Religion, Violence and Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton’s autobiography is called Gentle Regrets. His Prospect article last August responding to Christopher Hitchens and Co might well have been called “Gentle Remonstrances”. It’s true that in one place he so far loses patience with his adversary as to call God is Not Great a “relentlessly one-sided diatribe”, but that’s about as rough as the language gets: otherwise he is scrupulously polite to Hitchens, who he describes as “an intelligent and widely read man”.

With the title “The Sacred and the Human”, the article itself contains much of interest to those of moderate secular views like myself, who wish Western civilisation well, and who fear for its future. Opposing the new pulpit atheists, and the view promoted by Hitchens and Dawkins that religion “poisons everything” and provokes conflict, aggression and war, Scruton writes that “religion is not the cause of violence but the solution to it. The violence comes from another source, and there is no society without it [that is, without religion] since it comes from the very attempt of human beings to live together.”

For Christians familiar with the Sermon on the Mount this will hardly come as a surprise. But perhaps feeling that his opponents need to be overawed, and hoping to put them in their place, Scruton proceeds to summon an army of post-Enlightenment European thinkers in support of his argument: Jacobi, Schiller, Schelling, C.F. Dupuis (author of Origine de Tous les Cultes, ou Religion Universelle, 1795), Georg Creuzer (author of Symbolik und Mythologie der Alten Völker, 1810–12), Hegel, Nietzsche, Richard Wagner, Frazer, Durkheim, Freud, not to mention more recent writers like Georges Bataille and Mircea Eliade, along with his favourite contemporary religious theorist René Girard (author of La Violence et le Sacré).

What effect all this had on the enemy is hard to say (though one reader at least was stunned by the names alone). Yet it’s questionable whether that’s how to deal with Hitchdawk and Co. Indeed, it may be exactly the sort of abstract over-intellectualised treatment of religious matters that plays into their hands. Remember—the only reason we’re concerned at all about the subject of “religion and violence” is because of one specific religion, Islam, and because of the confused and inadequate response to its murderous depredations by an all-too-accommodating Western Christian host. Why enlarge and obfuscate matters by avoiding specifics and talking instead about the history of all religious practices, in toto, from the Fall of Man to the fall of Baghdad?

Near the start of his article Scruton expresses the opinion that in order to counter the dogmatic certainties of the atheist camp three questions of paramount importance need to be answered: What is religion? What draws people to it? And how is it tamed?

Some of us however would say almost the opposite. In these relativistic times, as we try to shore up the legacy of Christian civilisation against external bombers and internal vandals, the very last thing the ordinary citizen needs to stiffen his morale is a philosophical survey of “the anthropology of religion”—a phrase that occurs both in the prefatory gloss for Scruton’s article and throughout its text. As for seeking illumination from the pages of The Golden Bough, the very idea is misconceived. If Hitchens and others want to treat the teachings of Jesus and New Guinea cargo cults as equivalent then let them. (Dawkins loosely equates Jesus Cults and Cargo Cults on his pages 202–207.) But for either Scruton or the rest of us to accept such terms of reference is surely absurd. 

Any conservative reader of either An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, or England: An Elegy, or the final chapter of Gentle Regrets, must come away with one very distinct impression—to wit, that Roger Scruton, by a considerable margin, is our deepest, most eloquent, and most moving cultural critic. Open these books where you will, consult almost any passage you choose, and he delights, persuades and enlightens. In a book with the title The Russian Tradition the author Tibor Szamuely devotes 376 pages to the rise and hellish triumph of Russia’s revolutionary intelligentsia, but Scruton’s three pages on this subject in An Intelligent Person’s Guide are almost as illuminating in themselves.

Whether it’s the contrast between sentimental fantasising and disciplined imagination, or the simultaneous rise of aesthetics and the decline of religion, or the manipulation of the Spice Girls’ soundtracks, Scruton is not just worth reading—his comments are probably the best on offer.

But even distinguished thinkers sometimes have their flaws, and the questions to be raised involve the latter. Despite its brilliance, are there signs in An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture of the same weaknesses to be found in his article in Prospect? An anthropological over-inclusiveness that is ultimately self-destructive? That loses its erudite way—and loses its readers in the process? The question is worth asking, since Scruton’s view of the proper relation between religion and society implied in his Prospect article is stated more fully and clearly at the beginning of An Intelligent Person’s Guide—in Chapter 1, “What is Culture?” and Chapter 2, “Culture and Cult”.

