Leron Shults’ “adaptive atheism”

“A clash of doctrines is not a disaster – it is an opportunity.” -A.N. Whitehead

This morning, Jesse Turri sent me a draft of LeRon Shults’ soon to be published paper “How to Survive the Anthropocene: Adaptive Atheism and the Evolution of Homo Deiparensis.” His basic thesis is that modern day religion (defined as “shared imaginative engagement with axiologically relevant supernatural agents”) functions to allow its adherents to ignore and repress the scientific claims of experts about the consequences of the presently unfolding ecological catastrophe. While perhaps adaptive in earlier eras of human existence, religion’s propensities to over-detect agency in nature and over-protect the social in-group from the social out-group have proven maladaptive in our modern, pluralistic society. Shults therefore argues that we ought to embrace scientific naturalism and political secularism as a form of what he call’s “adaptive atheism.” Only atheism, he says, will allow us to respond adequately to climate change and an increasingly multicultural global society.

Shults has also recently published two books, Theology After the Birth of God: Atheist Conceptions in Cognition and Culture and Iconoclastic Theology: Gilles Deleuze and the Secretion of Atheism. I’m going to have to read both of them and grapple more fully with his approach. The perspective he articulates in his “Homo Deiparensis” paper probably couldn’t be more opposed to the perspective I’ll offer at next week’s Whitehead conference. I regret that I don’t have the time to adequately incorporate a direct response to him in my present paper.

funeral pyres in Varanasi, India
funeral pyres in Varanasi, India

All I can say is that I don’t believe in the God he doesn’t believe in, either. I grant him that many religious believers do seem to believe in a supernatural agent. I am just as atheist about this sort of God as Shults is. I agree with him that this sort of religion should be transformed into something with more world-loyalty. I just can’t follow him when he says religion as such can or should be eliminated. Secularity is no less religious (in form, if not in content) than theism. Secular people worship other gods: Technology, Celebrity, Money, etc. They believe in the myths of Progress or Fame. Secularism is not without its rituals. Human beings, it seems to me, cannot live without some form of religious or spiritual outlook (and I think atheism is itself just another way of responding to, or orienting one’s personality in relation to, the mystery of life).

Religion really needs to be understood in such a way that “supernaturalism” is not essential to it, since most of our species’ past and present religious and spiritual traditions lack concepts for “nature,” not to mention “supernature.” Supernatural agents may be among the contents valued by some religions, but they are not essential to the form of religion as such. Our religious affirmations can orient us toward divine immanence or toward divine transcendence. I am myself strongly committed to the immanent or incarnational orientation (which I’ve expressed with help from Whitehead and Deleuze in this paper presented at the last international Whitehead conference in 2013).

[Update (5/28): I have been reading through some of the responses to Shults’ work on the Syndicate Theology page. I’m particularly interested in Philip Clayton’s response, which points out that functionalist explanations of why people believe in this or that religion “cut both ways.” In other words, if we are going to offer biological, psychological, or sociological explanations for religious belief, what is to stop us from offering such explanations for atheism? I’m also largely in agreement with Hollis Phelps’ critical response to Shults’ definition of religion in terms of belief. Phelps marshals the support of Bruno Latour in his criticism, who, incidentally, I’d argue offered us a far more pragmatic understanding of the relationship between religion and ecology in his Gifford Lectures on Gaian theology.]