Scruton, Eagleton, Scialabba, et al—why don't they convert?

The question is a sincere one, and in no way facetious. Roger Scruton, Terry Eagleton, and George Scialabba represent an older generation of thinkers and writers who take religion, Christianity, and theology seriously, and moreover ridicule or at least roll their eyes at its cultured despisers (like the so-called New Atheists). And there are others like them.

Yet it is never entirely clear to me why they themselves are not Christians, or at least theists of one sort or another. In The Meaning of Conservatism Scruton refers vaguely to "those for whom the passing of God from the world is felt as a reality." In his review of Marilynne Robinson's The Givenness of Things, Scialabba remarks that, for neuroscientists, "the metaphysical sense" of the soul is a "blank," and asks further, "wouldn't it be a bit perverse of God to have made His existence seem so implausible from Laplace to Bohr?" (Surely an affirmative answer to this spare hypothetical depends wholly on a shared premise that already presumes against the claims of revelation?) My sense is that Eagleton is something of a principled agnostic perhaps, though I've by no means read either his work or the others' exhaustively. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Scruton, as a philosopher, has addressed this question head-on. And Scialabba belongs explicitly to a tradition of thought that believes "metaphysics" to have been descredited once and for all.

But why? I mean: What are the concrete reasons why these specific individuals reject the claims of either historic Christianity or classical theism or some other particular religious tradition? Is it theodicy? Is it "science" (but that seems unlikely)? Is it something about the Bible, the exposures of historical criticism perhaps? Is it something about belief in the spiritual or transcendent as such?

I'm genuinely interested. Nothing would be more conducive to mutual learning between believers and nonbelievers, or to theological reflection on the part of Christians, than understanding the actual reasons why such learned and influential thinkers reject the claims of faith, or at least hold them at arm's length.

I suppose the hunch I harbor—which I don't intend pejoratively, but which animates why I ask—is that there do not exist articulable robust moral or philosophical reasons "why not," but only something like Scruton's phrase above: they, and others like them, are "those for whom the passing of God from the world is felt as a reality." But is that enough? If so, why? Given the world's continued recourse to and reliance on faith, and a sufficient number of thoughtful, educated, and scholarly believers (not to mention theologians!) in the secularized West, it seems to me that an account of the "why not" is called for and would be richly productive.

But then, maybe all of them have done just this, and I speak from ignorance of their answers. If so, I readily welcome being put in my place.

Update: A kind reader on Twitter pointed me to this essay by Scialabba: "An Honest Believer," Agni (No. 26, 1988). It's lovely, and gives you a good deal of Scialabba's intellectual and existential wrestling with his loss of Catholic faith in his 20s. I confess I remain, and perhaps forever will be, perplexed by the ubiquitous, apparently self-evident reference to "modern/ity" as a coherent and self-evidently true and good thing to be/embrace; but that is neither here nor there at the moment.


  1. I've read all of Scruton and he says he's a Christian church attendee of an Anglican Church, no?

    1. Hi Scot: I have *not* read all of Scruton (far from it), so this post was in part wondering if I was simply wrong, and Scruton *is* a Christian. But I nevertheless have this vague memory that Scruton attends an Anglican church but doesn't in fact affirm (fingers uncrossed, as it were) the basic tenets of historic Christian faith; instead he is a sort of generic theist who belongs to a local parish as a function of affirming the tradition of his national and familial heritage. That may, however, be wholly wrong, a matter of crossed wires or some other false memory. If you have a book or essay to point me to, I'd love to see it; I'm genuinely interested!


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