Sunday, December 18, 2011

"Religion without God" - Dworkin's Einstein Lectures

On December 12-14, Professor Ronald Dworkin (New York University) gave three lectures at the University of Bern, Switzerland:

1. Einstein’s Worship

2. Faith and Physics

3. Religion without God

See the three lecture videos here.

Further information here.

"For most people religion means a belief in a god. But Albert Einstein said that he was both an atheist and a deeply religious man. Millions of ordinary people seem to have the same thought: they say that though they don’t believe in a god they do believe in something “bigger than us.” In these lectures I argue that these claims are not linguistic contradictions, as they are often taken to be, but fundamental insights into what a religion really is.

A religious attitude involves moral and cosmic convictions beyond simply a belief in god: that people have an innate, inescapable responsibility to make something valuable of their lives and that the natural universe is gloriously, mysteriously wonderful. Religious people accept such convictions as matters of faith rather than evidence and as personality-defining creeds that play a pervasive role in their lives.

In these lectures I argue that a belief in god is not only not essential to the religious attitude but is actually irrelevant to that attitude. The existence or non-existence of a god does not even bear on the question of people’s intrinsic ethical responsibility or their glorification of the universe. I do not argue either for or against the existence of a god, but only that a god’s existence can make no difference to the truth of religious values. If a god exists, perhaps he can send people to Heaven or Hell. But he cannot create right answers to moral questions or instill the universe with a glory it would not otherwise have.

How, then, can we defend a religious attitude if we cannot rely on a god? In the first lecture I offer a godless argument that moral and ethical values are objectively real: They do not depend on god, but neither are they just subjective or relative to cultures. They are objective and universal. In the second lecture I concentrate on Einstein’s own religion: his bewitchment by the universe. What kind of beauty might the vast universe be thought to hold – what analogy to more familiar sources of beauty is most suggestive? I propose that the beauty basic physicists really hope to find is the beauty of a powerful, profound mathematical proof. Godly religions insist that though god explains everything his own existence need not be explained because he necessarily exists. Religious atheists like Einstein have, I believe, a parallel faith: that when a unifying theory of everything is found it will be not only simple but, in the way of mathematics, inevitable. They dream of a new kind of necessity: cosmic necessity.

In the third lecture, I consider the moral and political consequences of fully recognizing godless religion. Constitutions and international treaties across the world declare a right to religious freedom. We must understand this to protect godless as well as godly religions, and this important extension requires complex adjustments in human rights practice. It requires a difficult but indispensible distinction between personal questions about the nature and value of human life, which people must be allowed to decide for themselves, and questions of justice that a community must answer collectively. I end the three lectures by examining, in that light, a variety of controversial topics: state-supported religion, harmful religious rituals, homosexuality, abortion, and the banning of crucifixes, headscarves, burkas or minarets in public places."

See also Ronald Dworkin's paper "Religion without God" at the "Colloquium in Legal, Political and Social Philosophy", New York University.

Ronald Dworkin is Professor of Philosophy at New York University. His latest book is "Justice for Hedgehogs" (Belknap Press, 2011). See my posts on the book here and here.

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