A Stanford professor of anthropology, T.M. Luhrmann, has a curious op-ed in the NY Times. She studies evangelical religions, and she takes the time to explain to us atheists and other secular people why people like to go to church. You know all those questions we ask, about whether god exists or what evidence there is for gods? They don’t think about that. We’re missing the point if we think that those are real problems for evangelicals.
These are the questions that university-educated liberals ask about faith. They are deep questions. But they are also abstract and intellectual. They are philosophical questions. In an evangelical church, the questions would probably have circled around how to feel God’s love and how to be more aware of God’s presence. Those are fundamentally practical questions.
Unfortunately, Dr Luhrmann is missing the point herself. We already know that. Seriously, I don’t know any atheist who believes that all we have to do is lay out the logical case for atheism and the believers will abandon the church. We still try to explain the problem with believing in god, though, just like we point out the moral failings of church leaders, the injustices of church policies, and the harm that religion does in the real world because the way you wake someone out of the delusion of faith is to jar them with the contradictions between what the religion claims and how the world actually works, and get them thinking about both the abstract questions and the practical questions.
The “practical questions” she cites are simply not. The answer to the abstract question that all these evangelicals are skirting, the existence of god, is no, gods don’t exist, which makes all their fussing about how to please the gods and appreciate the gods more wildly impractical.
It’s as if I were trying to deal with all the pragmatic minutiae of owning a yacht — leasing a dock, picking the best brand of brass polish, buying a fancy commodore’s hat so that I look good while striding about the deck. Only I don’t own a yacht, and don’t even live anywhere near where I could sail a yacht. So sure, I could doddle about, trying to make a real decision about whether I want this hat or that one, and I might even have fun exploring the choices, but to call it practical when the fundamental core of my hobby, the yacht, is completely absent is, at best, over-generous. When that core belief makes people invest unwisely, or leads them to make unfair or injust choices, it does active harm, all in the name of a feel-good phantasm.
The anthropologist needs to spend a little time looking at seculars in addition to the religious, though. She really doesn’t understand us at all.
To be clear, I am not arguing that belief is not important to Christians. It is obviously important. But secular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. That’s part of our folk model of the mind: that belief comes first.
And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.
Uh, no. I have no illusion that people talk themselves into god-belief and then go looking for a church that accommodates them — that doesn’t even make sense. Why then would people so often end up in the same church as their parents? Personally, I spent much of my childhood going to church without believing in god at all. It was only when I was told that believing was part of the deal with being a Lutheran (remember the Nicene creed? It’s basically an oath saying you promise to believe in X, Y, and Z as part of the church) that I parted company with them. But I was in the church in the first place because that’s where my family went, that’s where all my neighborhood buddies of similar ethnic persuasion were, it was part of the tradition. I was kept in the church by a net of obligations: Thursday was choir practice, the pastor would make altar boy assignments for which of the two services I’d have to attend, I’d have my assigned bible readings and verses to memorize for Sunday School, there was VBS in June.
I know that you can have a satisfying time going through the motions of church attendance, focusing on just the day-by-day patterns and interactions. So why is Luhrmann lecturing me on the obvious, as if we atheists are completely clueless about the daily rhythms of religion? Does she think we’re stupid or something?
I think she’s just setting up her happy-clappy conclusion by loading up on the straw premises.
If you can sidestep the problem of belief — and the related politics, which can be so distracting — it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place.
“If you can sidestep the problem of belief” — right. Tiny little problem, we’ll just pretend it doesn’t exist at all, then we can continue to blithely troop off to church and do whatever without worrying about whether it’s important or not. It doesn’t matter whether my yacht exists at all, as long as I’m happy wearing my hat. That people can be readily sucked into an illusion is nothing controversial psychologically, but we generally think that well-adjusted, productive people are better attuned to reality.
“and the related politics, which can be so distracting” — WTF? Distracting? Look, if all religion were was a hobby, a cheerful little game that brought people together socially, I’d have no objection to it at all. But to pretend that it doesn’t bring along a cargo container worth of bad baggage is ludicrous. Those evangelicals are corrupting science education, because their religious beliefs tell them that evolution is false. It has fanatics throwing women on the pyre of their idolatry of the embryo. It justifies ostracizing, jailing, and even killing people who have different sexual interests. Those are mere “distractions”? They are minor problems Dr Luhrmann will wave away in her efforts to explain how freaking happy religions make people?
I understand that people join a church because it makes them feel good (sometimes, though, the reason they feel good about is the church loads them up with so much false fear and guilt that they feel compelled to alleviate it — it’s an elaborate circular engine of self-serving pain). The shot of joy, that pandering to a smug, small-minded sense of importance, is certainly an important component in the process of maintaining involvement in religion, but that doesn’t make it good or virtuous.
Even if it isn’t a proximate cause of church attendance, ultimately the question of whether god (or the yacht!) exists is essential in determining whether their faith matters in the world. That human beings are really good at closing their eyes and pretending is not an argument for living in a delusion.
Oh. Luhrmann has won a Templeton Foundation grant. All is explained.