Science has gone too far, says manifesto by world-religions expert

Posted: Friday, January 26, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) -- The complaint has a familiar ring: Science-driven secularism has simply gone too far. It has arrogantly tyrannized American higher education, shoving religious faith to the margins, and has moved on to colonize huge tracts of American culture, law, media, and even some churches.

This time, however, the lamentation comes not from the religious right but from a foe of that movement: the certifiably liberal dean of American experts on world religions, Huston Smith.

''The culprit is not science itself but our misconstrual of it,'' Smith, 81, says in his new book, ''Why Religion Matters,'' which he considers a career-culminating work. It was published this month by HarperSanFrancisco.

Smith has introduced four decades of undergraduates and seekers to faiths beyond the Judeo-Christian orbit through his book ''The World's Religions,'' which has sold well over 2 million copies. He became something of a pop figure in 1996 when he was featured on a five-part PBS-TV series with Bill Moyers.

Smith says nobody in his right mind would attack science as such, considering its vast contributions to human betterment. But he warns that science has been twisted into ''scientism,'' an ideology that tries to take the place of religion and deny it any legitimate place in modern thinking.

The problem became obvious to him, Smith recalled in an interview, when he taught philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology between 1958 and 1973. (He also served at Washington University, Syracuse University and the University of California at Berkeley). Those years were tumultuous, he says, and he was the faculty's ''odd man out.''

The atmosphere on elite campuses was ''materialistic or naturalistic to the core'' and supposed that ''there is nothing beyond this physical world, and science is the royal road to truth in discovering the nature of reality.''

''I didn't believe that,'' he says. ''I still do not believe that.''

The problem has persisted in the years since, he says. In 1997, Smith sent a complaint to a national organization of high-school biology teachers about its official definition of evolution as an ''unsupervised, impersonal'' process. There's no scientific proof for those words, he argued, and many Americans see them as a threat to their belief that God had a hand in the cosmos. After vigorous discussion, the association dropped the two words.

During a 1999 flap over the teaching of evolution in Kansas, Smith wrote the association again, proposing that all U.S. science teachers tell students something like this: ''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 conviction.''

When educators ignored that appeal, he says, ''I decided to go over their heads and out to the public and give my perception of what is happening.'' Thus the new book.

Smith champions what he calls the traditional world view, which insists on the reality of things that cannot be known by science, such as values, beauty, the supernatural, the ultimate meaning of our existence and fulfillment of ''the basic longing that lies in the depths of the human heart.''

Modern, scientific thinking, he writes, ''cannot prevent us from having experiences that feel as if they come from a different world.''

If these important matters are suppressed, the stature of the human race is diminished, he insists. Result: a worldwide crisis that runs far deeper than politics and economics.

Smith thinks the same inspiring world view is shared by all religions and by all believers in ''God by whatsoever name,'' whatever their differences otherwise.

Most Americans hold on to this great tradition, he thinks, but the intellectual elite largely rejects it. He quotes sociologist Peter Berger, who observed that India is the world's most religious nation, Sweden is the least religious, and America is ''a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes.''

Smith frames complex philosophical issues in down-to-earth style. It's a trick he learned from a public TV producer named Mayo Simon. In 1955, when Smith was a young professor, they put together a 17-part public TV series on the world's major faiths.

''I can still hear his withering comments,'' Smith remembers. ''This isn't a classroom where you have required attendance. If you lose them for 30 seconds, they turn the dial and you never get them back.'' So Smith learned to make big concepts digestible. He figures that's why ''The World's Religions,'' which developed out of the series, has remained enduringly popular.

The now-retired professor has never been a mere outside observer of world faiths. Raised by missionary parents in China, he took an early interest in learning about Confucianism and Taoism. Later, he spent many years working with spiritual masters to experience from inside the life of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. He later explored American Indian religion. He is, however, a lifelong Methodist churchgoer.

''Christianity has been foundational,'' Smith says. ''I kept my left foot in my own faith, but my right foot was always moving into traditions I was trying to understand.''

End Adv for Friday, Jan. 26

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