THE heart of religion is ritual, and it is a mark of religion
that its rituals are meticulous. So says Roger Scruton in his
latest book The Soul of the World. The words reverberated
because I was reading them just after visiting a Shinto shrine in
It is hard to bring to mind any ritual as exact as those
performed in Shintoism, a religion that seems at once totally
primitive and yet immensely sophisticated, with its lack of creeds,
doctrines, or dogmas, and its lack even of foundational scriptures.
It is particular in its animist belief that spirits or deities
reside in objects throughout the natural world, as well as in
animals and people. But it is universalist in a pantheism that
resonates particularly with our growing sense that our planet
functions as a breathing eco-system.
A religion so different from Christianity only underscores how
extraordinary is Professor Scruton's book in defence of the sacred.
Anyone for whom a beach-towel thriller is insufficiently
stimulating as holiday reading would do well to pack it in their
It is not an evenly easy read. It ranges across territory that
is philosophically analytic. But it has moments of acute
psychological insight, and quite mystical turns of poetic phrase.
It is studded with gems of real profundity.
Its basic thesis is that, to make sense of the world, we must
live with a cognitive dualism that allows us to view life both
through the scientific and the sacred.
The reductive challenge of the new atheism insists that
religious belief is some kind of rival to the theories of physics -
and a rival that science can disprove and dismiss. Real faith, of
course, is nothing like that. The image of Jacob wrestling with God
reveals that, when people are looking for the divine, they are not
looking for proof of God's existence, but for a personal
Scruton takes us down a variety of avenues to converge on the
truth that the sacred is an intrinsic and essential part of what it
means to be human. He has demanding but rewarding chapters on
philosophy, neuroscience, and rights and obligations. But then
comes a sequence of riveting chapters on art, the human face, and
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is more than a sequence of pitched
sounds of varying timbre, just as the smile of the Mona Lisa is
more than a spread of pigments on a canvas. What we learn from
that, and from looking at the human face - which, for Rembrandt,
was the place where the self and the flesh melt together - is that
meaning in life is inevitably concerned with our relationship with
another rather than something focused on ourselves alone.
In each gaze, or kiss, we reach out to new horizons of
understanding. We find the sacred in the other. Sin, by contrast,
is rooted in failing to see others as people like ourselves, and
using them, instead, as objects to further our self-focused
Without the sacred, Scruton demonstrates persuasively, the world
would be impoverished far more wretchedly than militant secularists
have the imagination to comprehend.
Paul Vallely is Senior Research Fellow at the Brooks World
Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester. The Soul of
the World by Roger Scruton, Princeton University Press £19.95