Huston Smith: No, He Didn't Support the Iraq War

Historians in the News

Bill Broadway, in the Wa Po (3-12-05):

From an interview with Huston Smith, a religious icon and a strongly opinionated individual:

Q: Professor Smith, you've said that Westerners have been "ravished" by science, taken in by technologies and inventions that make life easier but offer little insight into spiritual reality. What do you mean by that?

A: Science is empirical, all about physical senses that tell us about the world. But physical senses are not the only senses we have. Nobody has ever seen a thought. Nobody has ever seen a feeling. And yet thoughts and feelings are where we live our lives most immediately, and science cannot connect with that.

What are the religious trends in the world today?

A huge fact that affects that answer is that we're at war [against terrorism]. Both sides claim that God is

on their side, that they are champions of God's will, and the enemy is the Devil. . . . The rhetoric is exactly the same on both sides: We're defining God's will and the enemy is the Axis of Evil or the Evil Empire. They say exactly the same thing about us. Just change the name.

Did you support the war in Iraq?

I emphatically did not. I think our hope is to work together, and here [the United States is acting] unilaterally. We started our verydevastating war, and look what it's done to our finances, our deficit.

We're paying for it with a credit card, and our kids are going to have to pay off our credit card.

At 85, Huston Smith is one of the most revered and longest-working historians of religion. He has studied, practiced and taught for a half-century and achieved crossover status by finding an audience among academics as well as the general public.

His book "The World's Religions" has been on college and seminary reading lists and sold 2.5 million copies since its publication in 1958 as "The Religions of Man." In 1996, Smith was the subject of a five-part PBS series, "The Wisdom of Faith," and was introduced by host Bill Moyers as "the most influential religious scholar of the 20th century."

Smith, who was interviewed by telephone this week, will make a rare appearance in Washington on Wednesday when he presents the 23rd annual Zeidman Memorial Lecture at Sidwell Friends School in Northwest. On Thursday, he will attend classes and talk with students, said Jon Zeljo, chairman of the history department and director of Sidwell's 22-year-old Chinese studies program. ...

In his lecture, " China's Place in World History," which is open to the public, Smith said he will focus on the Chinese emphasis on relationships rather than individual achievement. ...

Smith's work hasn't been without criticism. During a teaching career spanning four decades at major universities -- Washington University, MIT, Syracuse University and the University of California at Berkeley -- some colleagues accused Smith of lacking objectivity.

"I'm not afraid of losing my objectivity as I grope" for answers, he responded when Moyers asked about that criticism. "I think it's transparent to the student from the first class that I don't want to indoctrinate them. I'm honest about that.

"I really try to make myself a plate-glass window so they're not listening to me, they're not looking at me. They're looking at these wisdom traditions and what they say. And if you give students, the students with all their busy-ness, if you put something before them of worth, they will see it and move toward appropriating it."

Others attacked Smith for participating in Timothy Leary's early 1960s experiments at Harvard University involving the mind-altering drugs psilocybin, mescaline and LSD.

"I took some hallucinogens and got criticized for it. But I don't care," Smith said. "No one in human history has given as much thought to the interweaving of altered states of consciousness and religion as I have. It's an immensely important issue which nobody is touching today."

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