A great man passed away a few days ago, in the last days of 2016. Huston Smith, the brilliant scholar of religion and author of the seminal work, The World’s Religions, died at the age of 97. Smith was a mystic scholar, deeply connected to the traditions he studied, and a religious professor at various universities including MIT, where he developed a robust criticism of the march of science and its attempted colonization of meaning. He was also a member of the so-called “Harvard Psychedelic Club” along with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass). Smith brought religion and tradition alive like few can in our modern world, and as a true perennialist found a deep sympathy with the mystical strains of religious traditions, both East and West.
I saw Smith speak at a Templeton event in 2000, along with physicist Paul Davies. Soon after, I bought his latest book, Why Religion Matters. It was perhaps his last significant scholarly statement about religion as a whole and its relationship to modernity and postmodernity. I read it with great interest, and it affected me, in my early thirties, profoundly. In those days, I was a young seeker of knowledge, with my worldviews about science and religion relatively unformed, and was just diving into the world of intellectualism and cultural reflection. Smith was an erudite and scintillating guide on my journey. He spoke as few could about the relationship between these two historical movements. In fact, he was a major defender of religion and a great critic of scientists who overstepped their philosophical bounds, and he loved to poke at them and accuse them of over-reaching. For example, he loved to cite Stephen J. Gould’s oft-quoted “non-overlapping magisteria” as a perfect example of that cannibalization. In addition to his critiques of scientific triumphalism, Smith also understood the breakdown of meaning that postmodern trends have wrought and the dangers of pluralism and relativism. He was also just a delightfully passionate partisan of the science and religion wars, as the following brief passage from Why Religion Matters illustrates.