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Can You Have Religion Without God?

Ronald Dworkin and a religious worldview for secularists

Terrence Spencer/TIME & LIFE Images/Getty Images

Ronald Dworkin’s profound and moving final book, now published posthumously, is unique among the works that he wrote throughout the decades of his extraordinarily creative life. Anyone who read Dworkin or heard him lecture knows that he possessed a brilliant and elegant mind, conceptually sophisticated, analytically astute, and always at the service of a moral, legal, and political cause. But this book is marked by a different tone and style. It does not present a set of arguments that aim at changing beliefs and convictions; instead it conveys a philosophical, even spiritual sensibility. Its ambition is to effect not a shift in any particular position but a transformation in the way we see the world and in the stance we take toward the most basic features of our existence. The incisive qualities of Dworkin’s mind are evident in various arguments that appear throughout the book (especially in the chapter titled “Religious Freedom,” which examines the nature of the constitutional protection of religion), but the main endeavor of Religion without God is to convey an attitude—not so much to argue as to “show,” to set before the reader a certain philosophical temper and to share a particular stance.

Religion without God: what can such a stance mean? Is God not constitutive to religion in the way that liberty is constitutive to liberalism? Could we imagine a book called Liberalism Without Liberty? And if we can isolate the stance implied by Dworkin’s paradoxical title, what is gained by calling it “religion”? There is, moreover, a deeper cultural puzzle. Dworkin stood for many years at the center of contemporary American liberalism as perhaps its most important and eloquent defender. Though it stoutly defends freedom of religion, contemporary liberalism has taken a hostile, or uneasy, or indifferent attitude toward the religious project. Its exponents usually give the impression, and gladly, that they are religiously tone-deaf. (This is a matter of temperament, which is not intrinsically related to argument as such. Wasn’t the civil rights movement of the 1960s religiously inspired? But experience has taught us that in philosophy and in politics temperament is of at least equal importance to argument.) Why, then, should Dworkin have “tainted” his thinking by associating himself with such a sensibility even as he asserts his atheism?

The notion of “religion without God” is first defined negatively. It stands for a rejection of naturalism, which claims that the world consists exclusively of matter governed by laws of nature that are in principle described by science, and that qualities such as beauty or value are not independent of the mind but are humanly constructed responses to the world. Dworkin’s rejection of naturalism consists of two crucial elements. The first is the affirmation that human life has an objective meaning and importance. Our values and moral convictions are not humanly contrived responses that can be exhaustively explained as an outcome of the evolutionary process. “Cruelty is wrong” is an objective statement that has been discovered by us rather than invented by us, and its objective foundation is, for Dworkin, internal to our experience of the prohibition on cruelty. We encounter it as an absolute. If we examine the set of our convictions concerning the realms that are independent of our mind, we might genuinely entertain a Cartesian doubt as to whether we exist, but we cannot imagine a world in which it would be fine to run over an innocent child with a car because we were late to a party. 

A moral skeptic might reject such an affirmation, and point to the fact that there are some societies in which such things are fine (are there?), or he might assert that such a moral response is a product of genetic selection serving the survival of the human species. But the relativist’s rejection would not constitute an argument; it would merely reveal that he does not inhabit the same universe as Dworkin, that he lacks his point of view. Morality, for Dworkin and other religiose atheists, sets the limits to the project of naturalist reductionism. Our moral convictions cannot be reduced to facts about our history and ourselves. They are fundamentally objective and self-contained; they are grounded by other values. 

Dworkin’s second anti-naturalist affirmation concerns our stance toward the universe, whose beauty and sublimity are, in Dworkin’s view, intrinsic to it. The universe is not merely an aggregate of material particles governed by a set of laws that we happen to experience as striking or beautiful. Even if there were no conscious human creatures that could experience the world, it would still be sublime. The universe is genuinely enchanted, and to stand in awe before it is not a curious feature of our mind but a proper response to what the universe actually is. Its inner independent quality fits the experience of wonder and rapture, the experience that intimates what in religious language is described as the encounter with the numinous.

Dworkin’s rejection of naturalism runs against much of contemporary dogma. It reveals his deep intellectual affinity with Thomas Nagel, his most important interlocutor, who has boldly challenged naturalism. Yet for all the enormous metaphysical and moral importance of the rejection of naturalism, more is needed to associate the affirmation of the objectivity of moral values and the sublimity of the universe with the religious attitude. The rejection of naturalism might be a necessary condition for the religious point of view, but it is not a sufficient one. In moving to this next stage, Dworkin provides us with the deeper dimensions of his thinking.

