Does religion matter anymore?

Does religion matter anymore?

Why does religion matter?  Should we even take it seriously?  The modern scientific worldview doesn’t, so why should we?

Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters is not a defense of Christianity.  It is a defense of the very idea of religion, which he defines as a belief in transcendence: that there is something beyond this material world, and it matters whether you let this other world into your life.

It’s a good book, but Smith gets off to a bad start when he argues for what he calls the traditional worldview (this world is not all there is) by saying that “the finitude of mundane existence cannot satisfy the human heart completely.” (p 3)  All this shows is that we are needy creatures who want more than there is.  The human desire for transcendence doesn’t prove that something beyond the material world exists, but only that we wish it so.

Myth and truth

Smith gets serious when he argues that belief in the traditional, non-scientific worldview, in which we experience this world, as well as another that transcends it, leads to a better life.  In other words, we fulfill our human nature most fully when we recognize that while the traditional religious stories are myths, the truth beyond words that these myths express allows us to feel at home in the world.  We can feel that we belong here.  The alternative view, that each of us is but a tiny bit of matter in an endless universe, is not only hard to bear.  It makes life less interesting, exciting, and fulfilling.  We are creatures of narrative, and telling stories (myths) is how we make ourselves at home.  The God myth (my term, not his) is a much better story than the story than this is all there is.

About God, I’m an agnostic these days.  If God exists, how could we ever know for sure?  Similarly, if God doesn’t exist, how could we ever know that?  This is the point of the two-world doctrine.  Similarly, if there is another better world that transcends ours, God’s world, then science isn’t going to find it.  That would be like the old joke about looking for your lost keys under the streetlight because that’s the only place you can see. 

Who knows what the darkness of transcendence conceals?  Many men and women think they know; perhaps some are right, but since we have not even a candle to light the way, how do we know?  Faith is the usual answer, but is there really much difference between hope and faith?  And if you say there’s a big difference, then why do a large group of Christians commit the dead “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life”? (Burial Rite II, Book of Common Prayer).  What’s the difference between a sure and certain hope and just a hope?

Making the transcendent real

We make the transcendent real by acting as though it is, and living accordingly.  In this way it becomes truly real, for humans make almost everything they subsequently discover.  We couldn’t find it any other way. 

Let me explain.  Humans could not have discovered that the earth is round, and rotates on its axis, unless they were prepared to find it.  I don’t mean they expected to find it, but only that people were open to the possibility.  Eventually it becomes common knowledge, and any other view antiquated or silly, like the flat earth society, which actually exists (www.  But you have to believe something is possible before you can see it.  It’s the same thing with a transcendent God.  When you believe it’s possible, you will be more likely to have experiences that support it, such as the experience in the untitled poem by Eunice Tietjens, which appears in a book of photographs titled Everest: The West Ridge:

The stone grows old,

Eternity is not for stones.

But I shall go down from this airy space, this swift white peace, this stinging exultation;

And time will close about me, and my soul stir to the rhythm of the daily round.

Yet, having known, life will not press so close.

And always I shall feel time ravel thin about me.

For once I stood

In the white windy presence of eternity (quoted in Smith, p 221).

I’d rather live in the poem’s world.  And that is really all there is to it.  Science doesn’t disprove it, and the Bible doesn’t prove it.  We have a choice.

Does choice spoil everything?

Once, say five-hundred years ago, most people didn’t have a choice.  It was settled that there exists this world and the next, the mundane everyday world, and the transcendent world, which some saw more clearly than others.  Of course, not everyone believed in the two-world doctrine, but for the most part disbelievers kept quiet. 

Now we know we have a choice, even if some people, especially in traditional societies, don’t recognize the choice.  In a way choice spoils everything, for it makes it seem like we create the second-world, the transcendent world.  The best answer, the only answer, is that we create every world that humans have ever inhabited.  Humans created the scientific worldview; it wasn’t given to us at creation, but came along almost five-hundred years ago, during the Enlightenment.  For many purposes it’s a better worldview, allowing us to do things like cure people from previously deadly diseases.  And if we look to the cosmos, there is something awesome in the scientific hypothesis that the universe is about 14 billion years old, and will last perhaps another 5 billion years, from big bang to the big chill, as the universe stops expanding. *  I don’t know that this is correct; probably no one knows for sure, but I’m confident that scientists will continue to try to figure it out.

What I do know is that all this has nothing to do with whether God exists, whether he/she is called Yahweh, God, Christ, Lord, or a dozen other names.  God exists in another universe, the transcendent universe, and for Christians God cares for each one of us.  Each one of us is loved by God, which is why we should love each other.  I believe this because I want to believe it, and because science has nothing to say about it. 

I want to live in a God’s world because it is a more caring place for humans to live and die.  We should care for each other because God cares for us all.  That’s not the best argument; it’s really the only argument.  Any other argument, such as “It is humane  to care for others” runs up against the Why? question, such as “Why is it a humane value?”, “Why are humane values good,” and so forth, a pattern that can go on indefinitely, as anyone with small children knows.


I choose to live in God’s world.  It’s an act of faith but not ignorance.  I know other worlds exist.  The scientific worldview (not science itself, but those who use it to justify a strictly materialistic worldview) is its major competitor today.  As for me, it’s not as meaningful.  We don’t have to choose between science and God, only between science as worldview and God.



Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit. HarperCollins, 2007.

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