In 1958, Huston Smith first reached national attention by literally writing-the-book on the world’s religions, publishing The Religions of Man (currently titled The World’s Religions), which went on to become the most assigned textbook ever written on the subject, now having sold nearly four million copies. In that book Huston did something entirely new, describing the religions in ways that their adherents would not only find accurate but validating.
Prior to Huston Smith, the modern mind's view of religion was that it was a waste of time or worse. Freud had said that religion is a delusion we create to comfort ourselves in an uncertain world. We, based on an "infantile model," project a cosmic father or mother onto an indifferent universe so that we can have someone to plead to for help when matters get beyond our control. Marx, to cite another modernist disparager of religion, argued even earlier that "religion is the opiate of the masses," a drug fed to us by our oppressors to keep us in check, distracting us from launching the revolutions that would bring social equality and justice, by feeding us pretty lies that placate us in our misery. In short, by the 1950s, the job of most professors of religion, in most colleges, was largely to explain religion away, as something quaint and outdated, something we'd be better off without. It was the fifties after all, and high time we outgrew our non-scientific ways of making sense of the world.
But Huston changed all that. He described the religions as their believers understood them, avoiding evaluation or judgment almost entirely. Today this is a familiar approach, and Huston points to Karen Armstrong as a noteworthy author who uses it, but in the spring of 1958, when Huston’s book debuted, the religions were rarely presented without judging them or privileging Western values (for example, by saying something like, ‘and in the primitive religions of the world people commonly believe, absurdly, that there is more than one God,’ or, in a more academic treatment, ‘as in many other pre-scientific philosophies, Hindus believe that a god made the world’). Huston made clear in his introduction that he would not filter the religions through the lens of a particular ideology, including those of Durkheim, Malinowski or Freud, all popular at that time. He would present their views, the views of people who believed in the religions, and only their views. And though he understood, as he wrote in his first chapter, that “the full story of religion is not rose colored,” he argued that infractions against the ideals of the religions do not negate the fact that those ideals have given people art, meaning, morality and purpose for millennia.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, currently the dean of scholars writing about Islam in English, once told me that the real historical significance of Huston Smith is that he was the first professor of religion to demand the freedom to love what he studied and taught. Where scholars of religion had generally been accepted by their colleagues only if they were not themselves religious (a condition Nasr finds analogous to hiring music teachers only if they’re deaf), Smith sought to study the religions “religiously,” in ways that take their face-value claims seriously as potential truths. William James had done this for mystical experience in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1901), but it had never been attempted for the religions themselves, and Huston thought it was about time. While modernists and existentialists were telling the public that the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth, Huston was urging us to keep an open mind, and not to throw out our traditional religious beliefs just because some philosophers (popular then, but no longer) found their truths suspect.
To insure that his descriptions of the religions were accurate, he came up with a research method all his own, and this is another aspect of Huston’s early work that deserves to be remembered. “First I read their sacred scriptures – including the profound and trusted commentaries on those scriptures,” he once explained to me. “Second, I sought out the most authentic and profound living representatives of those views and asked them questions. And third, I would jump into the religions myself – as a participant observer, doing the rituals and practices they prescribed to get an insider’s view.” As part of this method, Huston also apprenticed himself to adepts of the religions and traveled around the world to observe rites and rituals firsthand. This participant-observer model is common today, but before Huston the majority of scholars worked mainly in their offices, basing their research almost exclusively on the study of texts; Arthur Waley, the famous Confucian scholar and Sinologist, was almost proud of the fact that he’d never been to China, seeing the trip as unnecessary. So Huston broke new ground not only for his willingness to take religious truth claims seriously but also for his research method.
