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Why Religion Matters, by Huston Smith

This book makes the case that the next great accomplishments of humankind will be on getting along with each other. Here is text from the first two pages of Chapter One.

"Wherever people live, whenever they live, they find themselves faced with three inescapable problems:
  1. how to win food and shelter from their natural environment (the problem nature poses),
  2. how to get along with one another (the social problem), and
  3. how to relate themselves to the total scheme of things (the religious problem).
If this third issue seems less important than the other two, we should remind ourselves that religious artifacts are the oldest that archeologists have discovered.

The three problems are obvious, but they become interesting when we align them with the three major periods in human history:

  1. the traditional period (which extended from human beginnings up to the rise of modern science),
  2. the modern period (which took over from there and continued through the first half of the twentieth century), and
  3. postmodernism (which Nietzsche anticipated, but which waited for the second half of the twentieth century to take hold).

Each of these periods poured more of its energies into, and did better by, one of life's inescapable problems than did the other two. Specifically, modernity gave us our view of nature -- it continues to be refined, but because modernity laid the foundations for the scientific understanding of it, it deserves credit for the discovery.

Postmodernism is tackling social injustices more resolutely than people previously did.

Later, the author gives the following examples "of some changes that have occurred in a single lifetime that make it clear that social injustices are being recognized and addressed more earnestly today than they were by our ancestors:

The book continues describing the social shortcomings of the traditional and modern periods.

(the following material has been taken from the website, click here to buy the book.)

Why Religion Matters : The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief
by Huston Smith

Hardcover - (December 2000) 290 pages

Editorial Reviews
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

From Booklist
Smith, the dean of comparative religion studies in America, divides history into three periods, each dominated by its distinctive worldview--traditional, modern, and postmodern. Now is the postmodern period, but Smith believes the future should belong to tradition. Modernity has put the soul in a dark tunnel, from which postmodernity doesn't want to extract it, by insisting that reality is single and material and that the transcendent realities of spirit, creation, and meaning are illusory. Science, the instrumentality of modernity, can't answer or extinguish humanity's burning existential questions, exemplified by the title of Gauguin's painting Who Are We? Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going? The traditional worldview, which is religious, can and does answer them. Smith's exposition of this argument, which first describes "Modernity's Tunnel" and then the light at its end, is as enlightening as Wendell Berry's similar Life Is a Miracle [BKL My 15 00], whose bete noire, E. O. Wilson's Consilience (1998), also irks Smith. As welcome as enlightening is Smith's cogent explanation of antireligious media bias. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

From Library Journal

Smith, the respected author of the classic best seller The World's Religions and former professor of religion and psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technolgy, now adds a brilliant and accessible title that challenges the religious dimensions of human life. In the first part, he considers the accomplishments and deficiencies of each of three historical periods--traditional, modern, and postmodern--critiquing how each era has contributed to our contemporary spiritual malaise. Not satisfied with simply judging the past, Smith focuses the second part on the future, offering hopeful alternatives to build renewed spiritual vigor. Passionate and inspiring, Smith employs personal stories and experiences with leading religious, philosophical, and scientific thinkers. This is truly a book of wisdom to accompany readers through the metaphorical tunnel into the light of a new millennium. Recommended for public and academic libraries.

John-Leonard Berg, Univ. of Wisconsin, Platteville

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--Bill Moyers
"One of our foremost scholars and interpreters of the world's religions...What he has learned, he has applied to life."

--The Los Angeles Times
"An intellectually exciting book, as accessible to the layman as to the scholar."

Book Description

Huston Smith, the most eloquent and respected world authority on religion, offers a timely manifesto on the urgent need to restore the role of religion as the primary humanizing force for individuals and society. Weaving together insights from comparative religions, theology, philosophy, science, and history, along with examples drawn from current events and his own extraordinary personal experience, Smith gives both a convincing historical and social critique and a profound expression of hope for the spiritual condition of humanity.

Despite the widespread belief that these are halcyon days for religion and spiritual awareness, Smith shows how our everyday worldview is instead dominated by a narrow scientism, materialism, and consumerism that push issues of morality, meaning, and truth to the outer margins of society and our lives. In fact, he finds that too much of what passes as religion these days is actually a privatized and ungrounded debasement of true religion.

In the first part of the book, Smith traces the three great periods in human history: the traditional, the modern, and the postmodern; highlighting the achievements and deficiencies of each. Smith makes a compelling case to recover the spiritual and ethical riches of traditional religious wisdom and practices, while at the same time upholding the advances of the modern era in equal rights, democratic and personal freedoms, ecological awareness, and scientific and technological gains. In the final part of the book, Smith imagines a time when human beings move beyond the present materialistic and relativistic understanding of existence and recognize that consciousness, not matter, is the ultimate foundation of the universe.

Smith's historical knowledge and spiritual depth combine here with his understanding of science and the spheres of higher education, government, and law to produce a brilliant, comprehensive look at the embattled state of authentic religion in the world today. With the informed eye of a world traveler who is personally familiar with the best the world's religions have to offer, Smith challenges the dominance of the current technological worldview that so limits the full and true expression of the human spirit.

Why Religion Matters will open a new dialogue about the appropriate place of religion in human experience and society. The passionate and balanced perspective advanced here will help restore a respectful understanding of the undeniable primacy of religion, as well as give a fresh appreciation of the curative effects of correcting its marginal cultural status.

(this material has been taken from the website, click here to buy the book.)

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