Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief,
Huston Smith, 2001, San
Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers.
Huston Smith is undoubtedly the foremost scholar of comparative religion, most famous for his
bestselling book The World's Religions (1991) and for the five-part Emmy-nominated PBS television
series with Bill Moyers on "The Wisdom of Faith" (1996). His publications and video series demonstrate
that he is not simply a student of comparative religion in the library, but a keen participant observer in the
communities of various religions. Clearly he thinks that many religions share a common core of ancient,
elemental, and valuable world wisdom which address ultimate questions including values, virtues,
meaning, and purpose in life (Smith 1991, 1992).
In Why Religion Matters Smith assess the human spirit in an age of disbelief to explain just why religion
does really matter. His basic thesis or argument is that: "We have dropped Transcendence not because we
have discovered something that proves it nonexistent. We have merely lowered our gaze" (p. 217). In
other words, religion has not been disproved or rendered outmoded by either science or philosophy, rather
humans simply have been increasingly preoccupied with the material side of existence, either just to
survive physically, or else in the misplaced pursuit of fulfillment through technology and consumerism
The book is divided into two parts, Part I on "Modernity's Tunnel" and Part II on "The Light at the
Tunnel's End." The metaphorical tunnel is composed of scientism as the floor, higher education as the left
wall, the media as the roof, and the law as its right wall.
Scientism pivots on the misplaced and myopic faith that science is the best, or even only way, to
understand the world (positivism), and that matter is the foundation of all existence (materialism and
reductionism)(60, 62, 64, 84-85). This reflects naturalism, the idea that nature is all there is, and that
nature is devoid of anything that might be called spirit (12). According to Smith, the problem is not
science per se, but a gross misreading of it (5). Smith (59) writes that: "Science is on balance good,
whereas nothing good can be said for scientism." Some scientists, for example, pursue Darwinism as if it
were a religion and become tyrannically dogmatic about it (77-78).
Religion and science are contending for the future human mind, humanity's sense of reality, truth, and
meaning is at stake. Yet ultimately most humans crave much more than simply everyday experience in an
exclusively material world. Smith asserts that religion has held and continues to hold an important place
in the life of most individuals and all societies (xiv). In the end, modernity is unsatisfying. Neither
evolution nor secularization have extinguished the need and desire for religion. As Smith observes, reality
is intolerable for most humans when it is devoid of all spiritual, metaphysical dimension (41). Organisms