Tanya Luhrmann, a Stanford professor whose new book When God Talks Back I discussed earlier (see here and here), is making something of a career as an apologist in the popular press. Actually, I found her book rather thin: a one-note thesis that evangelical Christians can, by practicing and listening to their coreligionists, develop the ability to converse with God. It’s not clear whether Luhmann thinks there is a God, though I may be wrong about her beliefs. She’s pretty cryptic about this in her book.
While her own religious beliefs seem unclear, Luhrmann nonetheless writes op-eds and articles telling us all that religion really isn’t that bad, and also that it isn’t in fact based largely on claims about what is real. That is the topic of her new op-ed in the New York Times: “Belief is the least part of faith.“ It’s a game try, but I’m not remotely convinced by her argument that religious belief rests far more on what it does for us than on claims about what exists in the universe.
Here’s part of what she says, and remember that although her article makes a general argument, her experience in her book is with evangelical Christianity:
Why do people believe in God? What is our evidence that there is an invisible agent who has a real impact on our lives? How can those people be so confident?
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.
. . . Not all members of deeply theologically conservative churches — churches that seem to have such clear-cut rules about how people should behave and what they should believe — have made up their minds about whether God exists or how God exists. In a charismatic evangelical church I studied, people often made comments that suggested they had complicated ideas about God’s realness. One devout woman said in a prayer group one evening: “I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.”
It was a flippant, off-the-cuff remark, but also a modern-day version of Pascal’s wager: in the face of her uncertainty about God’s existence, she decided that she was better off behaving as if God were real. She chose to foreground the practical issue of how to experience the world as if she was loved by a loving God and to put to one side her intellectual puzzling over whether and in what way the invisible agent was really there.
Well, she’s right that many people don’t come to faith after evaluating the evidence: they come to it through being indoctrinated by friends, family, or the church itself. But clearly much religious belief ultimately rests on accepting some empirical propositions about the world. Without such propositions, one’s belief means nothing. For Christians the ultimate non-negotiable beliefs are that Jesus died for our sins, was the son of God, was resurrected, and that accepting these facts is the only road to heaven. (The same goes for belief in Mohamed as an inerrant prophet and conveyer of God’s words.) Who can deny that many devout Christians—not just evangelicals—ground their belief on this series of facts, as well as on the existence of a god itself? (I’ll adduce some evidence below.)
But Luhrmann claims that such empirical considerations are minor: religion is all about “feeling”, and empirical claims are unimportant:
The role of belief in religion is greatly overstated, as anthropologists have long known. In 1912, Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern social science, argued that religion arose as a way for social groups to experience themselves as groups. He thought that when people experienced themselves in social groups they felt bigger than themselves, better, more alive — and that they identified that aliveness as something supernatural. Religious ideas arose to make sense of this experience of being part of something greater. Durkheim thought that belief was more like a flag than a philosophical position: You don’t go to church because you believe in God; rather, you believe in God because you go to church.
In fact, you can argue that religious belief as we now conceptualize it is an entirely modern phenomenon. As the comparative religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith pointed out, when the King James Bible was printed in 1611, “to believe” meant something like “to hold dear.”
One gets the sense here that Luhrmann is cherry-picking those liberal and Sophisticated Theologians™ who, realizing how shaky empirical evidence is for the tenets of faith, simply jettison the whole evidence thing. And against her two authorities I can adduce dozens more who say that the role of belief in religion is terribly important—indeed, foundational.
Luhrmann admits, to be sure, that belief plays some role, but argues that those of us who criticize religion because its truth claims are ludicrous—and that includes many New Atheists—are deeply misguided:
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.
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.
My response is this: the truth is deeply important to many religious people, even if they derive social benefits from their faith. Ask a religious person if it makes any difference to them whether Jesus or God really exists, or whether it’s just a fairy tale. How many will say, “I don’t care; my faith makes me feel good”? If truth doesn’t matter, why do religious apologists and theologians spend so much time justifying the existence of evil, or explaining God’s ways to humans? Why do creationists so vehemently oppose evolution if the truth of the Bible doesn’t matter? Why do Catholics have all those crazy restrictions on sex and abortion, imbue children with fear of hell, and feel that homosexuality is a “grave disorder”? Why do Muslims stone adulterers and enforce a despotic way of life on their followers (after all, Islam is also “theologically conservative faith”)?
