Thus Spake Matt Sheedy: Analytic Philosophy, Critical Theory, and the Atheism/Theism Discourse


by Dan Linford

Note: A version of this article originally appeared on Dan Linford’s blog Libere.

Matt Sheedy recently wrote an article for the Bulletin blog, in which he addresses Kevin Sorbo’s statement that atheists are absurd because they are angry with a god they claim not to believe in. Sorbo claimed that atheists secretly believe in God. columnist  Sarah Gray had dismissed Sorbo’s comments as absurd. Sheedy took Gray to task for ignoring the social context of Sorbo’s assertion:

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.

Sheedy’s comments have already “gone off the rails” if he thinks that all analytic (or Anglo-American) philosophy is capable of is recognizing failures to be logically consistent. More charitably, Gray’s comments should be taken as bringing into question whether or not Sorbo has any evidence for his assertion that atheists secretly believe in God (he has no such evidence). Sheedy’s comments can be charitably reinterpreted as the claim that there is more than the arguments at play. The arguments might legitimize particular cultural stances and signal particular allegiances (and systematically delegitimize the stances of those atheists who criticize or question Christian hegemony). Sorbo can use “bad” arguments precisely because the content of the arguments is largely irrelevant. What is far more relevant than the logic or justifications in Sorbo’s arguments are the social processes that the arguments play a role in.

I have to confess that I have a hard time identifying what the ultimate point of Sheedy’s article is supposed to be, but, so far as the article aims to be an argument in opposition to analytic (or Anglo-American) philosophy, much of the article seems to be straightforwardly self-undermining. 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 presents 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, Kierkegaard, Aquinas, etc, for the theists and Rowe, Draper, Russell, Hume, etc, for the atheists).

Sheedy takes issue with the first-order discourse and sees himself as above it or outside it (atheists are “data” for religion studies scholars, the theist/atheist dichotomy is not necessary to maintain, etc). The implication of this is that Sheedy 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 and his ilk responding to?), and the first-order discourse can be contextualized into a historical framework (Sheedy’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 first-order discourse can be undermined by the second-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.


After I wrote the above article, Matt and I privately discussed this issue further. I thought that I should add the following as a clarification of my position.

We agree that there is a distinction between the first-order and second-order debates. To reiterate, the first-order debate is on the question of whether or not God exists. The second-order debate concerns the socio-political, and historical positioning of the first-order debate. In Sheedy’s terminology, this is the distinction between “mere criticism” and “critique” (borrowed from Brown’s Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech).

Both the first-order and the second-order debates come in popular and academic flavors. Theists in the popular first order-debate are diverse: they include Kevin Sorbo but also Karen Armstrong and Rowan Williams. Atheists in the popular first-order debate are as diverse: their number includes Richard Dawkins and Alain de Botton. The first-order academic debate is also diverse, including (as theists) Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Soren Kierkegaard and (as atheists) Paul Draper, Michael Martin, and Elliott Sober. The second-order popular debate includes popular-level appropriations of critical theory, popular-level appropriations of cognitive science (especially bad interpretations of Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: religions as “mind viruses”), and even Sorbo’s description of atheists as those who (somehow) hate God. Popular-level second-order discussions can also be addressed by academic higher order discourses, such as Sheedy’s original article.

I suggest that a large part of the disagreement between Sheedy and myself is (a) semantic and (b) methodological. As an example, consider the following passage from Sheedy’s article:

[…] the call for critique […] means moving beyond the binary logic that we are always forced to confront in the use of every-day language and […] to take a look at what’s going on behind it, in the margins and in the seams.

From the perspective of someone trained in analytic philosophy, Sheedy’s comment that we should abandon “binary logic” are incoherent. Logic is a prerequisite for reasoning at all. Most analytic philosophers would interpret Sheedy’s comment as a request to abandon reason.

A charitable reading of Sheedy’s comments is that we should not literally abandon logic, but put aside the question of God’s existence and re-focus our attention on the socio-political situation (the academic higher-order debate). In so doing, we do not abandon reason but use reason to evaluate socio-political processes, especially the socio-political reasons one may have to affirm or deny God’s existence: “what’s going on behind” the affirmations and denials.

I’d now like to address the response Sheedy left in the comments section to an earlier draft of this article.

First, some of the misunderstandings.

I should have been more careful when I talked about unpacking Sorbo’s arguments as a pedagogical exercise. To be clear, what I had in mind is that there are two different ways to engage the God’s Not Dead milieu: a) from the cultural studies perspective, which he advocated, and b) to engage Sorbo’s (and his ilk’s) arguments in some sort of logical vacuum disjoint from their cultural context (what he described as an appropriation from Anglo-American philosophy).

Given how poorly constructed Sorbo’s arguments are, and the fact that analytic philosophy journals would not generally accept papers containing or responding to Sorbo’s arguments, there seems to be little reason for an analytic philosopher to engage Sorbo other than as a pedagogical exercise. That is not to say that cultural studies wouldn’t have a tremendous amount to say about Sorbo or God’s Not Dead. Here we agree. I will add that analytic philosophers may use Sorbo as Sheedy has: as an example of a particular kind of popular-level discourse.

Sheedy finished his response with a question: “How can one pose as an atheist and as a scholar at the same time, while claiming to be engaged in critical work?” He expanded on this question, noting that the ‘atheist’ and ‘religious’ labels are unstable because they are socially constructed.

Sheedy and I agree that the historical/sociological literature has made it clear that ‘religion’ is both socially constructed and unstable. I add that the divide between the secular and the religious is problematic for related reasons. I suspect we are both aware of the long history of e.g. imperialistic activity that has gone on under the guise of the modern Western notion of ‘religion.’

Nonetheless, he is mistaken to position atheism in relation to religion, because atheism’s history and present boundaries are wider than those who merely identify themselves in opposition to religion.

I am quite confused as to why he would think that a scholar could not (or should not?) identify themselves as an atheist. Consider, for example, that critical theory has also resulted in the conclusion that gender and sexual orientation is socially constructed. Yet the fact that there are critical theorists who identify with any particular gender identity or sexual orientation is not somehow mysterious. I would suggest that a critical scholar identifying themselves with a religious (or non-religious) identity is no more mysterious. There are plenty of religion studies scholars, such as Peter Berger, who identify with particular Christian denominations yet take the position that religion is a social construct. Scholars who self-identify as “atheists” and who do critical work might be understood similarly to how we understand those who self-identify as “feminists” and do critical work in gender studies.

I will add that a philosopher taking a position in the first-order debate (like myself) should not be any more mysterious than someone engaged with the second-order debate taking a position there. If all it means for a position to be socially constructed is that the position was put together by people, then critical theory (and all the positions therein) were socially constructed. Thus, insofar as social construction undermines the first-order debate, I see little reason why a parallel conclusion should not be reached for the second-order debate.

Dan Linford is an adjunct philosophy professor at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Virginia, and a recent graduate of Virginia Tech. He is currently applying to PhD programs and is interested in the intersection of analytic philosophy of religion and philosophy of science.

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