Review: Why Religion Matters by Huston Smith

April 3rd, 2009

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 to everyone, from the devoutly religious to the devoutly atheistic.

Science and Scientism

Smith begins with a discussion of science and scientism. He is a forceful defender of science and of the work of scientists in general. But he is careful to separate science from scientism. Paraphrased, he defines scientism as the belief that science is the only (or the best) route to truth about everything. He points out that, through no explicit fault of scientists, scientism has become so ingrained in our modern psyche that even theologians have started thinking in terms of it.

Yet there are some pretty glaring flaws in scientism, particularly where it comes to matters of philosophy, conscience, meaning, and religion. Smith argues that the foundation of science is the controlled experiment and logical inferences derived from it. He then proceeds to make strong case that it is not possible for humans to set up a controlled experiment to either prove or disprove the existence of something “more” than our material world — a transcendence, a metaphysical reality, a spirit, a God. We, with our existence trapped in this finite world, cannot possibly hope to capture and control something so much more than us in every way: intelligence, versatility, and “finiteness”. Thus science can’t even address the question.

That hasn’t stopped people from claiming that religion is just a helpful delusion, for instance, despite not being able to prove whether it is in fact a delusion or reality.

Worldviews

Smith then asks us to indulge a moment in considering two different worldviews: one the “science-only” worldview so common these days, and the other a more traditional religious worldview with a rightful place for science. He defers supporting evidence for each for later chapters.

The science-only worldview is pretty familiar to many, and I have even heard parts of it articulated in comments left on this blog. It goes roughly like this: The universe is x billions of years old. It is, so far as we presently know, a vast expanse with mostly dead matter. Earth is the only exception, which contains some living organisms and even sentient beings, though these make up a small fraction of even the earth. This life arrived by accident through physical and biological processes, some of which are well-understood and some aren’t. In the end, the universe will again become entirely dead, as our planet will be incinerated when our sun goes nova. Or, in any case, the entire universe will eventually expire in one of various ways. This worldview suggests that it is an accident that we are here and that we have consciousness, and that our actions have no ultimate meaning because the earth will eventually be incinerated anyhow.

The traditional worldview holds the opposite: that instead of having our origins in the tiniest and simplest of building blocks, and eventually improving over time, we should more properly think of ourselves as being derived from something greater than ourselves. That greater something is part of our world, but something much bigger than it too. It does not rule out science, but neither is it something that science can ever explain. It suggests that our lives have a purpose, that our work has meaning, and that there are ultimate ends to seek.

Smith is a scholar of world religions, and draws on his considerable experience to point out that virtually all world religions, before the Enlightenment, drew essentially the same picture of our world and the “more”. He reminds us — though perhaps less effectively than Marcus Borg — that there are other ways of knowing truth besides science, and suggests that we pay attention to what the vast majority of humanity had to say about the nature of existence before a human invention started to squelch the story.

The Stories

The book is filled with personal stories (Smith spent at least a decade each researching and practicing at least four different religions), quotes, and insights. I consider it the most enlightening book on religion I have yet read. Smith has more than a passing familiarity with physics, and the physicists in the crowd will probably be delighted at his discussions of quantum mechanics and the claim that “nonlocality provides us with the first level platform since modern science arose on which scientists and theologians can continue their discussions.”

One passage reads like this:

Again I will let Henry Stapp say it: “Everything we [now] know about Nature is in accord with the idea that the fundamental process of Nature lies outside space-time, but generates events that can be located in space-time.” Stapp does not mention matter, but his phrase “space-time” implies it, for physics locks the three together.

He says that quantum theory of course can’t prove that there is a God, but that recent research seems to disprove the old notion that, given enough time, all questions will be answerable by science.

Even if you disagree with every one of Smith’s conclusions, you’ll be along for a fascinating ride through physics, biology, philosophy, and innumerable religions. One of my favorite anecdotes concerns noted physicist David Bohm (who studied under Oppenheimer and worked with Einstein, among others). He gave a lecture at one point, apparently touching on his hidden variable theories to a great extent. At its conclusion, a senior physics professor asked derivisely, “What does all this philosophy have to do with physics?” Bohm replied, “I do not make that distinction.”

How’s that for something to ponder?

The Writing

The book is fun to read, and the stories make it all the moreso.

However, it is not a light read. Houston Smith wrote this near the beginning, without any hint of irony:

The first of these differences is that Gass’s is an aristocratic book, written for the literary elite, whereas mine is as plebeian as I can render its not always simple arguments.

I can think of a few simpler ways to express that thought. In any case, it isn’t light reading, but it is accessible even if you, like me, have little formal training in philosophy, theology, or quantum physics.

Conclusion

I would do such a poor job trying to paraphrase Smith’s main points that I haven’t even really attempted to do so here. Get the book — you’ll be in for a treat.

