Roger Scruton defended many good things, but his views on religion were flawed
January 15, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – The English philosopher Sir Roger Scruton has died at the age of 75. He was the most prominent proponent of conservatism in political theory of his generation, and his theory of aesthetics was also significant. He came into conflict with the intellectual establishment throughout his life, and his independence of mind was impressive. So intensely hostile to him, indeed, were his fellow philosophers that I witnessed apparently rational mainstream academics actually apologising, in advance, for saying something complimentary about him. And yet he was rather a gentle soul, not given to hasty polemic or feuds, who did not give way to bitterness. His works will long survive those of many of his detractors.
In many ways, his work has been helpful to Catholic thinkers, particularly his articulation of the importance of community, an idea whose time in some ways seems to have come. But he was not a Catholic, and there are important ways in which his thinking went in a quite different direction from that of the Catholic tradition. As a tribute to a great man, I want to say something about this: the best way to show one’s appreciation of a serious thinker is always to engage critically with his ideas.
This podcast interview with Giles Fraser is a helpful introduction to the man and his ideas, and there were two things in it that particularly made me sit and want to disagree. One is Scruton’s rejection of the idea that religion should be the basis of community identity; the other is his adoption of René Girard’s theory of the scapegoat.
The first issue arose in a discussion of Islam. Scruton suggests that Islamic societies are based on religion, flowing from the (putative) will of God, and that this is problematic. The implication is that this also applied to pre-Enlightenment Christianity. Religious values are the most important values of a society, and it is hardly surprising if they are among the key bonds of a community. The idea that this is a bad thing, and can be avoided by using Enlightenment notions of rationality, or self-interest, or some kind of social bargain, seems pretty implausible on the face of it. These substitutes hardly seem up to the job, and one might see the progressive decay of social solidarity, not to mention the decline of the shared culture, over the last couple of centuries in the West, as a worked demonstration of this.
It might be suggested that founding a community on religious values is bound to cause problems for religious minorities, but a glance at history shows that it is perfectly possible for societies committed to a particular religion to tolerate members of other religions. Sometimes they get along harmoniously, and sometimes they do not, just as different ethnic groups, social classes, or economic interests sometimes co-exist peacefully, and sometimes come into conflict. The history of atheistic and avowedly secular states does nothing to encourage the idea that they have any systematic advantage.
Girard’s theory of the scapegoat is equally problematic. Without going into detail, it conflates the scapegoat of Leviticus 16 with the way the term is used in casual modern speech. In the Mosaic Law this goat was symbolically loaded with the “sins of the people” and driven into the wilderness: this is an unusual form of sacrifice, but Girard suggests not only that this represents “scapegoating” in the modern sense, but that all sacrifice should be seen as a form of “scapegoating.” This is ridiculous: none of the other, many, types of sacrifice in the Law of Moses, or in other ancient societies come to that, are naturally understood in terms of hatred and violence towards the sacrificial victim, which might be a loaf of bread or a sip of wine.
It is certainly legitimate to see Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross as prefigured by the scapegoat, but it is unnatural to make this the primary way of understanding it. The Gospels and the Catholic liturgy place far more emphasis on the typology of the Passover Lamb, Abraham’s offering of Isaac, and Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine. Above all, it is a mistake to think of Christ as being punished, unjustly. He is, rather, making a free gift of Himself, to effect our reconciliation with God.
Girard attempts to explain a theological concept, of sacrifice, in non-theological terms, such as resentment and punishment. This project is characteristic of a thinker interested in religion but unwilling to take seriously what it says about itself. Scruton, rather like Jordan Peterson (whom I discuss here), thought religion was a good thing, but false.
Scruton’s approach to Catholicism was unfortunately impeded, at a personal level, by his own divorce and remarriage. In the end, his aesthetic and political appreciation of the value and importance of Christianity and of the Church did not translate into an acceptance of their truth.