The trouble with religion, critics argue, is that it is not rational. Believing that God is powerful enough to raise somebody from the dead is not rational. Thinking that you can end a drought by praying for rain or that asking God nicely to divert a tornado from your neighborhood is similarly irrational.
Criticisms arguing that religion is irrational have been voiced in recent years by writers such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. How is it possible, they ask, for so many people who otherwise claim to be reasonable to be religious?
How indeed? Is thinking that prayer can make one's crops better any less nonsensical than a person in the Middle Ages asking the saints to make the chickens lay eggs? If a student were to ask a lucky horseshoe for help on an exam, wouldn't that be about as effective as asking God for assistance?
The United States is puzzling in this regard. It is one of the most highly educated countries in the world. And yet it is also one of the most religious. The vast majority of Americans say they believe in God, pray regularly, and believe in an afterlife despite the fact that we also pride ourselves on being reasonable.
The US may be unique in this regard, but the question pertains to people in other highly educated societies as well. Although the percentages who regularly attend religious services in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom are lower than in the United States, large minorities or majorities in these countries claim to believe in God. How do they reconcile their religious faith with rationality?
Social scientists have tackled this question in several ways. The answer typically given goes something like this: People are gullible and religious leaders play on this gullibility. When religious leaders hammer home the argument that God exists often enough, people begin to believe that argument. Believers then protect their faith that God exists by isolating themselves from people who deny that belief. Or they compartmentalize their faith from the parts of their thinking that depend on rationality.
On the surface, these arguments make sense. But they fall short on two counts. They tell us that people are religious but they say almost nothing about how people are religious. And they falter in studies that actually test them empirically. For example, they are hard to square with evidence that religious people actually have a lot of contact with nonreligious friends, neighbors, and co-workers.
A closer look at Dawkins and company's arguments suggests a different way of tackling the problem. Their argument about the inherent irrationality of religion emphasizes the similarities between religion and superstition. Religion is most irrational, in their view, when people claim that the supernatural has somehow intervened in the natural order - or when events that have reasonable natural causes are attributed to supernatural intervention.
But is this actually how people talk about their faith? Or do people of faith avoid making claims that critics would argue are irrational?
To find out, several researchers and I conducted open-ended interviews with 165 people in which we asked them to talk about such topics as God, prayer, natural disasters, personal tragedies, death, heaven, and the relationships between religion and science. We selected people not knowing anything about what they might say but deliberately included as much diversity as we could. The interviewees lived in 32 different US states, included equal numbers of men and women, ranged in age from 18 to 86, and were affiliated with 33 different religious denominations and traditions or were religiously unaffiliated. They also varied in racial and ethnic characteristics and some were recent immigrants. Nearly all had at least some college training and a majority were college graduates.
We paid particularly close attention not only to what people said but also to how they said it. The tools we used were drawn from discourse analysis and cognitive anthropology. Discourse analysis emphasizes the subtleties of speech, such as register shifts and intensifiers, and how the language devices used conform to social norms. Cognitive anthropology emphasizes the natural schemas we use to organize thought, such as distinctions between physical objects and mental states, and the ways in which domain violations and metaphoric juxtapositions accomplish cultural work.
Our hypothesis was that people would talk in ways that avoided making claims about religion that violated commonsense norms of reasonableness. A second hypothesis was that people would employ subtle language devices that enabled them to imply certain things about God or prayer or heaven without actually making explicit statements that might be difficult to defend logically.
The God Problem reports what we found. I show through the numerous examples that surfaced in our interviews how ordinary people actually talk about their faith - what they pray about, what they see and hear when prayers are uttered during religious services, how they think about prayer and healing, what their understanding of heaven is, how they explain natural disasters, and how they reconcile their faith with science.
The evidence suggests that commonsense norms of reasonableness powerfully influence how people talk about their faith. People seldom claim that God actually intervenes in the natural order at all, especially for such trivial requests as finding them a parking space or even for truly significant needs such as healing someone who is seriously ill, even though they do pray and consider prayer important. The language in which God is discussed implicitly anthropomorphize God by suggesting that God can only think about one thing at a time or influence feelings from a distance better than physical objects, and at the same time the language implies that God is all-knowing and powerful.
Discussions of heaven are particularly interesting. People talk about heaven in ways that acknowledge their lack of information about it but that use quoted speech, children's songs, and even humor to express what they believe. Quips about people wearing name tags in heaven or getting bored singing with the angels strike a delicate linguistic balance with expectations about what is and is not reasonable to say.
In sum, the language in which ordinary people talk about their faith bears little resemblance to what Dawkins and company discuss. The language, though, does suggest that people of faith have implicitly bought into the idea that a lot of what religion could be about is indeed irrational.
Does this mean that religion is somehow becoming a weakened and watered down version of what it once was? Our interviewees were reluctant to say much about hugely miraculous instances of divine intervention. They nevertheless had little trouble believing that God and heaven exist and that prayer is meaningful. They were able to express their faith in ways that seemed perfectly reasonable.