As readers moved through The Religions of Man, Huston painted each tradition with such accuracy and respect that it was almost like he was converting to each position one after the other. When Jews read his description of Judaism they thought, ‘Oh, I see, he’s one of us,’ and when Muslims read about Islam they concluded, ‘this man is defending us!’ Pico Iyer, the travel writer whose Indian parents are professors of religion, once wrote that this is a main strength of The World’s Religions and a key to its staying power: “What distinguishes that work, even today, is how it sits inside every tradition that it describes, blending the rigorous eye of the scholarly outsider with the beating heart of the initiate. Like a kind of ‘method scholar,’ the author seems to report on each tradition from the inside out…” (Tales, p.xiii)
Today, academic conferences on religion (I’ve just been to one in Atlanta as I write this) are much more nuanced and open minded about the value of religion and the possible authenticity of spiritual experiences than in the1950s, and we have Huston Smith to thank for getting that ball rolling. No small accomplishment, and yet only one of many. In addition to what we’ve already discussed, Huston brought to light several previously unknown details of the traditions, based on his apprenticeships and immersions. For example, he became a sought after authority on Zen practice after living as a monk for ten weeks at the Myoshinji monastery in Kyoto, Japan, in 1957, and after studying with D.T.Suzuki, the renowned lay master of Zen, and in this capacity he wrote forewords to two seminal works on Zen in English, Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen (1967) and Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (1970). He also became an early expert on the Tibetan people and their particular form of Tantric Buddhism. Based on the recommendation of his friend John Blofeld, a noted scholar of Buddhism, Huston journeyed to India in 1964 to investigate Tibetan practices. There he met and was befriended by the Dalai Lama, who was only twenty-nine years old at the time, and the two men formed a life-long alliance as bridge-builders between cultures. Huston, as a result of that first meeting, became a supporter of Tibetan culture, hosting the Dalai Lama at Syracuse University, where Huston was then teaching, during his first visit to the United States.
While discussing information on specific practices that Huston added to the study of religion, few people today realize that he was the first person to record and explain, in Western musical and acoustical terms, the mechanics of Tibetan harmonic chanting, also called throat singing. While visiting a monastery in Dalhousie, India, just before his first meeting with the Dalai Lama, Huston witnessed a four-day ceremony that included several lengthy sessions of chanting. Since Huston didn’t understand the Tibetan language, the chants tended to melt into a meaningless drone, and after a few hours on the first day he nearly dozed off, when he was suddenly brought to his senses by what sounded like, he would later write, “an angelic choir.” Realizing he was hearing something unique (the ability of specially trained lamas to simultaneously sing one note with their vocal chords while creating two additional notes by using their throat and sinus cavities to accentuate the implicit harmonic overtones), he located a tape-recorder in a nearby school and made a recording. After returning to the United States, where he was then teaching at M.I.T., he began an analysis of the phenomenon, later reported in The American Anthropologist (April, 1967), which credited him with the discovery.
Huston’s inquiry into Tibetan chanting provided him with a clear example of why other cultures should be studied with an open mind. Religions preserve much of our human heritage, including most of its art and music, and so to threaten their existence is to threaten much of what we have done and what we have been. Tibetan religion, including the Bon form of animism as well as Buddhism, was teetering on the brink of extinction in the mid-1960s, threatened by a dogmatic secularism in the form of Chinese communism. The Chinese had invaded Tibet in 1951, and by 1959 their control of the country had become so absolute that the Dalai Lama was forced to flee into neighboring India. In 1966, during the Cultural Revolution, Chinese prejudice against Tibetan religion reached such a fever pitch that thousands of temples and shrines were destroyed, and there was a zero-tolerance policy on religious practices. Consequently, Huston, in an attempt to call the world’s attention to the Tibetans’ plight, and the potential loss for our collective cultural heritage, sought funding to document their traditional practices before they were eliminated. The result was “Requiem for a Faith,” a film written and narrated by Huston Smith. This film, which won the bronze medal at the 1968 International Film Festival in New York, signals the beginning of Huston’s advocacy of freedom for the Tibetan people, a cause to which he has lent his name and support repeatedly.
