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Spring 1996
   
Decencies for Skeptics
Roger Scruton
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Behind the 1994 Republican congressional triumph was a hunger for moral absolutes. To the conservative conscience, the virtues praised by our liberal elites are the vices that undermine society. What the liberal sees as toleration, the conservative sees as complicity in wrongdoing; what the liberal sees as compassion for the weak and the needy, the conservative sees as the rewarding of irresponsible behavior. Illegitimacy, welfare dependency, divorce and marital breakdown—even the rise in drug abuse and crime—strike the conservative as exactly what you must expect when the stern morality of duty gives way to the sentimental morality of “caring.” When every attempt to impose standards is greeted as a form of discrimination, when the only response to social failure is to multiply the rights and curtail the responsibilities of those whose actions are the cause of it, and when the greatest sin is the sin of disapproval, then is it surprising if society begins to fall apart? It is all very well for liberals to lament the social catastrophe of the inner cities. But if every attempt to tell the truth about it is condemned as racist, sexist, or just plain judgmental, how can the situation be changed?

There is a growing tendency among American conservatives to blame our present condition not merely on the liberals but on the secular and skeptical philosophy of the Enlightenment, from which modern liberalism descends. As they see it, the problem arises from two sources: first, the constant questioning of established beliefs and authorities, to the point where nothing makes sense—not even the question. Second, the emphasis on rights: as though the whole business of social life were a matter of claims against others, for which no payment need be made. The combination of these ideas leads to a kind of nihilism. If social life is a matter of rights, then there must be some authority whose business it is to enforce them. But if all authority is suspect, then so is this one. We are set upon a path that has anarchy as its only destination.

Many conservatives therefore suggest that we must repudiate the Enlightenment and reaffirm the thing against which the Enlightenment stood: organized religion. This is the burden of the new conservative journals, such as Crisis and First Things; and the message is echoed by older and once skeptical publications like Commentary and The Public Interest. It is not hard to sympathize. Religious belief fills our world with an authority that cannot be questioned and from which all our duties flow. No better device has ever occurred to the human race for the quelling of selfish appetites and the transmission of moral ideas.

Human reason, in which the Enlightenment rested all its hopes, has shown itself singularly embarrassed in its attempts to come up with a substitute. Kant attempted to derive all morality from the Categorical Imperative, which tells me to act only on that maxim that I can will as a universal law. But Kant’s magnificent system raises moral duty to such a height of abstraction that it seems to break free from the world of real temptations and float serenely in the intellectual stratosphere. Even if it is true that I must obey the Categorical Imperative, this does not provide me with the daily bread of moral feeling as I pick my way through a crowd of selfish strangers. The Kantian morality is too cool, too reasonable, too

detached from the contending emotions over which it claims to legislate. There may indeed be those who live by it, but they are not the people who are likely to cause the social disorder of which conservatives complain. For the mass of mankind, evil appetites must be blocked by some countervailing fear. And whence comes this fear, if not from a religion?

Yet there is something despondent in the search for a religious solution to the problems of secular society. All too often, the search is conducted in a spirit of despair by people who are as infected by the surrounding nihilism as those whose behavior they wish to rectify. Their message is simple: “God is dead—but don’t spread it around.” Such words can be whispered among friends but not broadcast to the multitude. It is true that Disraeli, like many nineteenth-century conservatives, combined private skepticism with public endorsement of the established church. But he lived at a time when religion had such vitality that public opinion was still shocked by those, like Nietzsche, who protested against its power. Since that time, too many people have heard of the death of God, and too many people have built an empire of appetite upon this unsubstantiated rumor. The genie of skepticism can’t be re-imprisoned in its bottle.

Besides, as all conservatives know, the religious instinct is too vast and deep a force to be conjured from the depths to which it has retreated without at the same time jeopardizing a host of precious achievements—religious freedom itself being one of them. Those who call for a religious revival are not, as a rule, galvanized by images of the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the burning of heretics. The only religious revival reshaping modern society—Islamic fundamentalism—has about as much appeal for a Western conservative as a visit from Ghengis Khan. In fact, the religion that is esteemed by the conservative conscience is precisely a religion that has lost its vital force and become something quieter, more routinized, less all-embracing in its demands than is typical of a newfound faith. It is a religion typified by Christianity and Judaism in their latter days, tempered by the necessary toleration of urban life and nourished by the ordinary decencies of a law-abiding community.

