Thus Spake Hercules: On Atheism and the Uses of Critical Theory



by Matt Sheedy

In a Raw Story article from this past Wednesday, entitled “Kevin Sorbo: Atheists are angry because they secretly know God exists and is judging them,” Scott Kaufman discusses a recent interview with the actor best known for his role as Hercules on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. The interview in question took place on Rick Wiles’ internet-radio show Trunews, where Sorbo repeated a line that he has been asking throughout his DVD promotional tour for the film God’s Not Dead (see my film review here)—“Why are atheists so angry at something they don’t believe in?” Sorbo’s response is described as follows:

Atheists, he claimed, secretly believe that God exists, and are upset with him because they know he is going to judge them. They are a “small group of people, and they get on Fox or CNN and they rant and they rave,” Sorbo said, “and I pretty much based my character [in God Is Not Dead] off of these guys that I see who are just angry — they’re just filled with anger and hatred.”

Sorbo continues,

“On the one hand I feel sorry for them, but then I kind of laugh at them,” Sorbo explained. “Why would anybody spend so much time ranting and raving about something they don’t believe in?”

In her brief reply on, columnist Sarah Gray quotes Sorbo from the Raw Story feature, offering only one line of commentary in response to the statement that I’ve quoted directly above, followed by a restatement of his position that is made to appear as a logical absurdity:

What is more ridiculous than Sorbo’s above question? Sorbo’s inane answer to his own question: “I know these guys must believe in something, otherwise, they wouldn’t get so angry about it, and they don’t like the fact that there is a higher power out there that is judging how they live their life.”

Atheists must secretly believe in something, therefore they’re just angry that God is judging them.

The pithy length of Gray’s reply, clocking in at 240 words, highlights the ease with which she feels that she can dismiss Sorbo’s arguments, relying mostly on his own words to point out the absurdity of this position. While she no doubt has a point that his statement is “logically” absurd, her method, commonly associated with the analytic tradition in “Anglo-American” philosophy, is to respond from the elevated plain of rational thought, where every problem, every contradiction, can be resolved by simply pointing out where logic has gone off the rails.

In one sense this type of response is intuitively appealing, especially when one is confronted with a claim that can be easily refuted by showing its obvious contradictions. What is often missed in this type of criticism is that practical or pragmatic arguments against a proposition (e.g., God exists/does not exist) often function to re-inscribe the very ideas that they seek to overturn. For example, while many who identify as atheists may argue that Sorbo’s claims regarding their own motivations are wrong, his explanation about atheists “secret beliefs” has a certain rhetorical appeal to insiders’ who share his views. Since these beliefs are “secret,” and thus unconscious, they are hard to disprove, which provides a “logical” defense mechanism that works to protect against criticism of this kind–not unlike the rhetorical appeal to “true Islam” as a response to the claim that “Muslims” are inherently violent. In both cases, the objects in question (atheists and Muslims) are represented as embodying a singular meaning that is defined in opposition to some alleged claim about who or what they are.

For many scholars of religions this type of criticism is old hat, going back at least to David Hume (1711-1776), as Samuel Preus details in his book Explaining Religion: Criticism and Theory from Bodin to Freud. Whereas it was necessary for early “Enlightenment” thinkers to challenge views about the natural world that seemed to contradict evidence produced through empirical methods of observation (think Galileo), and whereas similar battles are still being fought today (think climate change), popular discourses about religion and atheism (at least in the Euro-West) seem to exist within a framework that has not learned from the 150 odd-years of what we have come to call “critical theory,” a term that is often attributed to Max Horkheimer’s 1937 essay, “Traditional and Critical Theory.”

Perhaps it is the short-term “sound-bite” nature of public debate and its penchant for sensationalism (theists vs. atheists, fight!) that contributes to the perpetuation of these binary views, and the concomitant rise of social groups who identify as atheist (or humanist or secular, etc.) that have created space for these particular rhetorical fault-lines and new identity formations to emerge? In any case, the fact that some scholars of religions are beginning to see atheist groups as data, (see posts by McCloud and Ramey) should signal the limited use-value of this mode of criticism, as well as the ways in which taking it up tends to perpetuate a discourse about “religion” that mystifies its object to a narrow set of easily identifiable variables. Reductionism at its purest.

Discussing this concept in relation to the work of Marx on the question of religion, Wendy Brown points out an important distinction that he made between criticism, “mere criticism” and critique.

Mere criticism marks religion as false; critique connects religious illusions, and the need for them, to the specific reality generating and necessitating religious consciousness. (Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech, 11)

While Marx’s theory of religion has long been critiqued (and “criticized”) for its reductionism, the point that Brown wishes to highlight here is the shift from “mere criticism,” which presents the opposite side of an argument, toward a conception that relies on critical theory to describe, explain, and evaluate just what is going on in the social world. For Marx, such a critique found expression in the idea of historical materialism.

