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Deeper than God

Manus Charleton

Religion Without God, by Ronald Dworkin, Harvard University Press, 180 pp, €19.99, ISBN: 978-0674726826

In the second century AD the Stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations: “Either a universe of order, or else a farrago thrown together at random yet somehow forming a universe.” Since then scientists have been progressively revealing a universe of order by showing that it is comprehensible to human intelligence. The universe is ordered according to demonstrable physical laws. People who subscribe to a religion believe the universe is intentionally organised. God made it that way and is its intelligent designer. Some scientists also locate the source of this order ultimately in their belief in a creator God but, of course, many do not. Then there are those who also regard the universe as structured but without subscribing to a belief in God to account for it. In Religion Without God, based on the Einstein lectures he gave in 2011, and which was incomplete before he died in 2013, American philosopher Ronald Dworkin argues that this makes both groups essentially religious.

He argues that, as well as religious theists, there are many others who because they believe the universe is inherently ordered while at the same time reaching beyond our comprehension, should also be regarded as religious. He calls them religious atheists. Among scientists, Einstein is the most famous religious atheist. Dworkin quotes Einstein to illustrate that he was “devoutly religious”:

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 primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the centre of true religiousness.

The philosopher’s aim is to expand and make more inclusive the meaning of what it is to be religious beyond its tie to a belief in God. He believes that positing the existence of a creator God is but one way of accounting for a religious belief about the universe. As he puts it in his opening sentence, “religion is deeper than God.” For him the central practical point in recognising that many atheists are religious in this way is that it brings closer together many people who do not believe in God with those who do. They are not as far apart as is suggested by their opposing views on a range of moral and social issues, for “what they share is more fundamental than what divides them.”

Religious atheists and theists also believe that, as ordered and vastly mysterious, the universe has value in itself or objective value, which does not depend on us for its attribution. As a consequence of this belief, both religious atheists and theists can also defend the view that it matters as something good in itself that we should try to order our lives in a way that has value, that is, in an ethical way. How we should live is not a random matter, it answers to something deep in us as the offspring of an ordered universe that has value. An ordered universe gives objective backing to ethics. It gives us reasons to identify and live by the values we find meaningful. Such values, he holds, include having respect for the natural world as well as for ourselves and others.

The belief that the universe has objective order and value is not shared by those atheists he calls naturalists. While naturalists accept that the universe is intelligible, they believe its reality is revealed only in facts about the material world and about the human mind using the methods of the natural sciences. Attributing inherent order and value to the universe as a whole goes beyond such knowledge. It is an illusion or at best speculation. Instead, naturalists regard the universe as “an incalculably vast accident of gas and energy.” Also, they do not see any inherent objective basis for living an ethical life. They view ethical feelings, views and judgments as merely relative to individuals, groups, cultures or as accepted social norms for the sake of convenience in living together.

That the universe has objective order and value is a belief which religious atheists share with religious theists. Order and value cannot be conclusively demonstrated to exist as objective attributes. In contrast to religion, science is held to provide proof about aspects of the universe through its empirical, rational methods and verifiable results. However, Dworkin maintains that the objectivity of scientific results still rests on belief. This is because, for all its success, science is ultimately based on faith in its own methods to reveal objective knowledge. The ‘truths’ science discovers about the universe are self certifying to its procedures. There is no means outside science itself which can independently verify the laws it establishes, just as there is no means outside a particular religion which can independently verify as objectively true its beliefs about God and the universe. Even maths, he maintains, is subject to the same qualification that its truths are inherent to its method, notwithstanding the innate compulsion of the mind to assent to its logic. Even though there is general agreement about standards for proof in science and maths, standards which are lacking in religious statements about particular beliefs, Dworkin points out that consensus does not equate with objective truth.

