What’s the Matter with Materialism?


Posted on September 10th, by Elizabeth Debold in Blog, EnlightenNext magazine, Religion, Science, Spirituality. 9 comments

With the “new” atheism getting more and more publicity by the day, it seems important to amplify voices that recognize just how dangerous it is to lose touch with Spirit given the materialism and secularism of our postmodern era. Perhaps few have made this point more strongly or eloquently than Huston Smith in his epic 2001 book, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. I reviewed this book for a special EnlightenNext magazine supplement called WIE Extra (WIE for our former name What Is Enlightenment?). Since it was only distributed to a few thousand subscribers back then, I thought that it would make a good read for our online readers. I’m sure you’ll find that Smith’s message is as relevant today as it was when it was published. Enjoy!

A Review of Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief

covereditWhy would someone already interested in the spiritual life pick up and read a book with the title Why Religion Matters? When I first was handed this book by one of my colleagues, I thought, “Probably an introduction to world religions for those who don’t get how important it is, or something like that. Interesting, but not really, well, relevant to me—the spirit’s call has compelled my entire life.” How wrong I was. Not only is it a riveting read, but it is also deeply relevant to anyone aiming to live a spiritual life in our materialistic modern world. Huston Smith, the most renowned authority on world religion (he’s the man who literally wrote the book on The World’s Religions and was the focus of a PBS series, The Wisdom of Faith, hosted by Bill Moyers), gives us an amazing book that isn’t about religions as we usually think of them. It’s about the religious worldview, or rather, the danger of the loss of the religious worldview to the alternative presented by science. In fact, Smith makes us urgently aware that these two perspectives are literally “contending for the mind of the future.” Why Religion Matters takes us into this war of the worldviews, where the reality presented by science is pitted against “the reality that excites and fulfills the soul’s longing,” the source of all great religious or spiritual traditions.

This “war of the worldviews” isn’t a heady abstract business. As Smith makes brilliantly clear, it is very real and the stakes are high because our sense of what is real—and true and meaningful—is precisely what is at risk. Through story after story, Smith makes this invisible conflict visible, palpable, and visceral. Introducing us to poets, scientists, philosophers, theologians and social critics—each with the intimacy of an old friend—he leads us to an unavoidable recognition of the hopeless inadequacy of science to make deep sense of who we are and what life is all about. Science, for all it has given us in terms of material comfort, has nothing to say about “values, meanings, final causes, invisibles, qualities, and our superiors.” Why not? Because, as Smith persistently notes, science can only deal with the material world—and grants reality only to what is material or what comes from the material. The controlled experiment and scientific proof “can register only what is inferior to us,” he says, only what exists under our noses. It has nothing to say about the beyond.

Entering into the fray at Huston Smith’s side was a constant revelation—not a spiritual revelation, but one of how deeply the scientific worldview has permeated my own view and our collective consciousness. “I think I have a different window onto the world,” he says, “one that enables me to see things that others do not.” So true. Born in China to missionary parents, Smith seems to have an angle of vision on the West that allows him to see beneath the solid façade of the cultural consensus we take for granted. A world-class scholar and teacher, Smith has been privy to the 20th Century’s great minds, and is unafraid to take them on. He has a remarkable ability to see the effects of this invisible conflict between the scientific and religious perspectives in ordinary daily business that so often go unnoticed. The experience he shares is always illuminating, and often hilarious. For example, one day when teaching religion at MIT, that hallowed hall of science and technology, Smith found himself locked in a verbal dual about science versus the humanities with a scientist over lunch at the faculty club. “With the authority of a man who had discovered Truth,” Smith’s lunch partner interrupted him. “‘I have it!’ he exclaimed. ‘The difference between us is that I count and you don’t.’ Touché!” writes Smith. “Numbers being the language of science, he had compressed the difference . . . into a double entendre.” By way of such stories, Smith takes us into the halls of the academy, behind the scenes of legal battles over creation science, between the lines of news matter-of-factly reported as truth, revealing how we have unwittingly given ourselves to a scientific perspective in which what counts is matter, and what really matters ceases to count.

