Tanya Luhrmann: why religious people don’t need “belief”

May 31, 2013 • 8:46 am

Tanya Luhrmann, a Stanford professor whose new book When God Talks Back I discussed earlier (see here and here), is making something of a career as an apologist in the popular press. Actually, I found her book rather thin: a one-note thesis that evangelical Christians can, by practicing and listening to their coreligionists, develop the ability to converse with God. It’s not clear whether Luhmann thinks there is a God, though I may be wrong about her beliefs. She’s pretty cryptic about this in her book.

While her own religious beliefs seem unclear, Luhrmann nonetheless writes op-eds and articles telling us all that religion really isn’t that bad, and also that it isn’t in fact based largely on claims about what is real. That is the topic of her new op-ed in the New York Times: “Belief is the least part of faith.”  It’s a game try, but I’m not remotely convinced by her argument that religious belief rests far more on what it does for us than on claims about what exists in the universe.

Here’s part of what she says, and remember that although her article makes a general argument, her experience in her book is with evangelical Christianity:

Why do people believe in God? What is our evidence that there is an invisible agent who has a real impact on our lives? How can those people be so confident?

These are the questions that university-educated liberals ask about faith. They are deep questions. But they are also abstract and intellectual. They are philosophical questions. In an evangelical church, the questions would probably have circled around how to feel God’s love and how to be more aware of God’s presence. Those are fundamentally practical questions.

. . . Not all members of deeply theologically conservative churches — churches that seem to have such clear-cut rules about how people should behave and what they should believe — have made up their minds about whether God exists or how God exists. In a charismatic evangelical church I studied, people often made comments that suggested they had complicated ideas about God’s realness. One devout woman said in a prayer group one evening: “I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.”

It was a flippant, off-the-cuff remark, but also a modern-day version of Pascal’s wager: in the face of her uncertainty about God’s existence, she decided that she was better off behaving as if God were real. She chose to foreground the practical issue of how to experience the world as if she was loved by a loving God and to put to one side her intellectual puzzling over whether and in what way the invisible agent was really there.

Well, she’s right that many people don’t come to faith after evaluating the evidence: they come to it through being indoctrinated by friends, family, or the church itself.  But clearly much religious belief ultimately rests on accepting some empirical propositions about the world. Without such propositions, one’s belief means nothing. For Christians the ultimate non-negotiable beliefs are that Jesus died for our sins, was the son of God, was resurrected, and that accepting these facts is the only road to heaven. (The same goes for belief in Mohamed as an inerrant prophet and conveyer of God’s words.) Who can deny that many devout Christians—not just evangelicals—ground their belief on this series of facts, as well as on the existence of a god itself? (I’ll adduce some evidence below.)

But Luhrmann claims that such empirical considerations are minor: religion is all about “feeling”, and empirical claims are unimportant:

The role of belief in religion is greatly overstated, as anthropologists have long known. In 1912, Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern social science, argued that religion arose as a way for social groups to experience themselves as groups. He thought that when people experienced themselves in social groups they felt bigger than themselves, better, more alive — and that they identified that aliveness as something supernatural. Religious ideas arose to make sense of this experience of being part of something greater. Durkheim thought that belief was more like a flag than a philosophical position: You don’t go to church because you believe in God; rather, you believe in God because you go to church.

In fact, you can argue that religious belief as we now conceptualize it is an entirely modern phenomenon. As the comparative religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith pointed out, when the King James Bible was printed in 1611, “to believe” meant something like “to hold dear.”

One gets the sense here that Luhrmann is cherry-picking those liberal and Sophisticated Theologians™ who, realizing how shaky empirical evidence is for the tenets of faith, simply jettison the whole evidence thing. And against her two authorities I can adduce dozens more who say that the role of belief in religion is terribly important—indeed, foundational.

Luhrmann admits, to be sure, that belief plays some role, but argues that those of us who criticize religion because its truth claims are ludicrous—and that includes many New Atheists—are deeply misguided:

To be clear, I am not arguing that belief is not important to Christians. It is obviously important. But secular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. That’s part of our folk model of the mind: that belief comes first.

And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.

If you can sidestep the problem of belief — and the related politics, which can be so distracting — it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place.

