Monday, April 15, 2013

Religion Without God


Photo of Ronald Dworkin by David Shankbone
Ronald Dworkin was a big thinker and carried on the legacy of Isaiah Berlin. His Justice For Hedgehogs paid homage to Berlin’s famous dichotomy in intellectual history between the fox and the hedgehog (the hedgehog referring to thinkers who depend on a unifying idea and the fox referring to multivalent philosophers). He was also part of a triumvirate of philosophers, which includes Martha Nussbaum at the University of Chicago and his colleague Thomas Nagel at N.Y.U., whose inurement in juridical questions has always given a unique twist to their pronunciamentos on ethical and moral questions. Only recently in a review of a work evangelical Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga (“A Philosopher Defends Religion," The New York Review of Books, 9/27/12), Nagel made the argument that though he was an atheist, he found it impossible to make a valid philosophical argument challenging the existence of God. “Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism,” he says, “are directed at the deepest problem with that view--how can we account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves." On the basis of the excerpt from Dworkin’s last book, Religion Without God, recently published in The New York Review of Books (4/4/13), it seems, in fact, that Nagel and Dworkin might have been discussing similar ideas as they walked through those airy regions of the Ivory Tower that still resemble Plato’s Academy. Dworkin first asks if religion can exist without God? Here’s how his legal background informs his discourse. “Judges often have to decide what ‘religion’ means for legal purposes,” he avers. “For example, the American Supreme Court had to decide whether when Congress provided a ‘conscientious objection' exemption from military service for men whose religion would not allow them to serve, an atheist whose moral convictions also prohibited service qualified for the objection. It decided that he did qualify.” Having offered up this and other examples including a quote from Einstein (that discountenances the  scientism described by Max Weber in his concept of disenchantment), he goes on to ask, what religion then is? Dworkin cites two conditions “life’s intrinsic meaning and nature’s intrinsic beauty—as paradigms of a fully religious attitude to life” and concludes “What divides godly and godless religion—the science of godly religion—is not as important as the faith in value that unites them.” Dworkin offers up a wonderful anecdote about Richard Dawkins who has argued for so called scientific or “naturalistic” thinking. “’There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dream of in your philosophy.’ ‘Yes,’ Dawkins replied, ‘but we’re working on it.’” To which Dworkin might well have rejoined, “can man survive on bread alone?”

1 comment:

  1. jylle benson-gaussApril 16, 2013 at 11:28 AM

    I'm a day behind, but thank you for a tasty bite of philosophy to chew over while I drink my morning coffee.
    As a lower-level thinker (as compared to the lofty individuals mentioned in your blog), I group religion with other ideologies: catholocism, buddhism, atheism go alongside marxism, capitalism and supply-side economics as ideas that can become blindingly constrictive if we invest too much ego into them, and all of which (in their purest forms) require a certain amount of Faith.

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