In each place we find an organic theory of culture that is plainly and poignantly autobiographical. For Scruton, membership of a tribal group sharing the same religious convictions, and bound by the same religious authority, is the foundation of a healthy and natural human existence. Belonging to such a communion is everything. Not belonging, or to be excluded or ostracised, is a fate almost worse than death. Membership of an indivisible religio-communal tribal order is what life in a healthy culture means; and in the course of expounding this view he draws parallels between the pagan cults described by Frazer in The Golden Bough and the Christian Eucharist: “The core of ‘common culture’ is religion. Tribes survive and flourish because they have gods, who fuse the many wills into a single will, and demand and reward the sacrifices on which social life depends.” (p5)

The pattern he discerns has the following features. It is one that includes a community knowing itself collectively as “we” that congregates at a shrine; that allows free individuals in moral error to fall from grace; that regards sacrifice as a necessary atonement through which the sacrificial offering is transformed into something supernatural; and, finally, that sees the sacrifice “become a sacrament” that redeems the fallen, restores their integrity, and reunites them with the indissoluble socio-religious moral order of the community at large.

It is here that he draws on The Golden Bough:

Such a pattern is not observed everywhere, of course. But it lies deep in our own tradition. It can be found throughout the ancient world—in the cults of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis, for example, and of Diana at Ephesus—and forms the core experience of the Christian Eucharist. (p6) 

In the succeeding pages of Chapter 2, “Culture and Cult”, he says much that is wise and much that is doubtless true. His discussion of funeral rites and birth ceremonies is unexceptionable and would be happily accepted by most anthropologists; moreover, Scruton’s intelligence and literary grace lift what he writes to a higher level than anthropology alone provides, and give everything a sharper point and meaning.

He tells us that the rites of passage that accompany initiation, marriage and the awakening of the tribe from peace to war “are all experienced collectively, as revelations of the tie of membership. That is how the agony of a death is overcome by those who survive it: death is regarded as a transition to another state within the community.”

The dead, he goes on, join the congress of ancestors, and therefore remain in communication with the living: “In marking this transition as ‘sacred’, the tribe is lifting death to the supernatural level, and endowing it—as it endows marriage, birth and war—with divine authority.” (p8)

Communal life, tribal life, corporate life in the sense of the eternal corporation of the unborn, the living, and the dead, are here eloquently evoked. Yet I take it the difficulties, not to say the downright hazards, of tying a defence of Christian civilisation to Sir James Frazer’s collection of ethnographic curiosae in The Golden Bough are gradually becoming clearer.

In the cause of the “anthropology of religion” the first is assimilated to the second and reduced to its own nondescript level of significance. If this is not clear however, and the verbal and conceptual proximity of “tribe”, “war”, and “divine authority” in the above passage is insufficient to set off an alarm in the reader’s head regarding its implications for modern arguments about “religion and violence”, then perhaps we should spell it out.

The ideal of an indissoluble socio-religious unity under the name of “culture” (propounded by T.S. Eliot in his Notes Toward a Definition of Culture, a book that appears to have influenced Scruton himself) has one huge disadvantage: it makes the military sins of Caesar also the sins of the City of God. Analytically, this makes it impossible to causally separate and distinguish political action from religious action. Practically, it has the effect of saddling religion with all the culpabilities of the state.

By so doing, as we can see all too readily in Hitchens, this unitary vision of society/state/religion plays straight into the hands of an enemy wanting to blame religion for all and every political crime. One way he does this is by equating ancient theocracy and modern totalitarianism. A kind of monolithic despotic unity is all too obviously just around the corner once you start idealising tribes, war, and sacred and inviolable territory under the management of divine kings. So the author of God Is Not Great draws what he believes is the inevitable conclusion:

For most of human history, the idea of the total or absolute state was intimately bound up with religion … Whether we examine the oriental monarchies of China or India or Persia, or the empires of the Aztec or the Incas, or the medieval courts of Spain and Russia and France, it is almost unvaryingly that we find that these dictators were also gods, or the heads of churches. (p231) 

Then there’s the matter of “violence”. What on earth does the word mean? The journalistic usages in the daily news? The meanings of the welfare world where little more than an exasperated mother’s slap may be implied? When is the defensive use of force legitimate, whether domestically or in international affairs? Are we talking about internal tribal rules or external relations? Is coercion inseparable from social order of any kind? What is a just war and how is it defined?

Rhetorical sentences like “religion is not the cause of violence but the solution to it” are treated in Scruton’s article as if they are largely unproblematic and require no semantic elucidation. Yet even a poorly informed secularist intuitively feels that “violence” inadequately describes the act of sacrifice, in whatever circumstances and at whatever cultural level, where subtle nuances of motive and belief and ritual are essential to understanding what is taking place.

Scruton himself does not exactly speak of sacrifice as “violent”. Yet his respectful discussion of René Girard’s theory of scapegoating, his suggestion that the death of Christ is a transcendental form of the religious killing of goats as offerings by Middle Eastern tribes (the crucifixion is seen as a climactic development of more primitive rites in which “Christ’s submission purified society and religion of the need for sacrificial murder”), his view that sacrifices of this kind “solve the problem of violence” in human societies—plus some throwaway lines about Nazis and communists and their hecatombs of victims—cumulatively produce, by adjacency and insinuation, a vast blur of confused associations.