But Huston’s support for the Tibetan cause is only a subset of his higher social purpose, which is to promote world peace by promoting cross-cultural understanding between all peoples, and this goal was clearly in place even as early as The Religions of Man. “If we lay aside our preformed ideas about these religions,” he wrote, “see each as the work of men who were struggling to see something that would give help and meaning to their lives, and then try ourselves, without prejudice, to see what they saw – if we do these things the veil that separates us from them, while not removed, can be reduced to gauze.” (p.12) To the credit of his readers, many were able to do this, relying on Huston’s open-mindedness to inspire their own. As Robert Thurman, professor of Buddhist Studies at Columbia, explained it to me: “I remember to my delight, how he was explaining, in those days and with the knowledge available to McCarthy-era Americans, about Buddhism and bravely launching into it, like ‘This is something worthy of your attention, ladies and gentlemen. This isn’t just some heathen, satanic, pagan stuff.’ I just thought it was wonderful. He was the first person to create real credibility for the Asian religions. He inspired tolerance between all the religions.”
Continuing our look at Huston’s impact on the study of religion, he was also the primary defender of the perennial philosophy in academia for more than forty years.
Aldous Huxley, the British novelist and philosopher, had first explained “the perennial philosophy” in a book of that title in 1945, arguing that beyond the disagreements between the religions regarding beliefs, rituals and values, there is a shared “highest common factor” endemic to them all. Huxley believed there is a spirituality implicit in man’s very being, based upon the existence of an underlying, unmanifest aspect of all reality he called the “Divine Ground of Being,” quoting the Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart. This Divine Ground, called in Hinduism brahman and in Mahayana Buddhism dharmadatu, has been experienced by mystics in all religions over the course of history, and Huxley argued that the insight this experience brings to our lives is actually our life’s purpose. Gerald Heard, a friend of Huxley’s, first introduced Huston Smith to the idea that mystical experiences, including that of the “Divine Ground,” can have value, but it was Huxley’s specific privileging of mysticism as the root of religion, supported by testimonies from St. John of the Cross, Rumi, St. Teresa of Avila, the Buddha, Kabir, Shankara, and other spiritual adepts, from across the traditions, that really captured Huston’s interest and conviction. Huston found in perennialism a theory that recognized the differences between the religions while arguing that they retain a fundamental unity. In the late 1940s, Huston had begun carrying Huxley’s book around with him like a Bible, and after meeting and befriending Huxley he became the theory’s primary spokesperson in academic circles, writing many articles in its defense during the sixties, seventies and eighties.
Today, not many people recognize the term ‘perennial philosophy,’ and there are academics who argue that the theory has now faded in significance and importance, but the fact is that perennialism has become so entrenched in the contemporary mind that we can’t see the forest for the trees. In the sel-help area, Ken Wilber’s “integral spirituality” and Deepak Chopra’s “seven spiritual laws of success” are simply new iterations of Huxley’s perennialism. In transpersonal psychology, from Maslow to Stanislav Grof to the work of contemporary theorists, the guiding principle of “self-actualization” as the root of psychological well-being and fulfillment is yet again perennialism. When Andrew Weil, the famous doctor and author, discusses health and wellness, he also echoes Huxley’s viewpoint, and note that Weil (as well as Dean Ornish and others) endorses “The Journey to Wild Divine,” a biofeedback computer game that induces serenity while one quests, in the game, for a trans-religious or pan-religious awakening.
Even researchers in the field of psychedelic studies today often give theories that fit perfectly with Huxley’s viewpoint; for instance, Dr. Rick Strassman, in his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule (2001), explains that psychedelics can induce “firsthand knowledge of the sublime,” and this “may help develop a more broad-minded and universal approach to the spiritual.” (p.341) Today, when intellectuals of all stripes, including artists and musicians, speak about spiritual growth, they do so in terms that are consummate with, and usually traceable to perennialism. Exceptions to this rule serve to prove the fact, and Huston had no small hand in making this so.
