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Science and Religious Anthropology: A Spiritually Evocative Naturalist Interpretation of Human Life (review)
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In Science and Religious Anthropology: A Spiritually Evocative Naturalist Interpretation of Human Life, Wesley J. Wildman has awakened work in religious anthropology to a new day and a new kind of light. No one who works in religious anthropology, or in religion and science studies more generally, should be taken seriously who has not read, digested, and contended with Wildman’s work. Indeed, if one is looking for an education in genuine interdisciplinarity, in rigorous scholarly analysis and argumentation, and in the ways in which academic theology, religious studies, and the scientific study of religion can mutually inform one another, Wildman’s book is the ideal school. Wildman carefully analyzes, creatively synthesizes, and judiciously critiques the latest work in such diverse fields as the history and sociology of religion, evolutionary biology and psychology, the neurosciences, and ecology. In so doing, his argument presents a highly sophisticated middle way between the sophomoric “New Atheists” (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris) who denounce caricatures of “Religion” in the name of caricatures of “Science” and the many traditional religionists who insulate religion from the critical insights of the natural and social sciences. In cutting through this false dichotomy, a dichotomy that dominates popular thinking about religion and science, Wildman’s book significantly advances the scientific understanding of religion and religious engagement of the sciences.

Wildman’s book boldly argues for a view of the human as homo religiosus. By this he means that, “Religious behaviors, beliefs, and experiences—understood sufficiently broadly—constitute human nature not only historically, culturally, or circumstantially, but also ontologically, essentially, and inescapably” (xv). By “sufficiently broadly,” Wildman refers to more than the “statistically and historically dominant” forms of established world religious traditions (xvi). Instead, he refers to a capacious sense of religion as that which “pertains to the way we bind ourselves (religio) to that which has surpassing meaning for us, and bear this reflexive or elective bondage in every aspect and circumstance of life” (xv). Toward a defense of homo religiosus, Wildman structures his argument in three parts: “Preliminaries,” “Perspectives,” and “Findings.” In what follows, I will attend primarily to the work in “Preliminaries” and “Findings” while briefly summarizing select main points in “Perspectives.”

“Preliminaries” is comprised of two chapters, “Inquiry” and “Naturalism.” In these chapters Wildman establishes his methodological positions, lays out his initial hypotheses, and contextualizes their significance in relation to the “stakeholder disciplines” in religious anthropology. These disciplines include religious studies (comparative and historical and social scientific), theology (scholarly normative reflection on theistic and nontheistic religion), and the scientific study of religion (natural and social scientific). Against dominant tendencies in the study of religion, Wildman argues not merely for the legitimacy but also the necessity of theological perspectives in both religious studies and the scientific study of religion. His position is that though the biological and social sciences “furnish much of the [descriptive, empirical] raw material for any interpretation of the human condition,” they do not on their own “allow for an evaluation of the role of religion in human life” (8). Insofar as religious anthropology is an interdisciplinary area of inquiry, insofar as it is concerned not only with how humans are religious but also the ways that human religiosity impacts human life and the broader world, then doing justice to religious anthropology requires the joining of the descriptive and empirical work in the scientific study of religion and religious studies with the evaluative and normative work of theological inquiry. The importance of this evaluative dimension means that there is an essentially theological task within religious anthropology. But Wildman means something both very broad and very specific by “theology.” He offers a broad construal of theology as a cross-traditional enterprise that is simultaneously critically comparative and normative. And yet, within this broad view of theology, he articulates a specific theological posture. This theological posture is the synthetic thread throughout his work—it orients the project methodologically, and it allows Wildman to present his work as simultaneously comparative, deeply empirical, and also normative and constructive.

Wildman’s theological posture, which yokes a minimalist naturalistic metaphysics with epistemological pragmatism, is advanced as a form of religious naturalism. By “naturalism,” Wildman intends three...

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