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The God Problem

Expressing Faith and Being Reasonable

Robert Wuthnow (Author)

Available worldwide

Hardcover, 344 pages
ISBN: 9780520274280
October 2012
$34.95, £24.95
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The United States is one of the most highly educated societies on earth, and also one of the most religious. In The God Problem, Robert Wuthnow examines how middle class Americans juggle the seemingly paradoxical relationship between faith and reason.

Based on exceptionally rich and candid interviews with approximately two hundred people from various faiths, this book dispels the most common explanations: that Americans are adept at keeping religion and intellect separate, or that they are a nation of “joiners." Instead, Wuthnow argues, we do this—not by coming up with rational proofs for the existence of God—but by adopting subtle usages of language that keep us from making unreasonable claims about God. In an illuminating narrative that reveals the complex negotiations many undertake in order to be religious in the modern world, Wuthnow probes the ways of talking that occur in prayers, in discussions about God, in views of heaven, in understandings of natural catastrophes and personal tragedies, and in attempts to reconcile faith with science.

One. Dangerous Dogma
Two. Talking to God
Three. Big Scary Catastrophes
Four. Heaven Is a Wonderful Place
Five. Jesus Sets You Free
Six. Billions of Galaxies
Seven. Conclusion: Don’t Be Spooky or Weird

Selected Bibliography
Robert Wuthnow is Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor of Sociology at Princeton University and Director of the Princeton University Center for the Study of Religion. Among his books are After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s and Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches, both from UC Press.
“In this volume, a respected Princeton sociologist attempts to explain how belief in a supernatural God can coexist with well-educated practitioners who live in a world dominated by science and natural explanations of events. . . . [Wuthnow] offers an important counterbalance to the overly simplistic atheistic challenges of Richard Dawkins and company.”—Publishers Weekly
“An important book.”—Jerome P. Baggett Christian Century
"Wuthnow writes in an accessible manner that challenges the reader to consider how Americans make sense of God. . . . Wuthnow provides insightful and challenging research that is useful in understanding the unique paradox of American religious adherence and a commitment to reason as a matter of faith. This books serves both as a revelation of the complex rhetorical negotiation that maintains this paradox, but also provides insight into how people of faith may understand the tension that exists in their own congregations and the greater community they seek to serve."—Joy E. A. Qualls Enrichment
“If God’s existence is impossible to prove, if this country values open-mindedness and a willingness to think freely about any and all subjects, if we question authority and dogma as our most sacred and important tenet, how can so many of us believe that an all-powerful, all-knowing creator listens to and, at times, intervenes on our behalf? Such is the nature of The God Problem: Expressing Faith and Being Reasonable, and the issue has never been approached more thoughtfully, or strategically, than by Robert Wuthnow.”—Matthew Sutherland Foreword
“With his keen eye for spotting insights in data, Wuthnow presents a wonderful study of the mental maps people use to be religious in the modern world. As usual, he has identified something that we all think about obliquely and tackled it head on. The God Problem is a huge achievement.”—John H. Evans, Department of Sociology, University of California, San Diego

“In The God Problem, Wuthnow sheds new light on the American debate over religious belief versus non-belief. Wuthnow’s insight offers a nuanced portrayal of the religious situation in our time. This is a significant and insightful book.” —Wade Clark Roof, J.F. Rowny Professor of Religion and Society, University of California, Santa Barbara



Before turning to a close investigation of the ways in which thoughtful people talk about their faith, we need to step back and consider why the God problem actually is a problem. Our contemporary culture sometimes gives us the false impression that believing in God is not problematic at all, especially because so many people do believe and apparently consider it reasonable to believe. For one thing, our culture is highly relativistic, and so it is not uncommon to hear about people who, for instance, are dedicated scientists and devout Christians, and to say to ourselves, well, that's their business. Instead of questioning how they can reconcile these beliefs, we just assume they must have their reasons. Similarly, we hear a politician or athlete saying she is asking God's blessing on America or that he is praying for victory, and we somehow determine that these are just figures of speech. Or we fall back on distinctions we have learned somewhere during our long years of schooling and tell ourselves that facts are different from values or that reason is different from faith. These are ways of talking - and will deserve our attention later on - but they do not satisfy the critics who take a skeptical view of religion. The critics have put forth some trenchant arguments about why it actually should be difficult for intelligent, well-educated people in the United States and elsewhere to believe in God.

Much of the recent concern about religion stems from the view that beliefs about God are irrational. The kind of rationality with which this criticism is concerned is using appropriate means to accomplish one's ends. A rational approach to driving a nail involves using a hammer. A rational way of treating an illness is to call a doctor. Asking God to drive the nail or treat the illness would be irrational because any normal, intelligent person knows there are more effective ways of proceeding. Prayers and other religious incantations do not get the job done, and to think they do is to engage in superstition. In the past, before the advent of scientific medicine, people who held superstitious beliefs could perhaps be excused for these false ways of thinking, critics argue. But in the contemporary world, being superstitious is a sign of stupidity. Thoughtful educated people should know better. Indeed, the whole purpose of modern science and education has been to develop rational ways of pursuing our goals. If we want to increase the yield of our crops, we experiment with hybrid seed varieties, fertilizer, and irrigation; we do not pray like people did centuries ago in hopes that the gods will intervene. This is not to say that thoughtful Americans are always rational about everything they do. We nevertheless strive to find the most effective ways of getting what we want. A person who wants to do well on an exam knows that the rational course of action is to spend time studying. He or she may spend too much time partying. But that is a matter of poor planning and of deflecting one's energies from achieving one's goals. To be irrational would be to assume that partying itself is the correct way to earn good grades. Expecting God to reveal the answers for the exam is similarly irrational. And it strikes us as plain stupid if people think that hexes, magic, and other superstitious activities are going to work.

The criticism that much of what passes for devout faith is irrational has focused especially on prayer. An Internet video entitled "Proving that Prayer is Superstition," which has purportedly reached a far larger audience than Dennett, Dawkins, and company, makes this criticism by pointedly likening prayer to asking a lucky horseshoe for favors. A lucky horseshoe has no effect on the outcome when rolling dice, the video explains. Praying would have no effect on the dice, either. "Belief in prayer is a superstition," the narrator observes, "just like the belief in lucky horseshoes." The video continues, arguing that praying for God to cure cancer is similarly superstitious. "Will God reach down and eliminate all the cancerous cells? If you are a normal, intelligent person, you know what will happen. Nothing. This prayer will have no effect whatsoever."1

Just to be clear, this criticism taken by itself does not constitute an argument against believing in the existence of God. Even the most ardent critics would acknowledge that this is the case. It still might seem rational to believe that God or something God-like exists because there are unknown and perhaps unknowable aspects of the universe. Or it might seem reasonable to believe that God exists because this God offers a person everlasting life in heaven. But those kinds of beliefs have very little to do with the God problem I am describing. God is not a problem only as long as that God steers clear of any active involvement in the world as we know it. The God of an unknowable universe or of life in heaven is a God that can be believed in without imagining that this God intervenes in any way with daily life. That God need not perform miraculous cures, make rain, or assist in winning the lottery. As soon as this God starts messing with the natural order, the God problem comes into play. An educated person will have difficulty believing that God can cause the sun to stand still, virgins to give birth, rain to fall, and diseases to be cured.

A slight variant on the argument that believing in God is an irrational way of achieving one's goals is the idea that God or some other supernatural being is responsible for one's failures. The claim that "the devil made me do it" is one example. Suppose I steal a car, get caught, and at trial explain to the judge that I had been instructed by an evil spirit to commit this felony. The judge might not send me to prison but have me locked up in an insane asylum. At the very least, the court would consider my defense irrational. The same logic applies in less extreme cases. If I am a thoughtful, well-educated person and am having difficulties in my marriage, the rational thing to do is talk to a friend or seek help from a trained therapist, marriage counselor, or psychiatrist, not to visit an exorcist. If my marriage founders, some part of me may decide that it was God's will, but I would have trouble with the thought that I could have prevented it if I had prayed harder or that God was punishing me for something I had done.

