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.”
“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 Salon.com, 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.