Talking back about <i>When God talks back</i>

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Tanya Luhrmann. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.3.020


Talking back about When God talks back

Tanya LUHRMANN, Stanford University

Response to HAU Book Symposium on LUHRMANN, Tanya. 2012. When God talks back: Understanding the American Evangelical relationship with God. New York: Alfred E. Knopf.

These responses are terrific and fascinating—not least because two of them contradict each other directly, and on a matter of considerable importance. Pascal Boyer argues that my observations about American charismatic Evangelicals are generalizable: that everywhere in the world, the intuition that gods or spirits are present takes work. In this sense, they are conjectures. Anthropologists, he writes, tend not to recognize this because their subjects present belief statements as assertions and then the anthropologists describe them in turn as indirect reported speech: “among the Fang, only the ancestors can make one sick.” After reading all those ethnographies it is startling to encounter the claim that the existence of these invisible agents is not matter of fact. But Boyer points out that there is no other good way to make sense of all the work people do in ritual.

It is indeed a lot of work. Victor Turner’s (1969) account of the isoma ritual among the Ndembu takes him some forty pages to explain briefly. The ritual is performed when a married woman does not bear living children, and demands of the Ndembu that they search out a range of plants, dig a tunnel under the earth large enough that their subjects can crawl through it, build a seclusion hut, and then gather the community together to perform a set of actions so complicated that the reader comes to conclude that Turner’s ethnography is in fact truncated, not stretched out at length. Pascal’s own example is the Cuna shamanic healing, made famous by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1963), which recounts the elaborate chanting through which a shaman maps an analogy between a woman’s body and a series of mythical landscapes and describes the noisy battle through which warriors fight the army of a goddess to recoup the soul that has been stolen from the woman, and so enable her baby to be born. Anyone who goes to a lowly Sunday morning gathering like the ones I attended cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer labor involved in putting the service together (just putting out enough chairs is demanding enough). Boyer writes,

Many religious practices seem exceedingly odd if we see them as based on preexisting unproblematic beliefs. Once we realize that belief is a conjecture, these activities make more cognitive (and existential) sense. Initially, spirits may or may not be around. But after the whole night of ritual and the 10,000 verses, to some people at some junctures this conjectural representation becomes more vivid, more accessible, is associated with actual experience, is given some explanatory power—in other words is potentially turned into what we commonly call a belief.

All that effort: it helps to make God or the gods real because it provides an actual experience of God’s presence.

But then there is Aparecida Vilaça’s essay, which seems to flatly contradict this account. She describes the start of her fieldwork among the Amazonian Wari’ in 1986, when the Wari’ were not yet Christian and shamans would work in pairs to cure people and to make sure that hunted game was safe to eat. “Unlike the Vineyard Christians, the Wari’ shamans did not undergo perceptual training.” She writes that one day in 2003, she asked a shaman if she could film a conversation with him about jaguars and their world. As they sat talking, other Wari’ joined them to listen. After a while, the shaman began to look to his left and talk in a low voice, and immediately everyone on that side scattered and shooed their children away. Vilaça inferred that invisible jaguars were present and arriving from that direction. Then the shaman reported the contents of his conversation with the invisible jaguars to Vilaça. “No one, as far as I could tell, doubted the presence of the jaguars.” She writes,

It seems to me, then, that questions of the kind posed by Luhrmann vis-à-vis her material only make sense within a cultural frame informed by a very specific notion of personhood, as in the case of the American middle-class youths and adults making up the Vineyard’s membership. Only the self-contained individual as a starting point enables us to ask questions such as: is the intimate relation with God a hallucination (God is just mind) or a real dialogue (God is a real exterior being)?

I side with Boyer in suspecting that there must be something more complicated than Vilaça is describing—that the presence of these invisible spirits is neither as straightforward nor as unquestioning as she suggests. At the least, I suspect that there are rules that shape whether someone can identify the jaguar. The shaman’s assertion that the jaguar is present is surely such a rule. (If he indicates it, it is more likely to be true than if he does not.) I also suspect that there are cases of jaguar identification that are considered to be violations of the rules and are rejected by the community, perhaps as signs that the person who sees the jaguar is mad. And I also suspect that there is indeed some degree of training of the imagination, sensory and otherwise. The shaman surely undergoes such training. Training is reported by other ethnographers of the Amazon (e.g., Crocker 1985) and at the least, the society is investing quite heavily, from an economic perspective, in this religious expert whose judgments about the invisible they trust. Indeed, the moment where Vilacja describes a Wari’ man who told her that they had to clear out because of the changed expression on the shaman’s face meant that he was becoming a dangerous jaguar is perhaps like the Vineyard congregant, sitting down over two steaming cups of coffee in order to help convince himself that God is there and listening. Both can be seen as acts that help to persuade the actor that God is there.

Paul Stoller also seems to be on the side of the importance and commonality of the practice of inner sensory training and the need to use the imagination to experience the supernatural. He, too, seems to think that training the sensory imagination is important, even among non-Western people. After all, that is what his Songhay teacher told him. “You need to learn how to listen before you can hear the voices of the ancestors.” Stoller clearly thinks that the need to transform the impossible into the possible is as important and as difficult for Songhay sorcerers as it is for Evangelical Christians—and for that matter, for anthropologists. Moreover, he implicitly makes the argument here (and makes it more explicitly in his forthcoming work) that this training of the senses is entwined with the quest for well-being:

Adepts of many religious persuasions dedicate much of their time to a program of prayer and practice that might empower them to eventually hear the voice of God [and] attempt to develop their inner senses in search of short-lived ecstatic moments that profoundly enrich the meaning of their lives.

Stoller makes a specific point here that unusual experiences enhance well-being, but his aim is broader. We might use it to introduce a new hypothesis into the discussion: that religious practices—particularly these practices of training the inner imagination—promote well-being in a variety of ways by transforming the world, as it is, into the world as it should be or could be. To a limited extent, to be sure—but recognizably so nonetheless.

And yet Vilacja has a point, which is that there surely must be something different about the experience of God in a highly self-aware and secular society, pluralistic and scientifically minded, like the united States and in a small, isolated one in which all people more or less share a common faith. Karl Popper (and Robin Horton and Ernest Gellner, among others) famously contrasted these two types of societies as “open” and “closed.” Horton (1993: 222) summarizes their differences thus: “In traditional societies there is no developed awareness of alternatives in the established body of theoretical tenets; whereas in scientifically oriented societies, such awareness is highly developed.” It was the difference E. E. Evans-Pritchard used to explain why the Azande did not notice the contradictions or evident shortcomings of their witchcraft beliefs:

In this web of belief every strand depends upon every other strand, and a Zande cannot get out of its meshes because it is the only world he knows. The web is not an external structure in which he is enclosed. It is the texture of his thought and he cannot think that his thought is wrong. (1937: 195)

The Azande can question whether a man is a good diviner but not whether divination works; they can challenge the accuracy of the definition of a witch but not whether witchcraft itself is real. Of course the witchcraft is real. They have no way of imagining it to be other. This would seem to be Vilacja’s position.

In the past year, I have begun to do comparative work to shed light on some of these important questions of social context, belief commitment, and God. I have been in and out of Ghana and Chennai (India), spending time at new charismatic churches to understand the way the experience of God is shaped by local understanding. My work continues: for the purpose of this short discussion I will focus on my interviews with pastoral students now training at a school attached to one of the new charismatic churches. The church is in many ways like the Vineyard—a big, media-savvy, middle-class church that emerged in recent decades as an alternative to the mainstream churches, a church in which people seek close personal relationships with God and hope to encounter his supernatural presence in their daily lives. Indeed, in many ways, these new charismatic churches that now dot the Accra landscape are local responses to American Evangelicals (like Kenneth Hagin and Oral Roberts) whose ideas swept the local churches in the 1980s. The sermons, like most schooling in the city, are conducted in English. Much of the worship music is American—”Breathe” and “Trading My Sorrows” were only two of the American songs I heard in church—and American Evangelical writing floods the bookstores. When the pastoral students spoke about God, in many ways they sounded just like the Chicago Vineyard congregants, most of whom were about the same age. In fact, the pastoral students had been given a series of Vineyard-style lectures on how to be in a conversational relationship with God and how to hear God speak intimately.

