Hobby Lobby Without God

Ronald Dworkin’s posthumously published ‘Religion without God’ could instead have been called ‘Law without Religion’

Finally, authority is missing completely from the book’s account of religion. That’s a big mistake. It’s not simply that religious people have deeply held commitments to value or that they have certain reactions to beautiful scenery. They think that a proper, nongovernmental authority—God or the Bible—commands unflinching obedience. Dworkin quotes the Casey decision’s “right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” with unreserved approval. But he is insensitive to the fact that, for religious believers, the goal is not to define one’s own … anything; 


Ronald Dworkin’s posthumously published Religion without God could instead have been called Law without Religion.

The book is founded in a great hope: that religious believers can be persuaded that they have more in common with atheists than they may think, and vice versa. Dworkin believes that “the zealots have great political power in America now” and that “militant atheism” is “politically inert” (though it is, he adds, “a great commercial success”!).

“Theists share a commitment with some atheists that is more fundamental than what divides them,” he writes, and likewise, atheists can “accept theists as full partners in their deepest religious ambitions.” From there he concludes that there is no special right to religious freedom enshrined in, for example, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

“Religion is deeper than God,” says Dworkin, because the belief that God underwrites value “presupposes a prior commitment to the independent reality of that value.” So-called “religious atheists” and theists share two central judgments about value: “The first holds that human life has objective meaning or importance.” And “the second holds that what we call ‘nature’—the universe as a whole and in all its parts—is not just a matter of fact but is itself sublime: something of intrinsic value and wonder.” In this way, Tillich and Spinoza are coreligionists even though Tillich is a theist and Spinoza is, by Dworkin’s lights, a religious atheist.

He is not simply pursuing these questions in the philosophy of religion for their own sake. He wants to use this conclusion—that we can have religion without God—as a premise in a new legal argument. That’s why I think the volume could have had a different title altogether. It makes a serious and controversial claim—at one point, Dworkin even writes, “Do you find that shocking?”—namely that if atheists can be religious, then theistic religions should not receive a right to special protection exclusive of atheistic religions.

Qualifying the scope of a right to special protection, however, creates a legal muddle: Given that there can be religion without God, “protection cannot sensibly be limited to godly religions.” However, “neither can we sensibly define it as embracing all the convictions that fall under a more generous account of religion.” The result is that “we should consider abandoning … the idea of a special right to religious freedom … and consider … applying … only the more general right to ethical independence.”

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