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Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief  by Huston Smith.

I wrote a review of this book for a class a couple years ago.  I am going to post it as I wrote it for my class, so it will be a bit more formal than my posts tend to be. I highly recommend this book! I disagree with Smith on some things. (For example, he is a universalist.) However, in an age of disbelief, it is refreshing to hear a voice crying out for why religion matters!

Huston Smith is internationally known as an outstanding scholar of world religions. He has taught at several renowned universities and authored fifteen books, including the classic text on comparative religions entitled The World’s Religions.  In Why Religion Matters, Smith argues that our materialistic, scientific age has suffocated religion, and he gives a passionate plea for religion to be returned to a place where it is treasured by society.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part is called “Modernity’s tunnel” and contains seven chapters. He divides human history into three major periods: the traditional period, the modern period, and the postmodern period. Neither the modern or postmodern period has handled the metaphysical issues of life well, and he defends the merits of the traditional worldview in this regard.  He states that the timeless wisdom of the human race is found distilled in the world’s great, enduring religions. Yet, science and our materialistic modern age has backed us into a tunnel where religion and metaphysical issues in general have been sidelined, ignored, or outright dismissed as irrelevant.

He argues that there are four sides to this tunnel that we have been backed into: science, higher education, the media, and the law.  He makes an interesting distinction between science and “scientism.”  Scientism is the perspective that science is the only reliable path to truth, and the only source of legitimate knowledge. Science is good, but it has been turned into a “sacred cow.”

Having devoted the first half of the book to the tunnel that modernism has shunted us into, he now begins part two entitled “The light at the tunnel’s end.”  These nine chapters focus on the future. He believes that scientific triumphalism has peaked, secular theories are finally being challenged, and that there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel.

Science has limits; it can not deal with intrinsic values, existential meanings, and it can even dead end in questions with no answers. While science can provide us with wonderful technology, it can not provide us with the values needed to ethically utilize the technology. The scientific worldview saw causation upwards from the simple to complex, but the traditional worldview was hierarchical, and saw causation from the superior to inferior.  We are derived from something greater than ourselves, and we need to return to this belief in a transcendent reality. Smith hopes for a time in the future when science and religion can co-exist in a beneficial fashion.

Smith essentially has a theistic worldview.  He believes that a personal God created us in his image, and as a result all humans have a God-shaped vacuum built into their hearts. He is clearly bothered by evolution, and it was impressive to see the space he devoted to this issue. None of the secular theories of the twentieth century, from Darwinism to Marxism, were able to fill the void in the human heart.  However, he is also a universalist who believes that all roads lead to God, and all will be saved in the end.  In the book he refers to God by “whatsoever” name we choose to call him. I can’t help but feel that in his universalism, that he in fact becomes part of the problem that he is addressing in the book!  If all religions lead to the same God, why are there such conflicting beliefs and truth claims among the various world religions?  This seems to reinforce the idea that only science is objective, and religion is purely subjective and thus suspect.

Nonetheless, I feel that Smith has very effectively argued his case that religion should play a vital role in an age of science, and that the human spirit must be set free from the scientific cage that has imprisoned it. The quotation that perhaps best sums up Smith’s stance throughout this book is:

If anything characterizes ‘modernity,’ it is a loss of faith in transcendence….

As an evangelical Christian, it was refreshing to read a book that exposed the pervasive atheistic/secularistic worldview that has suffocated our society on so many levels.  The fact that Smith is not an evangelical Christian, along with the fact that he is a respected scholar, should give the thesis of this book more credibility among scientists, secularists, and other skeptics of the benefits of religion for society.  Science must learn to respect religion’s realm of competence.

Smith’s writing style is at times “chatty” and the book has many personal stories, quotes, anecdotes, and insights from his long and varied career in the religious field.  However, it is not a light read and he integrates knowledge on science, philosophy, history, religion, and worldviews. While I would only recommend it to more academically oriented lay people, its message could be appreciated by believers and skeptics alike.