The Question of Methodological Naturalism

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Jason N. Blum


This volume, The Question of Methodological Naturalism, represents a wide range of approaches to methodological naturalism in the study of religion. As often happens in academia, each author seeks to establish their own position in contrast to all others, and so it is no surprise that each entry in the book has a polemical edge. A reader might hope for a sort of reconciliation or at least common ground where every position may find its place but, in this case, such hopes are not fulfilled. One of the major advantages of the book is its open and clear-cut polemical thrust: as the editor Jason Blum notes, there simply is no solution to the problem of naturalism on which scholars generally agree. The positions are too divergent to be unified in any reasonable sense and “naturalism” can mean many things. It is great to have the entry on “Naturalism as Method and Metaphysic” by Daniel Pals at the beginning, as he shows the historical variety of naturalism. Though his story ends by the late 19th century, leaving one with the idea that the following epochs add nothing to it, the rest of the book may then be actually read as a treatise on the varieties of naturalism in the 20th and 21st centuries.

To give an impression of how diverse the discussions on naturalism are, here is a glimpse of the concepts related to it discussed in the book. In different contexts, the following notions are raised with reference to naturalism in religious studies: materialism, eliminativism, reductionism, agnosticism, atheism, social constructionism, deconstructionism, physicalism, objectivism, scientism, descriptivism, fideism, and even existentialism. Obviously, those various “isms” are of different natures. Some are epistemic positions or ontological frameworks, and others are labels for methodological solutions or philosophical movements. This shows that the discussion is not confined to religious studies alone and goes much further. In fact, the debate is more often about the nature of scientific investigation as such. This results in what appears to be both the greatest advantage and the biggest problem of the book: the entries show perfectly that naturalism is tremendously diverse.

The debates in the book might be arranged along a spectrum. For example, naturalism may be declared as the only appropriate stance if religious studies want to be a part of the scientific community or academia (Craig Martin, Robert Segal, Edward Slingerland, and Kevin Schilbrack); naturalism may be taken as unacceptable in social sciences (Jonathan Tuckett), or as no way normative for religious studies (Michael Cantrell). The positions depend on the assumptions of what naturalism is or should be, and though all the contributors agree that naturalism should not be eliminative, the ways of avoiding it vary greatly. Still, a reader gets the impression that contributors actually speak different languages—while in one paper, constructivism is held to be a naturalist stance, the very next paper declares this to be a flaw. Within one framework, naturalism may be ontological, while the other considers methodological versions as the only appropriate ones. Therefore, the goal for the future is not to reconcile those positions, but to find a common framework to discuss them.

I think there are three major tensions in the book that make it a valuable contribution to the discussion of method and theory in the study of religion. The first is the antagonism between the two camps in understanding religious studies—the “humanists” and the “scientists”. This tension reveals itself in debates between the critical theorists (Ivan Strenski) and cognitivists (Edward Slingerland), and also debates between proponents (Jonathan Tuckett) and opponents (Craig Martin) of a phenomenological paradigm in religious studies. The rise of cognitive theory makes the shift of religious studies into the naturalist framework allegedly unavoidable, yet there are many things to debate. The volume shows that good old paradigms are still operative despite new ways of doing “science.”

The second tension is between methodological and ontological naturalism. While reading the book, I had a constant suspicion that despite all assurances to the contrary, naturalism is more or less the ontological position (see especially  Schilbrack’s chapter, “A Better Methodological Naturalism”). This comes from the impression that proponents of naturalism know how reality is and they see their task in mapping religion within this reality, as if religion is not enough to do religious studies, and one must possess knowledge of where in the universe is the place for religion. That, I think, makes a religious researcher inevitably an expert in metaphysics or ontology. I have serious doubts that many of us want to be such experts.

Finally, the most serious tension is between the principles declared as normative for religious studies and actual empirical work in the field. It is good to know that there are emergent ontologies (Schilbrack) and “vertical integration” (Slingerland), but does it really matter when one deals with the real practices, real people, and communities? The question Strenski asks about the cognitive studies of religion is important here: “What interesting or challenging question about religion do these results answer?” (214). Once we know the pros and cons of religious studies being within the naturalist paradigm, the slight problem remains: how does naturalism—in any possible sense—relate to the empirical study of actual religions?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aleksei Rakhmanin is a doctoral student at the University of Helsinki.

Date of Review: 
July 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jason N. Blum is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Davidson College. He is the author of Zen and the Unspeakable God (Penn State Press, 2015), and various articles concerning methodology in religious studies and topics at the intersection of philosophy and religion.


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