My response is this: the truth is deeply important to many religious people, even if they derive social benefits from their faith. Ask a religious person if it makes any difference to them whether Jesus or God really exists, or whether it’s just a fairy tale. How many will say, “I don’t care; my faith makes me feel good”? If truth doesn’t matter, why do religious apologists and theologians spend so much time justifying the existence of evil, or explaining God’s ways to humans? Why do creationists so vehemently oppose evolution if the truth of the Bible doesn’t matter? Why do Catholics have all those crazy restrictions on sex and abortion, imbue children with fear of hell, and feel that homosexuality is a “grave disorder”? Why do Muslims stone adulterers and enforce a despotic way of life on their followers (after all, Islam is also “theologically conservative faith”)?

The fact is that religion is not just a private experience of joy, but often comes with a feeling that one has hold of the absolute truth—a truth handed down from an existing god. When one does that, then religions begins to intrude into the public sphere, bringing along all their noxious baggage. On this issue, though, Luhrmann is judiciously silent. But if religion doesn’t rest on beliefs about what is real, there would be no need to enforce its “morality” on others.

I am not sure why Luhrmann wrote this piece, or why the New York Times felt it worth printing, but it seems deeply conditioned by her own particular take on the one evangelical sect she describes in her book.  Perhaps both she and the newspaper are “believers in belief”, the term coined by Dan Dennett to describe those who aren’t religious but feel that religion is is still a good thing because it makes people feel good. Well, so does belief in the Loch Ness monster, Xenu, and Bigfoot, as well as Santa Claus. But the reality of those things matter. How many of us continue to believe in Santa after we learn that he doesn’t exist? None of us—we immediately abandon that childish thing, despite the comfort it brought us.

And here are some statements contra Luhrmann, most from Christians (I haven’t included Muslims or Church Fathers like Aquinas, Augustine, or Luther, all of whom believed strongly in the literal truth of the Bible and wrote about it often):

  • “In Christianity, as in no other major religion, faith is central, and this includes belief that certain propositions are true. These propositions and belief in their truth are considered far more important than any result of rational inquiry. Presumably because the articles of the Christian faith do not stand up well under rational investigation, reason has been declared, again and again, incompetent to judge that which must be believed.”  —Walter Kaufmann
  • “If Christ has not been raised, then  our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”  —I Corinthians 15:17
  •  “The second mistake is about religion. The question of truth is as central to its concern as it is in science. Religious belief can guide one in life or strengthen one at the approach of death, but unless it is actually true it can do neither of these things and so would amount to no more than an illusionary exercise in comforting fantasy.” —John Polkinghorne
  • “For the practices of the Christian religion (and of any other theistic religion) only have a point if there is a God—there is no point in worshipping a non-existent creator or asking him to do something on earth or take us to heaven if he does not exist; or trying to live our lives in accord with his will, if he has no will. If someone is trying to be rational in practicing the Christian (or Islamic or Jewish) religion, she needs to believe (to some degree) the creedal claims that underlie the practice.” —Richard Swinburne
  • “NOMA, while certainly helpful and broadly applicable, is too limiting. Its definition of science breaks down at those murky theoretical boundaries where observation becomes impossible, like the claims about other universes. Likewise, religion in almost all of its manifestations is more than just a collection of value judgments and moral directives. Religion often makes claims about ‘the way things are.’” —Karl Giberson and Francis Collins (evangelical Christians)
  • “A religious tradition is indeed a way of life and not a set of abstract ideas. But a way of life presupposes beliefs about the nature of reality and cannot be sustained if those beliefs are no longer credible.”  —Ian Barbour
  • “The ultimate test of faith must still, and always, be its truth; whether we can prove it or not, the reality of the perspectives it brings us, and the changes it puts us through, must depend in the end on it corresponding to an actual state of the universe.” —Francis Spufford
  • “But for this cure to work it appears that at least it must be true that God exists, that Jesus Christ is the son of God, that we are created in the image of God, that God is a creator, that God wants to forgive us, and that God loves us. Hence it seems as if Christianity, and not only science, has an epistemic goal, that is, it attempts to say something true about reality.  If so, a religious practice like Christianity is meant to tell us something true about who God is, what God’s intentions are, what God has done, what God values, and how we fit in when it comes to these intentions, actions, and values.”—Mikael Stenmark
  • “To believe that God exists is to believe that one stands in some relation to his existence such that his existence is itself the reason for one’s belief. There must be some causal connection, or an appearance thereof, between the fact in question and a person’s acceptance of it. In this way, we can see that religious beliefs, to be beliefs about the way the world is, must be as evidentiary in spirit as any other. For all their sins against reason, religious fundamentalists understand this; moderates—almost by definition—do not.” —Sam Harris


