What’s the Matter with Materialism?
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
Why 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.