Among the most divisive issues in American life — guns, abortion, same-sex marriage — no gulf seems quite as deep as that between religious believers and nonbelievers.
But the chasm might not be exactly what many people perceive.
In an op-ed last month in The New York Times titled "How Skeptics and Believers Can Connect," anthropologist Tanya Marie Luhrmann writes:
"Believers and nonbelievers are not so different from one another, news that is sometimes a surprise to both. When I arrived at one church I had come to study, I thought that I would stick out like a sore thumb. I did not. Instead, I saw my own doubts, anxieties and yearnings reflected in those around me."
Luhrmann says Americans are living in an era of religious schismogenesis, an anthropological term referring to the racheting-up of opposition in which every move by each side makes the other respond more negatively, "like those horrible arguments with your spouse where everything you say makes the other person dig in their heels more fiercely."
THE TAKEAWAY: Too often, we focus on our differences.
"I think the faith commitment often functions like a flag, like an identity assertion," Luhrmann told Kerri Miller. "Even for people of faith who understand themselves not to doubt God's reality, those ways of being in the world have much more in common with people who have no faith than either group really imagines. In my experience, people who have a clear sense that God exists also have this sophisticated awareness that there are times when they don't know where God is, they don't know where God is in this moment ... People are actually much more alike, and their sense of who they are becomes something that they rally around.
"I think often when believers and nonbelievers look at each other they imagine this gulf and they see the flag. They don't take time to understand that people's ways of experiencing themselves in the world are often much more alike than different.
"We live in a funny society. On the one hand, we are still fundamentally humans who work best in small face-to-face groups, who identify ourselves as part of a particular group, but we're in this world where we have all this knowledge about other people who ... seem different. And I think it's easy to respond to the difference. We encounter people who are different all the time. If we encounter them and get to know them, the little flag of the difference seems less important. On the other hand, it also makes us more anxious, and we can develop more chaotic ideas about what makes them different. We leap to these inferences that other kinds of people are not moral, not good people, really 'other.'"
LEARN MORE ABOUT BELIEVERS AND NONBELIEVERS:
Tanya Luhrmann on training yourself to experience God
Paul Raushenbush discusses the Internet's impact on spiritual life
• Tanya Luhrmann on "When God talks back"
"Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann was intrigued by recent polls showing that more Americans are experiencing a personal relationship with God." (The Daily Circuit, MPR)
• When God is your therapist
"It can seem puzzling that evangelical Christians sidestep the apparent contradiction of why bad things happen to good people. But for them, God is a relationship, not an explanation." (By T.M. Lurhmann, The New York Times)
• Who is closed minded, the skeptic or the believer?
"To be an effective skeptic, it's critical to understand that your opponent is not simply a lunatic. Maybe some are, but the majority are as intelligent and thoughtful as you. Dismissing your opponent as crazy is a weakness in you." (Skeptoid)