Recent critics of religion have gone a step further than earlier critics in demonstrating that belief in God is very likely to be irrational. The irrationality of believing in God, they argue, is not just a matter of bad logic. There are actually good reasons why a person might hold irrational beliefs about God. Many of these reasons have to do with human evolution. For example, something about the way the human brain has evolved disposes us to look for agents as the cause of things. A crop failure prompts us to ask, "Who caused it?" We are also especially inclined to remember stories about strange agents: "It was caused by a turtle with a human head." Over the vast expanse of time during which humans evolved, these stories about strange beings gained special staying power. They evolved, the critics argue, into superstitions about God. So it is quite reasonable that humans believe in God. But it is still irrational. Indeed, now that the reasons for those beliefs are understood, it is even more irrational to hold these beliefs except perhaps as curious relics of the past.2

A related criticism that is much broader than the concern about irrationality is the view that beliefs about God are uninformed. This criticism is less about superstitious notions of how to get what one wants and more about religious belief simply being naÔve. It is concerned with the broader view that an educated person should understand that scriptures were not really divinely inspired, that sacred texts contain errors, and that there are naturalistic explanations for religion itself. People living several centuries ago may have read the biblical story about the world being created in seven days and had little trouble believing that this really happened in that space of time. They may have heard that God created Adam and Eve about 6,000 years ago and figured that was exactly when it happened. A person nowadays with no education might have heard these yarns from a family member and have had no reason to question them. A child could learn the story about Noah's ark in Sunday school and think how nice it was that all the animals were saved from the flood. But educated people should have reasons to question all of this. They might still believe in God, and yet they would surely have doubts about many of the things people claim to believe about God. They would certainly disbelieve that the Bible stories should be taken literally. They might have difficulty praying to a God about whom so much false information has been presented. In short, popular concepts of God would be a problem.

Much of Dawkins' work is devoted to demonstrating that religiously-inclined people are simply uninformed about science and especially about scientific arguments that contradict faith or more easily explain natural phenomena. Many of his ideas are directed more at theologians and other apologists - whom he concludes are "often chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they'd like to be true" - than at ordinary readers. He does an excellent job, though, of poking holes in arguments that might be termed resort-to-authority, such as, well, so-and-so scientist believes in God, or Pascal settled that a long time ago. He also goes a long way toward making atheism respectable by showing that beliefs about God are unnecessary to support moral arguments and that solace and inspiration can be found elsewhere.3

The emphasis on cultural evolution evident in Dawkins and many other critics of religion offers another argument about the difficulties of being well-informed and devoutly religious. In this view, the essence of religion is ritual, which serves as a primitive means of communicating and affirming group loyalty in small, homogenous, local societies, almost like grunts and gestures did before the development of verbal language. But in modern, complex societies these rituals serve less well and indeed are replaced by rational modes of communication. As Jurgen Habermas, one of the leading proponents of this view, observed, "with the development of modern societies, the sacred domain has largely disintegrated, or at least has lost its structure-forming significance."4 Thus, the incompatibility between devotion to God and functioning as a well-informed citizen has less to do with the knowledge or lack thereof of particular individuals and is more the result of a modernizing process that simply renders religion less meaningful and less socially significant.

There are numerous ways in which being informed can lead a well-educated person to have trouble with standard beliefs about God. Scientific information about evolution or about how big Noah's ark would have had to have been to hold representatives of every species is only one. A thinking person knows that cancer sometimes goes into remission from natural causes. The patient who lives to tell a miracle story about answered prayer has to be considered in relation to the patients who prayed and did not live to tell their story. If a friend says getting a cushy new job was a "miracle," it probably takes only a split-second to translate this into something other than an event like somebody being raised from the dead. Being informed means knowing that people kill in the name of God and pray to deities that command human sacrifice. It involves an awareness that the other side is praying to its God for victory and that more than one religion claims to be the only path to divine salvation. If Habermas is right, a thoughtful person would understand that religious rituals are a carry-over from an earlier stage of human evolution and that they work better in isolated contexts than for people with cosmopolitan tastes. If nothing else, participating in religious rituals may seem a waste of time compared with devoting oneself to areas of life requiring more specialized knowledge, such as science or medicine. Believers themselves sometimes argue that too much knowledge is a bad thing and affirm that ignorance is the basis of their faith. They disrespect intellectuals or argue that faith must be blind, meaning that it cannot withstand intelligent scrutiny. To a person who values education and reason, people who embrace this kind of blind faith seem to have fallen recently from the proverbial turnip truck.

Dogmatic religion poses special problems in this regard. An adherent of dogmatic religion may be very well versed in the teachings of his or her faith, and yet be closed minded about everything else. That person is likely to be uninformed about the teachings of other faiths, about the cultural factors that shaped the history of these faiths, or about the arguments of critics. If nothing else, studying the fine points of one's own dogmatic tradition becomes a higher priority than spending time learning about art, music, or science. The opposite is to be open to new ideas. "What we respect," Hitchens writes, in describing the critical view of those he admires, "is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake."5 This is why atheists have often referred to themselves as free thinkers. Dogma requires believing in what a person has been told by a religious leader or in a creed or sacred text. It means defending wisdom from the past, rather than exploring new ideas. It stifles intellectual curiosity.

I am not suggesting that a religious person cannot also be an informed person - and critics of religion generally do not make this argument either. Saying it is impossible to be both is easily refuted by pointing to Isaac Newton, an example of a religious believer who was clearly well-informed, or to the genomics expert, Francis Collins, as a current example, or to many other leaders in their fields who have combined intellectual curiosity and faith. The point is rather that a thoughtful, well-educated person has to figure out a way of being informed and devout. Otherwise, the bias in dogma is toward the view that all important knowledge has been revealed in scripture or can be heard by listening directly to the voice of God instead of exploring widely in other paths of learning. The God problem is not unsolvable, but it is a problem. Newton and Collins had to find ways to pursue higher learning and yet reconcile their faith with what they learned.

A third, rather different set of criticisms is that beliefs about God are anti-democratic and are for this reason ones that educated people should consider problematic. These criticisms stem from the view that democracy requires citizens to be able to defend their beliefs through rational argument and thus be open to the beliefs of others, including a willingness to compromise in service of the common good. Belief in God is said to be anti-democratic because it leads to arguments that cannot be questioned. In simplest terms, believers assert that God told them to do something or that something is right. End of story. No debate, no discussion. And this is especially problematic when people of different faiths come together because each group holds its own unique convictions about truth. These convictions are divinely revealed and inviolate, subject neither to compromise nor to rational explication in terms that other groups can understand.

This argument has had special resonance among political theorists interested in the conditions under which democracy can flourish. Presumably everyone in the United States, Western Europe, Canada, and countries with similar political traditions believes in democracy. A person who has invested considerable time and energy in acquiring information and learning how to apply reason to important decisions will be inclined to think that information and learning are especially appropriate to the workings of a democracy. When a religious leader declares that God wants people to vote for a particular political candidate, or when a politician asserts that God told him or her to run for higher office, thinking people are likely to have questions. They may only doubt that God actually spoke. But they may also wonder if faith should be allowed in the political arena. They might argue that it is fine for a person to hold strange views about God privately, but feel that it is really better if intelligent people use their brains when thinking about difficult social issues.