78 thoughts on “Tanya Luhrmann: why religious people don’t need “belief”

    1. …and a missing closing double quote mark at the end of “belief.”

      Jerry, would you prefer to be notified of typos by a post to the list, private email, or not at all, or…?


  1. If you base what you believe to be the ultimate and most powerful facts in your life on something as weak as “I don’t care if it really is true, I’m going to pretend that it is,” then you’re a fool.

    And if you know that it’s not true but you still proclaim it so anyways, you’re a liar.

    In my experience, very few regular churchgoers have any doubts about the fundamental stuff. They may well struggle with inconvenient facts — “Why does Jesus let bad things happen to good people?” — but it never occurs to them to seriously question the core tenets.

    So, not only is Ms. Luhrmann very worng, but she’s calling huge swaths of sincere religious believers fools and / or liars. That’s not exactly a very polite thing for her to do…and yet it’ll be us atheists who get called out for being rude and strident.

    Go figure.



    1. Typical accommodationist blind spot. They seem incapable of understanding how patronizing they are towards the religious believers they are attempting to support. Granted, most of those believers will not hesitate to accept such support for various reasons.

      1. I’ve always found accommodationism to be a rather transparent and cynical expression of the sentiments offered in that great quote (probably mis-) attributed to Seneca the Younger: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”

        Seems to me that the accommodationists are just trying to further the utility of religion and thereby boost their own importance.

        But maybe they’re as sincerely deluded by their faith in faith as the faithful themselves….


        1. I don’t think this is even real accommodationism. It seems like it is a “close your eyes to everything except what makes you feel good”. They aren’t even trying to accomodate the doubting voice, just silence it with loud but serene music!

    2. About Ms. Luhrmann being wrong:
      In the brief excerpt quoted by Jerry, she manages the double feat of misrepresenting both Emile Durkheim and William Cantwell Smith. In the case of Durkheim — whose most obsolete and questionable work she gives the false sensation of paraphrasing — the juxtaposition of ‘anthropologists’ in the first sentence of the paragraph with his name in the second creates the impression that Durkheim was an anthropologist, or that his work was embraced by anthropologists. He was not, and it was not. In fact, the most consistent early criticism of Durkheim’s theses on religion came from seasoned field anthropologists. It has not abated.

    3. A central tenet of Bokononism, the fictional religion in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, is

      “Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”

      – where foma are defined as “harmless untruths”.

      A foundation of Bokononism is that the religion, including its texts, is formed entirely of lies; however, one who believes and adheres to these lies will have peace of mind, and perhaps live a good life.

      I think when this is on the table, it is a lot less harmful.

      One of my foma is that people are fundamentally well-meaning. It works most of the time.

  2. I read her article, and I would have to say it’s largely true for the church I grew up in (very conservative). The lifestyle was *much* more important than belief in God. In fact, God himself was rarely talked about or only in oblique terms. I’m sure that everyone did actually believe in God, but it’s also true that what they were really committed to was their family and friends and sense of community. The only thing I’d say is, I’m not sure they were doing it for “joy”. Most of them seemed to have little of that….

  3. It’s like they are all just making their own religion based on two/three/one character(s). Those who follow the Bible literally end up truly horrific people by todays standards, hateful, abusive, anti-science and want to restart civilisation, but this is impossible to live by giving the contradictory philosophies of the different authors, they end up like HAL 9000 (read/watch 2010: Odyssey two, both bloody good, for more of this explanation). Some others believe they follow the Bible, but most of what has been discovered to be wrong has turned into metaphor, lost in translation. These people reinterpret it to mean what ever they want. Some others acknowledge that the Bible is out of date in it’s philosophy but “the message” of Jesus and the new Testament is what they follow, again these people reinterpret everything they want to suit their mental needs.

