Back on December 24, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece by Tanya Marie Luhrman, an anthropologist at Stanford. It was titled “Religion Without God.” The article’s general thematic was the rise (how measured was not stated) of what Luhrman calls a “kind of God-neutral” faith which, here and there, is openly and professedly atheist but engages in religious observance with (you might say) all the usual bells and whistles.
Today the Times published letters in response to the article. Of the six letters, four are in favor of “religion without God,” one is ambiguous, and only one opposes that view. A good sample of New York Times readers perhaps—predominantly wealthy and sophisticated?
Before Brigitte showed me the letters and caused me thereafter to trace the original, I was out trying to shovel masses of slush, what with the Weather undecided whether it wants to rain or to snow. And in the context of repetitive action, what with wondering where I’d put the salt, a phrase came and started repeating. “If the salt hath lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted?” In turn then I also traced that sentence to the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5, in which the profile of those destined for the kingdom of heaven is shown. Among these are the poor in spirit, they that mourn, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted, with emphasis on the last. They are the salt of the earth.
In her own profile, T.M. Luhrman describes her work as follows:
I use my training in anthropology to understand how people know what is real. I don’t pass judgment on whether they are right. Instead, I ask: what leads people to make the judgment that God was present? What do they perceive that makes them more confident or more uncertain? How have they learned to pay attention? I observe what people do, and I listen to what they say, and I search for patterns. I am also interested in what happens when that capacity to judge what is real gets broken, and how we help those who are in pain.
To know Luhrman’s sample is perhaps to know what Luhrman’s conclusions about the “real” will turn out to be. As for what is rising, and what is in process of decaying, for that perhaps a more robust study of culture in its cycles might be more instructive. What lies ahead, seems to me, is growing hardship for humanity. And hardship has a peculiar virtue in enlarging the inner perception of what is real and what is merely on the surface.