- Postpartum Theology:Axiological Experimentation at the Margins
Terminological debates are often circular and unproductive, so it is a pleasure to investigate the terminology of LeRon Shults, who argues with clarity, defines his terms, and offers reasons for preferring one term ("axiological engagement") over another ("religion"). I would not, however, waste the readers' time if my aim were merely to challenge some of Shults's nomenclature. When one sets out, as does Shults, to intervene in the process of theogonic reproduction, terminological and metaphorical choices matter a great deal insofar as the semiotic tools one deploys carry emotional and affective baggage that can deeply influence the efficacy of the hoped-for intervention. As I argue below, there is much to commend in Shults's approach to ending the scourge of sociographic prudery, and religious naturalists should more fully embrace postpartum theology as both a strategy for marshalling semiotic resources and for resisting habitual and traditional domestications of naturalist projects. In what follows, therefore, I adopt much of Shults's terminology with little hesitation. However, in addition to worrying about domestication, religious naturalists who hope to interrupt the theogonic processes that reinforce sociographic prudery must also guard against initiating the cognitive and cultural defense mechanisms that all too readily activate to isolate and insulate groups from perceived threats and criticisms.
Section one of my argument opens with a characterization of Shults's most provocative contention, his automatic reciprocity thesis, regarding the stable causal connections between hosting supernatural agent conceptions and reproducing in-group preferences and out-group hostilities. The next two sections take up pragmatic questions that Shults himself raises, and use insights from Charles Peirce's work to focus attention on the challenges of intervening to alter cognitively and communally borne canons of plausibility. The fourth offers both an account and a criticism of the subtle shift that occurs between Theology after the Birth of God and Practicing Safe Sects and aims to characterize the challenges that postpartum theology faces going forward. The final section proposes a narrative strategy for helping to address this challenge. Shults's intervention, I argue, aims to occupy the narrow rhetorical margin between domestication on the one hand and antagonism on the other. It is an exceedingly tight fit, and I work in my conclusion to offer some insights into how best to expand and exploit this narrow space of rhetorical possibilities. [End Page 48]
I. Shults's Automatic Reciprocity Thesis
In resonance with Richard Dawkins's meme theory and Dan Sperber's notion of an "epidemiology of representations," many atheistic treatments of religion utilize metaphors of infection and disease to describe the spread of religious conceptions and the human tendency to "host" maladaptive religious representations.1 Theistic conceptions have been alternately characterized as spells, drugs, delusions, and viruses.2 What postpartum theology recognizes, that others tend to dismiss, is the degree to which emotionally loaded, imagistic attacks on religious conceptions are likely to be perceived as existential threats by the very communities who bear them and whom atheist critics desire to liberate or cure. The reality is that, on average, perceived attacks are not met with cool appraisals of the relevant data and arguments but evoke an increase in costly displays of loyalty to the in-group and its core representations. To put the matter bluntly, threaten to kill a group's gods or tell them that their gods are dead and they are likely to double-down on the relevant conceptions as a way of strengthening threatened coalitions. Such responses tend to homogenize representations of both out-groups and in-groups and result in strengthened intra group cooperation and heightened inter group conflict.3 Throughout Theology after the Birth of God, Shults is keenly aware of these dynamics and seems to have adjusted his rhetoric and intervention strategies accordingly, so much so that I would characterize this first text as, among other things, a work of pastoral theology. It is worth noting that Shults's maternal metaphors and imagery are surprisingly gentle given his thesis, and this decision is not unrelated to his larger goals.4 [End Page 49]
Regardless of his pastoral sensibilities, both his diagnosis and prognosis are...