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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review of a Review: Religion Without God

Religion Without God by Ronald Dworkin, of happy memory, was reviewed in the WP by Harvard political philosopher Michael Rosen. I haven't yet read Dworkin's latest book (though I certainly liked his Justice for Hedgehogs); but my understanding of it through Rosen's review makes me wonder what the fuss is all about.

Dworkin and Rosen, like me, are "post-enlightenment" philosophers wanting to avoid basing our ethics and politics on some religious revelation or entity, but nevertheless avoid the relativism that does not allow for standards, values, and human rights that are consistent and universal and therefore useful for the development of local, national, and international law. So far so good. A worthy pursuit that in my simple mind is easily done and has been done.

But methinks that they overcomplicate the effort. Take God out of the picture as the entity that creates, causes, or reveals those values and rights and there is a problem, they say. Yes, indeed I agree, for pre-enlightenment thinkers. But not for us. Also remove the spirit or soul along with its immortality as separate and distinct as well as eternal rewards and punishments and you remove incentives for morality and law. Yes, I agree, for pre-enlightened actors, but not for us. And so they argue for a religion without God in a secular materialistic culture that produces those values. That's okay I suppose, but unnecessary.
  1. Firstly, because there are and have been many religions without God and all of these founded moralities and still do.
  2. Secondly, because religion is a dimension of or identity with all cultures (including materialism).
  3. Thirdly, because standards, values, rights can be based in human nature and existence which can be known and experienced.
Students of world religions have discovered many religions that do not worship or even talk about God. Religion is that part or dimension or description of culture through which humans personally and collectively find/make meaning. It involves a narrative that gives us a purpose, a place in the cosmos, a center or home, a way to deal with the messiness, chaos, and pain of day to day existence. It expresses a feeling of holiness or wholeness and a sense of transcendence that accompanies all human activity.

The God narrative is a powerful narrative, perhaps beginning in ancient Egypt, that led to the three great monotheisms which are sub- or alter- narratives of the original. That narrative rationalizes and emotionalizes authoritarian rule, empire through conquest, good guys and bad guys, and dominance of the blessed (the rich). Cultural historians can link the God narrative to extended tribalism, holy wars, the divine right of kings and popes, and the making of enemies.

But there are other cultures with other non-God narratives which rationalize and emotionalize personal and collective behavior including "transcendent" values that ground morality and a human way of life.  Many of these are often interpreted by those imbued with the powerful God narrative whereby Great Spirit, First Cause, Mother Earth or Gaia, Father Sky, Void, Nirvana, Brahmin, Reason, Nature, Universal Spirit of Life and Love, even the Singularity are substitute names for God rather than alternative narratives. But indeed they are.

More significant to human history (according to Henri Bergson and Karen Armstrong) than the developing story of God was the "great transformation" during the Axial Age when, throughout most cultures, a mighty flood uncovered the great human capacity for empathy or compassion, which was recognized and extended beyond tribal boundaries. Strangers were recognized as brothers and sisters. Neighbors, (as in who is my neighbor?), were seen beyond my normal boundaries and even extended to "enemies." And every great religion began to fashion its narratives and teach in accordance with the recognition of the identity with and dignity of all humans, even to all living beings.

The God narrative retold by prophets (as opposed to priests) who caught the insights of the great transformation now rationalizes and emotionalizes resistance, rebellion, and revolution against dominating rulers and rich patrons. Ironically the new insights and revised narratives by the prophets who are considered founders of the big three God religions were subtlety rejected by their successors who led their following to a reenactment of the original tribal narrative of authority, purity of race and doctrine, exclusion, and conquest. Revolution betrayed.

Quoting a journalist in today's paper, "just as patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, (Samual Johnson), so religion becomes the last refuge of bigots." He is referring to an Arizona law that allows lunch counters and businesses to refuse to serve gay persons for "religious" reasons--a law endorsed by the US Council of Catholic Bishops. Indeed, "what would Jesus do?" (Clearly the great transformation is yet to be complete when one considers the values that guide the "facts" and policies being argued in regards comprehensive immigration and other social justice issues with all the xenophobia, homophobia, ethnophobia, and pauperphobia that exists in today's US.)

Religion as a part, dimension, or product of culture is everywhere. Taking God or immortal souls out of religion doesn't eliminate culture/religion, it just changes it. So is changing the understanding of what is meant by "God." When Jefferson wrote "endowed by his Creator with certain inalienable rights," he wasn't talking about the prevalent Christian concept of God as a parental entity up there in heaven. He was more in tune with Spinoza's God which is Nature and all its laws. Pretty much as we speak today of Evolution as a quasi divinity unfolding life in the cosmos.

For Dworkin, religion is the "assent to a reality that cannot be achieved by positive science." Since Karl Popper's philosophy of science, that means a reality that cannot be falsified or verified by evidence. Dworkin wants to preserve religion (without God) because he wants to affirm the "full independent reality of value." He thus "rejects the view that nothing is real except what is revealed by natural science or psychology." Well, so do I. But that doesn't mean that we need to assent to religious truth to save value, as says Rosen. Nor I think do we need to fear that our values are just the "penumbra rays from revealed religion" (Nietzsche) which once extinguished will throw us into a valueless and lawless existence.

That to me is just a misunderstanding of culture and its three main products of religion, science, and art (which also have by-products too numerous to mention here). Culture is the formal symbolic expression of human existence in both the private and public realms. [I contrast culture with, and relate it to, economy which is the realm of private biological survival or life (family, household, tribe) and with politics which is the realm of the social, interdependent, or public (nation, state, country, international order.] Religion is the narrative with rites and symbols that stimulates and responds to reverence in and gratitude for human life and action. Art is the narrative with symbols, pictures, sounds, movement that provides and responds to wonder in personal and collective life and action. Science is the narrative that stimulates and responds to curiosity.  Religion, in responding to reverence, searches for meaning. Art, in responding to wonder, finds beauty. Science in responding to curiosity provides understanding. They can be seen as three different ways of knowing or three modes of encountering the world or contacting reality.

And I would argue that values and their foundation in human existence can be discerned in religion, art, and science. Is religion the source of morality and law as Dworkin apparently argues? Yes, but so is art and science. And ultimately the foundation of morality and law is the inherited and created structure of human nature and existence itself accessible through religion, art, and science. All three are human symbolic ways of dealing in the world and encountering reality including the reality of human existence in reality. One is more expressive of reverence and gratitude, another more expressive of wonder and astonishment, and the other more expressive of curiosity and understanding in our world wandering. Some narratives include gods, forms, and laws, some do not. Some narratives are more ritual and some more discursive. All use images or symbols, all have emotional and rational sides, all feed into the others, and all have a quality of transcendence--a drive to go beyond the here and now while situated in the here and now.

What the book, the review, and perhaps my reflection do point up is our ever present need and desire to create new, more inclusive, more constructive, and more humane narratives (with or without God) that will enhance the values that we can experience, intuit, and understand in our own personal and collective human being.