Like many English conservatives, I look back with nostalgia to the Christian heritage passed on to me through church and school. The religion that I absorbed made little distinction between the law of God and the law of England. It referred to Christ’s passion only in order to remind me that the stiff upper lip has an irreproachable precedent. It filled my thoughts with gospel stories and parables, the standard interpretation of which coincided with the Boy Scout’s code of honor. It taught me that faith was a useful acquisition, but not one to show off about or with which to embarrass your neighbors. Religion is fine in its place but should not be imposed on others. Besides, faith is honest only when freely chosen, and for an Englishman honesty is the best policy.

It was 2,000 years of history that had reduced Christianity to this gentle adjunct of the legal order—a history in which the Enlightenment had played its own special part. Insensibly, though not without public convulsions, religion had retreated to the private sphere. Like the English monarchy, it had become a family affair, to be referred to in public only in vague and disclaiming terms—like one’s parents. It was esteemed as a mark of respectability rather than an expression of faith. You felt safe with other Christians, not because you stood together in the light of God’s radiance (though you were prepared to admit that some such embarrassing thing might be true), but because Christians had adopted a common set of guidelines, whose ruling principle was decency. Jews, too, were okay—at least, you could do business with them, though sometimes with an uneasy conscience about the past. Like English Christianity, the Jewish religion seemed to be a family matter and to translate into the same standards of public behavior. A Judeo-Christian society was one in which the good conduct of others could be taken for granted, in which no one meddled in your private life unless by invitation, and in which those who did not play the game were dealt with discreetly but firmly by the Invisible Headmaster.

The political philosophy of the Enlightenment made a great show of its ancient origins. For thinkers like Montesquieu and Rousseau, as for Machiavelli, the task was to rediscover the Roman virtues and to rescue society from the grip of the Christian Church. But this very project is a Christian one. The medievals also had engaged in it, attempting to encapsulate in a civil code the injunction once expressed by Christ, that we should render unto God what is God’s, but unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Indeed, Christianity is an exception among religions, in imposing a religious duty to construct a civil order in which religion plays no part: an order in which the conscience is free, and in which public safety is entrusted to an impartial and secular law.

The inevitable result of this is that religion, lacking the loud public endorsement of its youth, gradually dwindles. And then, too late, we come to see that, after all, the purely secular state is unworkable; that religion, chased into the private sphere, curls up and dies; and that without religion, law and morality lose their authority.

How should we react to this potentially tragic turn of events? The conservative invocation of religion is itself an Enlightenment reaction. For what is invoked is not religion, in all its raw and all-embracing absoluteness, but the image of religion, held in the aspic of a law-governed state. In the great years of Western expansion, religion was a civilizing influence for the very reason that it had thrown in its lot with civilization and recognized the secular rule of law as one of its own achievements. This was its strength, and also its weakness. Civilized man had built a house that needed no blazing fire to heat it.

But it is hard to dampen down the flames of faith and still to keep them burning. Rather than shivering in the cold, modern man has preferred to set the house on fire and dance for a moment in the final conflagration. This explains, I believe, the great tragedy that ensued when Europe woke up to its loss of faith. For modern life—the life among strangers—is a lonely affair and is only with difficulty sustainable in the absence of faith. In such conditions those who offer substitutes, in which the denial of God replaces the belief in him, gain a hearing that bears no relation to the reasonableness of their message. Look back to the two great crimes of our century—nazism and communism—and you will see what happens when a substitute religion bursts upon the world, untempered by the belief in God’s judgment. Never before has such destruction, or such contempt for human life, visited our planet.

