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

A new book out by America's leading scholar on world religion makes a passionate case for the life of the spirit in an age of scientism.

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.

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