Monday, June 30, 2008

Religion - The New Naturalism

The Immanent Frame is a pretty interesting site. I posted something from them this morning, and I've had this tab open for a couple of days waiting to be posted.

In Naturalism, otherwise they offer a look at the newest efforts (evolutionary psychology and cognitive science) to explain away religion. It's a good article -- they argue that this current trend constitutes a "New Naturalism."
A cognitive revolution?:
Naturalism, otherwise
posted by Barbara Herrnstein Smith

The past fifteen years or so have been a period of extraordinary activity in pursuit of what are called “cognitive” and/or “evolutionary” explanations of religion. These include, in addition to Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (the focus of my previous post), a number of other self-consciously innovative books with titles like How Religion Works: Towards a New Cognitive Science of Religion, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. What unites these works and distinguishes them from the broader naturalistic tradition in religious studies is, first, the centrality for their approach of methods and theories drawn from evolutionary psychology and the rather sprawling field of “cognitive science” and, second, the more or less strenuous identification of their efforts with “science,” itself rather monolithically and sometimes triumphalistically conceived. In these two respects, these and related works constitute what could be called the New Naturalism in religious studies.

The New Naturalist program requires, in my view, careful review and discriminating assessment. The intellectual interest of the general program and the promise of its cognitive-evolutionary approaches for affording better understandings of important features of human behavior and culture should, I think, be recognized. But I also think that critical attention should be given to the intellectual confinements represented by some of the program’s characteristic theoretical assumptions and methodological commitments, especially when viewed in relation to existing methods in the naturalistic study of religion and alternative theories of human behavior, culture, and cognition. Indeed, in spite of the disdain New Naturalists commonly exhibit for prior achievements and alternative methods (as illustrated by Boyer’s wholesale brush-offs), their characteristic cognitive-evolutionary accounts of religion are likely to become more substantial, persuasive, and illuminating when joined to studies by researchers and scholars working with other naturalistic approaches to religion, both social-scientific and humanistic.

A good example of such cross-disciplinary achievement is the study, Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions, by the distinguished German classicist Walter Burkert. Burkert’s account of the origins of archaic beliefs and practices, though thoroughly naturalistic, is not an example of the New Naturalism. Rather, in offering a series of perspectives on religion without pretensions to natural-scientific status itself, it underscores the promise of a biologically and otherwise scientifically informed approach to religion that is also instructed by and connectable to broader understandings of human behavior, culture, and history. A few passages from the book must suffice to illustrate these points here, but I hope they are suggestive enough.

Burkert notes three related ways in which ancient religions (Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, etc.) brought a sense of order and manageability to the world: first, by positing a supreme authority and hierarchical scheme of power; second, by understanding and responding to misfortune in terms of a causal sequence of crime, punishment, expiation, and salvation; and third, by reinforcing a tendency to social reciprocity that was not only practically effective but also offered a sense of cosmic justice.

In a central chapter of the book exploring religious ideas of dominance and subordination, Burkert observes that religion “is generally accepted as a system of rank, implying dependence, subordination and submission to unseen superiors.” (He quotes the Greek dramatist Menander: “Whatever is powerful is taken for a god.”) Such ideas, he continues, including the familiar monotheistic concept of omnipotence, are related to ancient views of social hierarchy and honor that can be traced to more primitive relations among humans built on physical strength and height, and these in turn can be seen as reflecting fundamental patterns of dominance relations among primates and other animals. In elaborating these observations, Burkert alludes to rank-consciousness in primate societies as described by Frans de Waal but also notes that, for humans, high rank is associated with vertical height, as in trees, hills, mountain tops, and skies, which are all prominent in religious discourse along with the idea, as he also remarks with examples from ancient texts, that gods are “high, the highest, and exalted.” Here as throughout the book, the observations and connections (literary, cultural, political, contemporary) abound—deftly delineated, richly illustrated, surprising, illuminating, and intellectually satisfying.

Read the rest.

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