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.
In other words, most people want to be "reasonable"—the opposite of being "wacko" or "weird." As an example of something widely perceived as not being reasonable, Wuthnow discussed an incident that happened in 1985: The famous evangelist Pat Robertson claimed that his prayer caused a hurricane to alter its course away from his headquarters in Virginia. Andy Rooney, as a televised representative of the "norms of reasonableness," called Robertson "wacky" and "crazy as bedbugs." Another way of putting this is to say that Americans are religious without believing in magic.
Using the concepts of discourse analysis, Wuthnow writes of "schema alignment": There is the religious schema and the naturalist one; most people successfully assign these with one another, rather than having them collide in the mind; some people, of course, fail to achieve this. In much of the book, Wuthnow discusses a number of topics where alignment is called for: coming to terms with big disasters (such as the recent tsunami that cost thousands of lives in Asia), which put into question the existence of a God both omnipotent and benevolent.
Wuthnow makes an important point: While the schema of faith can persist and co-exist in the same mind with the schema of natural reason, it is the latter which is taken for granted in most of ordinary life. Wuthnow calls it the "default condition"—that is, one has recourse to it automatically and one falls back to it unless one can explain (to oneself as much as to others) why the religious discourse also applies. "Default" means that it does not have to be explained, it is simply given; it is the deviations from it that must be explained. If one cannot do this, one risks being seen as "wacko" or "weird" by others (and perhaps even by oneself).
It so happened that a book I reviewed before this one is amazingly similar to it: Tanya Luhrmann's When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Experience with God (also published in 2012). Luhrmann is an anthropologist (Stanford University), and her conceptual apparatus is different from Wuthnow's. The book reports on an extensive enthographic study of the Vineyard Fellowship, a charismatic community with origins in the Californian counter-culture. Luhrmann never tells us where she stands personally in the matter of religion (neither does Wuthnow, for that matter), but she shows enormous empathy in trying to understand how well-educated modern individuals can not only speak in prayer to an invisible person, but can also believe that this person can talk back if they only learn how to listen. On the face of it (that is, within the naturalist "schema"), these individuals might be diagnosed as schizophrenic. In a chapter charmingly entitled "Are they crazy?", Luhrmann painstakingly compares the experiences of her Vineyard subjects with the standard psychiatric criteria for diagnosing as schizophrenic individuals who converse with people who aren't there. She concludes that the criteria simply don't apply here: These people are not crazy. They just manage to live in several worlds.
Both books are enormously relevant to the debate still whirling around so-called secularization theory. That theory, despite its complicated ramifications, can be summed up rather simply: Modernity necessarily leads to a decline of religion. My main change of mind as a sociologist of religion gradually occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. I concluded that the empirical evidence has essentially falsified secularization theory. Most of the world today, despite modernization, is as religious as ever (with some exceptions, mainly Europe and the international intelligentsia). In the last year or so, for reasons that I cannot develop here, I have somewhat modified my view of this, without going back to the old secularization theory (see my article "Some Further Thoughts on Religion and Modernity", from the July-August 2012 issue of Society). I use yet another conceptual scheme, derived from the sociology of knowledge (which which I will not burden this review). There is indeed a secular way of looking at the world (I also use the term "default" for it), mostly derived from the rationality of modern science. It is, as it were, the official definition of reality, supported by powerful institutions (education on all levels, the major media, the law, medicine) and taken for granted in ordinary life. But in most of the world (including America), it co-exists with very different religious definitions of reality. Perhaps the old secularization theorists and their critics made a rather simple mistake—they thought in either/or terms: religion or secularity. The empirical situation in much of the world seems to be that both are present, both in the mind of individuals and in the social order.
This is a fascinating topic, with both theoretical and political implications. Social scientists can deal with the topic objectively, no matter what their faith or lack of faith. I can do that too. As a Christian, writing this review for a Christian publication, I will add that I look at these insights as good news.
Peter Berger is senior research fellow at Boston University's Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs. He is the author, most recently, of Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore (Prometheus Books).