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Huston Smith and the Effect Argument

Huston Smith is a religious studies scholar who has held academic chairs at Washington University, MIT, Syracuse and UC Berkeley. In 1996 the journalist Bill Moyers devoted a 5-part PBS special to Smith's life and work, "The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith," available on video on the internet.

Smith has practiced Vedanta Hinduism, Zen Buddhism and Sufism. His interest is in the spirituality that is common in various religions. In his book Why Religion Matters he describes himself as using "the terms metaphysics, worldview, and Big Picture interchangeably."

Smith holds that the spiritual oceanic sense within him is a real universal force, and he describes this as knowledge. He believes in scientific methodology but he criticizes what he calls scientism. "Science is on balance good," he writes, "whereas nothing good can be said for scientism." By scientism Smith refers to those (like me) who see humanity's ability to know as limited.

Smith complains about university philosophers dismissing all the old theologies. He writes that "...the once-pervasive presence of religion on campuses has all but disappeared." Despite this, he claims, because nature abhors a vacuum, people keep trying to fill the one inside themselves.

Smith holds to an effect argument: his proposition is true based on the beneficial effect it has on the believer. Beneficence for Smith is the bliss that accompanies an oceanic sense acquired through contemplation.

Those who enjoy Smith's books focus on personal experience rather than epistemological argument. A customer review at Amazon.com who read Smith's Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine, writes: "Reading Huston's autobiography will leave you grateful for a religious life well-lived and well-told." This is what Smith appears to have been trying to communicate: spirituality as a key element in one's life.

A customer reviewer at Amazon.com complains that Smith should also have written about shamanism, South American tribal and African tribal beliefs. Another reviewer, a Jew, complains that Smith's chapter on Judaism is full of dozens of very basic errors and lack of knowledge.

Another, perhaps more youthful reviewer, was also unconvinced by Smith's writing.

I really cannot stand this book. It's my textbook for my religion class and it is the most difficult thing to read. He just rambles on and on ... just get to the point! I have to read a section 3 times before it makes sense. What kind of a book is that. I know I'm not the only one with this opinion because that is what everyone in my class says as well. If you have to buy this for college, that's unfortunate. If you're making this purchase for pleasure, I advise against it.

There are others, of course, not as deep into oceanic bliss as Smith, and there are those who search for bliss instead in drugs, sexual activity, food or music. But Smith would argue that his kind of bliss is more satisfying.


Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.