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Religion Without God

Before he died on February 14, Ronald Dworkin sent to The New York Review a text of his new book, Religion Without God, to be published by Harvard University Press later this year. We publish here an excerpt from the first chapter. —The Editors


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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.

There are famous and poetic expressions of the same set of attitudes. Albert Einstein said that though an atheist he was a deeply religious man:

To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.1

Percy Bysshe Shelley declared himself an atheist who nevertheless felt that “The awful shadow of some unseen Power/Floats though unseen among us….”2 Philosophers, historians, and sociologists of religion have insisted on an account of religious experience that finds a place for religious atheism. William James said that one of the two essentials of religion is a sense of fundamentality: that there are “things in the universe,” as he put it, “that throw the last stone.”3 Theists have a god for that role, but an atheist can think that the importance of living well throws the last stone, that there is nothing more basic on which that responsibility rests or needs to rest.

Judges often have to decide what “religion” means for legal purposes. For example, the American Supreme Court had to decide whether, when Congress provided a “conscientious objection” exemption from military service for men whose religion would not allow them to serve, an atheist whose moral convictions also prohibited service qualified for the objection. It decided that he did qualify.4 The Court, called upon to interpret the Constitution’s guarantee of “free exercise of religion” in another case, declared that many religions flourish in the United States that do not recognize a god, including something the Court called “secular humanism.”5 Ordinary people, moreover, have come to use “religion” in contexts having nothing to do with either gods or ineffable forces. They say that Americans make a religion of their Constitution, and that for some people baseball is a religion. These latter uses of “religion” are only metaphorical, to be sure, but they seem parasitic not on beliefs about God but rather on deep commitments more generally.

So the phrase “religious atheism,” however surprising, is not an oxymoron; religion is not restricted to theism just as a matter of what words mean. But the phrase might still be thought confusing. Would it not be better, for the sake of clarity, to reserve “religion” for theism and then to say that Einstein, Shelley, and the others are “sensitive” or “spiritual” atheists? But on a second look, expanding the territory of religion improves clarity by making plain the importance of what is shared across that territory. Richard Dawkins says that Einstein’s language is “destructively misleading” because clarity demands a sharp distinction between a belief that the universe is governed by fundamental physical laws, which Dawkins thought Einstein meant, and a belief that it is governed by something “supernatural,” which Dawkins thinks the word “religion” suggests.

But Einstein meant much more than that the universe is organized around fundamental physical laws; indeed his view I quoted is, in one important sense, an endorsement of the supernatural. The beauty and sublimity he said we could reach only as a feeble reflection are not part of nature; they are something beyond nature that cannot be grasped even by finally understanding the most fundamental of physical laws. It was Einstein’s faith that some transcendental and objective value permeates the universe, value that is neither a natural phenomenon nor a subjective reaction to natural phenomena. That is what led him to insist on his own religiosity. No other description, he thought, could better capture the character of his faith.

So we should let Einstein have his self-description, the scholars their broad categories, the judges their interpretations. Religion, we should say, does not necessarily mean a belief in God. But then, granted that someone can be religious without believing in a god, what does being religious mean? What is the difference between a religious attitude toward the world and a nonreligious attitude? That is hard to answer because “religion” is an interpretive concept. That is, people who use the concept do not agree about precisely what it means: when they use it they are taking a stand about what it should mean. Einstein may well have had something different in mind when he called himself religious than William James did when he classified certain experiences as religious or the Supreme Court justices did when they said that atheistic beliefs could qualify as religious. So we should consider our question in that spirit. What account of religion would it be most revealing to adopt?

We must turn to this challenge almost immediately. But we should pause to notice the background against which we consider the issue. Religious war is, like cancer, a curse of our species. People kill each other, around the world, because they hate each other’s gods. In less violent places like America they fight mainly in politics, at every level from national elections to local school board meetings. The fiercest battles are then not between different sects of godly religion but between zealous believers and those atheists they regard as immoral heathens who cannot be trusted and whose growing numbers threaten the moral health and integrity of the political community.

