Natural Reflections Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion Barbara Herrnstein Smith

The Terry Lectures Series
Publication date:
19 Jan 2010
Yale University Press
224 pages: 210 x 140 x 19mm
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In this important and original book, eminent scholar Barbara Herrnstein Smith describes, assesses, and reflects upon a set of contemporary intellectual projects involving science, religion, and human cognition. One, which Smith calls “the New Naturalism,” is the effort to explain religion on the basis of cognitive science. Another, which she calls “the New Natural Theology,” is the attempt to reconcile natural-scientific accounts of the world with traditional religious belief. These two projects, she suggests, are in many ways mirror images—or “natural reflections”—of each other.


Examining these and related efforts from the perspective of a constructivist-pragmatist epistemology, Smith argues that crucial aspects of belief—religious and other—that remain elusive or invisible under dominant rationalist and computational models are illuminated by views of human cognition that stress its dynamic, embodied, and interactive features. She also demonstrates how constructivist understandings of the formation and stabilization of knowledge—scientific and other—alert us to similarities in the springs of science and religion that are elsewhere seen largely in terms of difference and contrast.


In Natural Reflections, Smith develops a sophisticated approach to issues often framed only polemically. Recognizing science and religion as complex, distinct domains of human practice, she also insists on their significant historical connections and cognitive continuities and offers important new modes of engagement with each of them.


Barbara Herrnstein Smith is Braxton Craven Professor of Comparative Literature and Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Science and Cultural Theory at Duke University and Distinguished Professor of English at Brown University. She is the author of Belief and Resistance: Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy and Scandalous Knowledge: Science, Truth and the Human.

"Have you noted uncharted zones and self-indulgences in the science and religion debates? In this readable and illuminating book, Barbara Herrnstein Smith explores those zones, showing us where and how the parties sometimes replicate one another in purporting to oppose each other. An indispensable book."?William E. Connolly, author of Capitalism and Christianity, American Style

"Barbara Herrnstein Smith brings nuance and sophisticated insight to an arena of debate more often marked by heat than light.  A volume of magisterial sweep and sober judgment, Natural Reflections is a true pleasure to read."—Webb Keane, author of Christian Moderns and Signs of Recognition

"A significant intervention into a range of currently discussed issues regarding the relations between science and religion...[The book is] original in its conception and well informed about many fields of academic inquiry."—Jan Golinski  

"??important, original, and thoroughly argued.??Dale Martin

"The assumption [Smith] challenges?or, rather, says we can do without?is that underlying it all is some foundation or nodal point or central truth or master procedure that, if identified, allows us to distinguish among ways of knowing and anoint one as the lodestar of inquiry. The desire, she explains, is to sift through the claims of those perspectives and methods that vie for 'underneath-it-all status' (a wonderful phrase) and validate one of them so that we can proceed in the confidence that our measures, protocols, techniques and procedures are in harmony with the universe and perhaps with God."?Stanley Fish, Opiniator Blog (

"One of the most convincing exercises in meta-analysis of the available texts on cognitive science of religion and the theological answers."—Lluis Oviedo, Reviews in Religion and Theology