Robert Wuthnow, Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, is a preeminent sociologist of American religion. A prolific scholar, Dr. Wuthnow has published widely in the sociology of religion, culture, and civil society. His broad research interests include global Christianity, religious diversity, generational religious identity, faith-based activism, and institutional change. Janel Kragt Bakker, associate director of the Collegeville Institute, spoke to Dr. Wuthnow about his most recent book, The God Problem: Expressing Faith and Being Reasonable (University of California Press, 2012. She reached him by telephone in his office at Princeton on February 27, 2013.
Your line of inquiry in your new book, The God Problem, starts from what you call a puzzle: Believing in God is a problem on the grounds of reason, yet a great number of Americans, including the highly educated, profess to believe in God. How do you address this puzzle?
I was interested in learning how members of a highly educated society, who value reason and common sense, make sense of their day-to-day religious beliefs and experiences, and especially how they talk about those beliefs and experiences. Many theological claims about God, heaven, prayer, and so forth run against the grain of common sense, let alone science and some versions of rationality. For example, we cannot confirm or disconfirm beliefs about the supernatural on the basis of what we usually experience in the natural world. From time to time we hear popular claims about how God has intervened in the world or in a life, or how God has answered prayer. Such claims make sense within certain theological frameworks, but they probably don’t correspond with the ordinary ways we think about what happens at work and on the street. I find it interesting how people reconcile the cultural tension between the theological claims of faith and the ordinary frameworks based on common sense.
You contend that the well-educated, thoughtful Americans you interviewed for the book have found a way to “have their cake and eat it too,” in that they affirm their faith while they also prize reason. How do they do this?
The 150 to 200 people we interviewed, who were nearly all college-educated, middle-class Americans of various ethnicities and religious backgrounds, spoke in particular ways about their faith. I wanted to lookvery closely at how they talked, which words they used, and what views they constructed. We know from surveys that most Americans say they believe in God, and many believe in the Bible. But those surveys don’t tell us anything at all about what people believe about God or how they talk about their beliefs.
My argument, in a nutshell, is that we Americans talk about God in ways that conform to social norms of reasonableness. Many of the ways in which we think and talk about the world are governed by common-sense assumptions that are simply taken for granted. For example, if I say that my grandmother loves me, that is a reasonable statement even if my grandmother lives halfway across the world. If, on the other hand, I ask my far away grandmother to help me lift a box onto the table, people would say that my request is unreasonable. Grandmother has to be close by in order to help me lift that box. Similarly, if people assume that God is transcendent, as many do, it seems reasonable to them to say that God loves them. However, it doesn’t make sense to many of them to say that God found them a parking space. For others, whose theological framework leads them to think that God is right beside them and looking over their shoulder, it makes more sense to say that God found them a parking space.
As I listened to people talk about God, prayer, heaven, and related topics, I was fascinated to learn how these norms of reasonableness shaped what people said, and how the same norms prevented them from feeling like their faith didn’t make any sense. Having your cake and eating it too means being able to say to yourself and your friends, “I am a reasonable person, and it is not unreasonable to believe in God.”
In the book you tackle many of the thorny issues of contemporary religious life: prayer, the problem of evil, the afterlife, salvation, the relationship between science and religion. In each of these arenas your subjects wrestled with God’s agency in the world. Let’s start with prayer as an example. What is notable about the way your subjects framed God’s activity in regard to prayer?
Prayer can be framed in such a way that it becomes a matter of superstition—or even magic. The so-called New Atheists and other critics of religion in recent years, such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, cite many examples of behavior and belief that have more to do with superstition than with religion. They say, “If you really believe in God, why don’t you pray for an amputee’s leg to regenerate?” Praying like this would be just as crazy as believing in a magic horseshoe or throwing salt over your shoulder—yet this type of prayer appears often enough in the media to give fodder to the critics.
We found in our interviews that people generally do not talk about prayer in those magical, superstitious ways. How people prayed in hospital settings was one of the clearest examples. It is true that people sometimes will say that they prayed for a cancer to go into remission, and that God healed the cancer if it does go into remission. I am not saying this type of prayer does not happen. What surprised us, however, is how infrequently it came up in our interviews. It was much more common for people to say that they prayed that God would have mercy, guide the doctor’s hand, or give wisdom, patience, or understanding. Interviewees thought these were reasonable requests to make of God. It was relatively uncommon for people to say, “I prayed specifically that God would take away the tumor and God did or God didn’t.” Their prayers were framed in such a way that whatever the answer was, it did not destroy or dampen their faith in God.
How about the problem of evil, which is something the New Atheists have also considered. How did your subjects frame God’s role in earthly affairs with relation to natural and moral evil?
We asked a lot of questions about everything from evil on a personal scale, such as a death in the family, to societal evil like mass shootings. We also asked specifically about natural disasters. We found that people certainly wrestle with the classic problem of theodicy—how a good God can allow evil to take place—but we also found that people solve that problem rather easily in how they talk about God. That happens in several ways. One is through a kind of classic dualism in which God allows the good stuff to happen and a devil or some satanic force allows the evil things to happen. Some people talked in those terms. The more common view, though, was to say that God is a mystery. “We humans have an ability to understand certain things in the human world, but we do not understand other things. We do not understand God; God and mystery are almost the same thing.” Some of the people we interviewed would defend that argument with references to science. They would say, “Well, we also don’t know a whole lot about the universe. We know certain things about the galaxies, but there are galaxies beyond galaxies and billions and billions of stars.” So the idea was to emphasize mystery, whether in the lack of scientific knowledge or theological understanding.
Along with this focus on mystery, you note a significant degree of equivocation in your interviewees’ speech about religious matters. What do you mean?
The equivocation mostly came up in the form of people not wanting to seem dogmatic or too set in their ways. They wanted to be seen as thoughtful. The best example is how people responded when we asked them about heaven. Just about everyone believed in heaven or some form of an afterlife, yet they knew that nobody has been to heaven and come back to tell us about it. Many would quote the Bible, referring to some of the things mentioned in the Book of Revelation, like streets of gold. Then they would almost always pull back and say, “I don’t know, that’s what people have said—that’s what it says in the Bible. I’m not sure; I hope it’s that way.” Or, they’d make jokes about it, shift the conversation, or reference a childhood song. People didn’t want to be pinned down. That was the kind of equivocation that we saw.
You also contend that God is a flexible concept in American religious discourse. What do you mean by this?
We found that when we asked people about God and the meaning of prayer, they would readily affirm belief in God’s existence and would often say they have experienced God in their lives. But they struggled to find words to describe God. Why would that be the case when we have all sorts of theological literature about God? Again, it was an implicit desire to seem reasonable that seemed to be encouraging people to say that God is different from what we know. People could talk about God being all knowing or all powerful, but it was more common for them to talk about what God is not, often using metaphors and implicit or explicit contrast. For example, during our interviews we heard a story about a congregation praying for a little girl who was ill. People remembered exactly what had been said. They were kind of vague about God, but the fact that the girl was little and sick provided the contrast. As they described the situation, they implied that God was not little, God was big; God was not weak or sick, God was powerful and perfect. They didn’t say that, but they implied it. In that sense, God was a possibility or a being in the story. But at the same time, the story allowed God to be mysterious and undefined. People expressed not only a lack of understanding about God, but also a sense that this lack of understanding is part of what it means to believe in God.
You make a connection between reasonableness and patterns of thought and speech. Can you describe these habits of speech? How is language relevant?