In making the case that science is ultimately based on belief in order to draw it closer to religion, Dworkin might have quoted the British scientist J.B.S. Haldane view “that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose but queerer than we can suppose.”  Irish mystic philosopher John Moriarty was given to quoting this view on the limitation of scientific knowledge.  Phenomenology, which studies consciousness from the first person point of view, also draws attention to the limitations of human knowledge. For Merleau-Ponty, a key phenomenologist, each of us is situated in a vast universe as an embodied “thing among things” with particular sense organs linked to a particular brain which enables us to perceive and think. On this basis, we are confined to exploring the universe’s inexhaustible perceptual depth only through these organs, whether they put to use in the disciplines of science, religion or the arts. The universe is given to us from within, and we cannot look on it as if from some vantage point outside to ascertain the whole truth about it. No matter how powerful the light of intelligence or strong the consensus, we are organically debarred, in Merleau-Ponty’s phrase, from “high altitude thought.”We are always finding our way.

At the same time, Dworkin believes the fact that science and religion are ultimately based on faith does not take away from their efficacy in revealing knowledge. They are means of seeking truth, and scientists who are religious atheists along with believers in a God of religion are right to affirm the validity of their judgments once they have arrived at them through responsible reflection and bear in mind that they may be wrong.

Dworkin argues that religious atheists and theists also share a belief in the beauty of the universe. Beauty is often thought to be subjective. It is in the eye of the beholder after all. Yet, there is something about the claim that the universe is beautiful which suggests that its beauty may be integral to it and independent of our opinion. People will readily admit to having been profoundly struck at some time with wonder, awe and a sense of the sublime or even rapture while gazing up into the spectacular majesty of the night sky and trying to imagine something of the universe’s power and size. Dworkin takes this common reaction to the universe as evidence of its beauty. Many scientists in particular are struck by the universe having beauty in this sense, especially those working in cosmology (the very large) and in particle physics (the very small). People who are affected in this way do not regard their feelings as fanciful or relative to their individual taste or perception but as reflecting the universe’s nature. 

Not only do many scientists regard the universe as beautiful in this sense but some also see that explanations about how the universe works will themselves be beautiful if they are true. They take the beauty of a theory as in some way evidence of its truth. Dworkin goes to some length to try and understand how this could be the case. How could a theory’s truth be bound up with its beauty in any way? Beauty is surely a separate matter from truth, or is it? Dworkin does quote Keats’s oracular “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Keats drew this identification of one with the other from Plato. Unlike Keats’ romantic motivation, it was Plato’s rationalist thinking that led him to connect truth with beauty. He connected both with goodness, identifying them as the triumvirate of brightest stars guiding us in the firmament of his theory of forms.

Of course, there is not unanimity among scientists about the beauty of a theory being linked to its truth. Some argue there is no reason why a true account could not be “untidy”, or massively complicated. Yet some scientists talk in aesthetic terms about the simplicity, elegance and symmetry of a theory as markers of its truth. Dworkin examines these particular claims and finds them wanting. But he believes there is a certain kind of beauty, the beauty of inevitability, implicit in the scientific attempt to find a comprehensive and comprehensible account which unites the world of the very small with the world of the very large.

To make the discoveries on which to base the scientific theory of everything, or the final theory, is the great ambition, albeit a theory still limited to the methods of science. Dworkin argues that if there is to be beauty in such an account, it cannot be imposed. It cannot come from outside the understanding of the theory as something added on, for this would make it an extraneous matter of taste or opinion. Rather, it has to come from within the theory as its internal necessity; the necessity which expresses the inevitable way the universe has been from its inception and throughout its development. It will articulate how the universe, with all the forces that are at work in it, could not have been otherwise.

Yet, why should this make the theory beautiful? Dworkin points to a similarity between this type of beauty and the beauty we readily recognise in a work of art, such as in a great novel, painting, symphony or building such as the Taj Mahal. This is the inevitability of the necessary integration or confluence of the parts to bring about the whole. It is a whole which has something inexpressible compared to the sum of its parts. The work has an internal coherence and unity which reaches beyond itself and we admire it for its beauty on account of this. If the work is put together in a random way or with parts that stick out awkwardly then we would not regard it as a beautiful work. As is often said of the finest works, they cannot be taken from or added to without tainting them. Dworkin quotes from Henry James’ preface to The Ambassadors where the author refers to dramatists believing “irresistibly, in the necessary, the precious “tightness” of the place (whatever the issue) on the strength of any respectable hint.” In a similar way, scientists are looking for an explanatory theory about how the universe works which will have the tightness of necessity, both as the mark of its truth and of its beauty. 

