Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 1

Huston Smith. 2001. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. New York: Harper Collins.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Often the toughest part of any controversy is to ask the right question. Asking good questions requires deep knowledge of the subject, proper timing, and good intuition. In the scientific method,[1]the most challenging step is the first one where a felt need is converted into an hypothesis. Everyone can complain about needs, but it takes knowledge, timing, and intuition to form a working hypothesis.


In Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith writes:

“In different ways, the East and the West are go

ing through a single common crisis whose cause is the spiritual condition of the modern world. That condition is characterized by loss—the loss of religious certainties and of transcendence with its larger horizons…The world lost its human dimension…” (1)

We are in a spiritual crisis characterized by a lost sense of God’s transcendence. The culprit? Smith writes:

“modern Westerners who, forsaking clear thinking have allowed ourselves to become so obsessed with life’s material underpinnings that we have written science a blank check…This is cause of our spiritual crisis.”(4)

While Western civilization could have accepted the benefits of scientific inquiry, but retained its traditions; it did not. Instead, it accepted materialism and shunned metaphysics that strives to explain everything not explainable through empirical observation and testing.

Three Philosophical Periods

Smith (11-22) outlines three philosophical periods—traditional, modern, and postmodern—focused primarily on their metaphysical assumptions and the principal problems that they addressed. The traditional period focused on the religious problem—how do we related to the cosmos? The modern period focused on problem of nature—providing food and shelter. The postmodern period has focused on the social problem—how we get along with one another. 

Smith chief issue with the modern and postmodern periods is that they are metaphysically handicapped. Focusing only on looking down, they have left us unable to find meaning in life and deprived the living of their humanity. Here we discover Smith’s reason for writing:

“I am convinced that whatever transpires in other domains of life—politics, living standards, environmental conditions, interpersonal relationships, the arts—we will be better off if we extricate ourselves from the world view we have unwittingly slipped into and replace it with a more generous and accurate one. That, and that only, is the concern of this book.”(24)

Smith is, of course, commending a traditional worldview with God at the center of our universe. (21-22).

Background and Organization 

Huston Cummings Smith (1919 – 2016)was born in China in a missionary family. He attended Central Methodist University and the University of Chicago. He taught religious studies at a number of schools, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Smith writes in sixteen chapters in two parts:


  1. Who’s Right about Reality: Traditionalists, Modernists, or the Postmoderns?
  2. The Great Outdoors and the Tunnel within It
  3. The Tunnel as Such
  4. The Tunnel’s Floor: Scientism
  5. The Tunnel’s Left Wall: Higher Education
  6. The Tunnel’s Roof: The Media
  7. The Tunnel’s Right Wall: The Law


  • Light
  • Is Light Increasing: Two Scenarios
  • Discerning the Signs of the Times
  • Three Sciences and the Road Ahead
  • Terms for the Détente
  • This Ambiguous World
  • The Big Picture
  • Spiritual Personality Types
  • Spirit

These chapters are preceded by acknowledgments, preface, and introduction and followed by an epilogue and Indices.

The tunnel is an analogy to Plato’s cave where prisoners are chained to a wall so that the light at the end of the tunnel casts shadows in front of them that they mistake for reality. After a prisoner escapes, learns that reality does not consist of the shadows as believed and returns to inform his fellow prisoners, they refuse to believe him and murder him, a reference to Socrates.


Huston Smith’s Why Religions Matteris a captivating book. Smith is a master story teller with an encyclopedic grasp of world religions, philosophy, and potpourri. My first reading influenced my thinking profoundly; my second reading after seminary proved equally interesting.

In part one of this review I have outlined Smith arguments and the structure of the book. In part two, I will look at his arguments in more detail.

[1]The scientific method consists of a number of steps in problem solving: felt need, hypothesis, data gathering, analysis, decision, implementation responsibility bearing.

Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 1

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