Is the NY Times “Dumbing Down” Religion?

Somehow I missed Leon Wieseltier’s takedown of the Timesfavorite new religion writer in TNR a few weeks ago, even with the lively hed, “Dumbing Religion Down in the New York Times.” A must-read, as it turns out.

The focus of Wieseltier’s passionate annoyance, Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, responded a few days later in The Immanent Frame. And she was gracious, calling it a “distinct honor” to be lambasted by someone as “lettered” as Wieseltier (although calling TNR’s literary editor “lettered” is like calling the Dalai Lama a monk).

She defended her work with poise—while not quite answering Wieseltier’s criticisms. Or rather, she dug in even deeper. 

Luhrmann’s anthropological work focuses on the spiritual lives of evangelicals, and her columns in the Times, with headlines like “Why We Talk in Tongues,” and “Addicted to Prayer,” sound a consistent theme: pious evangelicals are not idiots, and what they’re doing works. And by “works” she means it’s good for people, makes them happy.

For Wieseltier, speaking in tongues is, well, babble—with all that implies, biblically or otherwise.

As for the health benefits of prayer:

She never explains how God differs from Pilates, or why “feeling good” should be the supreme objective of the soul. Are our “real-world selves” a cause only for celebration? Are we really so terrific?

For Wieseltier, this is the psychologizing of religion: it’s not about belief or inquiry, it’s about experience, heightened states. Or, as he puts it, “a direct road leads from William James to Joel Osteen.” 

As someone who once faced down a room full of dismayed div school classmates after suggesting that perhaps religion was not meant to make us feel good, I’m on Wieseltier’s side on this one.

But also, this reminds me of a great analogy offered by religion scholar John Peter Kenney recently. He talks about the way we read someone like Augustine, post-James—we look for the saint’s experiences, his feelings, as a way to understand his religion.

But this is a mistake, he says: “It would be as if a physicist, after much arduous intellectual effort, had a moment of insight into the nature of sub-atomic matter and felt a great thrill at this discovery”—and we rush for the keyboard to report that a scientist did a bunch of research and is, like, majorly stoked.

We can’t help it; it’s those coke-bottle glasses we’re issued when we get our “welcome to your culture” info packets. Not vision-enhancing, those specs.

Seems to me, though, that this public exchange between Wieseltier and Luhrmann is worth carrying forward somehow. Look to these pages for more in upcoming months.