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Understanding What Doesn’t Make Sense

June 26, 2010

In my last post I pointed out that Gina Welch, in In the Land of Believers, would have been served by having internalized some sociological or anthropological theories of religion. She approaches many things like the New Atheists do, and as a result misunderstands what sort of social function these things might serve.

For instance, consider the following passage:

Donny told [our group] a story about his brother’s wife, who was pregnant with a baby girl. The baby’s arm was not forming properly. It wasn’t growing past the elbow. And instead of praying for the arm to grow, Donny was praying that if it was God’s will, the arm would grow. If not, Donny wanted God to grant them the ability to appreciate the baby as she was. I would never be able to understand that aspact of prayer—asking God to choose something rather than appealing for moral guidance. Why would you have to pray for God’s will to be done? If it was God’s will, wouldn’t it just happen, since God was in charge? Was I overthinking this stuff? (97)

No, the problem is not that she’s overthinking, but that she’s underthinking.

She’s thinking about this in too straightforward a manner: if their god is going to do his will, why ask for him to do his will? That would be like writing a letter to the IRS every year inviting them to tax us. (I know there are Christian responses to this, but I don’t think they’re convincing.) So, sure, put this way it doesn’t make much sense.

But let’s think about this using a hermeneutic of suspicion: of gods don’t exist and don’t answer prayers, what else might be going on here?

Perhaps these individuals know from experience that if they pray for the girl’s arm to grow it may, in fact, not, no matter what sort of faith they have. Perhaps they have the practical sense to know that it is fruitless to sink emotional investment into hopes that will likely be dashed. In addition, if they pray for their god to make the child’s arm grow, and he doesn’t do so, that could threaten their faith in him.

However, if they pray so generally for something—anything!—to happen, then their faith is confirmed no matter what happens. If they pray for their god’s will to be done, and the baby is born with a truncated arm, then their faith is confirmed: their god’s will was done. In one sense it’s a win-win situation: if you pray for nothing specific then nothing of your faith can be challenged.

So perhaps it makes more sense for them to pray for their god’s will to be done than for them to pray that he heal the baby’s arm.

I don’t presume this is the only or even the best answer for what’s going on in cases like this, but any sort of functionalist explanation would be better than throwing up one’s arms and saying “this just doesn’t make sense!”

7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2010 11:45 am

    I think your analysis of the manner and mode of prayer is spot on; I recently wrote about this in a post titled “Supplication and Statistics” (

    Good to see you blogging again, and I look forward to your continued review of Welch’s book. I too was raised in an evangelical home, so much of what you have to say will resonate on a personal level.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 27, 2010 5:14 pm

    Just read the post; nice.

    Part of the issue, I think is that once the prayerful interpretive framework is set up, almost nothing can contradict it. Your prayer wasn’t answered? Sure it was, just in a way you don’t understand yet—for God’s ways are inscrutable!

  3. fuzzytheory permalink
    June 30, 2010 12:42 am

    Hmmm… I’m not convinced. Well, wait. I AM convinced that the New Atheists are dicks. But, in the case you bring up, I think there is something even more going on here aside from what you are saying. It seems to me that the practice of prayer here is an end in itself. It is not the outcome of the prayer (as in cost-benefit analysis of the prayee) (heh) that is important–here I think you are correct. It is a win/win situation. But I think there is more going on, though I hesitate to say ‘psychologically’. Here prayer is kind of like astrology and other interpretive frameworks. It helps point out one’s concerns and provides a practice for coming to terms with those concerns. In this case, I would interpret it as (along with what you have mentioned above) the mother using the technology of prayer to come to terms with her own internal struggle. It has nothing to do with the child, or God. I mean, perhaps from a Deleuzian sense, what she is doing is self-psychoanalysis. This is what the New Atheists don’t get. They might go skip rocks at a pond to try and come to terms with something in their life, and not realize how they are being religious in the same damned way. Jerks.

  4. fuzzytheory permalink
    June 30, 2010 12:48 am

    Ok, thinking about it again. Let me rephrase this with a mix of functionalism and phenomenology. Phenomenological description: The mother has anxiety. She prays to god. Functionalism: The function of the praying to God is to engage with her anxiety. Now for Foucault: Prayer is a technology of self-production. I’d throw in some Heideggerian ready-to-hand BS too, but I think I reached my jargon quota for the day.

