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REVIEW: Why Religion Matters by Huston Smith12 min read

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1 Introduction

In Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief (2006), Huston Smith (d. 2016), the lifelong religion scholar and Professor of Philosophy, argues for the ongoing importance of religion despite modern trends towards disbelief and materialism. Though self-identifying as a Christian and a son of Christian missionaries to China, Smith spent his life experiencing the many expressions of faith, adopting their beliefs and practices, looking for both congruence and incongruence among them. In doing so, he seems to claim the legitimacy of and membership in all of them to various extents, and valiantly attempts some synergy between them, finally arriving at a type of hopeful universal faith and salvation in the end.

Smith presents a diagram of how we perceive reality through two primary views – the narrative, or religious view (a large circle), and the scientific or materialist view, which is represented as a smaller circle inside (Figure 1). His point is that science and reason can only measure and describe part of reality, but the narrative view includes all of reality, including not only material reality but metaphysical and numinous reality. For this reason alone, Smith claims that man will always need more than science and reason can provide, regardless of their strength in describing the physical universe. While Smith believes that these two disciplines can work together, they should each focus on and respect their respective spheres of competence. However, concerning religion’s greater scope, he summarizes these competencies with Oliver Wendell Holmes’ quote, “Science gives us major answers to minor questions, while religion gives us minor answers to major questions.” This seems a bit cavalier, but it perhaps puts the impressive achievements of science in perspective – since it can’t provide what we ultimately want – meaning and victory over death.

On the road to this conclusion, or should I say track, Smith employs throughout the book the metaphor of a long train ride through a tunnel, one with the Light at the end. The walls of the tunnel that enclose us in their descriptions of reality represent the various secular worldviews that influence, interpret and inform our reality (Figure 2). In subsequent chapters, Smith describes both the benefits and limitations of each view, all the time keeping us mindful of the role religions play in our shoring up these limited approaches. With each worldview, he helpfully uses a representative and well-known book as part of his exploration.

2 Three Dominant Worldviews

Smith argues that three worldviews promise to answer our questions about reality and how it works, and each must have an answer to the three major inescapable problems that humans encounter, namely:

  1. The Problem of Nature: how to win food and shelter
  2. The Social Problem: how to get along with others
  3. The Religious Problem: how to relate ourselves to the entire scheme of things (meaning)

The three worldviews in Smith’s competition are the traditional, modern, and post-modern views. Even though these views developed in chronological order, and each contributed unique improvements, Smith argues that they can not replace one another without losing benefits, and that even though some people see the older views as primitive and “pre-scientific,” they are not irrelevant. And since many have pursued modernism and postmodernism in a fashion that has denied or denigrated the traditional view, Smith is championing the traditional view as a tonic for the malaise and nihilism brought on by the insufficiencies of the latter views. Smith nicely summarizes the denouement of the traditional view’s triumph for the individual this way:

Signs of a [poorly fit worldview] are the sense of meaninglessness, alienation, and anxiety that the twentieth century knew so well. The proof of a good fit is that life and the world make sense. When the fit feels perfect, the energies of the cosmos pour into the believer and empower her to a startling degree. She knows that she belongs. The Ultimate supports her, and the knowledge that it does that produces a wholeness that is solid for fitting as a piece of a jigsaw puzzle into the wholeness of All. (pp. 25-26)

3 The Scientific World View

Smith sees a dark side to the rise of science, though its blessing and prowess should not be discounted or diminished. That downside is that “human beings started considering themselves the bearers of the highest meaning in the world and the measure of everything, [but] meaning began to ebb and the stature of humanity to diminish.” Smith is not fighting science, however, but scientism, the idea that science is the only reliable, if not the only existing way to know and understand reality.

The problem with this approach, Smith insists, is not that it is wrong when exploring the material world, but when exploring the metaphysical world of values, morals, and ethics, it must not be allowed to bully other means of knowing as if its considerable strength is superior to or even equally valuable in the metaphysical environment. Not that it is useless, but it is certainly not the strongest man in the room. Even worse for scientism, it can pollute its own liberty and processes by failing to recognize its own metaphysics, such as Darwinism, being taken as gospel and hindering inquiry, and then being taken as a source of value and meaning (which is not science’s domain), to some horrible ends.

4 Higher Education

Smith continues to describe the impact that modernism and post-modernism, as well as scientism, have had on higher education. Again, he is arguing that these later views contributed to society, but their totalitarian usage erased the foundational gains of traditional views that lead to values and meaning. The humanities, which spend most of their energies exploring life and meaning, become increasingly considered less valuable and wither on the vine, as we do without them. And because higher education forges the character and views of our citizens, if not our leaders, this crippled viewpoint dominates the culture and creates impoverished human beings.

