Religion Without God
By Ronald Dworkin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. xii+180 pp. $17.95 (hardcover).
The late Ronald Dworkin, Professor of Jurisprudence and Legal Theory in New York and UCL, was not only the preeminent legal philosopher of his generation but also an influential contributor to political philosophy, and an important public intellectual. His writings encompass over twenty books, including Law’s Empire (1984) and Justice for Hedgehogs (2011), and while his writings concentrate on law and political philosophy, just before his death Dworkin finally turned his attentions to religion, from which we have this short suggestively titled essay Religion without God.
Religion without God was posthumously published and edited based on the Einstein lectures Dworkin delivered to the University of Berne in 2011, and as the book jacket suggests, the first iteration of a much larger book, before he succumbed to illness from cancer. More often than not, the essay reads like what it is, a set of notes for a lecture. Its melodious prose conveys the immediacy of what surely must have been a mesmerizing set of lectures, though it suffers from the inclusion of obscure arguments and fitful presentation, some of which would certainly be excised. The careful reader cannot help wondering how much of these ideas would survive the inevitable drafting, peer criticism, and redrafting that any publication has to endure. A measured evaluation of RWG is then, some would say rather aptly, irresolvable and finally imponderable, and this leaves the reader with all the satisfaction of going toe-to-toe with Dworkin for three rounds of shadow boxing. In the end the reader has to focus on what is presented to him, and not what could have been, a sentiment that he would surely approve. For the purposes of brevity, I concentrate my attentions to evaluate the success, or otherwise as I argue here, of his provocative attempt to make a case for “religious atheism” as a coherent analytic concept.
Before examining in more detail what Dworkin means by a “religion without God”, we should consider the continuum within which he locates it. Whilst not fully explicit, he places religious atheism within the following: (a) on one side there is religion with God, after which (b) there is religion without God, after which (c) there is “spirituality”, and finally (d) there is naturalism, the latter he defines rather idiosyncratically as holding “that nothing is real except what can be studied by natural sciences, including psychology” (12). Dworkin discriminates religious atheism from mere “spirituality” and naturalism by arguing that both believing and unbelieving religions hold two paradigmatic convictions central; namely, a belief in objective value, and that the world has innate value and wonder (11). While Dworkin would acknowledge that some religious persons hold other convictions, such as an “obligation to worship”, he sets these “Godly convictions” aside and regards that there is more that believing and unbelieving religions share than what divides them. He regards these two core beliefs as “deeper than God” and more central to religion’s metaphysical core and considers them constitutive of the religious attitude. Before looking more closely at these central convictions in detail, let us consider how Dworkin successfully grapples with the notion of religion as an analytical concept. It is clear that, except for the most fleeting references to Buddhism, the foil he has in mind is the Abrahamic religion. Whilst it may not be a problem in and of itself, we could be forgiven if Dworkin’s presentation of religion as an unproblematic concept does not elicit surprise, especially when some of the central dilemmas that dominate the study of religion grapple with how to understand what religion is. For instance, one dilemma ponders how to define religion when what could passably be included as religion is myriad; there are prominent scholars arguing for the inclusion of shamanism, nationalism, communism, and the like, and if not, by what criteria ought we exclude them? A related dilemma ponders on the unity of religion—should Hinduism be regarded as a unified religious tradition or a separate set of networked local cults? Another example and directly relevant to Religion without God, what do we make of Shintoism or Confucianism, Taoism, when especially the latter resemble what many in the West consider closer to philosophy than religion, and if so how does this challenge our conceptions of what religions are? Now, perhaps it wouldn’t be fair to expect Dworkin to address all these questions or even any of them; however the robustness of a theory is doubtful when it’s difficult to discern what we could derive from it if it’s unable to provide any kind of insight, let alone explanation of manifest empirical religious phenomena whilst simultaneously claiming that doctrine So-and-so is more ultimate and the very metaphysical core religion.
