By Charles Sarvan –
The attempt here is merely to draw the attention of readers to this short (about 150 pages) but concentrated and demanding work. It is likely to be of particular interest to Buddhists: they, unlike adherents of other religions, won’t find the title, ‘Religion without God’, oxymoronic or absurd – cf. “Marxism without Marx” – because Buddhism is agnostic. (“Among religions in this country [USA] which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God” is Buddhism: Dworkin, Note 5, page 161.) The Buddha in a well-known story said that what a man wounded by a poisoned arrow needs is immediate and practical help, not abstruse speculation: “So too, Malunkyaputta, if anyone should say, ‘I will not lead the noble life under the Buddha until the Buddha declares to me whether the world is eternal or not eternal […] whether the soul is the same as or different from the body; whether or not an awakened one continues or ceases to exist after death,’ that would still remain undeclared by the Buddha, and meanwhile that person would die.” Dr K. S. Palihakkara in his lucid work, Buddhism Sans Myths & Miracles (Stamford Lake Publication, Pannipitiya, 2003), notes that unlike in other religions, there is no Creator God in Buddhism (p. 97). All Buddhists know that “Buddhism preaches ‘Anathma’ or no rebirth” (page 41). Lest Dr Palihakkara’s credentials be questioned, the book tells us that he has held posts such as Director of Education, Sri Lanka; “Director of Pirivena Education (temple schools)” and was “also one time Secretary to the Oriental Studies Society (which conducts examinations mainly for the Buddhist clergy”). Going further than agnosticism, some would argue that Buddhism is practical, based on reason (“enlightenment” implies knowledge, the product of reason) and essentially atheistic.
Dworkin (1931 – 2013), renowned Professor of Law and Philosophy, aims not to divide those who believe in God and those who don’t but to unite them by showing they share certain fundamental values and approaches. Though an atheist, Einstein said 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 primate forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the centre of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men” (Einstein, quoted by Dworkin, page 3). Einstein did not subscribe to a ‘Naturalism’ which holds that nothing is real except what can be studied by the natural sciences. One can be “spiritual” without believing in the existence of spirits; “religious” without believing in a creator, controlling, God. Men whose religion does not allow them to serve in the military are termed “conscientious objectors” and granted exemption but the US Supreme Court exempted “an atheist whose moral convictions” prohibited military service (page 4). The appellant’s moral convictions constituted his religion.
As with many a discussion, it is a matter of definition. For example, what do we mean by ‘democracy’? Is democracy merely majority rule or is it the showing of equal consideration for all citizens? Is winning an election the only criterion of ‘democracy’? Is ‘peace’ the absence of overt war or the presence of justice and harmony? Is ‘justice’ the implementation of laws? But what if the laws of a country are discriminatory and unjust? Do we then have ‘justice’ within injustice? Similarly, ‘religion’ is also an interpretive concept, that is, the word is used by different people with different meanings in mind. (Tolstoy offers his conception of religion in an essay titled, ‘What is religion?’) I would suggest that while religious doctrine and teaching have, or are claimed to have, a sacred origin, ‘religion’ with its beliefs, structures, rituals and observances; with all the paraphernalia that surrounds the original teaching, is a human construct. (Emile Durkheim argued that in religion the object of worship is finally society itself.) This may help to explain how religion can be in total contradiction to bequeathed doctrine or teaching; why religious hatred and violence can be unleased in the name of compassionate and pacific teaching. ‘Doctrine’ may be divine but ‘religion’ is human. In the observation, “people are willing to fight for their religion; even to die for their religion, but few actually live their religion”, the last use of “religion” needs alteration to “doctrine” or “teaching”. So it is that in an email message recently received, a friend declared he was not a Christian but tried, daily and as best as he could, to be a follower of the teachings of Christ. Conflict based on religion is “like a cancer, a curse of our species” (page 7). But, adds Dworkin, religious wars are really cultural and ethnic competition and conflict. These wars reflect ambitions and hatreds deeper than reason can dismantle and philosophy can address (page 10).
What then, according to Dworkin, is the religious attitude, one to which atheists also subscribe? The religious attitude “accepts the objective truth of two central judgements about value” (page 10). The first holds that all and every human life has importance; the second, that nature or the universe is sublime, and “of intrinsic value and wonder”: a word Dworkin uses is “numinous”, meaning awe-inspiring.
Important to this book is the concept of values. Today many Christians do not believe in hell, a geographic location of crude and fiendish torture; of pain most excruciating and eternal. After all, even in the human world, torture is against the Geneva Convention, and God is infinitely superior to man in compassion and forgiveness. But if there isn’t the stick of hell and the carrot heaven, why should one be good? On similar lines, the religious claim to have received their values from God. If there is no God, from where do values derive their value? “But how can religious atheists know what they claim about the various values they embrace? […] Believers have the authority of a god for their convictions; atheists seem to pluck theirs out of the air” (page 12). Dworkin suggests that values exist in themselves and, for the religious, God only confirms them. Values are prior, and can be subscribed to by non-believers as well. In his work, ‘The Moral Landscape: How science can determine human values’ Sam Harris argues there cannot be a Buddhist morality, a Christian morality, a Hindu or an Islamic morality – my listing is in alphabetical order. Morality must be objectively defined, agreed and established, and be applicable to all, irrespective of religious allegiance or atheistic conviction. Since there are different religions, and each has its own “morality”, conflict is inevitable. In order to make the world a more peaceful and better place, morality must be based not on religion but on reason. (On somewhat similar lines, Stephane Hessel who helped to draw the UN’s declaration on human rights explains in his ‘Time For Outrage’ why the phrase opted for was “universal” and not “international” rights: “That is how to forestall the argument for full sovereignty that a state likes to make when it is carrying out crimes against humanity on its soil”. Ideally, aspects such as morality, justice and human rights should be uniform and universal. It is a desideratum to be worked towards.) Some religious commitments are based on God or gods, such as “duties of worship, prayer and religious obedience” but there are other values not dependent on religious observance, and these the atheist can share. “The familiar stark divide between people of religion and without religion is too crude”. Both the religious and atheists “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 lived wrongly or wasted.
‘Religion Without God’ is a short but thought-compelling work. It is an exploration, patient and penetrating; a prompting to thought rather than an arrogant assertion. As Gandhi said, the essence of religion lies in the practising of morality – not in the label (Buddhist, Christian, Muslim etc.); not in ritual and observance. The Buddha disbelieved in God and simply believed in Moral Law. His greatest contribution to humanity is his exacting regard of all life, be it ever so low (Gandhi). Ronald Dworkin sets out not to divide believers and atheists but to show common ground, and so make a contribution towards mutual respect and tolerance. His book, a posthumous voice, is worth listening to, and thinking about, even if at the end one remains unpersuaded. Both religious believers and ‘religious atheists’ can attempt to live a good life: “Someone creates a work of art from his life if he lives and loves well in family or community with no fame or artistic achievement at all” (page 158).