Language is flexible and complicated. It takes us, as children, a very long time to learn language. People who study child development show that learning words usually happens first, and then the thoughts follow. We have such a rich language that even those of us who are not terribly articulate can express ourselves in very subtle ways that rely on metaphor, in the broadest sense of that word. So when we talk about feeling up because we are happy or feeling down because we are depressed, we are using special metaphors. We rely on cognitive schemes that we express in language from a young age. One of the clearest examples of that is facial recognition, which means that we not only have words for nose, mouth, eyes, and ears, but we also have a processor inside our heads that puts those words together and tells us that they form a pattern. When we see them in a certain way, we know they make up a face, and we can recognize that face as the face of our mother, father, sister, brother, or whomever it might be. As we delve more deeply into discourse analysis, in which we are looking at structured narratives or the use of what are called “intensifiers,” such as “really” or “absolutely,” we see that words are strategically used in certain contexts. Shifting registers or shifting codes, which are two other patterns of speech, give us ways to qualify what we are saying or put it in appropriate language for the situation. We might talk about expelling gas in a different way in a doctor’s office than at home or in a pub. All of these are common-sense, everyday language devices that we use to talk about faith.
These language devices are also related to culture. Can you describe the role of culture in the God problem and how this problem is worked out by educated Americans?
Culture also shapes how we define reasonableness. One example that came up in one of our larger projects had to do with the prosperity gospel messages. A graduate student compared prosperity gospel sermons and television programs from exactly the same source, but as they were broadcast in Brazil and in the United States. In both cases, people assumed that prayer would bring about a new car or some other blessing. Despite the superstition involved, there were still norms of reasonableness governing what people expected. In Brazil, where there has been and still is more of a tradition of belief in spirits, voodoo, and so forth, it was more common for the material blessings that people prayed for to come to fruition immediately and in unexpected ways, even though they might come in the form of something simple like a neighbor helping out with a problem. In the United States, by contrast, the stories often involved some kind of work, patience, or discipline. So you could pray, but it might be that the new BMW you prayed for came because you got an education and found a job. Maybe it was ten years before you got it. This example illustrates how the broader cultural context affects people’s religious understanding. My guess is that many of the conclusions we drew from interviewing people in the United States would be true in other countries, but we don’t know that. We hope that readers recognize our conclusions among themselves or people they know in the United States, even if they might not be true in some other society.
By writing a book about reasonable religious people, you focus on the center rather than the periphery of American religious and cultural life. What is notable about this population?
Contrary to the way critics and the media often portray religious people, those we interviewed thought a lot about their faith. They were mostly Christians, and in that sense reflect the majority religion. But they were not exclusively Christian. Some were Jewish, some were Muslim, and a few were atheists or agnostics. Some were in the professions, some in the labor force, and some were recent immigrants. We tried to include as much diversity as possible. We found that common assumptions about reasonableness cross the spectrum of denominations and faith traditions. When you stop and think about it, this is not surprising, since we live in a common culture. On a very basic level, that we make similar assumptions about time and space contributes significantly to our ability to live together in a society. We generally know the difference between up and down or high and low or distant and near. Those kinds of simple, common-sense assumptions about reasonableness came to the surface during our interviews.
Do you think this book has any implications for the so-called “culture wars”?
Elsewhere I have argued that the culture wars neglect what people agree about and that there is a common ground in the middle. In our interviews, we found that whether people were liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, or whatever it might be, there was a great deal of agreement in how people talked. This was even the case when we asked people about divisive issues such as abortion or homosexuality. Common assumptions about reasonableness show up even on divisive issues. One reason we have culture wars is that elections and electoral campaigns necessitate drawing lines. You either have to either be for the pro-choice candidate or the pro-life candidate. People are forced to make choices. They will move slightly out of the middle in one direction or the other. Or they may be influenced by their neighbors who happen to be very adamant about those issues. In everyday life, on the other hand, the common pattern is that people see both sides of an issue and try to get along.
You argue that the people you interviewed took pains to avoid being perceived as being spooky or weird. Why did they do this?