Thus Marx brings together in the notion of critique a comprehension of the Real identified as the material, a practice of objectivity identified with science, and the realization of true emancipation of religion, true secularism, in place of what he decries as “merely theological criticism.” (12)

Thinking with Marx and against him, the call for critique is a tricky one, since it means moving beyond the binary logic that we are always forced to confront in the use of every-day language and asks us to take a look at what’s going on behind it, in the margins and in the seams. Perhaps one point of entry in this debate is to recall the lines that follow from Nietzsche’s oft-quoted phrase “God is Dead.”

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Thus spake Hercules.

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual, myth and social formations. His dissertation offers a critical look at Juergen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ and ‘Native Spirituality’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.

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4 Responses to Thus Spake Hercules: On Atheism and the Uses of Critical Theory

  1. Dan Linford says:

    I am having a hard time identifying what the point of this article is supposed to be, but it seems to be straightforwardly self-undermining. The author of this piece claims that we should go beyond the approach to dialectic encouraged by analytic (or, more broadly, anglophone) philosophy because such an approach is overly reductionistic (it ignores social context), which is itself an overly reductionistic view of analytic philosophy.

    In any given discourse, there will be opposing sides arguing for contrary views. In the first-order debate between atheists and theists, there are two sides which each present arguments for or against the existence of God. Kevin Sorbo is certainly not an academically respectable representative of that first-order debate, but it is not difficult to find those who are (Plantinga, Swinburne, van Inwagen, etc, for the theists and Rowe, Draper, Russell, etc, for the atheists).

    In the article above, Matt Sheady takes issue with that first-order discourse and sees himself as above it or outside it (atheists are “data”, the theist/atheist dichotomy is not necessary to maintain, etc). The implication of this is that Sheady is engaged in a second-order discourse: a discourse about the first-order atheist/theist debate. In that second-order discourse, the assumptions of the first-order discourse can be brought into question (what sort of distinction should be maintained between atheism and theism?), the social context of the actors in the first-order discourse can be examined (what social pressures is Kevin Sorbo responding to?), and the first-order discourse can be contextualized into a historical framework (Sheady’s appeal to Hume and Preus, for example).

    Analytic philosophy is perfectly capable of identifying these two kinds of discourse and presenting arguments in the two categories. It is also capable of recognizing that the second-order discourse can be undermined by the first-order discourse: an argument for the conclusion that the e.g. social context of the actors in the first-order debate undermines arguments made in the first-order debate is what analytic philosophers call an “evolutionary debunking” argument. Nonetheless, analytic philosophers routinely do something which might be anathema to critical theorists: engage in first-order debates with the assumption that evolutionary debunking arguments are not crippling.

    I strongly suspect that this is what Sheady is missing about analytic philosophy and why Sheady’s analysis is overly reductionistic.

  2. mattsheedy says:

    This first point of agreement that I would like to acknowledge (though it hardly needs stating) is that Sorbo’s arguments are indeed intellectually impotent. You add to this the following point:

    “I can think of only one reason for engaging with the film or Kevin Sorbo from an intellectual perspective: both Kevin Sorbo and the film express ideas popular among a particular demographic of evangelical Christians.”

    While I imagine we can think of other reasons, I would agree that looking at how such statements are constructed and re-iterated in various cultural contexts is an important task. Here I would want to expand further to reflect upon how such rhetoric comes to shape certain Christian and atheist (or other) identities and how, to reverse the priority, look at how local and national cultural practices (including those coded along political, ethnic, gender and class lines) are tied in with these so-called “religious” or “atheist” statements.

    You also note that the only reason for taking a “cultural studies perspective” is that it can serve “as a pedagogical exercise in which one instructs the public how not to make bad arguments concerning religion.”

    With these last comments, I detect a point of disagreement between us, which I’ll flag here and return to later.

    “Sheedy’s comments have themselves already “gone off the rails” here if he thinks that all analytic (or Anglo-American) philosophy is capable of is recognizing failures to be logically consistent. … Nonetheless, we can be charitable to Sheedy and reinterpret his comments as the claim that there is more than the arguments themselves at play. …”

    My first remarks here would be to acknowledge the important use of the conditional embedded in your comments, (i.e., Sheedy’s comments have gone of the rails “if” he thinks…) which I appreciate as a mode of debate since this method flags a problem if, and only if, it can be read a certain way. While my statement on “Anglo-American” philosophy, by itself, could be taken as a generalization, and indeed as a slight to “that” tradition, my use of scare quotes and the qualifier “commonly associated with” was meant to call attention to two things: first, the post-structuralist move to pay attention to language and the kind of work that it does in different contexts of iteration. The so-called analytic and “Anglo-American” tradition is of course not limited to that “world” (e.g., the Vienna Circle was neither “Anglo” nor “American”), nor is it a homogenous body of thought. Thinkers like Peirce, Dewy and Rorty, for example, made the important pragmatist shift, IMO, from the rejection of doubt in the abstract toward reflecting upon its embedded-ness in real life problems, while the likes of Wittgenstein and Austin’s focused on ordinary language games, which provided important advances, e.g., in speech act theory (and of course there have been advances since, with Davidson, Putnam, Kuhn, etc.). Signalling this “camp” was therefore meant to highlight how popular discourses about atheism/theism, often rely on narrow appropriations of “this” theoretical heritage, which has the common effect of framing the discourse (at least in the Euro-West) around a narrow set of claims.

