books by Ronald Dworkin

book review score+4

Religion Without God
Ronald Dworkin
Harvard, 2013

Atheists can be just as religious and spiritual as believers, says Ronald Dworkin in this little teeny-weeny book. At its base, religious feeling is the conviction that objective value permeates the universe. The difference between believers and nonbelievers, he says, is not so much their belief or non-belief in a deity, but rather that believers take the source of value as coming from outside nature and “religious atheists” do not.

Sounds reasonable. But it's fair to ask: doesn't this weaken religion? Almost everyone would claim to be spiritual if they could. For many people being “spiritual” is little more than a way of staking out a position of moral superiority that makes one feel better about oneself: a moral Rolex.

Dworkin argues that the existence of a god is not sufficient to create value. There must also be something in the world itself that defines it. For Dworkin, it is meaning that gives the universe its value. For example, if the Grand Canyon had been created by Disney it would not be beautiful, because its meaning would be different. Atheists whose sense of awe has not been dulled by cynicism can appreciate its meaning just as well as believers. Perhaps one purpose of religion is to keep that sense of awe alive.

This approach is not so much an Anglican-style surrender as a tactical withdrawal to more defensible ground. Dworkin was a compromiser who sought a middle ground between principle and practicality. But on this issue, religion cannot compromise. It needs to make a choice. If religion is created by man, then religion must evolve along with our understanding of nature. If not, then it is man who must evolve. This is a fundamental difference, and religion yields on this point at its peril.

Science says that religion evolved as a way of promoting group identity. Others have suggested that religion's claim to give eternal life may even be true—but that it applies to cultures, not individuals. If so, this is bad news for our culture, which has abandoned religion, and, arguably, lost both its soul and its chance for eternal life. Whether the loss of our soul or our abandonment of religion happened first might be a matter of debate, but if we are to recover what we've lost, we may discover that we simply cannot survive without some form of religion. By dispensing with the supernatural, Dworkin makes religion more palatable. But this seems to be less of a way out of the dilemma than an admission of defeat. After reading some of Dworkin's other books, I suspect he would be comfortable with that.

dec 19, 2013