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  • Safe and Responsible God-Talk:Beyond F. LeRon Shults's "Abstinence-Only" Version of "The Talk"

I. Introduction

Rather than proclaiming the "death of God," in the fashion of Nietzsche's madman, F. LeRon Shults proudly proclaims the "birth of God" in his incendiary, radically iconoclastic book Theology after the Birth of God. Shults argues, drawing on the multidisciplinary findings of the biocultural study of religion, that the commonplace belief in supernatural agents is the result of a variety of evolved cognitive and coalitional mechanisms that cause human beings to overdetect agency and that contribute to in-group cohesion—traits that would have been selected because they aided the survival of early hominids living in hunter-gatherer societies, but that are maladaptive in our contemporary context. In his most recent book, Practicing Safe Sects: Religious Reproduction in Scientific and Philosophical Perspective, Shults expands on his arguments for "theogonic reproduction theory," supporting them with hundreds of empirical studies.1 For Shults, these findings have potentially devastating consequences for traditional beliefs about God, liberating human beings "so that we can learn to live together—on our own," and respond to the unique political, economic, and environmental challenges of the twenty-first century.2

Just as theologians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries attempted to wrestle with the cultural death of God, so too theologians in the twenty-first century must ponder the implications of the birth of God. This paper is part of my own humble attempt to do so as a liberal theologian. I am a religious person—a Unitarian Universalist by ecclesial home, a Unitarian Christian by confession, and a religious naturalist by philosophical orientation—and Shults's arguments have profound implications for how I approach my vocation as a religious educator and theologian. [End Page 65]

II. On the Birth and Bearing of Gods: F. LeRon Shults and "The Talk"

Shults sees the God-bearing (or theogonic, in Shults's terminology) mechanism as being a result of human-evolved tendencies toward anthropomorphic promiscuity and sociographic prudery. An anthropomorphically promiscuous person tends to assign agency in their interpretations of ambiguous phenomena, while an anthropomorphic prude is suspicious and "[prefers] to reflect more carefully before giving into their intuitive desire to grab at agential interpretations."3 A variety of cognitive mechanisms, including the Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device and the Theory of Mind Mechanism, lead human beings to overdetect "agency" in the face of ambiguous phenomena and then to assume that "agent" has "mental and emotional states somewhat like our own."4 These detected agents helped to bind together social groups through ritual engagement and reinforce social norms through punishing "potential freeloaders, cheaters, and defectors,"5 playing off our evolved sociographically prudish tendencies—we are "strongly committed to the authorized social norms of [our] in-group, following and protecting them even at great cost to [ourselves]."6 These theogonic mechanisms were selected because they proved advantageous to early humans living in the Upper Paleolithic, helping them to "[outcompete] other groups when resources were low."7 These mechanisms work together in ways that are "reciprocally reinforcing … the superstitious interpretations of the world and the segregative inscriptions of society born(e) within religious social assemblages can become entwined in a spiral of mutual amplification."8 As societies grew increasingly complex in the Axial Age, religious reflection in West, East, and South Asia began to develop the idea of an "ultimate disembodied Force that was axiologically relevant for everyone," one version of which is the God of the west-Asian monotheisms.9 Although theologians stress the inability of the human mind to comprehend God, an [End Page 66] iconoclastic resistance toward anthropomorphism, the tendency of religious practitioners is to fall back on the "theologically incorrect" position of conceiving of God as a supernatural agent when "dealing with the possibility and passions of everyday life."10

While the belief in gods was beneficial at one point in human history, Shults claims that "we can no longer afford to romanticize the human search for gods to protect and partner with us … today it is distracting us from the task of developing new strategies for living together in our rapidly changing environment."11 We can move in this direction by embracing atheism—or secularism and naturalism—allowing us to find new solutions to the problems of war, unrestrained capitalism, and environmental degradation "without waiting for the approval (or fearing the punishment) of human-like, coalition favoring gods."12 Although Shults acknowledges that, "as a social species," the human need to "live together in social networks" is likely to continue, he argues that this should be done in "explicitly non-religious ways."13 For Shults, there does not seem to be any way in which to "practice safe sects" while retaining any semblance of continuity with existing religious traditions. While the future results of this trajectory are unknown, Shults clearly believes that it is less risky than continuing our present path.

