Magazine article The Spectator

What Atheism Misses

Magazine article The Spectator

What Atheism Misses

Article excerpt

Atheists are blind to a fundamental human need

Credit: Roger Scruton

Does the world have a purpose? The new atheists regard the question as absurd. Purposes emerge in the course of evolution, they tell us; to suppose that they could exist before any organism can gain a reproductive advantage from possessing them is to unlearn the lesson of Darwin. With the theory of evolution firmly established, therefore, there is no room in the scientific worldview for an original purpose, and therefore no room for God.

Today's evangelical atheists go further, and tell us that history has shown religion to be so toxic that we should do our best to extinguish it. Such writers describe the loss of religion as a moral gain -- even though, for most ordinary believers, it looks like the loss of all that they most seriously value.

But maybe the atheists have misunderstood their target.

The 'god of the philosophers' -- serene, omniscient, and outside space and time -- has appeal to those who think in abstract terms. But ordinary people don't think in abstract terms. They don't see God as the answer to a cosmological question, since they don't have cosmological questions. But they do have the question of how to live, and in the effort to live with others they often stumble upon moments, places, relationships and experiences that have a numinous character -- as though removed from this world and in some way casting judgment upon it.

Hence there is another question, that seems to be much nearer to the heart of what we, in the western world, are now going through: what is the sacred, and why do people cling to it? Sacred things, Émile Durkheim once wrote, are 'set aside and forbidden'. To touch them with profane hands is to wipe away their aura, so that they flutter to earth and die. To those who respect them, however, sacred things are the 'real presence' of the supernatural, illuminated by a light that shines from the edge of the world.

How do we understand this experience, and what does it tell us? It is tempting to look for an evolutionary explanation. After all, sacred things seem to include all those events that really matter to our genes -- falling in love, marriage, childbirth, death. The sacred place is the place where vows are made and renewed, where suffering is embraced and accepted, and where the life of the tribe is endowed with an eternal significance. Humans with the benefit of this resource must surely withstand the storms of misfortune rather better than the plain-thinking individualists who compete with them. Look at the facts in the round and it seems likely that humans without a sense of the sacred would have died out long ago. For that same reason, the hope of the new atheists for a world without religion is probably as vain as the hope for a society without aggression or a world without death.

I prefer to put evolutionary explanations to one side, however, so as to consider, not the benefit that sacredness confers on our genes, but the transformation it effects in our perceptions. A person with a sense of the sacred can lead a consecrated life, which is to say a life that is received and offered as a gift. An intimation of this is contained in our relations with those who are dear to us. There is a treasure-house of poetry devoted to the word 'you', and it records the human need to be absorbed by someone else, to see you as calling to me from beyond the sensory horizon. This experience is not accessible to scientific inquiry. …

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