Academic journal article Boston University Law Review

Dworkin's Freedom of Religion without God

Academic journal article Boston University Law Review

Dworkin's Freedom of Religion without God

Article excerpt


There is a common view among critics of secular liberalism that liberal neutrality - for all its claims to be neutral towards religion - is itself a religion, albeit one without God. This common view, however, begs the central question: What do we mean by a "religion" in the first place? In his posthumously published Religion Without God, the liberal legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin squarely addresses the crucial question of what, for legal and political purposes, we should understand religion to be.2

For Dworkin, traditional theistic beliefs are just one subset of morally respectable beliefs.3 Atheists - like those with traditional theistic beliefs - also hold comprehensive conceptions of what is of value in and about human life; we can meaningfully talk of an atheist religion.4 If we accept this nontheistic interpretation of religion - as any conviction concerning the meaning and importance of human life - we can interpret freedom of religion as protecting the right of each to live in accordance with their her conception of the life well lived. For Dworkin, freedom of religion follows from the key liberal value of ethical independence.5

It is easy to see how, within the contemporary U.S. context, the theme of religion without God has proven compelling to liberals such as Dworkin. The Culture Wars have pitted religious conservatives against supposedly nonreligious liberals, whose defense of abortion, stem cells research, gay rights and the nonestablishment of the state is perceived as directed against majority Christian religious beliefs - even against "religion" itself. Dworkin provides liberals with a formidable rhetorical weapon. In his view, liberals have as strong a commitment to freedom of religion as conservatives, but they take freedom of religion to protect all ethical views about how to live life well, with dignity and self-respect. The right of homosexuals to marry and the right of women to have an abortion can now, on Dworkin's deliberately provocative theory, be defended in the name of freedom of religion itself.6

I am interested in Religion Without God because it fits neatly into a broader set of new theories about liberalism and religion, which I elsewhere call "egalitarian theories of religious freedom."7 Such theories make three connected claims: (i) what we conventionally call religion should be seen a subset of a broader category of morally respectable beliefs and practices; (ii) traditional believers do not have a special, a priori right to be exempted from general laws; and (iii) the state must guarantee the equal status of all citizens.8 Let me simply mention two other recent and influential egalitarian theories of religious freedom.

The first is Christopher Eisgruber and Lawrence Sager's Religious Freedom and the Constitution. Eisgruber and Sager interpret the Religion Clauses as not providing for special and unique legal treatment for religion above and beyond that granted to "comparable" commitments and practices.9 The second is Charles Taylor and Jocelyn Maclure's short piece drawing on the reasonable accommodations debate in Quebec, entitled Secularism and Freedom of Conscience.10 Taylor and Maclure argue that individuals with conscientious "meaning-giving commitments" should be considered for exemption from burdensome laws on the same basis as traditional religious believers.11 Egalitarian theories of religious freedom are intuitively attractive: they analogize freedom of religion with other liberal freedoms; they are rooted in the value of equality and nondiscrimination; and instead of denying protection to religious beliefs and practices they extend protection to secular "conceptions of the good," to use John Rawls's phrase.12

For all of their merits, however, I am skeptical that existing theories have succeeded in their main ambition - namely, to demonstrate that (what we traditionally mean by) religion can be unproblematically analogized with, or extended to, other kinds of practices and beliefs. …

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