Drawing on the image of a parent explaining sexual reproduction to their child, Shults recommends that we begin to have "the talk" about where gods come from—how they are born, and borne in human cultures, along with the "physical, emotional, and social consequences of 'doing it.'"14 Contra critics who would find this metaphor condescending and infantilizing, Shults argues that the assumption of "the talk" means "taking [religious people] seriously as individuals who are capable of challenging their biases once they understand the deleterious effects they are having on their own lives and those around them."15 Due to the severity of contemporary global problems, Shults thinks that this talk "may be one of the most important conversations of our generation."16 [End Page 67]

III. Just Say No: "The Talk" and Abstinence-Only Education

There is much in Shults's work with which I am sympathetic. I find his analysis of the findings of the scientific study of religion to offer a convincing and plausible naturalistic explanation for why humans so easily believe in supernatural beings. I also understand his concerns about the consequences of supernatural religious beliefs in the contemporary world, especially as it relates to trust in scientific inquiry and how seriously the public takes the threat of global climate change.17 Despite this, there is an element of Theology after the Birth of God, indeed with Shults's entire project, that has not sat well with me since I first read his book—the idea of "the talk." My objection is not the necessity of the talk, as I think that theologians and people of faith should wrestle with these arguments and implications, nor is it the so-called "infantilizing" that the metaphor implies.

Playing off Shults's metaphor, the problem with Shults's version of "the talk" is that it is a form of "abstinence-only" education. In many parts of the United States, especially in areas with a strong conservative Christian culture, many schools and churches only offer an "abstinence-only" approach to sexual education. Young people are taught that there is only one morally sanctioned form of sexual behavior (monogamous heterosexual sex in the context of a marriage), and there is a myopic focus on the negative consequences of sexual activity outside of that context (unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and infections). Alternative forms of sexual activity are simply not discussed (homosexual sex, masturbation, etc.) and, because abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way of avoiding the aforementioned negative consequences of sexual activity, methods of birth control and safe sex are neglected. The problem with this approach is that it is ineffective. Abstinence-only education does little to discourage teenagers from having sex, and it is correlated with higher levels of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.18 Young people are still engaged in sexual activity, they are still giving in to their deeply engrained evolved biological urges, but without access to information about how to be safe, they are subject to a higher number of negative consequences.

The parallels to Shults's "talk" should be obvious. There is a narrow focus on one form of religious activity (i.e., the ritual engagement of supernatural agents) and the negative consequences of religious activity (e.g., the increase of in-group/out-group antagonism) is given greater emphasis than the positive, [End Page 68] life-enriching, and affirming elements of religious activity. The solution to this problem is a simple "just say no."