The Enlightenment cast doubt over every doctrine of the Church, and modern science has continued the work of disenchantment. Christianity has been especially vulnerable in this confrontation, on account of its metaphysical ambition. Most religions stifle our metaphysical questions with myths—such as the wonderful story of man’s creation and fall that opens the Hebrew Bible. Christianity responds with the opening words of Saint John: in the beginning was the word, the Logos, the ultimate explanation that closes all inquiry and blows all myths away. The new religion was the offspring of Jewish monotheism and Greek philosophy. It offered to explain the world, its creator, the course of history and man’s final end, in terms of an all-embracing theology. It was bound to find itself, in time, competing with science, and has lost out in the contest.

But the religious attitude can exist in the absence of doctrinal support, and while making only the vaguest of metaphysical claims. Jewish writers like Leon Kass have pointed out that their traditional religion is encapsulated more by the exact performance of sacred ritual than by the conscious endorsement of doctrine. And there are other and more telling examples. Traditional Chinese religion lays great stress on rituals, from the exact performance of which our ancestors are supposed to benefit. But it makes few if any doctrinal claims and has virtually no theology. Its fundamental conception is not faith or doctrine but “propriety”—li, the written character for which is made up of two separate signs, one signifying “spiritual being” and the other “a sacrificial vessel.” Ancient Chinese contained no word for religion, but spoke instead of “teachings,” of which there were three: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, none of which offers any clear belief in a transcendental deity. Rather than venturing into the realm of theology, the Chinese were content with an unassuming piety, in which respect for ancestors was the core idea.

The word “piety” comes to us from the Romans, who, by recognizing a changing multitude of gods, implied that it was of no great importance whether you actually believed in them. In those days you could even become a god, by means as devious as those employed to obtain an earthly title. It is hard to believe that the average Roman took the gods very seriously when his emperor could arbitrarily declare himself to be one of them. But this did not remove the respect for sacred things on which, to the Roman mind, civil order depended. It was still necessary to invoke the lares et penates (the household deities), to treat old age with reverence and new life with awe. It was still necessary to consecrate the most important happenings—birth, marriage, death, and membership in a community—to something higher than one’s own desire. Social obligations arose not from contracts only but from solemn vows, and a kind of eternal jurisdiction was implied in this—as in the fate of “pious Aeneas,” as he departed forever from the flames of Troy. Virgil’s hero had vowed to perpetuate his race and culture by founding the city of Rome; and his piety consists in an inability to forget this vow, which follows him on his travels, canceling every wish that wars with it.

If I were to venture a definition of this Roman piety, I should describe it as the attitude that leads the present generation to defer to the last one and to assume responsibility for the next. The true religious attitude is revealed less in the search for beliefs and doctrines than in the day-to-day routine of duty, in which ritual and ceremony play a real but undemanding part. It is revealed in the habit of placing a frame around the important happenings, of lifting them above themselves and discovering the hidden endorsement of vanished generations, and the hidden promise of those to come.

The Roman example is relevant for us, who are surrounded by the same multiplicity of idols and subject to the same disbelief in their divinity. It is still possible for us, in modern conditions, to cultivate a habit of piety, while being skeptical toward religious doctrine. The change in education that we should regret more than any other is not the destruction of religious instruction, school prayers, and hymn singing—even though this destruction was a singular triumph of short-sighted liberal dogmatism. We should most of all regret the virtual abolition of classical languages and literature. For it is Horace, Virgil, Cicero, and Homer who taught our ancestors what piety means and what it still might mean for those who live without the clear pronouncements of a common faith.

As the Chinese and the Romans acknowledged, piety involves respect for the dead. The pious person is the one who acknowledges the generations that have gone before, who does not trample on their remains or tear down their achievements. It is

this respect for the dead that prompts the awe with which we enter sacred places or celebrate sacred times. It is manifest in the small things—in custom and ceremony. It is also manifest in the large things: in the sense that certain actions are not to be done, not to be thought about, not to be spoken of, without spiritual danger. We could never understand the prohibition of obscenity and indecency, for example, if we think of them merely in liberal terms—as exercises of the right to free speech, to be praised or condemned according to the good or bad effects on those exposed to them. The goal of pornography is to de-sacralize the sexual act, to detach it from love and commitment, and to put it on sale as a commodity. The continuity of human society can no longer be guaranteed when people see sex in this way. The prohibition arises from the fact that we witness in pornography a threat to the deepest interest of other generations. And such a threat is what we mean, or ought to mean, by sacrilege. It is piety that causes us to recoil when, in the loathsome films of Quentin Tarantino, a person is shot in the face while the worthless culprits make idle conversation. For the purpose of such an image is to annihilate the face, to desecrate that which must always stand apart from the order of matter, if we are to know its meaning.

