Author Don Lattin: Americans Are More Thoughtful About Religion Than We Think

In this video Don Lattin talks about psychedelics at Harvard — at Harvard. Check it out.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Apparently I’m not the only one wrestling with God. In his foreword to my new book, Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith, veteran religion reporter Don Lattin asserts that Americans everywhere have been doing a lot of wrestling with the divine in recent decades.

Author Don Lattin, Photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice

Author Don Lattin, Photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice

“If you believe what you see on TV or the World Wide Web, modern civilization is under attack by forces of narrow-minded, intolerant religious fundamentalists—all the way from Fallujah to Florida.

“The real story, at least in the United States, is less alarming and more interesting. We are not really falling into fundamentalism, nor are we finally coming to our senses and embracing a new atheism . . . We are, in fact, wrestling with God.”

Don goes on to describe how Americans have been struggling with traditional ideas about God and religion – while at the same time opening themselves up to new ways of experiencing the transcendent. For example:

A recent Pew study found that 70 percent of people affiliated with a religion agreed with the statement that “many religions can lead to eternal life.”

  • A Gallup poll found that one third of Americans now say that they are “spiritual but not religious.”
  • In the 1950s – when Don and I were growing up – only one in 25 Americans reported leaving the religion or the denomination of their childhood. A few decades later, that percentage had shifted radically: one of every three Americans had turned to a different religion or denomination.

Don says lots of nice things about Wrestling with God in his foreword, but I’m most flattered by his assessment that I managed to avoid snarkiness.

The cover of Don Lattin's book, "Distilled Spirits."

I agree with Don that, “true believers—whether they are in the ‘New Age,’ evangelical Christian, or Islamist movements—are easy to parody, but we do so at the risk of our own understanding.”

We also do it at the risk of deepening the already perilous divides that exist between the “uses” and the “thems.”

Author Don Lattin

Don Lattin is a wonderful writer, by the way. For decades he was a religion beat reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. And over time he’s applied his reporting skills and intuitive understanding of the American religious landscape to a number of books, including:

The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America

Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, with a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk.

If you enjoyed this story, you might like “What Happens When You Drop Your Cell Phone Into the Sacred Buddhist Sand Painting?”  Also, “I Still Haven’t Figured Out How to Pray.” 




  1. Very interesting. I think our views (and apparently our loyalty) to religion changes along with society and culture. I just wrote a faith memoir and in doing so have realized my parents were very different in their thoughts, attitiude and behavior about God and religion than I am. I think they were typical for their generation and I behave/think more typical of my generation. I hate to admit that as it sounds bad but I do think whether we like it or not we are all influenced by those around us. Haven’t read your book yet but it is on my list! 🙂

    • Tracy, Yes, I too think we are very much influenced by our culture and by people around us. And I too wonder if that’s “OK.” Shouldn’t we be adhering to some greater “truth” and not waving in the winds of change? I’m going to have to go with — it’s OK to be influenced by other people. Because we really are members of communities, not totally autonomous individuals. And maybe — maybe — communities with all their various inputs are smarter than a single autonomous individual.

  2. Somehow you manage to come up with a new, interesting thought every week.


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