The Compliment of Taking Religion Seriously

The Compliment of Taking Religion Seriously June 14, 2013

Tanya M. Luhrmann, an anthropology professor at Stanford, wrote an op-ed last month titled “Belief Is the Least Part of Faith“, arguing that belief in the supernatural doesn’t play the pivotal role in religion that secularists think it does. This, she claims, makes philosophical debates about God’s existence largely irrelevant. (Unmentioned in the piece, Luhrmann has been a beneficiary of the Templeton Foundation, which explains a lot.)

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.

Right off the bat, Luhrmann draws a distinction with no apparent justification: that the question of whether God exists is merely “intellectual”, whereas the question of “how to feel God’s love” is “practical”, even though the second question necessarily presupposes an answer to the first one.

It’s like saying that “Do I have a driver’s license?” is a merely abstract and intellectual question (one pondered only by “university-educated liberals”, no doubt), but “How can I drive from here to Buffalo?” is a sound, practical question. Obviously, if I don’t have a license, the driving directions are irrelevant. The same way, just because evangelicals presuppose an answer to the God question and don’t debate it amongst themselves, that doesn’t mean that the question is of no importance to them, or that it accomplishes nothing for atheists to try to weaken their too-hasty certainty.

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 person’s “complicated ideas” are another person’s “cognitive dissonance”. I’m sure that charismatic churches have a variety of labyrinthine rationalizations for why God doesn’t visibly intervene in the world, or why they should continue praying even when it has no measurable effect. Likewise, I’m sure there are some individual theists who don’t have clearly delineated or strictly orthodox ideas – that’s inevitable, since no large church can have complete uniformity of belief. But that doesn’t mean that the organization as a whole has no characteristic traits or beliefs that are sufficiently concrete to discuss, analyze and critique.

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… 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.

This passage is why I chose to write a reply to Luhrmann. It’s a common sentiment among liberal believers and theologians, that a church is mainly a social club and its professed beliefs aren’t ultimately important. I find this both condescending and gratingly offensive. Yes, I know that puts me in the odd position of defending religion, but hear me out!

What atheists do is this: we pay religion the compliment of taking its claims seriously. We don’t, as Luhrmann does, take the condescending stance that what people say they believe doesn’t really matter. We believe that it does matter, and is therefore a topic worthy of debate. In fact, I suspect that many former believers are atheists now precisely because they took those religious truth claims seriously enough that they had to investigate them, and couldn’t in good conscience remain in a belief system they no longer believed.

As a “practical,” day-to-day matter, I agree that most people belong to a religious congregation because of the community and social benefits it provides, not because they’re intellectually convinced of its truth. People almost never decide, as the result of a purely intellectual inquiry, what it is they believe about God, and then seek out a church that teaches the same thing. Instead, they find a church that appeals to them, where people befriend them and they feel welcome, and as they become integrated into the group, the natural human tendency is to identify with it and to adopt its beliefs as their own. I don’t know any prominent atheist who’s ever denied this. But that’s not the same thing as saying that religion doesn’t make meaningful truth claims, or that religious people are never moved to act purely on the basis of their beliefs. Those claims are both undeniably false.

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.

Yes, that’s the word I would have chosen: the politics of religious belief are “distracting”. If we just set aside those minor, niggling issues – little things like the sexist oppression of women, bigotry against LGBT people, religious attacks on science, apocalyptic fatalism, religiously motivated mob violence, and attempts to write sectarian dogma into law – and instead focus on the happy-clappy, Jesus-loves-you stuff, we’ll understand religion so much better!

Again, no one is denying that religion can bring its practitioners happiness. The important question is, what’s the cost of that happiness? If happiness is obtained by the promotion of irrationality, we atheists argue, then that price is too high to pay. We believe that joy can and should be found in the real world, without retreating from reason or swaddling ourselves in delusion. And we believe it’s more respectful of other people to say so, to treat them as thinking beings worthy of perusasion, and not pretend that drastically different beliefs about the true nature of reality don’t ultimately matter.

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