The God Problem: Expressing Faith and Being Reasonable

Do religious adherents need sociology's help to defend themselves? Steve Fuller has his doubts

October 25, 2012

This book begins from a remarkable and possibly insulting premise: that the weight of anecdote, hearsay and allegation concerning the unreasonableness, if not irrationality, of religious believers in the US requires a distinguished sociologist to determine if that is indeed the case.

Although Robert Wuthnow, perhaps America's leading empirically minded sociologist of religion, brings nuance and sympathy to the project, future historians will look upon this work in the same spirit as we regard studies from, say, 70 years ago that earnestly showed that, contrary to its reputation, homosexuality is not a pathological lifestyle bent on destroying civilisation.

A striking feature of the emergent New Atheist movement - which, as Wuthnow observes, extends beyond academic debunkers such as Richard Dawkins to self-styled muckraking journalists - is its tendency to decontextualise the words and deeds of religious believers, especially when they deviate from acceptable patterns of discourse and behaviour. Critics typically do not interact sufficiently and openly with religious believers to enable them to provide a credible context for what the critics witness. Wuthnow remedies that deficiency by synthesising a broad range of survey and interview data that address issues such as the efficacy of prayer, the existence of heaven and the prospects for salvation. The results do not strike this reader as particularly surprising but, I suppose, they had to be stated.

The key finding is that people of faith understand exactly how their beliefs differ from those not of faith and can justify them in quite sophisticated ways, although typically without learned theological reference. Perhaps that refusal to invoke any academic authority for their beliefs contributes to the appearance of believers as naive or uninformed. But most of Wuthnow's accounts also suggest that people of faith really "mean" what they believe, and that secular people may believe something similar but talk about it differently. In the end, what is the difference between a believer's "openness to God" and a non-believer's "openness to the evidence"? The answer lies in judgement calls and how they are justified - but not the view that there are standards that transcend the mundanely human.

What may well be this book's most disturbing feature is a subterranean sense that one need not believe what one knows. Religious believers know how the secular world works, yet they openly reject its principles without compromising their ability to function within it. For example, contrary to popular secular opinion, an increasing number of religious believers around the world are moving into scientific fields, especially medicine and engineering. They learn the received wisdom of the scientific establishment about, say, evolutionary biology without necessarily having it affect their worldview. Given the strong division of labour in science, in which professionals are required to justify their findings only in terms of ongoing research in their fields, the strategy works perfectly well, escaping the muckrakers' gaze because science publishes only what can be defended, not what is believed.

If we lived in a truly liberal society, we would not need The God Problem. Nevertheless, Wuthnow's project falls within the original remit that emile Durkheim set for sociology - namely, to normalise practices that might be otherwise rejected as deviant, in the name of fostering greater social integration. (It is worth recalling that Durkheim was an assimilated Jew.) But this book implies something quite interesting: a generation or two ago, Wuthnow's study would have been seen as unnecessary, since publicly affirmed religious belief was, if not expected, certainly tolerated in public life. A deeper sociological analysis might consider whether the perceived decline in the US' global significance is the source of a felt need to scapegoat otherwise normal features of American life as somehow holding the nation back from realising its full potential.

The God Problem: Expressing Faith and Being Reasonable

By Robert Wuthnow

University of California Press

344pp, £24.95

ISBN 97805204280

Published 7 September 2012

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