What if I don’t want Gods and spirits to be real anymore? by Laura Montoya.

The first thing that struck me from T.M. Luhrmann’s work in How God Becomes Real was the psychology-anthropology approach. She develops concepts and categories of analysis focused on how our individual decisions determine if Gods and spirits are real so one develops a relationship with the invisible other. While this claim regarding the individual qualities of her work might seem obvious when contrasted with the work of Geertz, Carteaux, and Bourdieu, whose thesis take a broader, almost abstract cultural and collective approach, Luhrmann’s endeavor stands out for its unintended emphasis on the concept of agency: the unpredictability and multiple shifts of individual behavior. Her focus on intentions, predispositions like absorption, desires, choosing what to believe – as a cognitive process – and what experiences one engages, expects, feels, or becomes attentive to -Faith Frames, Paracosms, training in specific skills or practices like praying- prove how individuals establish a relationship with an invisible other and it’s not solely a matter of culture or external influences. Gods and Spirits become not only real but play a significant role in people’s lives due to individual decisions. 

Two reflections resulted from my encounter with her emphasis on individual agency: First, Luhrmann’s work led me to reflect on the importance of studying psychological processes in order to shed light on the recent changes in the religious landscape. For instance, it can contribute to conversations about religious markets and economies, where people choose religious goods based on their functionality. How is it related to defining “how” people experience God? Also might be helpful to explore how psychological studies in general and Luhrmann’s categories on how people experience God, help explain the decline of the institutional church in the West and the growing participation in other faith traditions around the globe. What has been the change in “how” people experience God? Finally, it can guide us to understand more in-depth why people nowadays are more likely to explore or combine spiritual experiences that differ from their family’s or communities’ traditions, which introduces us to my second reflection.

While reading Luhrmann’s work I couldn’t help to recall constantly how my culture, family, and several historical developments helped me embrace the faith frame of Pentecostalism, accept its paracosm with great commitment, train in the skills required to make Jesus, Jehová and the Holy Spirit real and therefore engage in a real relationship with them. Prayers, the word of God in scripture, authoritative relationships, congregational supernatural experiences, and my own level of absorption led me to experience God as real. However, for diverse reasons, I stepped out of such a frame of reality. In that sense, despite all the documented good effects of experiencing God as real, I resonate with Luhrmann’s claims on how certain individual commitments to such a real God are not always beneficial at the individual and social levels. I see some harmful effects on myself, as well as in the lives of women around me in the communities I intend to study for this program. We opted for an intentional abandonment of the “as-if” proposed by the Pentecostal church, so we are trying to create different alternative faith frames. However, we are learning that the experience of the Christian-Pentecostal God as real still has evident consequences in our lives on the psychological, emotional, and social levels. 

Based on such reflections, I wonder what the process of abandoning a faith frame entails and how to expand on the analysis of the pros vs. cons of faith frames. Why would people renounce or change faith frames? Is it related to expectations, functionality, or trauma? How would a process of deconstructing a faith frame look like? Is a faith frame always functional and necessary to interact with the “mundane frame” in certain cultures or circumstances? What happens when a person “breaks up” with God and the relationship is no longer real? How does it relate to current studies on religious trauma? How does it affect broader cultural-social dynamics?

Finally, and on a different stand, Luhrmann’s work highlights the significance of the “real-making” process in the context of faith for individuals in our fieldwork areas. She brings attention to the tendency of some ethnographers to reproduce science imperialism by ignoring or dismissing individuals’ religious practices as irrelevant or unreal. I agree with Luhrmann when she argues that people’s relationship with God and spirits is real and significant. Therefore, it is crucial to consider the realness of their faith while designing human and social sciences programs, practices, and interventions for communities. How can we acknowledge and respect other people’s experiences of faith and interact with them to make human and social sciences programs, practices, and interventions appropriate and holistic for communities without considering the realness of their faith? How do we approach and interact with other people’s experiences of faith daily?

