It is a distinct honor when someone as lettered as Leon Wieseltier takes one on in public, as he does in “Dumbing Religion Down in the New York Times,” published October 24 in The New Republic. He does seem to have written this essay in one of his grumpier moods. He accused me of proselytizing for religion (or, to capture the tenor of the critique, of turning The New York Times into a Pentecostal tent revival, as one of my own readers, Jon Bialecki, pointed out). That’s not my understanding of the intent of my columns or of my work. I see myself as pointing out that an activity which makes many readers of The New York Times spit nails—or at least shake their heads in bafflement—has something to recommend it. I mostly ignore the politics because, while there is much to say about the political swing of many evangelicals, sharp writers like those who appear in The New Republic and The New York Times already say it well. But there is nothing inherently right-wing about evangelical religion and there are a lot of left-wing evangelicals to prove it. My goal, instead, is to follow the lead of one of the great founders of anthropology, Emile Durkheim, who said that we could not understand religion if we began with the premise that religion was founded on a lie. He did not mean that God was real (he was a devout atheist). He meant that if we wanted to understand why religion is so palpably important to so many people, we need not to begin with the assumption that they are idiots.Read the rest of Odd to each other.
Tanya Marie Luhrmann is the Watkins University Professor in the Stanford Anthropology Department. Her books include Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft, (Harvard, 1989); The Good Parsi (Harvard 1996); Of Two Minds (Knopf 2000), and When God Talks Back (Knopf 2012). In general, her work focuses on the way that objects without material presence come to seem real to people, and the way that ideas about the mind affect mental experience. She trained at the University of Cambridge (Ph.D. 1986), and taught for many years at the University of California San Diego. Prior to coming to Stanford she was the Max Palevsky Professor and a director of the Clinical Ethnography project in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago. She tweets at @tanyaluhrmann.
Posts by Tanya Luhrmann:
I would like to continue the discussion of modernity and the problem of belief, which, like Danilyn Rutherford, I do not regard as a no-fly zone.
The gist of this fine book recounts a story of modernity that is imagined as a process of human liberation from false belief and drab materiality through the encounter between Dutch Calvinists and the inhabitants of Sumba, some of whom are Catholic, and some not. The Sumbanese use scripture for divination, presume that prayer produces material results, and think that words have real and inherent power to act in the world. The Calvinist reformers do not—they insist that language is the pure and transparent expression of inner thought, and believe in sincerity, not in magic.Read the rest of Reconstructing belief.