Religion Without God

Ronald Dworkin’s last book, Religion Without God, is simultaneously a blast from the past and a sign of the times. He claims to be religious and atheist in a manner that has some parallels in religious humanism from the middle of last century. Yet when comparing religious views and secular views as the basis for human values, he shows only a modest comprehension of the latter.

The most expansive argument of the book is that value has a supernatural source. Nonetheless, Dworkin doesn’t even hint at any other characteristics of his source of value. He says evidence of it can’t be found because it’s supernatural. But he also doesn’t indicate how humans might know the values that come from this source. In other recent work, Dworkin argued for a unitary value system that holds that some values—we can assume those from his supernatural source—are objective and true. But all he can offer as a basis for determining which are which is “when we are justified in thinking that our arguments for holding it true are adequate arguments.” So much for objectivity.

The root of Dworkin’s confusion is his failure to distinguish meanings of the word “value.” He starts out talking about moral values, as in choices about good and bad, and ends up talking about the value of perceptions to judgment, as in the search for truth. These two profoundly different concepts must be treated differently, but he lumps them into the same category. The reality is that both play into judgment, but in radically different ways. Moral or personal values are the basis for choice, which in judgment comes into play in terms of what one ends up wanting: for example, good things are usually what we call that which we want, rather than bad or wrong things, which are the things we don’t want.

In contrast, the value of perception is based on a reasoned assessment of the aspects of judgment about what the truth is. This type of assessment, to find truth, must in fact be free of the first kind of value. The first is ultimately personal choice, while the second is methodical, whether personal, scientific, legal, or otherwise. The first is opinion, subject to persuasion. The second is evidence-based, subject to revision in the face of compelling reassessment of old evidence or discovery of new evidence. For those reasons, while reality is objective, neither type of value is. Tellingly, Dworkin never defines “value.”

On a constructive note, Dworkin holds that religious theists and non-theists can communicate with each other in terms of value. This point isn’t exactly in line with his claim that values are objective. But it’s certainly true. The work of organizations like the American Humanist Association is clear proof that most naturalists, meaning those who define knowledge as the best conclusion from current scientific evidence, can communicate with any religionists who are willing to talk about values. Not only does Dworkin seem oblivious to that reality on the ground, he demonstrates a blindness to the true nature of naturalism that prevents him from including naturalists in the breadth of his statement.

For one thing, Dworkin’s embrace of a supernatural source for value collides with his overall appreciation for science. His general acceptance of scientific knowledge makes him a naturalist as far as it goes. In that respect, the sum of his views are a blast from the past in that they’re not so far from religious humanists like John Dewey and Julian Huxley—instrumentalist naturalists in that they relied on science to provide evidence useful for understanding reality and making choices.

But Dworkin’s supernaturalism on the question of value ultimately puts him outside naturalism. Naturalistic humanists flat out reject a supernatural realm on grounds of lack of evidence. Even Dewey and Huxley pleaded lack of knowledge of the source of value and certain other key philosophical elements of human existence. In contrast, Dworkin, in a contradiction in terms, calls his view “religious atheism.” Certainly his view isn’t theistic, but that doesn’t mean it’s atheistic. The middle ground is nontheistic religion. Whereas Dewey’s pragmatic humanism found values in assessments of human nature and natural law, Dworkin’s supernatural source for values is a nontheistic religious solution through and through. His larger argument, of course, is that religious experience of nature doesn’t require belief in God. Not surprisingly, Dworkin favorably discusses the nontheistic religions of Paul Tillich, Baruch Spinoza, and pantheism, although he only comes close to endorsing Spinoza’s deistic version. Viewing it as religious nontheism, his argument in favor of his proposition on the basis for value is consistent.

That framing also more fully explains Dworkin’s forceful argument against naturalism. In line with his general misrepresentation of naturalism, his arguments stereotype views of naturalists on the subject of value. On the one hand, he repeatedly either describes all naturalists as determinists who see no order in the universe or as asserting that all that exists is a random accident. He claims without basis that naturalists do not find beauty in nature. On the other hand, he cites Albert Einstein and Steven Weinberg, among others, who clearly are naturalists exclaiming the beauty of nature’s fundamental laws of physics. By doing so, he contradicts his own claims about how individual naturalists describe the universe and offensively portrays all naturalists as viewing the universe as chaos or a mere machine.

Like so many theists, Dworkin thus tries to claim that all expansive emotional experiences are religious. But before the hominid species had words for those experiences, much less religion, they certainly experienced beauty as well as wonder, awe, and marvel, all of which Dworkin asserts are solely religious.

Lacking a demonstrable understanding of what naturalism is, Dworkin’s argument harkens back to the same old prejudice as Rev. H.E. Fosdick’s now obsolete attack on humanism, “Religion Without God?” written in 1929.

Mainstream naturalism is generallyquite the opposite of how Dworkin describes it. Naturalism sees order in nature, consisting of laws established by evidence tested with the scientific method. He does not acknowledge that for naturalists, human value is explained sufficiently by: (1) the existence of things in the universe to value and (2) the capacity of humans and other life forms to value things. Humanists generally value those things that sustain the standing of humans in the universe derived from as comprehensive an understanding of the parameters of our existence as currently exists. Those values neither have nor need a supernatural source. Yet Dworkin attacks naturalists and others who find values to be personal and relative, without explaining why it is bad to do so. He fails to explain why thinking that way could prevent a person from perceiving beauty and awe and wonder and marvel in nature. He certainly doesn’t show how an objective supernatural source of value, if it existed, would be better. Finally, he acts as if the values expressed by naturalists, such as those in the Humanist Manifesto, aren’t real.

All in all, given its meager offering of new insight into the nature of value, Dworkin’s book feels more like an attempt to get in on the action that humanists and naturalists have been generating in philosophy. Dworkin’s book is only one of several recent books, some by religionists or philosophers who he claims as influences, which come across as half-baked efforts to talk with authority on naturalism and science despite not having a firm grounding in the subject matter. In that way, Dworkin’s book is another sign of the times in which the fortunes of humanism and naturalism in the United States are rising.