Part of the problem with Shults's project stems from his definition of religion as "shared imaginative engagement with axiologically relevant supernatural agents."19 While any definition of religion is likely to be problematic, Shults's definition is reductionistic to the point of distorting its subject matter. It is true that engagement with supernatural agents is one of the most common forms of religious expression. While there are many nontheistic religious traditions that do not conceive of ultimate reality as personal or agential, in popular/folk religion the lives of everyday practitioners are still "deeply entangled in shared imaginative engagement with all kinds of disembodied human-like intentional forces such as hell-ghosts, devas, bodhisattvas, and of course, Buddhas."20 It is also true that such a narrow definition of religion will be advantageous in areas such as the scientific study of religion, or in Shults's work in computer modeling of religion, where finding a specific, measureable trait (such as belief in supernatural agents that are ritually engaged by one's in-group) will yield greater results than a more open, capacious, and amorphous definition of religion.21 The problem with this is that belief in, and engagement with, supernatural agents is not the only aspect of life that religion offers. Wesley Wildman offers a list of five elements that religion typically offers its adherents: ways of relating our lives to something ultimate; answers to concerns about death and the afterlife or immortality; social cohesion; solutions to the human condition and means of self-transformation; and "orienting narratives by which we discern our place in a cosmological framework and gather the courage to make moral decisions."22 While in traditional versions of religion many of these aspects may be related to a particular religious community's engagement with a supernatural agent, it is not necessary to invoke the supernatural in order to offer them. This is in part why the philosophical schools of many religions have developed their own iconoclastic trajectories that have pushed back on the supernaturalism in [End Page 69] their own traditions. In the words of Wildman, "[This] significant minority of anti-supernaturalists will have nothing to do with superstitious beliefs even as they consistently affirm the value of some aspect of religion."23 One example of a more broad definition of religion comes from the work of Robert Neville, who defines religion as "human engagement of ultimacy expressed in cognitive articulations, existential responses to ultimacy that give ultimate definition to the individual, and patterns of life and ritual in the face of that ultimacy."24 While this definition is not without its potential problems (e.g., the overwhelming emphasis on the individual as opposed to the community), the definition is vague enough (in the technical sense, rather than connoting imprecision) to allow a greater diversity of religious experience and practice to be included within it—including both supernatural and naturalist forms. While the engagement of supernatural agents may be a uniquely religious behavior, scholars of religion in the humanities (whether in the field of religious studies, philosophy of religion, or theology) typically look at religion at a broader scale so that a more comprehensive understanding of their subject can be reached. They do not mistake one aspect of religion for the whole. For Shults, such broad definitions are unable to "pick out anything empirically relevant or conceptually interesting" and are too disconnected from practical religious life. He writes, "Many members of communities normally considered 'religious' … have no time for (or interest in) reflecting on ultimacy and wondering at the cosmos."25 He feels justified in using his narrower definition, even though it is incapable of registering naturalistic forms of religious expression—indeed, for Shults a religious naturalist is a contradiction in terms.

Continuing to use analogies from the arena of sexuality, Shults's narrow definition of religion would be akin to defining human sexuality as "the creation of a baby by means of heterosexual intercourse." It is true that this is an extraordinarily common form of sexuality. It identifies a form of sexuality that satisfies a deeply engrained biological urge and a necessary function. It does not, however, pick up the countless other functions of sexuality, whether it be social, psychological, political, or aesthetic. It does not register the role that sexuality plays in fostering intimacy in a relationship, or the liberative dimensions of challenging sexual mores in an oppressive society, or the harm that sexuality can cause when it is abused or tied with violence. It does not register forms of sexual expression that were never intended to, or are incapable of, [End Page 70] producing offspring. However useful the definition may be for certain forms of inquiry, when it is too narrow it is incapable of capturing the nuance of such a complex and multifaceted phenomenon; nor is it capable of carrying over the value that phenomenon has in human existence. If this is true of sexuality, certainly such a narrow understanding of religion is bound to be inadequate to the complexity, variety, and diversity of such an existentially gripping, powerful force in human life. For a subject such as this, a properly vague comparative category is necessary in order to register both similarity and difference across religious traditions—pointing in the direction of a definition such as that utilized by Neville.26 While Shults is correct that for many adherents, reflecting on "ultimacy" may be a foreign concept, and it is certainly rarely engaged at the intellectual level of a seminary classroom (or philosophy conference), even conservative evangelical Christians reflect on ultimacy indirectly by means of their religious symbols, their narratives, liturgy, and hymns.

It is this definitional issue that is at the root of my disagreement with Shults's approach to "the talk." In his program, religion is the engagement of axiologically relevant supernatural agents; that engagement leads to negative consequences that are increasingly problematic in the twenty-first century; therefore, religion should be abandoned in favor of atheism. This is the "abstinence-only" approach in action, and like abstinence-only approaches to sex education, it is unlikely to achieve its desired results because it conflicts too deeply with our nature as human beings. Although Shults claims that, as a species, we are Homo Deiparensis, or God-bearing hominids,27 a more accurate statement might be that we are Homo Religiosus—that we are, in the words of Wildman, "oriented to the primordial, ultimate mystery in our experiences, our social practices, our drives and projective impulses, our longings and failures, our malevolence and love" and that we are this "ontologically, essentially, and inescapably."28 Whether we believe in and engage supernatural agents or not, we will still need ways of orienting ourselves in the world, narrative frameworks for our lives, ways of understanding and relating to death, the support of communities, and means of self-transformation. Certainly on some level Shults would agree with this need for human beings, as he still considers himself to be practicing theology, redefined as the "construction and critique of hypotheses about the [End Page 71] existential conditions for axiological engagement."29 If there are intrinsically religious dimensions to human existence—if we are, in fact, homo religiosus—then shouldn't our approach to "the talk" include ways of relating to religious symbols, texts, and traditions while resisting our evolved supernatural biases; the proper role of religious communities; and ways of relating to the religious and cultural other without exacerbating in-group/out-group antagonism? Or, to use Shults's metaphor, if we are going to "do it" anyways, shouldn't we have a conversation about safe and responsible God-talk?

