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

The arguments presented in the film God’s Not Dead – and the sort of Christian apologetics with which it is associated (especially actor Kevin Sorbo’s public comments on Trunews) – are intellectually impotent. It is not difficult to find negative reviews from Christian apologists, who see their own cause undermined by such dreck (Randall Rauser, for example, states that he was “outraged” and that the film is “reprehensible”). 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.

That set of ideas – that atheists secretly know God exists, that secular moral realism is an impossibility, that life without God is meaningless, and that atheists are angry, irrational dogmatists – boasts a lengthy history (longer than the history of professed atheism) and serves an important role in understanding the intellectual and cultural history of our society (even though such ideas are almost certainly – and trivially – false). For that reason, far more interesting questions can be posed concerning the God’s Not Dead milieu from a cultural studies perspective than by analyzing the associated arguments disjoint from their cultural context. The only reason I can see for doing the latter would be as a pedagogical exercise in which one instructs the public how not to make bad arguments concerning religion.

Matt Sheedy recently wrote an article for Religion Bulletin. In that article, Sheedy addresses Kevin Sorbo’s recent statement that atheists are absurd because they are angry with a god they claim not to believe in. Sorbo had gone on to claim that atheists secretly believe in God. Salon.com columnist  Sarah Gray had dismissed Sorbo’s comments as absurd and Sheedy was taking Gray to task for ignoring the relevant 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 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. 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). Nonetheless, we can be charitable to Sheedy and reinterpret his comments as the claim that there is more than the arguments themselves 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.

Sheedy seems to go on to say that he largely agrees with me: what is intellectually stimulating about the God’s Not Dead milieu is best understood in cultural and not logical terms.

I have to confess that I have a hard time identifying what the ultimate point of Sheedy’s article is supposed to be, but, in 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 itself presents an overly reductionistic view of analytic philosophy for a different reason.

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.