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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

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.

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