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

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

by Huston Smith

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Huston Smith, the author of the classic bestseller The World's Religions, delivers a passionate, timely message: The human spirit is being suffocated by the dominant materialistic worldview of our times. Smith champions a society in which religion is once again treasured and authentically practiced as the vital source of human wisdom.


Huston Smith, the author of the classic bestseller The World's Religions, delivers a passionate, timely message: The human spirit is being suffocated by the dominant materialistic worldview of our times. Smith champions a society in which religion is once again treasured and authentically practiced as the vital source of human wisdom.

Editorial Reviews

Bill Moyers
“One of our foremost scholars and interpreters of the world’s religions…What he has learned, he has applied to life.”
The Los Angeles Times
"An intellectually exciting book, as accessible to the layman as to the scholar."
Huston Smith, one of the world's most respected experts on religion, delivers a passionate and heartfelt message: Religion is vitally important as a comfort in a world that is becoming more and more materialistic. As always, Smith writes in a readable, accessible tone that is guaranteed to satisfy both the religious scholar and the relative layman.
Peter Clothier
Smith's love of spirited debate makes this an intellectually exciting book, as accessible to the layman as to the scholar. His familiarity with a vast range of sources of scientific, philosophical and religious writing allows him to engage the best of human minds, sometimes in disagreement, sometimes gently scolding, always with a genuine delight in the quality of thought and argument. Those who have enjoyed his lively appearances on public television shows will find that spirit of passionate intellectual curiosity present in this book.
Los Angeles Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this challenging but accessible book, Smith ardently declaims religion's relevance, taking on luminaries, such as Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, who hold that "only matter exists" and suggest that religion relates only to "subjective experiences." Smith defines such thinking as scientism, an unfortunate worldview distinct from science, which, in and of itself, he celebrates. But scientism, Smith says, contributes to "modernity's tunnel," a metaphorical structure that hides the metaphysical from view. He argues that "scientists who are convinced materialists deny the existence of things other than those they can train their instruments on," but in reality have "discovered nothing in the way of objective facts that counts against traditional metaphysics." Smith's arguments are reminiscent of Philip Johnson's Darwin on Trial; in fact, he nods appreciatively to Johnson's work. However, Smith's stature as a scholar probably affords him more credibility among scientists than evangelicals such as Johnson enjoy. Moreover, Smith's disarming toneDreplete with perfectly placed anecdotes and quipsDtempers the audacity of his theses and the difficulty of his subject matter. While he may be vulnerable to critiques that inevitably arise when non-scientists engage and challenge scientific claims, Smith demonstrates an impressive grasp of physics and biology, and defers to scientists who share his concerns. Most gratifyingly, after spending the book's first half implicating science, philosophy and the media in the marginalization of religion, Smith spends the second half elucidating and affirming metaphysical worldviews and imagining ways for science and religion to partner more equitably in the future. (Jan.) Forecast: Science and religion books are certainly hot right now (see PW's Religion Update, Nov. 20). That popularity, coupled with Smith's sterling reputation (buoyed by his recent five-part PBS series on religion with Bill Moyers) will propel sales. Harper San Francisco plans a 50,000-copy first print run and a $35,000 promotional budget. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Smith, the respected author of the classic best seller The World's Religions and former professor of religion and psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technolgy, now adds a brilliant and accessible title that challenges the religious dimensions of human life. In the first part, he considers the accomplishments and deficiencies of each of three historical periods--traditional, modern, and postmodern--critiquing how each era has contributed to our contemporary spiritual malaise. Not satisfied with simply judging the past, Smith focuses the second part on the future, offering hopeful alternatives to build renewed spiritual vigor. Passionate and inspiring, Smith employs personal stories and experiences with leading religious, philosophical, and scientific thinkers. This is truly a book of wisdom to accompany readers through the metaphorical tunnel into the light of a new millennium. Recommended for public and academic libraries.--John-Leonard Berg, Univ. of Wisconsin, Platteville Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Told with a wonderful blend of wit, wisdom and humility...like a good conversationalist, Smith leaves plenty of room for response.
Christian Science Monitor

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Who's Right About Reality: Traditionalists, Modernists, or the Postmoderns?

Wherever people live, whenever they live, they find themselves faced with three inescapable problems: how to win food and shelter from their natural environment (the problem nature poses), how to get along with one another (the social problem), and how to relate themselves to the total scheme of things (the religious problem). If this third issue seems less important than the other two, we should remind ourselves that religious artifacts are the oldest that archeologists have discovered.

