What Scruton’s parents would have said
Roger Scruton has a hilariously funny piece in The American Spectator in which he starts from the familiar conceit of comparing a Good Past with a Fallen Present, doing it by way of his parents and their sensible modest patriotic postwar humanism. It looks suspicious from the outset, given the obvious harmony between the views Scruton attributes to his parents and his own (notwithstanding the basic difference in religious belief). It looks suspicious from the outset, and it looks more suspicious as it goes on, and then there comes a moment when suspension of disbelief falls apart altogether amid snorts of laughter.
The British Humanist Association is currently running a campaign against religious faith. It has bought advertising space on our city buses, which now patrol the streets declaring that “There probably is no God; so stop worrying and enjoy life.” My parents would have been appalled at such a declaration. From a true premise, they would have said, it derives a false and pernicious conclusion.
Oh yeah? Would they? Would they really? Both of them? In chorus, would it have been? Both schooled in philosophy, were they? Both given to talking about premise and conclusion? Really? Pardon me if I decline to believe a word of it! Pardon me if I laugh raucously and conclude that Scruton is all too obviously simply inserting his own reaction into the mouths of his parents. Pardon me if I laugh at him for not noticing that he had extended his own rather lame conceit far past the point at which it could be believed. What else would they have said? From a true premise, it derives a false and pernicious conclusion, and what are these MP3 players everyone keeps talking about, and what does ‘google’ mean, and whatever happened to Lyons Corner House?
I wouldn’t mock, except that there is such an annoying tone of bullying nostalgia mixed with whining superiority throughout the piece that mockery seems only appropriate. My parents would have said this, my parents would have thought that. So what? Your parents didn’t have creeping-Jesus politicians to deal with, your parents didn’t have jihadists skipping around the landscape, your parents didn’t have ‘honour’ killings and forced marriages in every newspaper. Your parents didn’t even have Roger Scruton telling them what’s what, not in the way we do. They could afford to be less assertive about their non-theism. It doesn’t follow that we can too.
Humanists of the old school were not believers. The ability to question, to doubt, to live in perpetual uncertainty, they thought, is one of the noble endowments of the human intellect. But they respected religion and studied it for the moral and spiritual truths that could outlive the God who once promoted them.
Really? All of them? I don’t know; maybe they did. I’m not a humanist, and I don’t really know what ‘humanists of the old school’ did or didn’t respect; that’s because I don’t really know what the word ‘humanist’ means or what different people mean when they use it. Maybe it’s true that all humanists of the old school respected religion and studied it for moral truths; if so that might help to explain why I’m not a humanist. I don’t think religion is particularly good at ‘moral truths’; I think religion generally blocks or distorts clear thinking about morality.
Scruton would doubtless say that his parents would have disagreed with me.