A cognitive revolution?:

Naturalism, otherwise

posted by Barbara Herrnstein Smith

The past fifteen years or so have been a period of extraordinary activity in pursuit of what are called “cognitive” and/or “evolutionary” explanations of religion. These include, in addition to Pascal Boyer’sReligion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (the focus of my previous post), a number of other self-consciously innovative books with titles like How Religion Works: Towards a New Cognitive Science of Religion, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. What unites these works and distinguishes them from the broader naturalistic tradition in religious studies is, first, the centrality for their approach of methods and theories drawn from evolutionary psychology and the rather sprawling field of “cognitive science” and, second, the more or less strenuous identification of their efforts with “science,” itself rather monolithically and sometimes triumphalistically conceived. In these two respects, these and related works constitute what could be called the New Naturalism in religious studies.

The New Naturalist program requires, in my view, careful review and discriminating assessment. The intellectual interest of the general program 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.

Burkert notes three related ways in which ancient religions (Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, etc.) brought a sense of order and manageability to the world: first, by positing a supreme authority and hierarchical scheme of power; second, by understanding and responding to misfortune in terms of a causal sequence of crime, punishment, expiation, and salvation; and third, by reinforcing a tendency to social reciprocity that was not only practically effective but also offered a sense of cosmic justice.

In a central chapter of the book exploring religious ideas of dominance and subordination, Burkert observes that religion “is generally accepted as a system of rank, implying dependence, subordination and submission to unseen superiors.” (He quotes the Greek dramatist Menander: “Whatever is powerful is taken for a god.”) Such ideas, he continues, including the familiar monotheistic concept of omnipotence, are related to ancient views of social hierarchy and honor that can be traced to more primitive relations among humans built on physical strength and height, and these in turn can be seen as reflecting fundamental patterns of dominance relations among primates and other animals. In elaborating these observations, Burkert alludes to rank-consciousness in primate societies as described by Frans de Waal but also notes that, for humans, high rank is associated with vertical height, as in trees, hills, mountain tops, and skies, which are all prominent in religious discourse along with the idea, as he also remarks with examples from ancient texts, that gods are “high, the highest, and exalted.” Here as throughout the book, the observations and connections (literary, cultural, political, contemporary) abound—deftly delineated, richly illustrated, surprising, illuminating, and intellectually satisfying.

Continuing his exploration of hierarchy, Burkert notes that dominance relations among humans always include some form of mutual obligation—a social-exchange contract captured by a formula that he cites from several Persian inscriptions: “The Lord, honored by submission, grants protection and ensures security.” In religion, he observes, power operates through a two-tiered structure. In submitting to God, one rises to authority among mortals; as the father bends to god, so he may expect his children to bend to him. (This “religious two-tier theater of power,” he remarks, “still tends to manifest itself in the normal family structure.”) He elaborates:

Submission and sovereignty occupy the same hierarchic structure. Dependence on unseen powers mirrors the real [i.e., secular-political] power structure, but it is taken to be its model and to provide its legitimization … In reality, while power games are played out in a continuous dialectic of aggression and anxiety, in the stabilized structures of the human mental world this duality has become neatly dissociated, producing fear of god or gods along with constant readiness to attack and destroy lower humans, buffered by the good conscience provided by piety.

This subtle and altogether unsentimental analysis recalls both Nietzsche and Foucault: Nietzsche in the idea of a dialectics of power at the heart of social life, Foucault in the emphasis on the mutually legitimating power relations in church, state, and family.

Aside from the intellectual cosmopolitanism, two other aspects of Burkert’s analysis of power may be noted.

First, in explaining the emergence of patterns of dominance and submission in religion, he does not leap directly from observations of primate behavior and presumed Pleistocene conditions to the positing of innate, universal human mechanisms or impulses. Rather, he takes his way overland, tracing the many forms of social and political institution as well as psychological processes involved in the development of those patterns over the course of human history. The New Naturalists, in hopping around from one era and culture to another in order to demonstrate the generality of the religious concepts they examine and the universality of the mental mechanisms they posit, forfeit the sense of how things happen on the ground when multiple relevant forces operate together.

Second, whereas New Naturalists characteristically adopt the stance of behavioral scientists and, accordingly, maintain an objectifying distance from the people whose practices and beliefs they seek to explain, Burkert represents the subjects of his study as more than just nominally fellow humans. In Creation of the Sacred, “they” are always—and often pointedly—”we,” sharing evolutionary histories and biological impulses but also sharing recognizable desires, follies, abilities, and achievements.

Burkert’s accounts of religion are explicitly allied with sociobiology and generalize without apologies across the human species, but they are not generally experienced as objectionably reductive or improperly universalizing. This is, I suspect, because they have the sort of appeal and force that derives from the elicited sense of recognition just mentioned. Yes, one says, that is the way—for better or worse—we humans are. Unlike such New Naturalist works as Boyer’s Religion Explained or Pyysiainen’s How Religion Works, Burkert’s Creation of the Sacred does not offer to identify the “underlying causes” of archaic religious beliefs or practices. But it does indicate compellingly how a wide array of exotic ideas and actions, described in detail, can be encompassed by recognizable frameworks of experience and behavior. For this reason—that is, because they give readers the sense that remote, puzzling, and even absurd or repugnant ideas and actions fit familiar and understandable patterns of emotion and expression—Burkert’s cognitive/evolutionary-enough accounts are experienced as effectively and gratifyingly explanatory.

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One Response to “Naturalism, otherwise”

  1. avatar James Cornelio says:

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure what a more “discriminating assessment” of “cognitive-evolutionary” approaches to behavior/beliefs will achieve. A tenured position at a fine University (not to mention an honorable mention by the NYTimes) perhaps. But, with that “continuous dialectic of aggression and anxiety” prompting us to spend trillions on weapons and wars and police and prisons (and, yes, mamograms), more dire warnings rather than more refined understandings seem to me more appropriate.

    Nero (in this case, our intellectuals) fiddles while Rome burns.

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