The Book "Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief", Huston Smith, 2001, San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers.



Huston Smith is undoubtedly the foremost scholar of comparative religion, most famous for his bestselling book The World's Religions (1991) and for the five-part Emmy-nominated PBS television series with Bill Moyers on "The Wisdom of Faith" (1996). His publications and video series demonstrate that he is not simply a student of comparative religion in the library, but a keen participant observer in the communities of various religions. Clearly he thinks that many religions share a common core of ancient, elemental, and valuable world wisdom which address ultimate questions including values, virtues, meaning, and purpose in life (Smith 1991, 1992).

In Why Religion Matters Smith assess the human spirit in an age of disbelief to explain just why religion does really matter. His basic thesis or argument is that: "We have dropped Transcendence not because we have discovered something that proves it nonexistent. We have merely lowered our gaze" (p. 217). In other words, religion has not been disproved or rendered outmoded by either science or philosophy, rather humans simply have been increasingly preoccupied with the material side of existence, either just to survive physically, or else in the misplaced pursuit of fulfillment through technology and consumerism (48).

The book is divided into two parts, Part I on "Modernity's Tunnel" and Part II on "The Light at the Tunnel's End." The metaphorical tunnel is composed of scientism as the floor, higher education as the left wall, the media as the roof, and the law as its right wall.

Scientism pivots on the misplaced and myopic faith that science is the best, or even only way, to understand the world (positivism), and that matter is the foundation of all existence (materialism and reductionism)(60, 62, 64, 84-85). This reflects naturalism, the idea that nature is all there is, and that nature is devoid of anything that might be called spirit (12). According to Smith, the problem is not science per se, but a gross misreading of it (5). Smith (59) writes that: "Science is on balance good, whereas nothing good can be said for scientism." Some scientists, for example, pursue Darwinism as if it were a religion and become tyrannically dogmatic about it (77-78).

Religion and science are contending for the future human mind, humanity's sense of reality, truth, and meaning is at stake. Yet ultimately most humans crave much more than simply everyday experience in an exclusively material world. Smith asserts that religion has held and continues to hold an important place in the life of most individuals and all societies (xiv). In the end, modernity is unsatisfying. Neither evolution nor secularization have extinguished the need and desire for religion. As Smith observes, reality is intolerable for most humans when it is devoid of all spiritual, metaphysical dimension (41). Organisms have to develop a niche in order to survive, and humans, as mental beings, also have to develop a viable worldview in order to survive, otherwise there is a sense of alienation, anxiety, and meaninglessness (26). "Whether we realize it or not, simply to be human is to long for release from mundane existence, with its confining walls of finitude and mortality" (28).

Humans must cope with nature, each other, and "the total scheme of things" (11). Smith describes three successive approaches to reality which he labels traditionalists (from earliest times up to the rise of science), modernists (from the rise of science to the first half of the 20th century), and postmodernists (last half of the 20th century).

The traditional worldview is that of the Animists, those who see spirit in nature (41). Modernists have attempted to explain nature as devoid of spirit, and postmodernists have tackled social injustices like never before, but worldviews or metaphysics remain largely the province of religion (12). While modernists reduce everything to nature, postmodernists reduce everything to society. For the most extreme postmodernists, everything is relative; that is, relative to the power play of some actor (15, 91). They question all worldviews, and consider them to be totalizing by marginalizing minority viewpoints (21, 89).

Smith advocates pursuing the best in each of these three approaches while discarding the worst in them (22). He points out that today few if any individuals subscribe solely to one view to the complete exclusion of the other two, it is a matter of emphasis (33-34).

Science deals with the physical, religion with the metaphysical (42). Smith (71) observes: "For it cannot be said too often that the issue between science and religion is not between facts and values. That issue enters, but derivatively. The fundamental issue is about facts, period--- the entire panoply of facts as gestalted by worldviews. Specifically here, it is about the standing of values in the objective world, the world that is there whether human beings exist or not. Are values as deeply ingrained in that world as are its natural laws, or are they added to it as epiphenomenal gloss when life enters the picture?"

Higher education, media, and law are in collusion with scientism, thereby disavowing any recognition of the possibilities, let alone realities, of a transcendent or spiritual dimension. Most universities at best tend to disregard any reality beyond the material, and at worst they deny that any such reality exists (83). Smith (93-94) observes: "When state universities and colleges were created [in the U.S.A.], it was initially assumed that the constitutional separation of church and state prohibited the teaching of religion in public institutions. Around the middle of this century, however, a distinction was drawn between teaching objective facts about religion and proselytizing for it, and this paved the way for religious studies departments to spring up on most campuses." Smith (96) goes so far as to assert that: "The modern university is not agnostic toward religion, it is actively hostile to it."

Religion is usually tolerated on the grounds that there may be two different kinds of truth, one derived from reason and science, the other from religion with its preoccupation with morality, values, and meaning (100). But far too often the former is considered material, the latter simply immaterial! Thus, according to Smith (100), "The crisis of faith in the modern world derives from the cognitive disparity between these two views of truth."

