Review of Ronald Dworkin, 'Religion Without God'

Religion Without God
September 18, 2013

Last week Pope Francis, who is on something of a roll, assured atheists that they could get into heaven. As one of the unchurched and the disbelieving, I appreciate this expression of good will without finding the news especially consequential. There’s enough to worry about as it is, this side of death.

But the pontiff’s timing is impressive. Ronald Dworkin’s Religion Without God, the philosopher’s first posthumous work, appeared in bookstores a few days before Francis made his statement -- even though Harvard University Press listed it as an October book. (When he succumbed to leukemia in February, Dworkin was a professor of law and philosophy at New York University and an emeritus professor of jurisprudence at University College, London.) Surely it’s a matter of providence at work, or at least of synchronicity, depending on which way you’ve staked that existential wager.

I call it Dworkin’s first posthumous book, not on the basis of inside information, but from the certainty somebody is bound to raid the Nachlass of any figure so prominent in Anglo-American discussions of the philosophy of law across four decades.

Even a fairly stringent assessment of him as someone more esteemed outside his discipline than in it -- ever the complaint when someone is just too visible as a public intellectual -- ends up conceding that he did play a catalytic role, at times. Much of the commentary since his death seems to echo Dworkin’s own recollection of serving as Learned Hand’s clerk: “I disagreed with everything he said, but he was a very good person to have to argue with.” (By the way, a book bringing the philosopher’s and the judge’s ideas together for comparison seems like a project full of interesting possibilities.)

Religion Without God is based on the three Einstein Lectures that Dworkin gave at the University of Bern in Switzerland in December 2011. The lecture series began in 2009. The speakers rotate, from year to year, between a physicist, a mathematician, and a philosopher. Einstein’s occasional remarks about God (the things he actually wrote and said, not the kudzu-like apocrypha) are the seed crystals for the lectures, rather than their topic.

According the publisher’s note, Dworkin “planned greatly to extend his treatment of the subject over the next few years” but “had time only to complete some revisions of the original text,” although the volume closes with a fourth piece, “Death and Immortality,” shorter than the lectures, which bears no indication of when it was written. It begins on a mordant note, as if in reply to the Pope: “When Woody Allen was told that he would live on in his work, he replied that he would rather live on in his apartment.”

For a while I suspected that Religion Without God might be a very late installment in the New Atheism saga, and on that basis gave it wide berth. All the polemical gunpowder has run out on both sides. The very prospect of another battle -- Dworkin v. Dawkins! -- sounded as appealing as a sawdust burrito or an afternoon in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Life is too short.

Happily the lectures are nothing of the kind. Arguments for or against the existence of God (or gods, if you prefer) form no part of Dworkin’s project. He takes it as a given that the dispute will continue, as it must, at varying degrees of heat and lucidity. But he also takes as important and meaningful that some forms of atheism are as deeply shaped by the numinous as any religious faith.

“Numinous” is the term Rudolf Otto coined in The Idea of the Holy (1917) to name an overwhelming experience of the grandeur, power, order, significance, and strangeness (“otherness”) of the universe, or of being itself. It can be blissful, and it can be terrifying. Religious mystics have no monopoly on the numinous. Physicists and mathematicians have written about it, for example, and one of the passages from Einstein quoted by Dworkin expresses it in a forceful manner:

“To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in the most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of devoutly religious men.”

On another occasion, Einstein said, “He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” Dworkin stresses that while monotheists may understand numinosity as a revelation of the power and awe-full reality of the Creator, it does not, as such, compel belief in a personal deity (what Dworkin refers to, from time to time, as “the Sistine god,” in honor of Michelangelo’s rendition).

Einstein, for one, dismissed the idea of such a Supreme Being existing prior to, and apart from, the universe. He said so repeatedly, although believers kept construing his remarks about “belong[ing] to the ranks of devoutly religious men” to the contrary. The physicist thought of himself as a kind of pantheist, along Spinoza’s lines. The difference between pantheism and atheism is arguably one of shading -- and Dworkin subsumes Einstein’s perspective under the rubric “religious atheism,” which would also apply to beliefs such as Ethical Culture and some kinds of pacifism.

“Religious atheism” is not meant to be an ironic label; the author shows no interest in it as paradoxical. Dworkin’s point is that a sense of “life’s intrinsic meaning and nature’s intrinsic beauty” runs deeper than one’s judgment of the source or intelligibility of that meaning and beauty. Values “are real and fundamental, not just manifestations of something else; they are as real as trees or pain.” The theist understands meaning, beauty, goodness, and other values to be the intentional creation or the commandment of a higher being, who thus merits our worship, or at least our very close attention. To live a good and meaningful life means living in accord with the divine purpose.

But for the religious atheist (which is to say, for the author himself) that is getting things more or less backward. Dworkin seems to have reached the same conclusion as Descartes on a matter that bothered the earlier thinker in his final years, as mentioned in Steven Nadler’s The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter (discussed in this column).

In short: Is something good – or (true, beautiful, just, etc.) because God wills it? Or is it the other way around? What if the bearded man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel decided that theft, murder, and cannibalism were totally fine, and even to be encouraged? Would that make them good? If not, then in some sense we have accepted that right has priority even over divine might. 

Thus concluded the theist Descartes, as did the religious atheist Dworkin. There is much that I am scanting in Dworkin’s book here, in the interest of time, but that should provoke enough thought, and elicit enough invective, for now. Let me end this column, as it began, with a look to the afterlife. In a symposium at the Boston University School of Law a few years ago, Dworkin announced that he’d had a glimpse of paradise:

“Lots of people, including among them among the most distinguished philosophers and lawyers in the world, have come together to discuss a book of mine. As if that weren’t good enough, they discuss it before I’ve actually finished writing it so I can benefit from what they say. That isn’t the best part. The best part is that I don’t even have to die.”

The implication, by contrast, is that hell is all about the deadlines.



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