While discussing Huston’s embrace of perennialism, it’s important to note that he disagreed with his mentor Huxley over an important point concerning religion. Huxley believed that the core spiritual insight forming the foundation of the perennial philosophy is often found in the world’s religions in spite of their teachings, rather than because of them. Spiritual adepts in every tradition have found their way to the “highest common factor,” but they have rarely done so by following the path of orthodoxy. In fact, claims of mystical insight have mostly been branded heresy and grounds for persecution, as the 10th century Muslim mystic al-Hallaj and the 14th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart found out. Only a very few religions, Hinduism and Buddhism topping the list, have as their stated goals the achievement of a mystical breakthrough in consciousness, and so Huxley ridiculed religion when it stood in the way of what he saw as man’s deepest insight and life’s highest truth – and Huxley believed religion stood in the way more often than not.
Huxley believed that religion, though derived from and based in mystical insight, usually devolves quite quickly into dogma, and so he advocated for an experiential spirituality free of formal religion. “People ought to take their religion warm from the cow,” he wrote in his last novel, Island. “Not skimmed or pasteurized or homogenized. Above all not canned in any kind of theological or liturgical container.” Jeffrey Kripal Chair of the department of Religious Studies at Rice University, has it right in his book about Esalen that Huxley promoted what Frederic Spiegelberg, once professor of religion at Stanford, termed the “religion of no religion,” urging people to seek the highest spiritual insight on their own terms. Huston, as a defender of the traditional faiths, disagreed. He believed that the religions are tried-and-true pathways that, with the right sort of conviction, lead to the breakthrough insight. Huston embraced a form perennialism (often termed traditionalism) that supported what can be called, in contrast to Huxley’s position, a “religion of all religion,” and this created an interesting irony for Huston’s first major work.
A significant audience for The Religions of Man had been drawn to it because they had embraced Huxley’s perennial philosophy. Huxley’s fans believed that within the spaces between the religions – as well as in the visions of their mystics – one gets glimpses of the fundamental spiritual truths, and so they found Huston’s book to be a wonderful resource for their project. Studying the religions comparatively, using Huxley’s perspective as an entry point and touchstone, they were performing a sort of intellectual yoga, allowing themselves glimpses of the truth at the core of all the traditions. In only a few years this approach to spirituality, bolstered by the musings of Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, and of certain rock musicians like the Beatles, would draw a larger readership to Huston. Hundreds of thousands of young people would join the counter culture of the 1960s, dropping out of the religions with which they’d been raised and generally embracing Huxley’s viewpoint, including his interest in Eastern religions. Huston didn’t support this New Age approach to religion, which allows one to take from any tradition whatever has personal appeal while leaving the rest (an approach that Huston thought gives people too much of what they want and too little of what they need), but the fact is that his book could be used just as easily to support his ‘religion of all religion’ as Huxley’s ‘religion of no religion.’ In either case, the upshot was that The Religions of Man became deeply popular with all perennialists, including serious academics like Jean Houston and James B. Wiggins.
In 1976, Huston really pushed his defense of the perennial philosophy in Forgotten Truth, which became his magnum opus. Ken Wilber has called that book the best introduction to the perennial philosophy and I find no reason to disagree with him, but in this slim volume Huston also, based on his discovery of the works of Rene Guenon and Frithjof Schuon, clarified his specific theory of perennialism, including his reasons for why the traditional religions should not be abandoned. This book became an instant bestseller, loved especially by those drawn to the idea of a “transcendent unity of religion” who still wanted to stay true to a particular faith. But even perennialists who disagreed with Huston about whether or not the formal religions have value found in Forgotten Truth a defensible theory regarding the origin of religion, in agreement with Huxley’s, and this too made the book popular.