Incidentally, I had been thinking of buying the book for awhile. What finally made me do so was an NPR story about how he helped preserve the sound of the Gyuto Monks Tantric Choir back in 1964, when he (of course) was sleeping in a monastery in the Himalayas and awoke to investigate “something transcendent” — the “holiest sound I have ever heard.”

I pressed the Buy button for the Kindle edition a few minutes later.

Categories: Reviews

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Comments Feed45 Comments

  1. Kevin Mark

    That kindle seems to have you in its spell :)

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Yes. Quite insidious, that ;-)

    Reply

  2. Joe Buck

    But if you take his approach, you’re left with a “God of the gaps”. As our ability to explain improves, there’s less and less for God to do.

    While you’re right that science does not purport to address questions like “what does it all mean”, you also seem to assume that meaning requires a God to provide that meaning, that atheists must conclude that life is meaningless.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    You’re only left with a “God of the gaps” if you assume that God can never suspend the laws (as we can determine them via science), or that there are no gaps in the laws that are divinely filled from outside.

    I don’t think it can ever be proven using the scientific method either way.

    Reply

    Ralph Ashby Reply:

    More to the point, the scientific explanations for “how things get done” does not leave less for God to do, but merely explain (partially) how he does things.

    Reply

  3. Aigars Mahinovs

    Heh, you people and your trivialised vision of God. If I was not an atheis I would postulate that God initiated the Big Bang in such a precise way that the system created by this event would eventually produce sapient people. The whole system is designed and evolution is the key element of this design. Thus all the science does in uncover further details of the Gods design.

    Who said that God works in the timespans of days or years? Time itself is his creation, it is meaningless to him. Hundred billion years to God is the same as one day. ‘Let there be light’ could have taken a trillion years for all he cares.

    Ancient people with their limited minds invented dogmas about the God, people wrote the Bible in their own inperfect and limited ways unable to comprehend the complexity of the grand design.

    If God would have tried to personally explain nuclear power and weak particle interaction to Abraham, how much of that would have gotten into the Bible, really?

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    It sounds like you disagree with me about something significant, but I am struggling to figure out what; it sounds like, in big picture terms, we’re pretty much in agreement.

    Huston Smith advocates seeing religion as speaking — though somewhat poorly, given the subject matter — about all there is, both the material and the metaphysical world. Science also can speak to a part of that domain, and much more precisely than religion, but religion still speaks in broader strokes.

    I have no problem with natural selection, evolution, etc.

    I don’t think God needs to explain nuclear power to anybody. It’s a useful technology, a product of great minds and scientific effort, but it doesn’t speak to matters of ultimate importance that religion concerns itself with.

    But I would also like to point out to you that your religion (atheism) is every bit as much a religion as any other. That is not a judgment of inferiority, simply a statement that you are taking the lack of a theistic being on faith rather than having proof of God’s non-existence. Given that, I don’t think you can really make a statement that somebody invented God; you have no more solid evidence about God’s nonexistence than they did about God’s existence, so it is incorrect to derive a judgment about the limitations of their minds.

    Reply

    Ralph Ashby Reply:

    You’re not really an atheist, right? You sound more like a Deist perhaps. Also, you meant “satient.”

    Reply

    Ralph Ashby Reply:

    i.e. “sentient”… sorry.

    Reply

  4. Havok

    John: He then proceeds to make strong case that it is not possible for humans to set up a controlled experiment to either prove or disprove the existence of something “more” than our material world — a transcendence, a metaphysical reality, a spirit, a God.

    Methodlogical Naturalism, which is basically at the base of scientific investigation, has no method to “test” the supernatural. Of course, claiming something is supernatural implies that the person making the claim knows all there is to know about the “natural” in order to make that distinction :-)

    John: We, with our existence trapped in this finite world, cannot possibly hope to capture and control something so much more than us in every way: intelligence, versatility, and “finiteness”. Thus science can’t even address the question.

    My main problem is that this “question” hasn’t even been established as a sensible one, let alone having some objective means of investigating and answering it.

    John: But I would also like to point out to you that your religion (atheism) is every bit as much a religion as any other.

    Saying it doesn’t make it so. As the saying goes, atheism is a religion in the same way not collecting stamps is a hobby :-)

    John: That is not a judgment of inferiority, simply a statement that you are taking the lack of a theistic being on faith rather than having proof of God’s non-existence.

    In the same way that we both (presumably) take the lack of existence of fairies or the non-existence of Russell’s teapot “on faith” :-)
    Why, given the lack of evidence I’ve found in favour of any particular conception of a theistic being, should I be predisposed to belief in the existence of one?

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    If atheism isn’t a religion, how do you define religion?

    Claiming that we can’t discuss the supernatural without first having complete knowledge of the natural is again begging the question: is science the only/best way to learn about these things? If you say yes, as I suspect you do, then you may have a point. I think that Smith makes a compelling case that the answer is No; that there are better ways to learn about them.

    As to your last sentence, I suggest that you have no scientific evidence either way, so we can throw that right out. What other sort of evidence might there be? Here it is time to consider what other humans report as their experiences, and what other fields such as philosophy and theology have to add.

