Through books on subjects ranging from wine to hunting, music to environmentalism, British philosopher Roger Scruton has constructed a multifaceted attack on liberalism.  In his latest book, Scruton addresses the contention that religion is a byproduct of our culture or our genes, and therefore ultimately some kind of a fantasy projection.  Liberals have convinced themselves that biology explains God, and that the philosophical traditions of the West, as well as the other great world cultures, have nothing to say about human nature.  Scruton, drawing on figures as diverse as Hegel and Mozart, shows that religious concepts are perfectly consistent with scientific reasoning (properly understood), but they point beyond science to something that can be, and has been, understood as transcendence.  The core problem with liberalism, he wrote in an essay some years ago, has been

the relentless scoffing at ordinary prohibitions and decencies and the shrill advocacy of “alternatives” that ordinary people in their hearts are unable to recognize.  Liberal sarcasm is the ideology of a ruling class.

Religion embodies those prohibitions and decencies enshrined in ritual, concepts of the sacred and profane, and a personal relationship with the divine.  Conservatives need to convince society to return to a sort of piety, even if the postliberal world is not ready for a return to explicit theism.

Having been in Paris in the disastrous year 1968, Scruton witnessed firsthand the radicalism that has come to define the last half-century.  The experience awakened in him a conservatism of which he had previously been unaware.  In his memoir, Gentle Regrets, he writes that, “[f]or the first time in my life, I felt a surge of political anger, finding myself on the other side of the barricades from all the people I knew.”  Thus began a long journey into a kind of conservatism that is similar to, but not the same as, the various types of American conservatism.  He is no neoconservative publicist for war and “creative destruction,” and his respect for the free market does not include devotion to an abstract “capitalism.”  Scruton’s closest counterpart, in tone if not in style, in the United States is perhaps the late Russell Kirk.  In their different ways (Scruton is a trained philosopher; Kirk was primarily an historian), both have offered a defense of tradition and habit as a natural part of the human condition, which cannot be discarded without severe damage to our understandings of persons and the societies in which they live.

Read broadly, Scruton’s work defends religious belief against two sets of attacks.  The first is the anthropological and sociological argument, which was greatly influential in the late-19th and 20th centuries but is of lesser importance today.  Thus, Sir James Frazer thought magic both a precursor to more intellectual “religion” and an early form of science, which was primitive man’s way of understanding the forces of nature.  Extrapolating from a few such examples, anthropologists tried to make all religious reflection analogous to some sort of cultural response to the mysteries of the prescientific world.  The second, more recent set of attacks comes from the so-called New Atheists, such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.  Relying on supposed insights from evolutionary biology, they, too, have an explanation for religion.  Religion is a “meme” that is somehow encoded in our genes, helping us to survive.  The New Atheists discard an anthropological explanation of culture in favor  of theories of reproductive survival and fecundity.  Religion, especially with its emphasis on family relations, marriage, and children, is (they claim) simply a way to maintain tight control over reproductive faculties to further the interests of individual and group genes.  Once its evolutionary origins are understood, these writers assert, then religion and its cultural influence will disappear.

The search (at times a desperate one) by secularists for a “natural” explanation for religious belief is, of course, nothing new.  The British historian Christopher Dawson, for example, in his 1947 Gifford Lectures (later published as Religion and Culture) addressed what he called Natural Theology—that is, a discipline that is competent to study the nature of God and the relationship of man with Him.  The book closes with a consideration of the effect of the unification of the world cultures under the dominance of “scientific knowledge and technique.”  Dawson notes that scientific advances, by themselves, have no political program or agenda.  That makes them all the more dangerous when separated from their founding relationship with Western political and religious culture.  “The new scientific culture is devoid of all positive spiritual content,” Dawson argued—a statement as true today as it was when he wrote that scientific methods are “no culture of all in the traditional sense—that is to say it is not an order which integrates every side of human life in a living spiritual community.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI developed a similar theme in his 2006 Regensburg lecture.  He cautioned that the scientific method—which judges the validity of statements only insofar as they conform to mathematical or empirical tests—necessarily excludes religion.  But doing so imprisons, rather than liberates, human reason.  Then ethical, or moral, questions fall to the individual to decide,

on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical.  In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter.  This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it.  Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology end up being simply inadequate.

Scruton develops a similar critique in his opening chapter, “Believing in God.”  Here he argues that evolutionary thinking simply has “no bearing on the content of our religious beliefs and emotions.”  Such thinking “overlook[s] the aspect of our mental states that is most important to us, and through which we understand and act upon each other’s motives, namely, their intentionality or ‘aboutness.’”  That is, evolutionary biology does not explain how we experience what our genetic programming commands or forbids.  Moreover, the materialist explanations of the New Atheists cannot “take note of the internal order of our states of mind.”  Like philosopher Mary Midgley and neuroscientist Raymond Tallis, Scruton grants, as he must, that evolutionary biology has taught us much.  But he denies that biology can explain, or explain away, how we experience the world and, especially, one another.

Scruton addresses the evolutionary biologists’ favorite trait, altruism.  For them, altruism is simply selfishness in another guise.  One helps others as a part of an evolutionary strategy to build allies and protectors and so to allow one’s genes to survive into the next generation.  But this leaves out, according to Scruton, what we think altruism is about:

a considered response, based sometimes on agape or neighbor love, sometimes on complex interpersonal emotions like pride and shame, which are in turn founded on the recognition of the other as another like me.  In all cases altruism in people involves the judgment that what is bad for the other is something that I have a motive to remedy.

That complex set of emotional and intellectual reactions cannot be reduced to an evolutionary survival game.

The same goes for religion.  Without denying any biological imperatives, Scruton insists that

[t]o explain religion in terms of its reproductive function is to leave unexplained and indeed unperceived the central core of the phenomenon, which is 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 who prays for their permission.

Christians’ experience of religion is with a real Person, “who can be addressed, implored, reasoned with, and loved.”  In a chapter titled “Looking for People,” Scruton explores what that relational religious experience means.  Atheistic materialism cannot explain the “I” speaking to another “I,” but that “web of interpersonal relations” is what makes common life possible and provides the possibility of communication with that other Person who exists outside our experience of reality.

The materialism of the New Atheists creates a false duality: We are not mere biological machines, but biological machines that operate within a framework of emotional and mental states, interpersonal relationships, and experiences that cannot be explained by that machinery.

The Western tradition is filled with examples, real and in art, literature, and music, of individuals facing tragedy and what Scruton calls annihilation “as free and self-conscious individuals,” not collections of genes.  This is the way of true humanism, which is also the escape from ruling-class liberal ideology.


[The Soul of the World, by Roger Scruton (Princeton University Press) 205 pp., $27.95]