Smith describes the reality we have adopted through science as a “metaphysical tunnel”—a dark, narrow space devoid of light. In an extended metaphor throughout the book, he explains how the tunnel is structured and maintained. The floor of the tunnel is made of scientism—the term Smith uses to refer to the illegitimate extension of science through the addition of two beliefs: “first, that science is our best window onto the world, and, second, that matter is the foundation of everything that exists.” Smith gives countless examples of how these beliefs, which have completely “erased transcendence from our reality map,” create what we take to be common sense or general knowledge. For instance, Smith notes, strict Darwinism is on very shaky ground. “Among scientists themselves,” he tells us, “debates over Darwin rage furiously, fueled by comments such as [Nobel Prize-winning chemist] Fred Hoyle’s now-famous assertion that the chance of natural selection’s producing even an enzyme is on the order of a tornado’s roaring through a junkyard and coming up with a Boeing 747.” But by and large, most of us blindly accept the media’s characterization of any opposition to the teaching of Darwinian evolution as the ignorant rantings of backward fundamentalists. The unquestioned grip that scientism has on our sense of what is right and true has made questioning Darwin akin to professing that the world is flat.

The walls of Smith’s metaphorical tunnel and ceiling are made up of the collusion of higher education, the media, and the law in upholding this scientism as truth. God, Smith points out, no longer exists in contemporary philosophy, “but what counts more is the fact that God’s absence is now so taken for granted that it is hardly noticed.” Smith not only notes God’s absence, but also allows us to see it as strange. Using unusual yet impeccable logic, Smith points out what is obvious, once we have eyes to see: The absence from school curricula—by law—of any and all suggestion that there might be a creator or transcendent intelligence working in life doesn’t merely present the truth as we know it. It is actually the implicit teaching of atheism. And atheism, he explains, is as much a metaphysical stance as the assertion of God’s existence. Neither God’s presence nor God’s absence can actually be proven by science. “We have dropped Transcendence not because we have discovered something that proves it nonexistent,” Smith tells us. “We have merely lowered our gaze.”

Smith’s faith and optimism shine throughout the book. There is, he asserts, light at the end of the tunnel. Why? Because the human heart longs for something outside the scope of material reality: “Built into the human makeup is a longing for a ‘more’ that the world of everyday experience cannot requite,” Smith says. “This outreach strongly suggests the existence of the something that life reaches for in the way that the wings of birds point to the reality of air.” He shares the good news that “modernity’s coming to see the gods it worshiped for what they are—idols that failed.” From new discoveries in physics to non-Freudian psychologies to increasing dissatisfaction with materialism itself, Smith brings to light evidence that the claims of scientism are weakening. Even Darwin’s theory of evolution seems to be in its initial death throes—with a little help from Smith himself. Delighting in his provocative role, Smith ended a lecture on evolution at the Chautauqua Institution by reading a letter he had written to the National Association of Biology Teachers, asking that they change their official definition of evolution, so that the words describing the process as “unsupervised” and “impersonal” would be deleted from their curriculum guidelines. His letter asked if they had any proof that evolution is, in fact, unsupervised or unintelligent. Hamming it up, he dramatically placed the letter in an envelope and stormed out of the lecture hall to mail it. Later, after getting word from the Association that his request would be considered at the next board meeting, Smith, ever alert for an opportunity to puncture the hot-air balloon of scientism, notified a reporter, who found the events of the board meeting to be quite a scoop. Initially dismissed out of hand, Smith’s question refused to die, and became the topic of lunch conversation and corridor talk. Finally, at the end of the day, the board re-opened the matter and voted to overturn their earlier decision because, in truth, they had no proof that evolution is purposeless and unguided. Touché for Smith.

Why Religion Matters is the masterwork of a metaphysical warrior. Smith’s unrelenting passion for the real and true—so evident in his constant response and keen discrimination—and his love of life itself strike blow after blow to the underlying claims of the false scientific worldview. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of “seeing” with Smith’s eyes was the often startling recognition that even in myself, even after the years that I have spent exploring the spiritual dimension of life, scientific materialism still held precious ground. Over and over, as I read Why Religion Matters, I would put the book down, stand up, and then notice to my surprise that around me were the shattered remains of ideas that moments before had seemed so self-evidently true that they were beyond question. The metaphysical tunnel that Western culture has created marks a battle line in each of us that divides us from wholehearted embrace of the spirit. Huston Smith does more than light a candle in the metaphysical darkness that we have collectively stumbled into. He takes us through that darkness, armed with the heart’s longing and a courage to question, to blaze our way to the Divine.





