Godless Conservatism


There is a growing tendency among American conservatives to blame society's present condition not merely on liberals but on the secular and skeptical philosophy of the Enlightenment, from which modern liberalism descends. As conservatives see it, the constant questioning of established beliefs and authorities has set us upon a path that has anarchy as its only destination. Many conservatives therefore suggest that we must repudiate the Enlightenment and reaffirm the thing against which the Enlightenment stood: organized religion.

It is not hard to sympathize. Religious belief fills our world with an authority that cannot be questioned and from which all our duties flow. Yet there is something despondent in the search for a religious solution to the problems of secular society. All too often the search is conducted in a spirit of despair by people who are as infected by the surrounding nihilism as those whose behavior they wish to rectify. Their message is simple: "God is dead-but don't spread it around." Such words can be whispered among friends but not broadcast to the multitude.

Too Vast and Deep

Besides, as all conservatives know, the religious instinct is too vast and deep a force to be conjured from the depths to which it has retreated without at the same time jeopardizing a host of precious achievements-religious freedom itself being one of them. Those who call for a religious revival are not, as a rule, galvanized by images of the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the burning of heretics. The only religious revival reshaping modern society-Islamic fundamentalism-has about as much appeal for a Western conservative as a visit from Ghengis Khan.

In fact, the religion that is esteemed by the conservative conscience is precisely a religion that has lost its vital force and become something quieter, more routinized, less all-embracing in its demands than is typical of a newfound faith. It is a religion typified by Christianity and Judaism in their latter days, tempered by the necessary toleration of urban life and nourished by the ordinary decencies of a law-abiding community.

The conservative invocation of religion is itself an Enlightenment reaction. For what is invoked is not religion, in all its raw and all-embracing absoluteness, but the image of religion, held in the aspic of a law-governed state. In the great years of Western expansion, religion was a civilizing influence for the very reason that it had thrown in its lot with civilization and recognized the secular rule of law as one of its own achievements. This was its strength, and also its weakness. Civilized man had built a house that needed no blazing fire to heat it.

The Enlightenment cast doubt over every doctrine of the Church, and modern science has continued the work of disenchantment Christianity has been especially vulnerable in this confrontation, on account of its metaphysical ambition. It offered to explain the world, its creator, the course of history and man's final end, in terms of an all embracing theology. It was bound to find itself in time, competing with science, and it has lost out in the contest.

Yet without religion, law and morality lose their authority. How should we react to this potentially tragic turn of events?

In truth, the religious attitude can exist In the absence of doctrinal support, and while making only the vaguest of metaphysical claims. Jewish writers like Leon Kass have pointed out that their traditional religion is encapsulated more by the exact performance of sacred ritual than by the conscious endorsement of doctrine. Traditional Chinese religion, rather than venturing into the realm of theology, was content with an unassuming piety, in which respect for ancestors was the core idea.

The word "piety" comes to us from the Romans, who, by recognizing a changing multitude of gods, implied that it was of no great importance whether you actually believed in them. If I were to venture a definition of Roman piety, I should describe it as the attitude that leads the present generation to defer to the last one and to assume responsibility for the next. The true religious' attitude is revealed less in the search for beliefs and doctrines than in the day-to-day routine of duty.

The pious person is the one who acknowledges the generations that have gone before, who does not trample on their remains or tear down their achievements. It is this respect for the dead that prompts the awe with which we enter sacred places or' celebrate sacred times. It is manifest in the small things-in custom and ceremony. It is also manifest in the large things: in the sense that certain actions are not to be done, not to be thought about, not to be spoken of.

We could never understand the prohibition of obscenity and indecency, for example, if we think of them merely in liberal terms-as exercises of the right to free speech, to be praised or condemned according to the good or bad effects on those exposed to them. The goal of pornography is to de-sacralize the sexual act, to detach it from love and commitment, and to put it on sale as a commodity. The continuity of human society can no longer be guaranteed when people see sex in this way. The prohibition arises from the fact that we witness in pornography a threat to the deepest interest of other generations.

The principal damage done by liberalism has not been intellectual-for the loss of religious belief could hardly be avoided, once the habit of inquiry had grown in us. The principle damage has come from the relentless scoffing at ordinary prohibitions and decencies and the shrill advocacy of "alternatives that ordinary people are unable in their hearts to recognize. Liberal sarcasm is the ideology of a ruling class-the class of advisers," who inhabit the universities, the government commissions, and the state bureaucracies, and whose control over the channels of communication ensures that their- superfluousness will never be publicly acknowledged.

It would be a great mistake to suppose that religious belief provides the only antidote to this ideology. Whatever the state of their religious convictions, people are consciously aware that the customs of society embody more wisdom than can emerge in a single generation. The decencies and hesitations that once surrounded sex, for instance, are not the arbitrary injunctions of a departed ruling class. They are the voice of the collective dead, alerting us to a duty' that we could never hope to understand through our own experience alone.

Those who hope to safeguard "natural piety" through a return to religious faith jeopardize the thing they treasure. For they make piety as irrational as the beliefs to which they attach it. But piety is not irrational at all. It is the voice that tells its that the goods of society are inherited and could never be rediscovered by the generation that foolishly rejects them.

The conservative task in the modern world is to scoff at the scoffers, to ridicule the liberal prejudice against traditional virtues, and to support the institutions in which piety is born. What. in modern life carries the spirit of history? To what school or club or college should our children belong, in order to acquire the deep down awareness the world was not born with them and that their happiness depends the approval of people who are no longer living.

Conservatives in America are beginning to confront these questions, whether or not they conceive them in religious terms. They are beginning to recognize the damage done to their country by the liberal prejudice in favor of the living and their "rights." They know that crime, drugs, illegitimacy and divorce all stem from a single cause: the inability to recognize obligations that are stronger than desire. But they also know that the old religions will not take an effective stand against these things.

The Real Question

Rather than retreating from the Enlightenment, therefore, conservatives should confront liberal ideas on their own ground. The real question is not "How do you justify authority? But "How do you justify rights?" Maybe there are no rights; and maybe the whole idea of equality is an illusion. If that is so, then the liberal assumption of the moral and intellectual high ground is spurious. We are faced with a confrontation not between and enlightenment and prejudice but between two kinds of prejudice.

The conservative policy in this encounter should be to support the prejudice of ordinary people. Liberals will be contemptuous of such a policy, since the prejudices of enlightened people never seem like prejudice to those who entertain them. But the contempt of liberals is something that conservatives must learn to endure.

Mr. Scruton, a writer and philosopher living in England, is editor of The Salisbury Review, a quarterly journal of conservative thought. This article is adapted from the Spring issue of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute.