Why Religion Matters (Book Review)

In Why Religion Matters, author Huston Smith examines the question “Who is right about reality?” by contrasting the positions of what he calls traditionalists, modernists, and the postmoderns. To do so, he employs an analogy of the great outdoors and a tunnel within it, a concept based on the 1995 novel The Tunnel by William Gass. In the novel, a lonely, middle-aged professor living in a big middle-class house attempts to “escape from his life and from our times, which his horrible home symbolizes” (Smith, 2001, p. 45) by digging a tunnel. Smith proposes that the metaphorical tunnel we’re in now is something that science (dressed up as metaphysics) has led us into, and he proceeds to examine the four sides of the tunnel, spending a chapter on each.

The floor of the tunnel, argues Smith, is scientism, a worldview which holds that (1.) the scientific method is the only reliable way to know truth and (2.) material entities are the most fundamental things that exist. Smith pronounces these two beliefs “at best philosophical assumptions and at worst merely opinions” (p. 60). His concern is with scientism’s effect on our modern collective mentality, describing scientism as spiritually corrosive in that it “separates our values from our knowledge of the world” (p. 67).

The left wall of Smith’s tunnel is higher education. Here he laments the fact, although the great, original American colleges were established to train clergymen, “the once pervasive presence of religion on campuses has all but disappeared” (p. 79). He explains how religion and science started out as allies, but in post-modernity, religion has become increasingly marginalized. The scientific worldview has taken over, but, Smith hastens to add, it is not due to the nefarious intentions of any one party. It’s just how the scientism that today permeates modern society is naturally working itself out in academia. The church and the university, Smith maintains, have shifted from allies to competitors for the hearts and minds of modern man. As a result, the university, which has become “deeply invested in its claim to control knowledge” (p. 99), is now, in many ways, openly hostile to religion. Smith laments a “new professionalism” in the university which has replaced the traditional professions of theology, medicine, and law:

The old professionalism took liberal studies seriously because they made human beings their central concern. The new professionalism studies things, and it raises questions not about humanity’s ultimate role and the responsibilities that go with that role, but about whether X or Y is the better way to go about achieving some immediate, restricted end.

(Page 101)

The roof of Smith’s tunnel is the media. He explains the origins of the modern science-versus-religion debate by pointing to the way the Scopes trial of 1925 was portrayed to the American public through the media. In the play that made the trial famous, Inherit the Wind, science was “cast as the knight in shining armor battling ignorant, bigoted, backward-looking religionists” (p. 104). The stereotype stuck. Smith points out how the “if it bleeds, it leads” attitude has become modern media’s predominant posture:

If a pro-life advocate shoots an abortionist doctor, it is certain to hit the front page of every newspaper in the country. Meanwhile, millions of ordinary citizens will on that day have given some thought to their souls through prayer, meditation, Bible reading, and the like—activities that reach into the depths of the soul where the switches are thrown between kindness and cruelty, hope and despair. This passes without mention.

(Page 115)

Akin to the university, the media have an attitude toward religion that ranges from irrelevance to active antagonism. Their view of religion “rests on a caricature of religious fundamentalism as a reactionary movement bent on reversing all the progressive measures achieved over the last several decades” (p. 117). Smith closes this section with a scathing assessment of the advertising industry, whose objective is not information but persuasion. He rightly accuses them of recklessly prioritizing immediate gratification for the individual above what is morally best for society as a whole.

The right wall of Smith’s tunnel is the law, especially as it has evolved over the last fifty-plus years. “As the [twentieth] century unfolded, the dominant, liberal-rationalist culture increasingly imposed on the public ‘a common rhetoric that refused to accept the notion that rational, public-spirited people can take religion seriously’” (p. 123). Smith references several relevant legal precedents, including Employment Division v. Smith and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as he discusses how religion has become marginalized. Quoting Stephen Carter from the Culture of Disbelief, Smith notes that “on balance the courts have been, ‘transforming the establishment clause in the first amendment [which, to repeat, states that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion] from a guardian of religious liberty into a guarantor of public secularism’” (p. 129). Indeed, Smith skillfully argues that “the courts rightly assume that theism is a religious position, while wrongly assuming that atheism is not” (p. 132).

Having firmly established his tunnel metaphor, Smith spends the rest of the book contemplating where the tunnel is leading us. He contemplates the “light” at the end of the tunnel—where light is viewed both as a universal metaphor for God and a fascinating study in physics—and asks if the “light” is increasing:

The death-of-God prediction of religion’s demise was reported through eyes that registered data that is available to everyone. Religion, though, sees through the eyes of faith, and in doing so sees a different world. Or better said, it sees the same world in a different light.

(Page 148)

Smith next turns to discerning the signs of the times by contemplating three sciences (physics, biology, and cognitive psychology) and the road ahead. Rather than merely pointing to the differences in worldviews, Smith seeks a détente; he wants to outline a way forward that will move us from where we are today into what he refers to as the “third millennium.” Though Smith is a traditionalist, he does not shy away from science, discussing its proper definition, its inherent limitations, and the divisions of labor between science and religion. He sees science (which contemplates the natural world) as a subset of religion (which contemplates all there is) and includes a pithy quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Science gives us major answers to minor questions, while religion gives us minor answers to major questions” (p. 200).

Smith next takes an excursion into spiritual personality types, defining and analyzing four varieties: “In every sizable community, one finds atheists who think that there is no God, polytheists who acknowledge many gods, monotheists who believe in a single God, and mystics who say there is only God” (p. 234). He then closes his book by looking at spirit. Though Smith has taken up the cause of the traditionalist, he closes his tome with a magnanimous appeal to the other side, suggesting that militant scientists try to understand where we traditionalists are coming so both sides can join hands in the coming century. He proposes that,

A sensible way to enter the third millennium would be to pass a strainer through the three periods of the human past and carry forward the best in each while leaving the dead to bury the dead with respect to the remainder. The best thing about modernism was its science, the best thing about postmodernism was/is its concern for justice, and the best thing about the traditional age was/is its worldview.

(Page 213)

Conclusion

I found Huston Smith’s writing style erudite yet approachable. He freely pursues tangential (albeit germane) trails of thought, yet, not wanting his readers to get lost, is careful to indicate where the conversation is headed. Orienting phrases abound, such as “I shall now take a look at…” or “I shall now return to…” Moreover, Smith’s ideas are insightful and compelling. He offers a measured analysis of the state of the modern world and the “tunnel” we are in, and argues convincingly for the recovery of a healthy balance between what he has labeled postmodernism and traditionalism (i.e., science and religion).

I found his use of the tunnel analogy a bit confusing at first. It was not immediately apparent that the metaphor referred to the prevailing worldview of postmodernism rather than our era as a whole. However, as the book unfolded, his point became evident, and I found his primary argument powerfully made: “We have dropped Transcendence not because we have discovered something that proves it nonexistent. We have merely lowered our gaze” (p. 217). In my field of apologetics, the real action happens at the intersection of theology and philosophy. In Why Religion Matters, Smith offers an abundance of philosophical insights and ideas that I found valuable and will likely utilize and expound upon in my work.



References

Smith, H. (2001). Why religion matters: The fate of the human spirit in an age of disbelief. HarperOne.

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