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Roger’s religion

Sir Roger Scruton’s religious views are dissonant but beautiful

Artillery Row

The late, great Sir Roger Scruton (1944-2020) was clear about his politics, but not religion, even though he wrote a lot about religion, particularly towards the end. He wrote one book about the Church of England, in which he was raised. He certainly advocated for conservation of Christian culture. He was well read on other religions and atheism.

For some interpreters, he was spiritual but not religious. For others, he was evangelical. Mark Dooley, whose philosophy is influenced by his Irish Catholic background, told a meeting of the Scruton Legacy Foundation in October that Scruton’s personal religiosity infuses all his work. Anthony O’Hear, Scruton’s colleague in the philosophy department at the University of Buckingham, isn’t sure. Scruton was “very private,” he said, and never revealed any religion or spirituality. At the least, Scruton was a cultural Christian. He may have been a Christian atheist, as his friend and colleague Douglas Murray self-identifies. However, as we shall see, his experience of religion seems to go beyond atheism, although not to any endorsement of religion.

From November to December, I joined a group of Scruton’s colleagues, students, and admirers, organized by the Scruton Legacy Foundation, for a weekly discussion of his most dedicated book on religion.

“The Soul of the World” is a thin book, less than 200 pages of main body text. The arguments are quick, sparse, sometimes evasive. Scruton was always pithy. His writing is alive with references to his wide reading, with which most in his own profession will never catch up. “The Soul of the World” is extreme in these regards. The preface warns that he is revisiting and building on themes he explored more thoroughly elsewhere. He warns of few citations: “[F]or the most part the manner is informal, and allusions to other writers more conversational than scholarly.” Most of the chapters are based on talks to scholars of divinity or philosophy. He sometimes assumes familiarity with his prior work.

I share Scruton’s discomfort with reduction of religion to genotypes and phenotypes

Analysis of a short book can seem like over-analysis. However, Scruton chose to give us “The Soul of the World” as his only work dedicated to religion in general, and he chose to keep it short. (Scruton went on to explore religion, in passing, in “On Human Nature,” published in 2017.)

Some participants in the group introduced themselves honestly as repeat readers in hope of clarification. Anthony O’Hear opened the discussion by admitting that the book is unusually difficult to read. O’Hear also warned of some internal contradictions. Often I found Scruton betraying his own dissonance, even self-censorship (although this was surely subconscious, for such an overtly fearless writer).

In the preface, Scruton summarizes his “argument as making room, in some measure, for the religious worldview, while stopping well short of vindicating the doctrine or practice of any particular faith.”

Scruton was explicitly “making room” against confrontations from the perspectives of science (e.g., Richard Dawkins) and counter-extremism (particularly after 9/11). Scruton quickly, in the second paragraph, dismisses the confrontations as too “intellectual” and missing the “emotional” imperative.

However, the confronters think that science explains the emotional. Dawkins, for one, articulates the evolved need for religion to ameliorate the uncomfortable facts of life, such as mortality. Scruton doesn’t discuss mortality, except briefly towards the beginning and again at the very end, as one of the life events that are sanctified and rationalized by religions.

Scruton doesn’t admit any particular confronters, but goes on to refute “evolutionary psychology” as having “no bearing on the content of our religious beliefs and emotions.” I am not persuaded by Scruton’s sparse argument, which addresses only Sigmund Freud (not a scientist). Scruton has a habit of referring to “scientific” when he means material (such as when contrasting a “scientific view” of the Mona Lisa – as a collection of pigments – versus a visual experience). I share Scruton’s discomfort with reduction of religion to genotypes and phenotypes. But here Scruton is as casual in his dismissal of the scientific as is Dawkins of the spiritual.

Scruton refutes evolutionary psychology in general by denying that reproduction is the core of religion. Scruton nevertheless admits the theory that humans have genetic imperatives to belong to a group – for material, sexual, and genetic benefits, at the cost of some individual sacrifice. A group secures its members and thence their genes. This is why, Scruton admits, religions have so much interest in sexual and reproductive matters.