IV. Safe and Responsible God-Talk: Toward a Postpartum Theological Liberalism

The version of "the talk" that I advocate is firmly encamped in the tradition of liberal theology—the proud intellectual children of Friedrich Schleiermacher, defending aspects of religion to its "cultured despisers" while resisting its authoritarianism, absolutism, and superstition.30 Throughout its history, liberal theology has attempted to articulate a religious vision that took with full seriousness the challenges of the Enlightenment and modernity, including the developments of modern science, the historical-critical study of the Bible, and changes in political and economic culture. Today the findings of the scientific study of religion present new challenges that confront the religious person with the role that evolved cognitive biases play in their religious beliefs and experiences, empirical evidence that religion exacerbates in-group/out-group antagonism, and that religion may be a hindrance in the fight against environmental catastrophe. The theology that responds to the findings of the biocultural study of religion, the theology that takes the birth of god with all seriousness, Shults calls postpartum theology. While Shults's articulation of postpartum theology remains radical and atheistic in its orientation, my call for a discussion of Safe and Responsible God-talk is an articulation of a postpartum theological liberalism. The assumption that it makes is that existing religious traditions can be reformed in the direction of naturalism and pluralism.

The religious naturalist believes that nature is exhaustive of reality, that there is no supernatural, but that something within nature (a process within nature, its ontological grounding or axiological depth structures, or the vast totality of nature itself) is worthy of awe, wonder, devotion, and even worship. Varieties of [End Page 72] religious naturalism include variations of "ground-of-being" ontologies with a naturalist cosmology (e.g., Wesley Wildman, Robert Neville),31 naturalisms that are grounded in the divide between nature naturing and nature natured (e.g., Robert Corrington, Donald Crosby), as well as naturalisms grounded in the empirical tradition of process philosophy (e.g., Bernard Loomer, Henry Nelson Wieman), to name just a few.32 Indeed, although he would not claim this term, Shults's philosophical theology, with its "sensitivity to the distinctive intensity of the human longing for deep eternal joy … conditioned only by the chronic depths of nature" can be seen as a form of religious naturalism.33 While religious naturalists share a common reverence for the natural world, "they are not united by any distinctive patterns for expressing their reverence."34 In the words of Dan Solomon, "Religious naturalism is rich in intellectual resources, but it is lacking in models for personal development, within a lived tradition."35 By taking part in established religious traditions, a naturalist is able to utilize "ready-made" hypotheses for the religiously significant problems of human existence that have been refined and tested over the centuries and millennia,36 take advantage of narrative frameworks, models for self-transformation, discernment practices for religious experiences, and the support of religious communities—provided that the tradition is capable of a naturalist interpretation while meeting the demands of fidelity and plausibility.37

It is not difficult to imagine how certain eastern religious traditions could be adapted and reformed in a naturalist direction. Daoism can be interpreted as a form of mystical naturalism in which ultimate reality is symbolized in terms [End Page 73] of emergent complexity.38 Jea Sophia Oh claims that it is possible to view the Dao as "the ultimate mystery that is manifested in nature natured … via nature naturing" and draws parallels to Robert Corrington's ecstatic naturalism.39 Buddhism does not posit an agential understanding of ultimate reality, and its practices and techniques can be naturally understood as solutions to the problems of the human predicament, although traditional forms of Buddhism will still be hung up on the absolute authority of the Buddha's teachings and the problematic doctrines of karma and rebirth.40 The monotheistic religions, however, pose a greater conceptual problem for the religious naturalist. The God of the west-Asian monotheisms is traditionally viewed, in at least some sense, as an agent that can act in history, whether this is the personal being that can be shamanically manipulated with prayer that exists in popular Christian religion or the impassable God of classical Christian theism. For a Jewish naturalist, this may require a focus on distinctive Jewish religious and cultural practices. Dan Solomon draws inspiration for this idea from the reconstructionist Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan who advocated for "maintaining Jewish distinctiveness by adhering as much as possible to traditional practice, while reinterpreting traditional concepts in keeping with modern ideas," and who advocated a naturalist understanding of God.41 Although there is a great deal of traditional Judaism that will have to be "left behind, radically reworked, or … treated as edifying fiction," Solomon sees this as carrying on the longstanding interpretive tradition of Midrash that has been characteristic of rabbinical Judaism for centuries.42

