Roger Scruton was no atheist – argues his literary executor
On the first anniversary of his death, Scruton’s literary executor says that it is a ‘travesty of the truth’ to think that Scruton joined the ranks of those evangelical atheists
When the late Roger Scruton sent me a proof of what would be his last book, Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption, I considered it in the same vein as I had all his writings. It was, I believed, yet another brilliant attempt to show a disbelieving world how to find redemption from its fallenness. It is true that he opens the book by observing that Parsifal is Wagner’s answer to “a question that concerns us all: the question of how to live in right relation to others, even if there is no God to help us”. But does this imply that Scruton was, like Wagner, committed to the belief that there is no God?
His religious beliefs were complex and often perplexing
I spent some years producing three books on Scruton that sought to highlight the deeply spiritual nature of his work. Indeed, as he said to me just before his death last January: “My work is nothing if not spiritual”. And, anyone who attended his beautiful funeral at Malmesbury Abbey, could be forgiven for thinking that they were saying farewell to man of faith. But perhaps Scruton was, at heart, an “aesthetic tourist” who clung to the rites of religion for their social rather than sacred benefits. Nothing, I believe, could be further from the truth. His religious beliefs were complex and often perplexing. However, anyone even partially acquainted with his writings will know that, despite “serving a full apprenticeship in atheism”, Scruton devoted his life to proving that “freedom, love and duty come to us as a vision of eternity, and to know them is to know God”.
Scruton deeply admired Wagner. I remember staying at his Wiltshire farm when he was writing The Ring of Truth, his masterpiece on Wagner’s Ring cycle. Each night before retiring, he would sit at his piano and play something from that opera. It was as though, in those quiet nocturnal moments, he was communing with the very spirit of the man he sought to understand. However, Scruton was not Wagner. Indeed, at a conference in Canada on his religious philosophy that he and I headlined, he decidedly distanced himself from Wagner’s treatment of “the gods as projections of our human passions, through which we mortals try to fathom the vast impulses that govern us”.
I say this because, since the publication of Wager’s Parsifal last May, friend and foe have suggested that, despite everything he wrote to the contrary, Roger was an atheist. The idea that he supported the very people he spent a lifetime opposing has somehow gained traction. In one high profile review, eminent writer Sue Prideaux, branded Wager and Scruton “avowed non-Christians”. Without any supporting evidence, she proceeded to declare that, for Scruton, “there could be no such thing as sin because he didn’t believe in God”. Prideaux’s review won praise from other notables who were, down the years, professionally quite close to Scruton. But the simple truth is that anyone who claims that Roger Scruton didn’t believe in God, does a great disservice to his extraordinary intellectual legacy. Indeed, I would go further and ask if such people have ever read anything beyond his three Wagner books?
Forget the fact that he concluded his 2005 memoir Gentle Regrets with a chapter entitled “Regaining my Religion”, in which he says that “by pondering my loss of faith I have steadily regained it”. Forget that, as early as 1990, he wrote that in the Holocaust and the Gulag we find the “proof of original sin, and the evidence that man is after all not sufficient for his own redemption, failing most dismally in emancipating himself precisely when he seeks to free himself from God”. Even if we have no knowledge of any of this, we still ought to ask why a purported atheist would, as Scruton often did, publicly take sides against “fellow-atheists”? Why, in other words, would Scruton – the “avowed atheis” – openly critique the high priests of atheism Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Hawking? The answer is simple: he was not an atheist, but someone who spent his life defending “the human form divine” from the corrosive critiques of reductionism, scientism and naturalism. I would go so far as to say that the principal theme of his work can be summed up in this one observation: “The hubris which leads us to believe that science has the answer to all our questions, that we are nothing but dying animals and that the meaning of life is merely self-affirmation, or at best the pursuit of some collective, all-embracing and all too-human goal – this reckless superstition contains already the punishment of those who succumb to it”.
