In his final book, published last year, the late Ronald Dworkin argued that people share a “fundamental religious impulse” that expresses itself in various ways, and not necessarily in the form of beliefs in the existence of an intelligent supernatural being. Although Roger Scruton comes from a very different political and philosophical tradition, and unlike Dworkin is a Christian, he makes a similar case in The Soul of the World. “Many people who might call themselves agnostics or even atheists,” he writes, “live the life of faith.”
Much of the book is devoted to defending a definition of faith as an “attitude of openness to meanings” that you could imagine an atheist like Dworkin endorsing—this is not, as Scruton says several times, a work of religious apologetics. However, he does begin with a brief salvo directed at atheist “public intellectuals” who treat religion as if it were a comprehensive explanation of the world in competition with the natural sciences.
There’s a difference, suggests Scruton, borrowing a distinction from the American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars, between the “scientific image” of the world, on the one hand, and the “manifest image,” on the other. In the latter, human beings relate to each other not just as animals “swimming in the currents of causality,” but as persons responsive to reasons and moral norms. Learning to respond to other human beings in this way requires a kind of “discipline” that goes beyond merely respecting their rights. Scruton clearly thinks this idea is best captured in Christian doctrine, but one needn’t accept that conclusion to find many of his arguments about the limits of the scientific worldview convincing.