And yet the differences were striking. Accra is halfway between the “open” secular, scientific society in which the Vineyard flourishes and the “closed” world of Wari’ shamanism. Anyone who joins a Christian church in Accra—and most of its citizens are Christian—has encountered the pluralism that comes with the acute awareness of other faiths. The traditional religion is very much alive in the local imagination, either as a source of demons or of healing, or both. But Ghana is what we might call, following Joel Robbins, a “never-secular” society. Atheism is rare. I systematically asked the pastoral students whether they had even met anyone who didn’t believe in God at all, and most of them said no. Those that had said they had met only one or two, and they clearly regarded them as aberrant.

Still, there was plenty of doubt. Almost every student said that there had been moments when he or she doubted that God was real. They said things like this (each comment comes from a different speaker):

It was some few years back. I used to. It was because of a difficulty. Sometimes I go through a lot of difficulties and I don’t seem to have provision, and so I become mad and I’m like, “God, you are selective. You’ve not blessed me, my family.” And when I do that I lose faith, and when I lose faith I can’t pray. And I become dry and become so unhappy. But it does not stay for long.

Sure. I ask questions. “Does God really exist?” You know. I’ve asked myself those questions. Yeah, sometimes I just have to dispose those thoughts from my mind and then just hold on to my faith. [But he has them once a week.]

I’ve had thoughts like that, but I have not seriously get into that.

I used to have that [doubt about whether God even exists] a lot. Maybe when, like, I’ve had a problem, some issue, and I feel afraid about it enough, or upset enough about it, and I didn’t see anything changing, like, well, maybe he is not even there in the first place. And then I cry, and then after that, just leave it. Somehow, it works on its own. Or somehow you don’t even see it again. It dies off, that feeling just goes away.

I used to. I used to. [How did you get out of them?] By the same word of God. You know, as you read the Bible, you listen to the word, you gain faith. You just—the faith comes ‘cause the word of God says it. The Bible says, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing the word of God.” So in those moments where you doubt, you listen to the word of God and you gain faith.

This is Evans-Pritchard doubt, although there is more doubt present than Evans-Pritchard allowed. When these pastoral students talk about doubt, they talk about struggling within those webs of their own commitments. They are embarrassed by these moments of doubts. “I just tell myself,” one man remarked, “look, you can’t doubt God.” They do not show off their doubts like Americans who are clear that they have thought long, hard, and logically about God before accepting that God is real. Far less often than Americans do they use belief hedges like “crazy,” which signal that their audience might think their views are mad. The hedges are not absent. One woman in Accra remarked:

I believe in the power of healing and I don’t like people to suffer. When I see someone, even a cripple, I feel I should go pray for the person to start walking. That’s the craziest thing that I’m praying about.

But neither are the hedges as rich as plums in plum pudding, as they are in the American narratives. Here is a Chicago Vineyard man on the Holy Spirit and on God:

I mean that sounds crazy in itself, it’s like the fact that there is somebody in you, when you’re with somebody you have a sense of security, you have a sense of like, um, not being alone, but like there’s somebody there for you, and you feel that when you’re talking to him. And I guess once you reach a certain point it just becomes a [way to] think about it. I’m walking down the street talking to God, like, out loud. People must think that I’m so wacky.

“Crazy” and “wacky” twice in three sentences: that signals a degree of expected skepticism about God that the Accra pastoral students do not display.

From the perspective of this data, Vilaca is right—in part. In this non-Western setting, nonclosed as it is, people do not doubt the system within which they think. They doubt their immediate judgment of whether God was there. “So sometimes I ask myself, ‘Am I really hearing [God’s] voice? Or is this an inner urge?’ It’s not so clear.” They doubt specifics and they doubt at moments of apparent failure. They do not want to doubt the whole.

Mostly when I have doubts, I immediately fall out—not fall out—I immediately stop doubting. Why do I do that? I do that because you can’t fathom the nature of God. His origin. If you put your mind to it, you will stretch your mind to the extreme of your mind. Yes, that is what I do when I begin having doubts.

