Science and Religious Anthropology: A Spiritually Evocative Naturalist Interpretation of Human Life  . By Wesley J.Wildman with a Foreword by PhilipClayton . Burlington , Vt. : Ashgate Publishing Company , 2009 . XXIII + 270 Pages. $89.95 .

Wesley J. Wildman is an Associate Professor in the Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics Department of Boston University's School of Theology. “Religion,” as Wildman defines it, means simply that which gives meaning to our lives and binds us to our commitments. That “meaning” comes from human nature and our experiences in life. Wildman propounds a strict naturalism that eschews all super‐naturalistic and supra‐naturalistic beings and processes of explanation and keeps our attention closely focused on earthly realities as described by natural and social sciences. However, Wildman wants to engage the world's religions because they hold a wealth of wisdom and insight into human being, and offer the comfort and guidance religious ideas provide. The religious naturalist approach is able “to speak of religious experiences as genuine events of encounter or engagement without prejudging the nature of that which is encountered or engaged, except to say that it is the Whence of the encounter, the Logical Object of the engagement, and rooted somehow in the valuational, meaning‐laden deep structures and dynamics of nature. [Note the surprising use of capitalization here; also note that nature here probably means human nature rather than nature in the mountains or on a coral reef, just as natural responses (in what follows) mean specifically those of humans.] This allows us to speak of religious behaviors and beliefs as natural responses to social pressures and psychological needs in a spiritually luminous environment without prejudging the correctness of beliefs or the appropriateness of actions.” Also, this stance “permits a theologically sophisticated analysis of evaluation of the human being as homo religiosus” (all p. 18).

Wildman works to reveal the human species as homo religiosus. “This means that we are oriented to primordial, ultimate mystery in our experiences, our social practices, our drives and projective impulses, our longings and failures, our malevolence and love; and that we are so not only historically, culturally, or circumstantially, but also ontologically, essentially, and inescapably” (p. 24). For Wildman, “it is first‐order inquiries into the natural world that uncover everything there is to know about human beings, and about the ultimate realities and ultimate concerns that human beings engage in and through nature” (p. 26). This encapsulates Wildman's religious anthropology, which, he believes, will provide a framework for a discussion with the broader academic community, especially since his basic method of inquiry is pragmatic and fallibilist, holding all knowledge as hypothetical, to be superseded when better facts or theory are found. But, as Wildman's wide knowledge so amply testifies, there is much more to learn about everything than only our own first‐order encounters.

Engagement with modern academe is not assured, however, because it operates from what Wildman designates as the “modern secular interpretation of humanity (MSIH)” (p. 209). This is drawn from the natural sciences, human sciences, and the scientific study of religion. Wildman states that, while not univocal, its “provisional conclusions collectively constitute the basis for a powerful interpretation of human life that is characteristically modern, secular, and interdisciplinary” (p. 209). He also states that “The MSIH is a demanding dialogue partner and consistency with it or even reasoned resistance to it is difficult to achieve. … [O]ne measure of the awkwardness of the MSIH [for the religious anthropologist who seeks to engage it] is that it offers a provisional account of every aspect of humanity and religion. … [N]ot even the most inward subjectivity or the most complex value structures are beyond its interpretative reach, at least in some respects” (p. 225–26). He recognizes that there are diverse viewpoints, beliefs, and accepted methods within the MSIH but he states that “the MSIH is sufficiently determinate to impose strong constraints on any wider theological interpretation of the human condition” (p. 209) while not fully determining the outcome of that endeavor.

Wildman is at home in the philosophy of science and in the natural sciences and understands how theories are made and unmade; what can be “proven” and what may be true but cannot be proven. He provides a more detailed exploration of Evolution, Groups, Brains, Bodies, Sex, and Habitat, in the six chapters at the center of his book. I particularly resonated to his attention to the implications of the fact that bacteria were the first life forms; are by many orders of magnitude the most abundant; and operate in, on, and around every other life form symbiotically, neutrally, or antagonistically. Until his final chapter, where he introduces the MSIH, he seems attentive to the idea that humans may not be the central figures of this universe.

Wildman acknowledges that he is wading into very swampy terrain. For instance, many of the common words and ideas of the world's great religions (such as the concept of soul or jiva), find little or no place with Wildman's religious naturalism or in the MSIH and, indeed, are profoundly at odds with both. Thus, Wildman has already denied many of the comforts and rationales of religious traditions that are foundational for their adherents. Even with these ceded, the secular side of the dialogue may still not find the discussion significant enough to be interesting. Nevertheless, Wildman feels that a dialogue between theologians and MSIH would be fruitful for both sides.

At this point, it seems reasonable to ask how a tentative construct such as MSIH can be the unquestioned source of criteria for meaningful advance in understanding and the sole gauge of the degree of consensus. Furthermore, Wildman expresses no concern about the frequent alterations, some of them drastic, which have occurred and continue to evolve in the MSIH. Worse, in my mind, is the fact that the prevalent ethical structure of MSIH is either disinterested or shaped by the economic dogma of self‐interest. Perhaps Wildman has inadvertently offered a rather fickle demigod that is unable to recognize the validity of anything beyond a religious naturalism of quarks and genes and current academic fashion? Can MSIH be other than distantly, neutrally appreciative of the supposed comforts or commitments to moral behaviors that are encouraged by religious traditions and practices? Wildman has only discussion to alter its authority. If religious naturalism and MSIH remain in separate magisteria, as seems often to be the case, there is unfortunately little in this book to require the MSIH to come to the table and take up the dialogue. But Science and Religious Anthropology will excite a good deal of discussion within parts of the religious community, and it is certainly an interesting framework to consider for persons already interested in the science‐religion discussion.

If discussion between Wildman's religious naturalism and MSIH does commence, he is deeply aware of the methodological sinkholes that abound. A subsequent volume will tackle methodological questions related to interdisciplinary inquiry in general and his brand of theological anthropology and religious philosophy in particular (Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future for Philosophy of Religion; Albany: State University of New York Press; a third volume on religious and spiritual experiences is also forthcoming). Wildman's Science and Religious Anthropology engagingly and clearly outlines an austere religious naturalism and unflinchingly, almost touchingly, helps us understand its possibilities and its limits.