Of Gods and Philosophers

David E Cooper reviews Ronald Dworkin’s last (posthumously published) book, Religion Without God.

By David E. CooperNovember 25, 2013

    Religion Without God by Ronald Dworkin. Harvard University Press. 180 pages.

    RONALD DWORKIN DIED, aged 81, in February 2013. Published posthumously, Religion Without God, which is based on the Einstein Lectures he delivered in Bern in 2011, is the last book he wrote. During the several decades before his death, Dworkin was the most celebrated philosopher of law in the world, and the occupant of distinguished chairs at the universities of Yale, Oxford, London, and New York. His influence was not confined, however, to academic circles. In works like Life’s Dominion: An Argument about Abortion, Euthanasia and Individual Freedom and Freedom’s Law: The Moral Reading of the American Constitution, Dworkin intervened in debates about the application of laws to live, contested issues. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, Dworkin’s interventions impacted policy, both legal and social.

    For Dworkin, the academic pursuit of moral philosophy and the engagement in practical legal issues were not separate enterprises. As the subtitle of Freedom’s Law indicates, laws and constitutions demand a “moral reading.” Throughout his career, he was a critic of the “positivist” view that questions about legality can be settled independently of ethical considerations — by appealing to precedent, say. There is an “objective moral order,” Dworkin insists, with which laws must be consonant if they are to be valid. A main task of the legal theorist is therefore to interpret laws in a manner consistent with the moral purposes that justify their existence. If a constitutional provision seems to outlaw practices — homosexuality, say — that are morally permissible, then either it is being misinterpreted or it does not truly belong in the constitution.

    Dworkin’s first book, published in 1977, Taking Rights Seriously, set the tone for his “moral reading” of law. It is the moral rights of individuals that laws, to be valid, must honor, for these rights “trump” considerations of public utility and expediency. This robust privileging of individual rights made Dworkin one of the leading liberal figures in American public life, the preeminent spokesman for a style of liberalism grounded not in utilitarian or pragmatic considerations, but in a commitment to moral “integrity.” On nearly all the issues that have divided liberal from conservative voices over the last half century — gay marriage, abortion, conscientious objection, and so on — Ronald Dworkin’s voice was heard, loud and clear, among the former.

    Unsurprisingly, several of Dworkin’s views have, as he notes, “provoked dismay” among the “religious right” and other followers of “godly religion.” He would not be unhappy, one suspects, to include himself among “those atheists” that many godly Americans “regard as immoral heathens who […] threaten the moral health” of the nation. It must come as a surprise, therefore, to those on the religious right to find that, in his final book, Dworkin argues for a religious worldview, albeit one “deeper” than the theistic, godly one that they embrace. It must be a surprise, too, to many of Dworkin’s fellow liberals, and, to some of them at least, not a welcome one. Those in the utilitarian liberal tradition will regard this religious turn as adding obscurity to the already obscure idea — “nonsense on stilts,” as Jeremy Bentham called it — of absolute moral rights. So would “postmodernist” liberals like Richard Rorty, for whom the values of Western liberalism were entirely contingent: our commitment to them is not due to recognition of an objective moral order — for there isn’t one — but is simply “obedience to our own conventions.”

    The followers of “godly religions” are also unlikely to welcome Dworkin’s religious turn, for his “religion without god” is not a conversion to the kind of faith they would recognize. It is not simply that they will be irritated by a man they loved to hate suggesting, in a seemingly conciliatory tone, that the differences between his and their convictions are relatively superficial. Their impression, more importantly, will be that the very notion of religion is being hijacked, that it is disingenuous in effect for Dworkin to present his “deeper worldview” as a religious one. Secular liberals will also wonder why he became intent, in this final work, on rearticulating his philosophy in religious terms.


    These same suspicions will be shared by students of religion and other readers less parti pris than the religious right and radical liberals. To judge whether the suspicions are justified, we need to look at Dworkin’s understanding of religion. Crucial to this is a sharp distinction between the “science and value parts” of a religion — between its claims about the nature and origins of the universe and its moral or aesthetic commitments. These two parts, insists Dworkin, are entirely independent. Religion in its deep aspect he identifies with the “values part.” What is necessary to “a fully religious attitude” is belief in “life’s intrinsic meaning,” in “inherent, objective value,” and in “nature’s intrinsic beauty.” Since many atheists, like Dworkin himself, also have this belief, it follows that what atheists share with the godly is “more fundamental than what divides them,” such as the merely “scientific” issue of there being a creator God or an afterlife.

    Dworkin’s understanding, many will judge, is unfaithful to those beliefs and practices that are regarded as paradigmatically religious by serious students of religion. In both theistic religions and atheistic ones, such as Buddhism, there is no stark separation between “science” and “values.” Indeed, some scholars, in complete contrast to Dworkin, would partly define a religion as a worldview in which people find a ground for their moral commitments in a vision of the way of things, of how reality is.

    The only traditional attempt to derive moral values from putative facts that Dworkin considers, and quickly dismisses, is the familiar idea — sometimes labelled “voluntarism” — that “God create[s] the right standard of living well just through his fiat.” In fact, voluntarists rarely make their point so crudely, and one would never guess from Dworkin’s account that many religious figures, as well as theologians, have engaged in a great struggle, emotional as well as intellectual, to resolve apparent conflicts between God’s will and their moral duty.

    In Søren Kierkegaard’s famous discussion of Abraham’s agonized response to God’s command that he sacrifice his son Isaac, resolution requires a distinction between the demands of everyday social ethics and those rooted in fidelity to, and love of, a person — God himself — on whom one’s being depends. Kierkegaard’s attempt to resolve the issue can, of course, be challenged, but it should surely be considered before brusquely dismissing the very possibility of God’s requests being a source of value and obligation.

    Dworkin’s readers would not guess, either, that many theologians, while maintaining that morality is grounded in a religious account of the world, are not “voluntarists.” According to St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, morality is under “the rational governance” of God, but not because it is a set of divine commands. Moral virtues, rather, enable us to flourish as the rational beings that we are by nature. The virtues can do this, however, only by helping us to reach the final “end of natural appetite.” This is the desire for “beatitude,” for the happiness that is achieved and sustained only through intimacy with God and his ways.

    In the case of atheistic religions such as Buddhism, there is no scope, naturally, for construing moral values as divine fiats. This does not mean, however, that Buddhists regard matters of right and wrong as being separate from their “science” of the world. On the contrary, for the Buddha — not, incidentally, “something close to a god,” as Dworkin puts it — wisdom and the prime virtue of compassion are inseparable. Intelligent compassion presupposes recognition that the world is one of suffering and transience and devoid of any substantial “self.” Conversely, someone in whom this recognition is “deeply cultivated” cannot fail to be compassionate.

    The Buddhist example indicates something true, perhaps, of all religious worldviews. Dworkin assumes that followers of established religions try and fail to deduce moral conclusions from their “science” of the world. But this is not how the connection between the way of things and how we should act is experienced in these religions. Instead, the religious person, provided his or her understanding of reality is, as William James put it, “hot and alive,” will find that the question of how to live is already answered. People do not authentically recognize what God wants for them, or what the Tao directs them toward, or what the Four Noble Truths articulate, and still find an insuperable problem about what matters and what is good. No decision remains as to whether to value compassion, say, or courage or humility.

    The case of Buddhism clearly illustrates, too, a problem confronted by the second of the two beliefs that constitute Dworkin’s “fully religious attitude” — belief in the “awe-inspiring” and “intrinsic beauty” of the natural world. When a colleague of mine remarked to a Thai monk on the beauty of the monastery garden in which they were walking, the testy reply was “No, no, here too everything is suffering!” In early Buddhism, at least, beauty is an “inner” quality of mind and character: people prone to find beauty in the bodily world are encouraged to dwell upon phenomena such as rotting corpses and excrement in order to correct their inclination.

    Suspicion of the material world and privileging of a spiritual one is not, of course, confined to Buddhism. For Plotinus, an important influence on Christian theology, our condition on earth is one of “immersion in filth,” and for many of the Church Fathers, the body and the wider natural world are prisons from which good people seek eternal escape. Hegel described as “the unhappy consciousness” the sense that, over many centuries, Christians had of dangling between a higher realm of spirit and a lower one of nature. As historians of the appreciation of nature, such as Marjorie Hope Nicolson in her book Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory, have demonstrated, admiration for the beauty of natural landscapes — of mountains, for instance — was a late arrival in European and American culture, only gathering real strength during the Romantic era. Given all of this, Dworkin’s definition of “the religious attitude” in terms of appreciation of natural beauty is a stipulation owing more to current Western sensibilities than to serious attention to historical religions.

    It is difficult, anyway, to see how Dworkin could appeal to any of these religions in order to warrant his definition of religious belief in terms of nature appreciation. This is because when spokesmen for these religions — Taoism, for instance, or Zen Buddhism — do speak of natural beauty, they mean beauty that is experienced through vision and other senses. Dworkin, however — despite references to the visible beauty of the Grand Canyon — has in mind an “intellectual” beauty that belongs not to the world as we experience it, but to the universe as imagined by some theoretical physicists. If these scientists are right, Dworkin maintains, the universe possesses “the beauty of inevitability,” by which he means that it has to be how it is and in such a way that “every part seems essential to the others.” It is the beauty, accessible only to the scientists who can comprehend it, of a “fully integrated” universe.

    Dworkin’s case for deploying the word “beauty” here is a weak one, consisting of an analogy with what he takes to be a criterion of beauty in “creative works” of art. A Raphael painting or a Mozart opera, he suggests, owes its beauty to our sense that nothing in it could have been different without spoiling the work. Strangely, though, he then casually concedes that, actually, this is an exaggerated criterion — that, for example, many lines in a great play could be changed without damaging it. The concession is reasonable enough, for the idea that “inevitability” is either necessary or sufficient for beauty is not compelling. The trouble is that, once the concession is made, Dworkin’s proposal becomes the thin one that nature’s beauty has something or other to do with the way things hang together. It remains opaque what nature’s alleged beauty, in this sense of being a relatively integrated process, has to do with religious conviction.


    The distance between Dworkin’s definition of religion and the self-understanding of traditional religions renders acute the question of why, in his final work, he became anxious to characterize his own beliefs and values as religious. There is, after all, a price to pay for stipulating that having an “intrinsic and inescapable ethical responsibility” to shape one’s life is “a matter of religious faith.” It means that even those aggressive humanists — Jean-Paul Sartre, for example — who want to be dismissive of religion, cannot avoid being classified as religious. By way of justifying his stipulation, Dworkin remarks that the beliefs and attitudes he endorses, like the tenets of traditional religions, “rest finally on faith.” But this is a poor reason for the stipulation, for in his sense of “faith” — convictions that have no “independent means of verification” — the truths of mathematics also rest on faith, but are hardly therefore articles of religion.

    There is only one argument in the book — implicit rather than clearly set out — for Dworkin’s extension of the idea of a religious attitude. It is an argument that, in effect, tracks the rationale for some notable judgements by the US Supreme Court on the interpretation of laws relating to religious protection. In 1965, the Court upheld an atheist's — Daniel Seeger’s — claim to conscientious objector status on the grounds that his moral convictions should be regarded as religious. According to the judges, Seeger’s beliefs occupied in his life “a place parallel to that filled by God” in the lives of people who clearly qualified for exemption from military service. In 1992, the Supreme Court upheld a woman’s right to an early abortion, arguing that, as a matter of “personal dignity and autonomy,” a woman’s “choice” to abort is on a par with decisions made on traditional religious grounds. Dworkin, quoting a passage from his earlier work, Freedom’s Law, endorses such judgements as follows:

    I can think of no plausible account of the content a belief must have, in order to be religious in character, that would rule out convictions about why and how human life has intrinsic objective importance.

    The argument, then, is this: the Constitution rightly protects beliefs and practices that are based on religious conviction. But since there is no good reason to privilege these above ones based on moral convictions that are not traditionally labelled “religious,” the term “religious” should be extended to these principles too. Reactions to this argument will differ. People who enthusiastically welcome the effects of the legal judgements referred to may hold that these justify the interpretation of religious belief that is required to arrive at those judgements. Others may regard the interpretation as a disingenuous strategy, with no genuine legal basis, for achieving what Dworkin and other liberals regard as politically desirable results.

    A response more measured than either of those would be the following. Within legal contexts it is often useful, necessary even, to define terms in ways that correspond badly with their normal understanding. In many legal systems, for example, the term “person” is defined so as to apply to organizations, not just to human beings. There is nothing wrong with this, but it would not justify me, outside of a legal context, in listing a bank or a football club among my favorite persons. Similarly, whatever warrant there might be for interpreting “religion” in a distended way within constitutional law is not a warrant, or excuse, for repackaging religious conviction as nothing more than belief in moral value and natural beauty.

    It is, moreover, unclear what, outside of legal contexts, Dworkin gains by this repackaging. At the center of his political and moral vision is a principle of “ethical independence,” to the effect that “it must be left to individual citizens, one by one, to decide [...] for themselves” questions about “what lives are most worth living.” This is a principle that is easily stated, as Dworkin has just done, without introducing a religiously charged lexicon. Why then, one asks, does he elsewhere want to describe this same principle of “personal ethical responsibility” as “a matter of religious faith”?

    To judge from some of his remarks, a motive behind this is to encourage a reconciliation between radical liberalism and conservative American religiosity. As the dust jacket puts it, he “hoped that this short book would contribute to rational conversation and the softening of religious fear and hatred.” As I implied earlier, this aspiration is not furthered by Dworkin’s talk, guaranteed to antagonize the very people he hopes to reach out to, of the “esoteric” character of traditional religious views, or of his own godless worldview being “deeper” than these. More significantly, the book is replete with claims with which few people who regard themselves as religious could concur.

    Here are just a few of the claims that the followers of both theistic and non-theistic religions could not accommodate. First, according to Dworkin, the truly “religious conviction” of immortality is a desire for the “achievement” of value in one’s life, “in the art of living.” Second, he insists that it is “inevitable and right” that there is a “priority of non-discriminative collective government” over “religious exercise.” Finally, he claims that what is really wrong with the restrictions on worship and other religious practices is their “insult” to “self-dignity.” It is “self-respect,” not religion per se, that demands protection.

    It is not that religious persons just happen to reject these claims because arguably their rejection is partly definitive of the religious attitude. Each claim ignores what surely matters most to religious people, their relationship to what they see as the source of the world and human existence. The immortality sought by Christians, Advaita Vedantists, and Taoists is different: for all of them, however, it is certainly not success in “the art of living,” but union with, or immersion in, a source that stands outside of time — God, Brahman, the Tao. Second, it is not just theocratic Ayatollahs who will reject Dworkin’s prioritization of secular government over religious exercise. The religiously committed person may sometimes have to compromise with political reality, but he or she cannot think that the demands of their religion are subordinate to those of secular social norms. Nor, finally, can they think that an offence to their religion is primarily a slight to their own self-respect. When cartoonists lampoon the Prophet or bikini-clad tourists are photographed sitting on a statue of the Buddha, the insult experienced by the faithful is to the founders of their religion, not to themselves. If their own self-dignity is offended at all, this is because it is the dignity of people who identify themselves with a certain religion and its great figures.

    If Ronald Dworkin imagined that attitudes like these are “esoteric” ones that people could cheerfully set aside or subordinate to the worldview he advocates, then his aspiration indicated a pronounced insensitivity to the nature of the religious mind. Religion Without God is a short book, and perhaps the much longer work on the topic that he had planned to write would have countered this charge of insensitivity. We shall never know.


    David E. Cooper is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Durham University, England.

    LARB Contributor

    David E. Cooper is professor of philosophy emeritus at Durham University, England. He has been a visiting professor in several countries, including the United States, Canada, South Africa, Malta, and Sri Lanka. He has also been the chair or president of several learned societies, including the Mind Association, the Aristotelian Society, and the Friedrich Nietzsche Society. Some of his most recent books are Senses of Mystery: Engaging with Nature and the Meaning of Life (2017) and Animals and Misanthropy (2018). Cooper is also the author of several novels and short stories. He lives with his wife in Northumberland, England.


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