m thinking specifically of his claim in State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 64: “One day humanity will play with law just as children play with disused objects, not in order to restore them to their canonical use but to free them from it for good.”

  6. See Agamben, “In Praise of Profanation.”

  • Avatar

    F. LeRon Shults


    Fore Play, Remove Religious Images

    Hollis Phelps and I seem to have quite a lot in common. Perhaps the most important commonality is our enthusiasm for radicalizing theology, critically engaging religious traditions in order to make them secrete the theoltyic forces bound up within them. He is sympathetic to the motivating factors behind my position, although he finds too many simplistic dichotomies (belief or unbelief, parochialism or secularism, etc.) in my expression of it. The positions he attributes to me appear “odd” to him; he expected something else from a Deleuzian scholar. Phelps is the only commentator who mentions the other book I published last year—Iconoclastic Theology: Gilles Deleuze and the Secretion of Atheism1—and so I will take the opportunity to weave in references to that book in my response to his commentary.

    I think Phelps and I are closer to one another than he realizes. I agree with each of the concerns he raises, but I disagree that my position should raise them. His first major concern is my “extremely limited view of religion.” As I tried to make clear early and often in the book, I offer a stipulated definition of religion for the particular task of this concrete dialogue between theology and the bio-cultural study of religion: “shared imaginative engagement with axiologically relevant supernatural agents.” I explicitly point out that this is not the only way to define “religion,” but that it captures the dominant way in which the term is used in the relevant sciences with which I am engaging (pp. 5–6, 8–10, 20–22, 170–71, 176, 179, etc.). I am not sure how I could have made this clearer. It was not my intention to limit everyone else’s use of the term, but to explain why—for my purposes—this stipulated definition was important.

    Of course, this aggregate of traits (shared imaginative engagement with axiologically relevant agents) does not capture everything that can be said about “religion.” It is commonplace among critics of atheism to point out that “religions” have helped hold societies together, provided people with a sense of meaning in life, fostered the production of great works of music and art (and so on). This is no doubt true, and I am all for cohesive societies, meaningful lives, and aesthetic productivity (and so on). But do any of these things depend on widespread belief in and ritual interaction with disembodied intentional forces that are watching over particular in-groups?

    We should be happy to discover that they do not. Why? Because whatever else “religions” may produce, they also reinforce evolved biases that consistently lead to mistaken interpretations of natural phenomena and foster antagonism toward out-groups under stressful conditions.

    It is indeed true that other traits often found among people associated with a particular “religion,” such as a concern for justice or a sense of wonder, may help to encourage creative interventions in sociocultural practices and political economic systems. However, learning to contest the biases wrapped up in religion (in my stipulated sense) can help produce more plausible explanations of causal forces in the world and more feasible social strategies in pluralistic contexts. My stipulated definition helps to keep the focus on the way in which the reproduction of religious biases in human minds and cultures exacerbates some of our most pressing global crises.

    Phelps also worries about my “extremely limited view” of the theological disciplines and the philosophy of religion, arguing that I fail to recognize “any critical potential in theological concepts as such.” Here Phelps seems to have missed several places in the book where I explicitly state the opposite: theological conceptualization as such does have enormous potential and can be utilized in public, academic discussions with other scientific fields (e.g., 17, 57, 75–78, 84, 99, 196, 199, etc.).

    I am most explicit about the value of the creative use of theological concepts (as well as practices, in the broad sense) in my discussion of the three main modes of intensification of the iconoclastic trajectory at the end of chapters 5. The traditions that emerged in the wake of the west Asian axial age have always included resources for challenging incoherent ideas about an infinite intentional agent, challenging oppressive practices that segregate religious in-group members, and challenging immature ways of relating to ultimate reality such as petitionary prayer. I refer to these as the intellectual, activist, and mystical modes of iconoclastic intensification in theology (145–47).

    The fact that Phelps missed this is all the more surprising since it is a main theme in my Iconoclastic Theology: Gilles Deleuze and the Secretion of Atheism, to which he refers toward the end of his commentary. In that context, I refer to these as “lines of flight within Christianity (and other monotheistic religions)” that intensify conceptual analysis, compassionate action, and contemplative awareness (the liberation of thinking, acting, and feeling). Christian theologians who were also logicians, egalitarians, and contemplatives did in fact weaken the sacerdotal forces of theism, although they usually fell back into their bio-cultural gravitational pull when pressed by powerful members of their religious in-groups.

    I point out that Deleuze himself was a “theologian” of the iconoclastic sort, and the bulk of that book is a demonstration of the way in which his philosophy critically—and creatively—uses fragments and simulacra found in the Christian tradition to produce planes of immanence cleared of “religious” icons (or images).

    As I emphasized at the beginning of Iconoclastic Theology, Deleuze insisted that “Wherever there is transcendence, vertical Being, imperial State in the sky or on the earth, there is religion; and there is Philosophy only where there is immanence . . . only friends can set out a plane of immanence as a ground from which idols have been cleared.”2 Philosophy (and iconoclastic theology) begins when religious figures (or icons) have been cleared away, making room for creative, rhizomic, pragmatic, schizoanalytic productivity.

    For Deleuze, critique and construction always go together. Throughout that book I show how most of his celebrated conceptual creations were engendered by penetrating the thought of philosophers who dealt with religious and theological themes. Deleuze considered chipping away at the repressive representations of religion valuable in and of itself, but he also found that religion itself produces something of considerable value: “Religions are worth much less than the nobility and the courage of the atheisms they inspire.”3

    There are other aspects of Phelps’ reading of my book that surprised me, such as his assertion that I emphasize “belief as the marker of religion.” My stipulated definition does not emphasize belief, but “imaginative axiological engagement” which, as I stress throughout the book, has less to do with “theologically correct” beliefs and doctrines than it does with ritually reinforced practices and feelings. My guess is that his use of Latour as a lens through which to view my book led him to miss, or skip over, these parts of my argument. Nevertheless, I am grateful for his reading of my book, and hope my brief comments may (at least partially) convince him that we are closer to one another than he thinks we are.

    1. F. LeRon Shults, Iconoclastic Theology: Gilles Deleuze and the Secretion of Atheism. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press), 2014.

    2. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What Is Philosophy? Translated by H. Tomlinson and G. Burchill (London: Verso, 1994), 43.

    3. Gilles Deleuze, Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews, 1975–1995. Translated by A. Hodges and M. Taormina (New York: Semiotext(e), 2007), 364.

    • Avatar

      Hollis Phelps


      It is Time for Theology to go Play, Yet?

      I want to thank LeRon Shults for his generous response to my response and his clarifications regarding his position. Shults is certainly right to emphasize that we have a lot in common and I agree that, when the convention of scholarly critique is lifted, our overall positions are probably close—or, at the very least, resonate with each other. All of which is to say, I hope that this engagement opens up numerous lines for present and future dialogue.

      Nevertheless, I would like to briefly respond to some of Shults’ criticisms of my reading, to clarify why I said what I said and, I hope, to move the discussion forward. Shults criticizes my emphasis on belief as central to his definition of religion, and he is right to note that a lot of the problems that I have with his position rests on this emphasis. He notes that his definition emphasizes “imaginative engagement” rather than belief, which he tends to equate with “theologically correct” doctrine.

      Shults is right, of course, to emphasize that engagement is a much fuller notion, involving as it does practices and feelings, but it is wrong to suggest that I equate belief with doctrine. Perhaps it is my fault for not clarifying this, but what I mean by “belief” involves, simply put, some sort of acknowledgment of the existence of supernatural agents, in terms of cognitive assent and material practices. Shults himself says basically the same thing, when he writes, “Religion, however, involves imaginative interactions with supernatural agents, whose axiological relevance for a particular group is constituted and regulated by its members’ shared belief [my emphasis] in manifestations—and shared practice in manipulations—of those agents” (9). Indeed, in his response, he repeats this emphasis on belief, when he notes, “But do any of these things depend on widespread belief [my emphasis] in and ritual interaction with disembodied intentional forces that are watching over particular in-groups?” I could pull other examples, but suffice it to say that I do not think that my emphasis is foreign to the so-called letter and spirit of Shults’ text, as his criticism of this and my use of Latour implies.

      Moreover, although Shults is clear that he does not want to reduce religion to “shared imaginative engagement with axiologically relevant supernatural agents,” I think that that reduction does happen. Despite the various ways that we can understand religion, at the end of the day Shults seems to think that these can all be filtered through the lens of whether one believes in supernatural agents or not.

      My problem, here, is not the reduction per se. Any theory of religion—or anything else, for that matter—is likely going to be reductive in some sense, because it’s precisely that reduction that allows for the production of knowledge. My problem, rather, is that I do not think that belief is as simple as that, which was my point in drawing on Latour. That is even more the case, I would suggest, when “supernatural agents” are involved. Here, I am reminded of something that John Dominic Crossan once said, as a sort of caution to reading biblical stories, “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.” The same basic principle can apply to the biocultural study of religion, which, despite my criticisms, I think is an important field to engage.

      Concerning my criticism of how Shults assesses the value of theological discourses, my issue is not so much with the theolytic lines that theology has as its disposal, which is what Shults emphasizes throughout his book. I think we both agree that any sort of “radical,” “secular,” “iconoclastic,” or “biocultural” theological program has to be theolytic, in terms of both means and ends. My issue is, rather, with what we do with theological archives afterwards. My point in my original response was that Shults’ emphasis on belief—and that emphasis is in his text—seems to limit what we can do with these archives. This is why I suggested the notion of play, as an alternative—or at least one viable way forward.

      I fully acknowledge that that critique may be, in part, unfair, since Theology After the Birth of God is perhaps best read as a prolegomena to a reconceptualized, atheistic theology. Nevertheless, I do think it is an important consideration, and I look forward to seeing where Shults takes his project.

Philip Clayton


Philosophy after the Bioculturalization of Theology

LERON SHULTS IS CONVINCED that he has broken the DNA code of theology. We now know that humans construct their gods . . . and how they do it. Given this knowledge, he is convinced, it’s no longer rationally acceptable to hold religious beliefs.

Of course, humans are not ideally rational, so Shults knows that most will not heed his call. He himself has overcome the strange drive to create and worship these false divinities, God and gods. Unfortunately, most will fail to rise to this level of insight. Still, once the book has been digested, intelligent readers should at least acknowledge that theological beliefs of all kinds are irrational—whether or not they then have the courage to eschew their former ways and become atheists.

In what follows I will be rejecting this argument almost in its entirety. For a book that is so deeply mistaken at its core, I should note that it’s unusually witty and frequently a pleasure to read. You know a book is gutsy when it begins by drawing a parallel between having “the talk” with your children—telling them how babies are really made—and having “the talk” with your friends to tell them how gods are really made. It turns out that sexual intercourse is the closest analog to “the imaginative intercourse of human groups” that produces gods (14). As we conceive our babies in sexual ecstasy, so also we conceive our gods in ecstatic states.

For a funeral dirge to the demise of deity, the tone of these analogies is surprisingly jolly. Instead of proclaiming the death of God, Shults joyfully explores the birth of gods—though I guess he is insisting that all are born stillborn. His book offers a kind of sex manual on how (and why) humans go about (pro)creating all the myriad, non-existent supernatural beings that they continually call into life. Instead of throwing an Irish wake for the deceased god(s), he concentrates on the pleasures of our profligate religiosity. The impression is that we should revel in our religious libido. Most atheists come to bury God, not to praise him, but Shults comes to celebrate god-making with a sort of Dionysian abandon. Or so it seems.

And yet the book as a whole does not really exude pleasure in the process. The sexual analogies aside, it’s not really a Nietzschean or Dionysian book at all. The reader senses in these pages a bit too much pain, mixed with what seems to be an undertone of anger. The section titles in the chapter that treats theology are just too revealing: “commodified parasitic knowledge of airy nothing . . . half-baked representations of logically impossible worlds . . . factitious enigmas of complaisant religious pundits . . . management of ritual failure through excess conceptual control . . . reactionary immunization of foundational sacred texts” (chapter 3). However surgical the prose and technical the language, it thinly disguises a certain disappointment that religion turned out to be this way.

It’s perhaps revealing when Shults insists that “we may sometimes feel like screaming and shining lanterns in people’s faces” or “marching into a church and crooning an atheist hymn” (199). The first-person plural here, one assumes, is the “royal we,” which generally stands in for “I.” In the same context he writes about “trying to pressure religious families to kick their supernatural agents out of the house and stop ritually reproducing them” (202). One fears he speaks from personal experience.

Of course, Shults’s point here is to convince readers not to try such violent approaches. Still, one does get the impression of an author who is tempted to take the “complaisant religious pundits” by the shoulder and shake the “half-baked representations” out of them.

In many cases, Shults leaves the harshest words to other authors. The three most quoted authors in the text are Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, and Wesley Wildman—an impression confirmed by the index. Of today’s cognitive scientists of religion, the first two are probably among the most uncompromising in their claims that theistic language can be explained away without a remnant remaining. Wildman, to whom the book is dedicated, represents a more enigmatic voice, though certainly the main thrust of his work also cuts in the same direction. Shults appears to feel that these three authors, and others who defend similar conclusions, have now settled the question of whether or not theistic language has a non-empirical referent: it doesn’t.

