The art of certainty
We need to teach children faith first before they can learn to doubt, says Roger Scruton, in his response to Danny Postel
Danny Postel’s article about his search for a humanist literature for his children, was charming, but it could well be that this search is likely to prove frustrating. There is of course a growing quantity of pagan literature for children. JK Rowling and Philip Pullman seem to have little time for God, and Pullman has a decided antipathy to the Christian faith. But their books are as alien to the humanist worldview as those of CS Lewis, and their version of “children’s gothic” is hardly a preparation for the use of rational argument in the face of adult life.
That children are drawn to magic, that they spontaneously animate their world with spirits and spells, that they find relief and excitement in stories in which the heroes can summon supernatural forces to their aid and vanquish untold enemies – these facts reflect layers of deep settlement in the human psyche. But they also remind us that, in the life of the child, belief and imagination are not to be clearly distinguished, and that both serve other functions than the pursuit of truth.
It seems to me that humanists should wake up to this point, and be careful when they seek to deprive their children of enchantment, or to replace their spontaneous fantasies with the cold hard facts of empirical science. It could well be that religion is a better discipline than pop science, when it comes to shaping the rational intellect, and that Danny Postel’s partner is offering their children more in the way of a solid foundation, by anchoring their imagination in sacred stories and religious doctrines, than they are likely to be offered by those “Darwinian fairy tales’” as David Stove has called them, which have gained such currency in the wake of Dawkins and Hitchens.
In response to a child’s metaphysical curiosity grown-ups can say that everything has a scientific explanation. But they will know that this is a lie. The proposition that everything has a scientific explanation does not have a scientific explanation – it describes an amazing fact about our universe, a point where reasoning falls silent. There are many such points, as anyone who has children knows: why is there anything? Why should I be good? What existed before the Big Bang? What is consciousness? You can wrestle with these questions through philosophy, but science won’t answer them.
Children have an inkling of this. They also recognise that behind these questions lies a huge void – an emptiness which must be filled with love and reassurance, if their existence is not to seem like an accident. Of course, children don’t put it in that way. But they are just as prone to existential anxiety as adults are. Hence they will look for the stories that fill the void, that tell them that they are, after all, the centre of their world, and that we are not here on earth without a reason.
Beliefs which fill the existential void are not scientific beliefs. We don’t arrive at them by the hypothetico-deductive method, or by observation of the empirical world. They are matters of faith – that is to say, of certainties that cannot be grounded by anything more certain than themselves. But these foundational beliefs perform their reassuring function only if they carry with them a message of love. That is what religious instruction does in the world of a child. It is part of the general process of attachment. It is of a piece with mother-love and family unity, a way of understanding the contours of the world so as to overcome its fearfulness. One day, no doubt, the child will learn to doubt. But you don’t teach children the skill of rational argument until you have first made it safe for them. And it is in the early years, the years of attachment, that the art of certainty is acquired.
It is, to my way of thinking, a paradox of the new humanism, that it looks on human beings through the lens of evolution, but refuses to accept what evolution tells us. The need for foundations is quite clearly an adaptation, and these foundations must provide the promise of protection and love, if they are to fit the new organism for its brief time in the world. If that is so, you are not going to eliminate the need for faith: the best you can do is to withhold all objects of faith, so that a child goes hungry into the life to which he or she is destined. More often than not, a humanist education will leave a child exposed to massive and mind-clogging superstitions of the Harry Potter and Star Wars kind. But these superstitions contain far less in the way of insight than is contained in the first chapter of Genesis.
Religious stories are also the result of natural selection – though selection at another level: they have come down to us because they have fulfilled a moral need. They have survived refutation because they contain, beneath their superficial falsehood, the moral truths that people need, when they must order their lives by good examples.
From the earliest age children can understand that faith is not a matter of rational argument, but a form of worship, a way of putting yourself in the presence of the unknown and trusting in a reciprocal interest. This can do harm, when we teach children that other ways of addressing the transcendental are evil and that those who practise them should be destroyed. But this is not what Christians are taught. Their liturgies and sacred texts teach humility and charity, and the Christian faith makes room for debate as no other faith that the world has known – save possibly Buddhism.
I therefore think that Danny Postel should thank the Force, or whatever it is that a good humanist thanks, that his children’s mother is striving to imbue his children with the rudiments of Christianity. Whether they lose their faith or retain it, they will be the more sure of who they are, where they are, and why.