The Return of Religion
Access Magazine, 2008
Faced with the spectacle of the cruelties perpetrated in the name of faith, Voltaire famously cried ‘Ecrasez l’infâme!’.
Scores of enlightened thinkers followed him, declaring organised religion to be the enemy of mankind, the force that divides the believer from the infidel and which thereby both excites and authorises murder. Richard Dawkins is the most influential living example of this tradition, and his message, echoed by Dan Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, sounds as loud and strident in the media today as the message of Luther in the reformed churches of Germany. The violence of the diatribes uttered by these evangelical atheists is indeed remarkable. After all, the Enlightenment happened three centuries ago; the arguments of Hume, Kant and Voltaire have been absorbed by every educated person. What more is to be said? And if you must say it, why say it so stridently? Surely, those who oppose religion in the name of gentleness have a duty to be gentle, even with — especially with — their foes?
There are two reasons why people start shouting at their opponents: one is that they think the opponent is so strong that every weapon must be used against him; the other is that they think their own case so weak that it has to be fortified by noise. Both these motives can be observed in the evangelical atheists. They seriously believe that religion is a danger, leading people into excesses of enthusiasm which, precisely because they are inspired by irrational beliefs, cannot be countered by rational argument. We have had plenty of proof of this from the Islamists; but that proof, the atheists tell us, is only the latest in a long history of massacres and torments, which — in the scientific perspective — might reasonably be called the pre-history of mankind. The Enlightenment promised to inaugurate another era, in which reason would be sovereign, providing an instrument of peace that all could employ. In the eyes of the evangelical atheists, however, this promise was not fulfilled. In their view of things, neither Judaism nor Christianity absorbed the Enlightenment even if, in a certain measure, they inspired it. All faiths, to the atheists, have remained in the condition of Islam today: rooted in dogmas that cannot be safely questioned. Believing this, they work themselves into a lather of vituperation against ordinary believers, including those believers who have come to religion in search of an instrument of peace, and who regard their faith as an exhortation to love their neighbour, even their belligerent atheist neighbour, as themselves.
At the same time, the atheists are reacting to the weakness of their case. Dawkins and Hitchens are adamant that the scientific worldview has entirely undermined the premises of religion and that only ignorance can explain the persistence of faith. But what exactly does modern science tell us, and just where does it conflict with the premises of religious belief? According to Dawkins (and Hitchens follows him in this), human beings are ‘survival machines’ in the service of their genes. We are, so to speak, by-products of a process that is entirely indifferent to our well-being, machines developed by our genetic material in order to further its reproductive goal. Genes themselves are complex molecules, put together in accordance with the laws of chemistry, from material made available in the primordial soup that once boiled on the surface of our planet. How it happened is not yet known: perhaps electrical discharges caused nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms to link together in appropriate chains, until finally one of them achieved that remarkable feature, of encoding the instructions for its own reproduction. Science may one day be able to answer the question how this occurred. But it is science, not religion, that will answer it.
As for the existence of a planet in which the elements abound in the quantities observed on planet earth, such a thing is again to be explained by science — though the science of astrophysics rather than the science of biology. The existence of the earth is part of a great unfolding process, which may or may not have begun with a Big Bang, and which contains many mysteries that physicists explore with ever increasing astonishment. Astrophysics has raised as many questions as it has answered. But they are scientific questions, to be solved by discovering the laws of motion that govern the observable changes at every level of the physical world, from galaxy to supernova, and from black hole to quark. The mystery that confronts us as we gaze upwards at the Milky Way, knowing that the myriad stars responsible for that smear of light are merely stars of a single galaxy, the galaxy that contains us, and that beyond its boundaries a myriad other galaxies slowly turn in space, some dying, some emerging, all forever inaccessible to us — this mystery does not call for a religious response. For it is a mystery that results from our partial knowledge and which can be solved only by further knowledge of the same kind — the knowledge that we call science.
Only ignorance would cause us to deny that general picture, and the evangelical atheists assume that religion must deny that picture and therefore must, at some level, commit itself to the propagation of ignorance or at any rate the prevention of knowledge. Yet I do not know a religious person among my friends and acquaintances who does deny that picture, or who regards it as posing the remotest difficulty for his faith. Dawkins writes as though the theory of the selfish gene puts paid once and for all to the idea of a creator God — we no longer need that hypothesis to explain how we came to be. In a sense that is true. But what about the gene itself: how did that come to be? What about the primordial soup? All these questions are answered, of course, by going one step further down the chain of causation. But at each step we encounter a world with a singular quality: namely that it is a world which, left to itself, will produce conscious beings, able to look for the reason and the meaning of things, and not just for the cause. The astonishing thing about our universe, that it contains consciousness, judgement, the knowledge of right and wrong, and all the other things that make the human condition so singular, is not rendered less astonishing by the hypothesis that this state of affairs emerged over time from other conditions. If true, that merely shows us how astonishing those other conditions were. The gene and the soup cannot be less astonishing than their product.
Moreover, these things would cease to astonish us — or rather, they would fall within the ambit of the comprehensible — if we could find a way to purge them of contingency. That is what religion promises: not a purpose, necessarily, but something that removes the paradox of an entirely law-governed world, open to consciousness, that is nevertheless without an explanation: that just is, for no reason at all. The evangelical atheists are subliminally aware that their abdication in the face of science does not make the universe more intelligible, nor does it provide an alternative answer to our metaphysical enquiries. It simply brings enquiry to a stop. And the religious person will feel that this stop is premature: that reason has more questions to ask, and perhaps more answers to obtain, than the atheists will allow us. So who, in this subliminal contest, is the truly reasonable one? The atheists beg the question in their own favour, by assuming that science has all the answers. But science can have all the answers only if it has all the questions; and that assumption is false. There are questions addressed to reason which are not addressed to science, since they are not asking for a causal explanation.