It may strike readers as strange that a person who wrote or edited almost a dozen sophisticated books as a theologian would now insist that religion is nothing but infantile regression. How could one who authored so many complex theological arguments be certain that “validation [of religious claims] occurs only by satisfying the very emotions that motivate religious beliefs and experiences” (93, quoting Scott Atran)?

I recognize that it may break a cardinal rule of academia to allude to an author’s Sitz im Leben, as I have done above. Certainly my allusions are not meant ad hominem, against the man. Instead, I wish to surface a crucial asymmetry in Shults’s argument. The how and what of belief-formation are fully explained by psychology, the cognitive science of religion, and the biocultural study of religion, he tells us, whereas non- and anti-religious persons are merely recognizing the way that reality is. I am not convinced that one can explain (away) metaphysical beliefs by appeals to the personal and social functions that they serve; we return to this point in a moment. But if one wishes to employ functionalist arguments, then must they not cut both ways? What is good for the goose is good for the gander. 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.

But do the functions of religious belief settle (or replace) the question of their truth?


The core question for our debate, I suggest, is this: do Shults and his allies offer a new, more virile argument for atheism? Their argument, as we have seen, is a particular species within the genus functionalism. The key question boils down to this: is functionalism, with its appeal to “research in the cognitive sciences and other disciplines that contribute to the biocultural study of religion” (109), able to succeed where other functionalist arguments have failed? Or—since Shults presumably believes that previous functionalist arguments have not been wholly without merit—let’s put it this way: is the cognitive and biocultural study of religion the final nail in the coffin for (as Dawkins puts it) “God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented”?1

In order to see why one should be skeptical of this genre in general, consider what constitutes a functionalist argument. Imagine that you are a passionate Democrat. I then show you that you hold very similar political beliefs to the ones your parents hold, and that most people with your sort of upbringing also mirror their parents’ liberal beliefs to a high degree. It seems that I have explained why you would hold your political beliefs apart from any appeal to their actual truth. In this sense, it appears, I’ve explained them away. I’ve shown that what’s primary are the social causes for your beliefs and not the reasons that you like to list on their behalf. Or, more harshly, I’ve shown that you are self-deceived when you think that you believe based on the force of the better argument.

Functionalist analyses of religion work in the same way. If social scientific explanations are able to account for where the religious beliefs came from, and why a person might tend to think they are true whether or not they really are, then that person’s reasons for maintaining that her beliefs are true have been undercut. This is why functionalist analyses count as skeptical arguments against religious belief: the existence of religious beliefs—so it is claimed—is better explained by their function than by their truth.

Any why would we think this claim is true? I don’t think that either of the first two phases in the modern history of functionalism succeeded. The first and earliest functionalist accounts were basically philosophical claims. Many of the so-called philosophers of suspicion brought highly theoretical arguments for their conclusions, including Feuerbach, Marx, Durkheim, Nietzsche, and Freud. In a second phase, functionalists introduced quantitative arguments from psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology, developing statistical methods (factor analysis, measures of reliability and statistical significance) to mine the data. In this phase they did establish statistically significant correlations. But it’s not clear to me that the data establish the primary of causes over reasons in the required sense.

It appears that Shults believes that the cognitive science of religion (CSR) and the biocultural study of religion (BSR) represent a third phase in the functionalist deconstruction of religious beliefs. At the end of the book, I remain unconvinced. CSR and BSR bring new collections of correlations, and connections of this type always add to our understanding of a field. But the normative claims about religion that Shults makes in these pages require more than the functionalist deflations of religious belief that Boyer, Atran, and Wildman have offered to this point.

At this stage of the discussion one can see the case for both sides. It could be that humans form theistic beliefs because of inbuilt cognitive and biocultural mechanisms, such as hyperactive agency detection. Or it could be that human reflection and/or experience lead us to recognize religious dimensions of reality that underlie our empirical experience. If in the end personal experience and social conditioning determine which of these two possibilities you find more plausible, then arguments do not decide the question—neither Shults’s arguments nor those of his opponents.

  1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 36.

  • Avatar

    F. LeRon Shults


    Astonishing Apologetics

    I have been a fan of Philip Clayton’s work since I was a PhD student at Princeton Seminary in the 1990s, and have always admired the way in which he carefully engages the arguments of other scholars, even when their writings raise objections to the credibility of Christian theology. This is why I was astonished to discover that his commentary not only failed to engage the arguments of the book but also resorted to a psychologizing tone that I have never encountered in his other apologetic efforts.

    Since Clayton spent the majority of his word allotment on this sort of psychologizing, I am not sure how else to respond other than pointing out some of his academic sins of omission (ignoring what I actually wrote) and sins of commission (asserting that I wrote things I actually did not)—sins that are quite uncharacteristic of his previous scholarship.

    Clayton asserts that “the reader” senses “a bit too much pain” and “an undertone of anger.” But who is this “reader” to whom Clayton refers? This is the first time I have heard anyone say that they detected pain and/or anger in the book. Other readers who have contacted me about the book have (so far unanimously) detected only what actually motivated me to write it: the pleasure of my own liberation and my hope for the liberation of others. I did not feel anger before, during or after my slow de-conversion from theism, or while writing Theology after the Birth of God, but I must admit I’m a little annoyed that a scholar of Clayton’s caliber took such little effort to engage it.

    As evidence for his diagnosis of my authorial intent, Clayton points to the section titles in chapter 3 that refer to theology as, e.g., “commodified parasitic knowledge of airy nothing.” He praises my surgical prose, but asserts that it “thinly disguises” my “disappointment” in religion. Somehow Clayton was able to see through this (alleged) disguise, but failed to see what I actually wrote on p. 50, where I explained that these phrases are constructed from the terminology used by the scientists whose work I am expositing, indicating “the level of their aggravation” (emphasis added).

    Clayton also “fears” that I am speaking “from personal experience” when I write that “we may sometimes feel like screaming and shining lanterns in people’s faces” on p. 199. “One assumes” (again, who is this “one”?), writes Clayton, that the royal “we” actually stands in for “I.” But he ignores the next sentence in which I explicitly state that this sort of strategy (that of Nietzsche’s madman) is not productive and should be avoided—precisely because it only makes things worse by activating the anxiety of religious believers (like Clayton) when they perceive the beliefs of their in-group are being threatened. He asserts that I “now insist that religion is nothing but infantile regression” (emphasis in original). Since I never refer to religion as either infantile or regressive—much less insist that it be treated so reductionistically—I am not sure what to make of such claims.