Finding beauty in the universe’s inevitability would seem at odds with a religious view which regards it as created from a free act of God’s will and as reflecting his supernal magisterial power. However, Dworkin argues that both accounts share what he calls “shielded strong integrity.” Everything about the universe is potentially understandable from within each account, whether it is based on inevitability or divine creation. Within its own terms, each provides an overall comprehensible story, albeit one which is incomplete in the case of science while religion requires extraordinary beliefs and relies on mystery. From their two different accounts of shielded strong integrity, he argues both religious atheists and theists attempt to account for the universe’s inherent beauty, the beauty we recognise in a work of art.

In the last chapter, “Death and Immortality,” he points out that many people dread the thought that their death may be the end of their conscious life. They have an understandable desire for immortality and this desire is served by theistic religious belief. Science is of little help, for even if we survive forever as some form of quantum stuff, it is hardly a desirable immortality. However, there is another, achievable form of immortality for non theists (and theists). In God based religious culture, gaining immortality is dependent upon living an ethical life in accordance with what are believed to be God’s wishes. It is assumed that God wants people to live a good life out of respect for themselves and others or out of love of Him. An ethical life solely required out of fear of God and His power to inflict eternal damnation would hardly be a dignified way to live. In other words, theists believe there is some reason that is good in itself or objectively good to live an ethical life in accordance with God based religious belief.

In a similar way, religious atheists also believe that there is something objectively good about trying to live a good life, as they see fit. Dworkin relates “immortality” to the “complete satisfaction in itself” which we can get from doing ordinary things well, such as cooking, playing a tune or a sport or growing flowers or interacting with others. There is a creative, artistic element to doing such things well. We can apply this creative element in trying to live our life well as a whole in accordance with our beliefs towards achieving similar satisfaction. Life as an art is “any life someone self consciously leads supposing it to be a life lived well according to a plausible view of what that means.” Such “immortality” does not require that we become famous for how well we have lived or from having achieved something great which might outlast us. It is sufficient that it enables us face death knowing we have “made something good in response to the greatest challenge a mortal faces.” It is bound up with our social nature as much as fulfilling our own needs and desires and realising our individual potential, for it is the life of someone who “lives well in family and community.” It is through treating our life as an art on this understanding that we can fashion it into “a kind of immortality,” the only form of immortality we can all reasonably imagine. While it is far from immortality in a literal sense, to believe in it as something good is a religious conviction in its own way. This belief further connects “the godless with the godly.”

Dworkin does not discuss Aristotle in detail, but in believing in an art of living the good life, he would seem to be echoing his philosophy. For Aristotle, the art is in developing qualities of character by responding in a rational or emotionally intelligent way to our feelings and desires, which are stimulated by life’s needs, opportunities and challenges. In practising this art we are behaving as we ought to behave in accordance with our human nature. It could be seen as a way of trying to match our behaviour with the intelligible order which science reveals in the universe.

This attempt to bring closer together the beliefs of religious atheists and theists may seem far removed from questions of legal freedom to practice beliefs in secular democratic societies, which Dworkin calls questions of “political morality.” But extending the meaning of religious to include atheists who also have profound beliefs requires, he argues, a reformulation of the special rights to religious freedoms which are set down in constitutions and international rights agreements. In the penultimate chapter he maintains that the specific protected category of religious belief should be replaced by the broader, more inclusive category of a right to “ethical independence.” For legal purposes, ethical independence would be defined along the lines of a sincere and meaningful belief which people have about how life should be lived and which, for atheists, has an important parallel to that which a religious faith has for those who believe in God. He notes that there has been legal precedent for this view in a judgment of the US Supreme Court. It upheld atheist and pacifist Daniel Andrew Seeger’s right to hold a conscientious objection against fighting in the Vietnam War. The Court based its judgement on a broad interpretation of the wording of the special right to religious freedom in the US constitution. In so doing, it was giving practical, interpretative application to the core democratic and constitutional concept of equality with regard to those whose ethical beliefs were theistic and those that were not.

