LeRon Shults is a pink man, has a shiny bald head and a look in his eyes of acute consciousness as he waits to present. Dr. Shults teaches Philosophy and Theology at the University of Agder in Norway and is member of a group of professors and friends who gather every few years to discuss philo/theological topics at events like this one. He also once had an imaginary friend, a pink elephant, but this is of course due to his evolutionary tendency toward anthropological promiscuity; this will all be explained.
After LeRon endured a flattering introduction from Mark Mann, director of the Wesleyan Center, Thursday night, he took to a podium in Smee 100 and introduced himself, stating that last time he came to this school he came a heretic, and this time he comes a heathen. This is because, in addition to being a very smart man and accomplished theologian, Dr. Shults is an atheist.
How can Dr. Shults be an atheist as well as a theologian? And even if such a marriage is possible, why would an atheist want to spend his or her time exploring the “nature of God?” This is, of course, due to his understanding of the nature of theology. As Dr. Shults explains on his website:
“Although the term ‘theology’ has often been associated with the efforts of scholars committed to particular sacerdotal [relating to priests or priesthood] religious coalitions,” he writes, “I argue for a broader conceptualization of this discipline as the construction and critique of hypotheses about the conditions for axiological [relating to the study of values or meaning] engagement. Most theological hypotheses have appealed to transcendental supernatural agents imaginatively engaged in religious rituals.”
Simply, Dr. Shults views theology stripped of religious bias and the tendency of apologetic (defenders of faith) theologians to unfailingly end their theological explorations in a support of their particular group’s belief system, often at the expense of continued searching for natural causes. Apologetic theologians, LeRon says, always fall back on belief that the(ir) supernatural is ultimate property and cause; Shults is a naturalistic (denies supernatural causes), secular theologian who studies the formation and socio-political and anthropological (relating to the study of humans) retention, keeping around, of “god-concepts.”
Fittingly titled, Dr. Shults’s lecture Atheism and Apologetics explored what he calls the “baby questions” of theology: where do babies come from, or where do god-concepts come from, and why in the world, Mom, do we keep these god-concepts around?
Shults explained his answers to these questions with the help of four categories on an x-y axis. These are sociographic prudery and promiscuity, and anthropological prudery and promiscuity. Although these terms are initially puzzling, Shults’s projected slide grew brighter as the evening grew long.
Shults defines sociography, a made up word, as practically any social or societal groups, e.g. Christians, Muslims, ancient Egyptians, who have a shared set of beliefs. Sociographic prudery is the tendency to stick with and support one’s own social group over others. Shults explained that this is important from an evolutionary perspective because groups who stick together, not hesitating to harm outsiders, are groups that survive. Apologists are often or always guilty of sociographic prudery—which is excusably human beings’ natural evolutionary tendency. Ultimately apologists will return to support their own belief system; they are right, others are wrong.
Anthropological promiscuity, which apologists are also victims of, is the natural tendency to think things, any things, are persons or other (supernatural) “agents,” or actors. Alternatively, Anthropological prudery is the tendency to believe all things have natural, explainable causes.
Shults gave the example of a tiger in a field. A human is in a forest picking berries when they hear a rustling in the grass behind her or him. If he or she is anthropologically prudent, they will automatically, reactively assume that there is an agent, actor, supernatural or otherwise, behind them. These individuals will jump instinctively away from the sound; their chance of survival is increased.
An anthropologically prudent or conservative individual will think about the potential natural causes for the rustling, like wind, and act accordingly. However, this tendency, to find causes other than agents, has been over time bred out of human beings; even if one time the rustling is a tiger, the anthropologically prudent person is dead.
Shults argues that the two tendencies that lend themselves to survival also lend themselves to organized religion. This is where god-concepts come from. Anthropological promiscuity lends itself to the belief in supernatural actors as causes for phenomena, and sociological prudery lends itself to exclusive organizations of people in groups. Combined, these tendencies propentiate a closed system of rightness and superstition.
Far back in human history, one observes smaller societal groups who believe in multiple gods; it’s easy to balance such beliefs in a small closed-off society, but how about a big one? As societies expanded into empires and civilizations, all-encompassing monotheistic beliefs like Christianity, Judaism and Islam formed to compensate for inevitable psycho-political dilemmas. So, rather than ideas of supernatural agents/causes as kind-of-humans, monotheism, the belief in an eternal, infinite all-encompassing God crystalized instead. The same evolutionary tendencies that cause the formation of god-concepts cause us to keep them around, if not alter them some.
What Shults would like to see in the field of theology is a move away from social elitism and dialogue-ending falling back on supernatural causes. As an atheist and theologian, he doesn’t have a problem with people believing in God, as he explains arguments for or against the divine boil down to abductive reasoning, or arguments of plausibility.
Does God or do other supernatural agents exist? Based on evolutionary tendencies and personal experience, the individual will choose either or as most plausible. What LeRon Shults cares about is acknowledging our evolutionary ticks, and escaping them as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist etc. theologians to foster a truly meaningful construction and critique of the conditions for meaningful (axiological) existence.