The zealots have great political power in America now, at least for the present. The so-called religious right is a voting bloc still eagerly courted. The political power of religion has provoked, predictably, an opposite—though hardly equal—reaction. Militant atheism, though politically inert, is now a great commercial success. No one who called himself an atheist could be elected to any important office in America, but Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion (2006) has sold millions of copies here, and dozens of other books that condemn religion as superstition crowd bookstores. Books ridiculing God were once, decades ago, rare. Religion meant a Bible and no one thought it worth the trouble to point out the endless errors of the biblical account of creation. No more. Scholars devote careers to refuting what once seemed, among those who enthusiastically buy their books, too silly to refute.

If we can separate God from religion—if we can come to understand what the religious point of view really is and why it does not require or assume a supernatural person—then we may be able to lower, at least, the temperature of these battles by separating questions of science from questions of value. The new religious wars are now really culture wars. They are not just about scientific history—about what best accounts for the development of the human species, for instance—but more fundamentally about the meaning of human life and what living well means.

As we shall see, logic requires a separation between the scientific and value parts of orthodox godly religion. When we separate these properly we discover that they are fully independent: the value part does not depend—cannot depend—on any god’s existence or history. If we accept this, then we formidably shrink both the size and the importance of the wars. They would no longer be culture wars. This ambition is utopian: violent and nonviolent religious wars reflect hatreds deeper than philosophy can address. But a little philosophy might help.

What Is Religion? The Metaphysical Core

What, then, should we count as a religious attitude? I will try to provide a reasonably abstract and hence ecumenical account. The religious attitude accepts the full, independent reality of value. It accepts the objective truth of two central judgments about value. The first holds that human life has objective meaning or importance. Each person has an innate and inescapable responsibility to try to make his life a successful one: that means living well, accepting ethical responsibilities to oneself as well as moral responsibilities to others, not just if we happen to think this important but because it is in itself important whether we think so or not.

The second holds that what we call “nature”—the universe as a whole and in all its parts—is not just a matter of fact but is itself sublime: something of intrinsic value and wonder. Together these two comprehensive value judgments declare inherent value in both dimensions of human life: biological and biographical. We are part of nature because we have a physical being and duration: nature is the locus and nutrient of our physical lives. We are apart from nature because we are conscious of ourselves as making a life and must make decisions that, taken together, determine what life we have made.

For many people religion includes much more than those two values: for many theists it also includes obligations of worship, for instance. But I shall take these two—life’s intrinsic meaning and nature’s intrinsic beauty—as paradigms of a fully religious attitude to life. These are not convictions that one can isolate from the rest of one’s life. They engage a whole personality. They permeate experience: they generate pride, remorse, and thrill. Mystery is an important part of that thrill. William James said that

like love, like wrath, like hope, ambition, jealousy, like every other instinctive eagerness and impulse, [religion] adds to life an enchantment which is not rationally or logically deducible from anything else.6

The enchantment is the discovery of transcendental value in what seems otherwise transient and dead.

But how can religious atheists know what they claim about the various values they embrace? How can they be in touch with the world of value to check the perhaps fanciful claim in which they invest so much emotion? Believers have the authority of a god for their convictions; atheists seem to pluck theirs out of the air. We need to explore a bit the metaphysics of value.

The religious attitude rejects naturalism, which is one name for the very popular metaphysical theory that nothing is real except what can be studied by the natural sciences, including psychology. That is, nothing exists that is neither matter nor mind; there is really, fundamentally, no such thing as a good life or justice or cruelty or beauty. Richard Dawkins spoke for naturalists when he suggested the scientists’ proper reply to people who, criticizing naturalism, endlessly quote Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” “Yes,” Dawkins replied, “but we’re working on it.”7

Some naturalists are nihilists: they say that values are only illusions. Other naturalists accept that in some sense values exist, but they define them so as to deny them any independent existence: they make them depend entirely on people’s thoughts or reactions. They say, for instance, that describing someone’s behavior as good or right only means that, as a matter of fact, the lives of more people will be pleasant if everyone behaves in that way. Or that saying a painting is beautiful only means that in general people take pleasure in looking at it.

The religious attitude rejects all forms of naturalism. It insists that values are real and fundamental, not just manifestations of something else; they are as real as trees or pain. It also rejects a very different theory we might call grounded realism. This position, also popular among philosophers, holds that values are real and that our value judgments can be objectively true—but only on the assumption, which might be wrong, that we have good reason, apart from our own confidence in our value judgments, to think that we have the capacity to discover truths about value.

