Thursday, August 28, 2014

Religion without God (1)

Does morality precede God? Abraham asks YHWH, Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? This seems to imply that God is subject to a prior good.

Religion without God is the title of a very short book (30,000 words or so) by Ronald Dworkin, a philosopher and a substantial legal mind. He didn't use Genesis 18:25 but it would have supported his argument. I suppose though that he knew for whom he was writing and that maybe his first thoughts are for a legal argument and not a Biblical one. It's too bad, because I think if you want the weak-kneed to use your book and you know they read you with distrust and read their own book with fear (something he assumes without support in a number of places), then you should trick them with your knowledge of their book and use their own weapons against them.

I was given Dworkin to read by a friend. The thesis of the book is that the atheist has common ground with the theist in the perception of beauty and truth (He is a romantic like John Keats) and that freedom with respect to "ethical independence" should be considered as a suggestion for replacing freedom with respect to "religion" in the UN Declaration of Human Rights (and similar documents). He makes it clear with several examples how the two clauses of the First Amendment of the American constitution are in conflict with each other. The argument of the last section of the book is clearly the work of a legal mind operating within the judicial systems of the Western world. I more or less skimmed this chapter since I think my friend is more interested in my responses to the earlier chapters - which I will come to in another post. But I was very impressed with what I skimmed of the conflicts that freedom of religion has led to. These are conflicts we are familiar with. For example, the Quebec Charter of Values developed before the defeat of the parti québécois, or the Swiss prohibition of minarets in 2009, or conflicts over prayer in public spaces and of course over sexual and reproductive morality.

I have avoided writing about many of the religious problems that plague our southern neighbour and ourselves as well - such as evolution vs special creation or something called intelligent design, a name with a serious misuse of adjective. I have also taken for granted the equality of women once I realized that my youthful arguments from ignorant zeal were not going to win any day. The issues of belief and signs of religion in public places have not too much bothered me but they are always on the periphery of things that could be worrisome. It is fair to say that I would not have been happy hiring someone who wore a ceremonial weapon. I do not think weapons are a legitimate means of resolving problems and I know that people can be tempted to anger and impulse. I think Dworkin is approaching Religion without God primarily because of these divisive issues in American culture and religion. But he argues in the first sections of the book as a philosopher against God rather than as a lawyer recognizing the tension in the resolution of constitutional conflict.

His appeals to value are important and difficult, but they have nothing to do with proving anything about God from a philosophical, logical, or mathematical point of view. I gave up long ago trying to prove anything about God from the point of view of existence. It is futile. Provably so. There are things that are true that are not provable. And I was surprised to read a very clever mind trying to justify atheism. Equally futile, I think. Atheism is sometimes the only healthy option, but like God it is not provable. (I did not say like theism. God is not a theist.) The last half of the book was enjoyable because it embedded examples from the American and European story. The first half was disappointing because it seemed to completely lack story. My God is story based. The Bible is a record of encounters in a long story over millennia, a kind of Festschrift for God, a series of anecdotes, poems and stories about the perceived presence of the Holy. The Bible may be wrong in our experience about what is implied in the story, but it is not wrong to have included the story. And what it says about presence is what we know from other hints - from the cosmos, from beauty, from music, and so on.

It is easy to dethrone the gods that demand obedience to doctrine and patriotism. The God who governs should not be so trifled with. So look for a moment at the story in the Psalms.

First Psalm 45:7,
Your throne O God is now and for ever;
a sceptre of equity the sceptre of your kingdom.

This is quoted in the epistle to the Hebrews 1:8-9 concerning "the son". In Hebrew, it is immediately followed there (Hebrews 1:10-12) by a quote from Psalm 102:25-27. These two psalms were not about the future of a particular king when they were written, but were about love (Psalm 45) after the destruction of the temple (Psalm 44) and about a prayer of the poor (Psalm 102) reflecting the language of the prayer of Moses (Psalm 90) which in turn is a response to the failure of governance in Israel (Psalm 89 culminating the laments of Books 2 and 3 of the Psalter, Psalms 42-89).

Psalm 102 promises renewal even in the face of perishing of the heavens and the earth.
These will perish but you - you will stand
and they all like a garment will fade
as clothing you will renew them and they will be renewed

Psalm 90:7 reflects on the transient renewal of the mortal:
in the morning it blossoms and renews
of the evening it is cut down and dries up.

Book 4 encapsulates the rule of YHWH. Religion without God has no such pointer. It is good for the author's legal mind that he was not successful in resolving this particular problem. He closes the book with "a prayer" that theists accept atheists as having "the same grounds for moral and political conviction as they do". Here, he picks his limitations carefully and I think accurately - so also do I pick mine.

In another post, I will pick apart some of my particular beefs with the first sections of the book.