Christianity contains both unique resources and challenges for a naturalistic reinterpretation. Throughout the history of Christian theology, many important theologians (e.g., Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Schleiermacher, etc.) have recognized that "God would not be God if he were not the creative ground of everything that has being, that … he is the infinite unconditional power of being or … being itself."43 They believed that all our language about God must be necessarily symbolic or analogical, although they still retained some element of "focal awareness" in their understanding of the divine.44 The fact [End Page 74] that such luminaries of Christian theology claimed that God was beyond the categories of being and nonbeing is good news for contemporary Christian naturalists as it shows the foundation for such ideas at the heart of the western Christian tradition—even though they held this view in a "restricted," or inconsistent, form.45 While a Christian naturalism faces similar problems to those of Judaism in its necessary rejection of a personal God, Christianity faces the unique stumbling block of Christology. While a variety of naturalist Christologies do exist (e.g., Karl E. Peters's view of Jesus as a "non-violent revolutionary" and an "exemplar for social and individual transformation" or Gordon Kaufman's articulation of a "Jesus trajectory" begun at the ministry of Jesus and continued by the early church),46 for members of traditional Christian denominations (and ordination boards), these Christologies will skirt dangerously close to Unitarianism in their articulation of a human Jesus who is a normative "ethical example." An alternative approach can be seen in the "Christology of Symbolic Engagement" articulated by Robert Neville, who demonstrates how all manner of traditional Christological symbols, even those from which religious liberals typically distance themselves (e.g., the sacrificial atonement, the second person of the trinity, the savior of the world), can existentially engage believers with the ultimate dimensions of existence.47 All this is not to articulate a fully formed naturalist Christian philosophical theology, but to point out that resources exist to do so in ways that remain deeply engaged with the history of Christian thought and doctrine and that robustly utilize Christian symbols.

A version of "the talk" that is grounded in "safe and responsible God-talk" takes with full seriousness the findings of the biocultural study of religion, the unique challenges of life in the twenty-first century, while doing so in a way that is religion-positive and that shows how one can participate in the life-giving, transformative, fulfilling aspects of religious life, yet attempt to avoid some of its negative consequences. These conversations need to be held in churches and religious communities, beginning in the teenage years and carried into adulthood, requiring a robust commitment to religious education, [End Page 75] especially for adults, so that they can see the resources in their own tradition, a neighborly understanding of other religions, and, yes, the basic conversation about "where gods come from." Minsters have a remarkable power to shape the religious imaginations of their congregants through their teaching, their preaching, and their pastoral care. They must exercise great care in the way they utilize anthropomorphic language about God. In the words of Neville, "Preachers have an extraordinary responsibility to interpret the symbols appropriately, hedging against their misuse while sounding their resonance."48 For those who teach at seminaries, for those engaged in the training of future ministers and religious leaders, this may mean changes in how seminary curricula are designed. In addition to continuing to engage students in the rigorous intellectual work of theology and biblical studies, and the practical disciplines of pastoral care and homiletics, perhaps it is necessary that future generations of pastors take at least basic-level courses in science and religion, as well as in world religions. Facilitating this version of the talk is challenging. It requires a wide knowledge base, sensitivity, and interpretive sophistication, but it may be necessary for liberal religious institutions if they want to remain a viable alternative to conservative/fundamentalist religion (birthing and bearing gods unabated), and to secularism (abstinence-only).

