Yesterday’s New York Times Book Review has a review by Molly Worthen, a writer and professor of religious history, on When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, by Tanya Luhrman, a psychological anthropologist who has also written on psychiatry.
Lurhman studied one evangelical and charismatic sect (the Vineyard Christian Fellowship) for four years, and though I won’t be reading the book, two paragraphs of Worthen’s review are worth noting:
If evangelicals are expert at conjuring God, they are just as good at dealing with disappointment when God fails to show up. When his presence fades or he fails to answer a prayer, it means God has decided that your faith is so strong, you don’t need constant proof. “The concept of spiritual maturity allows people to reinterpret a disappointment as, in effect, a promotion,” Luhrmann explains. This is not merely a grand exercise in self-delusion. Luhrmann’s subjects are aware of their minds at work. They acknowledge the elements of “pretend” in imagining God as an invisible friend sitting at the kitchen table. Vineyard teaching is clear that the Christian life requires mastering a set of mental tools. Luhrmann’s account, she says, “is fully compatible with both secular and supernaturalist understandings of God. To a believer, this account of absorption speaks to the problem of why, if God is always speaking, not everyone can hear. . . . To a skeptic, it explains why the believer heard a thought in the mind as if it were external.”
A few plaints: how is this not an exercise in self-delusion? And I’m not sure what Worthen means by “compatibility with a skeptic’s secular understanding of God.” Is that like a secular understanding of Zeus? Perhaps she means that if you think God spoke to you, and that’s a result of “mastering a set of mental tools,” then your idea of God comes from brainwashing. Finally, why does “being aware of your mind at work” preclude you from being deluded?
Worthen writes like a believer in belief, which is buttressed by the last paragraph of her review (my emphasis):
All religion is an affair of both the head and the heart. Luhrmann goes too far in suggesting that evangelicalism is all feeling and no dogma: in her telling, the heart has wholly conquered the head. We cannot account for evangelicals’ history or their role in politics without paying attention to the substance of their beliefs and the social and scientific lessons their communities teach them to draw from the Bible — lessons reinforced, perhaps, by the sound of God’s voice that they discern in their own ears. But Luhrmann has helped to explain something else: why the carefully reasoned arguments that the “new atheist” writers mount against religion often fall flat. The most convincing “proof” of religion is not scientific but psychological. There is no way to undo the conviction of believers that God himself told them he is real and his story is true.
Of course. Does anyone doubt that the convictions of faith are often based not on scientific evidence but revelation, and that revelation is largely (but not totally) impervious to reason? This is why most of us aim our attacks on religion not on evangelicals, or the already committed, but those with doubts, those on the fence, or young people. The last sentence in the paragraph above, by the way, is a pithy statement of why science and faith are incompatible.
In the end, all of it—including the sophisticated lucubrations of theologians who spend their time justifying what they want to be true—comes down to revelation, which I’ll define in Feynman’s words as “the ultimate way of fooling yourself.” Or, even simpler: “It’s true because I want it to be true.”