    Whether that is compelling to you or not is, of course, your own opinion, as these are by nature not quantitative fields, and of course small numbers of atheists have existed throughout human history, too. Whether or not you are willing to consider sources of truth other than science is a separate question. If not, I feel you have chosen a scientistic religion all the same.

    Reply

    Ralph Ashby Reply:

    Some atheists are more zealous than others. As per your metaphor re stamp collecting: people who choose not to collect stamps don’t go around saying that no one should collect stamps. Unfortunately, many of the Dawkinsian “New Atheists” or on the attack. They do not merely choose not to follow a religion — they attack the entire concept (they often claim in “self-defense”, given the zealous nature of some fundamentalists).
    As for “evidence of God”???? The Universe is evidence of God. You may disagree if you like.

    Reply

  5. Moray

    It’s more than 10 years since I read it, but your review above makes me think you might be interested by Mary Midgely’s book Science as Salvation http://books.google.com/books?id=NCbsp4eVf9cC

    Reply

  6. Havok

    John: If atheism isn’t a religion, how do you define religion?

    This seems reasonable: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/religion

    While you might be able to slip “strong” atheism into the 4th item, I’m not sure there are many of those around. Most of the non-believers I’m aware of (including myself) lack belief in a god or gods, they don’t expressly affirm that there cannot be or is not a god or gods (weak atheism).

    John: Claiming that we can’t discuss the supernatural without first having complete knowledge of the natural is again begging the question: is science the only/best way to learn about these things?

    The scientific method/methodological naturalism is currently the best method for investigating reality. If you know of another method which is as reliable and as useful, then I’m all ears :-)

    John: As to your last sentence, I suggest that you have no scientific evidence either way, so we can throw that right out. What other sort of evidence might there be?

    Logical arguments and reasoning?
    What other evidence do you think there is?

    John: Here it is time to consider what other humans report as their experiences, and what other fields such as philosophy and theology have to add.

    Humans seem to be unreliable, and reports of their experiences have resulted in the proliferation of religious and mystical beliefs which we find currently and throughout history. Psychology likely has some interesting things to say in this regard.

    Philosophy is very interesting, though when it comes to claims concerning reality, we rely upon the best tool we have – methodological naturalism.

    I find theology to be a little wrong headed, as it seems to assume, a priori, the existence of a God and work from there. Starting from “What is God like?” prior to determining “Is God?” seems a little premature to me.

    John: Whether or not you are willing to consider sources of truth other than science is a separate question.

    Such as logic and reason?
    Revelation doesn’t seem to be a source of truth, as it is unreliable and subjective.
    What other sources of truth did you have in mind?

    John: If not, I feel you have chosen a scientistic religion all the same.

    A religion, as per def 4 from M-W above, seems to require faith, yet I don’t have “faith” in science – I trust in the process of scientific investigation and accept it’s result because it has shown itself to be useful, spectacularly so. Needless to say I don’t agree that my atheism or accepted of science are religious in nature :-)

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    On your cited definition, I find “commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance”, as well as “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith” to both be instructive here. I still believe that the scientific method cannot resolve the question of the metaphysical, which leaves atheism as much a faith as anything else.

    As for the scientific method being the best method for investigating reality, that’s circular reasoning because you are defining reality to be only that which the scientific method can investigate. By denying that there is the possibility of a reality outside the realm of the scientific method, you are limiting our discourse to that which the scientific method can address. I want to EXPAND our discourse past that.

    As for logical arguments and reasoning, I think plenty can be advanced on both sides of the discussion.

    As for proliferation of religious and mystical beliefs, it would appear that there are some core similarities held to be a vast majority of the world’s inhabitants over the centuries. A common core, if you will, with different external attributes in different places and times.

    Yes, we humans are unreliable in some ways. Smith quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes as saying, “Science gives us major answers to minor questions, while religion gives us minor answers to major questions.”

    Can you believe that there are things that exist that are impossible for humans to ever fully comprehend?

    If not, where is your proof? If so, that establishes a definitive limit to our use of the scientific method.

    I would point out that sources of truth can still be truth even if they are subjective. We can state that “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” is a source of truth, because it illuminated suffering — and led to its abolishment — just as surely as “David Copperfield” did in its century. Yet both are works of fiction. Literal, material truth isn’t the only source of truth we have. It if were, Shakespeare, Mozart, Dickens, and Sean Connery would all be anonymous nobodies.

    Finally, I am not claiming that the scientific method is a religion, though some do. I am claiming that the belief that everything that exists can be tested and discovered via the scientific method is religion, and that, by extension, atheism grounded on a self-limiting view of reality is also religion.

    Again, it is not a value judgment, but I find it quite disturbing to start from an unproven assertion that all that is real can be discovered via the scientific method, and then claim the moral high ground that materialism naturally follows from science.

