The Sacred and the Human

By Roger Scruton
Prospect Magazine 137, August 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others caricature religion.

For Hegel, myths and rituals are forms of self-discovery, through which we understand the place of the subject in a world of objects, and the inner freedom that conditions all that we do. The emergence of monotheism from the polytheistic religions of antiquity is a form of self-creation, as the spirit learns to overcome its finitude.

Nietzsche and Wagner placed the concept of the sacred at the centre of the anthropology of religion.

René Girard observes that religion has its roots in violence. Dawkins and Hitchens conclude that religion is the cause of this violence and sexual obsession. Girard argues that religion is not the cause of violence but the solution to it.

Nietzsche envisages a primeval human society, reduced to near universal slavery by the healthy egoists who impose their desires on others by the force of their nature. The master race maintains its position by punishing all deviation on the part of the slaves. The slave comes to think of his condition as in some way deserved. For Nietzsche, this explains the entire theological and moral vision of Christianity.

Girard sees the primeval condition of society as one of conflict. In primitive societies, rivals precipitate cycles of revenge. The solution is to identify a scapegoat. According to Girard, the need for sacrificial scapegoating is implanted in the human psyche.

Girard identifies Christ as a victim who offers himself for sacrifice. The climax is the experience of sacred awe, as the victim forgives his tormentors. Christ's submission purified society and religion of the need for sacrificial murder. For Girard, it is rightly thought of as a redemption.

The experience of the sacred is a solution to the aggression in the heart of human communities. Birth, copulation and death are the moments when time stands still and when we are apt to be filled with awe. Religion begins from such moments.

AR  (August 2007) Some 35 years ago, when I was a graduate student of philosophy in London, I debated with Roger, who was then a young lecturer. Still I debate mentally with his writings. Half of what he says I like, half I feel the need to disown or contradict. In this review, Roger finds an interesting kernel of truth about Nietzsche and Wagner but seems to me to make too much of it. A Nietzschean anthopology of religion covers Christianity and Judaism quite well, Islam and Hinduism less well, and the more minor cults covered by people like Pascal Boyer hardly at all. As for the Dawkins and Hitchens crowd, I suspect they will remain unbowed by what looks almost like a work of Christian apologetics.

Forgiveness and Irony

By Roger Scruton
City Journal, Winter 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

In the West today, citizenship is an order that confers security and freedom in exchange for consent. Arab Muslims are apt to renounce not only freedom but also the idea of citizenship.

Christianity has retreated. This retreat has left behind it a sense of emptiness and defeat. It is hardly surprising that so many Muslims in our cities today regard the civilization surrounding them as doomed.

If repudiation of its past and its identity is all that Western civilization can offer, it cannot survive. But citizenship is an achievement that we cannot forgo if the modern world is to survive. We should turn away from apologetic multiculturalism.

A spirit of forgiveness upholds the core value of citizenship and finds a path to social membership. Happiness comes from sacrifice. And in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the primary act of sacrifice is forgiveness.

The God of the Koran is not a lenient God. In His Koranic manifestation, God forgives sparingly and with obvious reluctance. The Koran is no joke.

The ironic temperament is a virtue. A habit of acknowledging the otherness of everything sees that the one who judges is also judged, and judged by himself.

A society that makes room for forgiveness tends toward democracy. Irony amplifies this democratic tendency.

Forgiveness and irony underlie our conception of citizenship as founded in consent. This conception of law has little in common with Muslim sharia, which is regarded as a system of commands issued by God.

Terrorism and Islam have become associated in the popular mind. Terrorists pursue a moral exultation radiated by a self-assumed permission of the kind enjoyed by God. The Islamist terrorist wants to belong to God: through death, he dissolves into a new and immortal brotherhood.

There is nothing we can offer the Islamists that will enable them to say that they have achieved their goal. If they succeeded in destroying a Western city with a nuclear bomb, they would regard it as a triumph.

The mass of ordinary Muslims would regard such mass murder as an outrage forbidden by the law of God. But Muslims show a remarkable ability to turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed in the name of their faith. Such double standards are the direct result of the loss of irony.

The confrontation that we are involved in is an existential confrontation. We can avert the threat only by facing it down. We should emphasize the achievements that we have built on our legacy of tolerance.

Farewell to Judgment

By Roger Scruton
The American Spectator, June 5, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

The sciences aim to explain the world. But universities let the humanities displace the sciences from the curriculum. For subjects like English, the question of their validity became urgent.

People of my generation were taught to study literature in order to sympathize with life in all its forms. The central discipline of a subject like English was criticism. The same was true of art history and musicology.