One of these is the question of consciousness. This strange universe of black holes and time warps, of event horizons and non-localities, somehow becomes conscious of itself. And it becomes conscious of itself in us. This fact conditions the very structure of science. The rejection of Newton’s absolute space, the adoption of the space-time continuum, the quantum equations — all these are premised on the truth that scientific laws are instruments for predicting one set of observations from another. The universe that science describes is constrained at every point by observation. According to quantum theory, some of its most basic features become determinate only at the moment of observation. The great tapestry of waves and particles, of fields and forces, of matter and energy, is pinned down only at the edges, where events are crystallised in the observing mind.
Consciousness is more familiar to us than any other feature of our world, since it is the route by which anything at all becomes familiar. But this is what makes consciousness so hard to pinpoint. Look for it wherever you like, you encounter only its objects — a face, a dream, a memory, a colour, a pain, a melody, a problem, but nowhere the consciousness that shines on them. Trying to grasp it is like trying to observe your own observing, as though you were to look with your own eyes at your own eyes without using a mirror. Not surprisingly, therefore, the thought of consciousness gives rise to peculiar metaphysical anxieties, which we try to allay with images of the soul, the mind, the self, the ‘subject of consciousness’, the inner entity that thinks and sees and feels and which is the real me inside. But these traditional ‘solutions’ merely duplicate the problem. We cast no light on the consciousness of a human being simply by re-describing it as the consciousness of some inner homunculus — be it a soul, a mind or a self. On the contrary, by placing that homunculus in some private, inaccessible and possibly immaterial realm, we merely compound the mystery.
It is this mystery which brings people back to religion. They may have no clear conception of science; no theological aptitude, and no knowledge of the arguments, down the ages, that have persuaded people that the fabric of contingency must be supported by a ‘necessary being’. The subtleties of the medieval schools for the most part make little contact with the thinking of believers today. Modern people are drawn to religion by their consciousness of consciousness, by their awareness of a light shining in the centre of their being. And, as Kant brilliantly showed, the person who is acquainted with the self, who refers to himself as ‘I’, is inescapably trapped into freedom. He rises above the wind of contingency that blows through the natural world, held aloft by Reason’s necessary laws. The ‘I’ defines the starting point of all practical reasoning and contains an intimation of the thing that distinguishes people from the rest of nature, namely their freedom. There is a sense in which animals too are free: they make choices, do things both freely and by constraint. But animals are not accountable for what they do. They are not called upon to justify their conduct, nor are they persuaded or dissuaded by dialogue with others. All those goals, like justice, community and love, which make human life into a thing of intrinsic value, have their origin in the mutual accountability of persons, who respond to each other ‘I’ to ‘I’. Not surprisingly, therefore, people are satisfied that they understand the world and know its meaning, when they can see it as the outward form of another ‘I’ — the ‘I’ of God, in which we all stand judged, and from which love and freedom flow.
That thought may be poured out in verse, as in the Veni Creator Spiritus of the Catholic Church, in the rhapsodic words of Krishna in the Baghavad Gita, in the great Psalms that are the glory of the Hebrew Bible. But for most people it is simply there, a dense nugget of meaning in the centre of their lives, which weighs heavily when they find no way to express it in communal forms. People continue to look for the places where they can stand, as it were, at the window of our empirical world and gaze out towards the transcendental — the places from which breezes from that other sphere waft over them. Not so long ago, God was in residence. You could open a door and discover him, and join with those who sang and prayed in his presence. Now he, like us, has no fixed abode. But from this experience a new kind of religious consciousness is being born: a turning of the inner eye towards the transcendental and a constant invocation of ‘we know not what’.
Distrust of organised religion therefore goes hand in hand with a mourning for the loss of it. We are distressed by the evangelical atheists, who are stamping on the coffin in which they imagine God’s corpse to lie and telling us to bury it quickly before it begins to smell. These characters have a violent and untidy air: it is very obvious that something is missing from their lives, something which would bring order and completeness in the place of random disgust. And yet we are uncertain how to answer them. Nowhere in our world is the door that we might open, so as to stand again in the breath of God.
Yet human beings have an innate need to conceptualise their world in terms of the transcendental, and to live out the distinction between the sacred and the profane. This need is rooted in self-consciousness and in the experiences that remind us of our shared and momentous destiny as members of Kant’s ‘Kingdom of Ends’. Those experiences are the root of human as opposed to merely animal society, and we need to affirm them, self-knowingly to possess them, if we are to be at ease with our kind. Religions satisfy this need. For they provide the social endorsement and the theological infrastructure that will hold the concepts of the transcendental and the sacred in place. The insecurity and disorder of Western societies comes from the tension in which people are held when they cannot attach their inner awareness of the transcendental to the outward forms of religious ritual. People have turned away from organised religion, as they have turned away from organised everything else. But 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 has fled, but he is not dead. He is biding his time, waiting for us to make room for him. That, at least, is how I read the growing obsession with religion and the nostalgia for what we lost when the congregations shut their Bibles and their hymn books, broke asunder and went silently home.
Roger Scruton is a research professor at the Institute for Psychological Sciences in Washington D.C. He is a writer, philosopher, publisher, journalist, composer, editor, businessman and broadcaster. 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 20 books including, 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.