    I think you would enjoy reading this book, even if you violently disagree in the end :-)

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    In fact, I would love to hear your reactions to it after having read it.

    Reply

    Ben Finney Reply:

    > On your cited definition, I find “commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance”, as well as “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith” to both be instructive here.

    Neither of these apply to atheism. There is no “faith or observance” of atheism, since it’s merely the absence of supernatural thinking, which doesn’t require observance any more than disbelief in unicorns requires “faith or observance”.

    Nor is it a “cause, principle, or system of beliefs”; it is by definition the absence of those things. You may be thinking of the desire for a secular life: the desire for a life free of sectarian influence can certainly be cast as a “cause or principle”. But surely that desire is even *less* amenable to being labelled a religion.

    > I still believe that the scientific method cannot resolve the question of the metaphysical

    What question is that? I’ve yet to hear it asked as a question that could possibly have a meaningful answer.

    > which leaves atheism as much a faith as anything else.

    No. Faith would be to hold a *positive assertion* in the absence of evidence. Atheism points out that, in the absence of evidence supporting the existence of a god, the reasonable position is disbelief in a god. It requires exactly as much faith to disbelieve in the flying spaghetti monster as it does to disbelieve in a god; i.e. no faith at all.

    > As for the scientific method being the best method for investigating reality, that’s circular reasoning because you are defining reality to be only that which the scientific method can investigate.

    He just concluded by saying he *doesn’t* make that claim; rather that the scientific method has earned his trust through demonstrable predictions in the observable world.

    If there were a “better way of knowing”, which produced demonstrably, consistently, verifiably better predictions than the scientific method, I’d certainly be interested.

    The scientific method is the best way of knowing we’ve come up with. That doesn’t require faith, quite the opposite: it is the rigorous discarding of ways of thinking that have demonstrated themselves less reliable.

    > Can you believe that there are things that exist that are impossible for humans to ever fully comprehend?

    Can I believe it possible? Yes, of course. I can also believe it possible that there is nothing impossible to comprehend. Both possibilities are compatible with what we know so far.

    > If so, that establishes a definitive limit to our use of the scientific method.

    Not at all: it establishes nothing definitive, it merely admits a vague possibility. If you want to name a particular thing and claim it is impossible for humans to comprehend, *that* would be a definitive claim; but I would be very doubtful that any one chosen thing happens to be incomprehensible to humans now and forever.

    > I would point out that sources of truth can still be truth even if they are subjective.

    You’re being loose with usage of language if you say that. You’re closer to something like “feels good” or “confirms my beliefs”. That’s a valid usage of the word “truth”.

    It is not, though, the type of truth useful for making statements of fact about the world — such as that there exists a specific supernatural being which has particular properties and desires and effects in this world.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Atheism is still a faith because you are specifically excluding certain types of evidence from your own consideration. If you are to be self-selecting, that is fine, but let’s recognize it for what it is.

    There is plenty of evidence on all sides of the table here, and the willful ignorance of some of it does not mean that it doesn’t exist.

  7. Michael M.

    “This worldview suggests that it is an accident that we are here and that we have consciousness, and that our actions have no ultimate meaning because the earth will eventually be incinerated anyhow.”

    That strikes me as an example of the too-common attempt to equate rationalism and nihilism. One can lack belief in some metaphysical super-being who pre-ordained our presence or our consciousness without accepting that our actions have no meaning. Life has value, whether or not it is created willfully or develops randomly. One reason, I think, that I am not religious is that I find repugnant the view that one needs to act ethically or morally only because God will punish you if you don’t. It is an immature response to the complexity of human and animal interactions: ‘You better be good or Santa will cross you off his list!’ The fact of the matter is that our sun will die and our planet will be incinerated. Belief in God doesn’t change this; nor does belief in God have some exclusive claim to reasons why life matters despite this.

    And please, enough of the canard that “atheism is a religion.” Lacking belief in something that is, as you point out, entirely unprovable does not constitute a religion. Broadly speaking, a person is either a “theist” (believes in God or gods) or an “atheist” (does not believe). A theist might or might not follow a particular set of religious doctrines, or perhaps his own unique mix or religious doctrines; an atheist probably does not. Neither “theist” nor “atheist” alone denotes a “religion” in an of itself. Those terms denote only faith in one particular aspect of many religions, or the lack thereof. While faith may be an important component of religion (particularly Christianity, where it is paramount), faith alone is not a religion, nor is lack of faith.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Let’s take this at face value, and let me ask: what do you think the meaning of life is? Why do you believe life has value, and how would you convince a hypothetical person that disagrees with you on that point?

    On to the next point, I will point out that quite a few religious people, and quite a few religious Christians even, don’t believe that God will punish people for their behavior, lack of faith, or whatnot. It is true that some do, but I am not even certain that this is a majority belief across the world today (or ever).