Like all religious traditions, “religion without God” has its founder and its apostles. Spinoza, the seventeenth-century excommunicated Jew in Amsterdam, was the first to formulate a profound philosophical articulation of that posture, and Einstein, who saw himself as a Spinozist, transformed that attitude into the foundation for his exploration of the mysteries of the universe. Both of them adopted a religious attitude while fiercely denying the belief in the personal God of the religious traditions. Yet in claiming that they believed in an impersonal God, not much is said or explained: a deeper and thicker description has to be provided explaining the religious nature of the view that lies at the heart of Spinoza’s credo “Deus sive Natura,” or “God, which is to say Nature.”

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Spinoza, a seventeenth-century Jewish-Dutch philospher, walks book in hand through Amsterdam while being ostracized by the Jewish community.

With that formulation, Spinoza shockingly identified nature with God, which some scholars claim is merely another way of asserting atheism and the exclusive existence of nature. Yet it would be more precise to say that with his notorious formulation Spinoza was attributing to the universe qualities that the ancient and medieval metaphysical tradition had attributed to God. For medieval figures such as Maimonides, whom Spinoza had studied carefully as a young man, what made God transcendent to the world was the unique nature of His being. The existence of the universe is contingent, while God’s existence is necessary. That ontological disparity is shaped, among other things, by an asymmetry of dependence: God is self-sufficient—His own source of being, a first uncaused cause; whereas the universe depends on God’s existence. God is one and indivisible, whereas the world is an aggregation of contingent objects. Spinoza’s pantheism consisted of the claim that these attributes of necessity, independence, and unity actually belong to the universe and not to a transcendent God. The world is not contingent and dependent, it is self-deriving (in Spinoza’s logical terminology), and its apparent plurality is underlined by an essential unity. Its unity is equivalent to the unity of a logical syllogism or a mathematical proof in which a conclusion is implied and bonded to the premises in an indivisible way. A denial of one chain in the syllogism affects the whole, and so it is with nature and the universe.

Einstein’s identification with Spinoza was not a merely sentimental affinity; it defined and guided his endeavors as a theoretical physicist. His lifelong quarrel with quantum physics was based on his firm rejection of contingency in the universe, and his search for the ultimate theorem that would unify the gravitational and nuclear forces was an expression of his lifelong conviction that the world is essentially one. The universe must be both necessary and one—or in Dworkin’s language, it has to exhibit inevitability and integrity. The search for these ultimate features, which constitute the religious-like qualities of the universe, is essentially a matter of faith. It depends on accepting such a stance as the basis for an exploration—an assumption that other contemporary physicists had polemically described as a stubborn dogma, which is blind to the claim that in principle there is an inherent plurality to the world and a basic contingency manifested in its subatomic particles.

The sublimity and the beauty of the world as described by modern science do not rest, for Dworkin, on the elegance and the simplicity of its equations and on the striking symmetries it has uncovered. For Dworkin, its sublimity flows from the inevitability and integrity ascribed to it by an Einstein-like stance. In this respect, the aesthetic qualities of the Spinozistic universe resemble the features that make a work of art beautiful and arresting. Any change in color or line in a great painting will affect its totality; every feature in it is intrinsically necessary. When the beauty of a painting dawns on us, it has a compelling power of inevitability; it arrests our will. If, as I believe, what distinguishes the religious sensibility from the strictly secular is not the concept of God but the category of the holy, such works of art are like the sacred. Their integrity and inevitability are inherent to them; they are not ours to mess with. It is for this reason that the destruction of a work of art feels sacrilegious, and that certain aspects of modern technological hubris are, for the ecological sensibility, not only wrong but also sinful. Religion without God does not endorse any form of worship, but it certainly calls for reverence. 

Dworkin’s turn to the religious sensibility, as he articulated it, is not a sudden semi-conversion or a mark of his becoming “soft” late in life. It is actually a further development of his deepest and most original philosophical commitments in ethics and political theory. It is his moral philosophy that constitutes Dworkin’s main contribution to the tradition of religion without God. The moral realm, as presented in Dworkin’s Justice for Hedgehogs (2011), exhibits the main features of Spinoza’s universe. In that book, Dworkin provided a detailed argument for the thesis that morality has three essential qualities: independence, necessity, and unity. (Unlike Dworkin, Spinoza was a strict naturalist in ethics. The world for him is beyond good and bad, and moral categories are humanly manufactured. They originate in the experience of pleasure and pain, but in themselves they have no objective basis.) If Spinoza attached divine-like attributes to nature, Dworkin extends them to morality. The wrongness of cruelty is inevitable and necessary. We do not will it; it constrains our will, and we experience it as something beyond our choice. Moral claims are not only necessary but also independent, since in Dworkin’s version of the fact-value distinction, our values are not grounded by any fact about us or by any fact about the world. They are grounded by reference to other values and commitments.

