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

3.67  ·  Rating details ·  476 ratings  ·  50 reviews
Huston Smith, the author of the classic bestseller The World's Religions, delivers a passionate, timely message: The human spirit is being suffocated by the dominant materialistic worldview of our times. Smith champions a society in which religion is once again treasured and authentically practiced as the vital source of human wisdom.
Paperback, 304 pages
Published June 27th 2006 by HarperOne (first published December 26th 2000)
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Chenoa Siegenthaler
Jun 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I picked this up off my uncle's shelf thinking that it would be some kind of fundamentalist Christian argument for why people should be Christian. But upon seeing that it was written by Huston Smith, I decided to check it out - and it's amazing! It's more about why what we commonly think of as spirituality matters - and it addressed some fundamental conflicts that I'd been dealing with in myself. For instance, the fundamental disbelief in anything "more" than what can be proven by an empirical e ...more
Jul 29, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: People who are interested in examining the world views of the 20th century
Recommended to Kay by: Toyce Collins
Shelves: favorites
As I was reading Why Religion Matters I thought about The Case for God by Karen Armstrong. To me both authors make a strong case that God is not dead. While Karen Armstrong refers to mostly Judeo-Christian religious artifacts and texts in history to make her case, Huston Smith tackles the issue of "Big Picture" mostly by referring to the works of various thinkers, philosophers, and scientists throughout western history.

The tone of writing in Why Religion Matters may seem abrasive and dense. Howe
Andy McLellan
Sep 01, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Interesting reading but I wasn't totally convinced by Huston Smith's arguments.

As a former scientist and current Buddhist I consider myself at the meeting point of science and religion but am not sure I want to go back to a time when religious belief had a lot of power over society. Personal religious belief can be very transformative and encourage us to be kinder and more ethical people. Religious organisations, however, often seem to produce division and conservatism.
Mar 24, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone interested in the meaning of life
Recommended to John by: Marcus Borg in The Heart of Christianity
Shelves: ownebook, religion
This review was originally posted on my blog.

Most of the book deals with things we already know yet never learn.

-- Huston Smith

This is perhaps one of the most enlightening books I've ever read, and yet I feel like I've only grasped a small bit of its meaning. It is with that warning that I attempt this review.

I should add at the outset that this is one of those books where no matter what you expect it to be, after reading it, you will find that it wasn't what you expected.

I heartily recommend it
Craig Amason
Jun 22, 2017 rated it liked it
No one would question how influential Huston Smith was (he died in December, 2016) in the study of world religions. His book on the subject has sold over 2 million copies since it was first published in 1958. In 2000 he wrote his apologia for religion in the face of the growing post-modern position that faith is no longer necessary in the age of enlightenment. He is a skilled writer, and his prose is certainly accessible, even entertaining. In Why Religion Matters, Smith lays out his case for wh ...more
Karen Mcintyre
Jun 27, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I believe there may have been a time when the world changed at a much slower pace -- when information was something that could be consumed slowly --- savored --- mulled over ---(maybe in the middle ages) but now the world changes in exponential ways and it is helpful to have someone of Smith's stature offer insight into how our post modern world organizes data.

His approach is very mid-century in its reliance on analytical thought, but at the same time he doesn't deny the mystical glimpses of a w
Feb 11, 2016 rated it it was ok
I think Huston Smith is both a smart and wise man. His research, training, and experience make him uniquely qualified to write a book about why religion (and not just "spirituality," as he qualifies it,) still matters in our society.

This isn't that book.

This book's biggest problem is one of tactics.

Smith's stated intention with his book is to simultaneously demonstrate the blind spots in a strictly scientific worldview and to demonstrate how religion can add value and insight. To that end, he ma
Luke Merrick
Apr 22, 2019 rated it liked it
For the most part, Why Religion Matters seemed to be a response to the western scientific worldview. Smith reveals the cracks in what he calls "Scientism"; the naturalistic notion that all things can be explained using science. Smith's argument seems to be well summarized in his quotation of Jacques Monod: "No society before ours was ever rent by contradictions so agonizing. in both primitive and classical cultures the animistic tradition saw knowledge and values stemming from the same source. f ...more
Heather Smith
Jan 16, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
With Why Religion Matters Huston Smith, a lifelong eminent scholar of religion issues a manifesto for the continuing relevance of traditional religious beliefs, arguing that the broad outlines of traditional religious worldviews are superior to the worldview of scientism, which has become modernity's reigning dogma. Both confirmed secular humanists and and religious fundamentalists especially should read this book, as it harbors surprises for both. Smith punctures the shibboleths of each of thes ...more
Frances Winslow
May 11, 2018 rated it did not like it
Shelves: did-not-finish
Ok...maybe I should not write a review since I couldn't finish. It was awful...plodding, discombobulated...very poorly written...