There are many forms of grounded realism: one is a form of theism that traces our capacity for value judgment to a god. (I shall shortly argue that this supposed grounding goes in the wrong direction.) They all agree that, if value judgment can ever be sound, there must be some independent reason to think that people have a capacity for sound moral judgment—independent because it does not itself rely on that capacity. That makes the status of value hostage to biology or metaphysics. Suppose we find undeniable evidence that we hold the moral convictions we do only because they were evolutionarily adaptive, which certainly did not require them to be true. Then, on this view, we would have no reason to think that cruelty is really wrong. If we think it is, then we must think we have some other way of being “in touch with” moral truth.

The religious attitude insists on a much more fundamental divorce between the world of value and facts about our natural history or our psychological susceptibilities. Nothing could impeach our judgment that cruelty is wrong except a good moral argument that cruelty is not after all wrong. We ask: What reason do we have for supposing that we have the capacity for sound value judgment? Ungrounded realism answers: the only possible reason we could have—we reflect responsibly on our moral convictions and find them persuasive. We think them true, and we therefore think we have the capacity to find the truth. How can we reject the hypothesis that all our convictions about value are only mutually supporting illusions? Ungrounded realism answers: we understand that hypothesis in the only way that makes it intelligible. It suggests that we do not have an adequate moral case for any of our moral judgments. We refute that suggestion by making moral arguments for some of our moral judgments.

The religious attitude, to repeat, insists on the full independence of value: the world of value is self-contained and self-certifying. Does that disqualify the religious attitude on grounds of circularity? Notice that there is no finally noncircular way to certify our capacity to find truth of any kind in any intellectual domain. We rely on experiment and observation to certify our judgments in science. But experiment and observation are reliable only in virtue of the truth of basic assumptions about causation and optics that we rely on science itself, and nothing more basic, to certify. And of course our judgments about the nature of the external world all depend, even more fundamentally, on a universally shared assumption that there is an external world, an assumption that science cannot itself certify.

We find it impossible not to believe the elementary truths of mathematics and, when we understand them, the astonishingly complex truths that mathematicians have proved. But we cannot demonstrate either the elementary truths or the methods of mathematical demonstration from outside mathematics. We feel that we do not need any independent certification: we know we have an innate capacity for logic and mathematical truth. But how do we know we have that capacity? Only because we form beliefs in these domains that we simply cannot, however we try, disown. So we must have such a capacity.

We might say: we accept our most basic scientific and mathematical capacities finally as a matter of faith. The religious attitude insists that we embrace our values in the same way: finally as a matter of faith as well. There is a striking difference. We have generally agreed standards of good scientific argument and valid mathematical demonstration; but we have no agreed standards for moral or other forms of reasoning about value. On the contrary, we disagree markedly about goodness, right, beauty, and justice. Does that mean that we have an external certification of our capacities for science and mathematics that we lack in the domain of value?

No, because interpersonal agreement is not an external certification in any domain. The principles of scientific method, including the need for interpersonal confirmation of observation, are justified only by the science these methods have produced. As I said, everything in science, including the importance of shared observation, hangs together: it rests on nothing outside science itself. Logic and mathematics are different still. Consensus about the validity of a complex mathematical argument is in no way evidence of that validity. What if—unimaginable horror—the human race ceased to agree about valid mathematical or logical arguments? It would fall into terminal decline, but no one would have any good reason, along the way, to doubt that five and seven make twelve. Value is different still. If value is objective, then consensus about a particular value judgment is irrelevant to its truth or anyone’s responsibility in thinking it true, and experience shows, for better or worse, that the human community can survive great discord about moral or ethical or aesthetic truth. For the religious attitude, disagreement is a red herring.

I said, just now, that the religious attitude rests finally on faith. I said that mainly to point out that science and mathematics are, in the same way, matters of faith as well. In each domain we accept felt, inescapable conviction rather than the benediction of some independent means of verification as the final arbiter of what we are entitled responsibly to believe. This kind of faith is not just passive acceptance of the conceptual truth that we cannot justify our science or our logic or our values without appealing to science or logic or value. It is a positive affirmation of the reality of these worlds and of our confidence that though each of our judgments may be wrong we are entitled to think them right if we have reflected on them responsibly enough.

