A philosopher bashes atheists for dumb reasons

The atheist-bashing continues, and since there aren’t many new ways to attack nonbelievers, the critiques take the form of very slightly altered but still-familiar arguments. The latest is an essay in the Spectator penned bty the conservative and religion-friendly philosopher Roger Scruton, who specializes in aesthetics.  But his piece, “Humans hunger for the sacred, why can’t the new atheists understand that?“, suggests that he also specializes in anaesthetics.

I don’t want to waste a lot of time on this, for the whole tenor of the piece is ludicrous: all humans hunger for the “sacred”; religion gives it to them but atheism denies it to its adherents. But his whole thesis depends on a semantic trick: conflating “sacredness” with “that which we value in our lives.” Using the word “sacred” to refer to things that we crave and respect, like love, books, children, or art, is a deliberate co-option of the term “sacred” as it’s used in religion—as something connected with the divine. Surely a philosopher like Scruton is trained to pay attention to words, and so must have performed this conflation deliberately, as a way to bash atheism.

I give some excerpts from Scruton’s article:

Hence there is another question, that seems to be much nearer to the heart of what we, in the western world, are now going through: what is the sacred, and why do people cling to it? Sacred things, Émile Durkheim once wrote, are ‘set aside and forbidden’. To touch them with profane hands is to wipe away their aura, so that they flutter to earth and die. To those who respect them, however, sacred things are the ‘real presence’ of the supernatural, illuminated by a light that shines from the edge of the world.

How do we understand this experience, and what does it tell us? It is tempting to look for an evolutionary explanation. After all, sacred things seem to include all those events that really matter to our genes — falling in love, marriage, childbirth, death. The sacred place is the place where vows are made and renewed, where suffering is embraced and accepted, and where the life of the tribe is endowed with an eternal significance.

He then has the temerity to suggest—nay, to assert—that love of the “sacred” must have been favored by natural selection in our ancestors:

Humans with the benefit of this resource must surely withstand the storms of misfortune rather better than the plain-thinking individualists who compete with them. Look at the facts in the round and it seems likely that humans without a sense of the sacred would have died out long ago. For that same reason, the hope of the new atheists for a world without religion is probably as vain as the hope for a society without aggression or a world without death.

Here Scruton defines “sacred” as “those beliefs which enhanced the reproduction of our ancestors, or the evolutionary remnants of those beliefs.” That, of course, opens the door for a whole host of other things, including taboos of all sorts.

Atheists, of course, lack this affinity for the sacred:

A person with a sense of the sacred can lead a consecrated life, which is to say a life that is received and offered as a gift. An intimation of this is contained in our relations with those who are dear to us. . .  [JAC: Note the co-option again of the religious word “consecrated,” as if someone who loves others and feels connected to them is “consecrated.”]

. . . Atheists dismiss that kind of argument. They tell us that the ‘self’ is an illusion, and that the human person is ‘nothing but’ the human animal, just as law is ‘nothing but’ relations of social power, sexual love ‘nothing but’ the procreative urge and the Mona Lisa ‘nothing but’ a spread of pigments on a canvas. Getting rid of what Mary Midgley calls ‘nothing buttery’ is, to my mind, the true goal of philosophy. And if we get rid of it when dealing with the small things — sex, pictures, people — we might get rid of it when dealing with the large things too: notably, when dealing with the world as a whole. And then we might conclude that it is just as absurd to say that the world is nothing but the order of nature, as physics describes it, as to say that the Mona Lisa is nothing but a smear of pigments. Drawing that conclusion is the first step towards understanding why and how we live in a world of sacred things.

Actually, the phrase “nothing buttery” came, I think, from Peter Medawar, who used it in his fantastic takedown of Teilhard de Chardin’s dreadful book The Phenomenon of Man (1961), which both Richard Dawkins and I think is the best review of a science book ever written.

Show me a single scientist who says that the Mona Lisa is “nothing but a smear of pigments”! That’s just a base canard written by a philosopher with an agenda. We are indeed made of molecules that obey the laws of physics, as is the Mona Lisa, but we’re also evolved collections of molecules whose evolution occurred in small groups of hominins; and we also have emotions and the ability to learn, themselves products of evolution that can be affected by our environments. These notions fully explain our strong emotional responses to some—but not all—stimuli. (Actually, I find Guernica and The Isenheim Altarpiece far more moving than the Mona Lisa.) And those responses, like love, may be physical phenomena that are partly evolved but still meaningful to us.  Does Scruton really think that atheists don’t experience the wonder of love or the beauty of art? If he does, he doesn’t know many atheists.  I’m tempted to say that the man is either ignorant of the world, possessed by some hidden agenda against atheism, or simply a fool.

Finally, Scruton’s proof that atheism rejects the “sacred” is—wait for it—the soullessness of Communist regimes! Yes, Stalin and Mao, not Denmark or Sweden, represent the apotheosis of godlessness and rejection of the sacred.

Nothing brought this home to me more vividly than the experience of communism, in places where there was no other recourse against the surrounding inhumanity than the life of prayer. Communism made the scientific worldview into the foundation of social order: people were regarded as ‘nothing but’ the assembled mass of their instincts and needs. Its aim was to replace social life with a cold calculation for survival, so that people would live as competing atoms, in a condition of absolute enmity and distrust. Anything else would jeopardise the party’s control. In such circumstances people lived in a world of secrets, where it was dangerous to reveal things, and where every secret that was peeled away from the other person revealed another secret beneath it.

