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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McGrath Chronicles the Rise and Fall of Atheism, Part 1

Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism

Alister McGrath. 2004.  The Twilight of Atheism:  The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World.  New York:  DoubleDay. (Goto part 2; goto part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Religion is composed of our core beliefs.  Just like every house must begin with a foundation, these core beliefs, hence religion, are not optional—everyone has them. Atheism, which means no gods[1], is a particularly curious religion because it is defined by what it is not. In this sense, it is parasitic drawing its strength from its host [2].  Because the line of argumentation in atheism is much longer than for traditional religions, atheism requires more intellectual energy to maintain. Nevertheless, atheism is popular because it makes fewer practical demands of its followers than traditional religions [3].  For that reason new flavors of atheism keep popping up like ticks on a dog.


Alister McGrath begins his book, Twilight of Atheism, with a citation from Winston Churchill:  “The empires of the future will be empires of the mind.” Atheism is one of these empires which McGrath defines as: “rejection of any divinities, supernatural powers, or transcendent realities limiting the development and achievements of humanity.” (xi)[4].

McGrath states his purpose in writing as:

“To tell something of the story of the rise and fall of a great empire of the mind and what can be learned from it.  What brought it into existence?  What gave it such credibility and attractiveness for so long?  And why does it seem to have lost so much of its potency in recent years?” (vii).

Official State Atheism in Decline

McGrath has in view, not every form of atheism, but rather official state atheism that began its ascent with the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and crashed with the Berlin Wall in 1989. McGrath goes on to write:

“The fall of the Bastille became a symbol of the viability and creativity of a godless world, just as the fall of the Berlin Wall later symbolized a growing recognition of the uninhabilitability of such a place.” (1)

Whis is Alister McGrath?

Dr. Alister McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford and, most recently, the new Gresham Professor of Divinity [5].  The Twilight of Atheism is an expansion of a speech given at Oxford Union in February 2002 (xiii).  He writes in 11 chapters divided into two parts—The High Noon of Atheism (chapters 2-6 and Twilight (chapters 7-11).  The chapters are:

    1. The Dawn of the Golden Age of Atheism,
    2. The French Revolution,
    3. The Intellectual Foundations: Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud,
    4. Warfare: The Natural Sciences and the Advancement of Atheism,
    5. A Failure of the Religious Imagination: The Victorian Crisis of Faith,
    6. The Death of God: The Dream of a Godless Culture,
    7. The Unexpected Resurgence of Religion,
    8. Disconnection from the Sacred: Protestantism and Atheism,
    9. Postmodernity: Atheism and Radical Cultural Change,
    10. The Atheist’s Revolt: Madalyn Murray O’Hair and Others, and
    11. End of Empire: The Fading Appeal of Atheism (v-vii).

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by a list of references and an index.

The Priests of Atheism

Like another other religion, atheism has its priests. McGrath writes:

“Intellectuals became a secular priesthood, unfettered by the dogmas of the religious past, addressing a growing audience who were becoming increasingly impatient with the moral failures and cultural unsophistication of their clergy.  At some point, perhaps one that can never be determined with historical accuracy, Western society came to believe that it should look elsewhere than to its clergy for guidance.  Instead, they turned to the intellectuals, who were able to portray their clerical opponents as lazy fools who could do no more than unthinkingly repeat the slogans and nostrums of an increasingly distant past.” (49)

Ouch!  My guess is that the Scopes Trial in 1925[6] was probably a tipping point for American characterization of clergy as unsophisticated.

Atheistic Religions

The idea in my mind that atheism was a real religion was planted by McGrath’s discussion here .  McGrath writes:

“the philosophical argument about the existence of God has ground to a halt.  The matter lies beyond rational proof, and is ultimately a matter of faith, in the sense of judgments made in the absence of sufficient evidence…The belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a God.”(179-180)

In other words, atheism is a religion.  The reason why we care about this characterization is that religions dressed up as something other than what they really are has important implications for other atheistic religions that followed and transformed postmodern culture. For example, a non-religion, religion can be taught in public schools while a formal religion cannot be taught. Unmasking the priests of an informal religion is a critical point in responding to their claims.


Alister McGrath’s book, Twilight of Atheism, is an erudite but accessible and fascinating read. It is refreshing to see such clear and logical writing. In part 2 I will focus on McGrath’s High Noon of atheism in terms of 3 key personalities—Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche.  Then, in part 3, I will turn to McGrath’s view of the Twilight of Atheism.



[2] McGrath writes:  “Voltaire’s insight is of fundamental importance to our study of the emergence of atheism.  His argument is simple: the attractiveness of atheism is directly dependent upon the corruption of Christian institutions.  Reform those institutions and the plausibility of atheism is dramatically reduced.” (27)

[3] This is unlike Christianity, for example, which requires that believers model their lives after Christ.  Following a review of the sadistic and salacious work of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), McGrath notes that “Atheism made sexual experimentation legitimate and interesting.” (35)  In other words, rather than making demands of its followers, atheism offers them a kinky sort of freedom.

[4] Limiting is the key word here because a brief survey of any television guide will leave one in awe of the number of supernatural illusions referenced.  However, like other pagan gods before them, zombies, ghosts, witches, wizards, werewolves, and vampires make no particular demands on those that believe in them and model their lives after them.  Instead, they offer the illusion of eternal life and supernatural power without accountability.




McGrath Chronicles the Rise and Fall of Atheism, Part 1


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