Today’s atheists ignore the fact that religion is not primarily about God, but about the human need for the sacred

Roger Scruton writes in Prospect Magazine that ToRoger Scrutonday’s atheist polemics ignore the main insight of the anthropology of religion—that religion is not primarily about God, but about the human need for the sacred. As René Girard argues, religion is not the cause of violence, but the solution to it.

“It is not surprising that decent, sceptical people, observing the revival in our time of superstitious cults, the conflict between secular freedoms and religious edicts, and the murderousness of radical Islamism, should be receptive to the anti-religious polemics of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others. The “sleep of reason” has brought forth monsters, just as Goya foretold in his engraving. How are we to rectify this, except through a wake-up call to reason, of the kind that the evangelical atheists are now shouting from their pulpits? What is a little more surprising is the extent to which religion is caricatured by its current opponents, who seem to see in it nothing more than a system of unfounded beliefs about the cosmos—beliefs that, to the extent that they conflict with the scientific worldview, are heading straight for refutation. Thus Hitchens, in his relentlessly one-sided diatribe God is Not Great, writes: “One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody… had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs).”Hitchens is an intelligent and widely read man who recognises that the arguments most useful to him were well known 200 years ago. His book takes us through territory charted by Hume, Voltaire, Diderot and Kant, and nobody familiar with the Enlightenment can believe that our contemporary imitators have added anything to its stance against religion, whatever examples they can add to the list of religiously motivated crimes. However, Enlightenment thinkers, having shown the claims of faith to be without rational foundation, did not then dismiss religion, as one might dismiss a refuted theory. Many went on to conclude that religion must have some other origin than the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and some other psychic function than consolation. The ease with which the common doctrines of religion could be refuted alerted men like Jacobi, Schiller and Schelling to the idea that religion is not, in essence, a matter of doctrine, but of something else. And they set out to discover what that might be.

Thus was born the anthropology of religion. For thinkers in the immediate aftermath of the Enlightenment, it was not faith, but faiths in the plural, that composed the primary subject matter of theology. Hence the appearance of books like CF Dupuis’s Origine de tous les cultes, ou Religion universelle (1795), and the busy decipherment of oriental religions by the Bengal Asiatic Society, whose proceedings began to appear in Calcutta in 1788. For post-Enlightenment thinkers, the monotheistic belief systems were not related to ancient myths and rituals as science to superstition, or logic to magic. Rather, they were crystallisations of the emotional need which found expression both in the myths and rituals of antiquity and in the Vedas and Upanishads of the Hindus. This thought led Georg Creuzer, whose Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker appeared between 1810 and 1812, to represent myth as a distinctive operation of the human psyche. A myth does not describe what happened in some obscure period before human reckoning, but what happens always and repeatedly. It does not explain the causal origins of our world, but rehearses its permanent spiritual significance. If you look at ancient religion in this way, then inevitably your vision of the Judeo-Christian canon changes. The Genesis story of the creation is easily refuted as an account of historical events: how can there be days without a sun, man without a woman, life without death? Read as a myth, however, this naive-seeming text reveals itself as a study of the human condition. The story of the fall is, Hegel wrote (in Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, 1827), “not just a contingent history but the eternal and necessary history of humanity.” It conveys truths about freedom, about guilt, about man, woman and their relationship, about our relation to nature and mortality. For Hegel, myths and rituals are 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. The emergence of monotheism from the polytheistic religions of antiquity is not so much a discovery as a form of self-creation, as the spirit learns to recognise itself in the whole of things, and to overcome its finitude….”

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One response to “Today’s atheists ignore the fact that religion is not primarily about God, but about the human need for the sacred

  1. See, the thing is, I don’t think the average religious believer thinks in the terms of Schiller or Hegel. Religion of course has aesthetic and metaphorical meaning, but it does also have propositional content. If a Christian believer only regards the Garden of Eden as a story intended as an aesthetic about love, time, innocence, and so on, they probably do still believe in the reality of something else, like Heaven, or the divinity of Jesus, or the Resurrection.

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