V. Postpartum Depression: Radical Theology and the Loss of God

It is important to remember that "the talk," even if grounded in "safe and responsible God-talk," must be handled with sensitivity and pastoral skill. For people who participate in Judeo-Christian religious traditions, God is at the center of religious life and a person's entire conception of reality. Naturalistic understandings of ultimate reality such as the abysmal ground of being, the ontological creative act, holy nothingness, creativity, or natura naturans are miles away from the God of popular religious piety. This is not the personal God who knows you, loves you, and has a plan for your life. This is not a God who acts in history to liberate the oppressed. This is not the God that many people claim, due to their life circumstances or social location, they need. It is a God that is abysmal, ambiguous, mysterious, at times terrifying, yet utterly fascinating and beautiful—for those whose spiritual antennae are tuned to such frequencies. For those who are not, a successful challenge to the credibility of an understanding of God, especially for those of us who still see the value in our religious institutions and cultural practices, can be deeply painful [End Page 76] and be experienced as a death. As an illustration, I shall turn to the work of twentieth-century Jewish theologian Richard Rubenstein.

Rubenstein's radical theology was responding not to a postpartum theological landscape, but a postholocaust reality. In his masterpiece After Auschwitz, Rubenstein argued that in this reality the covenantal theology of Israel, where God punishes and rewards Israel based on fidelity to the covenant, was no longer possible for him. "If I truly believed in God as the omnipotent author of the historical drama and in Israel as His Chosen people, I had no choice but to accept [the] conclusion that Hitler unwittingly acted as God's agent in committing six million Jews to slaughter. I could not believe in such a God, nor could I believe in Israel as the Chosen people of God after Auschwitz."49 For many people such a significant clash between traditional understandings of God and unfathomable human evil would drive them away from religion and toward atheism, but Rubenstein does not want to abandon his Judaism entirely. He declares that "life … [imposes] religious demands upon us. Birth, adolescence, marriage, and death demand religious celebration."50 Life still requires orienting narratives and frameworks, means of self-transformation, and the source for the courage to confront our finitude. For Rubenstein, his Jewish identity was still at the core of his being, even if some of its traditional formulations were no longer plausible in the contemporary theological landscape. To work with a model of ultimacy that was less problematic, Rubenstein embraced a form of Tillich-ian ground of being theology, with an emphasis on the abysmal nature of the divine and God's creative and destructive power.51 In this radical reinterpretation of traditional Judaism, the Torah becomes "a book of words [that] points to a reality before which words are utterly impotent," and the liturgy of Jewish worship, traditional prayers and music allows Jews to confront "the holiness of God in the fullness of their beings."52 It is a testimony to the way in which symbols that are literally false may still contain powerful truth within them.

Rubenstein is often categorized as a "death-of-God theologian," but he does not proclaim the death of the biblical God with glee—he claims, "If I am a death-of-God theologian it is with a cry of agony."53 The loss of such a central touchstone for understanding his religion, his culture, his very understanding [End Page 77] of reality is devastating for Rubenstein. As we prepare to have "the talk" with people, as we challenge conceptions of ultimate reality, as we explicate the role that our evolved cognitive biases play in our religious beliefs and experiences, as we deconstruct the foundations of people's religious beliefs, we need to be prepared for that "cry of agony." The loss of a God, the failing or death of a God, is a remarkably painful experience on a deep, existential level. As we deconstruct, we need to be prepared to build, to articulate how and why these symbols and traditions still have meaning, still bear truth, still contain value. This is as true in a seminary classroom as it is in a church discussion group. This is the pastoral task of even the most rigorously philosophical theology. If we become desensitized to the loss people may feel, "the talk" will become more tone deaf and ineffective than even the most militant "abstinence-only" version.