    As for the atheism is religion, I guess that hinges very tightly on what your definition of “religion” is. It is probably a semantic mess to try to go there. I would only like to point out three perspectives that cannot be proved using the scientific method:

    1) The certainty that there is no god or metaphysical existence

    2) The certainty that humans cannot know whether a god or metaphysical universe exists

    3) The certainty that there is a god or metaphysical universe

    All three require some sort of “leap of faith”. #1 requires faith that all that is real is detectable, can be experimented upon by the scientific method, and can be comprehended by humans. #2 requires the faith that humans cannot possibly come to even some small sense of truth about these matters via any method. #3 requires the faith that thee is a reality that science cannot comment upon.

    I see no scientific reason to prefer any of these. Science is moot on the subject.

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    Andreas Krey Reply:

    “let me ask: what do you think the meaning of life is?” I think this question is completely pointless; even if I had an answer there is no way that I can convince someone else that it is universally valid. I think I can have (at most) have an answer for *my* life, and I don’t need to convince anyone of that one.

    And to the “quite a few religious Christians even, don’t believe that God will punish people for their behavior”: It is quite astonishing that, given the history of Jesus, anyone who believes in a punishing god calls himself ‘christian’. Likewise it is pretty astonishing that a christian church came up with the punishment of excommunication, and educate people in a way that it is a punishment in the first place.

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    Ben Finney Reply:

    > The certainty that {there is, there is not, we cannot know whether there is} god or metaphysical existence

    Science doesn’t deal with the certainty of *anything*. Absolute certainty of something seems peculiarly irrational, so I don’t know why you would criticise science in particular on that.

    I would say instead that, in the utter absence of evidence whose best explanation is a god, the default operating position must be that there’s no such thing — always subject to the possibility of future evidence to the contrary.

    As for a “metaphysical existence”, I’ve never heard it explained in terms of anything but meaningless waffle, or mere wishful thinking. Talk in terms of how it affects us here and now, otherwise there’s no basis for making decisions.

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    Why should the default be to assume there is no god, when the vast majority of humanity testifies that there is?

    As for metaphysical existence, of course it effects us here and now. I am not the best at explaining it though, perhaps.

    Michael M. Reply:

    I don’t think life has a meaning; I think each individual living creature is capable of determining the meaning of his/her/its own life. That life has value is self-evident; without it, there would be no one to agree or disagree with about whether life has any value. :-) From the perspective of the living, life makes all things that are possible possible. I’m stumped as to what argument a hypothetical person who asserts “life has no value” might make, so it’s rather difficult to convince him otherwise. But I suppose I’d start by pointing out that life itself is a prerequisite to his ability to assert anything.

    I would never say that all religious people believe one thing in particular, nor even that all Christians believe one thing in particular. You might remember a few years back there was a kerfluffle when the Jerusalem Post reported that Jerry Falwell claimed that Jews could go to heaven without converting, prompting a large outcry in evangelical Christian circles and a swift denial from Falwell that he said or meant that. Jews themselves, of course, believe, to varying degrees, that they are the chosen people. It seems to me that these types of attitudes are quite prevalent among religious people of many faiths. I couldn’t say whether the notion of being somehow anointed or special because of what you believe is the majority or minority view across all religions (especially, the major monotheistic religions), but it is certainly common enough and has persisted for centuries — indeed, practically since the Jews invented their God.

    If you don’t believe me, I suggest you hang out at FreeRepublic.com for awhile. It will certainly open your eyes to the extraordinary degree of hatred and ugliness inspired by belief in Jesus Christ and the Christian God.

    Lastly, your point #1: No one can be certain that there is no God or metaphysical existence. Anyone who claims they are certain is expressing a belief, just as anyone who claims they are certain there is a God is expressing a belief. As I said before, I don’t think either of those beliefs, in and of themselves, constitute a “religion.”

    Your point #2: It doesn’t require faith to hold “the certainty that humans cannot know whether a god or metaphysical universe exists.” By definition, humans cannot know whether God or a metaphysical realm exists. What do you think “metaphysical” means? If God’s existence could be proved, in a verifiable, repeatable way, He would no longer be a metaphysical construct, he would enter the realm of the physical. What you’re trying to assert is that it requires faith to believe that a metaphysical construct is, in fact, a metaphysical construct. That doesn’t make any sense. The fact that no god ever has entered the realm of the physical is itself testament to the need for apprehending God via the mechanism of faith — and faith, by definition, is not provable, not verifiable, not in the scientific sense. If you could “prove” to me that your faith is correct, with test tubes and chemicals say, then it wouldn’t be faith anymore, would it?

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    I know that there is a lot of xenophobic hatred out there, and sometimes religion gives people an outlet for it. That’s both unfortunate and deplorable.

    I disagree on one thing though: I think people *can* be certain that there is a god. There are too many people that are certain they have experienced god personally to say otherwise.

    I agree that scientific process can’t prove or disprove god. I disagree that this is the only way to learn the truth.