Nevertheless the victims of communism tried to hold on to the things that were sacred to them, and which spoke to them of the free and responsible life. The family was sacred; so too was religion, whether Christian or Jewish. So too was the underground store of knowledge — the forbidden knowledge of the nation’s history and its claim to their loyalty. Those were the things that people would not exchange or relinquish even when required by the party to betray them. They were the consecrated treasures, hidden below the desecrated cities, where they glowed more brightly in the dark. Thus there grew an underground world of freedom and truth, where it was no longer necessary, as Havel put it, ‘to live within the lie’.

First of all, Communism, though a social experiment, wasn’t an instantiation of pure science, for there were no controls, and it rested on verbal theory that hadn’t been tested. It was an ideology—based on a dislike of the supposed evils of capitalism— that was put into practice but then corrupted by powermongers who used it to control their people through cults of the individual.

Those motivated by godlessness don’t seek to set up regimes like those of Stalin or Mao, nor did the vast bulk of persecution under those regimes take place against the faithful. And, I should note, even under religiously ideological regimes people treasure and secretly preserve “the sacred” against the ministrations of oppressive dogma. Do you think that in rigidly Catholic countries people give up the “sacredness” of nonmarital sex? It was, after all, the Catholic Church that set up the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which from 1559 to 1966 told Catholics that they couldn’t read works by Gide, Milton, Voltaire, Galileo, and Victor Hugo.  Do you think Catholics refrained from reading them, or refrain to this day from using birth control, denying themselves the “sacred” pleasure of sex?

And, of course, Islamic society also represses the “sacred”: in many places the only book people ever read is the Qur’an, and they can’t exercise either freedom of dress (which women often deal with by wearing nice clothes under their burqas) or freedom of love and sex (what’s worse than not being able to marry someone whom you love?).  It’s not atheism that denies the “sacred”, but totalitarian ideology: the desire to withhold what people want as a form of control.

If Scruton wants to see how much a truly secular society devalues the sacred, I suggest that he get himself to Sweden or Denmark. Do the Danes and Swedes abjure what Scruton calls the “sacred”? Do they not value life and love and art? Not that I’ve seen! Do they not appreciate knowledge and literature? Who, after all, gives out the Nobel Prizes?

Maybe I’m just grumpy today, but Scruton’s article seems completely dumb to me—just a tricked-out way to bash atheists from someone who doesn’t like them. And in his post hoc justification for something that Scruton believes a priori on purely personal and emotional grounds, he’s behaving exactly like a theologian.

Philosophers, clean up your field. It’s people like Scruton who give you a bad name.

In the video below, you can see Anthony Grayling and, especially, Christopher Hitchens, defend atheists’ adoption of what Scruton calls “the sacred.” Scruton himself is there and speaks for the last minute, conflating a feeling of transcendence with the existence of the transcendent.

h/t: Ian

 

 

103 Comments

  1. Posted June 5, 2014 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    “illuminated by a light that shines from the edge of the world” — Sunset?

    /@

    • Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:00 am | Permalink

      So, instead of the usual atheist straw man, Scruton has erected an atheist “butter man”!

      /@

  2. Cara
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    Subscribe.

    • francis
      Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      //

  3. Pliny the in Between
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Humans hunger for processed sugar too – so does an excess of the sacred create the metabolic syndrome of the soul?

    • Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      For the “sucred”? 😀

      /@

    • Hempenstein
      Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      Aha! So that’s why we hear people say “Sweet Jesus” all the time.

    • Kevin
      Posted June 5, 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Some of us love oxygen too.

  4. michieux
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry, but the name Scruton looks too much like the word scrotum. I can’t help myself.

    • Hempenstein
      Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:19 am | Permalink

      Yep, I thought that too. But even better, there’s a place up in the Poconos (NE Pennsylvania) called Scotrun. If you’re on the Interstate heading more or less north, you come around a bend and the sign to Scotrun greets you. Almost everyone sees Scrotum, instead, even when you know it’s coming up.

      • darrelle
        Posted June 5, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        Pennsylvania is also home to the towns of Blueballs and Intercourse.

        • Gordon
          Posted June 5, 2014 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

          and down here in New Zealand someone gave us a little piece of pottery from the latter last week – and had the good taste not to buy a bit with the town name on it. I await the opportunity to use “are you interested in Intercourse……”

          • Gordon
            Posted June 5, 2014 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

            and same friend has just added that in Pennsylvania you can take a road trip starting with Blueballs, go to Virginville and finish up in Intercourse.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted June 5, 2014 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

              Of course, one cannot allow this opportunity to pass without mentioning the small Austrian village of Fucking.

              You can tell the reporter who wrote the piece imaged in the pic above had a big grin on his face while writing it.

              • TJR
                Posted June 6, 2014 at 4:36 am | Permalink

                Not forgetting the lovely Orcadian hamlet of Twatt. Somewhere I’ve got a picture of me standing outside Twatt church.

        • Posted June 6, 2014 at 2:38 am | Permalink

          Blue Sac, NS. Five Islands is basically where you’re at, eh.

    • Bob Murray
      Posted June 5, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      And after listening to him and reading his words I immediately thought – Bollocks!
      How apt!

