Can Religion without God Lead to Religious Liberty without Conflict?

By McClain, Linda C. | Boston University Law Review, July 2014 | Go to article overview

Can Religion without God Lead to Religious Liberty without Conflict?


McClain, Linda C., Boston University Law Review


INTRODUCTION

This Article engages with Ronald Dworkin's final book, Religion Without God,1 approaching this elegant, even elegiac work from several angles. First, in Part I, I compare the argumentative strategy of Religion Without God with that of Dworkin's prior books, Life's Dominion2 and Is Democracy Possible Here?3 In these books, he tackles a polarizing issue where parties are at "war" and proposes that, by dispelling "intellectual confusion"4 and offering a fresh understanding of what is really at issue, they may be able to have a ceasefire or, at least, a substantial reduction of hostility and conflict. So, too, in Religion Without God, Dworkin takes on the seemingly "wholly unbridgeable gap"5 between "believers and nonbelievers" in "the new religious wars" in politics.6 He argues that "[i]f we can separate God from religion," this new understanding of "what the religious point of view really is" has the potential to "shrink both the size and importance of the wars," so that they would no longer be "culture wars," or to "lower, at least, the temperature of these battles."7 Further, by framing religious freedom around protecting a "general right to ethical independence" rather than a "troublesome special right" for theistic religious people, Dworkin's argument calls for a "radical reinterpretation of all the constitutions, [human rights] conventions, and human rights covenants."8 In all three works, the new understanding Dworkin urges rests on principles about dignity, responsibility, and the intrinsic value of human life, with implications for limitations upon governmental authority.

In Part II, I hone in on how Dworkin's project in Religion Without God of offering an account of religion that reveals underlying convictions that unite theists and "religious atheists"9 incorporates characteristic features of Dworkin's philosophy of ethical liberalism, articulated fully in his majestic Justice for Hedgehogs.10 Ethical liberalism, which dates back at least to Dworkin's Foundations of Liberal Equality, appeals to convictions about dignity, responsibility, the challenge of living life well, the objectivity of values, and life's intrinsic value.11 Another characteristic feature is the turn to the aesthetic - to artistic creation - to articulate the idea of living life well and making a success of one's life.12 So, too, Religion Without God reveals Dworkin's continued fascination with the scientific learning of the day, tracing out themes of beauty, inevitability, objectivity of value (once again), and integrity.13

In Part III, I ask how persuasive Dworkin is as a theologian or philosopher of religion. Specifically, is his new account of religion and religious freedom, as he hopes and prays,14 likely to "shrink both the size and the importance of" the fierce "culture wars" in the United States between believers and nonbelievers - theists and atheists - by showing these groups that they "share a fundamental religious impulse"?15 Will the new constitutional frame he offers - ethical independence rather than a special right for theists - help to reduce conflicts over religious liberty? In short: Is what constitutional law scholar Laurence Tribe recently referred to as Dworkin's "sunny assumption that reason would dissolve the deepest differences underlying our legal and especially our constitutional outlooks" warranted?16

I consider several lines of criticism that "believers" might direct at both components of Dworkin's project: his identification of the "religious attitude" that can exist apart from a belief in a "personal god" and his "radical reinterpretation" of religious freedom for purposes of constitutional jurisprudence.17 I use as one foil the account of religion and religious freedom developed in Robert P. George's recent book of essays, Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism.18 Is Dworkin, as some critics assert, making religion safe for liberals and liberalism19 in a way that denudes or marginalizes it? …

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