    It our understanding of theistic beliefs we atheists are most judged for. It is impossible for us to be accurate, due to every theist having made up the details of their own religion. Our criticisms can always be ignored.

  4. There are two things that jump out at me in Luhrmann’s article. First that she identifies her questioners as “university-educated liberals” (therefore natural thinkers) and second that she advocates that one ought to silence intellectual query as the woman she quotes did when she decides to go ahead and accept things on faith despite her reason by putting aside…”her intellectual puzzling over whether and in what way the invisible agent was really there”.

    Besides the faint whiff of anti-intellectualism the whole piece seems to give off, these examples also suggest that the only way we can accept religion is to just turn off our minds and feel the love.

    Forget trying to silent that voice in your head that is telling you this is BS by putting science and religious doctrine together (that didn’t shut that voice up enough) and it feels too icky to just listen to that voice and leave religion so just don’t listen anymore….turn off your brains and silence the voice of reason by saying that voice is just silly.

    It’s probably the most pernicious of all arguments.

  5. “But secular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. That’s part of our folk model of the mind: that belief comes first.”

    I sense that Luhrmann is confusing here trivial observation for something profound. She is right that the secular obsession over “What is our evidence that there is an invisible agent who has a real impact on our lives?” is not the obsession of believers. Such questions are, at best, afterthoughts for believers, and even then usually forced on them from outside. She is right that there is no “why” to most people’s belief in God. The “why” is, as JC says, indoctrination. That is the “why” we can observe from the outside. But there is no intellectual “why” for the believer. From their perspective, they simply believe. There is no “why” to it. They neither need nor seek a “why”. So that much is true, but the way she presents it is deeply misleading about the importance of that belief for which there is no “why”.

  6. Why then all the sects? Many Christian sects will have nothing to do with one another even though though they are indistinguishable to the casual observer. There are many Evangelical churches, for example, that are indistinguishable from Southern Baptists if you merely walk in and observe the proceedings, but they differ on some theological point like whether or not a Christian, once saved, is always saved. Based solely on opinions about such abstract points churches will call the others heretics. Even the named brands can not stay together… there are a number of flavors of Baptists even. The ever forking tree of churches is based on beliefs, each branch marks the lack of resolution of a dispute over some point of belief. These forks have real consequences in the world, people pack up and leave and go to a different church, churches lose money, etc.

    1. “One devout woman said in a prayer group one evening: ‘I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.'”

      At the church my wife attends, to become a member you have to sign a document saying that you believe a whole list of propositions. I do not think formal declarations of beliefs are all that rare. Does Luhrmann think everyone just lies on these?

      At the church I grew up as a child, saying what this woman said would have you ostracized, at a minimum, and if you were teaching this to others, rather than just whispering it in a corner, odds are proceedings would be started to have you “disfellowshipped”. If a minister said this, they would be summarily fired. They would not even make it to the next Sunday.

  7. “I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.”

    One reason why believers believe, is that to not believe promises little satisfaction. It is a scary place, a land of the unknown, of darkness.

    And atheism has not done much to provide illumination to that void. We have been very good at offering rational argument to the premises of religion, but we don’t do a lot to communicate the benefits of atheism.

    We should be talking a lot more about these benefits – like no longer living in constant fear of sin or of judgement day. No more guilt.

    We should talk more about the experience of the epiphany seeing reality in a new and more satisfying way; about how exhilarating is this new-found freedom; about how ethics-based morality is more satisfying than morals based on dogma; that living in a world in which there are no taboo subjects, no mind control is liberating to the spirit.

    Even the crass benefits are substantial – no more tithing, no more pressure to donate to the church. The sweetness of sleeping in on Sunday morning!

    Believers will not know about these benefits unless we tell them about them.

    1. I see the point of how “feeling” vs “rationality” appeals to certain personality types – I know it’s a challenge for me to convince people who react this way because my comfort zone is arguing from reason not from feelings….but then again, should someone to come to atheism because it feels good or it’s the truth because if you’re all about feeling good, dying and not going to heaven or anywhere or getting reincarnated or haunting people as ghosts, is pretty hard top in the feel bad department and I suspect those people will never embrace the painful truth.