Taste and judgment are faculties we develop as part of the transition from youth to adulthood. Conservatives often complain about the politicization of the universities. But they fail to see the true cause of this, which is the internal collapse of the humanities.

The restoration of judgment to its central place in the humanities will require an insistence that the real purpose of universities is to present students with a rite of passage into something better.

AR  I must concede that I underestimated Roger 35 years ago. Far from being a mere right-wing ideologue, he has grown and become one of our best philosophers.

Only Adapt

By Roger Scruton
Big Questions Online, December 9, 2010

Edited by Andy Ross

Darwinism has invaded the humanities. The whole realm of aesthetic experience and literary judgement has been explained as a part of human biology. The theory of natural selection, supplemented by modern genetics, tells us that if a trait is widespread across our species, then it is not maladaptive.

But that is a trivial observation. Mathematics is not maladaptive. This does not mean we have at last got a theory of mathematics. If we came to think that mathematics is maladaptive, say because it leads to an obsession with Möbius bands and transfinite cardinals, that would not undermine it. Mathematics is understood by applying its proofs.

The attempt to explain the humanities as adaptations is both trivial as science and empty as a form of understanding. It tells us nothing of importance about the humanities. It merely persuades ignorant people that they have all been explained away.

AR  Mathematics defines the frame within which the logic of Darwinian adaptation can unfold. That logic maps well into the cumulative hierarchy of my set-theoretic metaphysics. As a matter of historical fact, I founded that metaphysics after a student decade of obsessing about "Möbius bands and transfinite cardinals" and their deeper meaning :-)

Green Philosophy

By Simon Jenkins
The Sunday Times, January 1, 2012

Edited by Andy Ross

Roger Scruton is a passionate conservative and equally passionate conservationist. He resents the fact that free markets are blamed for pollution and climate change, while socialism is seen as their antidote. Green, he cries, should be blue not red.

Scruton considers global warming. In a savage survey of green politics, he examines attempts so far to reduce greenhouse gases. If the risk of global warming is as overwhelming as is claimed, he says, the requisite enforcement would be draconian.

People resist being told what to do by distant and unaccountable regimes, when it is not in their clear interest. They continue to burn coal, drive cars and chop down trees, and to hell with what anyone says.

Scruton advocates "solving environmental problems not by appointing someone to take charge of them but by creating the incentives that will lead people to solve them for themselves". Conservatism must fuse with conservation in nimbyism.

I would rather face Armageddon as a Scrutopian nimbyist than under the grim yoke of state command.

AR  More fool Simon — improve the state, you curmudgeon!

Three Brain Books

Reviewed by Roger Scruton
Prospect, January 25, 2012

Edited by Andy Ross

 Beyond Human Nature: Jesse Prinz says there is little reason to think biology has a major impact in accounting for human differences. He says gender difference is to a great extent acquired and that emotions are socially constructed. But the division of roles between men and women has deep roots in biology. Human children need defence and homes. On that granite foundation is built the romantic castle of sexual difference.

Incognito: David Eagleman says concepts like responsibility and freedom cannot survive intact from the advances of neuroscience. Brain wiring is for the most part none of our doing, and nothing for which we can be praised or blamed. But his picture of the fragile "I" riding the elephant of grey matter while pretending to be in charge of it misrepresents the nature of self-reference. The "I" is one term of the I-You relation, which is a relation of accountability in which the whole person is involved. I present myself for judgement. I take responsibility for my acts as free and chosen.

You and Me: Susan Greenfield says our brains are plastic and can be influenced in ways that pose a risk to our moral development. We can bring up children on passive and addictive entertainments that stultify their engagement with the real world and rewire the neural networks on which their moral development depends. But if we bring up our children correctly, they will become free agents and moral beings.


By Roger Scruton
Prospect, February 2013

Edited by Andy Ross

The idea that all human beings are equal is questionable. Equality demands:

Equal treatment for disadvantaged and advantaged children, and therefore exams that make no real distinctions between them;

Equal treatment for nationals and for migrants, and therefore the abolition of effective border controls;

Equal treatment for gay and straight people, and therefore gay marriage.

In the name of freedom men abandon their families, schools abandon discipline, and universities abandon the old and tried curriculum. Freedom is a good thing unless it is abused.

Conservatism is about conserving the foundations of civil society. The Conservative party has been the party of monarchy, of the family, of the Church of England, of law and order, of the common law, of the armed forces, and of the pomp and circumstance of old England. So understood, England is a moral idea.

The modernization wing of the Tory party is hoping for a new kind of conservatism guided by the rhetoric of equality and human rights. If that is where we are, then conservatism is dead.