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Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief Paperback – June 27, 2006

3.3 out of 5 stars 69 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Why Religion Matters is a passionate, accessible, ambitious manifesto written by one of the very few people qualified to address its titular topic. Huston Smith is the grand old man of religious scholarship. Raised by missionary parents in China, Smith went on to teach at M.I.T. and U.C. Berkeley, among others, and his World's Religions has long been the standard introductory textbook for college religion courses. The subject of Why Religion Matters, Smith writes, "is the importance of the religious dimension of human life--in individuals, in societies, and in civilizations." Smith believes that the religious dimension of human life has been devalued by the rise of modern science: we have now reached a point at which "modern Westerners . . . forsaking clear thinking, have allowed ourselves to become so obsessed with life's material underpinnings that we have written science a blank check ... concerning what constitutes knowledge and justified belief." In candid, direct style, Smith describes the evolution of intellectual history from pre-modern to postmodern times, and the spiritual sensibilities that have been shunted "by our misreading of modern science." In the book's final sections, Smith avoids the folly of predicting the future, instead focusing on "features of the religious landscape that are invariant" and therefore may serve as "a map that can orient us, wherever the future may bring." This book is fresh, insightful, and important. It may prove to be as influential in shifting readers' terms of religious understanding as any of Smith's previous writings. --Paul Power --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In this challenging but accessible book, Smith ardently declaims religion's relevance, taking on luminaries, such as Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, who hold that "only matter exists" and suggest that religion relates only to "subjective experiences." Smith defines such thinking as scientism, an unfortunate worldview distinct from science, which, in and of itself, he celebrates. But scientism, Smith says, contributes to "modernity's tunnel," a metaphorical structure that hides the metaphysical from view. He argues that "scientists who are convinced materialists deny the existence of things other than those they can train their instruments on," but in reality have "discovered nothing in the way of objective facts that counts against traditional metaphysics." Smith's arguments are reminiscent of Philip Johnson's Darwin on Trial; in fact, he nods appreciatively to Johnson's work. However, Smith's stature as a scholar probably affords him more credibility among scientists than evangelicals such as Johnson enjoy. Moreover, Smith's disarming toneDreplete with perfectly placed anecdotes and quipsDtempers the audacity of his theses and the difficulty of his subject matter. While he may be vulnerable to critiques that inevitably arise when non-scientists engage and challenge scientific claims, Smith demonstrates an impressive grasp of physics and biology, and defers to scientists who share his concerns. Most gratifyingly, after spending the book's first half implicating science, philosophy and the media in the marginalization of religion, Smith spends the second half elucidating and affirming metaphysical worldviews and imagining ways for science and religion to partner more equitably in the future. (Jan.) Forecast: Science and religion books are certainly hot right now (see PW's Religion Update, Nov. 20). That popularity, coupled with Smith's sterling reputation (buoyed by his recent five-part PBS series on religion with Bill Moyers) will propel sales. Harper San Francisco plans a 50,000-copy first print run and a $35,000 promotional budget.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: HarperOne; 1 Reprint edition (June 27, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060671025
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060671020
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (69 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #58,892 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on February 10, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I loved this book. I totally agree with Smith's statement that "Built into the human makeup is a longing for 'more' and I agree that religion does matter; however, I also understand why we live in an age of disbelief. So many antiquated religion concepts are difficult for modern men and women to accept. I recently came across a book An Encounter With A Prophet which seems to solve this problem and I would highly recommend it to those seeking the something more but unable to blindly accept religious dogma.
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Format: Paperback
Professor Huston Smith is indeed an inspiring scholar in world religion. His work, explaining the different ways in which human beings approach the unknown and seek transcendence and meaning for themselves is itself one of the best ways to gain an appreciation of the importance of religion and spirituality.
This book, Professor Huston's most recent, has a somewhat more ambitious goal than simply explaining and describing religious teaching. He tries to explain, in the words of his title, "why religion matters" and why it is of the highest importance to many people.
Although much of the book is eloquent and convincing, I found much of it unduly polemical and unconvincing. In particular, the first half of the book is taken up with a discussion and refutation of "scientism" which is the view that science is the only guide to the truth and out only source of knowledge. There is a wide-ranging attack on scientism, which broadens into a critique of the secular American university and of certain court decisions, which is intended to show not so much that scientism is wrong or incorrect but that it hasn't been proven. This is a worthy goal but the specifics misfire. In particular, Professor Smith spends too much time in criticising Darwinism and the theory of evolution, a criticism which I find markedly unsuccessful and probably unnecessary if I understand his broader claims correctly. He spends far too much time, I think, discussing a straw man, Hollywood's version of the Scopes trial, "Inherit the Wind.
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Format: Hardcover
Huston Smith is a treasure, and "Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief" should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand what's going on below the glassy, glitzy surface of America in the year 2001.
It doesn't matter whether or not you've read any of Smith's other books (which I have); it doesn't matter if you never saw his 5-part special with Bill Moyers (or watched it four times, as I have); it doesn't matter if you go to church every Sunday or avoid it religiously (as I do); what matters is that you get this book, for there are glittering gems on almost every page no matter what your churchly or secular orientation may be.
"Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief" is highly recommended for all who seek to know more tomorrow than they do today. And if Huston Smith should read these words, I would say, "You have no idea how important and appreciated you are by tens of thousands of anonymous readers."
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Format: Hardcover
If anyone is going to make a case for the importance of religion in current society, it would be Prof. Smith. He compares Western Enlightment thought of the past three centuries against the thousands of years of religious thought and finds the former lacking. Science is very good at describing and manipulating the physical world but lacking in establishing values and meaning. Smith is very well acquainted with both science and religion, having taught at several of the leading scientific universities in the world, and taught comparative relgions for four decades.
Smith is also no Bible-thumper, i.e. promoting a parochial religious view of the American variety. Instead he distills the important lessons of all the established and folk world religions, and recognizes their limitations in describing the physical world and dated societal mores.
I found the book a little choppy, meandering and digressing through metaphors. However, the book is without parallel in presenting the essence of the religious point of view. It is the seminal reference whether you are for or against the role of religion in modern society.
Furthermore, I recommend attending a lecture by Prof. Smith should the occasion ever occur on one of his book tours or at a religious studies conference. Prof. Smith is a very clear and spell-binding speaker. I had the priviledge of taking one of courses decades ago, one of the best in my life.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, Huston Smith argues the human heart seeks answers to questions left unexplained by the Modern worldview.
Raised by missionary parents in China and a professor at M.I.T., Syracuse University and U.C. Berkeley, among others, and his World's Religions serves as the standard introductory textbook for college religion courses Smith is in a unique position to pass judgment. Human beings, he posits, have allowed themselves to become so obsessed with the answer to life's fundamental questions that they have written science a blank check for what constitutes knowledge and justified belief. As a result the world is experiencing a spiritual crisis.
The culprit is not science. We have constructed a worldview tunneled by scientism, higher education, the media and law. As Smith looks to the future, he sees "the light at the end of the tunnel" - a time when science and religion peacefully co-exist. While acknowledging the science's importance, human beings ultimately flourish, he argues, when they seek the answers to life's ultimate questions -- What is the meaning of life? Why do pain and death exist? What is reality?
Religion recognizes the gulf between these questions and their answers. Humans being never waiver in their conviction that these questions have answers, religion motivates them to continually seek the answers.
I liked the book. The author states his case in a simple, direct manner. Style questions, such as whether Smith quotes from other authors are too long or not, are not important to me. Smith makes his case in a witty, personable and, in my opinion, persuasive manner.
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