Smith (146) writes: "In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the scientific method replaced revelation, its predecessor, as the royal road to knowledge. Conceptually, it spawned the scientific worldview, while its technology created the modern world. The citizens of these new physical and conceptual environments constitute a new human breed whose beliefs correspond to very little in the human heritage. As a consequence, religion--- the carrier of the traditional heritage--- has been marginalized, both intellectually and politically." Nevertheless, the future of religion is secure because humans are spiritual beings, and modernity and postmodernity simply are not spiritually relevant and fulfilling (148-149). Smith (152) observes that " cannot tell us what we should give our lives to." Furthermore, he argues that in many ways the Enlightenment promise has failed; for example, reason has not prevailed and poverty has not been eliminated. Value questions have been neglected far too often (152).

Smith identifies a number of points demonstrating the continuing relevance and vitality of religion, and notes that many others could be cited, although numerous counterexamples could also be given (159). For instance, the governments of the U.S.S.R., China, and other communist states failed to destroy religion, this despite their systematic efforts to do so. Religion has proven most persistent and resilient in these and other societies. Secularism in the end has not won. Religion remains relevant because it treats enduring questions of ultimate value, meanings, and purpose (154-157). Also Smith (157) cites anthropologist Roy Rappaport's (1999) thesis that religion has been central throughout human evolution and will continue to be so. As another instance, Smith notes that sales of religious books have risen spectacularly, by as much as 50% in the last decade (158).

On the other hand, science has become extremely powerful in many ways, such as intervening in nature and disease. At the same time, science has not always been applied with wisdom and virtue, and sometimes it has been manipulated in ways that seriously harm nature and people (161). [Consider, for example, Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring (1962), in which she alerted the public and challenged the chemical industry regarding the far reaching negative consequences on ecology and health of the use of chemical pesticides].

The only way out of this metaphorical tunnel into a more enlightened worldview is to recognize the problems with scientism, and to consider science and religion as two very different but potentially complementary ways of knowing and understanding. They usually deal not only with different questions, but with different dimensions of reality (187).

Science and scientists have limits. Smith argues that science can only deal with what is inferior to humans and that it is dangerously anthropocentric and arrogant to think that nothing in the cosmos is superior to humans (194-197). There are things which science just can not study adequately if at all, including values, meaning, and final causes (197-199). Smith (200) quotes Oliver Wendell Homes: "Science gives us major answers to minor questions, while religion gives us minor answers to major questions." Smith (200-201) goes on to assert that: "When scientists who are convinced materialists deny the existence of things other than those they can train their instruments on, they should make it clear that they are expressing their personal opinions like everybody else and not claim the authority of science for what they say."

Smith (213) states that: "The best thing about modernism was its science, the best thing about postmodernism was/is its concern for justice, and the best thing about the traditional age was/is its worldview." Turning to "the big picture," Smith argues that God [in the most general sense] is variously viewed as knowable and unknowable, manifest and hidden, and personal and transpersonal (220). Also he identifies parallels across the major world religions regarding levels of selfhood and reality (224). [Also see Smith 1991, 1992]. He suggests that an individual's scope in viewing "the big picture" determines whether they are atheists (deny the existence of God), agnostics (do not know), polytheists (acknowledge many gods), monotheists (believe in a single God), or mystics (believe there is only God) (234, 236).

Smith notes that dogmatic scientific materialists and dogmatic religious fanatics are rare [fortunately]. He advocates greater mutual respect through dialogue, and in particular that the scientists try to understand where believers are coming from (273). Smith (274) concludes that: "The religious sense recognizes instinctively that the ultimate questions human beings ask--- What is the meaning of existence? Why are there pain and death? Why, in the end, is life worth living? What does reality consist of and what is its object?--- are the defining essence of humanity." (See Smith 1991 and 1992).


Some Comments

I can not seriously fault Smith for anything he includes in his book, and agree with him wholeheartedly about the problems and evils of scientism. However, I do think he should have provided the reader with some information and insights into several other matters which also matter. For example, the divisions and conflicts between science and religion may not always be as hard and fast as he depicts. There are scientists who are religious, whether or not they admit it publicly. Furthermore, the religion of some scientists has influenced their work, whether or not they admit it publicly. A prime example, although unjustly neglected by most, is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic priest, paleontologist, philosopher, and theologian. He wrote The Phenomenon of Man (1965) in an effort to strive for a synthesis of science and religion within a grand evolutionary framework. Furthermore, even if an individual is a scientist and not religious, that doesn't mean he or she is necessarily anti-religion. Likewise, non-scientist religious individuals are not necessarily anti-science.

Smith dwells on the often nasty conflicts between creationists and evolutionists, but neglects important positive counterexamples. For instance, since the 1980s, there has been a remarkable and very healthy meeting of minds among religions and between science and religion on the issues regarding the ongoing environmental crisis (e.g., Carroll and Warner 1998, Sponsel 2001). In this context at least, centuries of antagonism have been transcended effectively for the good of humankind, society, and the environment. This is really quite revolutionary, and surely merits attention.

Beyond these reservations, Smith provides a most fascinating, convincing, and important extended argument on why religion matters. His thought provoking book is to be recommended most highly to any thinking being, regardless of their religiosity or spirituality. (Readers may find interesting reviews and public commentary on Smith's book at Also see Debold 2002 and other professional reviews).



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