      1. How does one even begin to argue from feelings?

        Atheism is a conclusion based on looking for evidence and not finding it. It is a conclusion based on reason. You can’t feel yourself to it.

        1. Oddly some people do….I’ve seen them at work. Will not be convinced of rational arguments based on how those arguments feel and it is only when you cage them in how it will feel to change is how you get them to accept the change.

            1. Blind faith in ‘belief’ — sans supporting evidence — causes me to ‘feel’ that something(s) is intolerably insufferable.

        2. I think a lot of people “feel” themselves to atheism, in that they simply cannot believe the stuff they’re being told. The stories you see on the net by people who, when they were taken to church as children, were amazed that anyone believed all the stuff they were talking about. Without actually reading all the atheist literature explaining how these things aren’t possible, they just felt that it couldn’t be true and never believed it.

          1. No, I can’t agree. One does not need to read a single book about atheism to exercise reason. Those stories don’t make sense. They are illogical. They “feel” wrong because they violate what is known about he universe. It isn’t psychic or magic or emotive.

          2. I have to agree with gb.

            What you’ve described isn’t “feeling” one’s way to atheism. It’s simply noticing the contradictions in religious claims. Contradictions between other claims, and contradictions between what you’ve observed of reality so far.

  8. Ludwig Feuerbach said, “Religion is the dream of the human mind.” This is because man has psychological needs (ala Maslow’s hierarchy of needs)such as the need to belong. My mother and father both went to a Christian church religiously every Sunday. My father went because he enjoyed the social aspects of belonging to the church. My mother, who was very religious, took the Bible seriously and would quote from Paul often. She had a need to belong to God’s kingdom on earth and would defend the Word of God against anyone (myself included) who would take exception to it. For her, believing was like breathing whereas my dad never even listened to the sermons. Two people with two totally different philosophies of life and two different psychological needs with respect to religion.

  9. secular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. That’s part of our folk model of the mind: that belief comes first.

    And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches.

    In fairness, I think the empirical evidence shows that religious belief does not generally precede action. For example, crime rates seem pretty uncorrelated to the religious belief of the criminal.

    To the extent that religion doesn’t change how people behave in important social ways, I don’t really care about it. Let the RCC dress up in a special outfit on sunday, join his friends, conduct rituals where he stands up, sits down, eats, drinks, shakes hands, and donates money to some communical cause. Guess what – the local Pittsburg Steelers fan probably does exactly the same thing. In fact the “Steelers ritual” very likely involves far less healthy behavior – worse food, excessive alcohol drinking, etc.

    I’m really only concerned about things like: where did those donations go? Are you opposing sound science education? Gay rights? To the extent that religion does precede actions such as voting for Rick Perry, I do care very much about it.

    And I will bet that she did see religion influencing those sorts of behaviors, she just ignored it. She asked the wrong questions. Don’t go into a church and ask “do you really believe in God?” That’s not a behavioral question. Ask intstead somethnig like “would you vote for an atheist?” If you do that, I’ll bet dollars to donuts that you do indeed se a strong correlation between religious belief and action.

  10. “But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place.”

    There are no new insights here. She put a nice shiny spin on it, but all she seems to be saying is what has been said many times before. The majority of people go to church because life is often hard and they want solace, or at least the promise of it, and because they are scared of dying. Their church claims that the solace they seek can indeed be had, and an afterlife too. If you just let the church guide you.

    The majority of people wouldn’t go to church unless they believed, to one degree or another, that what they sought was actually possible to attain. And that entails belief in god and certain abilities attributed to him.

    I am sure there are people that go to church regularly who don’t believe any of the religion’s claims. But that group is not significant when talking about general characteristics of religious believers.

  11. I have no doubt that what she says is true…for some religious people. Sure, for some belief isn’t important and it’s about emotion and community. But there are lots of other reasons people are religious. They want to believe they will live forever. They want to feel important because the creator of the universe is their personal BFF. They want a sense of purpose. They have been indoctrinated. Etc. Etc. Etc. Add your favorite reason here. There are lots and lots of them.

