Last week Tanya Luhrmann, the psychological anthropologist from Stanford, gave back-to-back lectures at Harvard and Boston University. Luhrmann’s latest book, When God Talks Back, is getting a ton of publicity, so this was a bit of a rockstar tour. Except academics are always a bit more tame than rockstars. But it may be unfair to call Luhrmann tame when her past work has tackled modern witches and her current work tries to figure out how evangelical Christians come to perceive God as imminently real and close. In American culture, where taking God seriously is either a taboo or private matter, this sort of research is pretty edgy- maybe not St. Vincent edgy, but edgy nevertheless.
The entry point for Luhrmann’s research is prayer. Like any good academic, she starts by breaking her subject into different types. For Luhrmann there are four different types of prayer: adoration, supplication, thanksgiving, and confession. The writer Anne Lamott captured these categories a little more succinctly: Help, Thanks, Wow. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it captures some of the most typical ways in which people pray.
Last week I wrote about the rise of the Nones. The Pew Forum on Religion documented a rise in the religiously unaffiliated over the last five years. Many interpret this as a decline in religious authority, saying religion no longer holds the power it once had. Others see it merely as a shifting religious landscape, not necessarily a decline. You could take either side of the debate with good reasons, but the question is too complex to be resolved by any one set of statistics. So we turn to another set of data to gain a different perspective on the American religious landscape.
If you’re arguing with a friend about how religion is changing (do other people do this?), the Baylor Religion Surveys are a great resource to have in your back pocket. Beginning around 2004, a team of sociologists, religion scholars, and other researchers began a twenty-year process of tracking religious belief in America. Each wave of results focuses on different aspects of religious life. The first wave, published in 2006, sheds light on last week’s topic. In the latest wave, they didn’t just collect data on people’s individual beliefs, but also on how those beliefs impact their well-being, their entrepreneurial spirit, their belief in the American Dream, their sense of control… the list goes on, giving a fascinating picture of how deeply religion is interwoven with other parts of our lives.
Regardless of your position, the very mention of school prayer probably makes you feel a little angry. It’s emotionally charged, and perhaps that’s why, fifty years after the Supreme Court ruled that school-sponsored prayer was unconstitutional, the debate still rages on. But frankly, the debate is stale. The Pew Stats, highlighted in this recent article by Jaweed Kaleem, show that 57% of Americans still disapprove of the ruling. Positions haven’t changed in half a century: each side knows their position and everyone toes the line.
I’m not going to join the legions of bloggers weighing in on one side or the other, because after 50 years of debate, what can anyone on either side say that would change the other’s mind? Instead, I’m curious whether there’s anything fresh to say about the debate. Perhaps a fresh perspective is needed, not about which side is right, but on why the whole debate has been stalled out for fifty years.