A recent newspaper article alerted me to Why Religion Matters, a book by the well-known religious historian Huston Smith. Apart from its very existence, the article drew my attention because of the familiarity of the charges it leveled against science and skepticism. I bought a copy, and while it was difficult to struggle through the whole thing, it was a valuable exercise. It served as an excellent window into the mainstream religious mind - many of the arguments in the book had a familiar ring to them. In fact, the book was quite a nice summary of the prejudices and fallacies about Freethought that are taken for granted in society at large.
This central premise of the book is that we are in the midst of a moral and spiritual crisis, a claim that is becoming ever more familiar. Religious commentators, most especially the very conservative/fundamentalist, love to portray the USA as a spiritual battleground. The godly are in constant battle against moral decay and contempt for religion. Their foes are academia, the media and the government. If you believed everything that they wrote along these lines, you couldn't help but conjure up an image of a Christian family barricaded inside their home while drunken atheists loot and burn their neighborhood. A little research shows, however, that crime is at historic lows and the traditional bellwether of the nation's moral fiber, teenage pregnancy, is also at a record low and still declining. So what evidence do Smith and his perhaps unwitting allies in the religious right offer to back up their assertion that we are in a moral crisis? None. As far as I can tell, it's almost always taken for granted, as it is in Why Religion Matters.
The "tunnel" we are in, Smith says, is built on a slavish devotion to science, particularly in higher education, the media, and the law. Our universities are indoctrinating their students with "the atheism of apathy, indifference and unconcern." Smith contends that because the university system began its existence as a sectarian institution, it has somehow betrayed itself (and us) by becoming largely secular. (Smith says nothing about the popularity of religious universities.) Assuming for a moment that one accepts the statement that universities have become purveyors of atheism - a controversial assertion to say the least - it begs the question, why? To Smith, it's a moral failure by society, but this ignores the obvious difficulties involved in bringing God into a science or history lecture.
The same, apparently, is true of the media. One of the religious right's favorite pastimes seems to be to look for profanity and immorality in the media. They see violence, licentiousness, anti-religious bias and sometimes quite literally the hand of Satan all around us. According to Smith, the "secularism and anti-clericalism of the universities have spread to blanket our cultural life." Yet no evidence is offered for this claim, in fact, the majority of the chapter is spent on an irrelevant critique of the play and film Inherit the Wind, an unabashedly skeptical (but highly entertaining) dramatization of the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial". Not only is this assertion about media bias untrue, it seems to be the exact opposite of the real trend. As Wendy Kaminer remarks in Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials, "What's striking about journalists and intellectuals today, liberals and conservative alike, is not their mythic Voltairian skepticism but their deference to belief and utter failure to criticize, much less satirize, America's romance with God."
Most worrying of all is Smith's contention that the law is unfairly skeptical when it comes to religious matters. Smith contends that the First Amendment was not to erect a wall between church and state - because "there is no way to keep church and state separate", but to simply turn religious issues over to the states. He decries use of the Establishment Clause as a "guarantor of public secularism". If only! Of course, he ignores the constant struggles between organizations like the FFRF or ACLU and a defiantly pious judiciary. In fact, Smith contends that in those facets of public life where church/state separation is routinely violated, such as "In God We Trust" on the currency, real religion isn't being served - it's a shallow attempt to "domesticate" real faith. One supposes this means it doesn't go far enough. Even to relatively liberal commentators like Smith, any policy that does not actively embrace, or at least acknowledge religion, is hostile to it. He sees the value of the constitution as imposing "neutrality" in religious matters, which to him means that publicly expressed religion should be abundant, without overtly favoring any particular sect. How this impossible situation would be realized, he does not say. Basically, the theme of Smith's message is the same as the Falwells of this country - we need more religion, in our schools, in the media, and in our laws.
Smith places the blame for this supposed crisis firmly on what he calls scientism, which can be translated as "science gone too far". He sees Scientism and Religion as the two worldviews that are competing for the human mind in the 21st century. Only one of them can represent the true nature of reality, and that, he maintains, is religion; science is oblivious to the big picture, to the "out there". Smith makes his point in three ways: Firstly, by accusing science of an overreaching arrogance; secondly, by assuming the existence of a metaphysical realm and pointing at science's inability to describe it; and thirdly, by claiming religion's success at fulfilling a deep and universal human need.
Science goes too far, Smith says, by claiming that what's known to science is all there is. He laments that "When Carl Sagan opened his television series, Cosmos, by announcing that `the Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be,' he presented that unargued assumption as if it were a scientific fact." This succinctly demonstrates the confusion about science that Smith shares with many people in society. Of course the Cosmos is all there is - it is, by definition, all we've seen and all we can, even in theory, see (or sense, detect, infer, etc). Not only is it a scientific fact, it's perhaps the most fundamental scientific fact of all. To Smith this is an "unargued assumption", yet he goes on to discuss various flavors of metaphysics without a hint of shame.
