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  • Theology after the Birth of God: Atheist Conceptions in Cognition and Culture by LeRon Shults
  • Brandon Daniel-Hughes
Theology after the Birth of God: Atheist Conceptions in Cognition and Culture. LeRon Shults. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014. 238 pp. $29.99 ebook, $100 cloth.

LeRon Shults and Palgrave MacMillan are happy to announce the arrival of Postpartum Theology!

Shults has changed his guiding metaphors during the short interval between the publication of Iconoclastic Theology: Gilles Deleuze and the Secretion of Atheism and Theology After the Birth of God. While Iconoclastic Theology emphasized the iconoclastic potential of theology with the help of Deleuze’s well-struck hammer blows, Theology After the Birth of God adopts natal imagery. The gods, Shults argues, were conceived in the human mind, born into the world as a result of human cognitive errors, and continue to be borne in [End Page 92] diverse cultures. Prophets who have announced the death of God have little impacted our continued habits of theistic reproduction. Our minds, Shults argues, have evolved to shrug off such proclamations and to continue conceiving and nurturing ideas of disembodied intentional agents. The gods cannot be killed unless humans stop giving them birth. So Shults moves to facilitate “having the talk” about just where gods come from, allowing no room for “sacerdotal filibustering” and forcing the awkward conversations about theistic reproduction. Ultimately, these conversations are worthwhile because “unveiling the mechanisms that reproduce the ‘birth of God’ in human minds automatically weakens them” (italics original, 44). It is high time that we let the gods go.

Chapter 1 introduces the challenges of postpartum theology and contrasts them with an older mode of postmortem theology (5). Considerable advances in the empirical and scientific study of religion since Thomas J.J. Altizer’s “death of God” theology emerged in the late 1960s enable Shults to embrace “explanatory pluralism” and make extensive use of biology and the social sciences (6). While Shults is more than willing to dispense with religion, defined as “shared imaginative engagement with axiologically relevant supernatural agents” (italics original, 9), and throw the gods out with the bathwater, he saves a place for theology, reimagined as “the construction and critique of hypotheses about the existential conditions for axiological engagement” (italics original, 12).

Chapter 2 takes up the task of atheist theology and introduces two axes on which Shults charts human cognitive and coalitional tendencies (18). The horizontal axis represents the cognitive tendency to detect anthropomorphic, intentional agents in natural phenomena. This axis spans a continuum from anthropomorphic promiscuity, the tendency to see intentionality everywhere, to anthropomorphic prudery, the habit of restraining from locating intentionality and agency where there is none. The vertical axis has promiscuous and prudish poles as well, but represents the human tendency to form and defend coalitions. Sociographically promiscuous minds push to expand the social coalition, while the prudish defend more tightly circumscribed communities. The deeper tragedy, Shults argues, is that these cognitive habits are intimately linked so that detection of supernatural agents spontaneously increases outgroup aggression, and vice versa. The very notion of God as a disembodied agent unavoidably leads to the reproduction of gods, interested in protecting particular coalitions. Far from solving the problem of social conflict, the God idea was born in the human imagination when “anthropomorphic promiscuity was pressed to infinity” (38). This supernatural growth spurt is then mirrored in the birth of an eschatological human coalition wherein sociographic prudery reaches toward eternity.

Chapter 3 reconfigures theology as a constructively iconoclastic discipline. Where anthropomorphic promiscuity and sociographic prudishness reinforce [End Page 93] one another, Shults identifies an ancient sacerdotal tradition of nurturing the gods. However, he locates a less natural but ultimately more hopeful alternative, an iconoclastic trajectory, at the intersection of sociographic promiscuity and anthropomorphic prudishness. These too are mutually reinforcing, meaning that there is hope for a self-reinforcing atheist theology that refuses to bear the gods and instead focuses attention on “the empirical experience of axiological limitation” (77). The cognitive sciences are allies in this iconoclastic endeavor, insofar as they search for empirical data that might correct theological hypotheses. Chapter 4 puts Shults’s familiarity with Christian theological and apologetic traditions to good use...


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