Why Americans Don't Think God Talk is Weird
In an age of modern science, can supposedly "reasonable" people harbor hope for Heaven? Or salvation through Jesus Christ? Can faith be plausible in the face of the billions of galaxies discovered by modern astronomy?
In The God Problem: Expressing Faith and Being Reasonable (University of California Press), Princeton University's Robert Wuthnow brings his sociological acumen to bear on these most vexing of questions. Wuthnow, arguably the most productive and insightful sociologist of American religion, deploys rich empirical evidence against the widespread notion that faith and reason, religion and science, are engaged in a struggle for the soul of America. The evidence indicates that for many religious people there is no conflict but rather a creative tension, which they manage by establishing a balance between two distinct ways of looking at the world.
There are two polemical edges to the book. Less central, and mainly of interest to other social scientists, is Wuthnow's suspicion of survey methods in the area of religion. Surveys rely on structure questionnaires; much of the time we don't understand what the answers mean unless we actually talk to the people who gave them. (By the way, I share the suspicion—without denying that surveys, if used judiciously, can indeed disclose some religious realities.) Wuthnow uses a very sophisticated methodology of so-called "discourse analysis"—semi-structured interviews, followed by a careful examination of the language used by the interviewees. Essentially, this is the sort of approach used by anthropologists, leading to what Clifford Geertz (another Princeton social scientist) called "thick description."
The central polemic of the book is directed against the above-mentioned notion of an unavoidable conflict between faith and reason—a notion oddly shared by religious fundamentalists and convinced secularists. This polemic, while it is the core of Wuthnow's argument, is moderate in tone—he is not a strident person. Faith in America (and by implication in any modern society) occurs in a context of culturally instituted "norms of reasonableness." These norms are expressed in a discourse which does not presuppose supernatural interventions. Religious people do assume such interventions—indeed, they regularly pray for them—but they try to speak about them in terms compatible with the naturalist norms. While many people say that, in principle, they believe that God can perform miracles, they do not usually assume that he does so apart from natural processes. For example, religious people often pray for healing, and they believe that God may answer such prayers—but not usually by a miracle, but rather through natural processes of remission, or by the skill of a surgeon, or the efficacy of medication. Thus there occurs a "mingling of languages." Needless to say, there are some religious people in America who refuse this mingling of discourses and militantly reject the naturalist one. But they are a minority, and even they will revert to the naturalist discourse if they find themselves in the emergency room of a hospital.