But as we know from “the culture wars” between secular liberals and the theistic religious, the moral and legal right to practice certain beliefs is ethically thorny and contentious. (Dworkin sees these “wars” as a modern version of the religious wars in Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). At the root of the disagreement is the requirement in a constitutional democracy for government to uphold freedom to practice beliefs while not favouring one religious or ethical independence view over another. Yet, in supporting religious and ethical freedom to practice beliefs, a government cannot give a carte blanche for people of every persuasion to practice whatever beliefs they like. For example, some people may hold sincere racist views as central to how they see their lives should be lived. So, on what basis can a government make morally justifiable decisions to prohibit certain beliefs?

Dworkin gives three reasons for doing so: protecting citizens from harm; improving the general welfare; and protecting natural wonders. They are related to an understanding of the common good, though he does not use the phrase. He then argues the state should abide by three requirements in making its decisions. Firstly, it should remain impartial or neutral, which means not imposing its view on what particular belief based practices are either ethically desirable or objectionable. Secondly, it should not favour or give preference to the practices of one ethically independent belief system over another. And thirdly, it should give “equal concern” for those practices which express sincere beliefs about how life should be lived. On this basis he then considers a number of issues briefly and gives his judgement.

Displays in public buildings of representations and practices of particular religious beliefs favour one system over others. So, for example, cribs in public buildings and crucifixes and denominational prayers in state schools should not be allowed. Though he does not mention it directly, it would also exclude references in a constitution to God as a guiding light, since this would give preference to theists over atheists, or one group of theists over another. This is an issue in the Irish Constitution where the Preamble refers to the Christian God. (The recent report of the Convention on the Constitution has recommended a review of its wording to enable it accommodate the views of people of all beliefs). In lieu of prayer, he accepts state schools could allow for periods of non directive reflection or quiet time so pupils can engage with their own spiritual sensibility and reflect on deeper questions about the purpose of life. Also, if a particular religious practice or representation has come to have general, non theistic significance in a society, then he thinks it should be allowed. In Ireland, arguably, this would make acceptable the public service broadcasting of The Angelus as long as televised images which accompany the ringing of the church bell are of a general nature and not specifically Catholic.

Gay marriage should be permitted, as it can be justifiably understood to fit into a particular sincere interpretation of the intrinsic worth of life for people who have a same sex orientation. Similarly, his criteria allow choice for abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide, subject to legal constraints and safeguards. These practices accord with a decision some people might want to make in order to live their lives responsibly according to their belief in its intrinsic value. On grounds of ethical independence these practices cannot justifiably be prohibited in favour of another interpretation which regards them as offending against life’s intrinsic worth. He merely touches on his argument here on these issues, referring the reader to his 1994 book Life’s Dominion, An Argument about Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom in which he explores in detail his argument supporting this position.

He also argues for the freedom to wear clothes and symbols that have religious associations in state schools and public employment. This is in line with the principle that the state ought to permit citizens to live a life of intrinsic worth as they see fit insofar as possible, and the practice does not involve perceptions of favouring any one religion over others. This is a contentious issue in some democratic countries, in particular in France. Here people’s republican right to personal independence and freedom to live as they choose is highly prized. Yet in 2005 the government saw fit to impose a ban. In 2011, the government imposed a further ban on covering the face in public places, which includes the burka and niqab face veils. At the kernel of the debate is a perceived clash in practice between freedom of choice and having a shared sense of equality among citizens living together in a secular democratic society. From one perspective, allowing people to choose to wear dress with religious associations in public schools and places of employment is a way of supporting their freedom as well as treating everyone equally. But to allow for this could be judged to conflict with having a shared sense of equality where the freedom is seen to erect a visible barrier which divides people from each other.

