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  • Pragmatism and Naturalism in the Study of Religion
  • Wayne Proudfoot (bio)


The word naturalism is used in many different ways in contemporary philosophy. For some it has required that a properly naturalistic account of anything appeal only to what is countenanced by the natural sciences and, for a few, that any object of study be reduced to entities and forces studied by physics and chemistry. Research programs have been developed to “naturalize” numbers, norms, intentional states, and other seemingly recalcitrant concepts by performing the requisite reduction. But a naturalistic account should be concerned with explanation, not reduction. Even when granting a priority to the sciences, social scientific and historical explanations should not be ruled out of court from the outset. Attention to those explanations, as well as to the actual methods of the natural sciences, raises questions about the status in such an account of norms, values, and rule-governed practices. The issues of what is to count as a science and how one might place normative concepts with respect to the language of science have been matters of lively debate since the nineteenth century.

Recently, there have been a number of attempts to formulate more liberal conceptions of naturalism.1 The Australian philosopher Huw Price distinguishes two ways of thinking about the topic.2 In the first the problem is regarded as one of where to place the normative in a world described by the natural sciences. How does one place values in a world of facts? The second, which Price favors, would begin with what science tells us about ourselves. Science tells us that humans are natural creatures, and our philosophical claims ought to be developed in accord with that. We can then try to explain in naturalistic terms how creatures like ourselves come to talk in these various ways. The point is not to place norms, values, and mental states in a landscape of science but to examine the language of norms and of states of mind as the product of human beings as natural creatures. In order to study this particular kind of natural creature, we must study its language and its culture. That study of [End Page 185] the social and cultural institutions and practices of humans is not something extending out beyond the sciences but is nested within the account of humans as natural creatures.

Humans are social and cultural beings. If priority is given at the outset to natural scientific explanations of religion, cultural and social practices are likely to be ignored, and the important background roles they play will escape critical scrutiny. This then yields conclusions that are easily pressed into service for either reductive or apologetic agendas. Much recent work in neuroscience and religion and in the so-called cognitive science of religion, for example, is of this sort. I will argue that attention to the pragmatists, especially William James and John Dewey, can help to bring out what is at stake in naturalistic accounts of religion and to direct us toward more fruitful kinds of inquiry.

I’ll begin with an example. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has conducted a number of studies to try to understand the pursuit and attainment of compassion through the practice of meditation. Tibetan Buddhist monks have often been favorite subjects for this kind of study, and they were used again here, but in this project Davidson and his colleagues claimed to take the content of the religious doctrines and practices of their subjects more seriously than had their predecessors.

In an article reporting the results of his work, Davidson surveys research on emotion and notes that psychologists have identified distinctive facial expressions across cultures for negative emotions, but not for their positive counterparts.3 The only basic classification of positive emotions that correlates with biological date, he writes, is that between pre-goal-attainment and post-goal-attainment affect, between eager anticipation and satisfaction. So he decided to focus on this division rather than on distinctions within the emotion lexicon that don’t have biological correlates.

That may be a reasonable research decision, but it substitutes a simple bipolar classification for a much larger set of emotion terms, each...


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pp. 185-199
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