I was asked to review this for the library cart at the local detention center....The "Christian" library cart. If someone with a master's degree has difficulty having any interest on any level with this very poorly written book, I would never think that an inmate who is looking for inspiration , information or even escape find anything of interest.

He is basically sayin
Jul 12, 2019 rated it liked it

This book discusses how the status of religion has changed throughout the history, focusing on three main periods: traditional (premodern), modern, and post modern times. Smith successfully presented his argument supported with evidence. However, for me, I feel that the book explained the second part of the title which is “the fate of human spirit in the age of disbelief” pretty well but did not answer the first part which was more important to me “why religions matter”. All in all, the book was
Sep 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
Some very interesting points about the importance of religion or, at least, transcendence. True to its title, the book tries to explain why religion is relevant particularly in the current materialistic age. However, some of the claims about the science are dubious. Nevertheless the point seems quite clear, which isn't, in my opinion, a attack on science etc... rather a reminder that rationality and its product, science, cannot alone serve as a reason for us to exist.
Michael Summers
Jan 27, 2020 rated it liked it
Huston Smith's 2001 book still addresses with relevance the question of "why religion matters." Identifying valuable aspects to religious, scientific, and postmodern worldviews, he notes also deficiencies and defines what he thinks the salient difference is that makes religion indispensable. Huston believed that science also mattered, and discusses how its value must be recognized while not being overstated.
Jan 03, 2019 rated it liked it
Well written, certainly covers every aspect of the subject one might consider, but I would have preferred 150 pages. Some chapters I will find useful; others might serve as reference material. Lots of literary references and interesting stories but, as Franklin said, "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still."
Jan 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
Provides an excellent summary of the current climate of Scientism by using the analogy of a tunnel - it’s roof, floor and two sides to represent the scientific hierarchy, law, higher education and media. The second part is more of a mixed bag and the attempt at a perennial viewpoint is far from convincing but he comes at it with the right spirit.
Mar 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This was a difficult book for me to get through as philosophy is not my strong suit. But, I learned a tremendous amount from this book and it definitely left me with lessons that I will not soon forget. It is a book I am sure I will reference back to many times in the future.
Katy Sisko
Smith's Christian convictions were evident throughout though he treated the major religions more respectably than most Christian writers do.
Cormac Healy
Jan 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
I would recommend this book one very simple reason; it will make you aware of other points of view. I don't agree surg everything the author is saying, but I do agree with what he is trying to do.
Mar 03, 2017 rated it did not like it
I started and ended this books as soon as I got 3 chapters in. His writing style is horrible. Its out dated. And honestly bored the shit out of me.
Talbot Hook
May 12, 2015 rated it did not like it
It is unfortunate that I should rate this book with one star. After all, the author and I agree about quite a few things. Sadly, there were just too many crossroads where he and I parted ways. And, the writing style of the book was truly horrible; it was a messy labyrinth of name-dropping, anecdotes, page-long quotes, and headings, all placed willy-nilly around his central Tunnel theme, which ended up being drowned in peripheral dross.

