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Earnest atheists look for God

IN MASSACHUSETTS, an atheist challenge to the “under God” phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance is winding its way through the courts, to be decided in coming months by the Supreme Judicial Court. Deja vu all over again? Haven’t we seen this passion play before? For a generation or more, the battle lines have been hardening — between nonbelievers who see religious expression in public life as presumptuous and believers who see the restrictions on such expression as a dismissal of its value. But in an era when religion has become so heavily armed, we need a more reasoned discussion of what God, and the belief in God, brings to the world.

And if a self-described secular thinker like Ronald Dworkin could be open to such a discussion, so should the rest of us.


Dworkin died earlier this year at 81. He was a prominent philosopher of law, a professor at New York University, famous as an advocate of a “moral reading” of the US Constitution. And in a just-published book, he shines a brighter light on the true meaning of religion than anything produced lately by defenders of the faith. By his own account, he was a religious man, but also an atheist. That paradox leads him both to a deeper sense of faith and to a fuller appreciation of what it means to disavow the divine. Dworkin’s book is suggestively titled, “Religion Without God.”

“The theme of this book is that religion is deeper than God,” he wrote. “Religion is a deep, distinct, and comprehensive worldview: It holds that inherent, objective value permeates everything, that the universe and its creatures are awe-inspiring, that human life has purpose and the universe order. A belief in a god is only one possible manifestation or consequence of that worldview.”


It’s easy to dismiss this view as lump-in-the-throat “spirituality,” what the night sky inspires, or as the reduction of religion to a meaningless vacuity, like that captured by the slur against Unitarians who “believe in — at most — one God.” But in positing “inherent, objective value” that exists, Dworkin is moving past classic atheist positions: scientific materialism that acknowledges as real only what can be verified through investigation; the Freudian dismissal of the “God instinct” as mere projection of human insecurities. Dworkin is an atheist, but a critical one willing to plumb the mystery of “what else there is.”

This line of thinking brings him surprisingly close to Paul Tillich, a great 20th-century theologian who thought critically about religious belief. The shallow presupposition of most religious thinking, Tillich wrote, “is that God is a being, acting in time and space, dwelling in a special place, affecting the course of events, and being affected by them like any other being in the universe.” This is the God of the Pledge of Allegiance culture war, whom we stand “under.” But it’s disappointing and limiting to talk about the divine in these terms. The literalism of most God-talk, whether in church or court, “deprives God of his ultimacy,” Tillich said, “and, religiously speaking, of his majesty.” How much are we really thinking about God when we’re arguing about the deity’s place in the Pledge of Allegiance?

It’s ironic that, at times, an earnest atheist can perceive the mysteries of religion more than a reflexive person of faith. In his book, Dworkin cites his fellow atheist, Albert Einstein: “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.”


Einstein gets to the heart of the matter with that phrase “our dull faculties,” for the point is that, while human beings can grasp the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty as really existing, and while some choose to call that reality God, it remains impenetrable for all of us.

Ronald Dworkin, a tribune of public justice, gave the lie to the old saw that you need God in order to be good. His work also intimates that, however the latest case about “under God” is resolved, the issue isn’t worth our continually fighting about it. Secular-minded Americans should follow Dworkin’s lead and more fully respect the mystery before which many choose to bow, while believers can seek a deeper faith than one defined by rote recitation.

James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.