The complete independence of the moral realm extends as well to its relation to religion, since morality cannot be grounded by the fact of God’s will and command. In one of the most insightful sections of the book, Dworkin shows that the theological claim that the source of moral obligation rests in the fact of God’s will and revelation is conceptually incoherent. If God wills the good and the bad into being, why should we obey His will at all? If the answer is that we owe Him a sense of gratitude and dependence as our creator, this is again a value argument, and as such it cannot rest on God’s will because it is the basis for following His will. Unlike morality, religion is not an independent sphere; it rests on a prior value that serves as its premise. The radical philosophical implication of the strict independence of morality is that all godly religions are based on a prior religion without God, the religion that asserts the inevitability and the independence of moral obligations. A rather subversive and justified claim is therefore established: if religion, in the name of God’s superior revelation, commands something immoral, it undermines its own authority and ground, which ultimately rest on morality.

Dworkin’s affirmation of the independence and the inevitability of morality runs against dominant contemporary modes of thought. Moral independence is fiercely denied by the fashion in naturalism, which holds that we can provide an exhaustive explanation of the moral realm through evolutionary biology and the structure of our mind. Morality is thus not independent; it is something that ought to be reduced to facts about ourselves. Dworkin’s insistence on moral inevitability and necessity clashes also with the widespread postmodern argument that our moral convictions are ideologically constructed structures that serve power elites—that they are culturally dependent, with no objective value. I think that Dworkin’s account of the moral life, in its qualities of independence and inevitability, is far deeper and better than its rivals, and his philosophical legacy is crucial to that ongoing argument. Yet the third attribute that he ascribes to the moral realm—that of unity and integrity—is far more challenging and complicated.

In his insistence on his concept of integrity, Dworkin denies the existence of genuinely irreconcilable moral conflicts. Such conflicts have, in principle, right and wrong answers, and the choice between them (if followed carefully) has no essential moral cost. Our values and commitments may in principle be integrated into a unified whole. They do not stand in conflict with one another; at their best, they are even mutually supportive and dependent. In his defense of unity and integrity, Dworkin challenged a deep strand of modern liberal thought articulated by Isaiah Berlin, Bernard Williams, and others—thinkers who, while not at all identifying themselves with naturalism or postmodernism, believed in an essentially irreconcilable plurality of values that always might stand in conflict with one another. In this account, we are conceptually incapable of offering a grand unified moral theory; we can only work out a reasonable compromise that will always be accompanied by a tragic moral cost. The different compromises that we offer will not be judged as right or wrong, but as plausible or less plausible, and we might adopt one rather than the other based on passing circumstances and local considerations. In a more pessimistic vein, we may say—as Dworkin decidedly would not—that some of our moral failures rest not on the fact that we do not live up to our values, but rather from the fact that we pursue them single-mindedly. The attempt to follow the value of freedom to its end might yield a heartless and merciless society, and the attempt to achieve perfect equality might be brutal and crushing. There is a self-defeating element to the moral life, which is another testimony to our finitude.

Dworkin has provided careful and sophisticated arguments for his moral monism, and pluralists will have to wrestle with them. But for the purpose of figuring out our basic stance, there is a stark difference, I think, between our experience of the universe and our experience of the moral life. If we want to revert to religious metaphors, the universe may feel like the work of a single rational monotheistic God—there is a point to an Einstein-like search for an ultimate unified theory, which, though not yet found, bears a great promise. Human life, by contrast, and the moral project, with all its essential inconsistencies and tragic struggles, may feel more like the work of a committee, and a rather contentious one; and the ideal of polytheism seems more suitable here.

Liberal thinkers maintain a suspicious attitude toward religion because of its inherent tendency to monistic absolute truths that seem in conflict with pluralistic free politics. But in a world in which religion maintains its salience and even increases it, the closing of that suspicion gap might be a good idea. What is so fascinating about Dworkin’s last book is that it does not share this initial distance from the religious temperament, though it refuses to depart from its original liberal outlook affirming an objective and unified moral realm. He is well aware of the conflicts between religious fundamentalism and liberalism, but he expresses a hope that his objective unified convictions, which put human dignity at their center, will somehow converge with the religious world. He acknowledges that this demands a leap of faith as great as any other leap.

It is rare in the life of a philosopher that a set of detailed arguments can be transfigured into a fundamental stance toward the universe and the human moral realm. In such a moment, the articulation of the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Religion Without God is an attempt to articulate such a stance. Its ambition and its achievement make it a deep and precious book. 

Moshe Halbertal is the Gruss Professor of Law at New York University School of Law and a professor of Jewish thought and philosophy at the Hebrew University. He is the author of Maimonides: Life and Thought and On Sacrifice.