Late last night, the New York Times announced the death of Huston Smith. In the obituary, Stephen Prothero is quoted as having said that Smith’s magnum opus, The Religions of Man is “the most important in religious studies ever.” (In 1991 The Religions of Man was given a new title, The World’s Religions—a merely superficial change.) Prothero’s is a wondrously ambiguous statement, its meaning depending entirely on how we understand the concept of “most important.” Having been used as a textbook in probably thousands of classes since its original publication in 1958, it has inculcated a particular view of religion into the minds of generations of undergraduates.
In that sense it is an important book, but we emphasize that importance of that kind does not mean that the contribution it made either to undergraduate education or to the field of religious studies was beneficial—and indeed I have argued that it is actively detrimental.
Among many other problems, Smith’s work naturalized the Perennialist conception of religion, a conception that is fundamentally elitist and authoritarian. The Perennialist conception, that there is One Truth, and all religions are paths leading to it, is so well entrenched in American popular religious culture that most people find questioning it to be counter-intuitive.
There is much more to be said on this, but for the sake of brevity, let me just provide links to two essays and a review of a different work of Smith’s:
Review of Why Religion Matters (prepublication version, published in Theology and Science, 5/1, 2007)