  5. Alex Shuffell
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    I would not thought that an educated philosopher would make such a huge mistake in lumping the beliefs of atheists together, telling us this is what we believe and this is how we think. It is surprising to see this kind of intellectual survive from the Victorian era.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      When any moron with an axe to grind can set himself up as a philosopher, there are no standards in the field. When they leave philosophy, they become theologians or used car salesmen.

      • Charles
        Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:30 am | Permalink

        Oi! Leave used car salesmen out of it! :-)

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted June 5, 2014 at 9:46 am | Permalink

        I think the philosophical training in parroting is what makes the latter trades natural fields.

        • moarscienceplz
          Posted June 5, 2014 at 9:57 am | Permalink

          I wish more philosophers would emulate the Norwegian Blue parrot.

          • Juggler_Dave
            Posted June 5, 2014 at 10:30 am | Permalink

            Evolution has denied humans beautiful plumage, but I suppose you are referring to other features of the Norwegian Blue. Pining for the fjords, perhaps?

    • eric
      Posted June 5, 2014 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      Victorian era sprand to my mind too. His diatribe (in favor of sacralization, and the implied attack on scientific reductionism and understanding) might be paraphrased as: ‘if you aren’t approaching life the way a victorian poet would, u r doin it rong.’

    • Posted June 5, 2014 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      I wouldn’t be surprised (given his age) if Scruton is a fan of “ordinary language philosophy”, or the like, and hence is a prescriptivist when it comes to meanings. That said, this is *just* a guess.

  6. Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    If we’ve learned nothing else from science, it is that nothing is sacred. Anything and everything is subject to scrutiny and questioning. Some propositions are remarkably stable when subjected to intense investigation: the Sun will rise in the East; water is divisible into hydrogen and oxygen and further into quarks, electrons, and gluons; and all extant life on Earth (outside of Craig Venter’s labs) shares a common ancestor.

    While there is much that Scruton points to that is reasonably solid and stable, it all is subject to far more variation than that of the hard sciences. Take even the sex he’s so enamored with: it’s trivial to find two people, each of whose sexual desires are passionately held and who find the others’s desires abhorrent — and there are even those who find sex entirely distasteful. How are we supposed to therefore consider sex as somehow “sacred”?

    Once again, a philosopher displays utter contempt for evidence and, in so doing, demonstrates the worse-than-useless nature of philosophy.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Kevin
      Posted June 5, 2014 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      Sex is awesome, not at all sacred. Maybe sacred to others.

      I manufacture a great deal of things which I consider sacred…like spending time with my cats, looking at children laugh at stupid things, watching a masterful performance of Don Giovanni…

      I agree that science wipes clean what we think is sacred. And I think that is a good thing and it actually makes me happy and gives me perspective. Life is much greater when you can dissolve away the ignorant crap that defenders of unknowing sacredness profess.

    • bobsgutarshop
      Posted June 5, 2014 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      I found the assertion that sex is “sacred” to be odd as well. It’s basically impossible for a reasonable person to see any of the Abrahamic faiths as having healthy attitudes about gender or sexuality. Especially since my lack of a wife (or any other form of committed, monogamous relationship) has supplanted my atheism as the chief reason I’m going to hell. . . at least according to Uncle Ron anyway.

    • Robert Bray
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 6:23 am | Permalink

      May poets be allowed citizenship in the Brave New Post-post-modern World of value determined by empiricism sifted by reason?

      ‘I mind how once we lay such a transparent
      summer morning,
      How you settled your head athwart my hips and
      gently turned over upon me,
      And parted the shirt from my bosom, and
      plunged your tongue to my bare-strip
      heart,
      And reach’d till you felt my beard, and
      reach’d till you held my feet.’

      You’re in, Walt! Sex is fun, maybe even good. Carry on, son.

      ‘Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace
      and knowledge that pass all the
      argument of the earth,
      And I know that the hand of God is the
      promise of my own,
      And I know that the spirit of God is the
      brother of my own,
      And that all the men ever born are also
      my brothers, and the women my
      sisters and lovers. . . .’

      That’s enough, Walt! You’re out, banished, silenced. All this vapid talk about sex as love, love as transcendence. Bah!

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      It’s the old philosophy trick (yet) again.
      1) First simplify your concept into a simple and absolute black or white description.
      2) Then complicate your concept by trying to expand it to include all the grey bits that don’t obviously fit.
      3) Then finally dismiss ‘reductionism’, or ‘scientism’, or some other school of philosophy/politics/religion because they undermine your elaborated concept.

  7. Barry Lyons
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Love the crack about anesthetics. Very funny!

    And thank you for the link to Medawar’s piece.

    By the way, the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum wasn’t formally abolished until 1966, not 1948.

    • Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:44 am | Permalink

      Yes, you’re right. I fixed the date, thanks.

    • Posted June 6, 2014 at 2:50 am | Permalink

      I stumbled across a current ‘information for Catholics’ website recently that tells the flock the books on the Index “are not to be read out of curiosity” and any questions should be directed to those with the skill to interpret these dangerous books.

