TOP 500 REVIEWERon 6 January 2017
Over a lengthy career, the late Ronald Dworkin (1931 -- February 14, 2013) gradually expanded his philosophical scope from legal philosophy and a rejection of legal positivism to broad questions of ethics, metaphysics, and value. Thus, Dworkin's broadest statement of his philosophy is included in "Religion without God" (2013) which Dworkin submitted to his publisher shortly before his death. This short book is based upon lectures Dworkin gave in December 2011 at the University of Bern. Due to illness, he was unable to revise the book as fully as he had hoped.
"Religion without God" is a short pocket-sized book of 160 pages in four chapters. In many portions, Dworkin speaks from the heart as well as the mind. The book has intimacy and eloquence as well as thought. In its meditations on death in the final chapter, the book has a valedictory tone.
In addition to its intimacy, the book is striking in some of its strong philosophical assertions. This is not primarily in Dworkin's exposition of non-theological religion, a subject many writers have explored. It lies more in what appear to be Dworkin's strong claims for objectivity and realism in the realm of values and in his claims for philosophical rationalism, necessitarianism and intelligibilty. Many contemporary American philosophers would be hesitant when faced with such strong positions. Dworkin seems to me not to fully develop or support some of these difficult positions. He argues for some but not for all of them in his longer book of 2011, "Justice for Hedgehogs". Justice for Hedgehogs
I found the book departs in places from its theme of "Religion without God". In the third chapter titled "Religious Freedom", Dworkin moves from broader philosophical questions back to Dworkin's more usual focus on legal philosophy and political liberalism. The chapter examines religious freedom and personal liberty under the constitution and deals with matters such as gay rights, same sex marriage, abortion, conscientious objection, and the extent to which the use of illegal hallucinogenic drugs should be allowed to religious groups. Dworkin argues that the first amendment right to religious freedom is better viewed as a legal right to protection for decisions showing "ethical independence" or the freedom of individuals to choose for themselves the fundamental ways to live their lives as long as these ways do not impinge upon other people. The discussion is interesting but slightly off-focus for the book as a whole. In addition, I am unclear about whether Dworkin's claim for "ethical independence" is consistent fully for his claim for the objectivity of ethical values which he supports in the remaining sections of the book.
The remaining three chapters, particularly the first and last, do develop Dworkin's views on the relationship between religion and God. Broadly, Dworkin distinguishes between a religious outlook and a naturalistic outlook. The latter Dworkin argues is based solely on science and materialism and has no place for values or purpose. Dworkin's criticism of naturalism needs careful thought and development and may not fully convince those who hold to a broad naturalistic position. The religious outlook, for Dworkin, "accepts the full, independent reality of value" and makes two claims about objectivity. First the religious outlook involves a commitment to the objective meaning and importance of human life. The purpose of life, for Dworkin, is for each individual to make his life successful by living well, accepting responsibility for oneself and one's projects and acknowledging moral responsibilities to other people. Second, the religious outlook holds that nature in not simply a brute matter of fact to be studied by science "but is itself sublime: something of intrinsic value and wonder."
Dworkin argues that in the sense he has developed both theists and atheists may be religious. He maintains that religions have a fact or scientific component and a value component. Dworkin then argues at some length that value commitments and the objectivity of ethical claims do not depend upon facts of a natural or supernatural sort. In other words, the objectivity of value claims is a matter of the value claims themselves and does not depend on a God for validation. The existence of God would not be sufficient to validate the claims in any event. Hence a person can be religious, for Dworkin, without commitment to the existence of God, although Dworkin does not argue against theism per se in the book. Dworkin's arguments for the separation of God's existence from value are based upon Plato's dialogue the "Euthyphro" and on David Hume's argument that questions of value cannot be decided by questions of fact.
In the first and fourth and to some extent the third chapters of the book, Dworkin expands on the objectivity of value and on the nature of living well. The second chapter, "The Universe" consists of a lengthy, challenging excursus into physical science. Some religious individuals, theist or non-theist, might have qualms about the relevance of this chapter, which develops the strong character of some of Dworkin's philosophical views. Broadly, Dworkin considers modern physics and develops his view he maintains is part of the religious outlook, that the universe is beautiful objectively and in whole (rather than just in part to some human beings), and consistent and rational throughout rather than an assemblage of complex, unrelated facts. He concludes: "[f]or those of us who think beauty real, the scientific presumption that the universe is finally fully comprehensible is also the religious conviction that it shines with real beauty." Dworkin's position in this chapter, for me, approaches that of philosophical idealism and rationalism which most contemporary thinkers reject. That does not make the position mistaken. I was fascinated, if not entirely convinced, to read how close Dworkin comes to it.
This short book is a fitting testament to Dworkin and takes his work well beyond the scope of the legal philosophy for which he will be remembered. The book represents aspiration and vision more than completeness. I was glad to think with Dworkin about philosophy, value, and a meaningful life in this, his final book.