V. Concluding Remarks

I am not presenting a systematic program for how to make sense of religious traditions in the light of contemporary science and the scientific study of religion. This is not a naïve prediction that "safe and responsible God-talk" is the future of religion. It is merely an alternative way of viewing the postpartum theological landscape. Rather than seeing religion as something maladaptive to be left behind, it is the hope that religion can continue to adapt, evolve, and reform to meet the changing needs of a postsupernatural, pluralistic, postpartum age. As I have argued, much of my disagreement with Shults lies in use of language and in how one defines terms. I, no less than Shults, do not want to encourage the belief in and ritual engagement of supernatural agents, yet I willingly participate in the life of a religious community, engage in spiritual practices, read sacred texts, and have devoted my life to the study and teaching of theology. Have I ceased to be engaged in religion merely because I have removed supernatural agents and supernatural authorities from my list of "ontological inventory items?"54 Indeed, by Shults's definition of the term, I am an atheist, although it is a label I would never claim. I continue to be a religious person because, to return once again to Rubenstein, "life has a way of imposing religious demands upon us."55 He writes:

What then is the function of religion in the time of the death of God [or after the birth of God, as the case may be]? It is the way we share and celebrate, [End Page 78] both consciously and unconsciously, through the inherited myths, rituals, and traditions of our communities, the dilemmas and the crises of life and death, good and evil. Religion is the way we share our predicament; it is never the way we overcome our condition. … [It is] sociologically and psychologically indispensable.56

Religious traditions, while not foolproof or infallible or ends to themselves, contain the resources within them to help us attempt to face the challenges of finite human existence, tools for living life in its depths, and to do this together—in community. One does not need to participate in a religious community, and if one can no longer engage its symbols it may be impossible, but to unreflectively cut oneself off is to be impoverished.

The road to a conversation about safe and responsible God-talk is a steep and uphill climb. The truth of the matter is that it may be just as ineffectual as Shults's abstinence-only approach to the talk: conservatives and religious traditionalists (especially those who reject the theory of evolution outright) are likely to be unreceptive to either version of the talk, retreat into their religious enclaves, and continue to bear gods as they have always done; and many secularists will be unconvinced by the idea that "safe and responsible God-talk" is indeed possible. Nevertheless, it offers a viable alternative, a third way, a liberal via media, for those who have ears to hear. It is a way that allows people with naturalist sensibilities to take part in their religious communities and heritages without succumbing to superstition. It is an offer to participate in the religious life, to experience its power to transform, to heal, to enrich and to fulfill, without thinking its truth is exclusive and supernaturally given. It is an invitation to be, in the words of Robert Neville, "symbolically musical," to take with utter seriousness the symbols and myths of our traditions and "allow them to sing," transforming us with the unique resonance of their peculiar, haunting, and powerful song.57 This "safe and responsible God-talk," this postpartum theological liberalism, will likely only appeal to a minority of religious adherents, but for that minority it may be received as a gospel, as good news, as grace. [End Page 79]

Jeffrey B. Speaks
Boston University
Jeffrey B. Speaks

Jeffrey B. Speaks is a doctoral student at Boston University's School of Theology. He is a graduate of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in New Brighton, MN, where he earned an MA in religion and theology. His research interests include religious naturalism, comparative religious philosophy, and Unitarian Universalism. He lives in Quincy, MA, with his wife and daughter.


1. F. LeRon Shults, Practicing Safe Sects: Religious Reproduction in Scientific and Philosophical Perspective (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2018), xi.

2. F. LeRon Shults, Theology after the Birth of God: Atheist Conceptions in Cognition and Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 8.

3. Ibid., 19.

4. Ibid., 24. See also, Shults, Practicing Safe Sects, 20–31; Wesley J. Wildman, Science and Religious Anthropology: A Spiritually Evocative Naturalist Interpretation of Human Life (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009), chap. 5.

5. Shults, Theology after the Birth of God, 26–27.

6. Ibid., 19.

7. Ibid., 29.

8. Shults, Practicing Safe Sects, 14.

9. Shults, Theology after the Birth of God, 38.

10. Ibid., 42.

11. Ibid., 163.

12. Ibid.

13. Shults, Practicing Safe Sects, 1–2.

14. Shults, Theology After the Birth of God, 14.

15. Shults, Practicing Safe Sects, 27.

16. Ibid., 251.

17. Ibid., 117–18.

18. See Kathrin F. Stranger-Hall and David W. Hall, "Abstinence-Only Education and Teen Pregnancy Rates: Why We Need Comprehensive Sex Education in the U.S.," PLoS One 6, no. 10 (2011): 1–4.