It is a travesty of the truth to think that Scruton joined the ranks of those evangelical atheists
In 2010, Scruton published a memo to astrophysicist Stephen Hawking entitled, “There’s Still Room for God”. It stated that whereas Immanuel Kant and Albert Einstein believed that we humans lack the “ability to comprehend the universe as a whole”, Hawking wanted to break with that consensus by suggesting that we can “know how the universe was created”. Universes come into being, Hawking declared, by the operation of the laws of physics. Scruton tersely responded: “But what created the laws of physics?” Some will say that this question has no answer. Others, like Kant, will say that it has an answer, “but that it is answered not by reason but by faith”. Kant, who was Scruton’s real hero, was a believer who “attacked the claims of reason in order to make room for faith”. “It seems to me,” said Scruton, “that he was right”.
There are some who will say that despite writing two books on God (The Face of God and The Soul of the World), as well as a beautiful tribute to the Church of England in Our Church, Scruton was someone who upheld the external forms of religion without actually believing in them. As such, playing the organ in his local church was more an aesthetic pastime that helped endorse the local community rather than anything which committed him to doctrine or creed. The reality is that Scruton was a man of faith who expressed his “much-amended but nevertheless regained religion” by confronting scientific atheists with the limits of their own dogmatic pronouncements. As he says, “Science has its proselytisers and tub-thumpers – people who tell us that God is now redundant, and should be peaceably and forcibly retired. The smallest dose of philosophy would cure mankind of this delusion”.
Does this mean that Scruton was anti-science? Far from it, as his constant praise of the scientific method made clear. Still, science will only ever give you half the picture. It can show us “the how of God’s creation” by describing and explaining “how we evolved over time”. It is, however, “silent about the why”. That is because, when we ask why we are here, or why the universe exists, “we are seeking a point of view outside all time and change”. That is a position reserved only for God, and it “is to him that we must look for an answer”.
Richard Dawkins declares that the so-called “selfish gene” drives the stake firmly into the heart of the deity. Scruton, who denounced Dawkins and Hitchens as “evangelical atheists” having a “violent and untidy air”, responds as he did to Hawking: “But what about the gene itself – how did that come to be?” It is obvious, says Scruton, that there is something missing from the lives of these evangelical atheists, something “which would bring order and completeness in the place of random disgust”. And what is it that? The realisation that our world is saturated with “intimations of infinity”, places where we can stand “at the window of our empirical world and gaze out towards the transcendental”.
God may have fled, but ‘he is not dead’
To gaze at another person is not merely to see a human object but a human subject. Beyond everything that science can describe in the “book of evolution”, there stands before me a centre of freedom and moral accountability. It is this which we call the “self” or the “soul”, and it is what we reach towards when we love another. This, says Scruton, is a revelation of the transcendental. It is the most important thing about human beings, and yet it “has no place in Darwin’s theory”. It does not disprove science, nor does it seek to, but in “this free and reflective being” we find the answer to the why of “God’s creation”.
Anybody who travels through life “with an open mind and open heart”, will encounter such moments of revelation. These are precious moments, says Scruton, in which “we suddenly come across a window, through which we catch sight of another and brighter world – a world to which we belong but which we cannot enter”. And while there are many who will dismiss this as an illusion, there is “an aspect of the human condition that is denied to such people”. This aspect is of principal importance because “our loves and our hopes” hinge on it.
Sir Roger Scruton spent his life telling us that “the atheists who dance on the coffin of the old religions will never persuade them to live as though the thing inside were dead”. God may have fled, but “he is not dead”. Rather, he is “biding his time, waiting for us to make room for him”.
Having shown us how to do just that, it is a travesty of the truth to think that he joined those evangelical atheists in “stamping on the coffin in which they imagine God’s corpse to lie”.
Dr Mark Dooley is an Irish philosopher, journalist and writer. His books Roger Scruton: The Philosopher on Dover Beach, The Roger Scruton Reader, and Conversations with Roger Scruton are all published by Bloomsbury. He is Sir Roger Scruton’s literary executor.
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