Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 2

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

Some people simply cannot look up. Sunshine and glimmering stars pose no attraction like plain old dirt. Now, I am not talking about farm folks whose relationship with the soil is almost mystical. No, soil is not the same thing as dirt. Dirt is an urban plague more like weeds in a flower garden or the stuff under fingernails. Dirt is a frame of mind—a cynicism that cuts to the core. 


In Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith writes:

“Materialism holds that only matter exists [like dirt].Naturalism grants that subjective experiences—thoughts and feelings—are different from matter and cannot be reduced to it, while insisting that they are totally dependent on it.”(83)

Smith likens this philosophical presupposition of modernism and postmodernism as like the man who pulls his window shades down so that he can only see the lawn.

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.

Modernity’s Tunnel

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.

Smith writes:

“It is by now a Sunday-supplement [a newspaper analogy] commonplace that the… modernization of the world is accompanied by a spiritual malaise that has come to be called alienation…At its most fundamental level, the diagnosis of alienation is based on the view that modernization forces upon us a world that, although baptized as real by science, is denuded of all humanly recognizable qualities: beauty and ugliness, love and hate, passion and fulfillment, salvation and damnation.”(2)

Smith has no problem with science as a method of inquiry, but he rails against scientism that attempts to convert the method into a worldview. He sees scientism adding two corollaries to science:

“first, that the scientific method is, if not the only reliable method of getting at truth, then at least the most reliable method; and second, that the things science deals with—material entities—are the most fundamental things that exist.”(59-60)

I am reminded of the story of the drunk who loses his keys one night and only searches in the light around the lamppost supposing that the keys could only be there.

Traditional verses Modern and Postmodern Worldviews

Smith sees five fundamental points of contention between the traditional and modern/postmodern worlds views.

  1. “In the traditional, religious views spirit as fundamental and matter derivative…The scientific worldview turns this picture on its head…
  2. In the religious worldview human beings are the less who have derived from the more [created in the image of God]. Trailing clouds of glory, they carry within themselves traces of their noble origins…Science reverses this etiology, positioning humanity as the more that has derived from the less [grown up germs] …
  3. The traditional worldview points towards a happy ending: the scientific worldview does not…
  4. …the traditional world is meaningful throughout. In scientific worldview, meaning is only skin-deep, ‘skin’ here signifying biological organisms on a single speck in the sidereal universe…
  5. Finally, in the traditional world, people feel at home. They belong to their world, for they are made of the same spirituality sentient stuff that the world is made of…Nothing like this sense of belonging can be derived from the scientific worldview.”(34-38)

Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem

Since I first read Smith’s book in 2002, I have cited one reference repeatedly—to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem from mathematics. Smith writes:

“From Aristotle to Turing, mathematicians have tried to establish systems that are complete. Gödel smashed that dream. His famous Incompleteness Theorem states that in a formal system satisfying certain precise conditions, there will always be at least one undecidable proposition—that is, a proposition such that neither it nor its negation is provable within the system. Jacques Derrida’s denial of any single meaning in a text sounds like a direct extension of this.”(89)

In practical terms, the human mind is a nearly complete system such that depression is a turning inward on itself and losing the necessary external reference point necessary for stability. This is why the therapy for depression is to break out of the usual routine, which offers such an external reference point.  Other applications of this theorem can be cited in economics, computer science, and other logical fields.


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.

Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 2

Also see:

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

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:


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