Review: Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, Huston Smith (Harper San Francisco, 2001)

Reviewed by George Stapleton

Working in a bookstore, I have caught sight of and handled Huston Smith's classic The World's Religions numerous times without ever having read it. I had been fascinated, however, by the TV series he did with Bill Moyers on that subject some years ago, and so, when this new book of his arrived, with its very intriguing title, I decided it was a must read for me.

Smith acknowledges in his preface that "the most important thing I inherited from my parents was faith," a faith that he has struggled "to keep intact in the face of the modern winds of doctrine that assail it." He insists that "if those winds were powered by truth, I would bow to them, but as I have not found them to be so, I must point that out." Those "winds of doctrine" are modernism and post-modernism. These worldviews (Big Pictures, metaphysical systems) he contrasts to the traditional worldview, which is a religious one. He does so by opposing the image of "The Great Outdoors" for the traditional worldview with that of a "tunnel" for the others. The floor of that tunnel is scientism, a philosophical assumption that insists, first. that "the scientific method is, if not the only reliable method of getting at the truth, then at least the most reliable method; and second, that the things science deals with - material entities - are the most fundamental things that exist." Higher education and the law make up the walls of the tunnel, while the media is its ceiling. Exposing the unfounded assumptions that underlie this tunnel comprises the first half of the book. In the second half, using the "light at the tunnel's end" as his guiding image, Smith presents and defends the traditional religious worldview.

Smith is careful to distinguish true science (the scientific method and the body of facts about the natural world it has brought to light) from scientism and then is relentless not only in exposing the latter's unprovable assumptions, but also in making clear how it permeates our culture. "We don't even bother to ignore you guys," a scientist once remarked to the author when asked how he and his scientific colleagues regarded humanists. Smith takes pains to show that this attitude is not shared by all scientists, but it is far too common to be ignored. He finds it even in Stephen Jay Gould's recent Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, a work written in order to resolve the so-called "science-religion antagonism:"

"Gould says he cannot see what all the fuss is about, for (he tells us) 'the conflict between science and religion exists only in people's minds, not in the logic or proper utility of these entirely different and equally vital subjects.' When tangle and confusion are cleared away, he says, 'a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution emerges,' which turns out (not surprisingly) to be his own. 'Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different realm of human purposes, meanings, and values.'"

Smith points out that not only does Gould define religion in terms of human rather than divine "purposes, meanings, and values," but he avoids the deeper issue of who, in Smith's words, "is to deal with the factual character of the nonnatural, supernatural world. No one - for to his skeptical eyes the natural world is all there is, so facts pertain there only." Smith grants that Gould has a right to that opinion, but he insists that it is wrong "to base his definitions of science and religion on it."

In the second half of the book, Smith first turns his attention to physics, biology and the cognitive sciences to show that they seem to be "moving toward a less-entunneled outlook." Here he reveals a rather good grasp (for a layman) of both past and present research in these fields. He is unable to resist tweaking the noses of some polemical proponents of scientism in this regard:

"My shelf of books on science-for-the-laity is as long as my shelves on each of the major world religions, but I will be very much surprised if you can say as much from your side. Your standard criticisms of religion sound so much like satires of third-grade Sunday school teachings that they make me want to ask when you last read a theological treatise and what its title was."

After emphasizing the ambiguity of the world we experience - "it comes to us as a giant Rorschach inkblot" - Smith, in chapter 14, reaches the climax he has been working up to and frequently giving previews of since page one, a description of the traditional, religious worldview. In one previous book, Huston Smith: Essays on World Religion, he had addressed the differences among world faiths, while in another, Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World's Religions, he had focused on "the conceptual spine that underlies these differences." Here he compresses the major findings of the latter book in a form geared for the general public. He insists he is "describing" rather than "arguing for" the traditional worldview, even while admitting that he comes at this task "as someone who was raised in a traditional culture and has spent most of his career teaching the Big Picture as impounded in the world's great religions." Although he has more than once advised the reader that worldviews are unprovable, he does not shy away from presenting ideas in favor of the religious worldview which "are worth pondering as we decide which outlook we want to live by."

Smith follows with an intriguing analysis of "spiritual personality types" before finishing, in a chapter titled "Spirit", by "defiantly taking his stand with the traditionalists" and doing all he can "to drag modern investigators kicking and screaming" with him. In an epilogue, he addresses a letter to scientists - especially the militant dogmatic materialists among them - on why and how they should "try to understand where believers are coming from."

This is a marvelously readable book - intellectually stimulating, well-reasoned, and quite insightful. While Smith's scholarship is abundantly evident, he often expresses himself very personally and passionately. He tells some great stories and cites a wide range of authors. My only caveat in this regard is that he does not footnote. Although the authors and titles he references are usally identified in the text, this is not always the case. If this book were meant mainly for scholars, rather than the general public, this lack would be more serious than it is.

I came to the reading of this book as one already committed to and trying to live my life according to the Big Picture that the religious worldview provides. Like Huston Smith, I, too, have struggled to keep my faith intact "in the face of modern winds of doctrine that assail it." I am grateful for the intellectual and spiritual support which Why Religion Matters provides.


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