9 responses to “What’s the Matter with Materialism?”

  1. Frank Luke says:

    I’m pleased to learn tht Mr. Smith’s bringing to attn that reason, science and the collective intellectual community had been so overly antipathetic to the possiblity of evolution any kind of direction. It is part of the “too cool, too smart to be spiritual” attitude adopted by intellectuals that led, I believe, to the atheism that pervades world culture. We still find it somewhat true but it’s heartening to find the issue being discussed at the conference.

    I strongly feel that anti-metaphysical bias and hegemony is being challenged with a restoration of interest in spirituality without apology. Without acknowledging a spiritual dimension to humanity, we are seeing the negative results of amorality in all aspects of our culture. A more holistic balance of spirituality and science/reason/intelect would be a positive development in humanity’s make-up, I would say.

  2. Everpresence says:

    It is gooed that Huston Smith has the logical capacities to point out that the truth of the existence of God is neither proveable nor disproveable, and that this is also true of the stance of atheism. This is a good step for logical minds, though still very basic and not anywhere near as valuable as the direct experience of THIS INNATE ISNESS beyond all our mental perceptions, anthropocentric projections and labelings.
    I find it strange that, in the above synopsis anyway, Smith doesn’t seem yet (at the time of publication) to have had a direct inner experience of THIS INNATE ISNESS. I think that if he had, he would not put so much focus on the word “religion” as opposed to “mystical or spirituality reality.”
    Even among people who haven’t any conscious direct experience of the sublime ineffable innate awareness, it is quite obvious to the partially honest observer that religion is more associated with our ongoing ignorance, disempowerment, oppression, restriction, than it is with our liberation, our awakening—so not the idea most deserving of attention.
    Also the above synopsis seems dated due to its assertions that science keeps us restricted to considerations of the material, countable, and measureable. However, the cutting edge of quantum physics today actually reveals that the bottom line of matter is consciousness, intent, and the creative vibrations arising from thought, emotion, and intent.
    A glaring and ongoing problem that I notice is alleged ‘thinkers/philosophers’ not starting the quest for KNOWING from square one, i.e., not beginning at the beginning…i.e., by first focusing on the need to know what the bottom-line is: Reality. And that’s not merely temporal fleeting subjective relative ‘reality,’ but Eternal Timeless Ever-present Source Essence.

  3. Will Hewson says:

    Certainly the spirit itself is not dying. As is well known in EN circles, Spiral Dynamics explains what is going on here. Obviously our culture has an immense center of gravity somewhere in the Orange Meme. This is the best frame for looking at the fact that materialism rules the day. We should recognize the value of this materialism, not only as part of the well known human progress story beginning in The Enlightenment, but more urgently, in how it is the force of reason that pushes back on a very alive Blue and Blue-Orange movement in America today. There are a significant amount of people who desperately want to see us put our human rights, scientific pursuit, and economy in the hands of a mythic God. So while materialism may look worn out to the second tier, it plays a critical role in keeping society from falling backwards into a world where second tier dialog would quite literally be sacrilegious and punishable.
    Lastly, we must not try to entice Green and Yellow into spirituality by using morality as a starting point. This will be counter productive. Morality plays a critical role in the discovery of higher potential, perhaps it is the thing itself. However, this must be discovered by the person, and will not work as a marketing tool to people unfamiliar with direct experience.

  4. Nils Montan says:

    I saw Huston Smith at a conference a couple of years ago with Jack Kornfield. He is, obviously, highly intellectual. But that was not my most lasting impression of the man. He is now in his late part of life almost transparent. He is so frail he seems like a stong wind might blow him away. When he starts to speak he has a round deep lovely voice that warms you as it informs you. He speaks from a loving presence mellowed by experience. A beautiful man.

  5. Frank Luke says:

    The most meritorious radio show “New Dimensions” had an exceptionally interesting show where Michael Toms interviewed Dan Lattin, author of “The Harvard Psychedelic Club”. Among the cast of club members was Tim Leary, Baba Ram Dass and Huston Smith. It was such a blast to the past where psychedelics were central to the 60s and the transformation of the world and of Americans. I owe a lot of my Self to those times and the people who brought psychedelics into my attn that opened my doors of perception.