But let’s cut to the chase. What all “religion” might do and what all “violence” might be are fatal distractions, all too happily exploited by the Hitchdawk team. It is futile to get drawn into polemical debates with professional atheists about the meaning of abstract sociological notions looked at in the unlimited perspective of the past 5000 years, and that is the mistake Scruton makes. The real question today, as every man in the street knows, is not the anthropological seminar-room “What is religion?” question; it’s about the fate of Christian civilisation with its liberal, pacifistic and accommodating tendencies, versus militant Islam. How do we defend the former against the latter?

In the sort of books produced by Hitchens and Dawkins the Crusades are the usual point of departure for one-sided diatribes coupling Christianity and “violence”. Indeed, Dawkins takes this so much for granted that he can’t even be bothered discussing the matter (“In this book, I have deliberately refrained from detailing the horrors of the Crusades”). Hitchens however regards the opportunity as too good to pass up, and on page 35 drags the Iraq War into the argument. The gist being that there’s nothing to choose between Christians and jihadis, and that the modern atrocities of the latter could be seen as a delayed but appropriate response to “the bloodstained spectre of the Crusaders”.

This attitude is widespread. Moreover, as Paul Stenhouse points out in a valuable recent study, “The Crusades in Context”, Hitchens’ “bloodstained spectre” is frequently and absurdly seen as the result of unprovoked Christian aggression. It is claimed that “five centuries of peaceful co-existence” between Muslims and Christians were brought to an end by deranged sword-waving Soldiers of the Cross, terrorising, killing, burning and sacking decent, respectable, peace-loving Muslim communities. More than this, the Crusaders are being presented in Australian schools as the original terrorists. As a Year 8 textbook in Victoria has it: “Those who destroyed the World Trade Centre are regarded as terrorists … Might it be fair to say that the Crusaders who attacked the Muslim inhabitants of Jerusalem were also terrorists?”

No, it wouldn’t be fair. Or true. In the story Paul Stenhouse tells—which should be read by all—the 463 years between the death of Muhammed in 632 AD, and the First Crusade in 1095, were extremely dangerous for Christian Europe. Instead of peace there were unrelenting Islamic wars and incursions; Muslim invasions of Spain, Italy, Sicily and Sardinia; raids, seizures, looting of treasure, military occupations that lasted until Saracen forces were forcibly dislodged, sackings of Christian cities including Rome, and desecrations of Christian shrines. And be it noted: all this “violence” went on for fully 463 years before any Christian Crusade in response to these murderous provocations took place.

Sixteen years after the death of Muhammed, in 648 AD, Cyprus was overrun. Rhodes fell in 653, and by 698 the whole of North Africa was lost. In 711 Muslims from Tangier crossed into Spain, set their sights on France, and by 720 Narbonne had fallen. Bordeaux was stormed and its churches burnt in 732. As Gibbon emphasised, only the resistance at Poitiers of Charles Martel in 732 saved Europe from occupation, and arrested the Muslim tide.

From 800 on, incursions into Italy began. In 846 a Saracen force of 10,000 landed in Ostia, assaulted Rome, and sacked and desecrated the Basilicas of St Peter and St Paul. In 859 they seized the whole of Sicily. After capturing a fortress near Anzio, Muslim forces “plundered the surrounding countryside for forty years”. In southern France at the end of the ninth century they held a base near Toulon from which they ravaged both Provence and Northern Italy, and controlled the passes over the Alps, robbing and murdering pilgrims on their way to Rome. Genoa was attacked in 934 and taken in 935. In 1015 Sardinia was taken, occupied, and held by Muslim forces until 1050.

In 1076 the Seljuk Turkish capture of Jerusalem finally exhausted the patience of Islam’s victims in Christian Europe. Only then were concerted moves begun to drive back the infidel, launch the First Crusade, and retake Jerusalem. 

Which most effectively nails the canard that “religion poisons everything” and that it is the main cause of “violence”? A scholarly examination of Islam’s fierce military expansion that eventually, after 463 years, provoked the counter-militancy of the Crusades? Or a philosophical trawl through the incurably relativistic anthropology of religion? The answer seems fairly obvious. The question then arises, why would anyone choose the latter course in the British journal Prospect?

A variety of possible reasons suggest themselves, but none so much as the fact that it is now impossible, in Britain, to state plain truths about the nature of Islam on the one hand and the contrasting nature of Christianity on the other. Martin Amis’s funny/bitter comment that it is now impossible “to say anything is better than anything else” is to the point. A hierarchy of value is ruled out. Everything exists on a level plain. And no religion is better than any other.

The result being that one cannot even state plainly that whereas Islam spread by the sword, Christianity mainly spread by precept and example and the peaceful proselytising of missionaries—many of whom contributed through their notes, journals and correspondence to what has become known in our time as “the anthropology of religion”. 

Roger Sandall has a website at Roger Scruton’s essay “The Sacred and the Human” was in the August issue of Prospect

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