This past April, Tanya Luhrmann—the Stanford anthropologist—was invited by the New York Times to contribute a series of Op-Ed guest columns based on the recent publication of her 2012 book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. Luhrmann’s work has been lauded for its unusually judicious and refreshing approach to understanding the nature of American Evangelicalism; unusual because Luhrmann does not succumb to the typical secular biases and downward-looking smugness that all to often skews academic work on the subject, and refreshing because Luhrmann genuinely hopes to understand Evangelicals not simply by observing them, but also by inscribing herself within the spiritual practices of evangelical communities.
Yet Luhrmann’s Op-Ed pieces offer something more substantial than simply a prosaic description of her Evangelical encounters. They suggest rather the possibility of mutual understanding and respect between Evangelicals and secularists. In her first column, “How Skeptics and Believers Can Connect” (April 5th), Luhrmann argues that despite the common punditry of an ever-growing political divide between believers and unbelievers, these groups are tied together by similar doubts, anxieties, and yearnings. Both deal with life’s uncertainty through meditation, keeping journals, and going on retreats. The human condition, Luhrmann argues, provides a point of overlap where secularists and believers can carry on a conversation and learn from one another about their common spiritual yearnings.
Luhrmann’s April 13th column—“When God is Your Therapist”—pushes this argument further: The believer copes with anxiety by turning to God, while the secularist consults a therapist. Like talking with a therapist, prayer involves a back-and-forth conversation (only this time with God). As with therapy, members of evangelical prayer groups are encouraged to share their burdens with others not for intellectual reasons, but rather for dealing with pain. Luhrmann’s comments here are clearly intended for a secular audience. This perhaps explains why she avoids the old argument that therapy is simply an ersatz form of religious confession and hence mimics prayer and not the other way around. On the side of the believer, perhaps this alternative narrative provides a way to find common ground with secularists. We all have our priests.
If we accept Luhrmann’s argument regarding the structural similarities between prayer and therapy, we ignore, so says the unconvinced secularist, one obvious fact: The secularist talks to a therapist who actually exists and is therefore rational; the believer prays to God, who either does not exist or about whose existence we cannot have certain knowledge, and therefore is irrational. But in “Why Going to Church Is Good for You” (April 20), Luhrmann contends that such an argument overlooks the purpose of prayer, even if the beliefs motivating it are philosophically suspect. Based on her experiences in Evangelical churches, Luhrmann understands prayer and other spiritual disciplines as an imaginary means to actualize a healthier human existence. Although she is at pains to admit it, Luhrmann suggests that statistical data demonstrates that regular involvement in church prayer groups have a placebo effect tied to increased physical health (similar statistics have been used to justify marriage). But the larger point is clear enough: Secularists can learn something from Evangelicals; social support can help facilitate better health.
How far must secularists go in their attempt to be open-minded towards Evangelicals? What about Right Wing religious fanatics who believe they hear the voice of God? Or perhaps less extreme: How can we reason with those Evangelicals who say, “God told me to vote for Bush.” In her last column, “Is That God Talking?” (May 13), Luhrmann seeks to assuage this justifiable concern. She suggests that hearing voices is statistically quite common and only rarely (1.1 percent in any year) indicates schizophrenia. In her case studies of Evangelicals hearing the voice of God, auditory experiences typically involve mundane messages that are rarely commanding or demanding in orientation.
In keeping with her other columns, Luhrmann’s efforts here are intended to correct a secular bias or misunderstanding of Evangelicals. Luhrmann’s efforts might appear to be rather one-sided; some of her critics have suggested she is too sympathetic to Evangelicals. This raises the question, If secularists can benefit from understanding the faith of Evangelicals, what should Evangelicals find attractive about the practices of their fellow unbelievers? Are there Evangelicals interested in pursuing a project like Luhrmann’s? Perhaps this would require an Evangelical to write an anthropological study of American secularism with the attempt to adjudicate which secular placebos are deemed useful for their own tradition.