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
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.
Professor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow