Saturday, December 15, 2007

Huston Smith - Why Religion Matters (2)

[Please see Part One of this review of Smith's book.]


After the first half of this book, I nearly gave up on it. From my perspective, he continually belabored his point that the scientific wolrdview, which sees as scientism, is responsible for the demise -- or near demise -- of the traditional religious worldview. This is only a partial truth, and its too simplistic in its assumptions.

This theme continues into the second half of the book, as well, but here we get more of what made Smith one of the world's best-known scholars of religion. His insights into the religious nature of human beings may not hold much weight with scientists, or with atheists, but it is likely to make sense to anyone who has felt the religious -- or more accurately, spiritual -- impulse in their own lives.

For example:

Seen through the eyes of faith, religion's future is secure. As long as there are human beings, there will be religion for the sufficient reason that the self is a theomorphic creature -- one whose morphe (form) is theos -- God encased within it. Having been created in the imago Dei, the image God, all human beings have a God-shaped vacuum built into their hearts. Since nature abhors a vacuum, people keep trying to fill the one inside them. [Pg. 148]

I think that this is true to a great degree, but that the nature of what one defines as God changes as one progresses through the hierarchical developmental stages (what Ken Wilber now refers to as altitude). So, while some pre-rational stages might see God as an old man with a long gray beard, wearing white robes, those in the post-rational stages might see God as universal love or light, just as one example.

He cites Theodore Roszak's The Making of a Counter Culture (1969) as "proof" that science as a system of faith was failing by the 1960s. From this "rejection" of scientism, Smith argues, the New Age movement rose to fill the vacuum he describes above.

Roszak's counterculture was enraged primarily by the destructive uses of technology, whereas its successor, the New Age movement, picks up the other side of the science story: its worldview and the strictures it places on our full humanity. The advocates of that latter counterculture want out -- out from the prison of that outlook. Because they lack seasoned guides, their unbridled enthusiasm for the Aquarian Age careens crazily, and conceptually the movement is pretty much a mess. Pyramids, pendulums, astrology, ecology, vegetarianism and veganism (we are back to religion as dietary restrictions); amulets, alternative medicine, psychedelics, extraterrestrials, near-death experiences, the archaic revival, channeling, neopaganism, and shamanism -- these and other enthusiasms jostle one another promiscuously. [Pg. 161]

As a historian of religions, Smith holds little sympathy for New Age beliefs. I don't feel it's fair to see all these various approaches as guilty by association. This is again to fall into the pre/post fallacy. Several of these "enthusiasms" are very valid -- ecology, alternative medicine, shamanism (in the right hands), and so on. Anything that seems irrational -- meaning not rational -- is dismissed.

However, but he does recognize that the New Age movement, in his words, "has two things exactly right":

First, it is optimistic, and we need all the hope we can get. Second, it adamantly refuses to acquiesce to the scientistic worldview. Instinctively it knows that the human spirit is too large to accept a cage for its home. [Pg. 161]

Again, I think this is true. The problem, as I'm sure Smith would agree, is that the New Age movement, much like traditional religion, has built-in virus protection that allows its adherents to operate within their faith irrespective of evidence to the contrary. In the case of monotheistic religion, the virus protection is the promise of heaven and/or the fear of hell. Yet even pre-rational forms of Buddhism hold that bad karma leads to reincarnation in a lower form, or spending time in a hell realm following death. So, it isn't fair to look only at Abrahamic traditions in this regard.

It's also true that memes such as religion and New Age beliefs operate not only because of, but in spite of, rational attempts to disprove them. This is why atheists had never really converted religious believers to their own camp. All memes, and both religion and science are memes, have built in protections against other memes -- and it's survival of the fittest.

Future chapters in the book will look at how a detente might be reached between science and religion, but I suspect that Smith will not offer anything as sophisticated as what Ken Wilber proposed in The Marriage of Sense and Soul. I'll keep you posted if anything promising shows up.


Post a Comment