Does Religion Matter?

Week of Monday, April 23, 2001

Does religion matter? That depends upon your perspective. From the viewpoint of world history the question is almost silly. I like how the Harvard Islamicist Wilfred Cantwell Smith responds to the atheistic, anti-transcendent trends of the modern west. He is worth quoting at length:

Rather than feeling called upon to defend the awareness of what some of us call the divine before the bar of modern sceptics' particular logic and exceptional world view, I am at least equally inclined to call them before the bar of world history to defend their curious insensitivity to this dimension of human life. Seen in global perspective, current anti-transcendent thinking is an aberration. Intellectuals are challenged, indeed, to understand it: how it has arisen that for the first time on this earth a significant group has failed to discern the larger context of being human, and has even tried (with results none too encouraging thus far) to modify its inherited civilization so. After all, the overwhelming majority of intelligent persons at most times and places, and all cultures other than in part the recent west, have recognized the transcendent quality of man and the world. To be secularist in the negative sense is oddly parochial in both space and time, and to opt for what may be a dying culture. It is important that we keep in conversation with this group; but important also that we do not fall victim to, nor treat with anything but compassion, its incapacity to see.1

In the overall context of world history and human cultures, religion has not only mattered for virtually all people, it has been its defining modus. All human history, says Smith, has been a religious history or Heilsgeschichte.

But we don't live in all of human history, we live in the (post) modern west. Here and now it is a different story whether religion matters. Europe's magnificent cathedrals are virtually empty on Sunday mornings. America is more complex. On the one hand, polls show that most Americans believe in God. One study even shows that about 40% of scientists believe in a supreme being who hears and answers prayer. But if that same poll is taken among our most elite scientists—say, members of the National Academy of Sciences or the National Association of Biology Teachers—the figure for those who believe in God plummets.

This latter group, as elite scientists, exercises a preponderant influence upon our society. And why not? Who in their right mind would not be grateful for the gains and benefits that the marvels of science have brought to us? Having acknowledged that, it would also be safe to say that among our most influential scientists religion has been thoroughly marginalized. These scientists tend to be, to borrow a phrase from Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), the “cultured despisers of religion” who wield an active prejudice against religion.

So, even though almost all of world history has judged religion to matter, and likewise most Americans, many of our most important culture-shapers and opinion makers are either lukewarm or outright hostile toward religion. Examples would include Carl Sagan, Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins, William Provine, E.O. Wilson, Freeman Dyson and Daniel Dennett. We live, says Yale law professor Stephen Carter, in a “culture of disbelief” in which religion has been trivialized.

Enter Huston Smith, retired professor of religion at UC Berkeley and one of the country's leading scholars of world religions. His book The World's Religions has sold over two million copies. Whereas Carter explored the trivialization of religion in law and politics, Smith takes on science in his newest book Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief (San Francisco: Harper, 2001).

A moving and personal cri du coeur, Smith laments the crisis we now find ourselves in, a crisis of the spirit brought about by the loss of the religious transcendent at the hands of reductionistic science. “Science has erased the transcendent from our reality map,” he writes. This reductionism comes in two versions, sometimes implicitly but at times also explicitly, making either or both of two claims: (1) positivism, that the scientific method is the only or most reliable way of gaining valid knowledge (an epistemological claim), or (2) materialism, that the physical world of nature is all there is to know (an ontological claim). Science so conceived has thus moved from its rightful domain of cosmology to metaphysics. This crisis has placed us in a “tunnel” whose four walls are scientism, higher education, the media, and the law.

Smith makes two basic responses in his book. First, he draws out the gloomy consequences of such a worldview, namely nihilism. Some like Ursula Goodenough, a leading cell biologist, have tried to “sweeten the sour apple”,2 but even she admits the nihilist logic of this scientific reductionism which was so well put in Weinberg's famous sentence that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.” One simply cannot extract a moral ought from what simply is.

Second, Smith does a fine job of showing the gross inability of science-only to account for all of life, for what it means to be fully and truly human. There are large and important swaths of everyday life that science simply cannot explain by itself—morality, aesthetics, the rational intelligibility of the world (Einstein once remarked that “the only incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.”), and the stubborn religiosity of human beings from all times and places observed by Cantwell Smith above. In fact, as John Polkinghorne once observed, science has been so successful precisely because of “the modesty of its ambitions, by its self-limitations” to describe only the physical world.

To exit this dark tunnel science must “share the knowledge project equitably”, observe its strict limitations, and “move over” to make room for the transcendent. In his epilogue Smith writes an open letter to scientists which is at once passionate, respectful and blunt. Smith is an insider of the university guild, and although his arguments do not present anything really new, they pack the punch that only a respected guild member can make when he calls the bluff of his fellows.

  1. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Towards a World Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981), page 189. See also pages 127, 172. Contrary to the antireligious posture of most social scientists who trivialize or ignore the role of religion, Rene Girard has argued that religion is the very source and origin of all human culture and institutions. See Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightening (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), chapter  7.
  2. Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters (San Francisco: Harper, 2001), page 38. The phrase is from Freud. See Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature (New York: Oxford, 1998). She calls her approach “religious naturalism.”

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.