7 Replies to “What if I don’t want Gods and spirits to be real anymore? by Laura Montoya.”

  1. Brittany Lynn Fiscus-van Rossum

    Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum:

    Laura, thanks for your post and this great questions for our consideration! I appreciate your questions regarding what happens when someone abandons or changes their faith frames.

    Many of Luhrmann’s ethnographic examples included stories that indicated that people’s relationships with ‘spiritual others’ can change. These relationships are not stagnant–they are kindled and felt as active, responsive relationships that have the power to shape and change people and how they view their experiences. However, while these stories show that these made-relationships can change over time, the perspectives shared where from the point of view of people who were already actively buying into a faith frame (i.e., they are in an active relationship with the gods or spirits they think of as real) (Luhrmann 98-100). So how does participating in this kind of relationship change people when something happens to make them then change the dynamics of the relationship?

    Your question “what happens when a person breaks up with God,” made me wonder about the work of dismantling or re-making gods and how Luhrmann might frame this experience. If it takes work and practice (and community reinforcement) to make or sustain a narrative as “real,” does it take similar practices, attention, and reinforcement to re-make our gods (i.e., to come to believe something new or different about God or God’s relationship with us)? What is the process of establishing a new or different relationship?

    You also mentioned how in our globalized pluralistic contexts many people are open to trying new religious experiences or borrowing from or combining with traditions outside their own. This made me think about how often people share their religious convictions and experiences through online communities and social media. Does wider exposure to new forms of religious experience and practices allow people to assign new meanings to their own embodied feelings or practices? Is this a way that people make “new” or re-make relationships with spiritual others? Is the kind of exposure to diversity in religious experience that allows for some of this borrowing and combining also functioning like its own formational community that helps people form and support their shared narratives?

    I look forward to talking with everyone tomorrow!

    Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum

  2. Mufdil Tuhri

    Hi Laura,

    I appreciate your insightful reflections on Luhrmann’s book, particularly on individual agency. I would like to highlight that Luhrmann’s focus is not only on understanding the belief (faith frame) but rather on the individual’s experience that makes invisible others become real. It seems to me that these is practices serve as a ‘bridge’ for individuals to feel the presence of gods or invisible others. Thus, this ‘achievement’ could be interpreted as a process that requires hard work (Luhrmann, 2020: 13).

    In response to your reflective questions, I would like to put it on the phenomena of religious conversion or new spiritual movements. I could approach this by elaborating from several points of view: firstly, drawing from Bourdieu, individuals may possess instrumental capital, shaped by economic, cultural, and political factors, enabling them to navigate new religious experiences (1990: 56). Secondly, as Talal Asad’s argument on historical and power contexts on religion, I would suggest that your observation reflects a response to the change of institutions, which also involve the reconstruction of individual identity (1993: 70-72).

    Furthermore, Luhrmann’s consideration on the possibility that humans have a flexible ontology shapes their articulation of the idea of God and their everyday world beyond the dichotomy (2020: 5). It seems to me that when you do not want to make god become real anymore, are you suggesting the existence of other gods and spirits distinct from previously understood entities, varying in the way you perceive as real or not real?

    Your question also leads me to reflect on how the experience of God truly manifests in the context of traditional societies transitioning into modernity (from indigenous paradigm to world religion paradigm). I observe that many traditional practices are on the decline, and on the other hand, there seems to be a lack of strong engagement with their new religious identity. How can we understand the presence of God in this context? How can we conduct ethnographic studies to explore God’s presence in the practices of communities just starting to embrace religion?