Of course, in academic circles, Huston, as a defender of perennialism and the traditional religions, had his critics. Most religions, with only one or two exceptions (Confucianism comes to mind), make metaphysical claims, as does perennialism, and metaphysics had been frowned upon in philosophy, and the academic study of religion, for more than fifty years. Huston was standing with William James, Rudolf Otto, Mircea Eliade, W.T. Stace, and only a handful of other scholars in the 20th century who had argued that there is true insight to be found in mystical experience and valuable knowledge in the study of metaphysics, and so he had lots of detractors taking pot shots at him after the release of Forgotten Truth. For instance, he had a high-profile debate with Steven Katz of Boston University in the 1980s. Katz argued that there is no perennial philosophy, at least as something other than a delusional theory, because the experiences of mystics are actually mental projections based on their beliefs, expectations, needs, hopes, and aspirations, rather than trans-cultural or metaphysical insights. Katz believed that mystics “construct their experiences” on the basic of their cultural and conceptual background, and so the position is called “constructivism.” While Huston argued that cultural differences only account for how the essential experience is interpreted for oneself and explained to others, and that there is an experiential core that is real, a position called “essentialism.” The debated ended in a draw but it was successful for Huston in that his arguments proved to most academics that, whether true or not, perennialism is certainly a defensible theory.
Speaking more broadly, Huston often found himself in such debates because his theories positioned him as a foil to the modernist perspectives that, as I’ve said, most dominated academia. Modernism is the position that science reveals the only valid truths, or, as Bertrand Russell once summarized the viewpoint, “what science cannot prove, mankind cannot know.” The upshot, of course, is that, since only things that have a strictly physical existence can be known by science, all metaphysical claims fall by default into the category of delusion and sophistry, so the “Divine Ground of Being” or a mystical apprehension of it could only be sophistry. To counter this position, which was the substance of Huston’s career, often put him on the firing line. As M. Darrol Bryant once observed, Huston’s perennialism could make room for the empirical sciences, but modernism could not make room for the “Divine Ground.”
Huston’s efforts to defend religion, metaphysics, mysticism, and the perennial philosophy against modernism comprise some of his most interesting work. His consistent belief that our loss of faith in transcendence, and the Transcendent, is the cause of so many of our contemporary psychological and social problems was well-argued in essays for various academic journals, including the Journal of Higher Education, the Journal of Philosophy, and Philosophy East and West. Huston claimed that when modernists, including today Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, argue, based on their materialist outlook, that religion is a waste of time because its primary postulates are metaphysical and therefore impossible to prove scientifically, they might be overlooking the fact that the fault could lie with their methodological tools. “Perhaps,” Huston has said many times, “the physical sciences are ill-equipped to measure what is real but lies beyond their scope. Perhaps the metaphysical realities of religion pass unnoticed by the tools of science as the sea is not caught by the fisherman’s net. The problem may be a problem of epistemology, in which case scientists, and those who depend upon them for their worldviews, should not accept an absence of evidence as evidence of absence.”
As a believer in metaphysical truths, Huston also found himself arguing with post-modernists, and many of his views in this regard were collected in the third-most important of Huston’s books, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind (1989). The substance of these disagreements goes beyond the scope of this short introduction, but, thankfully, it doesn’t go beyond the scope of this volume, and several essays defending religion and perennialism, against both modernists and post-modernists, are included here. [should we cite them?] The point for this short overview is that the debate regarding the acceptability of metaphysical theories in the philosophy of religion, and the academic study of religion, was kept alive for more than two decades thanks to Huston Smith. Today, other scholars, including Robert Forman, Ken Wilber, Christopher Chapple, and Jeff Kripal, are lending credibility to various aspects of the positions Huston often defended alone, or nearly so.
On one level Huston Smith could be described as a popular defender of unpopular theories. But no theory that he ever defended was as unpopular and controversial as his view that psychedelic drugs can produce genuine and valuable mystical experiences, and no overview of Huston’s impact on the study of religion would be complete without mentioning it.
In 1960, Huston got the go-ahead from his department to invite his long-time friend and mentor Aldous Huxley to M.I.T., as a visiting professor during the Institute’s centenary year. While there, Huxley, who had been experimenting with psychedelics and written positively about his first mescaline trip in The Doors of Perception (1955), was asked to lunch by a young professor of psychology at Harvard named Timothy Leary. Leary, then the head of the Harvard Psychedelic Project, a research project to investigate the possible psychological import of psychedelic substances, invited Huxley to lunch to discuss certain reports he was getting from research subjects that sounded like mystical experiences. Huxley suggested that Leary show the reports to his friend, Huston Smith, who had some real expertise in the history of religions, and so Leary did.
