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When God Talks Back: Read an Excerpt
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When God Talks Back
Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God
By T.M. Luhrmann
Book Excerpt: PREFACE
This book begins with a few simple questions. How does God become real for people? How are sensible people able to believe in an invisible being who has a demonstrable effect on their lives? And how can they sustain that belief in the face of what skeptical observers think must be inevitable disconfirmation? This book answers these questions by taking an outsider's perspective into the heart of faith through an anthropological exploration of American evangelical Christianity.
It ought to be difficult to believe in God. God is invisible. You cannot shake God's hand, look God in the eye, or hear what God says with your ears. God gives none of the ordinary signs of existence. The sacred books are full of impossible contradictions, apparently absurd beliefs—invisible fathers, talking snakes, a dead man who comes to life and flies up to heaven.
And yet of course people do believe in God. According to a Gallup poll, roughly 95 percent of Americans say that they believe in the existence of "God or a higher power," a percentage that has remained steady since Gallup began polling on the eve of the Second World War. In 2008 the Pew Foundation conducted a quite extensive representative survey. In its sample, two-thirds of Americans completely or mostly agreed that angels and demons are active in the world today, and nearly one-fifth said that they receive a direct answer to a specific prayer request at least once a week.1 Many Americans not only believe in God in some general way but experience God directly and report repeated contact with the supernatural.
People who do not believe in God look at these statistics and conclude that if so many people believe in something for which there is no evidence, something about the belief process must be hardwired and belief must have arisen because it serves some other, more useful end. The new field of evolutionary psychology argues that many of the building blocks of our psyche were formed through a slow evolutionary process to adapt us to a dangerous, unpredictable world. When we hear a noise in the next room, we immediately wonder about an intruder even when we know the door is locked. That's to our advantage: the cost of worrying when no one is there is nothing compared to the cost of not worrying when someone is. As a result, we are primed to be alert for presence, whether anyone is present or not.
Faced with these findings, some are tempted to argue that the reason people believe in supernatural beings is that our evolved intuitions lead us to overinterpret the presence of intentional agents, and those quick, effortless intuitions are so powerful that they become, in effect, our default interpretation of the world. From this perspective, the idea of God arises out of this evolved tendency to attribute intention to an inanimate world. Religious belief would then be an accidental by-product of the way our minds have evolved. That, in a nutshell, is what a flood of books on religion argue—Breaking the Spell, Religion Explained, Faces in the Clouds—and those reading them sometimes conclude that anyone with logical training and a good education should be an atheist.
That conclusion is shortsighted. Evolutionary psychology looks only at part of the puzzle. It describes the way our intuitions evolved and explains why claims about invisible agents seem plausible, and why certain ideas about God are found more often in the world than others. But evolutionary psychology does not explain how God remains real for modern doubters. This takes faith, which is often the outcome of great intellectual struggle.
Tanya Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. She received her education from Harvard and Cambridge universities, and was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003. In 2007, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.