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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Fall 2001, Vol. 28 No. 2

Does Why Religion Matters Really Matter?

Robert J. Nash

My answer to the question in the title of this essay review is yes and no. Yes, Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters matters for the same reason that all of his other books matter. Few scholars on comparative religion are able to write about their disciplines as passionately and accessibly as Smith, who is the author of such best-sellers as The World’s Religions (over 1,500,000 copies sold) and The Illustrated World’s Religions. His uncanny ability to draw expertly from a number of academic disciplines in analyzing religion’s continuing influence in human affairs, coupled with his willingness to write from the heart of a believer, as well as from the head of a scholar, make his books a pure joy to read, whether one is an interested layperson, a disbelieving or believing undergraduate, or a veteran college professor. Smith is strongest in Why Religion Matters when he argues that the academy needs to recognize the central place that the quest for religious meaning ought to have on college campuses, as well as in the public arena.

Even though he understands well the failures of the world’s religions throughout human history, Smith chooses in the present volume to emphasize the positive contributions. He is at his best here in reminding readers that without a religious sensibility in the academy, as well as in society at large, issues of morality, meaning, and the pursuit of a sustainable truth to live by get marginalized. Rushing to fill the vacuum created by the disappearance of a profound religious consciousness, materialism and consumerism threaten to engulf us all. For Smith, the loss of religious faith in a modernist and postmodernist era, along with the certainties and sense of transcendence that accompany it, leave most of us desperate for an enduring meaning to live and to love.

No matter how intelligent, wealthy, or healthy, sooner or later each of us must deal with the inevitabilities of suffering, loneliness, hopelessness, despair, defeat and, perhaps the most lethal of all, an all-pervasive sense of purposelessness and ennui. The quotation that best sums up Smith’s critical stance throughout his volume is this assertion: "If anything characterizes ‘modernity,’ it is a loss of faith in transcendence, in a reality that encompasses but surpasses our quotidian affairs."1 Smith’s strength as a religious writer and scholar is to talk about the "religious sense" in such a way as to make it seem universal and necessary. For him, human beings will always look to some greater religious or spiritual force for answers to the ultimate questions. Moreover, at some level they understand that no answer to these questions will ever be entirely satisfactory. Nevertheless, their conviction that there are answers will never waver, because to give up on them is to invite a grinding despair. Finally, human beings need to conduct their search for meaning together, for it is in social groups that religious truth gets discovered, understood, and affirmed.

This book represents one of Smith’s most autobiographical attempts yet to discuss the strengths of religion.

[Fall 2001 Issue Contents]