      Who will then dictate to the flock how they should feel and think about them.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted June 6, 2014 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

        “I began to sense faintly that secrecy is the keystone of all tyranny. Not force, but secrecy…censorship. When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, “This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know,” the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything — you can’t conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.”–Robert A. Heinlein

        • Posted June 6, 2014 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

          I’ve mentioned this a few times before on this site, but Catholic Answers, one of the most popular Catholic sites bans topics about atheism or evolution from their forums and has permanently banned posters for bringing the topics up.

          To be fair, the topics are not entirely off limits as I recently got into an extended debate over Russells Teapot there which then turned into a discussion on the inane views of David Bentley Hart. Of course, I still have to tread lightly on the occasions I drop in there as the authoritarians will ban people who cross the line too far.

          It’s quite amazing that a site representing an institution that publicly proclaims to embrace science and intellectual rigor bans people over opinions. Amazing, but not unexpected.

  8. colnago80
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    The late Martin Gardner once opined that the philosophical basis of Communism, Dialectical Materialism, had many of the aspects of a religion as it posits claims based on no evidence.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted June 5, 2014 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      Gardner was honest enough to admit that his own religious beliefs were based on no evidence also. “Takes one to know one”?

    • josh
      Posted June 5, 2014 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      Scruton’s piece seems to be a decent argument that the Communists considered the party line sacred. What a rube.

  9. Posted June 5, 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    … what is the sacred…? … Émile Durkheim once wrote, (sacred things are ‘set aside and forbidden’. …To those who respect them, however, sacred things are the ‘real presence’ of the supernatural, illuminated by a light that shines from the edge of the world.

    IOW, really present supernatural forbidden something-or-other illuminated by a light shining from something other than a star.

    Ah, yes. Real supernatural forbidden lighted things. Come to Jesus.

    • eric
      Posted June 5, 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      I particularly liked how he talks about how sacred things are ‘set aside, untouchable, and flutter and die if given too hard a look. Then he lists love, marriage, childbirth, and death as examples. Those are pretty damn gritty things, Scrulon. Getting practical about them almost always helps you deal with them, it doesn’t hurt you or hurt the experience. You treat your marriage as if it’s some idealistic fairy tale, it’s gonna fail. Fathers who treat childbirth as if a stork came and magically dropped a baby into their lap aren’t better for it, they’re worse for it.

      • Kevin
        Posted June 5, 2014 at 10:18 am | Permalink

        Well said. Life is hard and those who are practical about dealing with it always do best.

        I told a liberal Christian recently that I saw a teenage girl buying condoms at the store and the Christian’s first response was plagiarized by religious prejudice. But just talking about what that event means made the Christian recognize that a teenage girl buying a box of condoms in not a bad thing. In fact, it shows critical thinking skills applied to real life.

  10. TJR
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Tory Writes Complete Nonsense Shock Horror.

  11. eric
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    The soviet union was communist, atheist, Russian-speaking, and failed utterly as a social system. Therefore, speaking Russian is really bad for people.

    Do I pass Scruton’s logic class now?

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted June 5, 2014 at 10:00 am | Permalink

      And here I was thinking it was the wearing of big fur hats that was the problem. ;-)

      • eric
        Posted June 5, 2014 at 10:56 am | Permalink

        You have clearly been infected with cyrillicism.

      • Posted June 5, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        You’re both wrong.

        As Dawkins often points out, the real culprit is the wearing of a moustache.

  12. timdgoss
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    I would counter with… All(?) humans are curious and crave knowledge. Religious knowledge is the easiest form of knowledge to acquire. You don’t have to think and you don’t even have to read “the” authoritative text, there are many people willing to read and interpret it for you and tell you what it says. Religious knowledge is also satisfying(?) because it has ALL the answers. If you don’t like the answers, you can make up new ones. BAM! Just like that, you’re a religious genius!

  13. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Scruton’s main argument is a No True Scotsman without the True, the ability to distinguish.

    By Scruton’s own definitions, atheists are as “sacred” and “consecrated” as theists. But by Scruton himself they are not. It is a distinction without the distinction.

    That is enough. Without a fulfilling bulk, Scruton’s effort collapses as the pompous soufflé it is. Looks good to him from his cookbook, had no contents when he was finished.

    I can’t but think that the piece, in the context, is a reflection of the man. Total lack of aesthetics.

  14. Posted June 5, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    This might be unfair and a red herring, but it could be worth noting that Scruton is not actually a philosophy professor and hasn’t been for years. So one might wonder if Scruton’s projects (which aren’t peer-reviewed journal articles) aren’t in the category of professional academic philosophy. If this is the case, then we should not take his errors to be representative of professional academic philosophers (unless we find similarly poor philosophy among a huge sample of professional academic philosophers).

    • darrelle
      Posted June 5, 2014 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      That is indeed the case.

      • Posted June 5, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

        What is the case? That my comment is unfair and a red herring or the opposite: that Scruton’s work is not representative of professional academic philosophy?

        • darrelle
          Posted June 5, 2014 at 11:58 am | Permalink

          That similarly poor philosophy can be found among a significant sample of professional academic philosophers. The term “huge” is a bit too subjective so that is why I went with “significant.”

          The significance of the sample may have as much to do with the very high status accorded to many philosophers who have produced similarly poor philosophy, by their peers and others, as their numbers compared to all philosophers. The most obvious examples that pop right to mind are Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig.

          Of course it also depends on who is included into the group “professional academic philosophers.” I don’t see any reason at all why Scruton should not be included. That he no longer teaches doesn’t seem relevant.