The fact is that religion is not just a private experience of joy, but often comes with a feeling that one has hold of the absolute truth—a truth handed down from an existing god. When one does that, then religions begins to intrude into the public sphere, bringing along all their noxious baggage. On this issue, though, Luhrmann is judiciously silent. But if religion doesn’t rest on beliefs about what is real, there would be no need to enforce its “morality” on others.
I am not sure why Luhrmann wrote this piece, or why the New York Times felt it worth printing, but it seems deeply conditioned by her own particular take on the one evangelical sect she describes in her book. Perhaps both she and the newspaper are “believers in belief”, the term coined by Dan Dennett to describe those who aren’t religious but feel that religion is is still a good thing because it makes people feel good. Well, so does belief in the Loch Ness monster, Xenu, and Bigfoot, as well as Santa Claus. But the reality of those things matter. How many of us continue to believe in Santa after we learn that he doesn’t exist? None of us—we immediately abandon that childish thing, despite the comfort it brought us.
And here are some statements contra Luhrmann, most from Christians (I haven’t included Muslims or Church Fathers like Aquinas, Augustine, or Luther, all of whom believed strongly in the literal truth of the Bible and wrote about it often):
- “In Christianity, as in no other major religion, faith is central, and this includes belief that certain propositions are true. These propositions and belief in their truth are considered far more important than any result of rational inquiry. Presumably because the articles of the Christian faith do not stand up well under rational investigation, reason has been declared, again and again, incompetent to judge that which must be believed.” —Walter Kaufmann
- “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” —I Corinthians 15:17
- ”The second mistake is about religion. The question of truth is as central to its concern as it is in science. Religious belief can guide one in life or strengthen one at the approach of death, but unless it is actually true it can do neither of these things and so would amount to no more than an illusionary exercise in comforting fantasy.” —John Polkinghorne
- “For the practices of the Christian religion (and of any other theistic religion) only have a point if there is a God—there is no point in worshipping a non-existent creator or asking him to do something on earth or take us to heaven if he does not exist; or trying to live our lives in accord with his will, if he has no will. If someone is trying to be rational in practicing the Christian (or Islamic or Jewish) religion, she needs to believe (to some degree) the creedal claims that underlie the practice.” —Richard Swinburne
- “NOMA, while certainly helpful and broadly applicable, is too limiting. Its definition of science breaks down at those murky theoretical boundaries where observation becomes impossible, like the claims about other universes. Likewise, religion in almost all of its manifestations is more than just a collection of value judgments and moral directives. Religion often makes claims about ‘the way things are.’” —Karl Giberson and Francis Collins (evangelical Christians)
- “A religious tradition is indeed a way of life and not a set of abstract ideas. But a way of life presupposes beliefs about the nature of reality and cannot be sustained if those beliefs are no longer credible.” —Ian Barbour
- “The ultimate test of faith must still, and always, be its truth; whether we can prove it or not, the reality of the perspectives it brings us, and the changes it puts us through, must depend in the end on it corresponding to an actual state of the universe.” —Francis Spufford
- “But for this cure to work it appears that at least it must be true that God exists, that Jesus Christ is the son of God, that we are created in the image of God, that God is a creator, that God wants to forgive us, and that God loves us. Hence it seems as if Christianity, and not only science, has an epistemic goal, that is, it attempts to say something true about reality. If so, a religious practice like Christianity is meant to tell us something true about who God is, what God’s intentions are, what God has done, what God values, and how we fit in when it comes to these intentions, actions, and values.”—Mikael Stenmark
“To believe that God exists is to believe that one stands in some relation to his existence such that his existence is itself the reason for one’s belief. There must be some causal connection, or an appearance thereof, between the fact in question and a person’s acceptance of it. In this way, we can see that religious beliefs, to be beliefs about the way the world is, must be as evidentiary in spirit as any other. For all their sins against reason, religious fundamentalists understand this; moderates—almost by definition—do not.” —Sam Harris