After reading the testimonies, Huston determined that some of the experiences did indeed sound like those of mystics, but in order to be better able to decide, he told Leary he would like to try mescaline himself. Leary agreed, and so on New Year’s Day, 1961, Huston, along with his wife, Kendra, went to Leary’s rented house and had his first experience with mescaline, soon followed in the months ahead by experiences with psilocybin and LSD.
Huston’s first experience with a psychedelic, though not entirely pleasant, convinced him that some psychedelic experiences, especially those of self-transcendence, are a subset of true mystical insight, and he never afterwards changed his mind about that. He felt that what he had henceforth understood only as a theory he now knew directly, and he would write: “The emanation theory and elaborately delineated layers of Indian cosmology and psychology had hitherto been concepts and inferences. Now they were objects of direct, immediate perception, I saw that theories such as these were required by the experience I was having. I found myself amused, thinking how duped historians of philosophy had been in crediting those who formulated such worldviews with being speculative geniuses. Had they had experiences such as mine they need have been no more than hack reporters.”
One outcome of that first experience was that Huston joined the Harvard Psychedelic Project as an advisor, working very closely with Leary, Richard Alpert, (later to be renamed, after a life-changing trip to India, Ram Dass), Ralph Metzner, Walter Houston Clark, and others. Alpert in particular became a close friend of Huston’s, and the two men worked together many times after those halcyon days in Cambridge - for example, in 1995, helping to launch the International Peace University in Berlin. Huston acted as the Project’s expert on religious experiences and in that capacity he participated in the famous “Good Friday Experiment.”
To provide evidence for or against the theory that psychedelics can trigger genuine religious experience, Dr. Walter Pahnke, a physician then completing a doctoral degree in religious studies at Harvard, created a double-blind experiment in which one half of a group of graduate students were given psilocybin while the other half were given niacin (as a placebo), but neither half would know who had been given what. Since the experiment took place in Marsh Chapel at Boston University just before the Good Friday service of 1962, the event is commonly known as the “Good Friday Experiment.” Huston, who was working as a guide that day, found himself in the half who received the psychedelic. A few days later, after filling out a detailed questionnaire, Huston found that many of his experiences fit a typology of mystical experiences put together by Pahnke based on traditional reports. In fact, almost all members of the psilocybin group, and only the psilocybin group, reported experiences that were indistinguishable from mystical experiences, providing empirical support for the notion that psychedelic drugs can trigger meaningful noetic insight.
Encouraged by what had happened in Marsh Chapel, Huston began including comments about psychedelics in his talks on the lecture circuit. At Princeton, Columbia and other universities he read testimonies of various experiences, some gleaned from the writings of well-known mystics throughout history and others taken from the reports of Leary’s subjects, and then asked the audiences to distinguish the ‘real’ mystical experiences from those that were ‘only’ psychedelic. When the audiences found, as they inevitably did, that they couldn’t tell the difference, Huston had made his point.
Huston, Leary and Alpert worked closely to decide what might be the applications of this new tool; Huston following Huxley’s lead that people who were mature enough to handle the experience might undertake experiments in what he called “empirical mysticism,” testing in their own experience whether or not mystical insight is possible. Leary on the other hand envisioned psychedelic drugs as the tool for driving what he believed was a necessary social and cultural revolution. After Leary and Alpert were dismissed from Harvard in 1962, soon to become leaders of the counter culture, Huston peeled off from them, later expressing his dismay with Leary’s viewpoint publicly at a famous conference on psychedelics in San Francisco, in 1966. In particular, Huston believed Leary was not only acting irresponsibly but, based on his own research with Leary, he doubted that psychedelic experience could in and of itself cultivate a religious life. It created altered states, but, as Huston would later often remark, it remained to be seen whether or not it could create “altered traits” of behavior. Perhaps direct intuitions of god or spirit were not enough. He later summarized this point about the psychedelics: “One thing they may do is throw religious experience itself into perspective by clarifying its relation to the religious life as a whole. Drugs appear to be able to induce religious experiences; it is less evident that they can produce religious lives. It follows that religion is more than a string of experiences. This is hardly news, but it may be a useful reminder, especially to those who incline towards ‘the religion of religious experience’; which is to say toward lives bent on the acquisition of desired states of experience irrespective of their relation to life’s other demands and components.”
