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.

“ I am a devoted follower of Jesus, the man. Not Jesus, the Son of God” – Reza Aslan.

Reza Aslan, Ph.D. is the well-known author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, which has been translated into thirteen languages, and named one of the 100 most important books of the last decade. He is on the faculty at the University of California, Riverside, and is a contributing editor for The Daily Beast. He is also editor of Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, published by W. W. Norton, and co-editor with Aaron Hahn-Tapper of Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions, and Complexities, published by Palgrave Macmillan.


In this candid interview, he talks about his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, to be  launched on July 16, 2013.

How did you come about writing this book?

I became a fundamentalist Christian at the age of 15 and intensely read about Jesus and Christianity. This is what led me to become a scholar of religion, early on. What happened is that after I began my academic studies, I left the church altogether and went to the faith of my forefathers, continuing my academic study of the New Testament. I wanted to find out the historical Jesus, the historical context of his actions and the forces that shaped them. The more I did this, the more I became devoted to Jesus, the man and not Jesus, the son of God. And over the next 20 yrs, I researched the historical Jesus, the man, as he was and what his actions mean. The result is the book you see.

What are the sources  you used?

Outside of the gospels, there is no historical source of Jesus. The only mention outside of the Gospel is this throw-away phrase by a Jewish historian, who mentions Jesus, but is not interested in him, but rather his brother – James. He tells about the death of James, at the hands of a high-priest. And you must remember that back in the day, people did not have last names, and you were referred to you from your fathers’ name or village. And he refers to Jesus here as James’ brother. That is how we know that he is referring specifically to Jesus.

My book is unique in that it doesn’t use Gospels as the primary source material. I do rely on Gospels in filling a loose outline of Jesus’s life, but my first source is the history of first century Palestine, an age we know a lot about, thanks to the Roman occupation. The few facts we know about him – that he was a Jew and he started a Jewish movement, whose focus was in establishing a kingdom of God. We also know that he was convicted of crime of sedition and crucified.

My argument is that, if that’s all you know, it is enough to create a biography about a person. Anyone with those characteristics would be a radical, political revolutionary in those times. I draw on the gospels and investigate the context of Jesus’s actions. I make sure to investigate the claims of the gospels, given the context.


Who is your audience? Is it a scholarly work or a popular book?

It is definitely a popular book, though there are 100 pages of footnotes and the book is meant to read like a non-scholarly historical biography. It is meant for people who are interested in his era and are aware of the legends and myths. Jesus is an enormously complex and interesting person.  I am aiming to reach mainstream Christians, those who go to church and see him as the son of god. These believers have heard all these stories, but don’t really know the world in which Jesus lived. These people tend to read the Gospels, as if there is no context to his actions- we must remember that he lived in a turbulent period and the recordings of his actions are contextual and in response to those events. If you truly want to know him, you need to know the world he lived in.

Your biggest surprise in researching the book

The biggest surprise is just how un-extraordinary Jesus was. There were a dozen people during his time, at least a dozen, who walked around claiming to be messiahs. They gathered disciples, exorcised demons and all of them were captured and executed by Rome for the crime of sedition. Jesus just happened to be one of them. Many of them were more popular than Jesus, in their lifetimes. But what is fascinating is that only one of those is still called messiah, today. And my question is, why that is? That’s part of what I answer in this book.

Are you expecting any controversy?
For the most part, anyone who thinks of Jesus as God made flesh, is going to be upset with a book that sees him as just human and a historical figure. At the same time, the book is very respectful. I have deep, abiding love for Jesus and I see myself as a follower of Jesus and the very notion of looking at Jesus as a man will find it offensive. Many people won’t read it for this reason. And others will also not read it because I am Muslim, though I have a PhD in religion.

Some will see this as a Muslim attack on Jesus, which it is not. That audience is obviously out. They will be upset regardless. There are some conclusions in the book, some general assumptions that are part of Christian orthodoxy, that are overturned by my analysis. The fact that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem for instance  and did not debate with the learned Rabbis, as he was illiterate. The passion narratives perhaps never occurred. These will be seen as controversial, but based in research of the holy-land.

How long has it taken you to write it?

I have been researching this since my freshman year in college. But in terms of actually researching and writing, it took me four years. That’s about how long it takes me to write a book.

What projects are you currently working on ?

I am working on some film and TV projects and also gearing up for a novel. This is going to be my last non-fiction book.

For more about the book, or to get your copy, see: