Some Sundays ago, I was part of a sermon in my university's church. It was the kind of ecumenical church in which I'd grown up. The minister and I sat on the proscenium above the congregation and below the stained glass windows, and spoke about the ways that evangelical Christians understood God — a subject on which I had written a book.
Afterward, there was a lunch open to the community. The questions people asked as we ate our avocado-and-cheese sandwiches circled around the puzzle of belief. Why do people believe in God? What is our evidence that there is an invisible agent who has a real impact on our lives? How can those people be so confident?
These are the questions that university-educated liberals ask about faith. They are deep questions. But they are also abstract and intellectual. They are philosophical questions. In an evangelical church, the questions would probably have circled around how to feel God's love and how to be more aware of God's presence. Those are fundamentally practical questions.
You could imagine that if you were going to spend an hour or two each week fretting over one or the other, you might opt for the practical. This choice is more real for many evangelicals than most secular liberals imagine.
Not all members of deeply theologically conservative churches — churches that seem to have such clear-cut rules about how people should behave and what they should believe — have made up their minds about whether God exists or how God exists. In a charismatic evangelical church I studied, people often made comments that suggested they had complicated ideas about God's realness. One devout woman said in a prayer group one evening: "I don't believe it, but I'm sticking to it. That's my definition of faith."
It was a flippant, off-the-cuff remark, but also a modern-day version of Pascal's wager: In the face of her uncertainty about God's existence, she decided that she was better off behaving as if God were real. She chose to foreground the practical issue of how to experience the world as if she was loved by a loving God and to put to one side her intellectual puzzling over whether and in what way the invisible agent was really there.
The role of belief in religion is greatly overstated, as anthropologists have long known. In 1912, Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern social science, argued that religion arose as a way for social groups to experience themselves as groups. He thought that when people experienced themselves in social groups they felt bigger than themselves, better, more alive — and that they identified that aliveness as something supernatural. Religious ideas arose to make sense of this experience of being part of something greater. Durkheim thought that belief was more like a flag than a philosophical position: You don't go to church because you believe in God; rather, you believe in God because you go to church.
In fact, you can argue that religious belief as we now conceptualize it is an entirely modern phenomenon. As the comparative religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith pointed out, when the King James Bible was printed in 1611, "to believe" meant something like "to hold dear."
To be clear, I am not arguing that belief is not important to Christians. It is obviously important. But secular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. That's part of our folk model of the mind: that belief comes first.
And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.
If you can sidestep the problem of belief — and the related politics, which can be so distracting — it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy.
God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don't seem good now. That's what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place.
T.M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford, is the author of "When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God."
© 2013 New York Times