This man has doubts, but he cannot bear them. He will stretch his mind to the extreme to make them go away.

Yet they do doubt, and my interviews also make it abundantly clear that Boyer is right, and that just as among my Vineyard congregants God must be made real when it matters for my pastoral students in Accra—and that making God real requires work.

You’re kneeling down, you’re wailing and crying and all of that. Nobody knows what is going through you. Nobody knows how you are feeling. Nobody knows—people just look at you—you know. But the experience makes God real to you.

This Accra woman hedges. She knows that what she is doing to experience God is odd to her audience: “people just look at you.” But the result of what she does then when she prays is important, because “the experience makes God real to you.” The man I quoted above makes a similar point:

He speaks to me in a still small voice. At first I was doubting. I used to doubt when I heard him speak. But the first time he audibly spoke to me, I had rededicated my life to Christ. And I vowed to live my life in such a way that it would be pleasing to Him and men. Then I got tempted. In the middle of being tempted, I just felt the Holy Spirit descend on me. I felt His presence all around me. My body temperature changed. It was suddenly so cold around me. Then He spoke to me. He said, “Stay with me.”

This is a man who insists that you should immediately stop doubting—and yet also asserts that the direct experience of God resolved his doubts.

I saw among the Accra pastoral students the same practices and techniques to experience God as I saw among the Vineyard Christians. I saw that they learned to identify—to discern—thoughts they took to be not their thoughts but God’s thoughts, and they did so in similar ways. I saw that they learned to imagine that God was present and that they used prayer practices to generate the intense emotional and bodily experiences they associated with God’s presence. And it was hands down obvious that their prayer practice—often for upward of an hour at a time—mattered to their sense that God was real in the moment for them. They believed in God in general, but it was when they were praying that they felt his presence vividly and powerfully.

Sometimes I will be praying. I can literally feel there’s a presence there. I’m not the only person there. When I devote time with God, I do mostly get that kind of feeling.

When I pray in tongues it builds up my faith personally. Any time I pray in tongues [my faith gets] stronger.

All this work, all this prayer: and sometimes God seems real and present.

And yet it is hard to avoid the sense that the capacity of these practices to make God’s presence real in some sense matter more to the Americans, precisely because their doubt is sharper and their sense of alternatives to faith more acute. At least, Americans are more likely to tie a belief-assertion to a sense of God’s presence than the Accra pastoral students, who in general do not need to discover, in the face of their skepticism, that God is truly real. Here for example is an American who became a Christian but with some hesitation (his girlfriend wanted him to convert) and attributes his deep awareness of God’s reality to the sensory experience of God when other people prayed for him:

So they started praying for me, and I had this, it feels like, it doesn’t feel necessarily like electricity, but it feels like your body would be, like, touched by some kind of extreme power and you’re just shaking, like you just can’t handle all this stuff that’s being poured into you, and all they’re saying is come on Holy Spirit and fill him up to overflowing…. And, like, in that I felt, I felt like there was somebody else in me, like, dwelling trying to get out to this extreme degree, and I was just overwhelmed in it…. I was just overcome wwith everything…. Things just kept piling up to verification that God does exist, like I knew after I got prayed for that God exists, like, in power, and He still is here today.

There is a theoretically important observation here that speaks to the question Annelin Eriksen and Ruy Blanes raise: what is American about this Vineyard church? My work suggests that there is a direct relationship between the explicit importance given to the practices that make God real and the vulnerability of the belief stance within the larger social world. Even in a social world with an apparently unquestioned belief in invisible spirits, a society goes to considerable effort to persuade people that the spirits are real enough in the moment to intervene for the one who prays. one society will create shamans who are carefully chosen and apprenticed, shamans who are supported by others in the society and recognized as experts who can draw the spirits out and make them active. Another society will create priests who are trained and tested and supported by the full weight of the church institution, with buildings built to draw God’s presence and make God care so that when you pay the priest to pray to release your father’s soul from purgatory, God will respond. But when belief is weak or threatened—when there are many sensible others who believe differently or not at all—then the need for the intense work to make God real will be more marked, more recognized, and more articulated as a means to know that God is real. That is what I see already in the comparison with the Ghanaian pastoral students. The Americans are more excited by the practices through which they feel God’s presence directly and hear his voice, and what enthralls them is the eye-widening recognition that God is real. The Ghanaians love to pray, to be sure, and they talk about how God feels real to them (sometimes) during prayer. But the Americans assert more clearly, more explicitly, and more defiantly that they believe because they have felt.

