Dworkin’s Jisei

'Religion Without God'

Ronald Dworkin, who died this year at eighty-one, was one of the leading legal philosophers of his generation. He was also widely known outside the field thanks to his perch at the New York Review of Books, where he offered what one obituary called “bracingly liberal views” on current issues in U.S. constitutional law. Even his sparring partners greatly admired him. Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law professor who shared Dworkin’s liberal politics but disagreed with aspects of his constitutional method, dubbed him “one of the most important legal philosophers of the last hundred years,” adding, “He was not only a giant but also a good and gracious man.”

Given his iconic status, the news that Dworkin had completed a book before his death came as an unlooked-for gift. That book, Religion Without God, is a lovely swan song. It is short—it’s based on the Einstein Lectures delivered at the University of Bern in 2011—but eloquent and rich. One wants to praise it unreservedly, if only for “de mortuis nil nisi bonum” reasons. The book raises many important questions and explores them with grace and care. Unfortunately, it also purports to answer them. And there it falls short.

Dworkin is as direct and clear as the subject matter permits. “The theme of this book,” he begins, “is that religion is deeper than God.” Religion “is a deep, distinct, and comprehensive worldview: it holds that inherent, objective value permeates everything, that the universe and its creatures are awe-inspiring, that human life has purpose, and the universe order.” This conviction is available to atheists and theists alike. Its motto is Einstein’s statement that understanding “that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty,” lies “at the center of true religiousness.” If we understand religion in this light—if we “can separate God from religion”—we might find some common ground between theists and “religious atheists” that is “more fundamental than what divides them.” This is a lovely, important, and hopeful theme.

For Dworkin, a “religious attitude” has two aspects. The first holds that “human life has objective meaning or importance.” For the religious atheist, “it matters objectively how a human life goes and that everyone has an innate, inalienable ethical responsibility to live as well as possible in his circumstances.” Values are not a matter of perspective or an artifact of evolutionary psychology; they are “as real as trees or pain.”

Belief in objective value is a deep commitment—a form of faith. It ties together all “religious” individuals, whether they believe in a personal god or not. Drawing on David Hume and on Plato’s Euthyphro, Dworkin argues that the objectivity of values must be independent of God and his existence. “Such a god’s existence,” he writes, “cannot in itself make a difference to the truth of any religious values.” God’s existence, like the existence of other facts about the world, is just “a very exotic kind of scientific fact.” But God “cannot of his own will create right answers to moral questions or instill the universe with a glory it would not otherwise have.”

Second, the religious attitude holds that the natural universe “is not just a matter of fact but is itself sublime: something of intrinsic value and wonder.” This is the territory of many scientists who write for general audiences. They stand on the shoulders of Einstein, who said that a person “who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe” at the universe’s grandeur “is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” It’s also the bailiwick of the Romantics and other writers who draw heavily on the concept of the sublime.

Of course, beauty itself could be nothing more than a human imposition on an accidental universe, perhaps just an evolutionary drive to discern patterns in one’s environment. But Dworkin insists that the scientists he discusses “think that the beauty they sense in the cosmos is as real as electrons and headaches and galaxies.” Even if these individuals are being sincere, there is a problem with this data point. Publishers know that books like The Elegant Universe will sell better than titles like Workaday Physics or Quarks Are Aesthetically Indifferent. Still, it is fair to say that most of us experience a sense of awe at the universe, that its beauty at least feels real, and that our conviction that it is can be described as a form of faith. Taken together, these two convictions, about the “inherent value” of both human life and nature itself, form a religious worldview. Because it is shared by both theists and “religious” atheists, it may lead to a cooling off of the culture wars.

If there is any hope of common ground, it will come from the second part of Dworkin’s “religious attitude,” not the first. The first part—the belief in the unity and objectivity of human life and values—is beset from too many sides. Many atheists—and many theists too, for that matter, at least on a day-to-day level—will doubt that this proposition is true. More to the point, many will doubt that it’s necessary. It’s possible to be religious and a value pluralist; it’s possible to doubt that there is a unity and reality of value, or hold the question in suspense, and still be struck by a sense of mystery and sublimity in the universe.

