Robert Wuthnow, The God Problem

There is a new book by Robert Wuthnow, from Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, one of America’s leading sociologists of religion, called The God Problem: Expressing Faith and Being Reasonable. Wuthnow observes that while the United States is one of the most highly educated societies on earth, it is also one of the most religious. This one is an empirical study of how Americans can be both believers and rationalists at the same time. But the book is also a theological work of how “cultural theology” works.

From the blurbs:

America is a nation with both unusually high levels of educational attainment and unusually high levels of religious belief and behavior. The God Problem considers religion as people experience it, relying heavily on common threads from 165 interviews conducted in 2006-2007 that show how “well-educated, thoughtful Americans have found a way of having their cake and eating it too: affirming their faith while also maintaining their belief in reason” (p.3).

Wuthnow’s approach relies on the earlier work done by many scholars and through popular surveys to measure religion, while also seeking to move toward new clarity through analysis of how people use language to overcome that which he terms the God problem – a seemingly paradoxical relationship between faith and reason. For example, in a chapter on prayer Wuthnow explains how six language devices – schema alignment, ontological assertion, contingency referents, domain juxtaposition, code switching, and performative competence – enable thoughtful people to pray without being drawn into deep theological considerations about the nature of the divine.

Rather than attempting to construct philosophically sound and/or theological deep answers to the problem of theodicy (why a good and powerful God allows bad things to happen to good people) most people simply deny that the divine is involved in planning events humans consider to be big scary catastrophes, and functions more like a “CEO who keeps the universe under control but lets people make their own decisions for good or for ill” (p.143). In a similar manner, most religious people believe that heaven exists and is a wonderful place yet limit any attempts to further explain that reality by using provisional language that often relies heavily on biblical authority and through appropriate expressions of doubt and uncertainty.

Wuthnow think the problem of how Americans can have dogmatic beliefs and at the same time be rational lies in language. For him, “the secret does not lie in mental compartmentalism, as critics of American culture sometimes argue, or in a failure of the educations system.” Nor does he think that the combination of faith and reason is wishful thinking, bad logic, or mindless intuitive yearning. His study shows that believers who use God language people do have serious doubts. So believers have two goals to maintain their devout belief and at the same time not sounding like an untutored bigot. Wuthnow places the line between Evangelicals and other true believers from Fundamentalist on whether one is willing to sound like an untutored bigot or idiot.

Criticism that religion is irrational have been voiced by the new atheists, but it appears the American middle class has managed to forge a path between fanaticism and atheism. They know, as Wuthnow claims, that while belief in God is often associated with irrational, uninformed, undemocratic, destructive, and fraudulent behavior, one shouldn’t assume that nonbelief is free from such ills. He gives the reader greater insight into how the average educated middle-class American thinks about religion. According to Wuthnow, the antagonism of academics toward religion isn’t representative of the general public. Generally speaking, the American middle class exhibits a laissez-faire attitude that is more conducive to frank discussions about faith.

The recent critics of religion are correct – there is a God problem. How can people accept God without being an idiot. So God is quite problematic, intellectually, morally- God is not the nice guy, religion is un-provable. So how do believing Americans seen well-informed, reasonable, and democratic

The recent dogmatic religion may be well versed in own religion but usually nothing else. They have shut out the last 200 years of the critiques of religion, the existence of other faiths, or even the challenge of art, music or science. They are not open to new ideas, do not advocate free inquiry, or pursuit of ideals. In general, they defend at all costs wisdom from the past. Religious believers who are conservative are by nature anti-democratic because democracy needs people to defend their faith through rational means. But in their case, they preach dogma that cannot be questioned based on Divine authority.

It is not impossible to be religious persona and well informed – think of Sir Isaac Newton but the approach of synthesis is not the current era.

Wuthnow also points out and should be noted that college does not make American’s more skeptical or losing faith. In the 1970’s when believers were first generation college it lead to a secularization but now in 2013, where students are second and third generation college – combining their faith and professional education is the norm.

So how do Americans believe?

First, religion gets watered down and shallow.-God is considered as a buddy and the Bible as instruction manual for a happy life. Believers in the US consider their conservative views as a form of positive thinking and popular psychology. When they say “we want a miracle” think of it as spoken by a football coach, it’s a pep talk. (think of all the Orthodox popular psych and tips for living)

Second, they do not really understand their religion. They have little knowledge of philosophy, theology, or the meaning of their words outside their utilitarian usage. And there is no incentive to be more thoughtful. America’s middle class are void of thoughtful reflection, oblivious to sound theological instruction, or simply lack good answers to the bigger questions that have no utilitarian relation to everyday life. (anyone teaching Albo or even Berkovits anymore?)

