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Tribute to Huston Smith, Author of ‘The World’s Religions’

Huston Smith, philosopher and prolific scholar of world religions, passed away on December 30, at the age of 97. Smith asked important questions about the intersections of spirituality, religion and science: his discourse was frequently controversial and still inspires deep conversations today. A practicing yogi and Methodist, he traveled the world meeting with religious scholars and practitioners. While teaching philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he also experimented with psychedelics with Timothy Leary. Here are some of the questions Smith asked; they are still fodder for a fantastic dinner discussion.

1. Why Does Religion Matter?

There is a growing knowledge overlap between the fields of quantum physics, philosophy and religion. However, the quantum reality has no tangible qualities or meaning, whereas the divine realms of religion have deep meaning. For example, an x-ray may show the figure and components of a body, but cannot measure or even detect spirit or energy. What is the role of religion today? How can it benefit humankind?

2. How Have Changing Value Systems Impacted Human Development?

As human value systems have changed over the last ~500 years, the accessibility of knowledge and the democratization of information has also changed significantly. With it, human spirituality has changed. Each shift in systemic values, from traditional to modern to postmodern, brought gifts and challenges in human development. Does the next evolution of human value draw from all three systems, including drawing livelihood from the earth, deepening human relations and social patterns, and exploring humanity’s relationship to the Cosmos?

3. Can Psychedelics Lead to Mystical Experiences?

Psychedelic experimentation or use may lead to mystical experiences or interactions with Spirit or God. Known as entheogenic plants and substances, psychedelics like DDT and psilocybin are religiously significant. Research now maps chemical changes in the brain during mystical disclosures. What happens to the brain and the spirit during this entheogenic use and what is the role of sober thinking as psychedelic usage for this purpose grows?

4. What is the Difference Between Spirituality and Religion?

Many people are more comfortable with the term “spirituality” than the term “religion.” However, Smith, who defined “religion” as “institutionalized spirituality,” suggested religion was necessary. The spiritual knowledge we have access to today is due, in large part, to institutionalized religion: through the organization and documentation of religion, we are familiar with great spirituals stories, such as the stories of Jesus and Buddha. How do non-traditional spiritual models, such as the electromagnetic and intuitive, fit into the spiritual-religious paradigm and how can healing benefit from their incorporation of these models?

5. Through Religion, Can Humanity Find a Universal Perspective?

Religion, as an institution, is infamous for its instigation of violence and cultivation of closed belief systems (i.e., the prescribed approach is the only or rightful approach). However, most religions also advocate understanding, compassion and empathy. This universal perspective is found in all of the great, authentic religions. Is it possible to approach life with this universal perspective and can religion foster this approach?

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