5 The Media

Though written in 2006, Smith already saw how the selective and biased media could manipulate public opinion and set priorities for culture that may be more based on the will of the powerful than the needs of human beings. Smith uses the Scopes Trial as a clear and early example of spin v. reality. But again, the real issue in Smith’s mind is that the modern and post-modern mindsets which exclude the traditional religious views lead to warped values and priorities, purposeful misrepresentation of news, and abuse and ignorance of the majority of our population who are of the traditional mindset. This was very clear in the success and failures of American President Trump, who won based on an appeal to the forgotten traditionalist and lost his second bid arguably to media lies, omissions, and spin.  These events may have transpired in large part due to a bias against traditionalism and religion, and towards a post-modern perspective.

6 The Law, i.e. Politics

Certainly, an anti-traditional approach has bled into politics, where “the dominant, liberal-rationalist culture increasingly impose(s) on the public ‘a common rhetoric that refuse(s) to accept the notion that rational, public-spirited people can take religion seriously’” (p. 123). Smith rightly bemoans the marginalization of religion, and reminds us that the great human rights improvements, including the American civil rights movement, could not have happened in many countries without the “churches’ determined support.” The list of these human rights campaigns is long, from women’s suffrage to abolition of slavery, the end of foot-binding of Chinese women, and hopefully soon the unborn. Modern and post-modern views just don’t have the depth of moral clarity to propel such movements.

7 The Light of Faith

In the second half of the book, Smith explores the scientific characteristics of life and reads metaphorical meanings from them. He explains how the false light of reason has led us to the horrors of social Darwinism and Communism. The happy ending promised by these utopian world views turned out to be horror because they are not rooted in reality, but in human ideas apart from the ground of reality, which is God. He writes,

The campaign against ignorance has expanded our knowledge of nature, but science cannot tell us what we should give our lives to. That is disappointing: it is discouraging to discover that not only are we no wiser…than our forebears were; we may be less wise for having neglected value questions while bringing nature to heal (p. 151).

Smith takes courage from recent trends towards reaffirming the value and necessity of metaphysics and religion but also says that we should look for the metaphysics implied by three modern sciences going forward, i.e. physics, biology, and psychology. Each is moving towards their limits in understanding and may be revealing more of what materialists have not wanted to see – the Creator behind physical reality. Physics, genetics, as well as the physical and phenomenological exploration of psychology seem to reveal greater design and mystery rather than less, as reflected in his mention of this startling image from Dale Kohler:

We have been scraping away at physical reality all these centuries, and now the layer of the remaining little that we don’t understand is so thin that God’s face is staring right out at us (p. 177).

8 Conclusion

Smith segues into his last overview of reality by calling for a proper definition of science and its scope, and a détente that allows for each view to contribute what it must to human flourishing. To whit:

The best thing about modernism was its science, the best thing about postmodernism was its concern for justice, and the best thing about the traditional age was/is its worldview.

After discussing a few models for understanding the relationship between these approaches to reality, Smith settles into a type of religions syncretism that shows that there are perhaps four levels of awareness of reality which increase in their scope of reality and proximity to God (p. 234) but exist in all religious belief systems (Figure 3)

  1. Atheism: “atheism’s world houses nothing but matter and the subjective experiences of biological organisms”
  2. Polytheism: “adds spirits to the foregoing – this is the realm of folk religion”
  3. Monotheism: “places all of the above under the aegis of a supreme being who creates and orchestrates everything”
  4. Mysticism: “having nothing further to add to the foregoing, mystics double back over the terrain to find God everywhere”

Smith’s concluding point here is that no one can be entirely sure about their soteriology or eschatology and that in the end, the hopeful mystic has the best and most full view of the world. While they are all subjectively describing the same four levels of reality from material to spiritual, the best view is that which includes spiritual experience in concert with and atop all other kinds of knowing.

9 Critique

Smith’s writing is winsome and conversational, self-effacing and a bit wandering. He is obviously supremely well-read, quoting every theologian and philosopher from Augustine to Zarathustra, and incorporates not only important literature but current and historical events. However, I found his frequent trips into deeper but relevant examples a bit distracting, and I often lost the flow of his arguments. His prose was clear, yet I still had the constant experience of jumbled thoughts and asides crowding their way into the flow of the work, shipwrecking me on the shores of the chapters.

His zeal and hard work looking for commonality between faith systems are impressive, but I’m not sure his accommodations allow for absolute truth to win out, despite his call for discernment instead of postmodern relativism. In the end, I enjoyed many of the quotes and statements in the book but did not enjoy the darting flow of the book – despite its orderly progression at the chapter level, the contents themselves felt unsecure and jumbled, anecdotal and overly conversational. I would have preferred something more didactic, but that’s me.