    Clayton quotes the first part of a sentence from my book, in which I use the phrase “trying to pressure religious families to kick their supernatural agents out of the house and stop ritually reproducing them” (202). But he leaves out the rest of the sentence, which states that such an approach will “only make things worse” (emphasis added).

    Why would Clayton quote only part of this sentence, when the remainder of it contradicts his whole point?

    Midway through his commentary Clayton begins a sentence by informing the Syndicate reader that I think that the “how and why of belief formation are fully explained by psychology” (emphasis added) and the bio-cultural sciences of religion (BCSR). On the contrary, like most scholars in the disciplines that make up BCSR, I acknowledge the need for “explanatory pluralism” (6) and ongoing debate over scientific hypotheses about religious belief-formation (20).

    The remainder of his sentence, which I quote in full, is as follows; “he [Shults] tells us, whereas, non- and anti-religious persons are merely recognizing the way that reality is” (emphasis added). But I tell the reader no such thing. Even when I was a Christian theologian I was never a naïve realist, as Clayton knows since he has reviewed several of my other books over the decades. Moreover, I explicitly state the opposite. For example, in my discussion of “abductive” inferences in chapter 4, which Clayton ignores, I emphasize the extent to which every interpreter’s evaluation of hypotheses is shaped by his or her bio-cultural heritage and contextual purposes (82).

    This level of debate is not very interesting or productive, and so I will provide only one more example of Clayton’s misrepresentation of my argument (and my intentions). In the second paragraph of his response, he implies that I think that “intelligent” readers, having digested the book, will “at least acknowledge that theological beliefs of all kinds are irrational” (emphasis added). In fact, at no point in the book do I say that any theological beliefs are irrational, though I do argue that some are implausible.

    Moreover, throughout the book I quite often clearly state that some theological beliefs are rational (or plausible), namely, those that rigorously follow out what I call the iconoclastic trajectory instead of the sacerdotal trajectory. This distinction, which is central to my argument, is ignored by Clayton, along with my proposal for an emphasis on abductive inferences in debates over the rationality and plausibility of a/theism.

    Unfortunately, the one windmill at which he tilts a material critique—my alleged “functionalism”—does not actually appear in the book. Here too he puts words in my mouth, or in my book, which simply are not there. But, perhaps I am a functionalist without being aware of it? In my view, the distinction between functionalist and essentialist approaches to religion is a red herring, based on a false dichotomy that presupposes the ancient (and early modern) separation between function and substance (or essence). For a discussion of this outmoded dualism, see chapter 1 of my Christology and Science, one of the “dozen sophisticated books” Clayton notes that I wrote as a Christian theologian.

    Clayton’s point seems to be that one cannot deduce the truth of a belief (e.g., in God or a ghost) just by figuring out how a person got the belief in the first place.

    This is so obvious—at least among philosophers—it is hardly worth stating. Does he really believe that I hold such a silly position? I wish he had noticed my explicit treatment of the “genetic fallacy” in chapter 4 (108–12).

    I would have very much liked to know what he thought of the arguments that actually appeared in my book. Instead, I only learned that he found his own idiosyncratic (mis)perception of a fabricated functionalism “deeply mistaken at its core.” I agree.

    Once again, I can only express my astonishment that Clayton imputed to me these strange opinions rather than engaging with the stipulated definition of (and pragmatic approach to) “religion” that I explored throughout the book: shared imaginative engagement with axiologically relevant supernatural agents.

    But perhaps I should not be surprised. After all, one of the main themes of Theology after the Birth of God was the importance of being delicate—as well as direct—when having “the talk” about religious reproduction since attacking or alarming religious people, and theologians who are deeply invested in the sacerdotal trajectory, all too easily activates naturally evolved and socially entrained tendencies to protect one’s in-group by signaling detection of its relevant supernatural agent(s).

    So, after all, I did learn something else from Clayton’s response: finding the balance between delicacy and directness is harder than I thought.

    • Philip Clayton

      Philip Clayton


      When Does Science Undercut Theology?

      I am equally surprised by LeRon Shults’s surprise.


      What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Shults thinks that my theistic beliefs are fully explained by cognitive and biocultural factors—hence de-justified, explained away. When the tables are turned, and one asks what might explain his anti-theism, Shults finds the questions and the hypotheses inappropriate. Precisely!


      The exchange that has just transpired is a sign of how broken the science-theology discourse is, how little dialogue remains. One sign of the collapse of the dialogue is the infantilizing of believers. Think, for example, what is implied when the metaphor for the dialogue between atheists and theists is “the talk” that parents have with their children when parents tell their kids how sexuality works. Parents (atheists) know the truth and inform the children (theists), who don’t know what it is. Boyer and Atran—to cite two thinkers who play a major role in Shults’s book—don’t engage with believers in a mutual quest for understanding; one sees no sign that they feel they have anything to learn from believers about what is and is not the case. (I will leave it to Shults to say whether he thinks he does.)

      As a theist who has spent his professional life listening to science, I am deeply influenced by empirical evidence and the scientific method; my career has involved thinking through science and with science as far as it can take us. Most colleagues in this dialogue agree that one finds openness to evidence, and dogmatism, on both sides of the aisle: scientists are capable of both, just as believers are capable of both. Without this assumption we can throw grenades from behind our respective walls, but there won’t be much learning.


      When does science undercut theology? Let me try a constructive proposal.

      No one likes to have their beliefs dismissed by the allegation that non-aletheic (non-truth-related) factors explain their holding these beliefs. I call such explanations functionalist explanations, because they account for our holding a particular belief by the functions that the beliefs play or by other non-aletheic factors that (allegedly) account for the fact that we hold these beliefs. Let’s call them F-factors for short. It’s always easier to see the speck of F-factors in your brother’s eye than to see the F-factor planks in one’s own eye. Yet undeniably all of us believe some things for non-aletheic reasons without being aware (or without being fully aware) of what we are doing.

      Let’s see if Shults and I can agree on criteria for deciding when a belief or type of belief has been explained by F-factors. If we agree on the criteria, perhaps we can agree on the epistemic status of at least one religious belief. Let’s take as our test case a religious belief that I actually hold: that there is a transcendent/immanent ground of finite things, which is not less than personal. For shorthand let’s call this “God.” And let’s concentrate on the F-factors that have been or might be derived from the cognitive science of religion (CSR) and the biocultural study of religion (BSR). Let’s call these CSR/BSR explanations for short.

      To make the criteria work, we have to consider both the claim being made by the believer and the epistemic status that she is claiming on behalf of her belief. In The Predicament of Belief, Steven Knapp and I argue that at least six different types of claims can be made on behalf of a religious belief.1 One might represent them as a descending series of levels, based on how ambitious is the epistemic claim made on their behalf:

      Level 1 (L1): The proposition P that I affirm is endorsed by the relevant community of experts (RCE);

      L2: The RCE does not endorse P, but I have a theory of error that explains why some or all of its members are mistaken in denying P (for example, I can show where the mistake in their reasoning lies).