    What is surprising to me are the general claims she makes after studying one small religious group. It is the nature of religious groups to fragment into lots of dissimilar groups, each having members that are very similar. Wouldn’t a serious social scientist make observations of many different groups before making sweeping generalizations about the entire population?

    I would love to see her study of why people use personal computers. After months of intensive study of a particular World of Warcraft clan, she would conclude that all the talk about Microsoft Office, email, online commerce and Facebook was wrong. All people who use computers care about is gaming.

    1. Indeed. But she would choose a clan that did what she does, so she’d conclude the internet is only used for sociological research and computers are only used for writing books and articles.

  12. “If you can sidestep the problem of belief — and the related politics, which can be so distracting — it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy.”

    Tanya Luhrmann

    “When you learn how to speak to a person’s conscience and circumnavigate the intellect, the subject of evolution seems to disappear.”

    Kirk Cameron

    These two quotes contain the same amount intellectual honesty.

    1. That quote from Luhrmann was probably the most infuriating and dishonest sentence in an essay overflowing with dishonesty . . . or self-deception. Her other three pieces in the Times were just about as bad. One positive note: The comments to this essay and the others have been about 80% to 20% against Luhrmann’s claims. I assume that the Times editors have noticed this but that Luhrmann has a contract for a fixed number of essays, or that the Times has a “facile accommodationism” quota to fill, and Luhrmann’s stuff will do.

      My comment (#87, 8:48 AM on May 30) was here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/30/opinion/luhrmann-belief-is-the-least-part-of-faith.html?comments#permid=87

      “The anthropologist who has gone native” is an old pop culture cliché, but perhaps that’s what has happened to Luhrmann. She spent a little too much time with those evangelicals who had gotten so good at the self-deceptive practice of putting the voice of their personal god in their own heads. And now, she has forgotten — if she ever knew — that “Is this god real? Is it a real voice? Can one have a deep, healthy personal relationship with an imaginary friend?” are valid questions.

      1. Oops, here is a better explanation for her self-deception / apologetics: Luhrmann had a four-year research fellowship at “Christ’s College” in 1985-89, and in 2007, she received a Templeton Foundation grant. The work product was titled “Spiritual Disciplines and their Sensory Consequences.” Now, Luhrmann is a skilled member of the Elaine Ecklund School of academic recycling.

  13. People here seem to be generally missing the point. Luhrmann is not arguing that religious people don’t believe religion, but rather that (for at least some religious people) belief is not the starting point. It’s a theory of mind that (to me) seems highly plausible as an explanation for how many people think.

    If I may attempt a more scientifically phrased explanation: the idea is that (for a significant proportion of people) the reason for religious belief is that it provides an after-the-fact justification for engaging in a specific, group-based, emotionally beneficial behaviour. It has huge benefits compared to other potential justifications:

    1) you don’t have to think about it, you can just accept a pre-packaged set of ideas that come with a stamp of approval from a trusted source (family and community);
    2) it further enhances the emotional benefit of religion by convincing the believer that the reason for engaging in it is much more than just emotional benefit;
    3) it creates the feeling/impression, at some level, that the justification is really the underlying reason for the behaviour, rather than being after-the-fact.

    It also has the disadvantage that it leads to cognitive dissonance in a minority of people, but this is just a minority and tends to be those people for whom benefit 1 above was not really a benefit to begin with.

    In summary (guessing at the numbers here):
    1) Almost all religious people do really believe.
    2) A majority of religious people do really think that belief is the primary motivation for their being religious.
    3) But when forced to reflect many admit that it isn’t really.

    1. I don’t think we’re missing the point. We get that point, and I think it’s pretty accurate.

      Where we disagree with Luhrmann is that we think it’s a problem.

    2. Right. Lots of believers have turned of their critical thinking machines so that they can feel the glow without bothering with the dissonance.

      And this is just fine with Luhrmann because… Joy!

    3. Echoing the other replies above, but it isn’t news to atheists that believers don’t arrive at religion through intellectual channels. Nonetheless, they have beliefs and if those beliefs die, the religious association tends to die too. The beliefs do sustain the behavior. And that’s a good thing!

