Is religion a force for good?


Just as there are bad people with religious beliefs, so there are good people without them. So what does religion add to morality and why is the addition good?

The first thing that religion adds is the idea of the sacred. This idea is a strange sediment in human consciousness; it might have an evolutionary cause, but the cause does not tell us what it means. The second thing that religion adds is communion.

The rituals of religion are shared and those who participate in them are drawn into another kind of relationship with their neighbours than those that prevail in the world of "getting and spending". People hunger for this kind of membership and the power of religion resides in its ability to provide it. In the rituals of a religion all worldly differences are overcome: the Sultan bows in submission beside his subjects and the good-natured fool takes communion beside the crook who cheated him. The ritual shines on both of them from a place beyond their ordinary experience and includes them in a community whose home is in some way not of this world. And in the Christian case the ritual records a primeval sacrifice, born of love.

It is natural for someone, taken up in those rituals and in the community that they create, to believe that they point beyond this world, towards the realm that we now call "transcendental". The Greeks situated this at the top of Mount Olympus. But their philosophers were inclined to think of it as outside space and time – and that is the idea that prevailed, when Greek philosophy and Jewish monotheism coalesced in Christianity, and then in Islam. There are plenty of religions in which the belief in gods is a hazy and sceptical afterthought and for which the ritual and the community are far more important than any theological doctrine. The religion of ancient China was like this; so too was the religion of Rome.

Hinduism, with many hundreds of gods, is for that reason adjacent to Buddhism, with none. On the other hand religious belief, as we know it, has another function than simply to make sense of ritual: it is a source of consolation and the cure for our metaphysical loneliness. Believers, therefore, see themselves as engaged in a common enterprise of salvation, in which they benefit from supernatural powers and divine protection. I am not speaking of Christianity only: Apuleius gives a beautiful description of the phenomenon I am referring to in The Golden Ass, in which the long-suffering hero finally enters the fold of a religious community, dedicated to the worship of Isis. Mozart describes something similar in The Magic Flute and Wagner also in Parsifal. In all religion, it seems to me, there is a primordial experience of "homecoming", of returning to the fount of being and bathing in the pure waters of forgiveness. Surely this kind of spiritual renewal is a blessing, not merely for those who undergo it, but also for those who depend on their good will. Suppose someone were to say that love is not a force for good in the world. After all, love often leads to disaster: the love of Helen for Paris, for instance, which led to the Trojan war. Love brings with it jealousy, possessiveness, obsession and grief. People can love the wrong things and the wrong people. They can go astray through love as through hatred.

Whatever the disasters that love may cause, we should suggest, love, judged in itself and without regard to contingencies, is a human good – perhaps the greatest of human goods. The important thing is to learn to love rightly and in the right frame of mind.

We should respond to that argument in the following way. Whatever the disasters that love may cause, we should suggest, love, judged in itself and without regard to contingencies, is a human good – perhaps the greatest of human goods. The important thing is to learn to love rightly and in the right frame of mind. Then the disasters, if they come, come as accidents and not by necessity. That is the response that should be made on behalf of religion too. Of course religion can lead to disasters, like the Thirty Years War. Of course people can believe in false gods and attach themselves to evil rituals. But that does not alter the fact that people have a need for reconciliation and forgiveness and that they find these things through allowing into their lives the light that is cast by sacred things. By opening ourselves to the sacred we are also constructing a community, so that the meanings and values that we find are shared with others. A religious community is not a scientific community. It contains idiocy, prejudice, ignorance and stupidity in all the proportions that these are displayed by mankind as a whole. But that is its great virtue: it can draw people, whatever their talents and intellectual powers, into a shared apprehension of their condition. It can teach humility and justice, and remind the one with power, knowledge, wealth or artistic talent, that he is the equal of the one beside him in the moment of worship, however ignorant, weak or sinful that person might be. And to both of them it offers hope.

Now I don't deny that there are wrong ways of pursuing this religious quest. Those for whom faith is a call to arms and religion a blanket justification for violence against the unbeliever, are a threat to all of us. But although they make the most noise, they are not the most numerous among religious people. For most people religion is what it has always been – a cultivation of piety, a humility in the face of creation and an attempt to live according to a shared moral code. Piety, humility and morality are all things that we are losing. I would suggest that we would do better to keep them and to study how they might be directed to the right objects and in the right way.




Roger Scruton. "Is religion a force for good?" The Independent (November 26, 2010).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Roger Scruton.


Roger Scruton is a research professor in the department of philosophy at St. Andrews University, a visiting scholar of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, and a senior research fellow in philosophy at Blackfriars Hall in Oxford. He is a writer, philosopher and public commentator who has specialised in aesthetics with particular attention to music and architecture. He engages in contemporary political and cultural debates as a powerful conservative thinker and polemicist. He has written widely in the press on political and cultural issues. He has held visiting posts at Princeton, Stanford, Louvain, Guelph (Ontario), Witwatersrand (S. Africa), Waterloo (Ontario), Oslo, Bordeaux, and Cambridge, England. Mr. Scruton has published more than 30 books including, The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope, Beauty, Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation, I Drink therefore I am, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought, News from Somewhere: On Settling, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy, Sexual Desire, The Aesthetics of Music, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, A Political Philosphy, and most recently Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life. Roger Scruton is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2011 Roger Scruton

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