A Muslim woman took a case to the European Court of Human Rights that her rights under a number of articles in the European Convention on Human Rights were being breached by the French ban on face covering in public, which prevented her from wearing a veil outside her home in accordance with her religious beliefs. In July this year, the court ruled that her rights were not violated and the ban did not discriminate against her beliefs. The court regarded respect for the conditions of “living together” as a legitimate aim of the French government and accepted its argument that when some people conceal their faces it could undermine respect for the minimum conditions of life in society. (The court rejected other arguments the French government made, that the ban was necessary to show respect for gender equality and for human dignity). However, for Dworkin, this ban is the French government imposing of its own view of what it finds ethically desirable rather than allowing for ethical independence in practice.

Yet, whether the French government is right or wrong in its interpretation of the application of republican values to the issue, it highlights that there is, and has to be, one set of values in a democracy which must override all others and they are the values of democracy itself. Such democratic values are not just another set of ethical independence values on a par with all others that are religious or secular, as is sometimes argued. They lie at the foundation of the state where they form the very basis for the freedoms of religious and other ethical independence value systems. As the government is bound by the constitution and laws in which the democratic values are enshrined, it has to give effect to these values. Thus, governments have to give priority to them in deciding on particular social and educational arrangements.

This is why it would be hard to justify, for example, how the Irish government gave special exemption from discrimination in the 1998 Employment Equality Act to religious organisations in state funded educational or medical establishments if they take “action which is reasonably necessary to prevent an employee or prospective employee from undermining the religious ethos of the institution.” Under Dworkin’s criteria, this is arguably an example of the state not only privileging religious values over secular ones but, in effect, giving a legal right to discriminate against people for their beliefs and practices in institutions which it supports. The logic of the provision would be for the state, by the same token, to have given itself legal exemption from discrimination on equality grounds if it chooses to take action to prevent, for example, a religious theist from undermining the secular ethos in state schools. The clause in the act is currently undergoing amendment to ensure it does not provide for discrimination, and it remains to be seen what the new wording will be and how it will fit with the legal philosopher’s criteria for providing equality of ethical independence in practice.

In some respects Dworkin is in the tradition of the nineteenth century British philosopher, John Stuart Mill. In his seminal 1859 essay On Liberty, Mill laid down the liberal position which limited state power to interfere with the beliefs and practices of citizens to the prevention of harm coming to others. Apart from that, the state should remain neutral and people should be free to believe and practice what they like. It is the argument for the nonintrusive state where “our own good, physical or moral is not a sufficient reason” for the state to lay down what we can or cannot do, apart from the state having a duty to provide the education needed to enable citizens to make their own informed choices. However, it is often an open matter of interpretation and judgement what practices cause sufficient harm to others to warrant state interference and regulation.

Harm can be emotional and financial, as well as physical or moral, and harming or risking harm to oneself by engaging in certain practices can have deleterious consequences for others. For example, Dworkin disagrees with the US law which enables members of the Native American Church to take the addictive hallucinatory drug peyote as part of their religious practice, a law brought in to support religious freedom after the practice had been found illegal by the US Supreme Court. Dworkin’s argument relates to the harm the practice can cause to others, in particular to the state which may ultimately be called upon to provide services to deal with adverse health and social consequences. He adds that if the practice is allowed for the Native American Church, then it should also be allowed for sincere Aldous Huxley followers, for example, who may want take addictive mind expanding drugs to explore states of consciousness beyond its normal boundaries.  

Overall, Dworkin’s book has merit in bringing out that atheists who have profound beliefs about the order and beauty of the universe, and about the intrinsic worth of living a good life, are also religiously minded in this broad sense. It shows they are closer in their beliefs to religious theists than might have been thought. Recent decades have seen the growth of alternative religions or spiritually based beliefs to the traditional orthodoxies, which provide a more diverse understanding of what it means to be religious.

