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Better off without religion?


What is meant by 'religion', and what kind of thing are 'we'?

peters7 As I see it, religion involves three different, but related, phenomena: ritual, membership and belief. A religion includes words, gestures and ceremonies, which must be repeated exactly, and which define a core experience of the sacred. This experience is a strange sediment in human consciousness; it might have an evolutionary cause, but the cause does not tell us what it means.

A religion also defines a community. 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.

Finally, religion involves belief. 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 realm at the top of Mount Olympus. Their philosophers, however, were inclined to think of it as outside space and time and that is the idea that prevailed. Anthropologists view the belief in gods as a late development, by no means inevitably connected with the real core of religion, which they find in ritual and membership.

And this is surely plausible. 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, in many respects, was the religion of Rome. On the other hand, belief in supernatural beings, who take an interest in us and have the power to protect us, makes sense of the rituals that we share. The rituals are now seen as actions done for their sake. Sacred things become symbols of the 'real presence'; the religious community begins to see itself as engaged in a common enterprise of salvation, in which it benefits 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.

Suppose someone were to say that we would be better off without love. 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.

Most people would respond to that argument in the following way. Whatever the disasters that love may cause, they would 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. The disasters, if they come, come as accidents and not by necessity.

We seek for the causes of things; but we also seek for their meaning. We have moral values, aesthetic tastes, yearnings and aspirations which, for want of a better word, we call 'spiritual'. Such things are not irrational, even if we find it difficult to provide a logical or scientific foundation for them. Indeed, it is only a rational being who experiences the world in this way, in terms of meanings, values, tastes and aspirations, and who feels, as a result, the tension between his life and his ideals. This tension is what religious people call 'original sin'.

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. Of course religious belief can exercise a stultifying effect on the intelligence, the imagination and the humanity of those who subscribe to it. But none of those possibilities implies that there is not a proper development of the religious urge, in which people learn to worship the right things in the right way.

To defend such a response, however, we must know what kind of thing 'we' are. This, it seems to me, is the place where a little philosophy is called for. What part of our nature draws us to religion, and what is needed if that part is to be rightly guided? Dawkins tells us that religion belongs to habits of mind that are pre-rational. As he sees it, religion is a survival of the magical attitude to reality upon which we ought to have turned our backs at the Enlightenment. It seems to me that this expresses too narrow a view of rationality. Science, maths and logic are not the only spheres in which our reason shows itself. We seek for the causes of things; but we also seek for their meaning. We have moral values, aesthetic tastes, yearnings and aspirations which, for want of a better word, we call 'spiritual'. Such things are not irrational, even if we find it difficult to provide a logical or scientific foundation for them. Indeed, it is only a rational being who experiences the world in this way, in terms of meanings, values, tastes and aspirations, and who feels, as a result, the tension between his life and his ideals. This tension is what religious people call 'original sin'. Again, there is nothing irrational in it: on the contrary, not to feel it is to be only half alive to the human condition. People who do not convey to us, in whatever way, an awareness of their shortcomings do not attract our sympathy. They are not, really, of our kind.

Is it not plausible to think that it is precisely this aspirational side of people that draws them to religion? As rational beings we cannot be satisfied with causal explanations only. The question 'why?' has, for us, another meaning not what is the cause, but what is the reason? For what end does this or that exist? And if you say 'for no end', does that not simply raise the question all over again?

Unlike Dawkins I have never believed that the theory of evolution, true though it no doubt is, has shown that the search for reasons, rather than causes, is a chimera. As rational beings we look for meanings, connections, harmonies and symmetries: we want the world to make sense to us, and to answer our questions not merely in the way the laws of nature answer the enquiries of a scientist, but in the way the laws of harmony answer the aspirations of the musician. Our reason over-reaches the bounds of science, and this is not a deficiency in our reason but a deficiency in science. Moreover, as rational beings we make an absolute distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, virtue and vice, and we found our lives on the belief that some things are intrinsically worthwhile, and to be pursued for their own sake not pleasure only, but love, duty, virtue and kindness. We cannot mount a deductive or a scientific argument in favour of those values. But we condemn those who condemn them, and believe that reason is on our side.

All those facts about the human condition dispose us to look for the places where we can stand, as it were, at the window of our empirical world and gaze out towards the transcendental the places from which light from that other sphere floods over us. There is nothing irrational in looking for these places, or in the thought that we find them by locating what is sacred sacred words, sacred texts, sacred rituals. And by looking for 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.

Now I dont 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 rapidly 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.

[Note: This is the piece from which I improvised in my contribution to the debate with Dawkins and co. It is not what I said, but contains some of the background thoughts.]



Roger Scruton. "Better off without religion?" Right Reason (April, 2007).

Reproduced by kind permission of Roger Scruton. Right Reason is the weblog for conservative philosophers. On March 27, 2007 the organization Intelligence² sponsored a debate in the Great Hall at Storey's Gate Westminster in London. The propostion being "We'd be better off without religion".

The Author

Scrutonsm12Sir Roger Scruton (1944-2019) was a philosopher, public commentator and author of over 40 books. He was a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and Professor at the University of Buckingham. He is the author of Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, On Human NatureThe Disappeared, Notes from Underground, The Face of God, 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 Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life. Roger Scruton was a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2007 Roger Scruton
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