          • Joe
            Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:27 am | Permalink

            With regard to the status enjoyed by “bad” philosophers, I would distinguish between their reputation among partisan audiences or a general public interested in scandal and that within the field itself. These are likely to diverge considerably. Furthermore, fairness requires me to point out that making spurious arguments in one specialized field doesn’t necessarily disqualify an academic philosopher from being a good teacher in another, although it hardly provides a good example of the effectiveness of philosophy in cultivating the mind.

            • darrelle
              Posted June 6, 2014 at 5:25 am | Permalink

              I agree. Making one, or a few, bad philosophical arguments does not negate everything a person has done in the past, or might do in the future. But, depending on the particulars, such incidents may warrant more caution than the norm when evaluating the persons other arguments / work, or worse.

  15. Sam L
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Scruton is just embarrassing. His Modern Philosophy book, despite appearing in way too many bookstores, is preposterously bad – seriously, a book on the history of modern philosophy with a chapter on The Devil? Or which opens with a preface that basically openly states he thinks it’s all nonsense?

  16. darrelle
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    To start with we first need to know rather precisely what Scruton means by the word Sacred.

    But leaving that arduous task aside, Scruton is still so wrong he should be embarrassed to have anybody else witness it. Atheists, generally speaking, do not deny any of the cravings that human beings have for a sense of specialness/wonder/grandeur. They don’t deny that religion satisfies those types of cravings for many people. What atheists do, generally speaking, deny is the claim by religious believers and accommodationists that religion is the sole means of satisfaction of those types of cravings.

    It is complete, 100%, grade AAA bullshit that religion is required to achieve such experiences. Going by my experience it is more likely that religion actually impedes having such experiences because it so often narrows the field of possibilities by mandating a model of reality that is severely limited compared to the real thing.

  17. NoAstronomer
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    “Maybe I’m just grumpy today, but Scruton’s article seems completely dumb to me…”

    Personally the word that I would use to describe who finds Scruton’s article dumb would be : normal.

  18. Posted June 5, 2014 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Paintings aren’t “nothing but” dabs of paint on a canvas. Remove that “nothing but” and you get a statement of fact…. Remove the “just” from “Atheists say life is a set of chemical reactions.” Etc. But theologians don’t straight forward statements of fact. It irks them. They have to run in there and smear their own interpretations all over them.

  19. Bruce Gorton
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Isn’t Scruton the guy who got caught shilling for tobacco companies?

    • Simon Hayward
      Posted June 5, 2014 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      Apparently so – per Wikipedia. Got caught washing for a raise from about $80,000 annually to $100k from Japan tobacco international to put broadly pro-tobacco (or I guess anti-tobacco regulation) articles in prominent papers without declaring a conflict of interest. Was later dismissed from his “roles” at the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, it seems. That little tidbit will certainly play into any future interpretation of his writing.

    • aljones909
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

      He was a big Thatcher fan. Maybe she put in a good word for him. After her downfall she became an international consultant for Philip Morris at $500,000 a year.

  20. nilou ataie
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Philosophers get an F for relaying their conclusions to everyone else for the last 2000 years, and an F for not calling out their own crackpots.

  21. lamacher
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Scruton validates Feynman’s comment that philosophy is as relevant to science as ornithology is to birds.

  22. Posted June 5, 2014 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Communism made the scientific worldview into the foundation of social order.

    Yep – that Mao, he was all about science, sophistication, technology, analysis, education, and intellectualism.

    And Stalin didn’t love himself some Lysenkoism, and never executed geneticists, did he?

    Brilliant analysis.

  23. Coolred38
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    I kept reading his name as Scrotum…hmmm.

  24. jaxkayaker
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I’m not an expert but Scruton’s writing excerpted above seems to me to be less like philosophy and more like sophistry, and not even very good sophistry at that.

  25. Posted June 5, 2014 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    The other day I was watching an episode of Through the Wormhole, a series which I regard as pretty good overall, although it will reliably go soft on religion. This episode focused on why humans tend to be religious. It did show the following study: Individuals were first given a questionnaire that assessed their religious or spiritual tendencies. They were then instructed to drink several cups of a very nasty liquid, being encouraged to drink as many cups as they could. The results were that the more religious or spiritual people tended to slug down up to several cups, but the non-believers would give up early. One could take from this what you like, but the researchers argued that this could mean that religion in society has been useful because religion helps us to persevere, and act cooperatively against hardship. I am sure one could see it differently, though.

    • josh
      Posted June 5, 2014 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      One obvious interpretation is that the religious are authoritarians by nature. So if the person in charge tells you to drink crap you drink it. Atheists are more likely to say ‘wait, why would I do this?’

      Of course, you could come up with an argument that authoritarians have some evolutionary advantages because of less infighting once someone claims the top of the pyramid. I think of it more like a juvenile trait that people outgrow to different degrees.

      • Posted June 5, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

        Yes. I still thought it was interesting, if real, and I had not heard of it before. The episode went into considerable detail about another area that I had heard about which is how children tend to describe things like rocks and weather as existing to have a ‘purpose’ for the benefit animals or people. The episode went on to explain how humans, especially early humans, might develop religion because they too feel that things exist for a purpose. Animals and plants have a purpose (for us to eat them), and so on. I kept thinking ‘if my neighbor two doors down saw this episode, they would have an aneurism’.