The spooky or weird reference comes from a wonderful comment made by Ted Haggard when he was still a megachurch pastor. Barbara Walters was coming to interview people in his congregation, and before she arrived he sent around an email that said, “Don’t be spooky or weird!” It is one of those statements that makes you think, “Why would somebody say that?” Our work helped answer that question. During our interviews occasionally somebody would say, “Oh, I’m not sure I should have said that. People are going to think I’m insane or strange.” This was simply further evidence that people were not only conforming to norms of reasonableness that they took for granted, but they were also aware of deviating from those norms. So they would pull back and say, in so many words, “I don’t want to seem spooky. I don’t want to seem weird. I don’t want to look like a crazy person. I want to live in the common world that everybody lives in and still be a person of faith.”
You mentioned the New Atheists, who have often characterized religious people as spooky or weird. What do you think they most misunderstand about religion and religious people in contemporary America?
In my view, the New Atheists have a very narrow view of religion. In some of their cases, it is the same view they knew as young children being raised in a fundamentalist context. Perhaps they never grew out of this view but at some point rejected it. As I mentioned earlier, there are enough very simple conceptions of religion in popular press to make it easy for atheist writers to assume that everybody who believes in God believes in such formulations. I try to read the New Atheists as sympathetically as possible, and I think they do have a lot of good points to make even if I disagree with their overall conclusions. The New Atheists will sometimes acknowledge that there are people who are a little uncertain about God, or people who believe in God who don’t believe that God contravenes the natural order, or people who believe in God but wouldn’t ask God to find them a parking space. But then they will say in passing, “But those aren’t the people we’re talking about, and that is not really religion by our definition.” That’s fine if that is not religion by their terms, but that is still religion by most Americans’ estimation. I was interested to find out what real people in the real world believe and say. Part of what is going on with the New Atheists is that they either cite extreme examples or they come up with hypothetical proofs that are often ridiculous examples to make a point. Their characterization misses the way most of us think about things.
A common description of religious people is that they get around the God problem by compartmentalizing their faith. You seem to be suggesting something quite different from that.
That’s right. Compartmentalization is too easy an answer. It basically says that people are interested in God on Sundays and then they totally forget about God the rest of the time. What we found in our interviews, however, is that even though people don’t think about God every waking moment, they are still articulate in talking about the relationship between God and their whole lives, Sunday through Saturday. So compartmentalization is beside the point. For instance, before you asked me this question I wasn’t thinking about the latest theories of astrophysics… That doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about them or that they don’t have some impact on what I think God’s place in the universe may be. We found that in their day to day speech people more commonly mingled comments about God or Jesus or prayer with what they knew about the natural world, especially when they were reflecting on something they had prayed about or something they had heard at church. They were bringing notions about the natural world and the supernatural together. It was far more interesting to see the subtle ways in which they brought these disparate realms together, than just to say they were compartmentalizing.
You make a distinction between rationality and reasonableness, and you argue that religious people in the United States are more concerned with the latter. Why is this distinction important?
Since Kant, or Descartes, or Aquinas, or even Aristotle, so much of theology and the philosophy of religion have been concerned with debates about religion’s rationality and with traditional proofs for God’s existence. Those scholarly debates, important as they may be, don’t influence the way ordinary people, even ordinary college-educated people, think about religion. When we asked about those rational proofs for the existence of God or rational arguments about the compatibility of science and religion, we found that people would mention a trusted authority. On the relationship between faith and science, they might cite Francis Collins, a person of faith who has studied the human genome, as someone who has thought about those issues and whose conclusions can be trusted. Interviewees were happy that people of faith had engaged these issues. It gave them confidence that someone at Calvin College or the University of Notre Dame, for example, could give a rational account of God’s existence. But these accounts were not something that anybody could repeat, describe, or even cared about very much. Reasonableness, on the other hand, was built into the language and day-to-day experience of the people to whom we talked. It was those implicit norms of reasonableness that were important to them. That was what I wanted to be clear about in the book: I’m not talking about rational proofs for God’s existence or nature; I’m talking about everyday norms of reasonableness.
Image: Matthews, Robert. Available from: Princeton University, Office of Communications.