Religion: It's not just for Sunday anymore

Our quarterly roundup finds authors looking at the function of faith then and now.

Why religion matters

By Huston Smith HarperSanFrancisco 290 pp., $25

Huston Smith is the closest thing religious scholarship has to a rock star. His classic book "The World's Religions" has sold more than 2 million copies. In 1997, he was the focus of a five-part PBS series with Bill Moyers. He's received awards and honorary degrees from organizations around the world.

And yet, despite living on this pinnacle, what he really wants is to talk with us. His new manifesto, "Why Religion Matters," reads like half of the most provocative dinner conversation you'll ever have.

"The finitude of mundane existence cannot satisfy the human heart completely," Smith begins. "The reality that excites and fulfills the soul's longing is God by whatsoever name."

Perfectly nice aphorisms for a Sunday supper, right? Not hardly. This is the kind of argument that means clearing away the fine china. Smith claims humanity is in the grip of a spiritual crisis. The cause: scientism, the modern belief, enforced by education and law, that the scientific method is the most reliable path to truth and that the material entities science deals with are the only things that exist.

He claims this pervasive attitude, promoted explicitly by overconfident scientists and implicitly by cowed theologians, denies God's existence or, worse, considers God a moderately useful placebo.

Smith says to science (particularly Harvard's popular paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould), "Stand back; that's my turf you're poaching on." No, he's not one of those crazy antiscience fundamentalists (though he's tired of seeing fundamentalists parodied in the media). What he opposes is the extension of scientific conclusions into areas of human experience about which science can tell us nothing.

Paleontologists should investigate the fossil records, biologists should examine the function of genes, and astrophysicists should study the stars. But nothing in those fields, Smith argues, can tell us if God is expressing Himself through humanity, if chance determines an individual's life, or if the material universe is the entirety of creation.

Smith claims that our ancestors knew those are irreducibly religious questions. What he calls that lost "traditional worldview" is preferable to the faithless "one that now encloses us because it allows for the fulfillment of the basic longing that lies in the depths of the human heart."

It's clear he doesn't want to return to foraging for berries in the forest. He's grateful for the advancements of technology, including the medical treatment that saved his life seven years ago. But he doesn't think accepting the contributions of science should mean living a life "devoid of all spiritual, metaphysical dimension."

"In the process of showering us with material benefits and awesome knowledge of the physical universe," he writes, "science has erased transcendence from our reality map."

What an easy argument this is to mishear, particularly when he flies through it more like a bee than an arrow. Laced through these metaphysical claims and scientific critiques are anecdotes about his fascinating life, descriptions of the people who have moved him, books that arouse his ire or praise, and even relevant items that came in that day's mail - all told with a wonderful blend of wit, wisdom, and humility.

Unfortunately, he hammers some points into the ground, while leaving other complex issues sticking out awkwardly. He concentrates on the challenge that evolution presents to traditional religion, but the more daunting implications of gene and brain research go largely unnoticed. Even the book's elaborate structure of headings and subheadings can't keep his argument from swerving and dipping.

But like a good conversationalist, Smith leaves plenty of room for response. And he's sure to get it. Though he casts himself as a defender of the beleaguered faithful, his mystical pantheism may make this book no more welcome in theological camps than in scientific circles. Free thinkers, though, will run their yellow highlighters dry over Smith's provocative statements. Librarians will find copies filled with marginalia. This is a guest you'll be debating with long after the meal.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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