        • Posted June 5, 2014 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

          I love that series. I haven’t seen that episode yet, but I do DVD all of them. I do agree about the going soft on religion as I recall one episode where they featured Michael Behe.

          I’ll have to watch this one, but I think I’d have to agree that religion has provided some kind of usefulness to last as long as it has. I would just argue that we’re long past the point where its usefulness could possobly override its more sinister traits.

          At risk of making the Little People argument, there are scenarios where it would seem that a very religious person can’t handle giving it up as for whatever reason, be it low self-esteem, or something else, they can’t part with it. My natural questioning of the religious tenets I was fed as a child of strictly conservative Catholic parents lead to more stern looks, head shaking and lecturing than I care to recall. To this day, I don’t bring religion up with them and I don’t even know whether they think I believe it anymore. The only time it is discussed are times when they bring it up and I’ll stick to asking probing questions about their claims, but I don’t suspect as they are well into their sixties and my Father having just been ordained a deacon that any amount of reasoning will do any good.

          I’ve rambled pretty far off course here, but to get back to the main point, religion obviously has a use at a societal level, even if it is a malevolent use. And, sadly, on an individual level I think it reaches a point where it is the all-encompassing trait of who an individual is. I’m not making the Little People argument that the truth is too hard for them, but it certainly may be utterly incompatible with them.

          • Posted June 5, 2014 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

            *That’s DVR. Thanks Android.

          • Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

            I’ll have to watch this one, but I think I’d have to agree that religion has provided some kind of usefulness to last as long as it has.

            Herpes-family viruses have been around longer than humanity itself — never mind religion. What kind of usefulness do they provide?

            b&

            • Posted June 6, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

              That’s not an entirely useful analogy being that herpes survival is driven by their ability to adapt and continue reproducing while religion is a man-made construct. It’s also conflating different meanings of the word useful.

              In the sense of social constructs or even objects that humans create, usefulness can generally be deacribed as providing a use or benefit to at least one person in society. Humans don’t have a choice regarding the usefulness of other naturally evolved organisms. We may realize that herpes are not useful to us and work to eradicate the virus as we’ve done with other diseases, but wr have no control over the fact they’ve been around so long. Here, I think your analogy does have a valid point. We can also work to eradicate the most vile effects of religion by promoting rationality, science, free speech, etc.

              But the key difference is that religion is a construct that had a benefit to some segment of society (and still does), even if the overall benefit to humanity as a whole is destructive. Marx’s “opiate of the masses” comes to mind; religion has definitely provided a use to authoritarians.

              On an individual level, there’s no denying that many religious believers do have a feeling of peace and comfort that everything will ultimately work out. Sure, this feeling is a delusion as there is no guarantee of any such thing happening, but it is certainly still a use. I’m sure you’d rebut this point by saying that there are other ways to achieve personal piece and comfort that don’t involve delusions about supernatural forces and I agree, but this doesn’t preclude religion from also having this effect.

              I still stand by my original point that religion has had and still has uses, but I’m not saying that the uses it has are unique to religion, nor do I think that it’s usefulness provides an overall societal benefit.

              • Posted June 6, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

                My point is that religion is parasitism.

                Those who directly benefit from religion — the priests and certain politicians — do so at the expense of those whom they control with the tools of religion. And the “benefits” you ascribe to those being parasitized are akin to the “benefit” of the local anesthetic effect of many bloodsuckers. Isn’t it wonderful that the priest gives you a sense of peace and hope as he’s getting you to donate a significant portion of your income to pay his own salary as he rapes your children?

                b&

              • Posted June 6, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

                Now I see where you were going with that. Sorry, that wasn’t altogether clear the first time around but we’re certainly on the same page even if we’re describing things differently with regard to religion’s effects.

                Maybe, instead of herpes, a better analogy for religion would be Toxoplasma gondii?

              • Posted June 6, 2014 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

                Hmmm…T. gondii is transmitted through poor litterbox sanitation practices. Herpes viruses are transmitted congenitally and through close personal contact.

                No analogy is perfect, in other words….

                b&

              • Posted June 6, 2014 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

                Hmmm…a disease transmitted from shoveling shit and it attacks the brain. Seems pretty spot on to me. I do believe if we put our heads together we can come up with the ideal correlate to religion in the world of microorganisms.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:13 am | Permalink

          Or try it this way round: People want to feel that everything has a purpose because they instinctively don’t want to admit that what they are doing (and by implication, they themselves) may be pointless.

  26. bric
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    If you want more Dr Scruton, there is a very amusing episode of ‘In Our Time’ with Scruton and Will Self ‘discussing’ Modern Culture: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00545bs

  27. Tim Milburn
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I think that Roger Scruton may be a repeat offender on this kind of seemingly obvious ploy. It is only from memory, but I recall him contrasting political conservatism with rioting as if they were the only two options. Also I recall a book by Scruton about sex, which I put down half way through as pointless. He appeared to be saying that the conservative theory of sex is that it should be an intimate, loving relation between two persons, whereas the liberal theory was that it was a matter of using others as objects for stimulation.

    The strategy seems to be one of giving an otherwise neutral account of something important, the kind of account that most people would find true and good, and just arbitrarily claiming it for one’s side of things. And the kind of account which most people would find false and bad goes to the other side.