This criticism is not about the compatibility or incompatibility of religious traditions and democracy. That is an important question, but different from the one at issue here. It usually focuses on specific countries and asks whether Islam and democracy can coexist in, say, Indonesia, or whether Protestants were correct or incorrect in accusing U.S. Catholics of being anti-democratic during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.6 By and large, the prevalence of religion and democracy in many countries, including the United States, would suggest that religion is not inherently anti-democratic. However, the question that critics of religion raise persists. This question, as posed forcefully by political theorist John Rawls, is whether claims about religious truth can be reconciled with the functioning of an effective democracy. They cannot, Rawls argues, because citizens in religiously and culturally pluralistic societies have to agree on freestanding conceptions of justice, rather than ones grounded in different religious traditions. Practically speaking, religion needs to be irrelevant. A person must be able to argue that a particular policy is fair to all and on grounds that all can accept, not because it conforms to the dictates of his or her religion.7

It was this concern about the incompatibility of faith and democracy that prompted John Dewey to argue that religion in America would serve the nation better if it abandoned, of all things, its beliefs in the supernatural. Religion as an institution, Dewey argued, contributed many good things, including charitable behavior and a sense of civic responsibility. But devotion to the supernatural established an alternative loyalty that competed with citizenship. The very experiences of life, and especially those aspects deemed to be sacred, were shaped by the doctrines with which they were interpreted. A Christian Scientist and a Lutheran would inevitably experience life differently and appeal to different versions of divine authority to justify their conceptions of the good.8

Many arguments have been made on the other side to show that faith and democracy are compatible or can be reconciled.9 However, these arguments frequently sidestep the fundamental issue of truth being asserted in the name of divine revelation. These claims can be constitutionally bracketed and the more agreeable aspects of religion, such as teachings about good neighborliness, can be emphasized. But when religion encourages people to believe that they speak for God, religion then becomes, in Richard Rorty's memorable phrase, a conversation stopper.10

Another set of concerns that is not fully expressed by any of the foregoing is the argument that beliefs about God are destructive. This is the idea that religion is actually harmful, either to the individuals who believe in God or to innocent bystanders who do not. It goes beyond the view, for instance, that asking God for help is irrational but unlikely to cause harm.11 It suggests that religion encourages people to do stupid things that are also dangerous, such as not receiving vaccinations. The list of destructive acts condoned by religion is quite long. The Bible tells of God wiping out whole cities and instructing the chosen people to slaughter their enemies, including women, children, and livestock. The biblical prophets call down divine wrath on false teachers. The psalmist cries out for the Lord's vengeance. The relatively milder teachings of the New Testament condone slavery and tell of people stricken dead for seemingly minor offenses.

Concerns about the destructiveness of religion were less frequently heard during the twentieth century, when atheistic communism and near-atheistic fascism slaughtered millions, but they have returned to the front burner since the September 11, 2001, attacks. Religions that in other eras were thought to be benign or even peaceful are now popularly viewed as promoters of violence. Terrorists engage in religiously motivated holy wars. Suicide bombers imagine themselves being rewarded in paradise for their atrocities. Dogma - whether inspired by the Qur'an or a fundamentalist Protestant or a Hindu nationalist - is especially to be feared. A thinking person should be repulsed. "People of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction," Hitchens warns, "and the destruction of all hard-won human attainments."12 The language is extreme, and yet it resonates in a world of religiously-inspired terrorism. Somewhere a sleeper cell is plotting an attack. Somewhere a religious zealot is planning to assassinate a doctor who performs abortions. The issue is not that only religious people commit atrocities. It is rather that they righteously do so in the name of God.

It is also worth mentioning a particular argument claiming that beliefs about God are fraudulent. Fraud goes beyond destructiveness in being intentionally manipulative. It involves deliberate deception. The argument usually focuses on the fraudulent promotion of religion for power or for money. Suppose a gospel preacher asks you to place your hand on the television set, pray, and send him a tenth of your paycheck. The preacher avoids saying directly that you will become rich as a result, but suggests this outcome by showing a picture of a new Hummer and having a believer tell a story about becoming rich. It would be irrational for the viewer to send money. It is fraudulent for the preacher to make such suggestive appeals in the first place. The Internet video I mentioned earlier about prayer makes exactly this point. "What if a minister says, 'God tells you to tithe money to the church,'" the narrator asks. "'If you do, God will answer your prayers.' This is fraud. The minister is lying to you in order to get your money."13

The criticism that religion is fraudulent did not have to wait for television hucksters to come on the scene. Nearly two centuries ago, this criticism was at the heart of Karl Marx's concerns about religion. The bourgeoisie, he argued, were all too willing to use religion to oppress the masses. Instead of paying workers a decent wage, the owners of wealth paid clergy to assure workers that they would receive their just rewards in heaven. The criticism has been repeated in numerous versions since then. Religion offers false hope. It encourages people to give their meager earnings to the church instead of feeding their families, and their time to prayer instead of engaging in political protest.

The concern about fraudulent religion is now voiced especially by critics who fear that religion in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and elsewhere is feathering its nest at the expense of taxpayers. Not only are religious organizations exempt from taxes, but now they are often the beneficiaries of earmarks in U.S. Congressional funding bills - earmarks totaling more than $300 million, according to one source, including building highways to church colleges, giving federal land to churches, and funding faith-based abstinence programs for teenagers.14 Why, the critics ask, should thinking people put up with this? Would it not be better policy to spend public money more effectively, either on government programs or in the marketplace?

Saying that belief in God is often associated with irrational, uninformed, undemocratic, destructive, fraudulent behavior is not to imply that non-belief is free of these ills. The temptation for a believer is to respond by pointing out the irrationality of dogmatic atheists, for example, or the destructiveness of Nazi, Stalinist, and other anti-religious regimes. That response may be attractive but is too easy. It misses the point that can be made in terms less extreme than those used by the recent popularizers of anti-religious sentiment, and even by many thoughtful people who are themselves favorably inclined toward faith. The very notion of God raises intellectual difficulties. It is not something that can be studied scientifically or proven logically. It conflicts with ordinary ways of thinking about the affairs of daily life. Religious conviction is frequently a source of irrational claims, of divisiveness, and even of violence, or it inspires inexplicable trust and great personal sacrifice.

The recent criticisms of religion are perhaps too easily dismissed in yet another way. The examples of religious irrationality and hatred are typically more representative of some religious groups than others: Protestant fundamentalists more than mainline Protestants, traditional Catholics more than progressive Catholics, ultra-conservative Jews more than liberal Jews, radical Islamists more than moderate Muslims, and so on. The culprit clearly is dogma. Yet there is a point in these criticisms that needs to be taken seriously: non-dogmatic religion shares some of the same traits, or does potentially, so that care must be taken to determine the differences. Harris writes, "I have little doubt that liberals and moderates find the eerie certainties of the Christian Right to be as troubling as I do."15 Yet his argument is not that the Christian Right is the only religion in need of criticism. Moderates and liberals, he suggests, should also be scrutinized. They also pray, expecting miracles, defend creeds, and distance themselves from others with different convictions. Do they quietly find faith intellectually problematic? Or have they somehow found a way to transcend these doubts?

In fairness to the critics and to religious people themselves, none of these criticisms imply that it is impossible to be a thinking person and believe in God. But they do make it harder. God is no longer the nice man in the sky who keeps everything going smoothly. God is problematic, an enigma that becomes harder to define and more difficult to view as a source of anything measurable. To believe that God is capable of intervening in the ordinary affairs of human beings is to engage in irrational thinking. God may be God, but not a super powerful being who disrupts the natural order to supply miracles to people who ask sincerely. Many of the stories in the book purported to be the sacred Word of God simply cannot be true. The rules through which social order is achieved cannot include grandly authoritative revelations from God. A democracy may be able to take account of values embedded in religious traditions, but only as long as those religions are regarded as traditions. The vicious potential in religious claims needs to be looked squarely in the face and rejected. So do the self aggrandizing schemes of religious hucksters.

The point of these recent criticisms is not, at least in the critics' minds, to substitute an anti-religious orthodoxy for religious dogma. If what they write is taken at face value, as it should be, their call is largely for critical inquiry focusing on questions that have often been suppressed. The argument is not that religious belief is entirely foolish, at least not so foolish as to cause thinking people to back away from it instinctively. It is rather an argument in favor of open-minded, genuine, no-holds-barred doubt. The call is for intelligent people to acknowledge that religion, like humanity itself, may have evolved through natural causes, and that prayer may be a comforting way of talking to oneself, but is not communicating with a sentient being who listens and grants favors to one person and not to the next. The message is that a lot of what religion communicates about God is nothing but raw superstition, which is irrational at best and destructive at worst. There may be ways to redefine religion so that it is about mystery or mysticism or humanitarianism or the ineffable essence of life. But if that is what people really believe, then it is a far cry from the awe and allegiance to an all-powerful being that religion has generally been in the past. For an intelligent, thoughtful person who values reason, God will be a problem.

