Roger Scruton and the kindly atheists
This piece is online at the Guardian's Cif...
In recent weeks, atheists and agnostics who are friendly towards religion have been filling the column inches. Editors, and perhaps readers, are weary of the so-called militant secularism evangelised by you know who. So kindly non-believers have been commissioned. But there is something paradoxical about their appreciation of "God".
I noticed it a while back when I read Mary Warnock's Dishonest to God. She is an atheist who has spent too much time at cathedral evensong. Her moral and aesthetic imagination would collapse without religious culture: "It seems to me that there is no possible argument for holding that religion is outdated, or that it can be wholly replaced in society by science or any other imaginative exercise." This atheist wants belief in "God" to persist, though it can't by her own logic.
The same conundrum is generously explored in Richard Holloway's autobiographical, Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. It reads like a confession, the former bishop of Edinburgh writing in searingly honest terms about his limitations, failures and regrets. He was never a saint, or cut out to be one, though he knew some in the Gorbals of Glasgow and possibly at Kelham, his now closed theological college. Holloway passionately laments the cruelty of the institution in which he served for so long. He rehearses the troubling arguments on the problem of evil, the unlikelihood of an afterlife and so on.
And yet, his heart is still tugged by the possibility of the transcendent. When he now walks the Pentland hills, which he has known since his youth, he perhaps detects a divine whisper yet. We must keep religion's poetry, he concludes, because it consoles and humanises. We must purge religion of its prose, the dogmatic formulations that do so much damage.
But, of course, there would not be one without the other. Prose ignites poetry. Poetry inspires prose. So Holloway too seems to be condemned to a parasitic life, drawing on the faith of believers to sustain his doubtful belief. I understand. I've written about life as an agnostic too.
However, if Holloway and Warnock represent the zeitgeist, there is another voice to consider: the erstwhile atheist, now believer.
A few years ago, Roger Scruton penned a melancholic work of autobiography, Gentle Regrets. There he wrote: "By pondering my loss of faith I have steadily regained it, though in a form that stands at a distance from the old religion, endorsing it – but with its own reflected light." In his new book, The Face of God, the spiral into doubt has turned around.
I don't suppose there are many who can follow Scruton in all his convictions, but he achieves a rare thing these days: he writes as if philosophy matters. The Face of God is a densely argued book full of feeling that rewards careful reading.
The critical issue for him stems from a deep reflection on what it is to be human. We know ourselves in two mutually incompatible ways. One is as an object in a world of objects: the human individual is one case among the 7 billion or so that inhabit the planet. The other is as a subject, an "I" who looks out on the world with a distinctive and uniquely valuable perspective.
This fracture in our self-consciousness is felt in all manner of ways. Warnock's love of church music is easily understood by a subject: just go to evensong too. But the richness of that experience is no explanation in objective terms, a deconstruction that music triumphantly resists. More generally, Scruton explains, I have intentions as a subject, which means I can own my life and live responsibly. As an object, though, the human animal is a creature of instincts determined by biological laws.
It seems that we need both aspects to understand ourselves, or to put it in Holloway's terms, we need both the poetry and the prose. But can they be held together?
Scruton argues that this is one purpose of religion, manifest particularly in the concept of the sacred. Why, Holloway might ask, does he find consolation walking the Pentland hills? Are they not merely geological formations blind to existential regrets? It is because, Scruton might reply, the hills speak to you, as you speak to them in your walking, your pilgrimage. They are endowed with meaning when they are meaningful to you. In that moment, you do not treat them as rocks to be used and would be outraged if their beauty were spoiled. That would be sacrilege. And note: only what is held to be sacred can be so profaned.
In other words, the moment you feel the landscape offering you something, rather than being there for the taking, is the moment you sense the world as gift. Therein lies the consolation. Allow that sensibility to take hold and a glimpse of oneness with the cosmos may follow, which may reopen the possibility of God. Scruton writes: "It is an attempt to see our relation to the world as we see our relation to each other – as reaching through the tissue of objects to the thing that they mean … finding subjectivity enfolded, as it were, in the world around us. If there is such a thing as the real presence of God among us, that is how his presence must be understood."
Of course, such intimations are readily dismissed by logic. The language of objectivity is doomed not to comprehend them. But that is only like saying the artist, not the scientist, must be the one to explore the vibrancy of the colour red.
So does it boil down to this? Ours is an age whose conviction rests with the superiority of objective observation over subjective experience. It inculcates the habit of watching yourself living to the detriment of being in life, a problem Holloway movingly admits he has been haunted by. Therein, perhaps, lies the roots of the kindly atheism of our times.
(Image: Richard Webb, Pentlands from Harlaw.)