My work asks how people know what is real—particularly how they know that God is present. I don't presume to know whether they are right. I want to understand what they are paying attention to, and how they learn to shape their attention, and how prayer changes the way they pay attention. What leads people to make that judgment that they are in the presence of the divine? Why do some people feel that they cuddle with God, like a best friend, and some never feel that God takes any interest? How do people learn—as I think they learn—to experience God as talking back? I am also interested in what happens when that capacity to judge what is real gets broken, and how we help those who are in pain.
I grew up with these questions. My mother is the daughter of a Baptist minister, my father (a doctor) the son of Christian Scientists, and when I was young we lived in a neighborhood with Orthodox Jews. I grew up among many wise people who thought differently about the world, and I was curious about how they made those decisions, and what an observer could say about the ways they used and experienced their minds in making those decisions.
I answer these questions through anthropological fieldwork and psychological experiments. I've written four books, published many articles, and am currently the Watkins University Professor in the Anthropology Department at Stanford University. I have been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and have been the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship.