Reverence Beyond Religion

Moshe Halbertal reviews Ronald Dworkin’s final book, Religion Without God, which argues that a religious sense of objective order and morality does not require a belief in a deity:

In one of the most insightful sections of the book, Dworkin shows that the theological claim that the source of moral obligation rests in the fact of God’s will and revelation is conceptually incoherent. If God wills the good and the bad into being, why should we obey His will at all? If the answer is that we owe Him a sense of gratitude and dependence as our creator, this is again a value argument, and as such it cannot rest on God’s will because it is the basis for following His will. Unlike morality, religion is not an independent sphere; it rests on a prior value that serves as its premise.

The radical philosophical implication of the strict independence of morality is that all godly religions are based on a prior religion without God, the religion that asserts the inevitability and the independence of moral obligations. A rather subversive and justified claim is therefore established: if religion, in the name of God’s superior revelation, commands something immoral, it undermines its own authority and ground, which ultimately rest on morality.

Mark Movsesian squirms:

Dworkin’s definition of religion … seems tendentious, a way to dilute religion so as to minimize the potential for conflict with the progressive state. This is not surprising. Traditional religion opposes many of the left’s priorities; for the left to succeed, it must continue to marginalize traditional religion. And Dworkin’s argument that religion as such does not merit special protection is very much in the air today. Prominent law professors like Brian Leiter and Micah Schwartzman make versions of this argument, for example. In the Hosanna-Tabor case, the Obama Administration maintained that religious freedom, as such, had nothing to do with a church’s decision to fire its minister.