Dworkin writes that those who think “our claims to objective truth are just whistles in the dark” are not so much arguing against the religious worldview as they are rejecting it. These people “just do not have the religious point of view,” he concludes. My response is the same as Mark Twain’s response when asked whether he believed in infant baptism: “Believe in it? Hell, I’ve seen it!” Dworkin’s insistence on the unity and reality of moral value is clearly important to his own monistic worldview, which is best expressed in his penultimate book, Justice for Hedgehogs. But there are more things in earth—and in heaven—than are dreamt of in his overly integrated philosophy. There is room in the “religious” camp for those who find a deeper beauty and unity in the universe, but question whether human values are a necessary part of it—and yet continue to stumble toward whatever light there is, without confidence that right answers on those questions exist.

Perhaps more centrally, Dworkin’s argument that God is not a necessary part of the “religious” belief in the truth and unity of values will clearly fail to convince many theists. It should not be rejected out of hand, certainly. What philosophers call the “Euthyphro problem” has rightly engaged us for millennia. It does not require disbelief in God. And there is room within a religious worldview to accept God while arguing back at him—it is a rich part of my own Jewish cultural inheritance—or to insist, as in some natural-law traditions, on our own responsibility to reason our way to proper moral conclusions. Dworkin skillfully parses what he calls the “science part” and “value part” of religion. But many theists will strongly resist such a distinction, viewing the two as an inseparable unity of its own, a knot that the sharpest logical knife cannot undo. They may be wrong. But they certainly will not welcome Dworkin’s intervention. Insisting on this point will intensify the culture wars, not ease them.

His other focus, on the importance of the sense of the sublime, is different. If there is hope of common ground, it lies there: not in reason but in awe. If anything unites us in our wildly plural age, it is the capacity to experience a sense of inexpressible mystery, whether in a single note of music or a vast nebula or the love of another human being. Whether that capacity comes from religious tradition, Romantic literature, or the marvels of the telescope—indeed, whether it describes anything “real” at all—is less important than the capacity itself, and the shared understandings it allows.

Our shared sense of the beauty of the universe, and the profundity of the human condition, is the seat of a true and lasting empathy that endures in even the most plural community. The experience of love and beauty, in art and nature, shows the confirmed atheist what it might mean for someone else to find love and beauty in God. And it ought to remind the religious individual that the atheist, too, experiences awe and wonder, even if she finds it in art or nature rather than Scripture. Call it religion, the human condition, or delusion. Whatever it is, it is universally shared, and the best hope of true common ground amid the deep divisions of the culture wars. I do not agree with all of Dworkin’s analysis of the sublime, but he evokes it beautifully.

It’s unfortunate, then, that so little of it carries over into Dworkin’s chapter on religious freedom. Having expanded the “religious attitude” so broadly, Dworkin uses that expanded definition to diminish religious freedom itself. It is best understood, he contends, not as a strong “special” right but as a wide but shallow “general right to ethical independence.” This turns out to be little more than a non-discrimination right, with barely any room for accommodation of religious practices that might be trammeled by a well-meaning majority. (Strikingly, having insisted on a broad definition of religion in order to water down religious liberty, Dworkin insists on a broad nonestablishment rule that singles out theistic religions for restrictive treatment and reserves special suspicion for American religious conservatives.)

The notion that this approach might cool the culture wars, instead of fanning their flames, beggars belief. I share Dworkin’s politics, more or less; and even I didn’t find a single one of Dworkin’s “reasonable” solutions to various legal controversies involving religion convincing. Given our shared “religious” sense, Dworkin concludes, atheists might “accept theists as full partners in their deeper religious ambitions.” On the evidence, Dworkin apparently means that religionists are permitted to share religious atheists’ own ambitions, but religious atheists need not empathize with the obligations of religious believers in turn, let alone accommodate them. That’s not common ground; it’s a regime of bare toleration. It’s a shame that the empathetic, imaginative Dworkin of the first two chapters disappears in the third chapter.

Religion Without God closes with a short coda of mostly unremarkable musings on death and immortality. In the circumstances, it’s poignant. But if you want to remember this towering figure most kindly, I suggest you ignore the last two chapters and focus on the first two. Right or wrong, they are Dworkin at his best: humane, incisive, thoughtful, and thought-provoking. In an important sense, they are a more powerful musing on life and death than anything in those last pages dealing more explicitly with death. In Japanese and Korean culture, there is a poetic tradition of deathbed compositions called jisei. They reflect on the beauty and brevity of life without directly mentioning death itself. Strip away the last chapter and dispense with Dworkin’s uncharitable “solutions” to the question of religious freedom, and you are left with two beautiful chapters that can best be read and appreciated as Dworkin’s jisei. They are, at last, a fitting monument.

Published in the February 7, 2014 issue: 

Paul Horwitz is a law professor and First Amendment expert at the University of Alabama

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