One example will suffice: one of Dworkin’s claims is that value objectivity is part of the metaphysical core of religion, contrasting against naturalism on this basis. But it’s unclear how he would accommodate religious traditions, such as Shintoism, Taoism, or Hinduism, who at best would struggle to understand values in the way that Dworkin does, or at worst simply rejects value objectivity at all. It would be difficult to imagine for him, who controversially describes himself as a religious atheist, to reject the provenance and properness of a well-established religion because it doesn’t fit with his idea of what a religious ought to look like. But if we take seriously the empirical reality that religions exist which do not share these convictions, then we are forced to choose his ideas over that of regarding them as true religions, a state of affairs that few would accept.
That this is not a semantic issue can be seen in other ways. Dworkin has nothing to say about religious rites, pilgrimage, communal identity, nor about feelings of kinship and fraternity, aspects which some scholars, not to mention the religion’s followers themselves, consider equal to if not more important than its religion’s convictions. In doing so, it’s difficult not to believe that Dworkin regards religion essentially as very much a private affair, suspiciously akin to the post-Protestant Western society from which he emerges. It all adds to the sneaking feeling difficult to rid, wondering whether Dworkin rendering them as “non-essential” aspects, a result of nonchalant ignorance, or betrayal of his incomprehensibility, or perhaps both. Nevertheless their depiction as such raises further doubts of his attempts to delineate the peripheral in religion and what is core.
Even though this is obviously not the final iteration, one gets the feeling that Dworkin has failed to do some pretty basic scholarly reading. His understanding of religion betrays someone who is stuck within a comfort zone, and replete with the secular biases from the Western culture from which he emerges. In doing so he fails to accommodate for empirical aspects of religion that are awkward to his arguments, or even more damningly to entire religious traditions wholesale. At best his arguments suffer from distorting them, and at worst his analysis simply ignores any aspect that he considered not essentially religious all for the greater glory of his categorization. And whilst the philosopher Dworkin may give himself license to dismiss these objections as not being salient to points he wishes to make, such a criticism is not something a scholar in the study of religion could permit themselves to make, but then again neither would a philosopher who claims to take empirical phenomena seriously. Unfortunately for Dworkin a closer look at what he considers as core convictions shows that his problems don’t stop here.
One aspect Dworkin considers core to religion is its attitude towards the universe and life; characterizing it as a distinctive sense of wonder that the world’s beauty and complexity strikes the believing and unbelieving religious alike, as well as the consonant commitment that this confers on them. However it is unclear why this is the case; more specifically, in what sense is this attitude and commitment distinctively religious and exclusive to the religious?
Consider Dawkins for example; whatever one thinks of his philosophical writings, even the most unsympathetic would surely not deny the sense of exhilaration that the best of his scientific writings convey; a sense of wonder towards nature whose complexity and beauty he attributes to the workings of a materialist evolution. Yet a sense of wonder is precisely what Dworkin insisted on being a core component towards the religious attitude, something that he contrasted with the materialist attitude towards the universe. How then would he distinguish between religious attitude and that of Dawkins, perhaps the high priest of scientific materialism? One would imagine that Dworkin would argue either that the naturalist’s sense of wonder is perhaps not properly pronounced, failing to reach a threshold that Dworkin would consider sufficient, or perhaps the naturalist’s sense of wonder is not somehow identical to religious sense of wonder.
