Atheists as deeply religious people?


Religion Without God, by Ronald Dworkin

(to be published by Harvard University Press later this year)

The familiar stark divide between people of religion and without religion is too crude. Many millions of people who count themselves atheists have convictions and experiences very like and just as profound as those that believers count as religious. They say that though they do not believe in a ‘personal’ god, they nevertheless believe in a ‘force’ in the universe ‘greater than we are.’

They feel an inescapable responsibility to live their lives well, with due respect for the lives of others; they take pride in a life they think well lived and suffer sometimes inconsolable regret at a life they think, in retrospect, wasted. They find the Grand Canyon not just arresting but breathtakingly and eerily wonderful. They are not simply interested in the latest discoveries about the vast universe but enthralled by them.

These are not, for them, just a matter of immediate sensuous and otherwise inexplicable response. They express a conviction that the force and wonder they sense are real, just as real as planets or pain, that moral truth and natural wonder do not simply evoke awe but call for it.

There are famous and poetic expressions of the same set of attitudes. Albert Einstein said that though an atheist he was a deeply religious man:

‘To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.’

Percy Bysshe Shelley declared himself an atheist who nevertheless felt that ‘The awful shadow of some unseen Power/Floats though unseen among us….’  Philosophers, historians, and sociologists of religion have insisted on an account of religious experience that finds a place for religious atheism. William James said that one of the two essentials of religion is a sense of fundamentality: that there are ‘things in the universe,’ as he put it, ‘that throw the last stone.’

Theists have a god for that role, but an atheist can think that the importance of living well throws the last stone, that there is nothing more basic on which that responsibility rests or needs to rest.

Judges often have to decide what ‘religion’ means for legal purposes. For example, the American Supreme Court had to decide whether, when Congress provided a ‘conscientious objection’ exemption from military service for men whose religion would not allow them to serve, an atheist whose moral convictions also prohibited service qualified for the objection. It decided that he did qualify.

The Court, called upon to interpret the Constitution’s guarantee of ‘free exercise of religion’ in another case, declared that many religions flourish in the United States that do not recognize a god, including something the Court called ‘secular humanism.’  Ordinary people, moreover, have come to use ‘religion’ in contexts having nothing to do with either gods or ineffable forces.

They say that Americans make a religion of their Constitution, and that for some people baseball is a religion. These latter uses of ‘religion’ are only metaphorical, to be sure, but they seem parasitic not on beliefs about God but rather on deep commitments more generally.

So the phrase ‘religious atheism,’ however surprising, is not an oxymoron; religion is not restricted to theism just as a matter of what words mean. But the phrase might still be thought confusing. Would it not be better, for the sake of clarity, to reserve ‘religion’ for theism and then to say that Einstein, Shelley, and the others are ‘sensitive’ or ‘spiritual’ atheists?

But on a second look, expanding the territory of religion improves clarity by making plain the importance of what is shared across that territory. Richard Dawkins says that Einstein’s language is ‘destructively misleading’ because clarity demands a sharp distinction between a belief that the universe is governed by fundamental physical laws, which Dawkins thought Einstein meant, and a belief that it is governed by something ‘supernatural,’ which Dawkins thinks the word ‘religion’ suggests.

But Einstein meant much more than that the universe is organized around fundamental physical laws; indeed his view I quoted is, in one important sense, an endorsement of the supernatural. The beauty and sublimity he said we could reach only as a feeble reflection are not part of nature; they are something beyond nature that cannot be grasped even by finally understanding the most fundamental of physical laws.

It was Einstein’s faith that some transcendental and objective value permeates the universe, value that is neither a natural phenomenon nor a subjective reaction to natural phenomena. That is what led him to insist on his own religiosity. No other description, he thought, could better capture the character of his faith.

Full extract from The New York Review of Books:

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