I found Scruton’s thinking on the origins of religion more political than he cares to admit. “The Soul of the World” is reminiscent of his writings on the importance of belonging – to a place, a culture, a society, a morality. His first citation is of Emile Durkheim, whose core explanation for religion is membership of community. Scruton doesn’t make the link explicit until later: “It has been evident at least since Durkheim that religion is a social phenomenon…Human beings desire to ‘throw in their lot’ with something…the normal tendency of the religious urge is toward membership…Durkheim pointed out that you don’t merely believe a religion but (more importantly) you belong to it.”

Later still, Scruton makes use of René Girard’s Catholic philosophical view that humans choose religion to escape conflict in the state of nature. Scapegoats are used to purge or vent the society’s lingering need to wage violence on the outsider. Members who disobey societal taboos become outsiders subject to scapegoating. Christianity is unique, for Girard, in offering a voluntary scapegoat (Jesus).

However, Scruton claims that “Girard’s narrative fails to explain what it is to regard a thing as sacred.” Yet Scruton had already paraphrased Girard as saying: “It is in the effort to resolve this conflict that the experience of the sacred is born.” As in many other places, Scruton wants to separate the established psychosocial origins of religion from a form of religious “thought” that he fails to adequately define.

In the final chapter, Scruton will confirm that he regards individual “sacrifice” as necessary to community, such as being prepared to defend the community in emergency and to forgive other members on a daily basis. Faith helps to find the teleology in this sacrifice. Such faith does not need to be religious, but religion helps, by making faith doctrinaire.

Certainly we atheists can agree that the collapse of religion is associated with a collapse of community. At risk of transposing too much of myself, I keep wondering whether nostalgia for community is Scruton’s core driver towards religion.

In this book, Scruton describes the “core” of religion as “the religious thought – the aboutness of the urge to sacrifice, of the need to worship and obey, of the trepidation of the one who approaches holy and forbidden things and prays for their permission.” This statement is beautiful but circular. It is also personal, at least in phenomenological terms. Scruton’s subjectivity is both liberating and frustrating. Subjectivity is fairer in philosophy than science, and Scruton had right to continue with it, but he shies from making explicit his personal religious experience or views.

Increasingly in this book, Scruton refers to the “transcendental,” for which he seems to draw on personal experiences, without admitting them. In the final chapter, he refers to “the supernatural” too, where humans search for “reasons and meanings” beyond the “natural” causes of real things. He refers also to a “domain” beyond nature and an “afterlife.” In this final flourish, he admits these things as articles of faith, although he still leaves them as prerogatives (and thus avoids endorsing them).

Many of the reading group’s participants knew Scruton, but none recalled any personal transcendentalism. O’Hear told me that Scruton never discussed transcendental experiences, but clearly was “overwhelmed” by some of the classical music concerts they attended. Music is central to the book: Scruton uses it from Chapter 2 onwards, and dedicatedly in Chapter 7, to illustrate an “I-You experience” that parallels what we seek in a god. Music is not a being, but we relate to it as if it speaks to us, moves us, comforts us, accompanies us.

Scruton uses the other-wordliness of God as an objection to the use of the sciences to deny the existence of God

Scruton leaves ambiguous whether he is observing this “I-You relationship” as a psychological or religious phenomenon. One is left wondering about Scruton’s own thoughts and feelings, and what Scruton means by differentiating “religious” thoughts and feelings. Clearly, he thinks that transcendentalism is unworldly (although in Chapter 4 he uses the same category to include some human-to-human relationships, specifically those “obligations” – such as marriage vows – that transcend mere claims rights). Scruton uses the other-wordliness of God as an objection to the use of the sciences to deny the existence of God. In the subsequent passage, he refutes the atheist’s use of “mathematical truth” to deny “theological truth,” but atheists use evidentiary truth, of which mathematical truth is only a part. Scruton conveniently denies whether this is the place to wrestle with the conflict between evidence and faith.

Scruton’s concepts of thoughts and feelings are untrue, in scientific terms – or otherwise are capturing something extra-scientific that remains impenetrable to me. “We think and feel in ways that promote the goal of reproduction. But our mental states have no such goal.” Separation of thoughts and feelings from mental states is unconventional, both scientifically and philosophically. Scruton’s subsequent explication does not work. He makes the fair point that mathematics and other forms of language are not things in themselves like the things they are used to describe. However, this doesn’t prove that mental states are beyond thoughts and feelings. Our use of any language is both thoughtful and felt, however unconscious.