The misconceptions about science displayed in this work are too many to list, but they all boil down to the assumption that there's an "outside" to the universe. We gain knowledge of it through some blurry process of faith and intuition. However, because this realm is (by definition) outside the scope of science, that is to say, the five human senses, there is no way to distinguish between the "facts" the religious offer about this realm. The great contradiction in this line of thought is the assumption that there is a genuine supernatural reality - Smith speaks several times about the "objective facts" - while stressing the wholly subjective means of gaining access to this world. It's intuition that brings "direct knowledge", Smith claims. Although the conventional scientific wisdom discounts the invisible, "that wisdom cannot prevent us from having experiences that feel as if they come from a different world." This is perhaps the most revealing and dangerous sentence in the book. The conviction that subjective experience gives you a truth that you should teach, publish and legislate leads directly to the bloody conflicts that a secular constitution is designed to avoid. He even has the audacity to claim of religion that "nothing has been more stable in our history... Religion does not shift or waver."
One area in which Smith's prejudices really shine through is on the subject of evolution. Although he's probably not a biblical literalist, the amount of space devoted to the subject in the book belies his discomfort with the theory. Perhaps for good reason, since he's trying to defend all religions, and evolution is certainly a challenge to many. With a voice indistinguishable from the fundamentalist's, Smith dismisses evolution as shaky and incomplete. He goes on to suggest that it received "scant attention on its own merits,", and only achieved its current status on an ideological basis. It remains in place only because of a fearful conspiracy. These criticisms definitely put the spotlight on his prejudices towards science and the dangerous attitudes he has towards scientific education. Flushed with success from having the words "unsupervised, impersonal" dropped from the National Association of Biology Teachers' definition of evolution, Smith, as others have tried (with some success), proposed a disclaimer be given to students at the start of every biology class pointing out that science is only doing its unreliable best to uncover the mystery of life. It concludes, "There is so much that we still do not know that plenty of room remains for you to fill in the gaps with your own philosophic or religious convictions." Fill in the gaps! That may be an appropriate method in comparative religion, but in a science class? Smith declares God beyond science and then encourages its students to conjure up the deity of their choice whenever there appears to be a hole in the scientific curriculum. This is a dangerous but typical double-think. Naturally, the NABT ignored this proposal; but imagine how warmly it might be received by school boards in many states.
An interesting theme of the book, and one worth commenting on given the current climate, is Smith's treatment of Religion as a single concept. In general he makes little distinction between the beliefs of a Catholic archbishop and those of a tribal animist. He reduces all religion to the fevered chanting of the world's most wretched and superstitious tribe and still holds it all to be a valuable source of knowledge about humanity and the universe. It seems obvious that taken together, the world's religions present an entirely contradictory and incoherent worldview. Yet this is conveniently ignored in the book just as it is by the new breed of ecumenical politicians (who always manage to forget the faithless in their inclusiveness). Smith himself doesn't even draw a meaningful distinction between superstition and religion - several times in the book he remarks on coincidences and ascribes them to God, "be that superstition or not". Perhaps this merging of superstition and religion is one point, at least, on which we can agree.
Smith often ascribes to us a "basic longing that lies in the depths of the human heart", a "fundamental dis-ease", a "spiritual hollow". Perhaps this cannot be easily denied; but it is a mistake to conclude that because a human being desires meaning, the universe must provide one. Furthermore, it is false to assume that such a desire for meaning and wonder cannot be satisfied by observing the universe around us. Most freethinkers know that there is an ample supply of the mysterious and awesome without the need for an ad hoc godly explanation. Still, the myth persists among others that meaning and value are impossible without faith. "The atheist's world contains very little value," Smith says. Science is "an artificial language that cannot accommodate the human spirit" and "belittles art, religion, love and the bulk of the life we directly live." How could Freethought appear a viable outlook if these statements are not refuted?
When religionists like Smith speak of science being blind to the otherworldly, heads nod in agreement. When they speak of morality as religion's domain, they find a receptive audience. And perhaps most alarmingly, when they speak of the scientific mindset as devoid of love, beauty and all the human values, there are few to contradict them. As long as the myth persists that the rational worldview is somehow lacking in humanity, the efforts of Freethought will only be rewarded with marginal success. It is these fictions that grant religion all of its respect and legitimacy. Freethought may be literally soulless, but its ethical, life-affirming qualities must be emphasized. The fact that one can live a life where morality is solely a human affair; where the natural world offers beauty in abundance; and where life is even more precious for being finite is one all freethinkers know, and that's why religion doesn't matter.
A shorter version of this article appeared in Freethought Today in September 2002.