In an interesting discussion in Prospect Magazine, Roger Scruton responds to some contemporary atheist polemics, taking their proponents to task for, in essence, an act of misrecognition. I simplify the detail of Scruton's argument, but I hope provide an accurate summary of it all the same, if I say that for him religion is not well understood if it is seen simply as 'a system of unfounded beliefs about the cosmos', open to scientific refutation. It must be seen rather, following the insights and theories offered by a succession of scholars of religion whose ideas he briefly rehearses, as fulfilling certain universal human and societal needs. So, for example, we must see the mythic quality of religious belief, not as describing something which actually happened, but as trying to capture the 'spiritual significance' of the human situation, as offering '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'. In rituals 'the loneliness and anxiety of the human individual is confronted and overcome, through immersion in the group'.
Scruton goes on to speak of 'the sacred as a human universal'. And - again, I shorten and simplify a longer and more subtle exposition - he presents the experience of the sacred as the indispensable means of taming conflict, of overcoming the resentments and aggressions to which all human communities are subject. Religion, Scruton says, 'is not the source of violence but the solution to it'. He writes of the truth...
... that religion is not primarily about God but about the sacred, and that the experience of the sacred can be suppressed, ignored and even desecrated (the routine tribute paid to it in modern societies) but never destroyed. Always the need for it will arise, for it is in the nature of rational beings like us to live at the edge of things, experiencing our alienation and longing for the sudden reversal that will once again join us to the centre.The question that strikes me here is whether the concept of 'the sacred' must be linked, or not, to specifically religious belief - in the sense of belief in a transcendental God or, at least, realm. Scruton doesn't say, but the question is germane. Assuming that the human and societal needs he identifies are indeed universal - the need to contain conflict and aggression, to assuage metaphysical loneliness or terror, and such - must they be met, can they only be met, by belief systems that (as Scruton himself appears to acknowledge) contain 'unfounded beliefs' about the cosmos? Put another way, why can not the same needs be met by secular rituals of community and/or by experiences of 'the sacred' divorced from religious belief in the narrower meaning?
I pose these as open questions, and not because I think I already know the answers to them. But it does seem to me there is an ambiguity in Scruton's argument. It begins by wanting to distance the function of religion from religion's 'unfounded beliefs'. But it ends by affirming the necessity of the sacred in a way that seems to tie the sacred to its distinctively religious forms, forms that embody those very beliefs. (Via A&L Daily.)