Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Philosopher Roger Scruton takes on Dawkins and Hitchens

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Do you know Roger Scruton? He's an British conservative philosopher – an unabashed lover of high culture and scourge of all things lily-livered liberals like me hold dear. I think I disagree with him about virtually everything, from multiculturalism to opera, politics to fox hunting. Thing is he's not only a nice man – I worked with him, sort of – and, though unabashedly conservative he is a very original and independent thinker and also writes beautifully. His recent book on the philosophy of conservatism was, almost, convincing, and now, writing in Prospect, he delivers what is the most powerful critique and challenge to the 'new atheism' yet. Taking Hitchkins' (®) "religion is the root of all evil"/"religion poisons everything" argument head on, he makes a powerful case for religion as myth and solution to rather than cause of violence. Some of it is persuasive, like this: "The experience of the sacred is not an irrational residue of primitive fears, nor is it a superstition that will one day be chased away by science. It is a solution to the accumulated aggression which lies at the heart of human communities." Scruton has issued a challenge to those of us who reject religion which we must answer in the next round of God books and humanist responses to contemporary religion. It's all very well when our opponents are half-wit creationists, bully-boy mullahs or whacked-out Scientologists but Scruton has now raised the bar considerably, and, yes, he does make the broad-stroke generalisations of the new atheists look a bit, well, exaggerated. We'll be picking this subject up in the next but one New Humanist in a major essay by a top British philosopher. Don't miss it (subscribe to make sure you get it)


Chris Hughes said...

"The experience of the sacred is not an irrational residue of primitive fears, nor is it a superstition that will one day be chased away by science. It is a solution to the accumulated aggression which lies at the heart of human communities."

None of which makes it true...

Caspar Melville said...

I know what you mean Chris, but then again this depends what we mean by 'true'. There's true as in factual, and true as in 'true love' or truth in art ie plausible, honest sincere, psychologically consistent with our experience. I mean what about the notion that there are universal human rights, It is true? I agree that the idea that the one thing, what Scruton argues are the positive aspects of religion which are cultural, depends on the other, the putative existence of a judging god, is ridiculous. But it also seem to me untrue to argue that without religion there would be no war...

HughCaldwell said...

Scruton's article tells us nothing but the professor's need to stalk around in a swirl of abstractions, bowing to selected cultural eminences and feeling mighty superior. If we look for the benefits of religion, do we have to look further than Pakistan? If religion is a need, there's no shortage of it there. Drumming the sacred text into the heads of children may seem like child abuse but it surely must bring them into contact with the supposedly healing myths of religion. Yet we find a country with widespread poverty, illiteracy and resentment against those that are not holy enough in their zeal for repressing women, blowing up infidels, attacking the reasonable and hanging blasphemers. The need, here and elsewhere, is for less religion.

eye-of-horus said...

*** Empirical truths and truths in U.S. Law: different conceptual categories ***

1. Science decides on empirical truths about the natural world

Suppose (to keep things simple) a Big 3 monotheism makes a statement about a relationship between God (Allah, Yahveh) and the world, like this: God created the world in 7 days.

We are entitled to ask: are you making an empirical claim here? Is this a matter of fact? And if so, what evidence would show that your claim is false?

Because, unless a statement can be falsified it can not be an empirical truth, a true statement about nature.

Whenever so-called "sacred" writings make claims about the natural world, they are subject to exactly the same forces of potential refutation as any other empirical claim. There is no "executive privilege" for God.

Evolutionary Biology has proven the Genesis story of animal creation to be false. More importantly, Darwin solved the materialists' puzzle (for all species) : how can order arise from randomness.

Let's get the bottom line very, very clear. Since evolution through natural selection is true, then the Genesis story is empirically false. Period. Biblical literalism is a damned lie. There are no innocent "believers in" intelligent design any longer. They are all dead.

2. The foundation of U.S. Law: reciprocity and extensions of the concept of "person."

The Constitution of the United States is the foundation document -- there's no natural law here, and neither God nor religion play any role.

The Constitution contains no reference whatsoever to God. No, not even to the Deistic world-machine tender. In fact, the word 'religion' appears only once in that document, in the First Amendment.

Amendment One protects what used to be called "freedom of conscience." Initially the right of every man (not slave, not female, not propertyless) to freely choose how to conduct his life as a legal person, a citizen. One Civil War (1865), the vote for women (1920), one Civil Rights Movement (1965) -- blood, riots, suffering, hatred, murders -- that's the price paid so far for extending reciprocity to all.

That brief passage not only establishes freedom of religion but also freedom *from* religion. The U.S is a secular state from its inception. The U.S. is *not* one nation under 'God.' God may be king over Israel. But, it (she or he or some committee) doesn't rule here, the people do. (Not child molesting priests, nor fanatical tax-dodging televangelists, nor disgusting politico-religious thugs, like George W. Bush. That miserable error is about to be erased, finally.)

God-talk disappears from justificatory language in 1776 (in the Declaration of Independence) and gives way to a view of 1786 (in the Constitution) that the people give themselves their own dignity and rights as citizens. They enjoy or abuse their 'freedom of conscience' even in matters of religion, speech, publications, public assembly, petitions to the elected representatives of the people, civil disobedience, and even revolution. (Is this order on the edge of chaos? Yes.)

Some conjectured divinity (or divinized Leader) no longer needs be a "holy lie" a la Plato for acting in ways consonant with social order. As the Spartans said to Darius, King of Persia, we have put a Law over us which even our kings must obey.
And when the King of Kings laughed at the Spartans, Herodotus shows us how his arrogance sealed his fate, the fate of his armed forces, the fate of his subjects and of their slaves. For not one of them was free.

copyright asserted 2007

john.hind said...

Of course "Untrue to argue that without religion there would be no war" is a much weaker claim than “It is a solution to the accumulated aggression which lies at the heart of human communities." Of course there are other reasons for war and violence than religious differences, but it is really hard to argue that religion defuses conflict. There is a direct correlation between measures of religious belief and measures of violence in societies round the world. Religion is the banner of choice for almost all the protagonist groups in wars and insurgencies at present.

But is Scruton talking about religion? “The experience of the sacred” is a peculiarly slippery and tendentious phrase!

Anonymous said...

I don't know much about Roger Scruton, but asking my husband if did, the reply was "Yes he's a philosopher. I like him. Full of common sense" After reading his piece in the S.T magazine he now has another follower. The fisrt I ever heard of Oliver Sacks was a family member was reading one of his books " The wife who thought she was a hat" or something daft like that. I tried to see what he was about and the more I learned, the less I wanted to know. Roger, even in the little I have read from him today, makes more common sense than all the neuroscientists put together. Can we have more Roger Scruton please?

Carol Jewell