Wuthnow turns to linguistics and cultural sociology. He shows that everyday religious language is not set apart, we engage in multiple circles and have a heteroglossia of combining household language, science and religion in the same conversation. Wuthnow points to six phenomena that allow belief. (1)schema alignment- when asked to explain a concept it will always correspond to the givens of science. God healing or helping is always through the natural order.
(2)ontological assertion- we say we don’t understand God or no one really knows what these theological things mean.
(3) contingency referents- we did not do our part or other events interfered
(4) domain juxtaposition –prayer and science as two realms; or one is giving a halakhic shiur without reference to the outside world
(5) code switching- I take the religious language as a different code such as from my interior life or my spirituality.
(6) performative competence- the religious act was an end in itself.

Are Americans who pray about ending hurricanes nuts? No. They treat it as either ending through natural means, or we don’t understand but we are commanded to do it, we need to do our part to help and prayer reminds us, or the prayer serve to maintain a spiritual sense of providence. In sum, ”Middle class Americans have found a way to pray that neither violates their basic intellectual integrity nor threatens to be in any way socially disruptive . There is an implicit uncertainty.”
The key is to imagine God as a powerful and beneficent other without turning God into a magical image that insults an educated person’s intelligence. Not for a miracle but to give people strength, psychological not mechanical. Today’s believers are highly self-aware that anthropomorphic conversation with God is different than science.

To talk reasonably about God, Americans find ways to affirm that they believe in God’s existence, but at the same time steer clear of assertions that claim too much knowledge of God, or that make God too much like a human person, or that too dramatically contravene standard ways of thinking about the natural world and human behavior. (299)

Returning to the discussions of the importance of popular culture for those committed to faith, Wuthnow found that shifts in the discussion of religion often involve injecting humor to “break the spell.” They introduce something completely out of context, betraying ambivalence, discomfort, or uncertainty regarding a topic. Wuthnow’s study reveals a certain ambiguity about the faith that is more shaped by the shared vocabulary of popular culture than by Orthodox beliefs.

The “God problem,” as it were, is that affirming faith seemingly requires us to find ways to make clear that we aren’t bigoted, dogmatic, stupid, thoughtless, and heartless. In other words, one needs to find a middle path between dogmatism and atheism in order to be considered reasonable in American culture. According to Wuthnow, it seems that thoughtful, well-educated persons have figured out a way to be informed and devout by relying on multivocality—using the rhetoric of society’s pluralistic speech community—when discussing issues of faith.

From Peter Berger’s review:
Peter Berger- Why Americans Don’t Think God Talk is Weird

Robert Wuthnow says modern believers maintain a creative tension between the worldviews of naturalism and religion.

There are two polemical edges to the book. Less central, and mainly of interest to other social scientists, is Wuthnow’s suspicion of survey methods in the area of religion. Surveys rely on structure questionnaires; much of the time we don’t understand what the answers mean unless we actually talk to the people who gave them. (By the way, I share the suspicion—without denying that surveys, if used judiciously, can indeed disclose some religious realities.) Wuthnow uses a very sophisticated methodology of so-called “discourse analysis”—semi-structured interviews, followed by a careful examination of the language used by the interviewees. Essentially, this is the sort of approach used by anthropologists, leading to what Clifford Geertz (another Princeton social scientist) called “thick description.”

Faith in America (and by implication in any modern society) occurs in a context of culturally instituted “norms of reasonableness.” These norms are expressed in a discourse which does not presuppose supernatural interventions. Religious people do assume such interventions—indeed, they regularly pray for them—but they try to speak about them in terms compatible with the naturalist norms. While many people say that, in principle, they believe that God can perform miracles, they do not usually assume that he does so apart from natural processes. For example, religious people often pray for healing, and they believe that God may answer such prayers—but not usually by a miracle, but rather through natural processes of remission, or by the skill of a surgeon, or the efficacy of medication. Thus there occurs a “mingling of languages.” Needless to say, there are some religious people in America who refuse this mingling of discourses and militantly reject the naturalist one. But they are a minority, and even they will revert to the naturalist discourse if they find themselves in the emergency room of a hospital.

In other words, most people want to be “reasonable”—the opposite of being “wacko” or “weird.” As an example of something widely perceived as not being reasonable, Wuthnow discussed an incident that happened in 1985: The famous evangelist Pat Robertson claimed that his prayer caused a hurricane to alter its course away from his headquarters in Virginia. Andy Rooney, as a televised representative of the “norms of reasonableness,” called Robertson “wacky” and “crazy as bedbugs.” Another way of putting this is to say that Americans are religious without believing in magic.

Wuthnow makes an important point: While the schema of faith can persist and co-exist in the same mind with the schema of natural reason, it is the latter which is taken for granted in most of ordinary life. Wuthnow calls it the “default condition”—that is, one has recourse to it automatically and one falls back to it unless one can explain (to oneself as much as to others) why the religious discourse also applies. “Default” means that it does not have to be explained, it is simply given; it is the deviations from it that must be explained. If one cannot do this, one risks being seen as “wacko” or “weird” by others .

