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Common ground

07 February 2014


RONALD DWORKIN was one of the great American public intellectuals of his generation. His position on religion is one with which many university chaplains and parish clergy will be familiar: namely, that of the sceptical intellectual who is, nevertheless, respectful of, and even cares about, certain aspects of religion, and who is, therefore, reluctant to accede to the black-and-white simplicities of the New Atheists, as well as to the relativism of popular views of ethics.

In Religion without God (Harvard University Press, £13.95 (£12.55); 978-0-674-72682-6), Dworkin proposes a kind of "religious atheism" that believes neither in a personal nor an impersonal (Spinozistic) God while maintaining the objectivity of value and beauty in the universe. In practical terms, he proposes a criterion of "ethical independence" which would, he thinks, afford justice to the desires of religious communities while simultaneously serving those who have strong ethical beliefs independent of religion.

In the last few pages, he addresses the question of immortality, substituting the idea of living artistically, in the specific sense of self-consciously leading a life according to values that we hold to be good: no matter how humble the sphere in which those values are located, they can still provide the basis for genuine achievement and successful living, he argues.

It is clear that Dworkin seeks to identify and to maximise possible common ground between atheists and believers. He certainly offers much that could contribute to a constructive conversation between the two "sides" (if they really are "sides"). Metaphysically, he is probably more conservative than some radical theologians, since he believes that value and beauty are independently real. His religion without God is, therefore, somewhat closer to Thomism than to Cupittian non-realism!

There are many points to debate here. This is just one: Dworkin's insistence on the category of "value" and talk of successful living trouble me. Of course, he doesn't mean "value" in purely economic terms, but it is striking that so much weight should be placed on a category that is most familiar in talking about economics and finance and, at the same time, on the idea that the life worthy of "immortality" is a life that has succeeded in achieving what it set out to achieve. A Marxist would have no difficulty in seeing these as emphases reflecting very precisely the particular "values" of the current phase of Western capitalism.

Maybe part of the point of the gospel, however, is to remind us of the worth of what is without value, and of those who are not successes and achieve nothing with their lives.

George Pattison
Professor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow

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