Writing aside, I agree with his central point that materiali
Apr 29, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: religion
I was looking forward to reading this book by the respected and acclaimed religion scholar Huston Smith. He begins by explaining that each major historical era has offered a unique and significant contribution to humanity. The pre-modern era (before 1600) provided insight into the metaphysical world through religion, art and philosophy. The modern era gave us the scientific method which provided a new way to understand our physical world. Post-modern society (beginning in the 1950’s) brought an ...more
Jan 31, 2012 rated it liked it
Huston Smith's Why Religion Matters is, at its core, the author's personal apologetic of a third-millennium mystical spirituality loosely rooted in one and more of humanity's great religious traditions. Despite the book's title, the text is more spiritual and personal than it is sociological or from a distance. Smith writes on the liminal boundary, somehow, both passionately within faith-based worldviews and dispassionately outside them.[return][return]Very much written to an American audience, ...more
Geoff Glenister
It is unfortunate that I feel I have to rate this book so low - Smith and I have many areas of agreement. But there were some problems with this book. First off, it's out of date. Smith's view of where the world is can be summed up in the following quote:
Peter Berger’s justly famous quip has caught on: “If India is the most religious country on our planet, and Sweden is the least religious, America is a land of Indians ruled by Swedes.” The next chapter will document his point as it relates to l
Apr 14, 2009 rated it it was amazing
In a few words: genuine, iconoclastic, erudite, personal, poignant, effective. Huston Smith, the well-known leader in world religions, has written a book so timely as to be uncanny. He uses anecdotes (both personal and otherwise) to reify a rather abstract point, and it works time and time again. This age, or epoch, since the Enlightenment, has been driven by a goal to subdue the universe to our understanding and utilization, both in science and technology. The ramifications of this are widespre ...more
Feb 23, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2005
I have friends who absolutely love this author, who is a big-time religious scholar, but I struggled with this book. The author suggests that our society is dominated by a scientific worldview that places humans and material things at the center and that presumes that science is the only reliable path to truth. As a result, the metaphysical, which was such a central component of traditional societies, is discounted because it cannot be proven scientifically. The author argues that a return to a ...more
Aug 12, 2008 rated it liked it
Would have liked the book more were it not bogged down with so many digressions. Too many anecdotes, too many tangents on some of the issues that were raised. Otherwise, I found Huston's points interesting, though I do not fully agree with what he's suggesting. He wisely avoids too much discussion of religion's charitable functions or the notion that ethics require religious values, instead focusing on the internal and communal meaning it can imbue. What I primarily liked was that it allowed me ...more
Mar 26, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I'm finding this really hard to read. I admire Huston Smith the scholar and Huston Smith the seeker, but in this book it seems the narrator is Huston Smith the soon-to-be-obsolete professional, and all he can talk about is the injustice of the death of his profession. What I thought (judging by this book's title and author) would be a compelling argument for the vital place of religious tradition in contemporary life is instead an extended diatribe on the erosion of respect for religion and reli ...more
Jan 24, 2012 rated it liked it
Not light reading, but still a very interesting book. The author does a great job of describing the three ages of the world: traditional, modern, and post-modern. He says we should preserve the best of each: the social justice of the postmodern age, the science of the modern age, and especially the transcendent worldview of the traditional age. A lot of the book is dedicated to explaining the differences between science and scientism (belief in the universal applicability of the scientific metho ...more
Sep 18, 2015 rated it it was amazing
If I could, I would give it 4.6 stars, as I try to reserve my 5's only for the greatest works in history. Nevertheless, this book deserves more than four stars. It is extraordinary in its scope, depth, and creativity. Smith primarily addresses the the rationalstic, scientistic (his word) mindset that is dominant in our time with a sane word about faith. I could wish he had also written a second volume dealing with "Why Religion Matters" from an ethical perspective. but I give him a pass on that ...more
Oct 22, 2008 rated it really liked it
I very informative and in depth look at why having a traditional world view is essential. I personally did not agree with everything Mr. Smith had to say but I decided to give it 4 stars just on the plethora of information that was put forth. Honestly, the book disappointed me by the way it ended. I felt that he was building the reader up the whole time for a strong knock out punch only to sort of fizzle and fade. I still would recommend this book simply because Mr. Smiths strength is his abilit ...more
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Smith was born in Suzhou, China to Methodist missionaries and spent his first 17 years there. He taught at the Universities of Colorado and Denver from 1944–1947, moving to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri for the next ten years, and then Professor of Philosophy at MIT from 1958–1973. While at MIT he participated in some of the experiments with entheogens that professor Timothy Leary c ...more

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“Most of the book deals with things we already know yet never learn.” 4 likes
“There is within us—in even the blithest, most lighthearted among us—a fundamental dis-ease. It acts like an unquenchable fire that renders the vast majority of us incapable in this life of ever coming to full peace. This desire lies in the marrow of our bones and the deep regions of our souls. All great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology, and religion tries to name and analyze this longing. We are seldom in direct touch with it, and indeed the modern world seems set on preventing us from getting in touch with it by covering it with an unending phantasmagoria of entertainments, obsessions, addictions, and distractions of every sort. But the longing is there, built into us like a jack-in-the-box that presses for release. Two great paintings suggest this longing in their titles—Gauguin’s Who Are We? Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going? and de Chirico’s Nostalgia for the Infinite—but I must work with words. Whether we realize it or not, simply to be human is to long for release from mundane existence, with its confining walls of finitude and mortality.” 2 likes
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