Tag Archives: Religion and Philosophy

“Rawls and Religion” (Bailey & Gentile, eds.)

In January, Columbia University Press will release “Rawls and Religion” edited by Tom Bailey (John Cabot University, Rome) and Valentina Gentile (LUISS University, Rome). The publisher’s description follows:

John Rawls’s influential theory of justice and public reason has often been thought to exclude religion from politics, out of fear of its illiberal and destabilizing potentials. It has therefore been criticized by defenders of religion for marginalizing and alienating the wealth of religious sensibilities, voices, and demands now present in contemporary liberal societies.

In this anthology, established scholars of Rawls and the philosophy of religion reexamine and rearticulate the central tenets of Rawls’s theory to show they in fact offer sophisticated resources for accommodating and responding to religions in liberal political life. The chapters reassert the subtlety, openness, and flexibility of his sense of liberal “respect” and “consensus,” revealing their inclusive implications for religious citizens. They also explore the means he proposes for accommodating nonliberal religions in liberal politics, developing his conception of “public reason” into a novel account of the possibilities for rational engagement between liberal and religious ideas. And they reevaluate Rawls’s liberalism from the “transcendent” perspectives of religions themselves, critically considering its normative and political value, as well as its own “religious” character. Rawls and Religion makes a unique and important contribution to contemporary debates over liberalism and its response to the proliferation of religions in contemporary political life.

Cross, “Constitutions and Religious Freedom”

In January, Cambridge University Press will release “Constitutions and Religious Freedom” by Frank B. Cross (University of Texas, Austin). The publisher’s description follows:

Many of us take for granted the idea that the right to religious freedom should be protected in a free, democratic polity. However, this book challenges whether the protection and privilege of religious belief and identity should be prioritized over any other right. By studying the effects of constitutional promises of religious freedom and establishment clauses, Frank B. Cross sets the stage for a set of empirical questions that examines the consequences of such protections. Although the case for broader protection is often made as a theoretical matter, constitutions generally protect freedom of religion. Allowing people full choice in holding religious beliefs or freedom of conscience is central to their autonomy. Freedom of religion is thus potentially a very valuable aspect of society, at least so long as it respects the freedom of individuals to be irreligious. This book tests these associations and finds that constitutions provide national religious protection, especially when the legal system is more sophisticated.

Hart, “Kingdoms of God”

This October, Indiana University Press will release “Kingdoms of God” by Kevin Hart (University of Virginia).  The publisher’s description follows:

Kingdoms of GodWhat did Jesus mean by the expression, the Kingdom of God? As an answer, Kevin Hart sketches a “phenomenology of the Christ” that explores the unique way Jesus performs phenomenology. According to Hart, philosophers and theologians continually reinterpret Jesus’s teaching of the Kingdom so that there are effectively many Kingdoms of God. Working in, while also displacing, a tradition inaugurated by Husserl and continued by philosophers such as Heidegger, Marion, and Lacoste, Hart puts forward a new phenomenology of religion that claims that ethics and religion are not always unified or continuous.

“The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion” (Crockett, et al., eds.)

In June, Indiana University Press published “The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion” edited by Clayton Crockett (University of Central Arkansas), B. Keith Putt (Samford University), and Jeffrey W. Robbins (Lebanon Valley College). The publisher’s description follows:

What is the future of Continental philosophy of religion? These forward-looking essays address the new thinkers and movements that have gained prominence since the generation of Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, and Levinas and how they will reshape Continental philosophy of religion in the years to come. They look at the ways concepts such as liberation, sovereignty, and post-colonialism have engaged this new generation with political theology and the new pathways of thought that have opened in the wake of speculative realism and recent findings in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. Readers will discover new directions in this challenging and important area of philosophical inquiry.

Godlove, “Kant and the Meaning of Religion”

This month, Columbia University Press publishes “Kant and the Meaning of Religion” by Terry Godlove (Hofstra University). The publisher’s description follows:

Terry F. Godlove discovers in Immanuel Kant’s theoretical philosophy resources that have much wider implications beyond Christianity and the philosophical issues that concern monotheism and its beliefs. For Godlove, Kant’s insights, when properly applied, can help rejuvenate our understanding of the general study of religion and its challenges. He therefore bypasses what is usually considered to be the “Kantian philosophy of religion” and instead focuses on more fundamental issues, such as Kant’s account of concepts, experience, and reason and their significance in controversial matters. Kant and the Meaning of Religion is a subtle and penetrating effort by a leading contemporary philosopher of religion to redefine and reshape the contours of his discipline through a sustained reflection on Kant’s so-called “humanizing project.”

