Why Huston Smith Matters
1. Recently there have been some expressions of disappointment at Huston Smith’s assertions in his latest book to the effect that those who talk of intelligent design, traditional god, relevance of religion, etc. are kept out by reputable scholars and organizations committed to building bridges between Science and Religion. We have been reminded by a number of people that Huston is inaccurate and indeed unfair in his charge. To counter his claim, they have quoted articles in Zygon, lectures at Templeton events, and book reviews of Huston’s kind of books in their journals.
2. I will grant that the critics of Huston Smith are quite right in their rebuttals, and correct too in the citations of their own generous record on the matter. In this context, however, I would like to point out the following as an explanation, NOT justification, for Huston’s Smith’s statements.
3. During the past four centuries Science has been steadily on the rise. Its sheer successes in tangible results and its ever-increasing power through many applications have not only been overshadowing the achievements of the arts and the humanities, but more importantly, they have been robbing religion of its own ancient role in providing poetic narratives as explanations for the physical universe and stressing the centrality of Man, Mind and Morals in the mysterious universe.
4. The 19th century reacted to this by inspiring the Romantic Movement which, with all its glorious accomplishments in music and painting and literature, did little to undermine the dominance of science in society. If anything, proliferating industry and wondrous technology, aided by science, kept adding to our creature comforts, making science all the more important, indeed indispensable.
5. The 20th century tried to undermine the hegemony of science by unleashing post-modernism with hopes of equalizing science with other modes of interpreting the universe. Even with all the volumes of spoken and written words in symposia and publications, hard-core scientists continue laboring in their laboratories and research centers, churning out new results and breakthroughs, and bringing about technological marvels based on these, and letting (often ignoring) philosophers and post modernists in their arm-chair attacks on the cocksureness of scientists.
6. It is true that in recent decades some sensitive scientists and enlightened theologians have been engaged in insightful dialogues. However, overtly or subtly, science still seems to have the upper hand in matters of explaining cosmic birth and human emergence. Traditional religions have had to accommodate passages in their Holy Books to science’s changing world views; technical science has never had to fine-tune its findings to seek concordance with the Genesis and its equivalents. This creates a cultural imbalance, a psychological unease in any Fidei Defensor who, as a result, launches some unwarranted polemical assaults on the more powerful opponent.
7. We may consider analogical situations in the attitudes and utterances of leaders and intellectuals in the erstwhile colonies of the West. Many peoples of the world lost their former stature and security to the might of European intruders who subjugated and exploited them for centuries. Now thinkers in those countries are harsh and sometimes unfairly critical of the West even in what may seem to be totally uncalled-for circumstances. Foreign aid is seen with suspicion, global economy is interpreted as neo-colonialism, and the meeting of the Big Seven or whatever strikes some as international flaunting of raw economic power. Leaders of once-oppressed communities within America sometimes speak out strongly, even unjustly, against the dominant majority, accusing them of tokenism, subtle discrimination, deep-down racism and such, even in situations when these labels might be inappropriate. Those who are or have been victims feel – rightly or wrongly, consciously or otherwise – that it is by exaggerations that they will be heard, that they can assert themselves and soften the stance of those they consider their non-friends.
8. As I see it, then, aside from a genuine, if unrealistic, wish to see science acknowledge that transcendence is lurking at the root of it all, concede that Darwinism is at best only plausible and tentative, and declare that the God of the religions may indeed be up there somewhere, it is this frustration at hegemonic science marginalizing what was once powerful and what is still an essential institution for civilization, namely religion, that prompts Huston Smith and others to bring charges, which, to the dominant group, seem strange and grossly unfair.
9. For my part, therefore, I do not take offense at Huston Smith’s contention. Rather, I try to understand why so decent, erudite, compassionate, and gentle a scholar makes such statements, just as I would try to understand the voices of some of the third world thinkers and black American leaders that speak out, sometimes unjustly, against Western civilization. They don’t always speak out with facts and figures, but often from deep hurt and frustration. Bridges of understanding are not built only with data and demonstrable theories: they call for sensitivity and sympathy too, especially on the part of those who hold greater power.