    Snowden Reply:

    “1) The certainty that there is no god or metaphysical existence

    2) The certainty that humans cannot know whether a god or metaphysical universe exists

    3) The certainty that there is a god or metaphysical universe”

    It seems to me this hinges upon the definition of existence. Is it even meaningful to discuss the existence of something that is, by definition, completely inaccessible? For a god to escape the detection of the scientific method, they would have to avoid interacting with anything physical, or accessible, at all. Once they interact, they can be measured by their effects, and then their inexistence will be refuted, destroying their metaphysical status!

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  8. nona

    Either the “supernatural” affects reality and we can make hypotheses and theories about these effects, at which point religion becomes science.

    Or the supernatural never affects reality, and it’s pretty pointless to speculate what its nature must be like, since all we’re likely to come up with are very “human” interpretations, and knowing these (or more likely assuming) can by definition not affect our lives for the better or worse.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Ah, but just how expansive is science? Does it encompass philosophy? And what is to say that the supernatural is distinct from reality? Is “supernatural” simply a way of categorizing things upon which science can’t comment?

    Putting aside those comments, the ability to make a hypothesis is not the foundation of science. The use of the controlled experiment to test a hypothesis is. Anybody can make a hypothesis or theory about it, and by that definition, every philosopher and theologian since Plato is an esteemed scientist.

    I find it a difficult proposition to take that we can set up a controlled experiment over the supernatural.

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    Snowden Reply:

    What do you mean by “the supernatural”? Does it simply mean “things that science can’t comment upon”?
    I think it’s a fairly big leap from “it is possible that there exist metaphysical things, beyond the reach of our senses and instruments forever”, to “my specific formulation of a deity exists”. I may be willing to accept the former, but I don’t see any reason to accept the latter.

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  9. nona

    Oh, and one thing I’d like to add: religions tell us a lot more about us humans, than about the divine. That’s why I find religions often very fascinating, even if you could describe me as an agnostic or weak atheist or what have you.

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    That is an interesting point, and perhaps almost inescapable. If there is some sort of infinite being, a “more” out there, that so stupendously defies our attempts to understand it, our feeble attempts to communicate it to others must inevitably reveal quite a bit about us.

    Thanks for making it; I hadn’t thought of that angle before.

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  10. Michele Artoni

    We *know* that there are things that *are* true/false but we will *never* know for sure, the god existence, very much by definition, is one of those things.

    However an anthropomorphic god is definitely laughable (I hope you agree).

    The real question is: do those higher truth (unknowable truth) make sense to us?

    Why a god would like us to be “good”?
    Why a god would like us to be anything?
    Why a god would like anything?
    Why a god can be understood enoughs to talk about it?
    Why a god can be understood enoughs to even think about it?

    In conclusion: Why a god can be understood enoughs to drag conclusion?

    A god make a lot sense to me, knowing anything about it definitely not.

    Our brain is physical and *can* be simulated and tested.

    Metaphysical realities aren’t metaphysical at all, they lives in our brain or you can’t say anything about it.

    God can exist, but religion can’t answer any question.

    If you allow religion everything broke, if I know A, A -> B then I know B doesn’t hold anymore.

    Why should logic hold in a higher world?
    Why should things make any sense?

    All the religions I have met say: Some things broke, some others not .

    The only way to go metaphysical is to drop your brain, the more the better.

    This is why I believe that religion (that is drag conclusion about god) is a form of mental illness, and I’m cool with it, because I’m pretty crazy by myself.

    What I ask believers is to be honest to themselves and admit that religion doesn’t make any sense, and you believe in that way because you like that way and this is NOT metaphysical, but very human.

    Reply

  11. Simon

    “I would only like to point out three perspectives that cannot be proved using the scientific method:” — you specify certainty in your response. I’m an atheist, I think it very unlikely any traditional god or gods reflect anything that exists – but I’m not certain just confident.

    I think I can answer the question does science include philosophy in the affirmative. I’ve argued that 2+2=4 is a model of reality based on induction, not something that is derivable from first principles. For example take 2 men and 2 women of child bearing age to a desert island, and wait a few years, will there still be 4 people on the island? So when we say 2+2=4 we are referring to situations that happen to map on the to natural numbers, like counting oranges (after they have been picked and when no one is eating them). As such despite the slogan “God created the natural numbers”, I’d argue man created them (or possibly some other creature before man). i.e. the concept “three” is based on an inductive model and is thus part of science (or similar philosophy for want of a better name).

    I think similarly logic is a model derived from what works in the world as we find it. It is an interesting question why the world has logic, but alas it crosses the weak anthropic principle – if it weren’t true we wouldn’t be here to ask it.

    I read an interesting article the other day titled “absence of evidence IS evidence of absence”. Whilst I don’t like the title, it correctly raises the question how would you decide between things that can’t be proven. As you say lots of religion have things in common, but lots of atheists talk about invisible Unicorns in their garage – do we assume that one of them has an invisible Unicorn in their garage that got the meme started? Your answer would appear to be yes, I believe in invisible Unicorns, because how else could it have got started? It is the same question as why the religious aren’t Odin or Mithras worshipers. That you can’t prove a negative doesn’t give us a method for choosing between things for which there is no evidence.

