Naturalism and Scientific Aspirations in the Anthropology of Religion

Paul K. Wason, Bates College

Naturalism has had a deep and spirited influence on the anthropology of religion. I will explore this influence, particularly naturalism's connection to the goal of studying religion scientifically. While naturalism has been central to anthropology's scientific aspirations, at least since Tylor and Frazer, I argue that it has not been an essential factor in what success we have had at developing a science of religion. I begin by reviewing the varied ways naturalism can influence the study of religion. Not surprisingly, its impact has been greater at the more theoretical levels. I will also consider other aspects of how the field has understood itself to be scientific, including the goals of objectivity and generalization, the emphasis on religion's function as a human institution, and the field's long-standing evolutionary orientation, from early ``laws of development'' to Guthrie's recent selectionist arguments.

For many questions we can meet these and other relevant criteria for science without presupposing naturalism. Thus for the most part we need not choose between Johnson's options of methodological naturalism vs. theistic realism. But not all aspects of religion can be studied this way. Of particular interest in light of Johnson's work is the question of origins. This is one area not easily explored without explicit prior commitment to either a naturalistic or a theistic viewpoint. This raises further questions. Would there be any more justification for calling our study scientific if we chose the naturalistic over the theistic presupposition? Would studying religion as a natural human response to imagined spirits be more scientific than studying religion as a response to real spirits? Polkinghorne observes that the great success of science is purchased by the modesty of its ambition. How we resolve these issues will depend somewhat on our definitions (of naturalism, of science, and of origins), but it may be that whether we begin with naturalism or with theism, any but the most limited study of the origin of religion will move us beyond these modest ambitions.

This case provides a useful counterpoint to examples from natural science. First, the study of religion in anthropology need not be scientific. Indeed, many anthropologists are, like Geertz, strongly situated in the humanities. Consequently, those who seek a science of religion do so more explicitly than, say, biologists, whose work is generally presumed to be science. In addition, the subject matter itself forces us to consider the implications of our presuppositions in ways other subjects do not. There is, for example, some irony in a naturalistic approach to the one aspect of culture specifically concerned with the supernatural. Yet theists also face interesting consequences, for whatever they say about all religion must necessarily apply to their own. Thus the nature of the subject also helps reveal the extent to which a question is or is not dependent on philosophical perspective.

Copyright © Paul K. Wason