      L3: The RCE does not endorse P, but it does agree that belief in P is rationally indicated for me, i.e., someone who has my experiences and reasons and therefore sees P from my point of view.

      L4: The RCE does not endorse P and does not think I have good enough reasons to believe in P even from my own point of view. But nothing compels me to abandon my belief, and so my continuing to hold it is rationally permissible even if not rationally indicated.

      L5: I am attracted to the possibility that P is true but don’t actually believe it is. I hope P is true and have sufficient reason to act in accordance with that possibility.

      L6: P seems to me so unlikely to be true that I do not even find myself hoping it is. If I nevertheless assert P, I interpret the assertion as a metaphor, story, or useful fiction.

      Now, which kinds of claims by religious believers fall to Shults’s critique? Some believers make L1-type claims, but I do not think they can be defended. What about L2? Shults and I agree (I think) that L2-type claims are potentially vulnerable to CSR/BSR explanations. But under what conditions? I suggest that they are vulnerable only when the correlations between their beliefs and the CSR/BSR explanations are sufficiently high. Establishing empirical correlations and testing whether they are statistically significant is what the social sciences do best. When believers make (L2) cognitive claims and such correlations exist between their claims and specific F-factors, the cognitive claims are undercut. In this more precise sense, we can say that the beliefs have been explained away.

      We don’t need to worry about the last two cases (L5 and L6) because they involve neither beliefs nor truth claims. But what about believers who interpret their own beliefs in the sense of L3 or L4, such as the belief in God that I mentioned earlier? I do not see that the arguments in Theology after the Birth of God tell against religious beliefs so interpreted. It’s difficult to show that a believer is outside her epistemic rights in holding that a specific belief is rationally indicated for someone “who has my experiences and reasons and therefore sees P from my point of view.” The same is true when she claims merely that the belief is “rationally acceptable” (L4).

      This would be an interesting debate between Shults and Clayton. Before we schedule the debate, we will need some common criteria. I suggest we ask: do specific F-factors determine belief-formation as measured by empirically significant correlations between one or more such factors and specific beliefs?


      Interesting science/religion dialogue has two sides. The one side consists of the kinds of tight (and testable) empirical correlations that make science worth our attention. Science has won many contests against religion on this basis, and where it wins, I’m on the science side. Shults has not given us enough of these in his book.

      The other side is the study of the complexities of assertion and denial, of kataphasis and apophasis, in religion. Here scholars immerse themselves in aesthetics, narrative, and poetry; in poststructuralism, postmodernism, and postcolonialism; in Pseudo-Dionysius, Eckhardt, and Cusa; in Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze. Read Deleuze in the hands of Catherine Keller and Roland Faber, for example, and you will never again be tempted to see religious beliefs as simple propositions.

      In light of the deeper complexities of the dialogue, it’s hard to see the cognitive science of religion and the biocultural study of religion by themselves as game-changers.

      1. Clayton and Steven Knapp, The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, Faith (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011); see esp. Chapter 7. For eight critical essays and an authors’ response, see Confronting the Predicament of Belief: The Quest for God in Radical Uncertainty, ed. James Walters et al. (Nashville: Crowdsource, 2014).



Shults and Evolutionary Debunking Arguments

I FOUND IT DIFFICULT to respond to F. LeRon Shults’ Theology after the Birth of God for two reasons. First, his views differ significantly from my own regarding the results and interpretation of the results of the biocultural study of religion. Second, Shults’ claims and arguments are difficult to understand. It is difficult to respond to arguments that are neither explicitly made nor clearly formulated. In such a short response, I can address only a limited number of issues. So I will restrict myself to providing a few critical comments on chapters 4 and 6, the sections of the book in which Shults engages with the analytic literature on the alleged implausibility of theism in the light of the biocultural study of religion.

I am among the “Christian theists (philosophers, theologians, and even scientists) [who] are acknowledging the theolytic pressure produced by research in the cognitive sciences and other disciplines that contribute to the biocultural study of religion and [who are] exploring strategies for responding to these new challenges” (109). Our view is that “the theolytic pressures” are mostly illusory or misleading, at least in the case of the plausibility of Christian theism.1 Analytic philosophers (religious or not) have been debating evolutionary debunking arguments concerning these and related issues (morality, say, or knowledge). The responses of Christian theists to challenges arising from the biocultural study of religion mirror those of non-theistic analytic philosophers discussing, for instance, moral realism or the trustworthiness of our metaphysical intuitions.

Shults claims that such analytic discussions of the challenges of the biocultural study of religion to the plausibility of theism are somehow problematic as they are “myopically focused on inductive and deductive inferences” (165). Shults regards this as a smokescreen to avoid questioning the “religious abductions” themselves, namely, avoiding the “basic question of the plausibility of religious hypothesizing itself” (109). Shults is mistaken about this. The “plausibility of religious hypothesizing” is exactly what is at stake in these debates.

Consider Shults’ engagements with the essays in Believing Primate.2 Most of these discussions are conducted within the context of a reliabilist epistemology. Very roughly, reliabilism is an account of what justifies our beliefs. The basic idea is that the deliverances of our (reliable) cognitive faculties are prima facie justified. In other words, we take our ordinary belief-forming faculties, including perception, memory, and inference, as reliable (that is, truth-conducive) sources of beliefs in ordinary contexts, if we have no reason to doubt them. Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga developed a version of reliabilism, proper functionalism, to defend the prima facie warrant of Christian theism; he argued that belief in God is comparable to other basic outputs of our cognitive systems. Like all other prima facie rational outputs of our cognitive systems, belief in God would then be “innocent until proven guilty.”

Michael Murray and others in the Believing Primate ask if the results of the biocultural study of religion provide “defeaters” for the reliability of the faculties that produce belief in God. On Shults’ view (110), Murray and others dodge the issue of the plausibility of the “God hypothesis” by focusing on the genetic fallacy and such. But they are not dodging “the” bullet (whatever the bullet actually is); they explicitly address the plausibility of religious thinking and the reliability of the faculties that produce such thinking.

The basic schema of evolutionary debunking arguments that Murray and others are responding to is as follows. Here is Guy Kahane’s sketch:

Causal premise. S’s belief that p is explained by intuition p that is a product of evolution (understood as including our evolved cognition, tendencies, etc.).
Epistemic premise. Evolution is a process that does not track truth.
 S’s belief that p is unjustified.3

Kahane and others use this schema to discuss evolutionary explanations of morality, commonsense beliefs, science and metaphysics.