Also, Dworkin’s call to replace protective rights for religious freedom in legislation with a more inclusive notion of ethical independence stands to reason on the basis of equality and parity of esteem. Nevertheless, he does call attention to an “unbridgeable gap” between theists and atheists that exists in practice. He considers it probably too much to hope that in allowing for equality between people of different ethical perspectives more people will come to see that accommodating other standpoints in law does not threaten the maintaining of their own beliefs and practices. Perhaps he takes the reasons for the unbridgeable gap as understood, or he may not have had time to deal with them before he died, but he would have added to his case by discussing them directly.

Arguably, one cause of this gap is that there is a lot more at stake for religious theists in their beliefs than there is for religious atheists. The beliefs of religious theists consist of nothing less than the very truth about the meaning of life and death along with the importance of living up to them for their chance of gaining immortal life. Certainly atheistic beliefs can and do have an intrinsic worth for believers which is parallel to the significance theistic beliefs have for theists but it is hardly on a par in terms of the momentous implications of theistic beliefs. Familiarity in talking about and discussing the God question may have dulled awareness of the stupendous nature of a belief in the literal existence of God. Christians, for example, believe God will again enter human history and there will be a day of glory and of reckoning.

Religious theists are emotionally attached to their beliefs in a way that goes beyond rational argument. Their beliefs are centred on the love of God and of devotional rituals through which the love is expressed. Religious atheists, on the other hand, can be moved profoundly and devoutly by the mystery of the universe, as clearly Einstein was, but this is more diffuse than a love focused on belief in a personal God who has given you life and to whom you feel responsible. A further point is that theists understandably want to ensure their beliefs are passed on to their children via education in faith formation. For, they believe in a next life in which they will be reunited in heaven with loved ones who have practised their faith.

Furthermore, liberal democracies are not developed solely from philosophical reasoning. They emerge from deep rooted historical events and carry legacies and attachments. In Ireland this has resulted in a significant percentage of people having Roman Catholic beliefs and they are able to use their democratic right to vote in referenda on moral issues, as well as influence politicians and public opinion to support their beliefs. They do this even though it results in denying other sincere ethical independence views their freedom to practice their beliefs.

This is not to say that the significant differences of theistic beliefs from atheistic ones justifies privileging the former in laws and practices over liberal democratic principles to treat all sincere ethical independence beliefs equally. But it helps explain disagreement. In particular, it helps us understand why theists object when the state restricts them from expressing particular religious practices in public places and legislates for practices which they oppose on moral grounds. Dworkin’s judgements on some of the practices which the state should permit are strongly opposed by religious theists, in particular his judgements on abortion and voluntary euthanasia.

The significant differences between atheists and theists in why they hold the views they do also helps explain why atheists are fearful of the influence of theistic religions on laws and practices in a secular society. They point to Ireland’s past as a historical precedent and how its influence on social issues persists, for example with regard to the marriage equality debate, even though arguments are usually presented in terms of the common good rather than religion. The reason for their fear is that theistic influence will result in undue restrictions on personal freedom. Behind the fear is apprehension about the core theistic belief of people’s answerability to God. For, strictly speaking, the only values consistent with regarding answerability to God as the absolute truth is acceptance of it and all that goes with it, even though, at the same time, tolerance of other beliefs, and indeed love of humankind, are part of the moral values of theistic religions.

One would like to think that it should be an easy matter for religious theists to “render unto God the things that are God’s and unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” One of the central things a liberal democratic state has to do, as Dworkin argues, is treat all sincere belief systems on an equal basis from a right to ethical independence. While it might seem easy in theory, it is clearly going to continue to be difficult in practice. But perhaps this book may, despite his own doubts, help move opinion in that direction by contributing to greater understanding.

Manus Charleton has lectured in Ethics, in Politics, and in Morality & Social Policy on the Institute of Technology, Sligo’s degree in Social Care, and served as external examiner for Ethics on Limerick IT’s Social Care degree. His essays have been published in the Dublin Review of Books, and essays, short fiction and a short memoir in Irish Pages, a Journal of Contemporary Writing.

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