Perhaps we should understand Dawkins’ sense of enthrallment as never being able to attain a “religious” sense of enthrallment, just because he does not share Dworkin’s belief in an intrinsic meaning in the universe? This would then suggest that whilst both may share in their wonderment towards the universe, there is something distinctive in the latter—presumably more special and superior. Dworkin admits as much, stipulating that such a distinctive attitude is quintessentially religious (48). This would suggest that the naturalist does not have access to a privileged sense of wonder towards the universe, because of an absence of certain convictions of belief with their presence being crucial. What Dworkin seems to argue here, then, is that faith is distinctive not because the addition or absence of one proposition or two alone, for example, the notion that the universe has intrinsic meaning. Rather, faith is an attitude that is distinctly religious in that it amounts to a set of propositions that are held both concurrently as well as holistically and that determine how we conceive of the universe. Is this holistic understanding of faith more convincing than characterizing it as belief in a set of propositions? Certainly, but while this is the case, it is difficult to understand how much this differs from Dawkin’s sense of wonder with the world—indeed his “faith” in a material world. One would think that it’s less that faith is characterized as an absence or presence of propositions versus a more holistic understanding faith, but instead it is the contents of this faith that would render it distinctive. And it is this that’s unclear, after all we have a sense of wonder in both Dawkins the materialist and Dworkin the believer, and it’s unclear in what sense the latter sense of wonder is more pronounced except for him saying so. On this aspect, we leave the distinctiveness thesis unmoved.
Dworkin further distinguishes the religious attitude by its consonant commitment, specifically: (a) its commitment to life, and (b) obligation to make life meaningful for oneself, and claims that these are the preserve of those who hold conviction of objectivity in value and meaning in universe. Now it’s worth remembering that he doesn’t have to argue that all religious persons have these commitments, after all many are irresolute and flawed. However, he does have to demonstrate that if these commitments are constitutive of the religious attitude, then this would suggest a certain exclusivity and preserve of the religious alone. If, however, there was someone who (a) was just as committed to these self-same convictions, and (b) furthermore someone who considered them constitutive an attitude that is a direct result of a materialist point of view, then this would leave Dworkin vulnerable. Are there any prime candidates? An obvious one who comes to mind is of course the existentialist and later Marxist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980). Especially in his early, more existential phase, Sartre insisted on the importance of making life meaningful; crudely the importance of living a life was characterized with full-bodied commitment, and a search for authenticity, taking on the burdens of freedom and its consonant dilemmas, amongst other things, and all of which are similar to what could be understood what Dworkin means by a commitment to life. Unlike Dworkin, Sartre insisted that such a commitment was a direct result of confronting what he considered the universe’s randomness and life’s ultimate meaninglessness. It would seem then that both a committed believer like Kierkegaard (1813–1855) and a committed materialist like Sartre, can share a commitment for taking life seriously but as a result of diametrically opposed beliefs over the universe, the former upholding an attitude of total commitment because of life’s meaningfulness, and the latter in the face of life’s randomness and inherent meaninglessness. And of course Sartre is not alone in such ruminations, the most cursory look over Heidegger, Nietzsche, Camus or even Schopenhauer, one would find cognate ideas if not identical conclusions. Once again, it does beg the question how much reading Dworkin has done before writing his own ideas down, and one cannot help think that his thoughts would have improved immeasurably had he pondered on those who differed with him before grappling with his own. Where then does this leave Dworkin’s distinctiveness thesis? The distinctiveness argument is reliant on the presentation of convincing criteria by which we can discriminate between the religious from those without religion. One way of assessing the robustness of such a criteria is its ability to explain away what would purportedly be only superficially similar instances of attitude and, or commitment by, naturalists or spiritualists. A failure to do so would undermine the alleged distinctiveness of the religious attitude that his arguments are so reliant on. And as we have seen examining Dawkins and Sartre, neither the wonder towards the universe is distinctive to the religious, nor is the commitment that the universe’s alleged objectivity supposedly entails. And to explain such instances away with regards to the central distinctiveness thesis strains credulity, and is closer to indulging in stipulation than philosophical argument, and it is simpler to abandon it.
In sum, lyrical as Religion without God is, it is unfortunate that the views that Dworkin expresses, in this iteration at least, are strikingly parochial to be of any general use, and the flaws are so palpable as to render it irredeemably hobbled.
Faheem Hussain, Department of Philosophy Heythrop College, London