- Written by T. M. LUHRMANN, The New York Times, April 5, 2013
I DO not call myself a Christian. So maybe I should not have been surprised when I went on my first Christian radio show, a year ago, and the host set out to save me — live, on a nationally syndicated program, for 30 minutes. In the few seconds before I was connected, when I could hear him on the air but he could not hear me, he explained: “Listen, she’s not one of us. But I won’t fight with her.” It was a pledge he did not keep. Did I think God was present? My response, that I was speaking as a social scientist, interested him not at all.
I was on the show to discuss my recent book, which explains the way evangelicals learn to experience themselves in conversation with God. It argues that learning to hear God speak involves skill, that the skill changes the way people use and experience their minds, and that those who use this skill do so, for the most part, with sophistication. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the complexity of faith, and have tried to take theologically conservative faith seriously. As I did so, over a decade of research, I found myself more open to the idea of God, and more aware of the fragile human grasp on the real.
So it was a shock to have my host grill me about the state of my soul. It reminded me that one of the things that makes mutual respect between believers and nonbelievers difficult is that there is a kind of line in the sand, and you’re either on one side of it or on the other. Skeptics do this too, of course. I remember a dinner party where I was explaining my work among evangelicals to a colleague, and her face grew longer and longer until she said, “You talk to them?”
The in-your-face confrontation makes it that much harder to connect. The more my interviewer pressed me, the more my faith — such as it is — grew strained. I had come to live (theologically speaking) in a messy in-between. My interviewer wanted clarity. The more he put me on the spot, the more I wanted to say that I shared nothing with him and that his beliefs were flimsy dreams. And the more I resisted, the more he just got mad. He was determined. I was exhausted.
Anthropologists have a term for this racheting-up of opposition: schismogenesis. Gregory Bateson developed the word to describe mirroring interactions, where every move by each side makes the other respond more negatively, like those horrible arguments with your spouse where everything you say makes the other person dig in their heels more fiercely.
These days we Americans live not only with political schismogenesis, but also religious schismogenesis. The political scientists Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, in their book “American Grace,” found that “recent years have seen the sharpest points of disagreement between religious believers — of nearly all stripes — and those who denounce religious belief of all types.” The last few election cycles have made it clear that many evangelicals think that those without religion are dangerously wrong on many issues. A crop of equally committed atheists and agnostics have reciprocated, with vigor. Professors Putnam and Campbell find that it is the people at the extremes who are most engaged in the battle, but all of us see the battle lines clearly drawn.
I think that schismogenesis is responsible for the striking increase in the number of people who say that they are not affiliated with any religion. Since the early 1990s that number has more than doubled to 20 percent from less than 10 percent, and is close to a third for people under 30. We know that most of these people still believe in God or a higher power, whatever they mean by that. It’s just that they are no longer willing to describe themselves as associated with a religion. They’ve seen that line in the sand, and they’re not willing to step over it.
Yet believers and nonbelievers are not so different from one another, news that is sometimes a surprise to both. When I arrived at one church I had come to study, I thought that I would stick out like a sore thumb. I did not. Instead, I saw my own doubts, anxieties and yearnings reflected in those around me. People were willing to utter sentences — like “I believe in God” — that I was not, but many of those I met spoke openly and comfortably about times of uncertainty, even doubt. Many of my skeptical friends think of themselves as secular, sometimes profoundly so. Yet these secular friends often hover on the edge of faith. They meditate. They keep journals. They go on retreats. They just don’t know what to do with their spiritual yearnings.
Perhaps there is hope. Good marriages work because couples learn to repair, rather than escalate, their conflicts. Same-sex marriage and abortion should not be approached by drawing a line in the sand and demonizing everyone on the other side. We need to recognize something of what we share, and to carry on a conversation — and if we can keep the conversation going, we will, however slowly, move forward.
If we can’t, we’re in real trouble.
T. M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford and the author of “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God,” is a guest columnist.
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