      We think it is generally problematic to hold on to insupportable beliefs and to act as though they are true because it prevents one from judging the behavior and its consequences in an accurate way. Unexamined beliefs AND unexamined behaviors are both bad, or at least liable to turn bad. No one cares if you enjoy singing in a choir or going to potlucks, but no one needs religion for those things. We do care when your religious identity (also nationality, also ethnicity, etc.) makes you feel obligated to do certain things, whether they stem from explicit false beliefs or from a loyalty to that identity.

      I realize you aren’t necessarily advocating it above, but we should be clear that [unreflective] ’emotionally beneficial behavior’ and ‘justification after the fact’ aren’t ameliorating excuses, they are exactly the kind of things we want to discourage.

    4. So the question is whether or not to think of it as a problem. Most people here would agree that eugenics was a bad idea, and with it the mindset that any suboptimality in humans (such as below-par intelligence) is a problem – the fact that most of us are not geniuses is just an empirical fact about who we are and should not be thought of as a problem.

      But this puts us on a slippery slope. Bertrand Russel famously wrote “most people would die sooner than think — in fact they do so”. But how can one justify thinking of this empirical (biological) fact about our human identity as a problem? Why should humans be obligated to self-reflect to the point of cognitive dissonance if they are not naturally inclined to do so?

      1. Obligated? Did someone suggest this?

        Or do you mean “Why should they?” Which would be answered “Because life on this little rock in space would be improved for all involved.”

        1. Sure, the world would be a better place. It would also be a better place if everyone studied some basic science, or learned to speak Mandarin, or read some Shakespeare. That doesn’t mean we should think of it as a problem when these things don’t happen.

          1. The problem isn’t simply that they’ve turned off their critical thinking machines. Period. The problems start when they go along with nasty hate-filled religious dogma because their machines are off and they can’t see the pain they’re causing and how selfish they’re being.

            Your “analogous” examples aren’t analogous at all. Not learning Mandarin doesn’t make one likely to support oppression or worse.

            I don’t really care how you got there, if you’re religious and you act on hate-filled religious doctrine, that’s a problem.

            Religion is a problem.

          2. We should think of it as a problem when the social/political/environmental consequences of willful religion-inspired ignorance are detrimental to us all. This is exactly where we find ourselves. It is not only a problem, it is a huge problem.

    5. This summary helped me, I find wading through religious bullshit tedious and my brain tends to wander a bit. So thanks.

  14. I understand where she’s coming from, I would have used the same argument in my religious moderate days. But in a sense I think you could use birthdays as an analogy. Birthdays aren’t ‘about’, in a primary sense, our birth. They’re for recognizing someone we care about; celebrating all sorts of rituals that have grown up around culture, family history, and personal preference; having fun; etc. People don’t tend to spend the day in deep contemplation of the truth claim of their birth, imagining what that was like. That would be kind of creepy. At most, we tell kids a story or two about “the day you were born” (A tradition I always appreciated, since my birth was way more exciting than my siblings, having been born in a birth sack to a brand new young nurse on the verge of hysteria because the doctor didn’t make it in time. Top that, youngest brother and your yawnerific breech birth! Although my mother always felt compelled to add, upon seeing me for the first time and not realizing I had a caul over my face, her first thought was “Wow, that’s the ugliest baby I have ever seen.”

    Even so, if we suddenly found out we were born a month later, or our friend had been making us celebrate his birthday in the summer because the weather was better then – it would make a difference. We’d either have to: 1) Acknowledge the day as a day meant entirely to celebrate symbolic values, without any real historical significance or 2) Change the date. But I doubt anyone would continue in exactly the same way upon that revelation.

    1. If religious belief was like birthday partying I don’t think there would be much to object to. There are few people who justify public policy positions on the basis of birthdays.

      1. Hmm. “Religion is like a big birthday party!” isn’t exactly the point I was trying to make, but that’s the problem with metaphors and analogies – you never know which features people will attend to. Typically, not the ones I envisioned. Ah well. Just another reason to add Intuition Pumps and Steve Pinker’s next book on writing to my reading list.

  15. This is the same problem as when discussing the boundary of science or “scientism” with philosophers. There are several sides to science as well as to religion, and many people love to stress one of those sides while neglecting the others to score a point in a discussion. And in the next discussion they may do it the other way around!

