“Homo Religiosus” (Shah & Friedman, eds.)

The problem of defining religion–or even of identifying its core–is one of the mightiest peaks in the law and religion sierra. Many have attempted to scale it; but the mountain has beaten back more than a few aspirants. The difficulties in definition are so great that an increasing number of scholars has concluded that there is nothing “special” about religion as a category of legal rights (which, of course, is not the same as saying that religious freedom should not be protected, constitutionally or otherwise, though such a conclusion does have implications for the nature of that protection). Others have responded that religion is “special enough”–distinctive enough, as compared with other rights such as the right to free speech, to warrant separate legal protection (I am probably somewhere in this group, since I believe that the reasons for any right’s protection are historically and contingently grounded). And still others, particularly among the sociologically and philosophically-minded, have been prompted to undertake new studies and explorations of religion’s essence or true nature.

Here is a new volume in the last category, Homo Religiosus: Exploring the Roots of Religion and Religious Freedom in Human Existence (CUP), edited by Timothy SamuelHomo Religiosus Shah and Jack Friedman. The book is nicely organized as a series of principal essays by leading scholars on the subject followed by (what appear to be highly critical) responses.

Are humans naturally predisposed to religion and supernatural beliefs? If so, does this naturalness provide a moral foundation for religious freedom? This volume offers a cross-disciplinary approach to these questions, engaging in a range of contemporary debates at the intersection of religion, cognitive science, sociology, anthropology, political science, epistemology, and moral philosophy. The contributors to this original and important volume present individual, sometimes opposing points of view on the naturalness of religion thesis and its implications for religious freedom. Topics include the epistemological foundations of religion, the relationship between religion and health, and a discussion of the philosophical foundations of religious freedom as a natural, universal right, drawing implications for the normative role of religion in public life. By challenging dominant intellectual paradigms, such as the secularization thesis and the Enlightenment view of religion, the volume opens the door to a powerful and provocative reconceptualization of religious freedom.