    A shame, because the accounts offered, with the partisanship subtracted, are sometimes good, if a little obvious, and the writing is deft.

  28. Margaret
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    “when dealing with the small things — sex, pictures, people”

    Scruton’s reference to people as one of “the small things” indicates just how little he cares about people.

  29. Posted June 5, 2014 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Watched the video…”What is the ‘I’ looking” at another person? I’m not even sure what point he’s trying to make. Certainly, there’s nothing supernatural about the self. Words like “I”, “me”, and “you” are ultimately useful abstractions for describing a set of molecules and energy. And, molecules are of course useful abstractions for elements grouped in a certain way, and so on down to the fundamentals of nature.

    I really wish more people would study computer science. It is a field that enforces logical and abstract thinking and I would bet, we’re a study done, people in the field would rival evolutionary biologists in the rate of atheism. Abstractions are extraordinarily useful, but I would challenge any philosopher to name an abstraction that is not grounded in empirically verifiable concepts if one digs deep enough, the most common example being concepts that are materially represented in the brains of humans.

  30. Hypatias Daughter
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    I absolutely despise how the Abrahamic religions are obsessed about segregating the “sacred” from the “profane”. The material world is scorned for being debased and corrupt; animals into clean and unclean; and humans into chosen and damned.
    If there was a god who created this whole universe, EVERYTHING in it is his sacred creation – both the butterfly and the butterfly’s shit. How does he separate himself from Hell, his own creation?
    God can mo more separate himself from the profane parts of his creation than a human can separate himself from his bowels.
    Imagine the incongruity of this – ancient Hebrews were required to bring animal sacrifices for purity, sin and thanksgiving to the Temple in Jerusalem.
    Could you imagine what the Temple must have been like with thousands of animals being sacrificed there weekly? It would have been a stockyard of frightened, bellowing, pooping animals waiting to be slaughtered and rivers of blood pouring down the altar steps.
    To honor God. A slaughterhouse in the Temple, the location of the Holiest of Holies.
    Is the reality of animal sacrifice sacred or profane?

  31. MikeN
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    He did a whole program on the suckiness of modern art which somehow managed to leave out any reference to people like Picasso or van Gogh.

    He also had a section on how all those nekkid people in old paintings and sculpture were actually a representation of the Erotic rising to the Sublime, extensively quoting Plato, not mentioning Plato was referring to homosexual love, not all that grubbing around in reproduction with those inferior women (Scruton is one of Britain’ leading ant-gay campaigners, intellectual division).

    It ended up with a diatribe on the horrors of modern architecture, with Scruton glumly sitting at the foot of…a wind turbine.

    Needless to say, his program, along with all the other wing-nut welfare sites he publishes in, was heavily subsidised by Big Oil and Coal.

    • Joe
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:12 am | Permalink

      I think there was also a scandal about Scruton taking money from tobacco firms. No, a paragon of virtue and independence he certainly isn’t. I’ll grant only that, as one of the last old-school “Tory” (as opposed to neo-liberal) thinkers, his writings are useful as a kind of digest of contemporary conservative thought.

  32. Joe
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    What you refer to as Scruton’s “semantic trick: conflating ‘sacredness’ with ‘that which we value in our lives'” sounds, to me, not unlike Adam Gopnik’s attempt at persuading us that we are all, in a sense, believers. The absurdity of that argument has been discussed, at length, in these very pages. It’s hardly an original point; maybe we could call it “the accomodationist minimum”. At least Gopnik didn’t stoop to the old canard about atheism leading more or less directly to genocide. – As for your injunction to philosophers to “clean up your field”: I’m not a philosopher myself, but I have been close to a few scholars in the field, and I can reassure you that, by and large, Roger Scruton’s reputation among philosophers is exactly what you would hope it to be.

  33. Filippo
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 2:04 am | Permalink

    sub

  34. Vaal
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    “Atheists dismiss that kind of argument. They tell us that the ‘self’ is an illusion, and that the human person is ‘nothing but’ the human animal, just as law is ‘nothing but’ relations of social power, sexual love ‘nothing but’ the procreative urge and the Mona Lisa ‘nothing but’ a spread of pigments on a canvas.”

    How ridiculous that a secular Philosopher would be so obtuse as to produce such a blatant straw-men against atheists.
    It’s the same theme as promulgated by the most hackneyed religious apologists: “The Atheistic World view can have no meaning, value, beauty or purpose because atheists believe we are all “nothing but” molecules in motion.”

    Yeah, that’s why I can’t distinguish whether to drive my car to work…or attempt to drive a banana. They are all just “matter in motion” and I just can’t find anything beyond that summation to distinguish between them.

    And it’s why I mistakenly asked a floor mop it if would marry me instead of the woman I had been dating for years. Since both the mop and the woman are “nothing but” matter and energy…what more could be said about their characteristics to distinguish them?

    That’s the level at which we are stuck analyzing life. It’s a terrible thing when you don’t have an ancient book that starts with talking snakes and magic fruit, to help you think more rationally about the world.