Suppose, though, that a thoughtful person says to herself, "I believe in God, but not in the dogmatic way that seems to be of concern to these critics of religion. I pray, but I do not imagine that God literally hears me and decides to rejuvenate my friend's amputated leg. It offends me even to think that God is somehow like a lucky horseshoe. Furthermore, I am a well-informed, open-minded person; indeed, I think God made me that way and wants me to use my intellectual faculties to the fullest extent. I live in a democratic society and am happy to discuss social policies in terms that people who do not share my faith can understand. I do not think God has given me a special corner on the truth about social issues, even though there are some about which I care deeply. I do not condone violence in the name of religion or the use of faith to collect money fraudulently." This person is free of all the problems critics associate with religion. And yet, she too has a God problem. She has a serious God problem because affirming her faith requires her to find ways to declare that she is not bigoted, dogmatic, stupid, thoughtless, and heartless. She could solve this problem by disavowing religious faith entirely: declaring herself a non-religious person who does not believe in God and does not pray. Somehow, though, she manages to retain her faith. She may even do this without giving it much thought. Faith seems reasonable to her. She has absorbed a natural language with which to talk to and about God that does not violate her understanding of how a reasonable person thinks and acts. Her God problem involves following a middle path between fanaticism and atheism. She stays the course by drawing on subtle distinctions about certainty and doubt, knowing and unknowing, the natural and the supernatural. Her mental frameworks place God and lucky horseshoes in different categories and apply scientific explanations to some questions and not to others. She somehow differentiates among kinds of faith and kinds of knowledge. Through these distinctions she distances herself from people she regards as religious radicals. She has a language that serves as a grassroots theology. When this language is reinforced by the way her friends talk and by what she reads or sees on television, it works well for her. It does not work all the time, though, or for everyone she knows. There are times when she wonders if there really is a God and times when she does not pray. She is keenly aware that talking to God is different from talking to another person. She finds it puzzling that an invisible entity lacking a body can somehow be expected to talk back. Being a thoughtful person who has learned to think in non-religious ways about how the world works, her faith is inflected with uncertainty and with the desire to be reasonable.


There is ample evidence that highly educated people who are presumably intelligent and who apparently value open-mindedness and reason do have a problem with God. Consider how different the views of the American public are from the views of highly educated professors at the nation's elite colleges and universities - a special segment of the public that is indeed highly educated and claims to value intelligence and reason. In the general public, where about 25 percent have graduated from college, the overwhelming majority say they believe in God. For example, in a recent Gallup Poll, 86 percent of the public said they believed in God, 8 percent were unsure, and only 6 percent did not believe in God. A Newsweek survey found that 91 percent believed in God. A poll for Fox News showed almost the same results: 89 percent said they personally believed in the existence of God. Other polls have yielded additional details. For example, a poll for Time magazine revealed that 80 percent of the public believed in "God-inspired miracles." In the same survey, only 4 percent said "recent discoveries and advances in science over the last 10 years or so" had made them less religious. Eighty-one percent said these discoveries had no effect on their views of God and religion, and 14 percent said they had actually become more religious.16 In contrast to these responses from the general public, the views expressed in surveys among scientists and academics are quite different.

A survey of more than 1,600 scientists and social scientists employed at 21 elite research universities found that only 8 percent of the natural scientists and 10 percent of the social scientists had "no doubts about God's existence." A third (38 and 31 percent, respectively) declared that they did not believe in God. Nearly another third (29 and 31 percent, respectively) said they did not know if there is a God and believed there was no way to find out. In short, a sizable majority were atheists or agnostics. Further differences with the general public were evident in the responses to other questions. Half of these academics said they had no religious affiliation at all, compared to about a seventh of the public who gives this response in surveys. Fewer than ten percent attended religious services regularly - much smaller than the third to half of the public who attend this often.17 A separate study of nearly 1,500 college professors spanning twenty disciplinary fields found similar results. From responses to a question about belief in God, the researchers concluded that about 23 percent of the professors were atheists or agnostics - four times as many as in the general population. The study also showed that disbelief ran higher at elite universities than at other institutions. For instance, 37 percent of the faculty at elite doctoral schools reported disbelief in God, compared with only 15 percent at community colleges.18

The difficulties educated people have about believing in God are illustrated in other studies that compare Americans who have earned college degrees with Americans who have not been to college. Consider the following: in recent national surveys, those with college degrees were 19 percentage points less likely than those who had not been to college to believe that humans had been created by God, 15 points less likely to say they were sure about God's existence, 14 points less likely to say they ask God for help, 12 points less likely to say they believe that nature was created by God, 11 points less likely to look to God for strength and support, and 10 points less likely to say they feel close to God.19 The pattern was strikingly consistent: the more education people had, the less likely they were to believe in God.

However, there is a different way to look at the results of these studies. Indeed, the main point I want emphasize is that educated people in the United States somehow manage, for the most part, to believe in God. To be sure, they do this less often than Americans who have lower levels of education. And yet in one way or another most of them affirm some faith in God. For example, among Americans who have college degrees only 11 percent say they do not believe in God or believe there is no way to find out if God does or does not exist. Of the remainder, 52 percent say they have no doubts that God exists, 20 percent say they have some doubts, 4 percent believe sometimes and not at other times, and 13 percent believe in a higher power and are unsure if this is God. Even among those with graduate degrees, only 13 percent give responses indicating that they are atheists or agnostics.

A skeptic might argue that educated Americans believe vaguely that God exists, perhaps as some mysterious and unknowable essence of being, but otherwise have no interaction with this God. That, however, is not what the evidence suggests. Thirty-eight percent of Americans with college degrees say they ask God for help with their daily activities every day. Eighty percent of these college educated Americans say they ask God for help at least once in awhile. On another question, three-quarters reported feeling at least somewhat close to God. And on yet another question, more than half said they look to God quite a bit for strength and support.20

Questions about prayer are especially interesting. The critics of religion argue that it is irrational to pray because there is no evidence that prayer works. Yet only 12 percent of Americans say they never pray. And among Americans with college degrees all but 15 percent pray. More than half of college educated Americans (54 percent) claim they pray every day. The pattern that emerges when changes from year to year are examined is also interesting. One would imagine that prayer in the United States, even if common, would be occurring less often than in the past. This is because more and more Americans have been earning college degrees in recent decades, which would suggest that prayer ought to be diminishing if the two are incompatible. However, the evidence on change in prayer over time suggests this is not the case (see figure 1.1). The trend in higher education over the past quarter century has been steadily upward, but the percentage of Americans who never or rarely pray has remained constant.

The fact that the two lines are further apart in the earlier years than in the later ones implies that higher education and prayer have actually become more compatible during this period. Indeed, if we were to produce a similar chart showing the level of statistical association between education and prayer for each year, we would see that there has been a gradually weakening negative relationship. In the early 1980s, frequent prayer was negatively associated with higher education with a statistical coefficient of -.122, and by 2006, that association had weakened to -.062. In other words, there was hardly any negative relationship by the later date, and to the extent that a relationship did remain, it was only half as strong as in 1983.

These bits and pieces of data from reputable national studies reinforce the point I made earlier: when it comes to the God problem, Americans have somehow found a way to have their cake and eat it too. We are a well-educated society, a culture that values thinking straight and using our mental faculties, and yet we are also a society in which religious faith is prevalent. The best educated among us tilt slightly away from this 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 seem to have found a way to continue believing in God and praying regularly to this deity.