“The Original Atheists” (S.T. Joshi, ed.)

Next month, Random House publishes The Original Atheists, an anthology of 18th-century writings edited by S.T. Joshi. (Did atheism really originate in the 18th Century?). The publisher’s description follows:

This is the first anthology ever published to feature the writings of leading eighteenth-century thinkers on the subjects of atheism, religion, freethought, and secularism.

Editor S. T. Joshi has compiled notable essays by writers from Germany, France, England, and early America. The contributors include Denis Diderot (a principal author of the multivolume French Encyclopédie), Baron d’Holbach (System of Nature, 1770), Voltaire (Philosophical Dictionary), David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, and other lesser-known thinkers.

With a comprehensive introduction providing the intellectual and cultural context of the essays, this outstanding compilation will be of interest to students of philosophy, religious studies, and eighteenth-century intellectual history.

Religion without God

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.

Roberts, “Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism After Secularism”

This month, Columbia University Press publishes Encountering Religion: encountering religionResponsibility and Criticism After Secularism by Tyler Roberts (Grinnell College).  The publisher’s description follows.

Tyler Roberts encourages scholars to abandon the conceptual opposition between “secular” and “religious” to better understand how human beings actively and thoughtfully engage with their worlds and make meaning. The artificial distinction between a self-conscious and critical “academic study of religion” and an ideological and authoritarian “religion,” he argues, only obscures the phenomenon. Instead, Roberts calls on intellectuals to approach the field as a site of “encounter” and “response,” illuminating the agency, creativity, and critical awareness of religious actors. 

To respond to religion is to ask what religious behaviors and representations mean to us in our individual worlds, and scholars must confront questions of possibility and becoming that arise from testing their beliefs, imperatives, and practices. Roberts refers to the work of Hent de Vries, Eric Santner, and Stanley Cavell, each of whom exemplifies encounter and response in their writings as they traverse philosophy and religion to expose secular thinking to religious thought and practice. This approach highlights the resources religious discourse can offer to a fundamental reorientation of critical thought. In humanistic criticism after secularism, the lines separating the creative, the pious, and the critical themselves become the subject of question and experimentation.

Tocqueville and Habermas

After their decisive victory over a larger Austrian force in the Battle of Leuthen (1757), the soldiers of the Prussian Army broke out spontaneously in the great Lutheran hymn, Nun danket alle Gott – “Now thank we all our God.” The Prussian King, Frederick the Great, listened in astonishment. A free thinker, friend of Voltaire, and a “benevolent” Enlightenment despot, the Great King exclaimed: Mein Gott! Welche Kraft hat die Religion – “My God! How much power religion has!”

Jűrgen Habermas

Another German free thinker and heir to the Enlightenment seems recentlyHabermas to have made a similarly startling discovery. I refer to the widely renowned German philosopher and public intellectual Jűrgen Habermas. For much of his career, Habermas identified himself as a staunch defender of Enlightenment rationality, the anointed successor of Immanuel Kant. His account of liberal, democratic constitutionalism assumed only secular foundations, and deliberately excluded any reference to the authority of religion. But in recent years, Habermas has veered away from that course; his stance toward religion has changed. First, he has come to accept that religion, even in the West, is not going away – at least not soon. Second, he is prepared, albeit tentatively, to recognize a role for religion to play in public, political discourse. Indeed, he even entertains the thought that “philosophy,” or secular reason, will engage in a colloquy with “theology” and revealed religion.

Reflecting this change of heart, Habermas, as guest of the Catholic Academy of Bavaria, engaged then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger in debate in Munich in 2004. Habermas’ address has been published as “Prepolitical Foundations of the Constitutional State?” in Jűrgen Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays (Ciaran Cronin trans. 2012). Subsequently, in 2007, Habermas debated four Jesuit theologians, again in Munich, in 2007. His remarks on this occasion have been published as Jűrgen Habermas, An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age (Ciaran Cronin trans. 2010). In a short, penetrating essay entitled “Does Reason Know What It Is Missing” (New York Times, April 12, 2010), the distinguished literary theorist, public intellectual and deconstructionist Stanley Fish reviewed and criticized Habermas’ position in these debates.

