International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Science and Religious Anthropology

by Wesley J. Wildman

Introductory Essay by Ronald Cole-Turner

Books on science and religion tend either to begin with religion and ask what light science can offer, or begin with science and offer little insight into religion. Wesley Wildman’s Science and Religious Anthropology is a notable exception. This book addresses the topic of human religiosity using the resources of recent work in evolution, neuroscience, and ecology. What sets it apart, however, is that even though Wildman is trained in theology, he does not invoke theological themes or doctrines as a source for his arguments, limiting himself to what can be said on the basis of science. 

Human religiosity is so nearly universal among homo sapiens that our species might be called homo religiosis. As a feature of the natural world, religiosity can be interpreted and evaluated through the biological sciences. In this book, the result is a “religious anthropology” based on a research method that Wildman calls “a spiritually evocative naturalist interpretation” [29]. It is, first of all, naturalist in that the interpretation confines itself to nature known through science, eschewing the “supernatural” that some claim to know through revelation or another means of religious encounter. But it is also “spiritually evocative” in the sense that, far from undermining or dismissing religion as explained away by science, Wildman engages in a kind of sympathetic criticism, almost always rejecting specific theological beliefs but not their intention or function. 

Religiosity is explored in reference to six “perspectives” – evolution, groups, brains, bodies, sex, and habitat – each addressed in a separate chapter. The chapter on evolution, for example, asks what evolutionary biology might suggest about the origins of religiosity.  Rejecting simplistic views of religion as an adaptive trait, Wildman argues instead for the “complexity of evolutionary origins” of the various behaviors and traits known as religion, advocating a modest view that sees religion “as a combination of side-effects of both adapted and non-adapted features of the human organism” [56]. 

The chapter on groups looks at the social character of religion, while the chapter on brains examines human vulnerability to cognitive error and the role this may play in the formation of religious beliefs and theological doctrines. The book challenges theologians in all traditions to acknowledge that they might find themselves torn between these insights from the cognitive neuroscience of religion and “their moral obligation to support the spiritual wellbeing of religious believers” [113].  

Chapters on bodies and sex offer still more biological “perspectives” on human religiosity, for example on the ways in which religions regulate sexual behavior and roles. The chapter on habitat explores the interrelationship between human beings and the natural world, touching on questions of ethics and the environment.

The book concludes with a summary of its main argument. Religious naturalism, it is claimed, offers a theological interpretation of homo religiosis that is broadly compatible with the “modern secular interpretation of humanity.” There is a “degree of harmony” here that “no other theological framework can match” [210], Wildman argues. 

Not every reader will agree. Many naturalists will find the book unjustifiably religious, while religious believers may find it uncomfortably critical of their beliefs. Careful readers, however, will find it refreshing and original, or, as Philip Clayton writes in the forward, “a fascinating and ambitious project” [xiii].