There is a new book by Robert Wuthnow, from Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, one of America’s leading sociologists of religion, called The God Problem: Expressing Faith and Being Reasonable. Wuthnow observes that while the United States is one of the most highly educated societies on earth, it is also one of the most religious. This one is an empirical study of how Americans can be both believers and rationalists at the same time. But the book is also a theological work of how “cultural theology” works.
From the blurbs:
America is a nation with both unusually high levels of educational attainment and unusually high levels of religious belief and behavior. The God Problem considers religion as people experience it, relying heavily on common threads from 165 interviews conducted in 2006-2007 that show how “well-educated, thoughtful Americans have found a way of having their cake and eating it too: affirming their faith while also maintaining their belief in reason” (p.3).
Wuthnow’s approach relies on the earlier work done by many scholars and through popular surveys to measure religion, while also seeking to move toward new clarity through analysis of how people use language to overcome that which he terms the God problem – a seemingly paradoxical relationship between faith and reason. For example, in a chapter on prayer Wuthnow explains how six language devices – schema alignment, ontological assertion, contingency referents, domain juxtaposition, code switching, and performative competence – enable thoughtful people to pray without being drawn into deep theological considerations about the nature of the divine.
Rather than attempting to construct philosophically sound and/or theological deep answers to the problem of theodicy (why a good and powerful God allows bad things to happen to good people) most people simply deny that the divine is involved in planning events humans consider to be big scary catastrophes, and functions more like a “CEO who keeps the universe under control but lets people make their own decisions for good or for ill” (p.143). In a similar manner, most religious people believe that heaven exists and is a wonderful place yet limit any attempts to further explain that reality by using provisional language that often relies heavily on biblical authority and through appropriate expressions of doubt and uncertainty.
Wuthnow think the problem of how Americans can have dogmatic beliefs and at the same time be rational lies in language. For him, “the secret does not lie in mental compartmentalism, as critics of American culture sometimes argue, or in a failure of the educations system.” Nor does he think that the combination of faith and reason is wishful thinking, bad logic, or mindless intuitive yearning. His study shows that believers who use God language people do have serious doubts. So believers have two goals to maintain their devout belief and at the same time not sounding like an untutored bigot. Wuthnow places the line between Evangelicals and other true believers from Fundamentalist on whether one is willing to sound like an untutored bigot or idiot.
Criticism that religion is irrational have been voiced by the new atheists, but it appears the American middle class has managed to forge a path between fanaticism and atheism. They know, as Wuthnow claims, that while belief in God is often associated with irrational, uninformed, undemocratic, destructive, and fraudulent behavior, one shouldn’t assume that nonbelief is free from such ills. He gives the reader greater insight into how the average educated middle-class American thinks about religion. According to Wuthnow, the antagonism of academics toward religion isn’t representative of the general public. Generally speaking, the American middle class exhibits a laissez-faire attitude that is more conducive to frank discussions about faith.
The recent critics of religion are correct – there is a God problem. How can people accept God without being an idiot. So God is quite problematic, intellectually, morally- God is not the nice guy, religion is un-provable. So how do believing Americans seen well-informed, reasonable, and democratic
The recent dogmatic religion may be well versed in own religion but usually nothing else. They have shut out the last 200 years of the critiques of religion, the existence of other faiths, or even the challenge of art, music or science. They are not open to new ideas, do not advocate free inquiry, or pursuit of ideals. In general, they defend at all costs wisdom from the past. Religious believers who are conservative are by nature anti-democratic because democracy needs people to defend their faith through rational means. But in their case, they preach dogma that cannot be questioned based on Divine authority.
It is not impossible to be religious persona and well informed – think of Sir Isaac Newton but the approach of synthesis is not the current era.
Wuthnow also points out and should be noted that college does not make American’s more skeptical or losing faith. In the 1970’s when believers were first generation college it lead to a secularization but now in 2013, where students are second and third generation college – combining their faith and professional education is the norm.
So how do Americans believe?
First, religion gets watered down and shallow.-God is considered as a buddy and the Bible as instruction manual for a happy life. Believers in the US consider their conservative views as a form of positive thinking and popular psychology. When they say “we want a miracle” think of it as spoken by a football coach, it’s a pep talk. (think of all the Orthodox popular psych and tips for living)
Second, they do not really understand their religion. They have little knowledge of philosophy, theology, or the meaning of their words outside their utilitarian usage. And there is no incentive to be more thoughtful. America’s middle class are void of thoughtful reflection, oblivious to sound theological instruction, or simply lack good answers to the bigger questions that have no utilitarian relation to everyday life. (anyone teaching Albo or even Berkovits anymore?)
Wuthnow turns to linguistics and cultural sociology. He shows that everyday religious language is not set apart, we engage in multiple circles and have a heteroglossia of combining household language, science and religion in the same conversation. Wuthnow points to six phenomena that allow belief. (1)schema alignment- when asked to explain a concept it will always correspond to the givens of science. God healing or helping is always through the natural order.