However, Huston never wavered in his belief that psychedelics, when used responsibly, can give glimpses of the underlying Truth that bring rewards into everyday life, and even after his break-up with Leary he continued to write positively about psychedelics, publishing in 1965, “Do Drugs Have Religious Import?”. the most reprinted article in the history of The Journal of Philosophy. Of course, this claim drew heat from those who disagreed with Huston. For example, R.C. Zaehner, an Oxford don and an academic expert on mysticism, wrote that it was “deplorable” that Huston Smith, “a reputed authority on comparative religion and the history of religions,” had made the claim that some psychedelic experiences were not only similar to mystical experiences but were mystical experiences. (p.79 of Zaehner’s Zen, Drugs, and Mysticism, 1972). Zaehner contended that Huston, Huxley, Alan Watts and others had “misinterpreted” experiences of “depersonalization” as the “Body of Bliss,” experiences of “empathy and pseudo-empathy” for “Mystic Union,” and the spectacular visual effects of psychedelics as the “Clear Light of the Void,” (p.77) and many scholars agreed with him. However, Huston persisted in his position and today, in light of recent scientific evidence, his position actually seems the more likely. For instance, when Roland Griffiths and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins created a more controlled version of the Good Friday Experiment in 2006, they replicated not only Pahnke’s study but his conclusion, that whether or not mystical experiences are ultimately useful, psychedelics can generate experiences that are indistinguishable from them. (reported in Scientific American Mind, Oct/Nov. 2006, p.7)
Moreover, Huston’s psychedelic experiences served to boost his respect for the many, many traditional religions of Native America, Australia, Africa and Asia, because many of them employ a psychedelic sacrament. When, in the 1970s, Zaehner dismissed out of hand the claim that psychedelic experience could bring genuine spiritual insight, Huston rightly pointed out that to make such a claim was hubristic, chauvinistic, and perhaps even provincial, because humans have, in myriad religions for myriad centuries, deemed psychedelic experiences authentic and valuable. Later, in 1994, Huston, on these grounds, would help the Native American Church win a landmark case in the U.S. Congress, restoring their ability to legally use peyote, a strong psychedelic, as their religious sacrament. As part of his preparation for testifying before Congress, Huston, then seventy-five years old, flew to Mazatlan and participated, for several days, in a peyote ritual to better understand the experience he was defending. His courage and open-mindedness in defense of the traditional religions was proven once again. “To call peyote a drug,” he once explained to Phil Cousineau, an author and filmmaker with whom he was collaborating, “would be like calling the wine at a Catholic Mass ‘boooooze.’”
To summarize Huston’s overall significance, there has not been in the past fifty years a single high-profile supporter of the traditional religions who has had more influence than Huston Smith. He has argued that every religious tradition has value and none of them supercedes the others. Each should be followed religiously and not watered down into a New Age mush, although there are benefits to be gained from comparative study (and he agreed with his good friend Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, on this point). He argued that we are diminished if the impact of that comparative study is to lessen our commitment to our own tradition, but there is an advantage if we deepen our understanding of one another and learn respect for the integrity of every tradition. This is Huston’s viewpoint in a nutshell, and the reason why the Christian Science Monitor once called him “religion’s rock star.” Moreover, this message clearly still resonates, since many of Huston books, including the more recent Why Religion Matters (2001), are still in print. Huston, as a scholar, teacher, seeker, social critic, philosopher, and bridge-builder between cultures, has left a legacy that will inspire generations of those to come who believe that we are more than the sum of our genetic code and that life contains an ultimate mystery that only the soul can fathom.