A few days ago I posted about Tanya Luhrmann’s New York Times op-ed, “Belief Is the Least Part of Faith,” in which she claimed that belief, or the content of belief, wasn’t really important for evangelical religious people. Instead, what was important was the feelings of joy and communion people got from worship. Her thesis is encapsulated in one paragraph of her essay:
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.
I contested this essay on several grounds, primarily that the epistemic content of religion is critically important for many religious people. If they knew that Jesus didn’t exist, or was just a garden-variety apocalyptic prophet who wasn’t divine, how many people would be evangelicals? And if belief in propositions isn’t important, why do so many religions fracture on the grounds of doctrine, and do things like campaign against the teaching of evolution.
(I note in passing that, as reader Jeff D pointed out, Luhrmann got a Templeton Foundation grant for this work. As her Stanford c.v. notes: “2007: John Templeton Foundation grant, “Spiritual Disciplines and their Sensory Consequences.” This, I think went to help finance the work reported in Lurhmann’s book, When God Talks Back; and her work is Touted on Templeton’s website. She’s one of the prize horses in their stable.)
At any rate, yesterday the Times published four letters from readers about Luhrmann’s essay. I reproduce them all here (with my comments) because they’re interesting.
To the Editor:
Re “Belief Is the Least Part of Faith” (column, May 30):
T. M. Luhrmann got it right. As a Protestant pastor, I have come to believe that what we assert about God is of no real importance to that “being.” What ultimately matters is how we live and what we do with our lives.
Being in a religious community can be an enriching experience as well as a vehicle for service to those who are in need.
Spinoza said we should love God but not expect God to love us in return. We love God by caring for those less fortunate. That’s what matters.
FRANK L. HOSS
Urbana, Ill., May 30, 2013
Well, maybe that’s what matters to Reverend Hoss, but how dare he say what matters to everyone else? Can’t he see is that his view is a personal one, and many religious people dissent from his claims that a. we shouldn’t expect God to love us, and b. Truth claims about God are irrelevant.
To the Editor:
Instead of accusing secularists of failing to understand the most elementary insight in the study of religion (Durkheim’s point that religion works as an adhesive for social solidarities), T. M. Luhrmann would do well to focus on why so many people affiliate with certain religiously defined groups and not others.
The growth of evangelical churches surely has something to do with the particular ideas that those churches proclaim and often protect from critical scrutiny.
DAVID A. HOLLINGER
Berkeley, Calif., May 30, 2013
The writer teaches religious history at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History.”
Here Hollinger has it right on the money. Remember that churches fracture on grounds like the existence of the Trinity, whether women should be preachers, how many wives are permitted, and whether the true descendants of the Prophet are his relatives or his companions. Very often these rest on epistemic claims, and on the moral claims that derive from them.
To the Editor:
One way of looking at religion is that it is a tool. Tools enhance our reach and make it easier for us to do tasks effectively.
Religion allays our existential anxiety and gives us hope. Even if some view it as illusory hope, it does soothe our distress in situations that would otherwise be hard for us to accept. It provides a sense of meaning and purpose, and a sense of belonging to a social group.
Just as mechanical tools can in turn influence our own development, religions shape the personalities of the people. Unfortunately, just as a knife can be used for constructive and destructive purposes, religion can be used in positive and negative ways.
One has to use this tool wisely.
New Hyde Park, N.Y., May 31, 2013
The writer, a psychiatrist, is a member of the Committee on Psychiatry and Religion, Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry.
Once again we see a writer arguing that the truth of religious claims simply doesn’t matter. I wonder if Viswanathan is religious, and, if so, whether he believes in the claims of his faith. But certainly as a psychiatrist, I doubt that he’d approve of his patients conditioning their behavior on a delusion than on reality.
To the Editor:
T. M. Luhrmann believes (that word again) that evangelicals go to church to find joy, which is certainly a wonderful thing, but I think that she’s being a bit naïve in that it seems as if many churches use their beliefs to hold themselves apart from other beliefs and to stand in judgment of them.
The “joy” that many of them seek, and I say this from personal experience, is the hope that the apocalypse will soon come and that all the “sinners” — people of different beliefs — will be destroyed.
If this is what brings joy, then the “reach for joy” is certainly tainted.
Brooklyn, May 30, 2013
This is true for many evangelicals, but it goes further than that. Many of them don’t just believe in the apocalypse, but in the equation of abortion with murder, the sinfulness of homosexuality, and so on. That may bring the believers joy, but it’s not so good for everyone else. Believing in things for bad reasons is, I think, always injurious in the end, for it enables one to ignore reality in many areas of life, gives one an unwarranted certainty about morality, and leads to divisions among different faiths. We can still have all the good stuff about religion without all the screwed-up and false beliefs. That’s called humanism. The only thing missing is the pretense that we’ll live on after we die.