In the special case of value, however, faith means something more, because our convictions about value are emotional commitments as well and, whatever tests of coherence and internal support they survive, they must feel right in an emotional way as well. They must have a grip on one’s whole personality. Theologians often say that religious faith is a sui generis experience of conviction. Rudolf Otto, in his markedly influential book, The Idea of the Holy, called the experience “numinous” and said it was a kind of “faith-knowledge.”8 I mean to suggest that convictions of value are also complex, sui generis, emotional experiences. As we will see [in a later section of the new book, Religion Without God], when scientists confront the unimaginable vastness of space and the astounding complexity of atomic particles they have an emotional reaction that matches Otto’s description surprisingly well. Indeed many of them use the very term “numinous” to describe what they feel. They find the universe awe-inspiring and deserving of a kind of emotional response that at least borders on trembling.

But of course I do not mean, in speaking of faith, that the fact that a moral conviction survives reflection is itself an argument for that conviction. A conviction of truth is a psychological fact and only a value judgment can argue for the conviction’s truth. And of course I do not mean that value judgments are in the end only subjective. Our felt conviction that cruelty is wrong is a conviction that cruelty is really wrong; we cannot have that conviction without thinking that it is objectively true. Acknowledging the role of felt, irresistible conviction in our experience of value just recognizes the fact that we have such convictions, that they can survive responsible reflection, and that we then have no reason at all, short of further evidence or argument, to doubt their truth.

You may think that if all we can do to defend value judgments is appeal to other value judgments, and then finally to declare faith in the whole set of judgments, then our claims to objective truth are just whistles in the dark. But this challenge, however familiar, is not an argument against the religious worldview. It is only a rejection of that worldview. It denies the basic tenets of the religious attitude: it produces, at best, a standoff. You just do not have the religious point of view.

Religious Science and Religious Value

I have already suggested reasons why we should treat the attitude I have been describing as religious and recognize the possibility of religious atheism. We hope better to understand why so many people declare that they have a sense of value, mystery, and purpose in life in spite of their atheism rather than in addition to their atheism: why they associate their values with those of conventional religion in that way. We also hope to produce an account of religion that we can use to interpret the widespread conviction that people have special rights to religious freedom. [That is one of the projects of the new book.]

I want now to explore another, more complex, reason for treating the attitude I describe as religious. Theists assume that their value realism is grounded realism. God, they think, has provided and certifies their perception of value: of the responsibilities of life and the wonders of the universe. In fact, however, their realism must finally be ungrounded. It is the radical independence of value from history, including divine history, that makes their faith defensible.

The heart of my argument is the following assumption. The conventional, theistic religions with which most of us are most familiar—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have two parts: a science part and a value part. The science part offers answers to important factual questions about the birth and history of the universe, the origin of human life, and whether or not people survive their own death. That part declares that an all-powerful and all-knowing god created the universe, judges human lives, guarantees an afterlife, and responds to prayer.

Of course I do not mean that these religions offer what we count as scientific arguments for the existence and career of their god. I mean only that this part of many religions makes claims about matters of fact and about historical and contemporary causes and effects. Some believers do defend these claims with what they take to be scientific arguments; others profess to believe them as a matter of faith or through the evidence of sacred texts. I call them all scientific in virtue of their content, not their defense.

The value part of a conventional theistic religion offers a variety of convictions about how people should live and what they should value. Some of these are godly commitments, that is, commitments that are parasitic on and make no sense without the assumption of a god. Godly convictions declare duties of worship, prayer, and obedience to the god the religion endorses. But other religious values are not, in that way, godly: they are at least formally independent of any god. The two paradigm religious values I identified are in that way independent. Religious atheists do not believe in a god and so reject the science of conventional religions and the godly commitments, like a duty of ritual worship, that are parasitic on that part. But they accept that it matters objectively how a human life goes and that everyone has an innate, inalienable ethical responsibility to try to live as well as possible in his circumstances. They accept that nature is not just a matter of particles thrown together in a very long history but something of intrinsic wonder and beauty.

The science part of conventional religion cannot ground the value part because—to put it briefly at first—these are conceptually independent. Human life cannot have any kind of meaning or value just because a loving god exists. The universe cannot be intrinsically beautiful just because it was created to be beautiful. Any judgment about meaning in human life or wonder in nature relies ultimately not only on descriptive truth, no matter how exalted or mysterious, but finally on more fundamental value judgments. There is no direct bridge from any story about the creation of the firmament, or the heavens and earth, or the animals of the sea and the land, or the delights of Heaven, or the fires of Hell, or the parting of any sea or the raising of any dead, to the enduring value of friendship and family or the importance of charity or the sublimity of a sunset or the appropriateness of awe in the face of the universe or even a duty of reverence for a creator god.