It is also true that the Accra pastoral students experience God somewhat differently than do the Vineyard congregants. Again, I am at early stages of the research, but I raise the issue because it speaks to the puzzle posed by Timothy Jenkins about the stability of experience.

There are real difficulties with any empirical reliance on the notion of experience, despite its accepted status in so much psychology of religion, because experience is a thoroughly elusive notion, not least in the puzzle of whether experience is ever present to the person who claims to have it: what is experienced is constructed prospectively and retrospectively using shared categories.

Let me suggest here—and really, this is the ultimate point of my current work—that even when theology is more or less shared, different assumptions about experience itself (in particular, different assumptions about mind, self, and mental action) will shape the way people remember and report an experience of God and, arguably, the way someone responds in the moment in the first place. Spiritual experience is largely a metacognitive experience: a reflection on reflection. People pay attention to certain mental events and code them as significant, and dis-attend to others, partly as a result local cultural invitations. Probably, those attributional patterns shift responsiveness in the moment as well as reports about what may have occurred.

Here, for example, is an account of the back and forth dialogue as prayer as reported by one of the pastoral students:

So I was lying on my bed, and then I started talking to Him. It’s awesome. I can talk to God like I’m talking to you, and as you are responding, even though I don’t hear your voice, it comes. It follows a train. A train of conversation, what you are talking about. So, like, I tried to find out if it is true. And I’ll ask a question, and then He’ll point me to a scripture I’ve not thought about. So he leads me to a scripture I’ve not thought about, I wasn’t thinking about a scripture, it wasn’t in my mind. I go, and then it answers what I was asking. I was just lying on my bed and I was laughing and I heard everything. [And was it back and forth, back and forth, back and forth?] Yes. [So many times back and forth?] Yes.

Here, as reported by a member of the Chicago Vineyard around the same age:

I would, um, get some food, go out and sit by the lake and, um, eat my food and just, um, God and I would have conversations about I, like, to say, like, his children. Like, if we were dating and he had children and I didn’t I’d want to know how his children were doing. And so, you know, like, you know, I’d ask him how is such and such going with Drew? How is such and such going with, you know, Christy? You know, those sort of things. I really, I really hope that you’re saving up for their college tuition kind of idea, you know, I really hope that you’re doing this in their lives. And then, you know, we would get to his relationship with me as his child, you know, like, you know, how are we doing with this, how are we doing with that?

Both describe an inner voice conversation. But the pastoral student reports less of the back and forth, with less indirect reported speech; God is less person-like; the imagined frame of the conversation (“like if we were dating”) is less marked. The Chicago congregant relishes the impractical let’s pretend; for the Ghanaian, although it is less evident in this quotation, the imagination is crucial for its practical implications. The pastor at the Ghanaian church tells his congregation that you must imagine in order to be a different person: wealthier, more powerful, a man of greater standing in public space. The Vineyard pastor encourages his congregation to use their imagination so that they experience God as real, and so assuage their doubt. These differences draw from different understandings of imagination; of words and dialogue; of how one knows that a thought is real.

Eventually, I will mount an argument that the differences arise, in part, from different local theories of mind. “Theory of mind” is of course the term used to describe the acquisition of the awareness that human behavior is motivated by mental states, and that those mental states depend upon that person’s experiences. Some scholars (myself among them) have begun to ask about the psychological consequences of the culturally variable features of the way minds are imagined (Luhrmann et al. 2012). In this comparative work, I am looking at three dimensions of the imagined mind that we know vary across cultural boundaries:

  1. the degree to which the mind is bounded or porous
  2. the degree to internal feelings are thought to be causal
  3. the degree to which thought itself (and imagination in particular) is real

Note that these are emphases, not absolutes. All societies posit a difference between the mind and the world. But only some societies (Western ones) make this distinction of supreme importance.