19. Shults, Theology after the Birth of God, 4.

20. Ibid., 23.

21. This is Shuts's principle defense of his narrow definition of religion. He writes, "Because I am exploring scientific perspectives on theogonic reproduction, I will continue to use the term 'religion' in the way it commonly functions in the literature of the relevant disciplines that contribute to the bio-cultural study of religion. … It turns out that 'supernatural-related belief/practice' is 'the only unique diagnostic feature of religiosity … and empirically distinct from sociability, virtue, hope, etc.'" Shults, Practicing Safe Sects, 19.

22. Wesley J. Wildman, Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future for the Philosophy of Religion (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), 37.

23. Wildman, Science and Religious Anthropology, 89.

24. Robert C. Neville, Defining Religion: Essays in Philosophy of Religion (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2018), 9.

25. Shults, Theology after the Birth of God, 9.

26. See Wildman, Religious Philosophy, chap. 5; Robert C. Neville and Wesley J. Wildman, "On Comparing Religious Ideas," in Ultimate Realities: A Volume in the Comparative Religious Ideas Project, ed. Robert C. Neville (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 187–210.

27. Shults, Practicing Safe Sects, 115.

28. Wildman, Science and Religious Anthropology, 230.

29. Shults, Theology After the Birth of God, 12.

30. Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, trans. John Oman, (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1958).

31. Wesley J. Wildman, In Our Own Image: Anthropomorphism, Apophaticism, and Ultimacy, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 192–204.

32. In this paper, I focus principally on the "ground-of-being" class of religious naturalisms and other varieties that treat the metaphysical ultimate as the religious ultimate. This is not to occlude other varieties of religious naturalism in which religious devotion is oriented toward a finite process within nature (e.g., the "creative good" for Henry Nelson Wieman,) or forms of metaphorical theology with a naturalist metaphysics, as my vision for postpartum liberal theology is broad enough to include these in the conversation. See Henry N. Wieman, The Source of Human Good (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1946).

33. Shults, Theology after the Birth of God, 196.

34. Loyal Rue, "Naturalizing Religion," in The Routledge Handbook of Religious Naturalism, ed. Donald A. Crosby and Jerome A. Stone (New York: Routeldge Taylor & Francis Group, 2018), 263.

35. Dan Solomon, "A Jewish Perspective on Religious Naturalism," in Routledge Handbook of Religious Naturalism, ed. Crosby and Stone, 270.

36. Wildman, Religious Philosophy, 209–10.

37. Wesley J. Wildman, Fidelity with Plausibility: Modest Christologies in the Twentieth Century, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998).

38. Robert C. Neville and Wesley J. Wildman, "Comparative Conclusions about Ultimate Realities," in Ultimate Realities, ed. Neville, 174–75.

39. Jea Sophia Oh, "Dao and Water: Rethinking Daoism as Naturalism," in Routledge Handbook of Religious Naturalism, ed. Crosby and Stone, 230, 233.

40. See Jay N. Forest, "Buddhism and Religious Naturalism," in Routledge Handbook of Religious Naturalism, ed. Crosby and Stone, 193–204.

41. Solomon, "Jewish Perspective on Religious Naturalism," 272.

42. Ibid., 278.

43. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), II:7.

44. Wesley J. Wildman, "Tillich's Systematic Theology as A Template for the Encounter of Christian Theology and Religious Naturalism," Bulletin for the North American Paul Tillich Society 40, no. 2 (Spring 2014): 16.

45. Tillich, Systematic Theology, II:7.

46. Karl E. Peters, "A Christian Religious Naturalism," in Routledge Handbook of Religious Naturalism, ed. Crosby and Stone, 236–47; Gordon D. Kaufman, Jesus and Creativity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 14–26.

47. Robert C. Neville, Symbols of Jesus: A Christology of Symbolic Engagement (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

48. Neville, Defining Religion, 207.

49. Richard L. Rubenstein, After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 3.

50. Ibid., 260.

51. Ibid., 174.

52. Ibid., 245.

53. Ibid., 264.

54. Shults, Theology after the Birth of God, 155, 159; Wildman, Science and Religious Anthropology, 24.

55. Rubenstein, After Auschwitz, 261.

56. Ibid., 264.

57. Neville, Defining Religion, 203, 193.

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