Why you should care

Because reality is really complicated.

The scene: a sunny Stanford office. Walls lined with comfortably musty books. A salt-and-pepper-haired professor waxing intelligent behind a lemony wood desk.

But the conversation is less evocative of office hours than it is of a drum circle or an earnest game of D&D: that time she hallucinated and saw a vision of six Druids, just hangin’ out, grinning at her. “It was a very real, very felt experience,” she says. While also acknowledging that of course it wasn’t real at all. Per se.

The professor in question is Tanya Luhrmann. Her discipline is staid-sounding psychological anthropology. A prominent academic with a semi-regular column in The New York Times, interviews on NPR’s Fresh Air and a place in the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Luhrmann’s work follows two parallel themes: She’s interested in how humans conceive of God and how society contributes to our mental health. One theme has found her studying modern-day English witches and tongue-speaking evangelical Americans; the other introduced her to schizophrenics in Chicago, Accra, Chennai.

Even if you didn’t literally walk with Jesus, if you believe fervently enough that you did, then you experienced something.

The through-line tying together her foci? It’s not that the religious are mad or that the crazy are blessed with divine insight. She believes in the integrity of internal experience. In other words, if you think something has happened to you, no matter how crazy, she says, yep, it did happen. Because even if you didn’t literally take a walk with Jesus or hear your long-dead grandmother call out to you, the fact is that if you believe fervently enough that you did, then … you experienced something. And, she says, we should take that seriously. Which makes Luhrmann unique, because she is highly interdisciplinary in a deep way. She’s interested in “human difference across a lot of areas” — and in “very unusual places,” says Jon Bialecki, a social anthropologist at the University of Edinburgh.

That’s controversial. Luhrmann’s penchant for treating as normal that which causes most of us to raise an eyebrow has made her a valuable tour guide to the worlds of those “trying to become something other than themselves,” as Bialecki puts it. She’s the Virgil to our Dante, her writing providing a panoramic view of those we’d otherwise relegate to the loony bin … or the Bible belt.

Luhrmann’s style of thinking is “increasingly gaining traction” in psychological practice in which more treatments take into account cultural context, says Diane Sanford, a Missouri-based psychologist who works with women experiencing psychosis. Sanford told of an example right up Luhrmann’s alley: a Christian woman who believed, postpartum, that the devil possessed both her and her baby. “Voices come from experiences,” Sanford says. And in religion? Well, let’s just say it’s not so common for a scholar of religion to participate so deeply, Bialecki explains, adding, “There’s a dedication to ethnography that most scholars would not participate in.” Indeed, “most scholars of religion in fact create a divide between their own personal beliefs and their work,” says Augusto Ferraiuolo, a religious anthropologist at Boston University.

But Luhrmann’s ideas aren’t always popular. She’s pissed off a segment of the left’s intellectual elite, from Jerry Coyne, celebrity biologist and the author of Why Evolution Is True, to Leon Wieseltier, the former literary editor of The New Republic. One hubbub surrounded a Times column Luhrmann wrote entitled “Ghosts Are Back!”; Coyne (who referred me to his blog, declining an interview) penned a post titled “Tanya Luhrmann and the decline of The New York Times.” His beef: that Luhrmann had argued that supernaturalism of an ancient sort has returned in the form of Christians enjoying an intimate, friendly relationship with the figure of Christ himself.

She knows she makes secular America uncomfortable, but seems to relish her own oddity, speaking of her time spent with witches and the mentally ill as others might speak about a next-door neighbor. Born to a writer and a psychiatrist, Luhrmann has always lived in multiple worlds. A childhood Lord of the Rings addict (she tells me that yes, she was weird, but no, she was not the kid in the cafeteria wearing a cape), she grew up at the intersection of a number of religious faiths: Her father was a Baptist, and she lived in a Jewish community. “I was always around faith,” she says, in her melodic Deepak Chopra voice, her Malcolm Gladwell hair stylishly askew.

Tanya Luhrmann

Psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann.

She majored in folklore and mythology (yeah, seriously) at Harvard — summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, etc. — and then studied anthropology at the University of Cambridge. That’s where she found the witches, simply by asking around; a friend of a friend pointed her to a small village where the witches lived.

On her wall is a riotous painting, done by a psychotic patient to whom she grew close. It’s neon, graffiti-esque, full of contorted screaming faces. She reflects that she never could have researched the religious without trying to fall under their spell. “It helped a lot of them,” she says. “I was able to help them realize that the experiences they were having were real, in their minds, and that created value.” But the mentally ill? She can’t live their experiences. The best she can do is listen. “Often, talking to me is the first time anyone has ever asked them: What do the voices say?”

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