Is there a ‘God Problem’ in the West?

Is there a ‘God Problem’ in Western societies? Given the rise of the atheist movement, best exemplified by people such as Christopher Hitchens, Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Dawkins and other famous celebrities who make a living dissing religion; the question is: Do they have a point when they say that religion makes no sense and people are fools to believe in it? While this is a reasonable claim, it is not true. People are indeed rational when they speak of religion and they do this by speaking to others (and themselves) in ways that conforms to norms of reasonableness. This is the key argument that Robert Wuthnow, Princeton Sociology professor makes in his book The God Problem, which carries out a discourse analysis of how people talk about religion. He argues that given a chance to speak, and with enough attention and patience, we will discover that most people will speak about religion in very reasonable terms. The crazy right-wing talk is just that – crazy- and is carried out by a tiny fraction of the minority, for political and other reasons, while the vast majority of believers are normal, reasonable people.

Photo credit: UC Press
Photo credit: UC Press

The ‘God problem’ is not only about belief, but about its manifestation in the real world. When radical extremists demand death for homosexuals or seek to legislate in favor of believers and discriminate against others, who don’t look or believe as they do; this problem becomes real. Also, the reaction of atheists to this is often very strong, leading to a war of words, and other times a literal war. This is the gist of what Wuthnow calls the God problem and one can appreciate how this is indeed a complex topic, not just in the U.S. but anywhere in the world, where people take their religion seriously. I have written about this in my earlier post about Religion in the Public Sphere here. Another problem that he has highlighted is the notion of religion and democracy and freedom of speech. Since much of dogmatic religion suppresses dialogue, critical thinking, this is seen as harmful to democracy.

Wuthnow argues that a highly educated society like the U.S. is a paradox of sorts, given that rationality is not supposed to go hand in hand with religion. He says: “The best educated tend to tilt away from the pattern of devout religious conviction, apparently experiencing some of the tensions between faith and intellect that the critics argue is there. But this is only a slight tilt. For the most part, well-educated Americans seen to have found a way to continue to believe in God and praying regularly to this deity.” This, he says is not because of bad education, wishful thinking or other factors; but rather the need for these believers to have their cake and eat it too. In this way, he argues that language mediates between belief in god and rationality.

Wuthnow suggests that people of faith adopt strategies (six of them) to help balance this tension between faith and reality. They are:

  1. Schema alignment – Schema alignment frequently takes the form of anthropomorphizing god- imagining God behaves like a human person. Studies by Barrett and Frank C. Keil asked students to complete stories about God and then compare these with students’ answers to abstract theological questions. Their answers frequently suggested that God acted like a person even though these were inconsistent with the students’ formal theological views.
  2. Ontological assertion – Affirming the existence of God without necessarily attributing specific actions to God. It is possible to make statements that emphasize being without explicitly suggesting action. Prayers are often of this kind. They assert the existence of God without associating any other action with God. God is more of a reality, presence, or being and less of an agent who engages in action.
  3. Contingency referents – These are devices that makes divine action contingent on human action or circumstances, and thus provides an explanation for apparent failures of the divine. They are a kind of warrant or explanation for why something happens or does not happen. Warrants for trust are a good example. They stop short of asserting that they can influence God’s actions and hence Pat Robertson’s assertion that he could change the direction of Hurricane Gloria came across as a cultural Faux pas. As Wuthnow adds, “A Muslim doctor says she believes firmly in the Prophet’s teaching that you should ask God for what you need, even if it is a shoelace or some salt. “God is going to provide it,” she says. She adds “ It’s not that he is going to give it to me in my hand. I have to struggle to get it. “ Other people explain that God will help them realize their dreams in life, but only if they work hard, or that God will help them avoid serious illness, but only if they eat right and have regular medical check-ups.
  4. Domain juxtaposition – Is another device that emphasizes transgressions of basic cultural categories, or at least strong contrasts between them, and is thus expressed by this rubric. Prayer implies that the human realm can somehow communicate with a divine realm. The two realms are necessarily juxtaposed. However, a juxtaposition of this kind must be defined, and doing so involves the construction of a symbolic boundary that both distinguishes the two and brings them together.
  5. Code switching – This involves using words that in context would imply supernatural action, but then changing the terminology to make the meaning of those words metaphorical or ambiguous. He quotes a Muslim woman, with a bachelors in Economics as saying “ As a scientific, educated mind, I don’t think it is true that I relate to God, on a very personal basis. But I believe it is the spirituality inside you that says, ‘This is the God that has created me. He’s going to take care of me. “ What is she saying? “ Wuthnow asks, before answering that there are two parts to her – two aspects to her persona that reflect different speech communities. Speaking as an educated mind, she cannot say that she personally relates to God But switching into her inner spiritual self, she can say that there is indeed a connection.
  6. Performative Competence – Is slightly different from the other devices in that it suggests that the appropriate way to assess a prayer is by talking about how it was performed. An example would be saying that a heartfelt prayer is good or especially meaningful because the speaker was sincere. Another example would be saying that a liturgical recitation of the Lord’s prayer is good because the exact words of Jesus are being spoken. A competent prayer is one that conforms to these expectations.

The only weakness that I found in this book is that he did not give a background about discourse analysis to those who do not know what it is. DA is a highly technical and rich field, which takes some background in sociological theory, linguistics, political science to grasp fully and perhaps a short chapter or even an appendix with some references would have helped. This is a thoroughly researched book, with over 200 in-depth qualitative interviews, with people of all faiths in the U.S. To this extent, it is empirically grounded and rich in data.

As Wuthnow points out in the conclusion, American religion has included parts of ‘spooky and weird’ behavior. From Evagelicals like Ted Haggard to other born-again Christians, there have been leaders who have preached things that would fall into that category. This ‘World rejection’ as Max Weber termed – has been a key feature of dominant religious philosophies in the U.S. He further points out that all these have been studied, but what has not been studied is the way reason manifests in this mix. That seems like a fair thing to say. We tend to hear only the crazy stories of healing or their ‘rational’ denouncements by atheists who can be equally extreme in their reactions. In between these two, we don’t hear the actual experiences of the people who believe, act out and affirm their faith, on a daily basis. This book does a good job of articulating and making sense of this belief. One of the ways that an act comes to be regarded as rational is through what Jurgen Habermas has called ‘Communicative Rationality,’ i.e., when something is deliberated in public, among all parties involved and a decision is reached.

This is a fascinating read, and if you have interests in religion, linguistics, and sociology or discourse analysis – The God Problem should definitely be on your reading list.

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