    Getting to the crux of your questions posed to me, I would tend to agree, in a provisional sense, that what is more interesting here are the “cultural” aspects of this argument.

    “Sheedy claims that we should go beyond the approach to dialectic encouraged by analytic philosophy because such an approach is overly reductionistic (it ignores social context). Yet Sheedy’s article itself presents an overly reductionistic view of analytic philosophy for a different reason.”

    I hope that my comments on analytic (or Anglo-American) philosophy have helped to clarify that I do not reject that “tradition” as a whole (not least b/c I don’t see their being a “whole” to begin with), but was rather flagging popular uses or appropriations. The same could be said for piece-meal appropriations of Derrida, Foucault, Judith Butler, etc.

    Commenting on the paragraph that begins:

    “In any given discourse, there will be opposing sides arguing for contrary views. … and the first-order discourse can be contextualized into a historical framework (Sheedy’s appeal to Hume and Preus, for example).”

    I’ll briefly clarify my position here, in response to these ideas, by flagging two significant differences in our approaches, as I understand it. First, I do not see myself as above or outside this debate in relation to atheism/theism, but was rather interested, here, in calling attention to how it functions rhetorically to create identities around various constellations of concepts, ideas, and buzzwords that are generative for communities that identify as atheists or theists of various kinds.

    Second, what I was trying to call attention to in mentioning Hume (as well as Preus’ influential book, which I’m fond of) is that in a limited sense these arguments have been fought and won. While it may be true that many public debates and practical realities are still shot through with the type of arguments that Hume and others had to refute before and after the 18th c., I take it that a sufficient amount differentiation has occurred since this time (e.g., distinctions between scientific reasoning, moral-practical arguments, existential ideas and aesthetic preferences, etc.) such that these battles do not need to be fought in the same way. Indeed, we no longer have to fear being imprisoned like Galileo at the whims of the “crown/state,” though subtle pressures remain. I often get the impression, however, especially following the likes of Dawkins and Harris and the popular discourse that their ideas have generated, that some want to fight these “same” battles as though saying it loudly enough (or forcefully enough) will eventually win the day. At its worst, this is a political strategy that gets couched in the rhetoric of “rationalist” and “logical” arguments and should not be confused with the more detailed investigations that fall under these names.

    First order arguments are often clarifying, especially when they help to clear the ground for our understanding of how the world works (i.e., in a provisional and functional sense). Those scholars interested in “critical theory,” cultural studies, and in providing deconstructive or social constructionist arguments must rely in no small measure upon the important groundwork that analytic-type arguments have helped to provide (and still help to provide).

    My main concern with these types of arguments in relation to religion, however, is twofold: first, they are often caught up in pragmatic debates in the public sphere that appear to be driven less by theoretical rigor (i.e., stepping outside the debate and reflecting on it) than by the political goal of overturning the claims of one’s opponent, which does, of course, have important practical consequences. (e.g., for the teaching of evolution in schools, abortion laws, gay rights, etc.) Without wanting to draw strict boundaries, there is a distinction between scholarship and practical/political aims, where the former is invested in creating careful and rigorous arguments, while the latter tends to be characterized by short-term strategic goals.

    While there is more that I’d like to add, I will cut things off here for the sake of space, while posing a question that I think needs serious consideration: How can one pose as an atheist and as a scholar at the same time, while claiming to be engaged in critical work? To clarify, I am not suggesting that you are doing this, but claiming that the very notion of an atheist or a religious identity is unstable. To claim that “atheists” say this and the “religious” say that, is to homogenize group identities that are by their very natures plural and subject to whims of social construction, where dominant representations often stand-in for the whole. Noting how discourses surrounding atheism/theism often take the lead from such representations, then, was one of my main concerns, since it reduces our objects of inquiry to the most vocal and/or prevalent insiders’ claims and fails to place them in a historical and cultural context, pose different sets of questions, etc.

  3. etseq says:

    Crits are their own worst enemy – “critique” devolves into an infinite regression of reductio ad absurdum. Theory has been elevated into an ersatz religion for some parts of the academic left with its own faith based rituals and shibboleths of mystical irrationalism. No one likes a smart ass – especially one who smugly pontificates for several hundred words of pomo gibberish.

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