I have argued that there is a Kantian conservative tradition of atheistic religiosity expressed in people like Roger Scruton and Leon Kass, which resembles the Dionysian religiosity of Friedrich Nietzsche. Atheistic religiosity is for those who want the "magic of religious feeling" as an expression of the human mind's "religious instinct," but without having to believe in the real existence of God independent of the human mind. They don't believe in the literal truth of Christianity or any other religion. And yet they want to have a sense of the sacred that comes from religious emotions, but without the need to believe any religious doctrines. They believe that God is dead, but they also believe that human beings need to satisfy their religious longings for transcendence and redemption if they are to escape the nihilism that they fear comes from the death of God.
In the April issue of First Things, Carl Trueman offered a similar interpretation of Scruton's religious longings. Although Trueman saw that religious themes became prominent in Scruton's later work, he wondered "whether Scruton believed in God or whether he simply believed that God was a good idea." He asked, "was Scruton's God a theological reality or an anthropological one?" He observed: "I fear that Scruton is too faithful a student of Kant to engage with the deeper metaphysical claims that, say, Christianity makes. Throughout his work . . . it is always the experiential reality of the sense of the sacred and the good things that flow from it that he addresses. But is that really enough?" He also observed: "Scruton is vulnerable to the criticism that the place he ascribes to the religious instinct simply supports his own cultural and political tastes, granting them a veneer of authority. Is his thinking thus a castle--albeit a magnificent and beautiful castle--floating precariously in mid-air? Or, more controversially, is it a conservative expression of nihilism, with values likely to devalue themselves over time through lack of any solid, transcendent foundation?" Thus did Trueman point to what I have identified as Scruton's atheistic religiosity--affirming the anthropological need for God without affirming the theological reality of God's existence.
In the June/July issue of First Things, there is a letter from Daniel J. Mahoney disputing Trueman's interpretation of Scruton. He writes: "Even after Scruton left his 'apprenticeship in atheism,' as he once called it, he never became or wished to become a theologian or a metaphysician. His approach remained eminently phenomenological, defending those intimations of the transcendent that come to sight in the 'life world' of lived experience and mutual moral accountability. Trueman suggests that this approach, eschewing traditional metaphysics, likely veils the 'conservative expression of nihilism,' defending a 'religious instinct' that ultimately points to nothing beyond itself."
Trueman cannot be right about this, Mahoney insists, because "Scruton was the sworn enemy of every form of nihilism." He cites an essay by Mark Dooley ("Roger Scruton Was No Atheist") as proving that Scruton was not an atheist.
The first problem with Mahoney's argument is that he fails to see that the most fervent critics of atheistic nihilism are themselves nihilists who turn to atheistic religiosity in their attempt to escape what they fear to be the degrading consequences of nihilism. The preeminent example of this is Nietzsche. Even as he announced that "God is dead," he lamented the debasing effects that this would have on human beings who would no longer be elevated by transcendent longings for the divine. To avoid this, he professed his faith in the religion of Dionysus that would allow him to be the most pious of those who do not believe in God.
The second problem with Mahoney's argument is that he concedes Trueman's point that Scruton's God is a subjective projection of the human mind's longing that has no objective reality. Notice that Mahoney admits that Scruton's religion was purely "phenomenological"--rooted in human "lived experience"--but with no foundation in theological or metaphysical truth. So, even though God is dead, human beings need to believe that He is alive; and that need is satisfied by Scruton's atheistic religiosity.
It should also be noted that in the essay by Dooley cited by Mahoney, Dooley never says that Scruton believed in the real existence of God independently of the human mind. Dooley's point is that Scruton scorned the "evangelical atheists" like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Attacking evangelical atheists is exactly what one should expect of a religious atheist.