  3. Evgeniia Muzychenko

    Laura, many thanks for your insightful blog post! The same as you, I was caught by Luhrmann’s investigation of the psychological effects that reproduce religious commitments in people. But what also struck me is that Luhrmann has relatively little to say about ‘material’ factors conditioning human perception. In your post, you write that Luhrmann focuses on “intentions, predispositions like absorption, desires, choosing what to believe […] to prove how individuals establish a relationship with an invisible other and it’s not solely a matter of culture or external influences.” While I certainly agree that the cultural framework or external influences alone are not responsible for the human experience, it’s important to acknowledge that prayer and meditation are products of human culture. A prayer addresses God, but it does that in human language within a particular epistemological framework. The media for ‘real-making,’ be it prayer or meditation, are very much material (even meditation, as it involves certain practical knowledge about the relationship between breathing and its physical and psychological effects). Studying those media in relation to their cultural contexts can help us discern between the different modes of ‘real-making.’ After all, Luhrmann admits that people from different cultures understand the relationship between the spirit and the body differently (she does that in comparing Ghanaians and Americans on p. 87). So if the understanding of the spirit and the body is different across cultures, it might be also helpful to look into how those media of ‘real-making’ vary across cultures, too.

  4. Taha Firdous Shah

    Thank you, Laura, for such an engaging reflection on Luhrmann’s work. While Luhrmann’s research mainly depends on anecdotal evidence obtained from her own fieldwork and interviews conducted with religious practitioners, I appreciate that you have also incorporated your own “personal” experiences into the formulation of your questions.

    As I engage with your thoughts and Luhrmann’s body of work, I find myself contemplating a few specific reflections:

    1. Luhrmann argues that people have an agency in shaping their ‘own’ experiences. You have suggested that besides Luhrmann’s idealistic side of only looking at the positive aspects of religious experiences, is it possible for people to abandon their faith frames, even after being deeply engaged. This raises the question of how much agency can people really have in shaping their religious experiences?

    2. Another complex question that I personally feel Luhrman has missed out on is that how can we address the negative aspects of religious experience, such as religious trauma or extremism while still acknowledging and respecting people’s experiences of faith? Within the realm of religious studies, there is a notable tendency to overlook critical inquiries on the adverse ramifications of religion, particularly with regards to the endorsement of extremism rooted in sexual orientation, gender norms, or political ideologies. This reflection stems from your idea of looking at those who want to dissociate themselves from believing or practicing so to say.

    Overall, I feel that the book does have a Christocentric bias as Luhrmann posits faith and belief as central to the religious system. But we do have other religions where it is not central such as Buddhism (practice of meditation and ethical conduct). In this context therefore, would we see the same patterns of creating a faith frame and kindling spiritual experience? Would adherents need to work as hard to create and sustain belief?

  5. Prakash Raju

    Thank you Laura for an engaging blog.
    When you brought in your experience of Pentecostalism, I was thinking about charismatic Pentecostals and their experience with the holy spirit. For instance, speaking in tongues (glossolalia) or even being filled with the holy spirit are central to Pentecostal communities. One feels traumatized when such ‘gifts’ get delayed, though the individual believes, nevertheless they feel disconnected because of not having bodily experience. This bodily experience signifies acceptance. When a Pentecostal individual disbelieves the faith frame, what happens to the body? Do you think belief and body are two different entities?

  6. Yaa Baker

    I love the questions you asked. They all stumped me. What really stood out to me about what you gleaned from Luhrmann is the theme of agency. I thought that the text reflected a more idealist notion of agency. That culture reproduces itself, and that is why we need rituals to enforce the status quo. Through tactics like serialization and plurimediality (30) people get almost trapped or hypnotized into these perceptions of realness, which then inspires them to hone their ‘talents’ (58-78). But I suppose that honing one’s skills is a choice and Lurhmann makes it clear that religiosity is no human default. It is a collection of choices made by individuals in the context of a community. Your piece helped me to see that. I read your explanation and it all makes sense to me. I am so glad that the piece spoke to you personally. It certainly did for me as well. It articulated a lot of questions that I had personally in my own religious life. I was actually really excited for this piece because I thought it would be useful to my research, and it still might be, but what is more obvious to me is the extent to which it validates core concerns about the usefulness of religious ritual. For example, how a prayer for rain that does not summon rain is not an immediate failure (ix). She does not answer any of my personal questions, but like you, I found the piece personally validating.


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