    Reply

  12. Leon

    Nice. I’ve heard of this book before, but haven’t read it. I expect that I would enjoy it, and largely agree with large swaths of it.

    I myself am a firm Christian who grew up in the Church of the Brethren, and I few years spent as a sympathetic agnostic. I grew up in an extremely conservative, very rural small town, and as a result I’ve learned the fine art of diplomacy with particularly conservative Christians.

    In this “diplomatic” mindset, what sticks out to me like a sore thumb is the fact that Huston Smith has spent decades practicing four different religions, and I’m fully aware this would immediately draw the ire of that crowd which, while I don’t entirely agree with, I love and appreciate and even enjoy worshipping with from time to time. Most would dismiss it out of hand, as somebody who has simply no credibility, and in fact is highly dangerous.

    Worse, I realize that when I read this book, that even mentioning it would run the serious risk of dashing any diplomatic efforts I might try to make in a given context, and possibly even reduce the respect I’ve worked to cultivate. I’ve been severely chastised for far less.

    This xenophobia is all very unfortunate, and highly counterproductive, and I’m not sure how to productively challenge it. (Although I am at times reasonably effective at challenging certain other superstitions.)

    My view, at least with regard to “scientism”, basically revolves around Godel’s incompleteness theorems, especially the fact that no consistent axiomatic system that can describe the natural numbers has the ability to prove itself consistent.

    I think there is a very interesting analogy to be drawn with fundamentalism, and moreover I also see it as a real challenge to Scientism: namely, some element of faith cannot be removed, even from pure mathematics.

    Of course mathematicians are largely convinced that axiomatic set theory is consistent, and this leap of faith is *not* blind, as we most certainly could prove that ZF is inconsistent, even though we’ll never know that it is. (And indeed, Bertrand Russell *did* prove that the first formulations of set theory were inconsistent, thanks to his famous paradox.) I would argue that religion need not be based on blind faith either, and there is some impossible to quantify “empirical” element, even though this “empirical evidence” is largely personal and subjective, and other’s “evidence” cannot easily (and probably should not) be taken at face value.

    You might be interesting to read Amr Sabry’s slides on Computer Science, Logic, Religion (Islam). Can’t say that I saw the presentation, but I have conversed with him a time or two on this subject, and it’s amazing how much our mutual understanding of God coincides, even in the demeanor that we take with religion in general.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Thanks for the very thoughtful post.

    My Sunday School class just finished going through The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg. Lively (but always friendly) discussions ensued, let me tell you. This isn’t as conservative as the Church of the Brethren, but well, it’s rural Kansas.

    I actually think that some people would be more receptive to Smith than Borg (Smith actually thinks Borg is too liberal), but Borg’s writing is more accessible than Smith’s, I think.

    I will most certainly check out those slides — thanks for the link.

    Reply

    Leon Reply:

    Well, the just like the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren is very diverse. The church I grew up in was not that conservative, but I visted other churches that were. There are a lot of Amish in my home town, and lots of Conservative Mennonites. You don’t have to travel that far, however, to find technocratic Mennonites, similar in nature to the less-conservative elements of the Brethren. :-)

    I might take a look at Borg at some point too, perhaps. It does sound like Smith is a more interesting read.

    I actually identify best with orthodox Quaker theology; and have attended several unprogrammed meetings. I think that Quakers sometimes get too liberal in their theology, confusing the Quaker’s proscription against browbeating others on matters of faith with a license to believe whatever you want, and confusing respect for others with the need to accept and validate their beliefs.

    I think, that in an honest effort to seek out and listen to God, you will inevitably be pulled in directions that you don’t really want to go in, or initially disagree with.

    My condolences on the passing of your grandmother. I lost my first grandparent not quite 2 years ago; the other three are still living though.

    Reply

  13. Udo Stenzel

    Meanwhile, science has actually found God. He lives in the temporal lobe of some people and turns out not to be a bearded man, but kind of an epileptic seizure. It makes sense, too, if your brain misfires, depending on where it happens, you might twitch or hear voices, and the latter is where primitive superstitions, find their “knowledge”.

    Reply

  14. Andreas Krey

    There is an important distinction missing. There can by definition only be one science, as science consists of stuff anybody can reproduce. (Excuse sloppy wording, please.) As opposed to ‘religion’ which is about personal experience that you basically *can’t* communicate to others. Thus there should be one ‘religion’ for every person on earth, That there isn’t shows what is wrong with religions (without quotes): They produce pressure to accept a common set of beliefs, no matter whether the individuals are actually willing or ready to accept those, and this pressure invariably hurts people; it keeps them from seeing their own purpose in life.

