Two thumbs up for How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others by T. M. Luhrmann. Anthropology.
It’s really nice to be astonished by something different. This book is—stay with me here—an anthropologist’s analysis of the cross-cultural human ability to make the supernatural or spiritual feel present in our lives by using certain practices (for example: ritual, prayer, meditation, spiritual reading); and about how this is an actual skill, which some people struggle with, and some people do quite naturally, and which can be improved with practice. She does not actually come down on the point of whether the supernatural is or is not real: she is an anthropologist, not a spiritual leader. So, if you have absolutely never questioned the existence of gods or spirits, you will be offended by her agnosticism; if you are a hardcore atheist you will also be offended by her agnosticism; in either case, if you approach this with a spirit of curiosity, you will find something here that helps you understand other people’s experiences better. If you, like most people, fall somewhere between those extremes, and are simply interested how humans human, you will find much food for thought here. I recently read Junger’s Tribe, an interesting book but intellectually very sloppy. Luhrmann’s book, by contrast, is refreshingly rigorous: she is gathering information as broadly and methodically as she can, analyzing the data, testing and rephrasing her hypothesis. It is fascinating. If the sample paragraph below doesn’t scare you off, read it.
These observations suggest that those who are religious behave as if they have a faith frame as well as an ordinary set of expectations about an everyday world: a mode of thinking in which gods and spirits really matter, and a mode of thinking about the ordinary world of rocks and dogs and what to buy at the store. I use the word “faith” here, because belief is a promiscuous word. “Belief” refers to any kind of claim, intuitive or deliberative, that there might be an invisible spirit. By “faith” I mean a sustained, intentional, deliberative commitment to the idea that there are invisible beings who are involved in human lives in helpful ways. To operate in the real, everyday world while maintaining the idea that here is an invisible other who takes an active, loving interest in your life, people of faith adopt a mode of thinking and interpreting, a set of expectations and memories, in which gods and spirits matter.
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