    Online (New Dimensions radio show > Don Litton)

  6. IntegralJeerleader says:

    The title is misleading, the subject of materialism can be considered without the dichotomy of religion vs. atheism – which actually does very little to address materialism itself. As Chogyam Trungpa pointed out, there is such a thing as spiritual materialism. I also could not help but notice that “impersonal” seems to be equated with unintelligent, which simply does not follow. Sorry, I just cannot get excited about this kind of drama.

  7. john shim says:

    The difficulty with this book is that it is still fighting the last war, a war no longer with any meaning. It reflects an attitude common to most of humanity, one often expressed directly or indirectly by this organization and its members, which is that the world can only be significantly changed by convincing a large enough portion of humanity to alter its views and its behavior.

    That is not so. The world does not need to be saved, and its direction will not be changed by any exhortation, any attempt at exciting some sort of mass movement or large-scale shift in the world’s attitude or behavior. Such shifts will necessarily occur, but not as the result of any action, any effort on the part of this or any other individual or organization. Rather they will be from the internal opening, the internal responsiveness in individuals to a higher knowledge, reflected eventually on a wide scale, effected by a force, a power of which most of the world is unaware, little understands or denies.

    The attitude reflected by this book and to a large extent in this organization expresses an ignorance of this power, its dynamics and mode of action. It is an ignorance of nearly all of humanity, which believes that the world today is not fundamentally different from that of the past, except in the outer expression of the same forces which have always driven the world. Even those who do sense a shift, those who believe that there has been some fundamental change, have little understanding of its real nature or direction.

    Since roughly the middle of the last century, the dynamics of the world have completely altered. The power acting in the Earth is entirely different, its mode of action only superficially resembling the diverse assortment of forces recognized by Western science and spiritual traditions, the ones experienced and described by the scientific and spiritual communities of today. Merely the recognition that all action is from one Source, that evolution is an expression of a higher consciousness evolving in form, can only be a starting point, a beginning in a larger understanding which is necessary for us to respond to the action of this power, to pass through the stage of that evolution which we are now entering. That is an understanding which neither this book nor this organization, so far as I have seen, express. Certainly both present a truth, but it is a limited, partial truth, not the highest truth of which humanity is presently capable, the truth which will become increasingly necessary in order for it to follow the action of the evolutionary force which this organization recognizes but does not fully understand..

  8. somebody says:

    I think the author of this article or Huston Smith himself is confused about science. It’s true that science, objectively, cannot prove the existence or nonexistent of God or any “metaphysical realm” (which by the way, to see the “metaphysical realm” to be separate from our “material” universe is actually to look at this “metaphysical realm” in a material way). But science is not what they say it is. Science has changed completely since the start of 20th century. For some, science is what brings them to touch the world and touch that which does not have a definite name – Mystery, the heart, spirit, God, Oneness, Love.

    Let’s suppose the worldview of scientism. Scientism is the view that 1) science is the best (and sometimes the only sensible) lens through which to look at the world, and 2) matter is the foundation of all existence. The first one is indeed something false that most people follow. We do seem to have this illogical “faith” for science – or what we think is science. No one has gone through every single proof science discovered and verified for themselves. Nor is there anyway to prove that science is the best and only sensible window onto the world. Our faith in science is no more logical than our faith in God.
    The second – matter is the foundation of all existence. This, science has long proven to be not true. In fact, everything can be said to be a form of anything. A human and a fish are all the same electrons, protons, and neutrons arranged in different ways – different forms. Matter that is “released” is energy, energy that is “compressed” is matter. And depending on different still developing theories, mass and energy and everything are all knots of the same space-time or strings resonating to each other. Does this not strike something in your soul?

  9. Frank Luke says:

    I’d say that materialism has a built-in danger of overdoing it, of becoming too materialistic.

    I believe non-attachment is a wise though difficult policy. It’s not to adopt a not-caringness but not becoming too attached and overly so to material things, even to loved ones.

    It’s possible but difficult to maintain moderation in possessing and acquiring. As we can see, America has just gone through a phase of overconsumption of not only goods but of food and all things. Now with the recession, we are learning a hard lesson being forced to cut back on the lifestyles many had come to be accustomed to.

    I hope that lesson will be remembered once we are able to afford a more abundant lifestyle. Obesity is the clearest metaphor of overconsumption, an epidemic it appears.



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