My answer to Jenkins is that even if we cannot know what experience is, we can tell whether experiences vary to some extent—and those variations teach us something. He is of course right: experience is an intensely complicated concept. At the same time, there are human phenomena sufficiently specific that one can ask whether a group of people seem to report it more often than others: among them, hallucinations, uncontrollable bodily sensations during prayer (weeping, falling down, feeling a flush of adrenaline), out-of-body experiences, and sleep paralysis. These are events in the body that have been reported in many different settings, and to some extent they can be identified by follow-up probes. And in my work, it looks as if there are different patterns in Ghana—and that they do reflect differences in the ways people imagine their minds. So in some sense this future work should make Jenkins even more anxious: and yet, it begins by taking his central concern as a starting point: that what people identify as experience is shaped by their cultural and theological expectations, and if we attend to those expectations in detail, we can see that they shape fundamental features of psychological experience.

Where does this leave the cognitive science of religion in relation to anthropology? That is the question Maya Mayblin asks in her delightful contribution. The striking achievement of the anthropologists (and psychologists) who have reframed our understanding of religion in this way (Boyer, of course, but also Stuart Guthrie, Justin Barrett and others) has been to demonstrate that the differences between intuition and reflective (or deliberate) beliefs—which scholars like Daniel Kahneman were beginning to identify—had significant implications for understanding religion. They have shown that the wide range of theologies we find across the world are undergirded by intuitions that have evolved to help us live in our everyday world. Our need to be alert to predators probably led to an intuitive hyper-awareness of possible agents. The automatic way you listen intently when you enter a dark and unknown place is probably not unconnected from the very plausibility of the idea of intuitive agents. The surprising sameness of gods around the world (there is no god who exists only on Tuesday) is probably not unconnected to the way we remember—that we attend to novelty, but too much of it. Toddlers’ expectation that others can read their minds will fade as they grow, but the sense that God knows what we are thinking is probably reinforced. This ability to distinguish between types of cognitive commitments and the ability to identify their associated mental “tools” feels reductive to Mayblin, and perhaps rightfully so, but it is the most important theory of religion to have emerged from the social sciences in decades.

But the sheer fact that there is thinking that is fast and slow is not enough to explain all religion gives ethnography a powerful role to play. I think that When God talks back demonstrates that practices that create specific experiences deemed religious, to use Ann Taves (2009) useful term, enable people to have moments when they sense God’s presence. There are psychological aspects to those practices, and some of my work has been focused on identifying them. But local culture makes a difference to which experiences are produced (or at least remembered and reported) and—I would argue—to the relationship between intuition, religious beliefs, and how and when practices are prized. That is something we can explore in particular and in general and—as Boyer demonstrates—it is an active area of research. I think that the success of the cognitive science of religion shows us that the anthropology of religion is an enormously exciting place to be.


Crocker, Christopher. 1985. Vital souls. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1937. Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Horton, Robin. 1993. Patterns of thought in Africa and the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1963. Structural anthropology. New York: Basic Books.

Luhrmann, Tanya Marie, Rita Astuti, Luke Butler, Julia Cassaniti, Eve Danziger, Suzanne Gaskins, Dedre Gentner, Kathyrn Geurts, Alexa Hagerty, Douglas Hollan, Graham Jones, Michelle Karnes, John Lucy, Ellen Markman, Jocelyn Marrow, Giulia Mazza, Sonya Pritzker, Joel Robbins, Barbara Rogoff, Danilyn Rutherford, Bambi Schieffelin, Rupert Stasch, Jason Throop, Allen Tran, Aparecida Vilacja. 2012: “Towards an Anthropological Theory of Mind: Position papers from the Lemelson Conference. Includes introduction, individual essays and edited collection.” Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Association 36 (4): 5–69.

Stoller, Paul. Forthcoming. Yaya’s quest: The quest for wellbeingin the world.

Taves, Anne. 2009. Religious experienced reconsidered. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Turner, Victor. 1969. Ritual process. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


Tanya Marie Luhrmann
Department of Anthropology
Stanford University
Building 50
Stanford, CA 94305 USA