In the past day I’ve run twice into Roger Scruton’s 1996 Wall Street Jounal piece on “Godless Conservatism”, from which it appears that many people who are uncomfortable with liberalism find it speaks to them.
Basically, Scruton proposes a traditionalism that refers to nothing beyond itself, one that treats human goods as purely human things that arise over time out of the life and experience of men living together. To preserve such goods, he says, all that is needed is an attitude of natural piety toward those who have come before and their ways, in particular the ordinary decencies that make possible the continuity of generations and a tolerable life in community with others.
To support that natural piety, he says, no transcendent reference is needed, only the circumstances that it works and it corresponds to the untutored prejudices of ordinary people, and so has a presumptive claim to acceptance. In a postmodern age, sceptical objections to it can then be dissolved by the same scepticism they try to employ themselves, leaving piety and tradition in possession of the field.
Or such is the theory. In support of its practicality he mentions the Romans, the Chinese, and the Jews, whose religions he says had far more to do with respect for ancestral ways and rituals and the ordinary duties of daily life than anything that metaphysically transcends the quotidian. To the extent he’s right about those peoples the examples are not encouraging. Neither the formalistic Roman rituals nor imperial Chinese Confucianism—which was indeed sometimes atheistic—sustained the social order. They were specialized affairs mainly of interest to a small official class that served an imperial despot ruling by divine right over a grossly superstitious populace. As to Judaism, it may not be metaphysical but extraordinary events on Mount Sinai and I AM THAT I AM play an important role in it. In any case, Jewish emphasis on law seems esssentially related to Jewish separatenesss and thus to the circumstance that rabbbinical Jews, like the Chinese literati and the Roman senatorial class, did not have to sustain a social order on their own but could assume that one already existed for reasons having nothing to do with their religious and ethical outlook.
And Scruton’s view does depend on something else to provide the real basis of social order. An insuperable problem with trying to make ordinary life self-sufficient ethically is that it is not self-sufficient as a practical matter. Our daily habits and concerns are defenseless against any determined agressor unless they are part of something larger capable of motivating ultimate sacrifice in its defense. Comfort and security are precarious if they are our highest goal. And they do seem to be Scruton’s highest goal. His basic objection to religion, apart from his belief in its falsity, is that it might make uncomfortable demands. When he hears “religion” he thinks of the Taliban and of the black legend of the Inquisition and Crusades. Whatever the historical and intellectual justification of that view—and I think it’s very slight—its emotional import is obvious.
Scruton is nonetheless an intelligent man, and he does make a good point. Religion is useless if it’s understood as fundamentally a fix for something else, like preserving a social state of affairs that makes us happy. First things must come first. He thus provides an effective rejoinder to the common neoconservative view that religion, within limits set by the neoconservatives, is a good thing for other people. Apart from that, the most noteworthy feature of the piece is his claim that Enlightenment reason, while it can demonstrate nothing whatever about ethics, provides decisive arguments in ontology that prove Christianity false. The claim is surprising, if only because ontology involves arguments as to what one should believe, but at least in this short and popular piece he doesn’t develop or explain it.