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

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9780060670993: Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief

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.

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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

About the Author:

Huston Smith is internationally known and revered as the premier teacher of world religions. He is the focus of a five-part PBS television series with Bill Moyers and has taught at Washington University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Syracuse University, and the University of California at Berkeley. The recipient of twelve honorary degrees, Smith's fifteen books include his bestselling The World's Religions, Why Religion Matters, and his autobiography, Tales of Wonder.

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