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Roger Scruton on Christopher Hitchens on God

Hitchens doesn’t know the first thing about the anthropology of religion. He hasn’t even studied Rene Girard (who is, in fact, much more fascinating than Christopher and maybe even Nietzsche). Religion isn’t about God, it’s about the sacred. And the need for the sacred is a human universal. There’s always a lot to learn from Scuton, who has packed an immense amount of erudite wisdom into a short and very readable article. There’s more to this article than Hitchens’ whole book. But I think I agree with Christopher that our religion is actually about God. Biblical religion is about the particular human being’s--the creature’s--relation to his personal Creator. The impersonal phrase "the sacred" doesn’t capture our religion’s focus on personal sinfulness, personal dignity, and personal salvation.

Discussions - 6 Comments

"The sacred" cannot be a substitute for a real, living God.

I agree that religion can teach us much about the human psyche, but admitting that more or less concedes the main point of the debate. The fact that religion makes no sense [i]except as a phenomenon that originated from the depths of the human subconscious[/i]makes it pretty clear that religion has its origins in the human mind, not in true Divine Revelation.


I can't speak for Hitchens, but Dawkins certainly doesn't think that religion has no value from an anthropological perspective. He has admitted that it influences and tell us much about a culture. Sometimes I think these religious academics are, ironically, guilty of caricaturing the new atheism. That, or they have no grasp of the prevalence of simple minded, literal fundamentalism in American life. It's very difficult to caricature hardcore Baptists and Pentecostals.

Peter,

Thanks for linking to this terrific article.

Joeseph,

Here is a good example an engagement with the New Atheism that is neither a full on philosophical paper nor a dashed off attack.

It's a wonderful essay by Scruton. However, I'd have to take him to task over this line:

". . . the 'love of neighbour'—which had featured in the oldest books of the Hebrew Bible as the standard to which humanity should aspire . . ."

Nonsense. All tribes of the pre-Christian era looked upon their neighbors (i.e. tribes/polities, etc.) as if they were nuts. Deuteronomy 4:5-8 is illustrative of this very point. Consider a little something my by my teacher, Harry Neumann of Claremont Graduate U. -- from an unpublished essay entitled "Jaffa's Socratic kalam." (I'll quote a bit at length, for sake of context). To wit:


"Concluding his biographical introduction (1962) to the English translation of the Spinoza book, [Leo] Strauss confesses that in that earlier work he 'understood Spinoza too literally because I did not read him literally enough.' Reading him 'literally enough' means, in my view, taking seriously the fate of defeated Judaism, its decline (from rationally self evident divine Law) into Christian faith. With defeat the Jews, like all pre-Christian tribes and cities, lose what is most authoritative in their law, its infallibility. In that polytheist world, the self-evident validity of one's faction's god or gods, its eternal good, could be disproven only by military collapse. This, as Spinoza insists, is precisely what enslavement to Babylon entails.


Spinoza literally means that the Jewish god or gods, and therefore their Law, ceased to exist. The Babylonian gods and their Law destroyed or enslaved them, the fate of all defeated peoples in the pre-Christian world. Prior to defeat, the Jews, like all victorious peoples prized their sacred Law as the highest rationality -- the self-evident axioms and postulates as it were, of all serious thought. Thus Moses: 'Behold I have taught you laws even as the Lord, my God, commanded . . . Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these laws, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people . . . For what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgements so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?' (Deuteronomy, 4:5-8). Here Moses, on behalf of his divine Law, claims what all pious prophets or lawgivers in the pre-Christian world ascribe to their manifestly authoritative prohibitions. On that horizon, reduction or subordination of infallible Law to mere faith could occur only as the consequence of military collapse and enslavement.


For Spinoza, that collapse, spelled the end, literally the death of the Jewish god. Christianity radicalized this death by reducing or resurrecting the old Jewish civic piety to a faith capable of exonerating all sins against the old Law."

Correction/addendum -- rather, I should add . . . pre-Christian peoples not only looked upon their neighbors as if they were nuts, but, moreover, as essentially evil . . . as (what we would today label as) atheists.

I think Scruton probably meant that "love your neighbor" was a personal ideal even in the OT. It just didn't apply to foreign policy. "Love your neighbor as yourself" is indeed a direct quote from Leviticus (Google bible gateway), but "neighbor" was probably defined as "Jewish neighbor."

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