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Does God Exist in Methodological Atheism? On Tanya Lurhmann's When God Talks Back and Bruno Latour


  • This paper was originally presented at “Modern Christianities: ethnographic reflections on religious publics and public religion,” a panel organized by James Bielo for the 2012 American Ethnological Society meetings and at the 2012 Comparative Christianities Conference at the University of California San Diego, organized by Joel Robbins, Naomi Haynes, and Leanne Williams. This paper benefited from comments by and conversation with Razvan Amironesel, Tom Boylston, Courtney Handman, Naomi Haynes, Caroline Humphrey, Pamela Klassen, Judith Lihosit, Ian Lowrie, Joel Robbins, Bruno Reinhardt, Anthony Shenoda, and Rupert Stasch. I also thank Adam Miller for sharing his then in-press monograph with me. Finally, this paper obviously owes a great deal to my particular and long-running conversation with/debt to Tanya Luhrman.


In the anthropology of Christianity, and more broadly in the anthropology of religion, methodological atheism has foreclosed ethnographic description of God as a social actor. This prohibition is the product of certain ontological presumptions regarding agency, an absence of autonomy of human creations, and a truncated conception of what can be said to exist. Reading Tanya Luhrmann's recent ethnography, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (2012), in light of both the ontological postulates of Object Orientated Ontology and the work of Bruno Latour, this article proposes an ontological framework that makes it is possible to ethnographically describe God as a social actor without adopting methodological theism. This article also notes, however, that the ethnographic description of religious practice, found in studies of the Vineyard denomination such as Luhrmann's, challenge Latour's own account of the difference between science and religions as distinguishable enterprises.