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


By Alan Reder  |  

Huston smith, America’s leading scholar on world religion, has a new book out—and boy, is he ticked off. Although the language of Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief (Harper SanFrancisco) is often genteel, acid seeps out between the lines. Smith is fed up with a mainstream culture that he says has “written science a blank check” to explain the universe and relegated religion to the sidelines.

In Why Religion Matters, he protests this long-standing state of affairs and argues for restoring religion as humanity’s guiding light. But it’s not just anger that drives the good professor, it’s also concern. If we make science, not Spirit, the ultimate source of knowledge and meaning, he says, we severely limit the knowledge and meaning available to us. Where do we come from? Why are we here? What happens to us after death? How can we be our best in the meantime? Science won’t even address the Big Picture questions, much less answer them.

Smith, author of the authoritative The World’s Religions (originally titled The Religions of Man), makes clear from the outset that his quarrel is not with science per se. As he also stated in that classic work, religion can’t touch science’s understanding of the physical world and should quit trying: “That this scientific cosmology retires traditional ones with their six days of creation and the like goes without saying.” He also believes that most scientists are nice, tolerant folks who respect others’ faith.

But that hasn’t stopped an influential minority from trying to bury religion, Smith notes. For hundreds of years now, leading scientists and other Western intellectual giants—Smith cites Darwin, Freud, Marx, and Nietzche, in addition to media stars like the late Carl Sagan—have inflated science’s purpose, which is to study the physical universe, into an ideology: materialism. This worldview—which holds that if it isn’t based in matter, it doesn’t exist—is also known as scientism. Through a kind of intellectual coup, it now dominates contemporary life.

The rationale behind scientism goes like this: Science’s methods can only apprehend material things and the things they give rise to (for instance, thoughts may be nonmaterial, but they are seen by materialists as born in gray matter). To accept the existence of anything beyond the material universe requires faith. But faith, the materialists contend, is just a remnant from humanity’s childhood, a prescientific time when people didn’t know better. Aided by the legal principle of separation of church and state, scientists have thus inherited the keys to the kingdom, even if that kingdom is a lot less glorious than the spiritual realms humans first imagined.

What frustrates Smith most is that science not only doesn’t depend upon the winner-take-all stance of scientism but is actually inconsistent with it. None of science’s discoveries disprove a larger, spiritual universe.
In fact, many leading physicists, for instance, feel that discoveries in their field jive perfectly with spiritual maps of the universe that are thousands of years old. In addition, spiritual and parapsychological literature teems with reports that any intellectually honest empiricist is forced to consider.


Could any free-thinking scientist dismiss out of hand Charles Tart’s careful scholarship on human consciousness, the extraordinary life experiences of the Hindu saint Ramakrishna, or the surprisingly accurate medical diagnoses made by the psychic Edgar Cayce?

Scientism has risen to its dominant position in part, Smith observes, because it’s good for business. After scientists discover new natural laws, engineers (often employed by companies) figure out how to apply them in products, which business then markets and sells. Thus, discovering the speed of light leads to fiber optics, modems, and then Amazon.com. What’s more, scientific materialism begets personal materialism, i.e., consumerism: Since this life is the only one we have, we might as well max out the credit cards and party!

Why Religion Matters is divided into two parts. The first, a withering assault on scientism, may leave readers feeling withered as well. But the tone brightens in Part II, when Smith (who commented on some of the book’s ideas in his September/October 1997 Yoga Journal interview) hones in on the qualities that make religion indispensable. This section of the book depends on his spiritual insight as much as his scholarship, and readers will find it as enlightening as it is informative.

Take his explanation of the idea of a personal God, which helped me work through a spiritual dilemma other readers may share. Like Smith himself, I consider myself a mystic, someone who sees spirit in everything—even bad things—but believes that no human mind can capture ultimate truth. The idea of God as Super Parent interceding on my behalf just doesn’t fit. But I also admit that when desperate, I pray—and what am I praying to if not Something that is listening and interested?

Thanks to Smith, I no longer feel like a superstitious hypocrite. In his view,
a personal God in the mystical sense is more like those little icons on your computer screen. Call it Shiva, Lord, Allah, or the Black Lady—it doesn’t matter. It’s a construct, a mask, something that makes spiritual life user-friendly without limiting Spirit itself in any way.

Smith also makes a powerful point when describing the religious impulse. We hunger for “more” outside our everyday experience, and that suggests to him that this “more” exists, much the same way that “the wings of birds point to the reality of air.” This same impulse proves, he feels, that however much scientism tries, it will never push religion completely off the stage. “Having been created in the . . . image of God, all people have a God-shaped vacuum built into their hearts. Since nature abhors a vacuum, people keep trying to fill the one inside them.”
A sense of outrage about religion’s diminished place in life pervades Why Religion Matters, but is the situation really as dire as Smith paints it?

Social scientist Paul Ray’s research reveals that spirituality is on the upswing in America—in particular, “alternative” forms such as yoga, Buddhism, Sufism, and mystical approaches to Judaism and Christianity. Sure, Smith says, that movement also includes New Age flakiness, but it still constitutes a direct challenge to scientism and demonstrates that a passion for asking the Big Questions is very much alive in society. University of California, Santa Barbara religion professor Wade Clark Roof’s work points to a similar upswing led by the baby boomers, now finding their way back to spirituality in middle-age after a majority rejected their parent’s version of it in their youth. Smith certainly is aware of these trends, but he seems to underrate them.


Perhaps the most admirable quality of Smith’s perspective is the way he incorporates scientific fact into his own religious outlook. He is his own best example of an open-minded, inquisitive truthseeker—a sort of Renaissance person of faith. It’s a model that both scientific and religious leaders would do well to emulate. But to get there, the hard cases in both camps will have to do more homework. Smith chides his intellectual adversaries for failing to do just that: “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.”

By the same token, why couldn’t more ultra-religious folks embrace science for revealing the magnificence and ingenuity of God’s creation? Public television recently promoted its programming with a campaign that urges us to “Stay curious.” In effect, that is also the underlying message from Huston Smith—to everyone.

Contributing editor Alan Reder wrote on integrating yoga and religion in the March/April 01 issue and is the coauthor of The Whole Parenting Guide (Broadway Books, 1999).