(2)ontological assertion- we say we don’t understand God or no one really knows what these theological things mean.
(3) contingency referents- we did not do our part or other events interfered
(4) domain juxtaposition –prayer and science as two realms; or one is giving a halakhic shiur without reference to the outside world
(5) code switching- I take the religious language as a different code such as from my interior life or my spirituality.
(6) performative competence- the religious act was an end in itself.
Are Americans who pray about ending hurricanes nuts? No. They treat it as either ending through natural means, or we don’t understand but we are commanded to do it, we need to do our part to help and prayer reminds us, or the prayer serve to maintain a spiritual sense of providence. In sum, ”Middle class Americans have found a way to pray that neither violates their basic intellectual integrity nor threatens to be in any way socially disruptive . There is an implicit uncertainty.”
The key is to imagine God as a powerful and beneficent other without turning God into a magical image that insults an educated person’s intelligence. Not for a miracle but to give people strength, psychological not mechanical. Today’s believers are highly self-aware that anthropomorphic conversation with God is different than science.
To talk reasonably about God, Americans find ways to affirm that they believe in God’s existence, but at the same time steer clear of assertions that claim too much knowledge of God, or that make God too much like a human person, or that too dramatically contravene standard ways of thinking about the natural world and human behavior. (299)
Returning to the discussions of the importance of popular culture for those committed to faith, Wuthnow found that shifts in the discussion of religion often involve injecting humor to “break the spell.” They introduce something completely out of context, betraying ambivalence, discomfort, or uncertainty regarding a topic. Wuthnow’s study reveals a certain ambiguity about the faith that is more shaped by the shared vocabulary of popular culture than by Orthodox beliefs.
The “God problem,” as it were, is that affirming faith seemingly requires us to find ways to make clear that we aren’t bigoted, dogmatic, stupid, thoughtless, and heartless. In other words, one needs to find a middle path between dogmatism and atheism in order to be considered reasonable in American culture. According to Wuthnow, it seems that thoughtful, well-educated persons have figured out a way to be informed and devout by relying on multivocality—using the rhetoric of society’s pluralistic speech community—when discussing issues of faith.
From Peter Berger’s review:
Peter Berger- Why Americans Don’t Think God Talk is Weird
Robert Wuthnow says modern believers maintain a creative tension between the worldviews of naturalism and religion.
There are two polemical edges to the book. Less central, and mainly of interest to other social scientists, is Wuthnow’s suspicion of survey methods in the area of religion. Surveys rely on structure questionnaires; much of the time we don’t understand what the answers mean unless we actually talk to the people who gave them. (By the way, I share the suspicion—without denying that surveys, if used judiciously, can indeed disclose some religious realities.) Wuthnow uses a very sophisticated methodology of so-called “discourse analysis”—semi-structured interviews, followed by a careful examination of the language used by the interviewees. Essentially, this is the sort of approach used by anthropologists, leading to what Clifford Geertz (another Princeton social scientist) called “thick description.”
Faith in America (and by implication in any modern society) occurs in a context of culturally instituted “norms of reasonableness.” These norms are expressed in a discourse which does not presuppose supernatural interventions. Religious people do assume such interventions—indeed, they regularly pray for them—but they try to speak about them in terms compatible with the naturalist norms. While many people say that, in principle, they believe that God can perform miracles, they do not usually assume that he does so apart from natural processes. For example, religious people often pray for healing, and they believe that God may answer such prayers—but not usually by a miracle, but rather through natural processes of remission, or by the skill of a surgeon, or the efficacy of medication. Thus there occurs a “mingling of languages.” Needless to say, there are some religious people in America who refuse this mingling of discourses and militantly reject the naturalist one. But they are a minority, and even they will revert to the naturalist discourse if they find themselves in the emergency room of a hospital.
In other words, most people want to be “reasonable”—the opposite of being “wacko” or “weird.” As an example of something widely perceived as not being reasonable, Wuthnow discussed an incident that happened in 1985: The famous evangelist Pat Robertson claimed that his prayer caused a hurricane to alter its course away from his headquarters in Virginia. Andy Rooney, as a televised representative of the “norms of reasonableness,” called Robertson “wacky” and “crazy as bedbugs.” Another way of putting this is to say that Americans are religious without believing in magic.
Wuthnow makes an important point: While the schema of faith can persist and co-exist in the same mind with the schema of natural reason, it is the latter which is taken for granted in most of ordinary life. Wuthnow calls it the “default condition”—that is, one has recourse to it automatically and one falls back to it unless one can explain (to oneself as much as to others) why the religious discourse also applies. “Default” means that it does not have to be explained, it is simply given; it is the deviations from it that must be explained. If one cannot do this, one risks being seen as “wacko” or “weird” by others .