    Science is like a hammer: It is just a tool; it shows rules how the world behaves at a very low level, but it can’t ultimately tell why the rules are the way they are. Likewise, science or rational thinking can’t tell you how to lead a happy life, because happiness does not depend on external factors (other than those who keep telling us that we have to be unhappy as long as someone else has more money than we do).

    I do believe that the only way to find out one’s purpose (or meaning) in life is to listen to oneself, and to find out what of the ideas you find there are truly your own, and which are there because you have been told often enough (or early enough), and then act on the former. It doesn’t really matter whether those are the results of some god fiddling around with quantum fluctuations (wouldn’t he have something better to do?), the results of an eternal soul doing the same, or actual random events forming out a path in the subconscious. The point is to get to terms with the mortality of the physical body.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I’m with you on the one science part.

    I’m half way with you on the “can’t communicate to others” bit. Huston Smith — who has not only studied but practiced multiple religions — seems to make a case that there is one main religion, manifest in different ways.

    It’s an interesting proposition.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    Reply

  15. Ben Finney

    John, a lot of your comments here lack a “[Reply]” option, so this conversation becomes difficult to follow.

    > Atheism is still a faith because you are specifically excluding certain types of evidence from your own consideration.

    What evidence am I specifically excluding? It seems rather that the subjective experience of someone else is by its nature excluded from my consideration. Without any specific exclusion on my part, I’m unable to consider that to which I don’t have any access.

    Evidence needs to be evident; if someone testifies they experienced something, that is evidence only that they testified they experienced it. From that it is only necessary to explain why they would testify that; in that case, I have been presented with no evidence of anything else that needs explanation.

    > Why should the default be to assume there is no god, when the vast majority of humanity testifies that there is?

    The default *in the complete absence of evidence* for a thing must be to assume that it does not exist and work from there. Otherwise we have no basis for excluding any of the endless morass of unevidenced fancies of the peoples of this world.

    I would welcome evidence (remembering that evidence is by definition evident, not merely testified) that could be examined and discussed. In the absence of that, I can only shrug and wait, and continue with a natural explanation undisturbed by non-evidence.

    > As for metaphysical existence, of course it effects us here and now.

    To the extent that it affects us here and now, I’m perfectly willing to discuss those effects for which there is evidence. But I want to rigorously seek the least complicated explanation which explains that evidence. If a natural explanation completely describes the observable evidence, then a metaphysical realm is superfluous.

    Reply

  16. Gour

    I would welcome evidence (remembering that evidence is by definition evident, not merely testified) that could be examined and discussed. In the absence of that, I can only shrug and wait, and continue with a natural explanation undisturbed by non-evidence.

    Vedic scriptures for instance (I’m sure it is similar with every ther revealed scripture) give plenty of information how one can approach God, i.e. what qualification one needs to possess to get the ‘evidence about His existance’.

    This is true even in ordinary ‘science…

    Is it natural to expect that the pupil in 1st class of primary school can understand differential calculus or quantum mechanics?

    No, it is expected that one slowly progress in his qualification to come to the point of being able to grasp it.

    However, to understand God one needs to work on his character by becoming humble, praying etc. ’cause, as e.g. explained in Bhagavad-gita:

    I am never manifest to the foolish and unintelligent. For them I am covered by My eternal creative potency [yoga-maya]; and so the deluded world knows Me not, who am unborn and infallible.

    (See http://www.asitis.com/7/25.html)

    Only then, when working according to prescribed methods, one can expect to ‘see the God’ who is above mundane logic and not subjected to be put in a science-lab. :-D

    Sincerely,
    Gour

    Reply

    Ben Finney Reply:

    > However, to understand God one needs to work on his character by becoming humble, praying etc. ’cause, as e.g. explained in Bhagavad-gita: [if you can't see god it's because you're stupid]

    Or that passage from the book could simply be false. Both possibilities explain the observable evidence (i.e. no evidence at all). Which is more likely?

    Reply

  17. Chris

    Hi,

    To attempt to return the favor of material to think on, I enjoyed watching Dinesh D’Souza’s first debate with Peter Singer on God and morality, which is available on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Phgb67NAaHA

    They argued many of the questions brought up by this blog post, including the question of how we should reason about explanations we’re given for events we can’t test with science. (To paraphrase Singer’s answer, which I find persuasive: we can judge explanations that fail to use any evidence to be as likely — or as unlikely — as each other, even when we can’t use science to test each of them individually.)

    – Chris.

    Reply

  18. The Big-Publisher Ebook Scam | The Changelog

    [...] Smith’s Why Religion Matters included some illustrations, but they were scanned at such a low resolution that the text was [...]

  19. Eddie

    “there are other ways of knowing truth besides science, and suggests that we pay attention to what the vast majority of humanity had to say about the nature of existence before a human invention started to squelch the story.”
    Religion and science are both human inventions. The dichotomy between them can be likened to the surface of a Möbius strip. Tracing one brings up the other in a never-ending cycle of debate on the nature of existence.

    Reply

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