Ronald Dworkin’s profound and moving final book, now published posthumously, is unique among the works that he wrote throughout the decades of his extraordinarily creative life. Anyone who read Dworkin or heard him lecture knows that he possessed a brilliant and elegant mind, conceptually sophisticated, analytically astute, and always at the service of a moral, legal, and political cause.
But this book is marked by a different tone and style. It does not present a set of arguments that aim at changing beliefs and convictions; instead it conveys a philosophical, even spiritual sensibility. Its ambition is to effect not a shift in any particular position but a transformation in the way we see the world and in the stance we take toward the most basic features of our existence. The incisive qualities of Dworkin’s mind are evident in various arguments that appear throughout the book (especially in the chapter titled “Religious Freedom,” which examines the nature of the constitutional protection of religion), but the main endeavor of Religion without God is to convey an attitude—not so much to argue as to “show,” to set before the reader a certain philosophical temper and to share a particular stance.
Religion without God: what can such a stance mean? Is God not constitutive to religion in the way that liberty is constitutive to liberalism? Could we imagine a book called Liberalism Without Liberty? And if we can isolate the stance implied by Dworkin’s paradoxical title, what is gained by calling it “religion”? There is, moreover, a deeper cultural puzzle. Dworkin stood for many years at the center of contemporary American liberalism as perhaps its most important and eloquent defender.
Though it stoutly defends freedom of religion, contemporary liberalism has taken a hostile, or uneasy, or indifferent attitude toward the religious project. Its exponents usually give the impression, and gladly, that they are religiously tone-deaf. (This is a matter of temperament, which is not intrinsically related to argument as such. Wasn’t the civil rights movement of the 1960s religiously inspired? But experience has taught us that in philosophy and in politics temperament is of at least equal importance to argument.) Why, then, should Dworkin have “tainted” his thinking by associating himself with such a sensibility even as he asserts his atheism?