One other piece of evidence is worth considering before turning to some of the arguments that might explain how educated Americans manage to retain their belief in God. This is evidence comparing the United States with other countries that share the same predominantly Judeo-Christian religious heritage (see figure 1.2). In the figure, I have plotted data from surveys conducted in nearly two dozen countries. The countries are arranged according to the percentage in each who pray at least once a week and the percentage of the population who have earned a bachelor's degree or higher. The chart offers a way of seeing if people in better educated countries are less likely to pray. Among all the countries, there is a tendency for this to be the case. For example, Italy and Portugal are the least educated of these countries and they also have relatively high rates of prayer. Israel and Sweden are among the best educated, and weekly prayer is quite low in these countries. In addition, the religious tradition of countries clearly affects frequency of prayer. Italy, Portugal, Poland, Ireland, and Greece all have high rates of prayer because of their Catholic or Orthodox traditions. The most striking feature of the chart, though, is the position of the United States. It is the best educated of all the countries, and yet it also has the highest percentage of people who pray regularly.21

How has the United States accomplished this unique balancing act? The cross-country comparisons pose the question forcefully. Why is the United States a country in which higher education and talking to God have been able to co-exist? Is it just that the United States is a religious country, as observers often argue? Undoubtedly Americans pray because they are religious, but this observation does not tell us very much. Is there a pattern of American exceptionalism rooted in immigration and religious voluntarism, as historians have shown, that tells the entire story? That may be true, and yet it begs the question of how individual Americans who are relatively well educated manage to resolve the questions about God that have been widely discussed for a long time. Is there perhaps a more interesting story about the ways in which Americans entertain the doubts and uncertainties that cross the minds of thinking people as they pray?

These questions are all the more intriguing, it turns out, because educated Americans do not simply happen to pray and entertain convictions about God in large numbers. They also believe explicitly that there is no contradiction between being educated and being religious. Comparisons between Americans with higher and lower levels of education are again revealing. For instance, in the Time magazine survey I mentioned earlier, 74 percent of those with college degrees said scientific advancements do not threaten religious beliefs. That was compared with 58 percent among those with no college education. On a question about creation and evolution, the differences were even more pronounced. Sixty-three percent of those with college degrees said it was possible to believe in both, compared with only 35 percent of those with no college education.22

The call to understand more clearly how educated Americans reconcile reason and faith has also been an important part of the recent criticisms of religion. Dennett, Harris, and others acknowledge that thoughtful people often believe in God. The implication, these critics argue, is not that everyone should become atheists. It is rather that more attention needs to be paid to what exactly faith means to intelligent people, especially if it does not involve the naÔve superstitions that are so easily criticized. Research is needed, not only on the dogmas that have been the focus of most investigations, but also on the departures from dogma.

Several popular arguments about the religious faith of well-educated Americans will spring so readily to readers' minds that we need to mention those briefly, and then set them aside, before moving ahead to more interesting questions about the languages of faith. Some of these arguments have been studied by social scientists and can be dismissed because research does not support them. Some others are plausible, despite a lack of research, and yet fail to get at the complexities of religious belief itself. An argument of the first variety is the notion that the religious involvement of better educated Americans stems less from faith than from an impulse for joining. This idea was more prominent a generation or two ago than it is today, but is still heard from time to time among casual observers of American culture. It reflects the view of America as a nation of joiners - people who want to fit in and who mostly favor the social life that religious organizations provide, rather than the distinctive teachings of these organizations. Indeed, the argument suggests that well-educated Americans go to church because it is the respectable thing to do, just as serving on committees and belonging to community organizations is, but they do so without believing in much of anything. If this argument were true, it would mean not having to deal with questions of belief at all. But, unfortunately for its proponents, it is not true. To be sure, Americans with college degrees are more likely than Americans who have never been to college to participate in religious services. But among those with college degrees who attend this often, almost everyone believes in God. Clearly, they are not folks who belong without believing. They may very well come up with ways of modifying their beliefs about God, and if so, that again points to the importance of considering their beliefs and the language in which they express their beliefs more closely.23

Other arguments tackle the puzzle of educated Americans being religious by focusing on what does or does not happen in institutions of higher learning. Consider again the evidence in figure 1.1 about education and prayer. Why would just as many Americans be praying regularly as in the past if more Americans are earning college degrees? The answer, some would argue, is surely that colleges are failing to do their job. They are turning out good accountants and nurses but failing to instruct students that prayer is irrational. Students come away with their religious beliefs intact, though perhaps compartmentalized from what they know about logic and science. That view would fit pretty well with critics of religion who argue that people would be less religious if only they were confronted more aggressively with logic and science. The fault, according to this interpretation, lies squarely with timid educators. A more benign interpretation could also be given: American higher education has grown in ways that make it less selective and less concerned with the critical questions that might challenge religion. Students enter college, for example, from a broader cross-section of the public, come from families in which religious assumptions have never been examined, and major in subjects that do not challenge these assumptions.

The trouble with this argument is that it assumes that naÔve dogmatic religious beliefs have indeed been left intact. There is no middle ground. Students are either fundamentalists or atheists. If they are graduating from college and still praying, they must be fundamentalists. A more subtle interpretation would entertain the possibility that they may have altered how they think about prayer. Even if their accounting instructor never told them that prayer was irrational, they have likely been in an environment in which people talked about prayer in ways that made it seem less irrational. Those would be the languages worth understanding.

The idea that higher education has failed to challenge naÔve religious assumptions also finds detractors who argue that faith is actually being encouraged on college campuses. In this view, which is supported by some research, the old antagonism of academics toward religion has been replaced by a new laissez faire attitude more conducive to frank discussions of faith. Accordingly, students are more open about their spiritual quests, enrollments in religion courses are on the rise, and dorm room discussions abound. The fact that more Americans are graduating from college and still praying would not be surprising to these researchers. It would, however, be all the more important to move past the stereotypic portrayals of superstitious religion and understand how educated Americans are actually talking about God.24

Arguments focusing on educational institutions probably give too much weight to these institutions. After all, the four years on average that students spend in college are a short part of their lives. Much has already happened by the time a person enters college. Family, childhood friends, school, and the mass media have all had an impact. Many of these influences continue during and after college. The media especially may be a decisive influence. Consider the fact that many more people pray in the United States than in England or France, despite similarities in education levels in the three countries. Could it be that television and newspapers in the United States are reluctant to speak favorably about the views of atheists? Journalists are perhaps fearful of offending the leaders of religious institutions. They ply political candidates with questions about prayer and church going, and the candidates oblige by saying what they think the public wants to hear. In contrast, criticisms of religion in the other countries have a longer history and are far more acceptable.25

There is little doubt that Americans pick up cues about religion from the media. The process is not one-way. Journalists and film producers also report what ordinary people say and mimic the language in which they say it. This is yet another reason to be sensitive to the languages in which faith is expressed. Religion is sometimes as dogmatic as the critics say it is. Television preachers do promise pray-and-get-rich schemes. Mullahs issue fatwahs calling for assassinations. Journalists recount readers' claims of having experienced miracles. And so on. There is enough grist in these accounts to support critics' arguments that faith is indeed irrational, if not downright dangerous. Yet these are the kinds of faith that people of faith themselves feel compelled at times to distance themselves from and to question. The implication is that there must be something in the language of fanaticism that strikes thoughtful people as wrong. Once again the question of language rises to the surface. If the language of dogmatism does not seem appropriate, then how do people talk about God?

Scholarly discussions of the God problem typically lead in one or another of three directions - and briefly describing these will clarify the perspective I favor. Each of these represents a general orientation that might be taken in trying to understand how thoughtful people in contemporary society deal with questions of faith. One direction basically argues that beliefs in God have been watered down by attempts to deal with criticisms of religion and are thus not as authentic or powerful as they once were or should be. Proponents of this argument usually have a clear, if restricted, view of what authentic religion should be, and they locate that view in ancient religious texts or at some point in the history of the church. They look at contemporary beliefs about God and find to their dismay (although sometimes with rosier interpretations) that things are not what they used to be. A second approach argues that the God problem has not been sufficiently resolved, and that believers would simply abandon their beliefs if they really understood the criticisms. This conclusion perceives quite a bit of power left in religious institutions and is mostly a criticism of the educational system and of educated people for not going far enough in tackling the God problem intelligently. The third approach tries to find some middle ground by granting the critics some but not all of their arguments and by calling on religious people to be more thoughtful.