Habermas’ later thoughts on religion and politics are relevant to this series for several reasons. First, it is interesting and instructive to compare the ideas of this early twenty-first century thinker with those of de Tocqueville. Tendencies in modern, democratic society whose first stirrings Tocqueville discerned have had almost two intervening centuries in which to work themselves out. In particular, secularization has become far more pervasive. But second and no less important, Habermas’ thinking sheds light on the question raised in my last posting: whether democracy can survive and flourish, despite the perceptible deepening and entrenchment of social and economic inequalities, if Western society is radically de-christianized? The bare fact that a thinker of Habermas’ repute considered it timely and important to raise the question of “prepolitical,” religious foundations for the liberal-democratic, “constitutional” State suggests that there may, indeed, be a possible need here that only religion can serve. Moreover, Tocqueville himself gave attention to the question that Habermas poses, albeit in a less systematic and focused way.

There is, I believe, a particular point of contact between Habermas and Tocqueville in the latter’s correspondence with his friend and assistant Arthur de Gobineau (whom we have briefly encountered earlier in this series). In that correspondence, Tocqueville comes closest to giving us his answer to the question whether modern Western democracy presupposes Christianity. That correspondence will be the centerpiece of my next and final posting.

Habermas on the prepolitical foundations of the constitutional State

A longstanding project of Habermas has been to provide a nonreligious, “post-metaphysical” justification of the normative foundations of constitutional democracy. He finds this type of justification in “political liberalism,” more especially in the form of “Kantian republicanism.” Prepolitical Foundations at 102. While acknowledging antecedents in Christian theology, Habermas insists that “the form of state power that remains neutral toward different worldviews ultimately derives from the profane sources of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy.” Id. Unlike Tocqueville, then, who sees the normative foundations of political liberalism as rooted in both Christian and Enlightenment thought, Habermas locates those foundations solely, or at least primarily, in the Enlightenment. (Habermas’ resistance to giving full recognition to Christianity’s historic role in shaping the modern liberal-democratic State recalls the long debate over whether the Preamble of the Draft Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe should include a reference to God or Christianity. In the end, it did not. See Srdjan Cvijic and Lorenzo Zucca, Does the European Constitution need Christian Values?, 24 Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 739 (2004) (discussing J.H.H. Weiler, Un’ Europa Cristiana: un saggio explorativo (2002))).

The core of Habermas’ justificatory strategy is to base the legitimacy of the decision-making of the liberal, democratic state on an open, inclusive process of public communication, argument and reflection in which citizens engage on equal terms.

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“Just War: Authority, Tradition, and Practice” (Lang et al., eds.)

This July, Georgetown University Press published Just Law: Authority, Tradition, and Practice edited by Anthony F. Lang Jr. 9781589019961(University of St. Andrews), Cian O’Driscoll (University of Glasgow), and John Williams (Durham University). The publisher’s description follows.

The just war tradition is central to the practice of international relations, in questions of war, peace, and the conduct of war in the contemporary world, but surprisingly few scholars have questioned the authority of the tradition as a source of moral guidance for modern statecraft. Just War: Authority, Tradition, and Practice brings together many of the most important contemporary writers on just war to consider questions of authority surrounding the just war tradition.

Authority is critical in two key senses. First, it is central to framing the ethical debate about the justice or injustice of war, raising questions about the universality of just war and the tradition’s relationship to religion, law, and democracy. Second, who has the legitimate authority to make just-war claims and declare and prosecute war? Such authority has traditionally been located in the sovereign state, but non-state and supra-state claims to legitimate authority have become increasingly important over the last twenty years as the just war tradition has been used to think about multilateral military operations, terrorism, guerrilla warfare, and sub-state violence. The chapters in this collection, organized around these two dimensions, offer a compelling reassessment of the authority issue’s centrality in how we can, do, and ought to think about war in contemporary global politics.