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.]

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Jesse_Turri says:

    Thanks for posting on this, Matt. Like I mentioned in our email chat, Leron is crazy smart and a great writer and thinker, and I actually agree with like 90% of what the guy is saying. However, If I’m not mistaken, he’s really criticizing what James Fowler would classify as a mythic-literal stage of religious development and if people get stuck there—and it certainly does happen—then yes that definitely needs to be addressed. But I’m not convinced that one cannot contest these problematic out-group antagonizing inherited biases (and this is where Shults is interesting for me actually, in pointing these out) as well as, if not better than, an atheist/non-theist from within a religious tradition. I honestly DO NOT think that metaphysical naturalism and/or metaphysical secularism equals critical thinking. In fact, like James McGrath wrote once, associating “one’s own preferred ideology and “critical thinking,” “intelligence,” or “skepticism” are an indication that one has fallen victim to shoddy thinking, rather than evidence of having avoided it.”

    1. Hi Jesse,

      Yeah, and In-group/Out-group discrimination is certainly not unique to religion. It is true of high school cliques, sports teams, political parties, corporations, and yes, even academics.

      I have to read more of Shults’ work before I pass judgement, but he aligns his adaptive atheism to “naturalism” and “secularism” in the paper without going into what these really mean. On the face of it, “naturalism” is the product of what Deleuze and Guattari call “State Science,” which is that sort of Science that imposes transcendent and universal laws on physical processes, assuming in advance that all phenomena will fit into its fixed set of pre-established categories of explanation. This is the form of Science long wed to imperialism, militarism, and colonialism. D and G contrast it to “nomad science,” which is more like the sort of iconoclastic religion that Shults defends. I know he is a close reader of Deleuze, which is why I’m surprised he would refer to “naturalism” without raising any concerns about its tendency to enforce contingent norms as though they were necessary laws. “Nature” as understood by State Science is just as transcendent a category (just as distant from our empirical observation/experience) as the “Creator” understood by supernaturalist religion (in fact the two categories have a genealogical relationship).

      1. Jesse_Turri says:

        Yeah, it’s all really interesting.

        On his blog Leron gracefully referred me to his books when I asked about the difference between his Iconoclastic Deleuzian atheism and say a Whiteheadian process-relational panentheism. It seemed to me like he was implicitly indicating that his views are not that much different my own, it’s just that he now, because of all the empirical evidence that has been uncovered by the bio-cultural study of religion, prefers “to be as clear as possible about the problems associated with the idea of a god (theos), understood as a person-like agent in any sense (add whatever qualifications you like, including Whiteheadian ones, because an intentional Lurer is still person-like), and so I prefer to avoid any sort of “theism” – pan or otherwise.”

        Fair enough. I mean I might like to make a distinction between anthropomorphism and personification but hey, like I said, he makes a challenging argument and he might be right, maybe Scandinavian folks are the next step in human psycho-social evolution…

  2. PeterJ says:

    Nice post. Why do so many people who should know better insist on confusing religion with anthropomorphic theism? Do they not read anything? Is research no longer important for an author? As for the idea that science is better for the environment then religion, this depends on keeping ones eyes well and truly shut and believing ten impossible things before every breakfast.

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