The first of these approaches will be familiar to readers of Will Herberg's classic work on American religion in the 1950s. Herberg was profoundly impressed by Americans' ability to adapt their faith to the pluralistic, and largely secular, culture in which they lived. We did this, he argued, by making it fashionable to be Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. To claim one of those three identities was to be an American. Identity, though, trumped conviction. Americans rather enjoyed saying they went to church or synagogue, but were not as serious about their beliefs as their ancestors had been. Faith, Herberg believed, was theologically shallow. It was an unsophisticated faith in faith itself, not dogmatic, and thus not difficult for intelligent people to entertain, but also different from the rigid theism that has troubled most critics of religion.26

With greater empirical precision, a similar argument appeared in the 1980s by sociologist James Davison Hunter. From examining the books and articles of evangelical writers and from survey evidence, Hunter argued that even theologically conservative Protestants were adapting their faith in surprising ways to the secular culture in which they lived. God was no longer a wrathful being who demanded righteousness and who inflicted vengeance on evil doers. Jesus was a buddy, an imaginary friend, instead of a divine savior. The Bible was less a story about God and more an instruction book for a happy life. This kind of cognitive bargaining, as Hunter called it, permitted rank-and-file evangelicals to get along with their neighbors and in their jobs. Even students at church-related colleges were learning to adapt.27

Hunter's analysis was ingenious. It was one of the few studies at the time to take the language of belief seriously and to suggest that there were ways of resolving the God problem for modern, intelligent people - ways of which they themselves were often unaware. Yet the argument was incomplete. It lacked evidence from rich interviews with religious people themselves and came before much of the recent scholarship on the nuances of language and cultural analysis had developed. There was also an element of nostalgia, a slight hint of a golden age when theological convictions had been more robust, and an implied concern that Christians were somehow on a slippery slope that would result in a loss of faith altogether.

Subsequent work in this vein has generally offered more optimistic conclusions about American religion, including evangelical Protestantism. Evangelical students seem not to have slid further down the slope to perdition. Evangelical adults have managed to maintain their distinctive identity by carping about the immorality of unbelievers, not by lessening their own beliefs. In a book based mostly on his reading of other scholars' in-depth ethnographic work, social scientist Alan Wolfe sought to reassure readers on the secular left that they had nothing to fear from conservative religionists. They were not aligned with the dogmatic Religious Right, Wolfe argued, but a domesticated bunch whose faith had been thoroughly tamed by the live-and-let-live norms of American culture.28 So convincing was his argument that Daniel Dennett decided these secular religionists hardly fit his definition of religion at all. "They reveal that revision of tradition," Dennett wrote, "is often hard to distinguish from outright rejection."

But if Dennett was right, the question remained unanswered about how these evangelical Christians, whom he declared not to be representatives of true religion, had actually resolved the God problem. They may have rejected Dennett's idea of a miracle working big-man in the sky, but they overwhelmingly believed in God and prayed to that God. Hunter was more correct in suggesting that they were engaged in cognitive bargaining than Dennett was in arguing that they had rejected religion. And if Wolfe was right in arguing that they were politically safe adherents of basic democratic principles, an extension of this argument would suggest that they were perhaps equally clever in finding new ways to think about God.

The second approach, which argues that the God problem has not been sufficiently addressed or resolved, is best represented by the recent critics of religion, including Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Their approach differs from the one I have just discussed in emphasizing to a much greater degree the difficulties that arise when intelligent people really scrutinize the assumptions involved in prayer, miracles, and other beliefs about God. Herberg, Hunter, Wolfe, and others assume there is a corrosive aspect to American culture that makes it hard for devout believers to live up to their convictions. For instance, the culture places so much emphasis on material goods that a person of faith finds it difficult to be altruistic. Or the relativism of the wider culture encourages believers in one religion to grant the possibility of truth in other religions. Those arguments are quite different from the more trenchant criticism of writers who insist that religion itself is simply a product of human evolution or that the very idea of praying is irrational.

This second approach brings the God problem into much sharper relief and in so doing correctly illustrates that educated people and the institutions instructing them probably have not addressed the logical difficulties in religion as aggressively as they could have. This approach nevertheless suffers from the implicit long-term time frame that comes with the evolutionary perspective it so much values. In this perspective, religion apparently emerged through cultural accidents that occurred over hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. Where it is headed in the future, and how long that might take are uncertain. If religion of the dangerous dogmatic kind has been around this long, it may remain strong for many lifetimes to come. If it has helped humans adapt by encouraging solidarity or giving them hope, it is also likely to continue, but perhaps the raw edges can be modified. Or, in the extreme, once its assumptions are unmasked, once the spell is broken, people will abandon it en masse. The black-and-white thinking that pits irrational dogma against enlightened atheism works only if the long evolutionary cycle is truncated, meaning that a point some thousands of years ago is compared with an imaginary point long in the future. But in reality, people live in the present. The God problem is one that they can think about, ignore entirely, or deal with through the various cultural mechanisms currently available. The long-term outcome remains uncertain. A writer who finds religion distasteful can argue that people should reject it, but there is no scholarly basis on which to say that they will. Being true to science requires leaving wishful thinking aside and paying closer attention to what people actually do and say.

The third approach tries to find a middle ground between the first and second approaches. It imagines that religion is more adaptable than scholars assume in either of the other perspectives - adaptable in ways that do not detract from some golden age of authentic religious expression and that do not require it to be abandoned altogether. Some of the writers who represent this third perspective believe religion to be purely cultural and explainable in naturalistic terms, while other scholars believe wholeheartedly that God exists. Which view is taken matters little because the facts on the ground are that religion is a reality, and so are millions of people who believe in God and millions of others who do not. Those realities alone mean that religion not only needs to be understood but also can be subjected to critical inquiry.

The historian Mark A. Noll adopted this third perspective in a widely read critique of what he termed the evangelical mind. Noll, himself a believer, was convinced that evangelical Christians needed to take the created order more seriously and engage it with the rigorous tools of the natural and human sciences. He saw no danger in this proposal, only the possibility of believers leaving behind blind faith for a more thoughtful combination of faith and reason.29 With quite different theological assumptions, the philosopher of religion Jeffrey Stout took up the problem of religious believers engaging in politics in ways that critics asserted were undemocratic. Stout showed that there was a middle way between authoritative claims based only on divine revelation and arguments that allowed no room at all for such claims. Through a careful analysis of the scholarly debates, he demonstrated that claims of all kinds are nevertheless claims, or statements, and as elements of political discourse can be examined to determine who is making them, how consistent they are, and what their consequences might be.30 Another example occurs in the writing of constitutional scholars Christopher L. Eisgruber and Lawrence G. Sager, who examine the legal grounds on which arguments about religion can be made. They show that it is neither fraudulent nor dangerous for believers to make arguments about rights and privileges based on religion, but also demonstrate that these arguments can be compared for consistency and to find further justification with claims focusing on individual human rights and fairness.31 In each of these examples, the approach is to reject extreme views of religion that by definition require it to be irrational or superstitious and instead to look closely at the real-world complexities of religious expression.

My approach is closest to the last of these three perspectives. It rests on the assumption that religion is here to stay, at least well into the foreseeable future, and that decrying or celebrating some presumably authentic orthodoxy of the past is of little value. Nor is it especially helpful to argue that people would quit believing in God if educational institutions did their job more effectively. The reality is that America is a highly educated society, compared to most other parts of the world, and yet most Americans, including the better educated ones, exhibit high levels of religious activity, including prayer and believing in God. Even though we frequently lament the failures of our educational system, it is an integral part of a society that generally tries to get things done by rational planning, not superstition. The reality also is that many well-educated, well-informed people around the world believe in God or in something resembling God and faithfully practice their religions. We need not assume that thoughtful people are amateur philosophers to see that there is a problem in reconciling God with ordinary life. Believing that prayer can cure terminal illnesses may be illogical, but declaring it illogical, as the recent critics of religion do, is not the end of the story. How people determine that it is worthwhile even though illogical, or why they think it is indeed logical, or why logic is not a consideration uppermost in their minds - those are the questions that merit attention.

Too often, it seems to me, critics and defenders of religion alike emphasize belief, and leave it at that. In his treatment of faith, for example, Harris begins with the flat assertion that belief is a lever that "moves almost everything else in a person's life."32 But of course that is not true. Countless studies have demonstrated that people can hold racist beliefs, for example, and not practice discrimination; hold tolerant beliefs, and be intolerant; believe they are rich, and yet still work; believe with good reason that they are near death, and still live each day as if they were not; and so on. The trouble with beliefs is that they are buried away in people's heads, and for this reason difficult to observe. Beliefs can be measured in surveys and in psychological experiments. But the difficulty of finding reliable measures of belief makes it possible for writers to make all kinds of flabby assertions about them. People believe in a supernatural being, writers argue, or the devout believe that their prayers are answered. But what does this mean? Arguments about belief in God would be much harder to make if writers had to have evidence for their assertions.