The three problems are obvious, but they become interesting when we align them with the three major periods in human history: the traditional period (which extended from human beginnings up to the rise of modern science), the modern period (which took over from there and continued through the first half of the twentieth century), and postmodernism (which Nietzsche anticipated, but which waited for the second half of the twentieth century to take hold).

Each of these periods poured more of its energies into, and did better by, one of life's inescapable problems than did the other two. Specifically, modernity gave us our view of nature -- it continues to be refined, but because modernity laid the foundations for the scientific understanding of it, it deserves credit for the discovery.

Postmodernism is tackling social injustices more resolutely than people previously did. This leaves worldviews -- metaphysics as distinct from cosmology, which restricts itself to the empirical universe -- for our ancestors, whose accomplishments on that front have not beenimproved upon.

The just-entered distinction between cosmology and metaphysics is important for this book, so I shall expand it slightly. Cosmology is the study of 'the physical universe -- or the world of nature as science conceives of it -- and is the domain of science. Metaphysics, on the other hand, deals with all there is. (The terms worldview and Big Picture are used interchangeably with metaphysics in this book.) In the worldview that holds that nature is all there is, metaphysics coincides with cosmology. That metaphysics is named naturalism.

Such is the historical framework in which this book is set, and the object of this chapter is to spell out that framework. Because I want to proceed topically -- from nature, through society, to the Big Picture, tying each topic to the period that did best by it -- this introduction shuffles the historical sequence of the periods. I take up modernity first, then postmodernity, leaving the traditional period for last.

Modernity's Cosmological Achievement

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Europe stumbled on a new way of knowing that we refer to as the scientific method. It centers in the controlled experiment and has given us modern science. Generic science (which consists of careful attention to nature and its regularities) is as old as the hills -- at least as old as art and religion. What the controlled experiment adds to generic science is proof True hypotheses can be separated from false ones, and brick by brick an edifice has been erected from those proven truths. We commonly call that edifice the scientific worldview, but scientific cosmology is more precise because of the ambiguity of the word world. The scientific edifice is a worldview only for those who assume that science can in principle take in all that exists.

The scientific cosmology is so much a part of the air we breathe that it is hardly necessary to describe it, but I will give it a paragraph to provide a reference point for what we are talking about. Some fifteen billion years ago an incredibly compact pellet of matter exploded to launch its components on a voyage that still continues. Differentiation set in as hydrogen proliferated into the periodic table. Atoms gathered into gaseous clouds. Stars condensed from whirling filaments of flame, and planets spun off from those to become molten drops that pulsated and grew rock-encrusted. Narrowing our gaze to the planet that was to become our home, we watch it grow, ocean-filmed and swathed in atmosphere. Some three and a half billion years ago shallow waters began to ferment with life, which could maintain its inner milieu through homeostasis and could reproduce itself Life spread from oceans across continents, and intelligence appeared. Several million years ago our ancestors arrived. It is difficult to say exactly when, for every few years paleontologists announce discoveries that "Set the human race back another million years or so," as press reports like to break the news.

Taught from primary schools onward, this story is so familiar that further details would only clutter things.

Tradition's Cosmological Shortcomings

That this scientific cosmology retires traditional ones with their six days of creation and the like goes without saying. )Who can possibly question that when the scientific cosmology has landed people on the moon? Our ancestors were impressive astronomers, and we can honor them unreservedly for how much they learned about nature with only their unaided senses to work with. And there is another point. There is a naturalism in Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and tribal outlooks that in its own way rivals science's calculative cosmology, but that is the naturalism of the artist, the poet, and the nature lover-of Li Po, Wordsworth, and Thoreau, not that of Galileo and Bacon. For present purposes, aesthetics is irrelevant. Modern cosmology derives from laboratory experiments, not landscape paintings.

Postmoderism's Cosmological Shortcomings

With traditional cosmology out of the running, the question turns to postmodernism. Because science is cumulative, it follows UN a matter of course that the cosmology we have in the twenty-first century is an improvement over what we had in the middle of the twentieth, which on my timeline is when modernity phased into postmodernity. But the refinements that postmodern scientists have achieved have not affected life to anything like the degree that postmodern social thrusts have, so the social Oscar is the one postmodernists are most entitled to.

What People are Saying About This

Bill Moyers
“One of our foremost scholars and interpreters of the world’s religions…What he has learned, he has applied to life.”

Meet the Author

Huston Smith is internationally known and revered as the premier teacher of world religions. He is the focus of a five-part PBS television series with Bill Moyers and has taught at Washington University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Syracuse University, and the University of California at Berkeley. The recipient of twelve honorary degrees, Smith's fifteen books include his bestselling The World's Religions, Why Religion Matters, and his autobiography, Tales of Wonder.

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