Today's atheist polemics ignore the main insight of the anthropology of religion—that religion is not primarily about God, but about the human need for the sacred. As René Girard argues, religion is not the cause of violence, but the solution to itby Roger Scruton / August 1, 2007 / Leave a comment
It is not surprising that decent, sceptical people, observing the revival in our time of superstitious cults, the conflict between secular freedoms and religious edicts, and the murderousness of radical Islamism, should be receptive to the anti-religious polemics of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others. The “sleep of reason” has brought forth monsters, just as Goya foretold in his engraving. How are we to rectify this, except through a wake-up call to reason, of the kind that the evangelical atheists are now shouting from their pulpits?
What is a little more surprising is the extent to which religion is caricatured by its current opponents, who seem to see in it nothing more than a system of unfounded beliefs about the cosmos—beliefs that, to the extent that they conflict with the scientific worldview, are heading straight for refutation. Thus Hitchens, in his relentlessly one-sided diatribe God is Not Great, writes: “One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody… had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs).”
Hitchens is an intelligent and widely read man who recognises that the arguments most useful to him were well known 200 years ago. His book takes us through territory charted by Hume, Voltaire, Diderot and Kant, and nobody familiar with the Enlightenment can believe that our contemporary imitators have added anything to its stance against religion, whatever examples they can add to the list of religiously motivated crimes. However, Enlightenment thinkers, having shown the claims of faith to be without rational foundation, did not then dismiss religion, as one might dismiss a refuted theory. Many went on to conclude that religion must have some other origin than the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and some other psychic function than consolation. The ease with which the common doctrines of religion could be refuted alerted men like Jacobi, Schiller and Schelling to the idea that religion is not, in essence, a matter of doctrine, but of something else. And they set out to discover what that might be.
Thus was born the anthropology of religion. For thinkers in the immediate aftermath of the Enlightenment, it was not faith,…