Richard Joyce, Sharon Street, and Paul Griffiths and John Wilkins have presented the most discussed evolutionary debunking arguments.4 Whereas Joyce and Street focus on debunking ethics and morality, Griffiths and Wilkins provide a general debunking strategy for moral and religious beliefs (while attempting to salvage commonsense and scientific beliefs).5

As Helen De Cruz and Johann De Smedt argue in their The Natural History of Natural Theology, evolutionary debunking arguments are in a precarious position.6 If the biocultural study of religion is correct, religious beliefs are products of the same mechanisms that produce our commonsense beliefs and, with the help of reflective cognition, are also involved in the production of scientific beliefs. For instance, I take Theory of Mind to be a reliable source of beliefs in ordinary contexts. But if god-beliefs show Theory of Mind to be unreliable, how does Shults avoid skepticism about all the outputs of Theory of Mind?7

Even if it turned out that our basic religious belief-forming faculties were unreliable, this would not undermine everyone’s rational belief in God. Even the most ardent debunkers, Paul Griffiths and John Wilkins, admit that “[D]ebunking is not disproving. If there are independent reasons for religious belief, their cogency is not removed by the fact that religious beliefs have evolutionary explanations.”8 In other words, a successful debunking argument would not undermine evidence one might have for theism.9

Shults accuses theistic reliabilists of committing the petitio principii fallacy (110). Shults claims, for example, that Plantinga’s defense of warranted theism assumes the existence of God. This betrays a subtle yet deep misunderstanding of Plantinga’s argument. While Plantinga argues that theistic belief could be warranted only if God exists (how could it be otherwise?), he has not argued that theistic belief is warranted because God exists (which would commit the petitio principii fallacy). If there is a God who is reliably accessed by our cognitive faculties, then our belief in God may be warranted. If there is no such god, then it would not be warranted. Plantinga has not argued that belief in God is warranted, but that it could be and then specifies the conditions under which it could be. In order for Shults and others to show that belief in God is not warranted, then, they would have to show that God does not exist (which they have not done). If one were a metaphysical naturalist, one would believe that God does not exist (and hence, think theistic belief unwarranted). But such biographical information is irrelevant to the logic of this case.

Plantinga is not arguing that belief in God could not be challenged by evidence. Instead, he argues that, in many cases, there is no metaphysically neutral way to sort out reliable mechanisms from unreliable mechanisms. Assessing whether a belief-forming mechanism is reliable or not, is not a metaphysically neutral enterprise. If Shults wants to reject Plantinga’s strategy, he would have to: (a) refute reliabilism, (b) show that Plantinga’s account of warranted theistic belief is implausible without assuming metaphysical naturalism, or (c) give reasons for metaphysical naturalism and against theism. As far as I can see, Shults has not even attempted, not to mention succeeded, in any of these.

Since the mid-60s, Plantinga has argued that belief in God is epistemologically on par with the belief in other minds. However, Shults contends that belief in other minds comes about through interactions with physical bodies and other such experiences, whereas belief in God does not. Recent work in cognitive science, however, seems to oppose this. Studies on mind-body dualism and afterlife beliefs, suggest that belief in other minds extends to such disembodied spirits as deceased relatives (ancestors). We communicate with the spirits of deceased relatives as though they were present with us. Moreover, while Shults may be correct that the theory of mind was evolutionarily instigated through interactions with physical bodies, this historical contingency seems of little metaphysical or even scientific interest. A great many of our cognitive faculties, which developed in response to various physical circumstances, have been applied in completely different, non-physical circumstances. High-level mathematics may have resulted from counting digits (fingers) but certainly exceeds it. Theoretical physics goes vastly beyond simple interactions with physical bodies. Our ability to project possible futures is no doubt rooted in present and past actual experiences but the ability to think thusly undergirds metaphysical thinking (of possibility and necessity). In restricting cognitive access to the physical, then, Shults begs the question against the theist by smuggling metaphysical naturalism among his premises.

Shults seems to offer an argument for metaphysical naturalism from religious diversity. Theological views like theism, he claims, “fail as inter-subjective and trans-communal interpretations of religious phenomena because they uncritically rely on fallacious—albeit phylogenetically ‘natural’—abductive inferences about the gods of particular groups” (112). In the next paragraph, Shults claims that it is more plausible to adopt naturalism than any one of many theistic religions.

But diversity is not a problem merely for religious belief. We all engage in politics, science, moral reasoning, and aesthetic evaluation in spite of the disagreement and diversity of opinion in these domains of life. And we think that there is truth to be had in these domains. If Shults is right, though, parity suggests that we should, for example, be moral skeptics as well as religious skeptics. Due to moral diversity, moral realism would fail as intersubjective and transcommunal interpretations of moral phenomena. Most humans believe that there are moral truths and that those who disagree with them are wrong (for various sociocultural reasons, perhaps). Our moral faculties are reliable but not infallible. The same may be true of the faculties that produce god-beliefs.

Of course, we have no belief-independent ways of telling if our god-beliefs or are moral beliefs (or aesthetic or political) are true. That is just the human believing condition. The fact that there is now a scientific account of the biocultural mechanisms that have influenced the development of these faculties that produce such beliefs adds little in principle to the problem of diversity. If we want to avoid wholesale skepticism, we should resist Shults’ debunking arguments against rational religious belief.

  1. E.g., Clark, K., and J. Barrett. “Reidian Religious Epistemology and the Cognitive Science of Religion.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79 (2011) 639–75; Leech, D., and A. Visala. “How Relevant Is the Cognitive Science of Religion to Philosophy of Religion?” In Scientific Approaches to the Philosophy of Religion, edited by Y. Nagasawa, 165–83. (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2012); Visala, A. “The Evolution of Divine and Human Minds: Evolutionary Psychology, the Cognitive Study of Religion and Theism.” In Evolution, Religion and Cognitive Science: Critical and Constructive Essays, edited by F. Watts and L. Turner, 56–73, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Naturalism, Theism and the Cognitive Study of Religion: Religion Explained? (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011).

  2. Murray, M., and J. Schloss, eds. The Believing Primate: Scientific Philosophical and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

  3. Kahane, G. “Evolutionary Debunking Arguments.” Noûs 45 (2011) 103–25.

  4. Joyce, R. The Evolution of Morality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006); Street, S. “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value.” Philosophical Studies 127 (2006) 109–66; and Griffiths, P., and J. Wilkins. “Evolutionary Debunking Arguments in Three Domains: Fact Value and Religion.” In A New Science of Religion, edited by G. Dawes and J. Maclaurin, 133–46 (New York: Routledge, 2013).

