Sumser, John. the Conflict between Secular and Religious Narratives in the United States: Wittgenstein, Social Construction, and Communication. Maryland: Lexington Books Lanham, 2016

By Crandall, Heather | Communication Research Trends, September 2017 | Go to article overview

Sumser, John. the Conflict between Secular and Religious Narratives in the United States: Wittgenstein, Social Construction, and Communication. Maryland: Lexington Books Lanham, 2016


Crandall, Heather, Communication Research Trends


Sumser, John. The Conflict Between Secular and Religious Narratives in the United States: Wittgenstein, Social Construction, and Communication. Maryland: Lexington Books Lanham, 2016. Pp. 168. ISBN 978-14985-2208-3 (cloth) $80.00; 978-1-4985-2209-0 (eBook) $76.00.

My conservative, Christian fundamentalist, working class mom stopped by my house. She was excited about an event televised on her evangelical network. Mr. Trump, she told me in a trembling voice, is on "their" side. She finds POTUS a powerful speaker when addressing his supporters, and now she is newly fired up about "the gays and their agenda." She assures me that while she will be nice to the LGBTQ community, she has had it up to here (eyeball level). I recognize contradictions and have many arguments at the ready, but praise be, I just finished The Conflict Between Secular and Religious Narratives in the United States: Wittgenstein, Social Construction, and Communication. Within a preface, six chapters and a conclusion, John Sumser details a comparison of secular and fundamentalist ways of thinking and reasoning commonly found in American cultural discourse. The book offers a deep, practical analysis of why, try as they might, secular and religious interlocutors continually struggle to reach mutual understanding or mutual influence. I now clearly understand why attempts to offer a reasoned response to my mother's political and social views is not an effective choice.

Sumser's book is centrally a book about communication. He discusses the function of narrative, language, argument, and meaning. He shows "how various perspectives shape the social narratives of life, how religion is woven in, and how meaning changes across time and across groups" (p. 7). I was not drawn to this book to further my theological and philosophical knowledge, though I learned enough to understand the arguments. As Sumser discusses the study of religion, he clarifies that his book is about the study of the way people talk about religion, the way people use religion to make sense of the world, not the study of "the nature of the cosmos" (p. 14), which is ideal for those who study and teach communication.

Early on Sumser explores definitions of religion. He uses Emile Durkheim's practical approach to this endeavor because any definition of religion has to resonate with how regular people think about religion. From there, Sumser explores the many ways different thinkers approach such a task. He introduces distinctions such as the difference between the sacred and profane and the difference between thinking of heaven as an imaginary place versus an actual place. Sumser introduces the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein in a way that gives enough information about Wittgenstein's thought to develop his argument about how to think of secular and religious narratives in productive ways. Wittgenstein complicates the idea of categories. If religion is a category, it is, like other categories, complex. Therefore, it is more useful to think of categories as family resemblances. In this way, religions "form a family. Some have gods, some do not" (p. 9). Wittgenstein's philosophy is incorporated through the entire book rather than introducing it heavily in an early chapter with an expectation that the reader remembers how to apply it later.

The book's title includes conflict. Sumser explains the problems that stem from an instability of meaning and an absence of shared stories in contemporary culture. He points out the decline of institutions and the rise in our ability to share ideas. He defines ontological insecurity and security and the relationship of each orientation to a civil society. "We are on our own in a world without solid footing and so we assert ourselves, our beliefs, and our gods in an effort to find some ground" (p. xi). Conflict between secular and religious reasoning, Sumser writes, is at the core of the culture wars in America. He uses the extremes of Christian fundamentalism and secular materialist rationality to illustrate the different styles of reasoning and their futility when considered as oppositional. …

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