The principal damage done by liberalism has not been intellectual—for the loss of religious belief could hardly be avoided, once the habit of inquiry had grown in us. The principal damage has come from the relentless scoffing at ordinary prohibitions and decencies, and the shrill advocacy of “alternatives” that ordinary people are unable in their hearts to recognize. The moral legacy of liberalism is typified by the Satanism of the Parisian Left Bank, by the play-group egoism of the Californian campus, and by the patrician complacency of the New York Review of Books. This moral legacy could be discarded tomorrow, were there not such a vested interest in preserving it. Liberal sarcasm is the ideology of a ruling class—the class of “advisors,” who inhabit the universities, the government commissions, and the state bureaucracies, and whose control over the channels of communication ensures that their superfluousness will never be publicly acknowledged.

It would be a great mistake to suppose that religious belief provides the only antidote to this ideology. Whatever the state of their religious convictions, people are unconsciously aware that the customs of society embody more wisdom than could emerge in a single generation. They may struggle against this awareness, as liberals do. But it is far more reasonable, far more congenial, to acquiesce in it. The decencies and hesitations that once surrounded sex, for instance, are not the arbitrary injunctions of a departed ruling class. They are the voice of the collective dead, alerting us to a duty that we could never hope to understand through our own experience alone, and the questioning of which is the height of folly. Modern America has questioned this duty and is now paying a heavy price for its presumption. Even if the genie is out of the bottle and nobody has any clear idea how it might be coaxed back in, it is surely only a naive faith in human ingenuity that would lead anyone to think that sexual liberation has been anything but a disaster.

Those who hope to safeguard “natural piety” through a return to religious faith jeopardize the thing they treasure. For they make piety as irrational as the beliefs to which they attach it. But piety is not irrational at all. It is the voice that tells us that the goods of society are inherited and could never be rediscovered by the generation that foolishly rejects them. The true conservative should be prepared to acknowledge that his audience lives in modern times. Religious belief is a bonus that we cannot assume. But piety is a social necessity; it speaks of duties that lie above and beyond our desires and contracts. If people cease to recognize such duties, society will crumble into “the dust and powder of individuality,” as Burke described it.

Conservatives should therefore be gentle with their unbelieving colleagues. It may be right to hope for a religious revival, but not to work for it. The conservative task in the modern world is to scoff at the scoffers, to ridicule the prejudice against all that Burke promised under the rubric of “prejudice,” and to support the institutions in which piety is born. What, in modern life, carries the spirit of history? To what school or club or college should our children belong, in order to acquire the deep-down awareness that the world was not born with them, and that their happiness depends upon the approval of people who are no longer living?

Conservatives in America are beginning to confront these questions, whether or not they conceive them in religious terms. They are beginning to recognize the damage done to their country by the liberal prejudice in favor of the living and their “rights.” They know that crime, drugs, illegitimacy, and divorce all stem from a single cause: the inability to recognize obligations that are stronger than desire.

But they also know that the old religions will not take an effective stand against these things. Rather than retreating from the

Enlightenment, therefore, conservatives should confront liberal ideas on their own ground. The real question is not “How do you justify authority?” but “How do you justify rights?” Maybe there are no rights; and maybe the whole idea of equality is an illusion. If that is so, then the liberal assumption of the moral and intellectual high ground is spurious. We are faced with a confrontation not between enlightenment and prejudice but between two kinds of prejudice. The conservative policy in this encounter should be to support the prejudice of ordinary people. Liberals will be contemptuous of such a policy, since the prejudices of enlightened people never seem like prejudice to those who entertain them. But the contempt of liberals is something that conservatives must learn to endure.

 

 

 
Is religion necessary to make a moral society? No; but reverence is.
City Journal Spring 1996.
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