  5. We do not have enough space here to discuss these arguments in any detail. A recent article by Jonathan Jong and Aku Visala deals with some issues related to them and suggests further literature. See Jong, J., and A. Visala. “Evolutionary Debunking Arguments Against Theism, Reconsidered.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 76 (2014) 243–58.

  6. De Cruz, H., and J. De Smedt. The Natural History of Natural Theology: The Cognitive Science of Theology and Philosophy of Religion (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).

  7. Griffiths and Wilkins (“Evolutionary Debunking Arguments”) claim that they avoid this, but as Jong and Visala (“Evolutionary Debunking Arguments”) point out, there seems to be no reason why their strategies would not extend to theism.

  8. Griffiths and Wilkins, “Evolutionary Debunking Arguments.”

  9. For more, see Jong and Visala, “Evolutionary Debunking Arguments.”

  • Avatar

    F. LeRon Shults


    Supernatural Agent Abductions and Theistic Bunk

    Like Philip Clayton, Aku Visala is a Christian theist. As the bibliographical references peppered throughout his commentary imply, over the years he (also like Clayton) has published extensively in the field of Christian apologetics. Unlike the other commentators, who appear to have had little difficulty understanding the main thrust of my position, this apologist seem disoriented. This is hardly surprising since my argument shakes the very foundations of the philosophical edifices he has spent his careers (as I spent most of mine) building and defending.

    What does surprise me is the way in which these two scholars, who know how familiar I am with the decades of debates around these issues, assume that I am just offering one more version of the same old sort of debunking arguments they have heard before. Their objections are aimed at positions they are accustomed to hearing rather than at the position I actually set out in Theology after the Birth of God. Perhaps they find it difficult to imagine any other way to approach these questions. That would make sense if my analyses of the way in which theological apologetics is surreptitiously shaped by naturally evolved religious biases were correct.

    It is difficult for most people to face the fallibility of their long-held beliefs. This is true even—or especially—when those beliefs are related to supernatural agent abductions; that is, to hypotheses (or “guesses”) that appeal to disembodied intentional forces that only ritually-engaged members of a particular religious in-group can detect (such as ancestor-ghosts at an aboriginal feast, or the Holy Spirit at a Christian Eucharist) in order to make sense of some ambiguous phenomenon. For all the reasons I outlined in chapters 2, 3, and 5, members of such in-groups are not easily convinced that their beliefs are bunk.

    In fact, trying to convince them can easily activate confirmation bias, self-serving bias, and other biases that enable otherwise reflective people to keep on believing that they are in communication with intentional entities that out-group members cannot perceive, such as angels, demons, UFOs, or trolls. As I make clear in the book, atheists are biased too (as are all humans), but at least they are learning (or were born with personality traits that disposed them to learn) how to contest two biases that are wreaking havoc globally on our ecological and social environments: anthropomorphic promiscuity and sociographic prudery.

    Having “the talk” about religious reproduction with theists will take time and patience. And so I try again, this time in dialogue with one of the recent books that Visala mention’s in his commentary: A Natural History of Natural Theology by Helen De Cruz and Johan De Smedt. For a more detailed discussion of what follows, see Shults, forthcoming.1

    What I love about De Cruz and De Smedt’s book is its clear demonstration of the extent to which—and the way in which—evolved cognitive defaults play a role in the emergence of theistic ideas about God and in the formulation of theistic arguments meant to defend belief in his existence. Their contributions to the “naturalization” of theology and (theistic) philosophy of religion are a gift to the field.

    Like Visala, however, De Cruz and De Smedt lack confidence in the debunking force of philosophical reflection on the empirical findings and theoretical developments within CSR and related disciplines. They argue that “CSR cannot straightforwardly provide a debunking account of natural theology and religion.” The main warrant they offer for this claim is the difficulty they find “in choosing an appropriate level of explanation of how cognitive capacities generate religious beliefs.”2

    However, it is important to emphasize that the content biases that generate ideas about gods (including God) are only part of the problem. De Cruz and De Smedt, like Visala, pay hardly any attention to the context biases that enable people to go on nurturing such ideas and transmitting them to younger generations.

    The resilience of natural theology is indeed bolstered by the covert operation of hypersensitive cognitive defaults that engender facile concepts of hidden, purposive agents. However, these god-conceptions only have staying power because of the facility of coalitional defaults that reinforce shared imaginative engagement with such agents.

    Finding defeaters for religion will not be equally easy for everyone, but if we pause to ask for directions—to reflect on the inferential directionality of our argumentation—it becomes relatively easy to spot theistic bunk.

    An important first step is leaving the cul-de-sac of deductive/inductive arguments. Like most scholars on either side of (or on the fence in) the debate over the rationality of theism, including Visala, De Cruz and De Smedt focus almost entirely on arguments that rely on inductive or deductive modes of inference. In other words, their discussions of the existence of God center around two sorts of question: whether it can be proven by valid reasoning from appropriate premises, and whether it can rendered probable based on the evaluation of appropriate evidence. This is evident, for example, in their analysis of the “two types of possible defeaters” of theism, namely, those that rebut and those that undercut religious belief. “A rebutting defeater gives us reason to think the conclusion must be false. By contrast, an undercutting defeater does not challenge the conclusion directly, but makes us doubt that the evidence supports the hypothesis.”3

    The important thing to notice here is the (only?) two possible sorts of defeaters the authors treat rely on deduction or induction, eclipsing abduction (to which I will return below). A rebutting defeater relies primarily on deductive inference. De Cruz and De Smedt do not think this sort of defeater works because theists and atheists disagree on their premises. “One’s prior assumptions about the existence of God mediate to an important extent the perceived reliability of cognitive faculties that are involved in the formulation of natural theological arguments—this holds for both debunkers and vindicators.”4

    An undercutting defeater relies on induction, challenging some aspect of the evidence that that theists offer in their attempts to lend credibility to belief in God. At the end of their chapter on the argument from design, De Cruz and De Smedt insist that claims about theistic evolution (for example) cannot be evaluated purely by the empirical evidence. The rationality of the design argument “relies on the prior probability one places on the existence of God . . .”5

    I think the differences in assessing design are also shaped by the extent to which a person has contested the evolved default toward guessing “an idiosyncratic hidden agent interested in my in-group” when confronted with ambiguous phenomena, but at this stage I want to emphasize my agreement: focusing on inductive and deductive arguments gets us nowhere.

    Apologists and atheists have driven around in circles in this inferential cul-de-sac for centuries, and so it is no surprise the interlocutors keep meeting each other at the same old impasses. Despite its astonishing fecundity in so many other arenas of discourse, the “cognitive turn” in science (and philosophy) has not yet altered the course of (a)theological debate, which all too often follows the ruts carved out by the longstanding attempts to (dis)prove God through deduction or render God (im)probable through induction.

