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Ronald Dworkin's "Religion Without God"

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  March 21, 2013 09:00 AM

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The April 4 issue of the New York Review of Books contains an excerpt (subscription required) from philosopher Ronald Dworkin’s forthcoming book, “Religion Without God.” Dworkin delivered the book to Harvard University Press before his death, in February, and the argument he makes in it is surely a good one to go out on. I will try to summarize it here, though I’m afraid in an effort to be clear I’ll lose much of the heat that makes Dworkin’s piece worth reading.

Dworkin’s main objective is to show that believers and some kinds of atheists are not necessarily as far apart on important questions as the intensity of their antagonism would have it. The argument he makes to support that claim is dense (but satisfying) and rests on the idea that there is no essential relationship between religion and god.

Dworkin begins by defining what he takes to be the “religious attitude.” The religious attitude, he explains, depends on two basic judgments: The first is that “human life has objective meaning or importance” and “Each person has an innate and inescapable responsibility to try to make his life a successful one;” the second is that the natural world “is not just a matter of fact but is itself sublime: something of intrinsic wonder and value.”

So, for Dworkin, the religious attitude means believing that both people and the natural world have some kind of objective value. Both claims go down easily and neither would seem to require god for substantiation. But, Dworkin points out that religious believers tend to rely on god when trying to explain why they believe the natural world is immaculate, or to justify why we have an obligation to try and live our lives well. To defuse this relationship—to separate god from religious values—Dworkin explores the “metaphysics of value.” And here’s where his argument really gets interesting.

Dworkin argues that for values to have real teeth, they need to be entirely self-justifying; or, put another way, they need to rest on the foundation of their own truthfulness. We’re rightly skeptical of self-justifying propositions, but Dworkin shows that in other realms we accept them quite easily. He argues that mathematical truths and scientific truths are “matters of faith” in the same way that belief in religious values is a matter of faith. How he gets to that point is too complicated to recount here, but he does get there (and in provocative fashion).

If religious values are self-justifying just like mathematical axioms are self-justifying, one outcome is that they don’t require the existence of a deity to be true. And that claim, if you accept it, breaks the field wide open. Suddenly, the deepest convictions of atheists and believers become accessible to each other; a disposition about god no longer walls each side off from the other.

There are certainly many things that atheists and believers do disagree about. These disagreements tend to revolve around what Dworkin terms the “scientific” element of religious belief: the part that “declares that an all-powerful and all-knowing god created the universe, judges human lives, guarantees an afterlife, and responds to prayer.” Atheists find these elements of religion most immediately objectionable, and Dworkin’s argument won’t lead to reconciliation on this front.

But, importantly, reconciliation between religious believers and religious atheists doesn’t require agreement on those kinds of scientific issues, he says. Dworkin argues that today’s religious wars are really culture wars. “They are not just about scientific history—about what best accounts for the development of the human species, for instance—but more fundamentally about the meaning of human life and what living well means.” By reframing religious conflict in America in these terms, Dworkin’s believes the matter can be settled without having to arbitrate god. And he hopes that as a result, both sides will realize they’ve been fighting over a disagreement that doesn’t really exist.

Detail of "Abraham's Journey from Ur to Canaan" courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

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Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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