- The Body of Faith: A Biological History of Religion in America by Robert C. Fuller
“But let’s be clear—cultures don’t construct bodies. … DNA constructs bodies” (p. 181). With these words, and throughout this charged volume, Robert C. Fuller offers a robust challenge to contemporary historians’ use of the word body. Diagnosing widespread interest in bodies as a healthy trend among scholars of religion, Fuller’s volume aims to point the way to a more thoroughgoing approach.
Attention to the cultural production of bodies—interest, for example, in culturally varied ways of feeling pain or smelling smells—is itself deeply informative, Fuller insists. But this interpretive frame stops short, missing the full analytical power of a focus on bodies. New research in the natural sciences (particularly evolutionary biology and psychology, comparative biology, and cognitive science) will supplement existing methods and help us tell more accurate stories about America’s religious past. These new stories will include the body—our emotional systems, genetic tendencies, basic chemistry, and adaptive strategies—as an agent of religious history.
Fuller, whose previous work positions him at the intersection of the psychology and cultural history of religion in the United States, is an ideal tour guide of this interdisciplinary route. The book makes several stops at sites of traditional disciplinary controversy, where knowledge from the natural sciences offers interpretive leverage. The history of revivalism, the sectarian experiments of the mid-nineteenth century, apocalypticism, nature religion, the rise of New Thought, and the history of denominationalism all come in for a biological rethinking. [End Page 638]
A few examples will convey the flavor of this readable and highly recommended text. Biological understandings of fear as an agent of “tunnel vision” and “territoriality” (pp. 91, 87) helps explain the success of the efforts of Ellen White and Tim LaHaye to build communities based on ominous predictions. On the other hand, the “positive emotions” (p. 95) of wonder and awe are evolutionarily adaptive because they produce submission to larger realities and “prosocial” (p. 41) attentiveness to the whole. With this in mind, the persistence of authoritarian religions in an ostensibly “individualistic” country may be less puzzling.
In another chapter, Fuller discusses the ways that pain collapses cognitive boundaries and explores the likelihood that religious innovation may be the result. Later, explaining the hormonal and cognitive effects of touch and physical movement, Fuller places bodily systems at the center of healing traditions such as the Catholic Charismatic movement and expressive worship like that found in many African American congregations.
Elsewhere, Fuller notes that it is not enough to say that the smells of the festa on 115th Street are “pressed into” the bodies of East Harlem’s Italian Catholics; “bodies press themselves onto culture” as well. The proximity of the “olfactory nerve” to the brain’s center of memory and spatial navigation ensures adaptive behaviors such as “bonding with the mother” and “remembering the location of stored food” (p. 161). Shared biology explains more than we have been willing or able to allow.
Biological variety matters, too. Fuller tells us that psychologists have shown that “females” experience “higher levels of distress” (p. 157) than males. If we can agree with Fuller that religions actually ease distress, then the preponderance of women in the make-up of America’s churches has biological, and not just cultural, sources. But here we meet the limits of the biological approach, for, as Fuller readily admits, only study of the day-to-day textures of particular women’s religious lives could answer that kind of question. If Fuller trusts scientific claims more than others, however, he steers well clear of the positivist mistake. Re-envisioning historical research as the pursuit of the right “mix” (p. 180) of biological and sociocultural explanations, Fuller has powerfully crystallized a bracing challenge facing the study of religion.