    It is time to explore other avenues. Yes, theists and atheists have quite different “prior assumptions” and “prior probabilities,” but where did these come from? We cannot answer this question simply by appealing to the cognitive generation of the content of such (dis)belief. We must also ask about the coalitional contexts within which ideas about the gods (and God) are kept alive.

    And so an important second step is locating and attending to the site of alleged religious abductions. Peirce used the term abduction to refer to the way in which we develop conjectures that are intended to make sense of ambiguous phenomena. I observe a surprising fact (C). But then I reflect—or intuit—that if (A) were true, (C) would be a matter of course. This gives the hypothesis (A) an initial plausibility. In everyday life, we usually go with this “best guess” unless and until we encounter some challenge to it.

    In scholarly contexts, however, we are encouraged to overcome our confirmation bias, to reflect critically on our own idiosyncratic interpretations, and to invite others to challenge our hypotheses without falling back on authoritative sources to which only we (and members of our in-group) have access.

    Religious ideas about animal-spirits, ancestor-ghosts, or gods are not the result of deduction or induction, but of abduction. For example, a Christian does not think the Eucharistic wafer has turned into the body of the risen Christ because she has observed its transmutation multiple times, nor because she has deduced this conclusion from theologically correct premises about the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ. Rather, she finds herself confronted by a highly ambiguous phenomenon, the “surprising fact” that everyone around her participating in this ritual seems to be detecting the (real) presence of a supernatural agent (C). If the ritual officer (priest) really belonged to a social category of persons who were divinely imbued with a special power (A), then (C) would be a “matter of course.” Hypotheses like (A) “work” in the sense that they hold together believers ritually engaged in religious sects.

    Ideas about counterintuitive supernatural agents are relatively immune to inductive challenges because they can live forever in the meta-representational limbo created by regular participation in causally opaque rituals; such “prior probabilities” can never be empirically falsified through observation.

    God-concepts are also relatively immune to deductive challenges because the symbolic representational contexts of religious in-groups are so open-textured that an endless array of quasi-propositions can be generated to qualify and protect the “prior assumptions” within them.

    Abductive challenges, on the other hand, put pressure on those who think they have detected a mysterious contingently-embodied intentional force to reflect carefully on the way in which they might be unconsciously immunizing such hypotheses from serious critique because they have a conflict of interest in maintaining the idiosyncratic beliefs of their own religious coalition.

    De Cruz and De Smedt indirectly approach the issue of abduction when they discuss the way in which “inference to the best explanation” plays a role in arguments from design.6 My interest, however, is in the primal abductions about supernatural agents that have become deeply ingressed within a theist’s interpretive scheme long before he or she gets around to dealing with abstract theological hypotheses about the best explanation for apparent design.

    It is precisely religious abductions of this sort—those that flow naturally from the evolved bias toward guessing that a hidden, person-like, coalition-favoring force is the cause of ambiguous phenomena—that scientific and philosophical training encourages one to challenge.

    Supernatural agent beliefs are not simply prior “assumptions” or “probabilities,” but biased hypotheses powerfully protected from critique by ongoing participation in the shared imaginative engagement of a particular religious coalition, wherein one is constantly pressured to send credible and costly signals of commitment to other in-group members.

    How do scientists, (non-religious) philosophers, and most educated people in general, respond when they hear claims about UFO abductions, the detection of spirit-guides at a séance, celestial forces fulfilling astrological predictions, or the presence of trolls in the Norwegian forest?

    They consider them bunk. It is not always clear why “gods” are given a pass. De Cruz and De Smedt devote considerable time to “Reformed” epistemology, without asking why this should be given more credence than “Lutheran,” “Mormon,” or “Hindu” epistemology. Alvin Plantinga claims that Christians have access to more evidence than naturalists (and members of other out-groups) because of their special experience of divine revelation, and Justin Barrett appeals to the biblical myth of the “fall” of Adam and Eve in his explanation of the failure of non-believers to detect God.7

    Normally this sort of special pleading would never be allowed to stand in serious, academic discourse. Appealing to the noetic effects of sin, or some other flaw appraised by a punitive supernatural agent, to discredit the hypotheses of one’s opponents, is surely one of the most appalling of noetic sins, and yet most CSR scholars just let such claims slide. Why? The response “because these claims occur in the context of religious and theological discourse, which deals with spiritual realities beyond the boundaries of science” simply begs the question: why would anyone think that spiritual forces are real in the first place?

    CSR and related disciplines have provided a really good answer to this question: hypotheses about such spiritual forces are the result of abductive inferences covertly guided by implicit cognitive and coalitional biases. At the end of their book, De Cruz and De Smedt suggest that “one of the challenges for the metaphysical naturalistic worldview is to explain why such beliefs are widespread if their referents (supernatural entities) do not exist.”8

    In light of the sciences that study cognitive and coalitional biases, it is not at all challenging to explain why beliefs in UFO abductions are widespread although their referents (probing aliens) do not exist.

    Why hesitate to make similar claims about gods (or God)? This leads to a third step—seeking out retroductive destinations—but I am out of space and so I refer the interested reader to the forthcoming article referenced below. I also leave to the reader the task of reviewing Visala’s commentary for evidence that he too is driving in circles around the same cul-de-sac identified above, which helps to explain why he failed to see (much less understand) the new territory I described in my book.


    It is a rare experience for an author (or, at least, for this author) to get this much attention over a book. And so I conclude by once again thanking Syndicate and the five commentators for this opportunity. I am grateful to Philip Clayton and Aku Visala—Christian theologians and philosophers of religion who are members of my academic “family of origin”—for taking the time to engage a “black sheep.” I am grateful to Clayton Crockett, Katharine Sarah Moody, and Hollis Phelps—philosophers and iconoclasts who are still interested both in radical “theology” and in the psychological and political dynamics associated with the sort of intense human experience that has traditionally been associated with “religion”—for opening up new lines of flight that I hope we will be able to follow out together in the future.

    1. Shults, F. LeRon. “Can Theism Be Defeated? CSR and the Debunking of Supernatural Agent Abductions.” Religion, Brain and Behavior (forthcoming).

    2. H. De Cruz and J. De Smedt. The Natural History of Natural Theology: The Cognitive Science of Theology and Philosophy of Religion. Cambridge, (MA: MIT Press, 2015), 179, emphases added.

    3. Ibid., 183.

    4. Ibid., 198.

    5. Ibid., 84.

    6. Ibid., 64.

    7. See Theology after the Birth of God, 108–12 for references.

    8. De Cruz and De Smedt, Natural History, 198.