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 30, 2010 8:58 am

    fuzzytheory: I think your comments adds sophistication to my quick take; I’ve got no problem talking about “self-production,” and that’s a great angle on this that I hadn’t thought of before. I assume it can be a both-and sort of thing, right?

  6. fuzzytheory permalink
    July 1, 2010 6:13 pm

    Oh yeah, I’d say it is very both/and. I mean, really, from a more nuanced methodological perspective, what we conclude depends on the kind of analysis we bring to bear. You know, our answers are embedded in our questions. That’s why the right questions are important. But again, looking at method, how do we determine what are the right questions? From one way of looking at it, it would be the questions that have the most potential for explanatory power. So, I would say we use whatever combination of methods provides the most robust answers. This is why I, sorry to say this, find methodological atheism to have a paucity of explanatory power. It is just too engaged in its own axiology to step outside itself. In this way, it is similar to theodicy. Rather, I think it important to look at the assumptions WE bring to bear on the problem at hand, and transcend them. But to what? I mean, I did like you bringing up the hermeneutics of suspicion, though I don’t think that you actually ended up using something like a Riceourian analysis. Just a general hermeneutic take would ask: What is the context that makes possible this example of human activity? And what is the context that makes possible the ways I think about this human activity? I mean, really, this is why I am such a Foucauldian… I think he is very useful when used in conjunction with hermeneutics.

    Ok, with that all out, I think we have to abandon the truth-model of analysis. Why? Because it is all true to varying degrees. The mother does think God has the power to intervene. She will have a theodicy when God doesn’t. She is praying because of the context she is “thrown” into. The socio-political construction of her subjectivity can be genealogically traced. She has agency in that production, so, Dr. Phil-like, she made her choices. Hermeneutically, we can then say that her choices, taken from the interpretive frameworks that are ready-to-hand for her, are the activity of transforming herself at each instance of practice. Functionally, we can then say that these practices have a variety of functions: alleviation of anxiety (both for the plight of her daughter and the dissonance it causes with her worldview), reconstruction of a stable world-view, practical self-disciplining of her social reality by connecting herself to practices that she knows are shared within her community (even when she prays alone), etc. etc.

    In essence, I favor a critical hermeneutic model like that above, precisely because it can explain so much, but also because it can always allow for more layers of interpretation. Furthermore, there is an artful robustness to the notion that the mother is behaving in certain ways because of the horizon of meaning she inhabits (which, with Foucault, can be positively traced) and her continual reinterprations within that horizon.

    What do you think? Too much?

  7. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 4, 2010 12:03 pm

    Sorry I’ve been slow to respond. I’ve been busy and thinking about this. Here are some unsystematic thoughts.

    1. What conclusions we reach will depend on what method we use, but I want to resist the idea that that means our conclusions are MERELY the result of our method, as if we simply project what we want to find. That’s possible in some cases, but it needn’t be the case. Of course you didn’t say that, but some have.

    2. I’m not sure we’re using “methodological atheism” in the same way. I don’t see it as having explanatory power either, but that’s sort of irrelevant. As I see it, methodological atheism is just the deployment of the assumption that supernatural explanations for what’s going on are inadequate, so that we’ll have to look for other explanations. That is, it’s just a sort of starting point: If gods don’t answer prayer, what ELSE might be going on in cases like these? Methodological atheism doesn’t answer the question, it just directs us to one type of answer over another.

    3. I like your idea of framing things in terms of conditions: what conditions permit X to appear, to be possible, to make sense to people, etc. I should do that more often, although I think other sorts of analytic frames are appropriate. This is just one method among other relevant methods, right?

    4. I need to make clear my “hermeneutics of suspicion.” I don’t use it in a strictly Ricourian way, although I think there is a “family resemblance,” so to speak. when I say I’m using a hermeneutics of suspicion, I mean that I want to translate what’s going on into 1) social terms and 2) considerations of human interests. E.g., what sort of social relations make X possible, what social relations does X reinforce, what social positions have their interests served by X, etc. It’s not very much like a Freudian hermeneutic, but I’d say it is in the spirit of Marx and Nietzsche—especially Nietzsche’s genealogical method. Maybe I should say that I’m using a form of genealogy rather than call it a herm of suspicion?

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