Religion Naturalized?

Barbara Herrnstein Smith follows up her review of Boyer’s Religion Explained with a review of Walter Burkert’s Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions, over at the Immanent Frame:

The intellectual interest of the general program [of“cognitive” and/or “evolutionary” explanations of religion] and the promise of its cognitive-evolutionary approaches for affording better understandings of important features of human behavior and culture should, I think, be recognized. But I also think that critical attention should be given to the intellectual confinements represented by some of the program’s characteristic theoretical assumptions and methodological commitments, especially when viewed in relation to existing methods in the naturalistic study of religion and alternative theories of human behavior, culture, and cognition. Indeed, in spite of the disdain New Naturalists commonly exhibit for prior achievements and alternative methods (as illustrated by Boyer’s wholesale brush-offs), their characteristic cognitive-evolutionary accounts of religion are likely to become more substantial, persuasive, and illuminating when joined to studies by researchers and scholars working with other naturalistic approaches to religion, both social-scientific and humanistic.

A good example of such cross-disciplinary achievement is the study, Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions, by the distinguished German classicist Walter Burkert. Burkert’s account of the origins of archaic beliefs and practices, though thoroughly naturalistic, is not an example of the New Naturalism. Rather, in offering a series of perspectives on religion without pretensions to natural-scientific status itself, it underscores the promise of a biologically and otherwise scientifically informed approach to religion that is also instructed by and connectable to broader understandings of human behavior, culture, and history.  A few passages from the book must suffice to illustrate these points here, but I hope they are suggestive enough.