Why Religion Doesn’t Matter (September 2002)

Religious journalists, particularly the very conservative and fundamentalist, love to portray the USA as a spiritual battleground. In their world, the godly are in constant battle against broad contempt for religion and the resulting moral decay. The foes of the righteous are academia, the media and the government. If you believed everything that they wrote along these lines, you couldn’t help but conjure up an image of a Christian family barricaded inside their home while drunken atheists loot and burn their neighborhood. A little research shows, however, that crime is at historic lows and the traditional bellwether of the nation’s moral fiber, teenage pregnancy, is also at a record low and still declining.

That’s why I read with interest a recent profile of respected religious scholar Huston Smith and his new book, Why Religion Matters. What would a more liberal commentator have to say on these matters, I wondered? After all, someone like Smith, author of the bestselling The World’s Religions, would be more likely to receive a sympathetic ear from the more reasonable quarters of the public and the media.

Reading the book, I was surprised at how familiar it sounded. Like the others, Smith alleges that we are in the midst of a moral and spiritual crisis, which he extends to the media, government, education, the law and almost every other facet of society. Combined with his attacks on freethought, it soon becomes apparent that his message is subtler but just as pernicious as all the others.

Setting himself up as a defender of the human spirit, he rails against the scientific worldview (which he labels “scientism”) and the evils of secular schools biased towards evolution. For example, after having the phrase “unsupervised, impersonal” removed from the National Association of Biology Teachers’ definition of religion, he went on to suggest the following be given to students:

“There is so much that we still do not know that plenty of room remains for you to fill in the gaps with your own philosophic or religious convictions.” The fact that something so blatantly anti-science could be suggested in earnest would anger one if it came at the suggestion of Pat Robertson, but from Smith–a man consulted by the NABT once before–it is doubly alarming.

Most worrying of all is Smith’s contention that the law is unfairly skeptical when it comes to religious matters. Smith contends that the First Amendment was not designed to erect a wall between church and state–because “there is no way to keep church and state separate,” but to simply turn religious issues over to the states. He decries the use of the Establishment Clause as a “guarantor of public secularism.” If only! Of course, he ignores the constant struggles between organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation or ACLU and a defiantly pious judiciary. In fact, Smith contends that in those facets of public life where church/state separation is routinely violated, such as “In God We Trust” on the currency, real religion isn’t being served–it’s a shallow attempt to “domesticate” real faith. One supposes this means it doesn’t go far enough. To Smith, any policy that does not actively embrace, or at least acknowledge religion, is hostile to it. He sees the value of the constitution as imposing “neutrality” in religious matters, which to him means that publicly expressed religion should be abundant, without overtly favoring any particular sect. How this impossible situation would be realized, he does not say. Basically, the theme of Smith’s message is the same as that of the Falwells of this country–we need more religion in our schools, in the media, and in our laws.

Potentially the most damaging parts of the book address the notion that religious need is a fundamental part of the human condition. Smith often ascribes to us a “basic longing that lies in the depths of the human heart,” a “fundamental disease,” a “spiritual hollow.” Perhaps this cannot be easily denied; but it is a mistake to conclude that because a human being desires meaning, the universe must provide one.

Furthermore, it is false to assume that such a desire for meaning and wonder cannot be satisfied by observing the universe around us. Most freethinkers know that there is an ample supply of the mysterious and awesome without the need for an ad hoc godly explanation. Still, the myth persists among others that meaning and value are impossible without faith. “The atheist’s world contains very little value,” Smith says. Science is “an artificial language that cannot accommodate the human spirit” and “belittles art, religion, love and the bulk of the life we directly live.” How could freethought appear a viable outlook if these statements are not refuted?

That’s why a book like this is of concern to freethinkers. It serves as a reminder that even the most rational-seeming religionist probably considers an atheist to live in a moral vacuum, a spiritual void both literally and figuratively. When religionists like Smith speak of science being blind to the otherworldly, heads nod in agreement. When they speak of morality as religion’s domain, they find a receptive audience. And perhaps most alarmingly, when they speak of the scientific mindset as devoid of love, beauty and all human values, there are few to contradict them.

As long as the myth persists that the rational worldview is somehow lacking in humanity, the efforts of freethought will only be rewarded with marginal success. It is these fictions that grant religion all of its respect and legitimacy. Freethought may be literally soulless, but its ethical, life-affirming qualities must be emphasized. The fact that one can live a life where morality is solely a human affair, where the natural world offers beauty in abundance, and where life is even more precious for being finite is one all freethinkers know. And that’s why religion doesn’t matter.

Freedom From Religion Foundation