A focus on language has proven to be a better approach. For more than a century, when modern comparative philologists began paying systematic attention to the similarities and differences among languages, and over a much longer period in the work of rhetoricians, language has been recognized as the key to understanding human communication and human culture. Recent advances in linguistics, neuroscience, cognitive anthropology, and cultural sociology have made it possible to say much more about the actual uses of language in verbal and written discourse than ever before. A principal advantage in the study of language is the fact that it is observable. Researchers read or listen to what someone says, paying attention to the style and substance of what is said and observing as well what is assumed and thus left unspoken. Language consists of clusters of words and gestures that convey meaning. It is composed of scripts and repertoires that can be used strategically to communicate to others and to oneself. The words we use provide interpretations of events, imposing schemas of understanding on them, defining categories, and creating order. Language and cognition are closely related. The words we use shape our thoughts, and our ways of thinking influence the words we use. Language is thus flexible but also anchored. We are free to choose what to say, and yet choose within the constraints established by ordinary categories of thought and by the patterns of speech with which we are familiar.33

Language is the key to understanding how thoughtful people resolve the God problem. When people pray, they use words, whether they pray silently or aloud. They also define what they are doing when they pray by using words. The interpretations mediate between their views about God and the ways of thinking that prevail in ordinary life. If a writer only imagines that a person who prays has in mind a super powerful divine agent who grants wishes the same way a lucky horseshoe does, then that writer needs to get out more, talk to people, and have them describe what they really think. The same is true with other aspects of the God problem. Culture matters. It is insufficient to declare that people believe in God because they want this or that. The reasons people themselves articulate are important.

The central aspect of the God problem that language assists in resolving is the relationship between reasonable uncertainty and faith. It is helpful to think of these terms being balanced on a set of weighing scales like those suspended from the left hand of Lady Justice, the blindfolded Roman goddess who weighs the strength of a case's support and opposition. If the case for uncertainty is weightier, faith erodes and is replaced by serious doubt and unbelief. If the case for faith is too heavy, certainty takes the place of uncertainty and dogmatic assertions about truth are the likely result. The balancing act performed by Lady Justice occurs through the kind of reasoned testimony and deliberation one expects to prevail in a court of law. Keeping uncertainty and faith in balance is seldom as formal or straightforward. The balance is not literally attained by weighing supportive and opposing arguments. It is a function of numerous and largely taken for granted language devices through which understandings about uncertainty and faith are expressed.

Uncertainty and faith are better understood as orthogonal than as opposing concepts. The more there is of one does not imply that there will necessarily be less of the other. I can be deeply uncertain about what is going to happen next week or next month and yet have faith that something positive will happen. Or I may have little faith that anything good will happen. If each varies somewhat independently of the other, the two are nevertheless related. For example, when I am almost certain that something is going to happen, I need very little faith that it will happen. There are of course technical aspects of the ways in which uncertainty and faith can be defined that are unnecessary to consider as long as our focus is on the ordinary language people use to construct the relationship between these ideas. Understanding why uncertainty and faith are so important, though, does require thinking for a moment about the broader roles they play in our lives.

Uncertainty and faith are basically about practical knowledge. By practical knowledge I mean the information we use to figure out both in the short- and long-term what we want to accomplish as individuals and collectively and how we go about pursuing those goals. Practical knowledge differs in this respect from theoretical knowledge concerned with aspects of the real or imagined world that have little or no bearing on what anybody does. For example, theories of the origin of the universe would likely fall into the category of theoretical knowledge, although some theoretical physicists and metaphysicians might disagree, whereas arguments for or against the sanctity of life would be of greater interest as practical knowledge. Insofar as practical action is involved, some degree of calculation is likely to be present. We instantaneously process volumes of information that provide mental calculations about everything from when we should consume our next meal to what the weather will be like tomorrow, to how well a conversation with a friend is going, to the efficacy of plans for starting a family or earning enough to take a vacation. Our calculations tell us that there is a level of uncertainty about our knowledge and that it may or may not make sense to have faith that a particular outcome will occur. We may decide that an outcome is likely or unlikely and that we should or should not have faith in it happening.

However, there is seldom a metric as straightforward as such probabilistic language implies. Instead, the reasonableness of our calculations is something we determine and defend through patterns of speech. We tell ourselves, "I feel lucky today," "I'm an optimistic person," "people who act that way are taking a big risk," "I have it on good authority," "the evidence convinces me," "people have done it this way for a long time," "what's the harm," "nobody knows for sure," "it's a safe bet," and so on. These ways of talking are essentially short-hand summaries of the complex calculations we have performed. What counts as a legitimate statement varies greatly from one context to another. "I feel lucky today" may be an appropriate statement in a casino but less so from a skilled surgeon about to perform an operation. An actuary can calculate risks covered by an insurance provider with mathematical precision, whereas a risk manager concerned with national security can only predict that the likelihood of a terrorist attack is "elevated." A parent or spouse may think the odds of having cancer are high, but tell her family she has complete faith in the doctors.

The God problem is a special case of the calculations we make all the time about the balance between uncertainty and faith. It differs from other calculations because the calculations are made in the absence of any empirically verifiable knowledge. The existence or non-existence of God cannot be proven, nor can many other claims about God, including whether God created humans, keeps them alive after they die, or hears prayers. The language of uncertainty and faith is for this reason heavily dependent on religious institutions and the teachings, traditions, and ritual practices of these institutions. Religious institutions encourage people to believe, pray, and place hope in the transcendent in ways that differ from the calculations a person would perform in playing the stock market or roulette. Religious institutions serve as a speech community in which special ways of talking occur. Phrases such as "bless me holy father," "we lift our hearts," "Lord we ask," and "turn to verse four" have meaning within these particular settings. A distinctive form of speaking typically demarcates religious speech as well. Prayers, for instance, may be preceded by silence, uttered in a particular cadence, taken verbatim from an authoritative text, and said in a different language (such as Latin or Hebrew). Uncertainty is often addressed explicitly through formal and repetitive affirmations, such as "Lord, we come to you because we know you hear our prayers" or "God, we praise you because you are God." Belief occurs within the religiously-instituted speech community through these distinctive linguistic practices. The question of how God is like a lucky horseshoe literally would not arise.34

But religious institutions, especially in the contemporary world, are part of the wider culture and society in which they exist, meaning that a Catholic, for instance, thinks and talks about God in ways that the culture provides as well as through church teachings. There is no space dramatically set apart from everyday speech situations by purification rituals and taboo in which God or the spirits of ancestors can speak and be spoken to. The modern religious devotee can pray in the middle of a corporate board meeting, talk about God while peeling potatoes at a soup kitchen, post a prayer request on a website, or read a novel about heaven.35 Everyday religious language is thus shaped by the larger speech communities in which people participate, including the casual conversational languages used among friends, the languages of generalized information and entertainment produced by the mass media, and the shared languages that make it possible for professionals, public officials, and academics to communicate. Indeed, a mark of being what the critics of religion sometimes refer to as a normal intelligent person is to be a competent speaker within this wider speech community of relatively well-educated, middle-class people. Competence implies being able to communicate with a variety of people from diverse backgrounds and with divergent interests in ways that seem reasonable and that signal shared values and identities (such as being informed, thoughtful, sane, rational, good-natured, and well-intentioned).36 Competence of this sort is clearly different from the formalized speech on which students of religious ritual in tribal societies have focused.

