Religion without God is the late Ronald Dworkin’s last work, published posthumously in September. It’s a short book; a publisher’s note explains that Dworkin planned to expand the work greatly before he fell ill. Still, the book is important. Not that it says anything especially new. As far as I can tell, in fact, the book repeats familiar, even ancient, objections to the idea of a personal God and proposes a legal definition of religion that is decades old. Religion without God is important, rather, because it reflects the worldview of a celebrated liberal philosopher sympathetic to religion but unable to believe in God, and because it reflects an increasingly important strategy in the Left’s battle to minimize protection for traditional religion.
Religion without God has two main points, one about the nature of religion and the other about religious freedom. In the first part of the book, Dworkin argues that religion, properly understood, does not require a belief in God. Religion requires only a belief in objective meaning and a sense of wonder at the sublime quality of the universe. Many atheists believe in objective meaning and view the universe with a sense of wonder, Dworkin writes, and are thus, in their way, “religious.” Dworkin hopes this insight will dampen the conflict between atheists and believers in contemporary Western culture. Both sides agree on the essential things, he argues; disagreement on the existence of God is only a minor detail.
Take objective moral values, for instance. Many theists believe moral values depend on the existence of a personal God. If God had not told us, or implanted the knowledge in us, we would not know what is right and what is wrong. This is logically incorrect, Dworkin says. Objective values must exist independently of God’s will. Otherwise, God could make conduct ethical simply by commanding it, and that would be entirely arbitrary. What if God ordered you to murder your family members? Would that make the murders right? No, the murders would be wrong, whatever God told you. So God is superfluous to moral reasoning–no more than a possibly helpful guide. Once they recognize this, Dworkin argues, believers will see that their differences with atheists–at least with “religious atheists”–are insignificant.
This argument tracks the famous Euthyphro dilemma, to which Dworkin alludes at the very end of his book. Christianity–I don’t know about other traditions–has an answer to this dilemma, though Dworkin dismisses it rather summarily. The Christian answer is this: the Euthyphro dilemma assumes that God is a being like any other in the universe, subject to the same logical disconnect between fact and value. But God, in Christian understanding, is not like that. Unlike human beings, God is not born into a preexisting universe. He is eternal. As Peter Leithart writes, no gap exists between God and objective reality, including objective moral reality. In the Christian conception, God is objective moral reality.
This is all pretty complicated. But one doesn’t have to follow the entire argument to recognize that theists are unlikely to be persuaded that a belief in God is optional–and that atheists are unlikely to be persuaded that their disagreement with theists is only minor. Dworkin himself recognizes that his irenic project is likely to fail, which gives Religion without God a melancholy tone. He apparently believed it important to try to narrow the conceptual gap between theism and atheism, however, in order to advance a legal project: expanding the legal definition of religion to include non-theistic, ethical convictions.
Here’s the argument. If religion is “deeper” than conventional theism, as Dworkin insists, protection for religious exercise must, in fairness, extend to non-theistic belief systems as well. In fact, protection should extend to any passionately held ethical conviction. This observation isn’t new. In the Draft Act cases decades ago, the Supreme Court indicated that religion could include deeply-held, non-theistic beliefs. But extending “religion” in this way creates a serious practical problem. In our legal system, religion enjoys a specially-protected status. In many instances, government accommodates citizens’ religious beliefs by granting exemptions from otherwise applicable legal requirements. If religion means all deeply-held ethical convictions, how can the state possibly accommodate it? Chaos would result.
Here Dworkin makes his final move. Because of the practical impossibility of accommodating religion, the state should not bother to try. We should abandon “the idea of a special right to religious freedom with its high hurdle of protection,” he writes, in favor of a more general right to “ethical independence.” The payoff? “If we deny a special right to free exercise of religious practice, and rely only on the general right to ethical independence, then religions may be forced to restrict their practices so as to obey rational, nondiscriminatory laws that do not display less than equal concern for them.” Religion, in other words, will take a back seat to progressive politics. A general right of ethical independence, he writes, would restrict public religious displays, unless the displays were genuinely drained of all religious meaning, and would mandate “the liberal position” on same-sex marriage, abortion, and gender equality in marriage.
Dworkin’s definition of religion thus seems tendentious, a way to dilute religion so as to minimize the potential for conflict with the progressive state. This is not surprising. Traditional religion opposes many of the Left’s priorities; for the Left to succeed, it must continue to marginalize traditional religion. And Dworkin’s argument that religion as such does not merit special protection is very much in the air today. Prominent law professors like Brian Leiter and Micah Schwartzman make versions of this argument, for example. In the Hosanna-Tabor case, the Obama Administration maintained that religious freedom, as such, had nothing to do with a church’s decision to fire its minister.
So far, courts appear to be rejecting the religion-isn’t-special argument (though, it must be said, the Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, the peyote case, gives the argument rather more traction than it should possess). In Hosanna-Tabor, for example, the Supreme Court rejected the Obama Administration’s argument by a vote of 9-0. You never know how future courts will see things, though. Dworkin’s last book suggests that the fight over the special status of religion in American law is only beginning.