Religion Without God: Dworkin on religious atheists, cosmic beauty, religious freedom and immortality

Ronald Dworkin was a professor of law and philosophy at New York University. I happened to read Religion Without God last week, his short, stimulating book, based on his 2011 Einstein lectures, and one which I can relate to in many ways. Dworkin's central task is disengaging the religious attitude from theistic attitude and linking it instead to the domain of objective values, making it possible for atheists to have a religious attitude as well. This is how Dworkin describes the religious atheists:

"The familiar stark divide between people of religion and without religion is too crude. Many millions of people who count themselves atheists have convictions and experiences very like and just as profound as those that believers count as religious. They say that though they do not believe in a “personal” god, they nevertheless believe in a “force” in the universe “greater than we are.” They feel an inescapable responsibility to live their lives well, with due respect for the lives of others; they take pride in a life they think well lived and suffer sometimes inconsolable regret at a life they think, in retrospect, wasted. They find the Grand Canyon not just arresting but breathtakingly and eerily wonderful. They are not simply interested in the latest discoveries about the vast universe but enthralled by them. These are not, for them, just a matter of immediate sensuous and otherwise inexplicable response. They express a conviction that the force and wonder they sense are real, just as real as planets or pain, that moral truth and natural wonder do not simply evoke awe but call for it."

The religious attitude is the "faith that some transcendental and objective value permeates the universe, value that is neither a natural phenomenon nor a subjective reaction to natural phenomenon". The religious attitude believes in the objective truth of two central judgements: that human life has objective meaning (it matters how you live) and that nature, or universe as a whole, possesses intrinsic value and wonder.

Devoted theists of various religious traditions are likely to dispute this watered down version of what constitutes religion, but call it what you may, I do think that Dworkin's identification of this particular axiological attitude that cuts across the theistic-atheistic divide is valid, and may in many ways be more fundamental than that divide and may provide a basis, as Dworkin hopes, for improved communication between some atheists and theists.

Beauty is an important topic to Dworkin, as he devotes the entire second chapter to dissecting the notion of cosmic beauty, or the beauty that some physicists claim to see in nature at its most fundamental level. After a long discussion, Dworkin proposes that the sublime beauty of physics is actually a presumption on the part of physicists which is actually linked to another presumption:

"The physicists who believe that the universe has great beauty also believe that it has some fundamental unity: they presume that there is, waiting to be discovered, a comprehensive, simple, and unified explanation of how the universe was born and how it works, from the largest galaxy to the tiniest particles."

"The presumption of beauty is a presumption about how things really are: the religious faith holds that the universe really is, at bottom, in the final explanation of everything, beautiful. But that presumption makes no sense if there is no bottom, no final explanation. If we must accept an infinite regress of explanation, beauty can be no more than skin deep."

The third chapter argues that the special legal and ethical right to religious freedom is actually untenable and that the right to religious freedom can actually be re-interpreted as a general right to ethical independence. (Difficult to summarize the arguments here.)

The fourth and last chapter, also the briefest, is about death and immortality, and Dworkin suggests his own interpretation of what may count as immortality: life as a work of art, a life well-lived. "Why can't a life also be an achievement complete in itself, with its own value in the art in living it displays? If we do crave that kind of achievement, as I believe we should, then we could treat it as a kind of immortality... it is the only kind of immortality we can imagine; at least the only kind we have any business wanting."


Salman Latif said…
This is excellent! Thanks for sharing.
While his notions about an ultimate purpose of the universe are not very agreeable to me (deducing from the brief quotes, of course, since I haven't read the book yet), his identification of our ability to appreciate the aesthetics of abstract as a form of religion or something akin to 'belief', I find very valid.