Contemporary language is adept at providing ways of entertaining complex and even contradictory ideas. Both the syntactical structure of language and the performative aspects of speaking facilitate the communication of meanings that express the subtleties of difference and similarity, knowledge and uncertainty, belief and doubt. Several lines of investigation have illuminated these processes. One example of the adaptability of contemporary language was observed by the anthropologist Basil Bernstein in studying British school children. Bernstein showed that middle class children who lived and traveled in more diverse places than working class children relied more on "elaborated codes" that spelled out in greater detail what was being said because less could be taken for granted in their heterogeneous contacts than in homogenous settings.37 Homogenous local cultures also persist, even among people with cosmopolitan connections, which means that the uses of different codes serve as markers of identity.38 Switching between elaborated and restricted codes signals distinctions between group members and larger speech communities (as in the case of "y'all" and "all of you").39 Another example of the adaptability of language was given by the Russian formalist Mikhail Bakhtin who emphasized heteroglossic speech in which actors spoke from the standpoint of several different characters and in this way were able to have an internal conversation with themselves or with others that reflected multiple perspectives.40 For instance, a person might say, "You know, a friend of mine said, 'You're really a devout Christian, aren't you,' but I said, "No, not really." The statement communicates an ambiguous message: the speaker may or may not be a devout Christian depending on which perspective is taken. Multivocality allows a speaker both to give and to take back a message or some aspects of it. A shrug of the shoulders, a wink, an upward inflection at the end of a sentence may accomplish the same mixture of certainty and doubt.41 As yet another example, the recent work of cognitive anthropologists has shown that language often corresponds with mental schemas learned early in life, such as schemas about the physical world and about differences between animate and inanimate objects. These correspondences reduce complexity but also make possible incongruous statements and metaphoric expressions, such as "time flies" or "I'm feeling down."42

In the chapters that follow, I examine the language devices that enable thoughtful responses to questions about prayer and other aspects of how we talk about human relationships with God.43 The devices provide ways to acknowledge the uncertainties about God that any reasonable person is likely to have and at the same time give expression to the convictions that people of faith claim to hold dear. I argue that a pluralistic speech community has become instantiated in which talking to and about God is widely held to be legitimate by well-educated, well-informed people. The existence of this speech community does not constitute a hegemonic culture in any strict sense of the word, but it does consist of generally shared linguistic practices that offer a great deal of latitude in how people think about God. These are not only modes of talking, but also ways of believing. They largely succeed in making it possible to hold religious convictions that on the surface would appear quite contradictory to established canons of rationality and good sense.


Notes to chapter

1 1 "Proving that Prayer is Superstition," online at 2 See especially Dennett, Breaking the Spell, 116-52; Dennett's argument is drawn from the path-breaking work of cognitive scientist Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (New York: Basic, 2001). 3 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 108. 4 Jurgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action (Boston: Beacon, 1987), 196; and for an helpful discussion of the implication of Habermas's argument for understandings of ritual, see David Cheal, "Ritual: Communication in Action," Sociological Analysis 53 (1992), 363-74. 5 Hitchens, God is Not Great, 5. 6 On this other debate about religion and democracy in political systems, a particularly useful discussion is found in Alfred Stepan, "Religion, Democracy, and the 'Twin Tolerations,'" Journal of Democracy 11 (2000), 37-57. 7 John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993). 8 John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934). 9 These arguments are masterfully reviewed and extended in Patrick Deneen, Democratic Faith (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). 10 Richard Rorty, "Religion as a Conversation Stopper," Common Knowledge 3 (1994), 1-6; reprinted in Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin, 1999), 168-74. 11 The criticism that religion is irrational is sometimes by arguing that people, religious and non-religious, do irrational things all the time, but that it seldom costs them anything, so they persist. For instance, asking a lucky horseshoe for help on a test takes about a second of one's time and in no way prevents one from studying. 12 Hitchens, God is Not Great, 13. 13 "Proving that Prayer is Superstition." 14 Diana B. Henriques and Andrew W. Lehren, "Religious Groups Reaping Share of Federal Aid for Pet Projects," New York Times (May 13, 2007), online at 15 Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, ix. 16 These surveys are all from national samples of the U.S. adult public, conducted in 2006 and 2007; online at 17 Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher P. Scheitle, "Religion among Academic Scientists: Distinctions, Disciplines, and Demographics," Social Problems 54 (2007), 289-307; and Elaine Howard Ecklund, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). 18 Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, "How Religious Are America's College and University Professors?" SSRC Forum (February 6, 2007), online at Dawkins, The God Delusion, 100-103, discusses some earlier studies, but these were not as rigorous methodologically; curiously, Dawkins uncritically discusses a study by Shermer and Sulloway, which Dennett, Breaking the Spell, 320-21, shows was too poorly designed to be credible at all. 19 These results are from my analysis of results from General Social Surveys conducted between 1998 and 2006 by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, comparing respondents with college degrees or higher and respondents with high school diplomas or less on the variables named "creation," "god," "naturgod," "cope3," "neargod," and "godhelp." The relationships are all statistically significant at or beyond the .01 level of probability, but are weak to moderate in strength, with negative associations (gammas) of .242, .279, .093, .173, .227, and .161, respectively. Given the ready availability of these data, it is quite surprising that recent critics of religion who take pride in their scientific credentials have made no effort to use them. 20 Also from General Social Surveys. 21 The data are from the 2004 European Social Surveys and the 2006 General Social Survey; my analysis of the electronic datafiles. 22 My analysis of the electronic datafile, Time/SRBI Poll (October 4, 2006). 23 In General Social Survey data for 2006, 52 percent of those with college degrees and 44 percent of those who had never been to college attended religious services at least once a month. In the 1998 General Social Survey, when a detailed question about belief in God was asked, 91 percent of those who had college degrees and attended religious services at least once a month said they believed in God. 24 John Schmalzbauer and Kathleen Mahoney, "Religion and Knowledge in the Post-Secular Academy," SSRC Working Papers (2007), online at 25 Dawkins and Hitchens, for example, comment on differences between England and the United States. 26 Will Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955). 27 James Davison Hunter, American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of Modernity (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983); James Davison Hunter, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). 28 Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Practice Our Faith (New York: Free Press, 2003). 29 Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994). 30 Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003). 31 Christopher L. Eisgruber and Lawrence G. Sager, Religious Freedom and the Constitution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007). 32 Harris, The End of Faith, 12. 33 The advantages of language over belief can also be defended in terms of religious practice; see Webb Keane, "Religious Language," Annual Review of Anthropology 26 (1997), 47-71. 34 The distinctive authority of ritual speech is perceptively analyzed in J. W. DuBois, "Self-evidence and Ritual Speech," Pp. 313-36 in Evidentiality: The Linguistic Coding of Epistemology, edited by Wallace Chafe and Johanna Nichols (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1986). 35 The example of talking about God while peeling potatoes is from Courtney Bender, Heaven's Kitchen: Living Religion at God's Love We Deliver (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), which provides an insightful analysis of the many ways in which religious speech mixes with everyday speech. 36 Dell Hymes, "On Communicative Competence," Pp. 269-85 in Sociolinguistics, edited by J. B. Pride and J. Holmes (Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1972). 37 See especially Basil Bernstein, Class, Codes and Control: Volume 1, Theoretical Studies Toward a Sociology of Educaiton (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), and A. R. Sadovnik, editor, Knowledge and Pedagogy: The Sociology of Basil Bernstein (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1995). 38 Wendy Griswold, Regionalism and the Reading Class (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). 39 The deployment of alternating codes to show insider and outsider identities is discussed in Barbara A. Fennell and John Bennett, "Sociolinguistic Concepts and Literary Analysis," American Speech 66 (1991), 371-79. 40 M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981) and M. M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (Austin: University of Texas Press. 1986); see also Gary Saul Morison and Caryl Emerson, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), and Maria Shevtsova, "Dialogism in the Novel and Bakhtin's Theory of Culture," New Literary History 23 (1992), 747-63. 41 John J. Gumperz, "Contextualization and Understanding." Pp. 229-52 in Rethinking Context: Language as an Interactive Phenomenon, edited by Alessandro Duranti and Charles Goodwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Alessandro Duranti, "Truth and Intentionality: An Ethnographic Critique," Cultural Anthropology 8 (1993), 214-45. 42 John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, "The psychological foundations of culture." Pp. 19-136 in The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture, edited by Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). 43 The 165 qualitative interviews from which the evidence comes are described in the appendix.

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