    “Science” is a (1) method of generating knowledge, (2) the community of scientists with their journals etc., and (3) the body of currently accepted scientific knowledge. (E.g., #2 is “compatible” with religion but #1 and #3 are not; #1 cannot “test the supernatural” but #3 makes it ridiculously unlikely that something supernatural exists. You see where this is going.)

    Likewise, “religion” is (1) a method of forming beliefs, (2) the community of believers with their churches, etc., and (3) certain sets of beliefs about the world around us, not just one of the three! Luhrmann simply does the same with religion that an accommodationist does with science: take one aspect of it and ignore the others.

  16. I doubt she’ll find many envangelical christians who would agree with her.

    Many of her statements simply make no sense – for example: “They are deep questions. But they are also abstract and intellectual. They are philosophical questions.” What utter nonsense. Asking someone if they have evidence for an imaginary friend is deep, abstract, intellectual and philosophical? What the hell does that mean? How is “where’s your evidence” in any way abstract? I think I’ll go for a walk and have a deep, abstract, intellectual, and philosophical pee.

    1. That’s the ultimate insult she is throwing at the religious: thinking is good only for us, the university-educated intellectuals. As for the little people, let them have their joy of communal gospel singing.

      1. Don’t be so harsh. Tanya can’t help it if she is one of the intellectually elite. What else can that type of person do except look down their noses at “we, the little people”.

      2. I think she’s actually advocation the “university educated liberals” become non thinkers – “one of us, one of us, one of us”.


  17. This sounds to me like the sort of elaborate solipsism you often find in highly self absorbed people who simply cannot understand that everyone else doesn’t see things the way they do. It is particularly easy to get away with when discussing a jelly-like commodity such as religion. I’d be happy to put $20 on the proposition that this is her own attitude to religion gussied up to look like sociology.

  18. “Believing in God is more than accepting the proposition that God exists. Still, it is at least that much. One can’t sensibly believe in God and thank Him for the mountains without believing that there is such a person to be thanked, and the He is in some way responsible for the mountains. Nor can one trust in God and commit oneself to Him without believing that He exists: ‘He who would come to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him’ (Heb. 11:6)'”

    (Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil. 1974. Reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1977. p. 2)

  19. Luhrman might have had point if she’d written only that theists are usually uninterested in really and truly critically examining their religion.

    But that would not have been a profound insight. Further, theists are uninterested in said enterprise because they want to pretend that the beliefs they’ve been indoctrinated to hold are somehow justified. They sense that asking the questions those “university-educated liberals” ask would spell trouble.

    Luhrman’s thinking is also too binary. Two words: cognitive dissonance. Many theists both believe and disbelieve. They take their feverish infant to the ER but they’ll also tell you they sincerely believe faith will move mountains.

    PZ’s takedown of this is also quite good. I like his metaphor and especially the way he demonstrated that Luhrman’s “practical questions” are in truth the utmost in silly impracticality.

    1. Oh, and I like PZ’s note about the “politics” of belief being so “distracting”.

      What an incomprehensible thing to say. If it weren’t for all the politics of belief we’d all likely leave religion alone. The politics are the crux of the matter.

  20. I just read through the comments to Luhrman’s article. Thoughtful refutations, most focusing on one of the issues brought up in Jerry’s blog post or in this erudite discussion thread, far outnumber supportive affirmations. The most recommended (by readers) comments are overwhelmingly in disagreement with the author.

    I suppose this is really more evidence that university educated liberals read the NY Times.

  21. That was a thorough debunking of Luhrmann’s claims indeed. I can hope it is book material, meaning we have a good book to look forward to.

  22. Luhrmann’s experience with evangelical churches “it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good” is far different from mine in which God is good and the world, and all people, are evil.

  23. Dr. Luhrmann confuses “faith without belief” (an oxymoron) with what really happens, i.e. belief without evidence. To suggest that the majority of religious people in the US, especially evangelicals, are hidden agnostics who adhere to their churches for social reasons, is factually incorrect. But all the examples that she gives actually illustrate the well known fact that the religious are not concerned with evidence for God, other than their internal feeling. So yes, it’s primarily the joy that keeps them in their churches, but it doesn’t mean that they lack belief.

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