In one part, Scruton seems to avoid, again, the psychosocial premises behind religion. He is excellent in describing the omni-present but unobservable nature of God across the three great monotheisms. “[T]he experience of the ‘real presence’ is at the heart of revealed religion.” However, Scruton fails to convince me that the “real presence” cannot be explained as thoughts and feelings. Both the experience and the revelation rely on the subject’s belief. On a later page he seems to realize this: “[I]n the religious frame of mind [is] the core thought of another subject, the god toward whom one’s thoughts and feelings are directed.” Inherent, I infer, is some motivation to seek the other subject.

Scruton further describes this “core thought” as “the presence of a subject, a first-person singular who can be addressed, implored, reasoned with, and loved.” Scruton might have realized this core thought as a core motivation. Humans desire society, an ideal society, which is promised on earth by one’s religious group, and off earth by one’s God. Scruton seems to say this when he writes: “their state of mind is ‘subject directed’,” through “intentionality,” “forms of address,” “a readiness to give and accept,” a search “for a subject-to-subject encounter,” “the intimacy of a personal encounter,” and “the sense of reciprocity: the sense of being targeted by the Other.”

Still later, he admits that the attraction of sacred things is that “they seem to be both in our world, and also out of it.” Why doesn’t Scruton admit that seeming overlaps believing? Whatever we think is within or without our world is based on beliefs. If you don’t believe that anything can exist out of our world, then you deny transcendentalism (except perhaps as a psychological artefact).

I still struggle to separate beliefs about God from love of God or prayers to God or reverence to God’s objects

 Thus, Scruton is on shaky ground, having ignored volition in the “real presence,” when he refutes skeptics who “seem to think that faith is simply a matter of entertaining beliefs of a cosmological kind.” Scruton writes that “the real phenomena of faith are nothing like that.” For “real phenomena,” Scruton lists a mix of processes, thoughts, emotions, and symbols, as I would categorize them: prayer, love, obedience, sacred objects. I don’t understand why he separates “real phenomena” from beliefs. They’re all phenomena, literally speaking. He categorizes some as real, without defining real or categorizing anything unreal. For some of the faithful, believing in something can be as real as the material objects one regards as sacred. Indeed, for some, belief in the immaterial is most important. And I still struggle to separate beliefs about God from love of God or prayers to God or reverence to God’s objects.

On the same page, Scruton strays into circularity: “nobody who has the experience of that thing [real presence] is likely to think it to be simply an illusion: it comes to us with a self-verifying character that silences skepticism.”

Towards the end of Chapter 1, Scruton, citing Immanuel Kant and David Hume, explicitly blocks “the cosmological and the psychological” origins of religion on the grounds that religious thought transcends the material world. Again, this seems circular.

The final page of the first (and most important) chapter seems to ramble with dissonance, admitting that religion has evolutionary, social, and psychological origins, and that religion provides fictional narratives that help to explain the world, while claiming that “the fictions neither explain the experience nor justify its intrinsic claim to veracity.”

There ends the penultimate paragraph of the first chapter. The ultimate paragraph, in peculiarly florid prose, promises more on transcendentalism. “Ultimately the cosmological and the psychological paths are paths toward the same destination, and that destination lies on the far horizon of our world.”

The book ends in similar fashion. In a section on death, Scruton describes an “afterlife” as inherently absurd (since it places an unnatural state on a natural timeline). However, he then allows for both “mystical thought” on the afterlife, and for an afterlife to occur after death (i.e., on a natural timeline). Indeed, he seems to encourage the Christian concept of an afterlife: “To approach death in such a way is therefore to draw near to God.” This is circular: choose to approach God by choosing faith in an afterlife that is itself granted by a God in which you chose to place your faith!

That is how he begins his final paragraph. He ends it with the promise that a “life of prayer…prepares us for a death that we can meaningfully see as a redemption, since it unites us with the soul of the world.” Again, this is beautiful but circular: yes, of course, we can find religious meaning if we choose faith in it.

It seems to me, and O’Hear agreed, that in this final page Scruton reached for his own personal and particularly Christian-centric experiences to bring the book to a close, rather than draw on his findings in the rest of the book. (Also, he uses the word “creator” for the first time on this page.)

The writing is beautiful, but ultimately inconclusive. Yet perhaps here is unintentional meaning: an exemplar of the contradictions, circularities, dissonances, and beauties in anyone’s faith.

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