    Please excuse me now my mop is telling me to take out the garbage…

    Vaal

    • Posted June 6, 2014 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      * I mistakenly asked a floor mop it if would marry me instead of the woman I had been dating for years. *

      Looking back, did you make the right choice? :-D

      /@

  35. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted June 7, 2014 at 2:06 am | Permalink

    Interestingly one of Mao’s early works was about freeing women from arranged marriages and arguing for the validity of marrying for love. (I suppose men were subject to arranged marriages as well).

    I am an atheist and yet Pink Floyd (and others) has taken ‘me’ to transcendent ‘places’ that are best enjoyed rather than described, but are definitely secular.

  36. Posted June 7, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think expressing his opinion in a poetic fashion is “bashing” atheism. Atheists have become so defensive of Atheism that it is taking on Religious proportions. Replace the word “sacred” with “special” or “respected”. One of the things I despise about the academic community is the way the frown on romantic, poetic, expression. They want things so dry that now emotional data is communicated, it is in a way uninspired, compare that with Carl Sagan’s show Nova….

    The countries that implemented communism thought they were doing science.

    Scientific socialism is the term used by Friedrich Engels[1] to describe the social-political-economic theory first pioneered by Karl Marx. The purported reason why this socialism is “scientific socialism” (as opposed to “utopian socialism”) is because its theories are held to an empirical standard, observations are essential to its development, and these can result in changes and/or falsification of elements of the theory.

    • Posted June 7, 2014 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      You just jumped from baseless accusations regarding atheists’ ability to enjoy poetry or the humanities to talking about Communists to talking about empirical evidence in socio-economic – political theories.

      The first point has been rebutted numerous times. For one example Google the tribute to Christopher Hitchens hosted by Stephen Fry about a month before Hitchens passed away. It was beautiful, moving, and even included (gasp!) poetry.

      Regarding the points on Communism and Socialism, I’m not sure I even gather that you are trying to make a coherent point. If it is the old canard that all atheists are Communists, well that’s just manifestly wrong. For the point on socialism, are you suggesting that political and economic theories should not incorporate empirical evidence? Every theory does this, this is why laws change over time. It’s ironic, based on your assertions, that empirical evidence is a big reason Marxism isn’t widely supported. It fails in practice, even if it seems reasonable in principle.

      • Posted June 7, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

        lol. My point was not that atheists are communists, my point was to defend the philosopher’s position by explaining that everybody that implemented Communism thought they were doing science, duh. And nobody was talking about Hitchen’s love of poetry, I am referring to framing a poetic expression as an attack, “bashing” of atheists.

        • Posted June 7, 2014 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

          It is not the form of the expression that is the problem, it is the content. You said the academic community “frowns on romantic, poetic expression,” I point out an obvious example contradicting this, then you simply restate that the form of expression is the problem.

          The article’s title unapologetically says that Communism means there must always be religion, which seems to imply the horrors of Communism can’t be overcome by secular means. The content of the article goes on to conflate a scientific worldview with Communism by using the “nothing but” argument and saying atheists have no appreciation for aesthetics or feelings traditionally attributed in religious circles to numinous experience (sure, atheists don’t tie these experiences to supernatural forces but it doesn’t mean the experiences aren’t just as moving).

          This, along with all the stuff Jerry did a fine job of pointing out in the original post is the problem, not romantic or poetic expression.

          • Posted June 7, 2014 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

            you are definitively and demonstrably wrong. You don’t even know what you are talking about.

            Writing in these forms or styles is usually written in an impersonal and dispassionate tone, targeted for a critical and informed audience, based on closely investigated knowledge, and intended to reinforce or challenge concepts or arguments. It usually circulates within the academic world (‘the academy’), but the academic writer may also find an audience outside via journalism, speeches, pamphlets, etc.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academic_writing

            You are conflating arguments and presupposing my perspective, you are delusional. You are not debating me you are debating the voices in your head.

            • Posted June 7, 2014 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

              You will apologize for calling a fellow poster “delusional” or you’ll never post here again. I didn’t think it would be long before you’d descend to that kind of stuff.

    • Filippo
      Posted June 7, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      “The countries that implemented communism thought they were doing science.

      Scientific socialism is the term used by Friedrich Engels[1] to describe the social-political-economic theory first pioneered by Karl Marx.”

      Do capitalist-oriented and -supportive economists hold that they are “doing science”?

      Do you approve of the capitalist habit of viewing flesh-and-blood human beings as merely and solely human “resources” and “capital”?

  37. Posted June 7, 2014 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Jerry for calling this out. I had no intention of furthering this discussion with Joxua other that to point out the irony of the accusations in the last post and request an apology for the baseless ad hominem attack.

  38. Andrikzen
    Posted June 8, 2014 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    Our innate sense of wonder (aka WOW reflex) plus ignorance = religion.

  39. Alan Fox
    Posted June 8, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Well, I dunno.

    Scruton could have a point about religiosity, in all it’s myriad forms, could have an evolutionary origin. Human art and artistry, language, poetry, body decoration, display and theatre, music and the making of musical instruments all have deep roots in all human cultures. It’s hard to see the survival aspect but consider the possibility of sexual selection by mate choice.

    So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do.

    Dead Poets Society


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  1. […] The atheist-bashing continues, and since there aren’t many new ways to attack nonbelievers, the critiques take the form of very slightly altered but still-familiar arguments. The latest is an essay in the Spectator penned by the conservative and religion-friendly philosopher Roger Scruton, who specializes in aesthetics. [Read more] […]

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