8 responses to “Robert Wuthnow, The God Problem

  1. Going by the descriptions of the research here and without having read the book, would it be fair to summarize educated American middle class people described here as essentially thinking of religion in terms of what religious concepts and practices do for them in their lives, and rejecting as childish most traditional notions about: (1) religion (e.g. miracles, traditionally understood as supernatural interventions, prayer, traditionally understood as being effective in producing non-psychological outcomes; (2) God (e.g. traditionally understood as omnipotent, wholly good, etc.), (3) Bible (e.g. traditionally understood as the literal word of God, infallible, describing historical events, etc).

    If that is true, then would it be fair to say that, regardless of whether these middle class Americans understand it in these terms, these middle class Americans regard traditional religion as dead or as belonging to an earlier era?

    • They think they are the tradition, they represent the mesorah. They speak the supernatural, the infallible, and the dogmatic but then never let you pin them down to the older meanings. They would even be insistent that unless you have a true belief you are heterodox, (wont be saved,) and dont get God’s providential blessing.
      They would reject you calling it childish, they would argue one of the six means to say that we dont understand or the realms are separate. they are keeping the eternal truths of God as buddy, life coach, and purveyor of popular psychology.

      • Thank you. Understood that they speak some of the language of tradition. Would you agree that according to the research if you catalogued their actual beliefs, cut through the six means etc., I don’t mean in an argumentative way or by asking them about tradition, but through an independent analysis of their actual beliefs regarding how the world works and regarding religion, then you would find that they essentially do not hold the traditional religious views.

  2. Rabbi Brill , I noticed the author did not consider the post-modern-new age options: that education can co exist with irrationality quite well. It’s like missing the elephant in the room…

    • Shaya,- the cultural approach is one of the many approaches of late modernity that you are calling “post-modern.” A modernist when confronted that religion is irrational would attempt to prove that it is rational or say your right it is not scientific rationality rather about a personal existential truth. A cultural approach asks is it rational? and instead of proving rationality dissolves the question into what Charles Taylor calls our “immanent frame” of meanings and moral orders.

  3. 1) Does item 5 mean that sociology of religion still has some use for Douglas’s application of Bernstein’s theory of restricted and elaborated speech codes?
    Are social theorists using Douglas at all to understand contemporary religion? She seemed to have been pushing back against the notion that a rationalized theologically explicated religion was somehow better.

    2) Do you think that halakhic/religious language and prayer is so linguistically and conceptually distinct for English speakers that it makes it easier to compartmentalize the two codes? (I used to listen to a lot of evangelical talk radio -which is admittedly not representative-and was always struck by the fluidity with which religious concepts enter regular language compared with what I am used to). Are modern Orthodox Jews in America dualists in sociolinguistic terms?

    3) Any sense about the lack of religious identity in mass produced popular culture. There are plenty of shows involving the supernatural, but they are not religious or are religious only in the Mitch Albom sense. Does this, more than political discourse, project the sense of what is reasonable?

    4) Regarding “norms of reasonableness.” Why is it reasonable to publicly oppose abortion rights on religious grounds and unreasonable to show up at work tell your colleagues that you almost got into a car accident but Jesus took the wheel and steered you to safety? It’s more reasonable to use faith to justify restricting other people’s personal liberty than it is to express gratitude for what you feel is a personal miracle? We tell people that faith is a personal matter but are uncomfortable with them expressing it in immanent personal terms, at the same time we publicly respect the institutionalized dogma of recognized faith communities.

    Is it really as simple as claiming that religion is recognized as a reasonable evaluative but not explanatory framework? Is this partly a consequence of the dominant religion in the US being one that lacks a religious metaphysics that supervenes on the physical world? Perhaps this is just a joke, but the idea that kosher is taken to mean blessed seems to reflect this. The idea that some food has metaphysical properties causally related to its physical properties seems foreign to mainstream Protestantism. Once the physical world is disenchanted religion can only explain what I value?

  4. Joshua Blumenkopf

    To say that the problem lies in language or that there are linguistic strategies which are used is interesting but does not resolve the issue of what people actually believe.

  5. In reading this piece a few thoughts come to mind.
    1. Many of the posts on this blog have a focus on language and linguistics in relation to how culture continuously develops. What I wonder is whether culture drives the language we use or whether the language used in society ends up defining the culture we experience?
    2. I think Wuthnow’s arguments about our audiences is highly crucial to understanding much of society today. I know that the language I use and the arguments I present are often different depending on my audience. And this is not because I don’t believe what I am saying but rather it is how my audience would perceive my ideas.
    3. This leads me into thinking about Tisha B’Av. The language of the day in most Orthodox synagogues includes G-d punishing the people for their sins, Sinat Chinam, etc. In a Post Holocaust world that works hard not to define tragedy as being a result of our sins, does the rhetoric of the day lose meaning and remain merely the words that seem most appropriate to say? For many teachers who speak of tragedy, we say those things in the context of the moment but also would not say the same in the private presence of someone who suffers. I am always struggling with this in working with the elderly Holocaust survivors. We work hard to mask the ideologies of the past in memorializing a day that is defined for all tragedy.

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