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How skeptics and believers can learn to hear each other

How skeptics and believers can learn to hear each other

T. M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford who studies the religious experience of evagelicals, describes the day she went on a Christian radio program to discuss her book and research. Instead she found herself confronted about the state of her soul.

Her experience, she says, sheds light on how believers and skeptics talk past each other and how they might learn to connect.

She wrote about her experience in the New York Times:

So it was a shock to have my host grill me about the state of my soul. It reminded me that one of the things that makes mutual respect between believers and nonbelievers difficult is that there is a kind of line in the sand, and you’re either on one side of it or on the other. Skeptics do this too, of course. I remember a dinner party where I was explaining my work among evangelicals to a colleague, and her face grew longer and longer until she said, “You talk to them?”

The in-your-face confrontation makes it that much harder to connect. The more my interviewer pressed me, the more my faith — such as it is — grew strained. I had come to live (theologically speaking) in a messy in-between. My interviewer wanted clarity. The more he put me on the spot, the more I wanted to say that I shared nothing with him and that his beliefs were flimsy dreams. And the more I resisted, the more he just got mad. He was determined. I was exhausted.

Anthropologists have a term for this racheting-up of opposition: schismogenesis. Gregory Bateson developed the word to describe mirroring interactions, where 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….I think that schismogenesis is responsible for the striking increase in the number of people who say that they are not affiliated with any religion.


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Gary Paul Gilbert

This piece leaves me ambivalent because she moves away from anthropology toward mushy language and notions.

Her straight privilege also shows when she says people can agree to disagree about marriage equality. Easy to say if one is straight! Ironically, in the very sentence where she says so-called same-sex marriage can be bracketed out, she uses the metaphor of a good marriage:

“Good marriages work because couples learn to repair, rather than escalate, their conflicts. Same-sex marriage and abortion should not be approached by drawing a line in the sand and demonizing everyone on the other side.”

Also, poor women needing abortions in states which wish to deny their right don’t seem part of her conciliatory paradigm.

Gary Paul Gilbert


Wonderful article. I see that “schismogenesis” phenomenon *really intensifying* at secular LGBT sites like Joe.My.God. The merest mention of anything religious brings out vituperative condemnation and contempt (even when my every mention of religion STIPULATES I’m an LBGT-affirming Episcopalian). It can be a distressing experience.

JC Fisher

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