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.