I am not arguing, against the science of the traditional Abrahamic religions, that there is no personal god who made the heavens and loves its creatures. I claim only that such a god’s existence cannot in itself make a difference to the truth of any religious values. If a god exists, perhaps he can send people to Heaven or Hell. But he cannot of his own will create right answers to moral questions or instill the universe with a glory it would not otherwise have. A god’s existence or character can only figure in the defense of such values as a fact that makes some different, independent background value judgment pertinent; it can only figure, that is, as a minor premise. Of course, a belief in a god can shape a person’s life dramatically. Whether and how it does this depends on the character of the supposed god and the depth of commitment to that god. An obvious and crude case: someone who believes he will go to Hell if he displeases a god will very likely lead a different life from someone who does not have any such belief. But whether what displeases a god is morally wrong is not up to that god.

I am now relying on an important conceptual principle that we might call “Hume’s principle” because it was defended by that eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher. This principle insists that one cannot support a value judgment—an ethical or moral or aesthetic claim—just by establishing some scientific fact about how the world is or was or will be. Something else is always necessary: a background value judgment that shows why the scientific fact is relevant and has that consequence. Yes, whenever I see that someone is in pain, or threatened with danger, I have a moral responsibility to help if I can. Just the plain fact of pain or danger appears to generate, all by itself, a moral duty. But the appearance is deceptive: the pain and danger would not generate a moral duty unless it was also true, as a matter of background moral truth, that people have a general duty to relieve or prevent suffering. Very often, as in this case, the background principle is too obvious to need stating or even thinking. But it must still be there, and it must still really connect the ordinary judgment with the more concrete moral or ethical or aesthetic judgment it is supposed to support.

I agree that the existence of a personal god—a supernatural, all-powerful, omniscient, and loving being—is a very exotic kind of scientific fact. But it is still a scientific fact and it still requires a pertinent background moral principle to have any impact on value judgments. That is important because those background value judgments can only themselves be defended—to the extent they can be defended at all—by locating them in a larger network of values each of which draws on and justifies the others. They can only be defended, as my account of the religious attitude insists, within the overall scheme of value.

So a god’s existence can be shown to be either necessary or sufficient to justify a particular conviction of value only if some independent background principle explains why. We might well be convinced of some such principle. We might think, for instance, that the sacrifice of God’s son on the Cross gives us a responsibility of gratitude to honor the principles for which He died. Or that we owe the deference to the god who created us that we owe a parent, except that our deference to that god must be unlimited and unstinting. Believers will have no trouble constructing other such principles. But the principles they cite, whatever they are, must have independent force seen only as claims of morality or some other department of value. Theists must have an independent faith in some such principle; it is that principle, rather than just the divine events or other facts they claim pertinent, that they must find they cannot but believe. What divides godly and godless religion—the science of godly religion—is not as important as the faith in value that unites them.

  1. 1

    Albert Einstein, in Living Philosophies: The Reflections of Some Eminent Men and Women of Our Time, edited by Clifton Fadiman (Doubleday, 1990), p. 6. 

  2. 2

    “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” (1816). 

  3. 3

    William James, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896), p. 25. 

  4. 4

    United States v. Seeger, 380 US 163 (1965). 

  5. 5

    Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 US 488 (1961), fn. 11: “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others. See Washington Ethical Society v. District of Columbia, 101 US App. D.C. 371, 249 F. 2d 127; Fellowship of Humanity v. County of Alameda, 153 Cal. App. 2d 673, 315 P. 2d 394; II Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences 293; 4 Encyclopaedia Britannica (1957 ed.) 325–327; 21 id., at 797; Archer, Faiths Men Live By (2d ed. revised by Purinton) 120–138, 254–313; 1961 World Almanac 695, 712; Year Book of American Churches for 1961, at 29, 47.” 

  6. 6

    William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (The Modern Library, 1902), p. 47. 

  7. 7

    Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), p. xi. 

  8. 8

    Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, translated by John W. Harvey (Oxford University Press, 1923). Originally published in German in 1917. 

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