The New Thoreaus

I’ve just posted a new draft essay, “The New Thoreaus,” to SSRN. The essay, which will appear in a forthcoming symposium in the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, discusses the Rise of the Nones and argues that community is crucial to defining religion for legal purposes. Abstract below. Comments welcome!

Fifty years ago, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Supreme Court famously indicated that “religion” denotes a communal rather than a purely individual phenomenon. An organized group like the Amish would qualify as religious, the Court wrote, but a solitary seeker like the 19th Century Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, would not. At the time, the question was mostly peripheral; hardly any Americans claimed to have their own, personal religions that would make it difficult for them to comply with civil law. In the intervening decades, though, American religion has changed. One-fifth of us—roughly 66 million people—now claim, like Thoreau, to follow our own, idiosyncratic spiritual paths. The New Thoreaus already have begun to appear in the cases, including recent vaccine mandate challenges, and courts will increasingly face the question whether purely idiosyncratic beliefs and practices qualify as religious for legal purposes. In this essay, I argue that Yoder’s insight was basically correct: the existence of a religious community is a crucial factor in the definition of religion. Religion cannot mean an exclusively communal phenomenon; a categorical rule would slight a long American tradition of respecting individual religious conscience and create difficult line-drawing problems. Nonetheless, the farther one gets from a religious community, the more idiosyncratic one’s spiritual path, the less plausible it is to claim that one’s beliefs and practices are religious, for legal purposes.

A New Book on Roger Scruton

Back in 2017, we were fortunate enough to host Sir Roger Scruton here at the Center, when he delivered the keynote address and participated in workshops at the second meeting of the Tradition Project, on culture and citizenship. (A video of Sir Roger’s remarks is available here). Later this year, Palgrave Macmillan will release Politics and Art in Roger Scruton’s Conservative Philosophy, a new study of Sir Roger’s philosophical legacy, covering subjects as diverse as politics, art, music, and religion–all of which Sir Roger discussed that night in 2017, as I remember. The author is philosopher Ferenc Horcher (Hungarian Academy of Sciences). Here’s the publisher’s description:

This book covers the field of and points to the intersections between politics, art and philosophy. Its hero, the late Sir Roger Scruton had a longstanding interested in all fields, acquiring professional knowledge in both the practice and theory of politics, art and philosophy. The claim of the book is, therefore, that contrary to a superficial prejudice, it is possible to address the philosophical issues of art and politics in the same oeuvre, as the example of this Cambridge-educated analytical philosopher proves.

Accordingly, the book has a bold thesis on the general, theoretical level, mapping the connections between politics, art and philosophy. However, it also has a pioneering commitment on the level of the particular, offering the first full-length study into the philosophical legacy of Roger Scruton, probably the most important British conservative philosopher of the late 20th and the first decades of the 21st century. It also allows reader to look into the philosopher’s fascination with Central European art and culture. Finally, it also provides a daring analysis of the late Scruton’s metaphysical inspirations, connecting the arts, and especially music, with religion and the bonds of love.