Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Huston Smith - Why Religion Matters (3)

[Please see parts 1 and 2 of this review.]

This is the third and final part of this review of Huston Smith's Why Religion Matters. I began reading this book as an antidote to the writings of the New Atheists I had been reading of late, but it turns out that Smith is nearly as constrained by his worldview as are some of the atheists who are getting so much press of late.

To begin, Smith, because of his preference for the traditional worldview, finds himself squarely in the camp of the Intelligent Design folks, which does little to support his position.

He says:

I am not myself a scientist, but I naturally favor the Design hypothesis. [Pg. 177]

This is a fine example of Smith's seeming distrust of science. He doesn't reject the scientific project completely, but he sees so much of it as scientism that he feels it is severely limited. As often is the case with Smith's arguments, this is true but partial. Yes, scientism is bad -- as fundamentalist as some of the religious folks this worldview attacks -- but not all science is scientism.

In Smith's View,

Two worldviews, the traditional and scientific, compete for the mind of the third millennium. (E. O. Wilson's wording of this first of my two sentences is, "The choice between transcendentalism and empiricism will be the coming century's version of the struggle for men's minds.) If we had our choice, we would prefer the traditional worldview; and we do have that choice, because neither of them can be proved to be truer than the other. [Pg. 193]

Here he explains his view of what science is, a view that is somewhat biased, I think:

1. Science (as I have already quoted Alex Comfort as saying) is our "sacral" way of knowing.
2. The Crux of modern science is the controlled experiment.
3. We can control only that which is inferior to us.
4. Science can only register what is inferior to us.
5. Because we take our cues from science as to what exists (Point 1), and because science can disclose only what is inferior to us (Point 3), it follows that:
6. We are trying to live superior lives (the best we can make them) in an inferior world.
[Pg. 194-7]

This is his argument condensed to bullet points. For the most part, this is accurate. To remedy this situation, Smith proposes six areas that science cannot -- and perhaps, should not -- get its hands on:

1. Values in their final and proper sense.
2. Existential and global meanings.
3. Final causes.
4. Invisibles. [Here he is referring to invisible factors that science cannot measure as impacting matter directly.]
5. Quality ["it is the qualitative ingredient in values, meanings, purposes, and noninferable invisibles that gives them their power."]
6. Our superiors. [By this he means God, spirits, angels, and so on.]
[Pg. 197-99]

Again, this is condensed. He's doing OK until he gets to point six. Certainly, he is right, but one wonders if science needs to prove the existence of God as much as the traditional worldview does. Atheists and scientists would rather see the burden of proof placed on the believers, rather than non-believers, especially when matters of faith are concerned.

What I found curious is that he is willing to delineate the realm where science should hold no domain, but he places no such limitations on the traditional worldview of religion. Religion should have no place in explaining the scientific origin of life or consciousness, at least not in the name of science. This is the realm of theology and/or philosophy, but science should be free of recourse to invisibles and/or superiors, as Smith calls them, which clearly makes ID an unscientific position.

For Smith, the post-modern worldview barely deserves his time, and he phrases this within the liberal and conservative constructs:

Generally speaking, religious conservatives regard the Truth by which they live as absolute and therefore appropriately capitalized, whereas liberals are more sensitive to its relativities -- to the ways different points of view splinter the single, all-encompassing Truth and leave us with myriad lower-case truths. Both positions have their virtues and limitations.

The downside of Truth is the danger of fanaticism. Because absolutes brook no alternatives, conservatives are tempted to invade their neighbor's autonomy and try to force Truth down their throats. Liberals face the opposite problem, for the danger that stalks relativism is that it will bottom out into nihilism. At that extreme, relativism collapses into the view that nothing is better than anything else. [Pg. 209-210]

While he acknowledges that tolerance arose from the liberal viewpoint, one gets the feeling that he would rather take his chances with conservatism. He quotes, "Liberals do not recognize the spiritual wholeness that can come from a sense of certainty." Yet, certainty, I'm sure Smith might agree, produces a closed system that is not open to new information. This cannot be seen as healthy.

Smith makes one valuable observation that nearly redeems his viewpoint:

Both the strengths and the dangers of liberalism pertain to life's horizontal dimension, which encompasses human relationships (i.e., relationships between equals), whereas those of conservatives pertain to the vertical, asymmetrical God-person relationship. [Pg. 211]

This is useful. But while Smith recognizes and values hierarchy, and he even quotes Ken Wilber, he fails to recognize that verticality is not merely the domain of the traditional worldview. When one moves beyond the post-modern relativism that Smith dislikes and finds unlivable, verticality returns.

And this where the book finally fails. Smith allows for hierarchy, but he he doesn't see anything beyond post-modernism. A recognition of the higher stages of being that are outlined in the mystical traditions of every religion would have been useful. As it is, Smith is repeatedly guilty of the pre/trans fallacy -- and this takes away much of his credibility.

The book is worth the read, but anyone who thinks in integral terms will be disappointed that Smith doesn't rise that level of discourse.

No comments: