Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Is this Religion?

Before he died in February, Ronald Dworkin was working on a book titled Religion without God. The New York Review has an excerpt:
The familiar stark divide between people of religion and without religion is too crude. Many millions of people who count themselves atheists have convictions and experiences very like and just as profound as those that believers count as religious. They say that though they do not believe in a “personal” god, they nevertheless believe in a “force” in the universe “greater than we are.” They 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, in retrospect, wasted. They find the Grand Canyon not just arresting but breathtakingly and eerily wonderful. They are not simply interested in the latest discoveries about the vast universe but enthralled by them. These are not, for them, just a matter of immediate sensuous and otherwise inexplicable response. They express a conviction that the force and wonder they sense are real, just as real as planets or pain, that moral truth and natural wonder do not simply evoke awe but call for it. . . .
The above, I think, describes me quite well. But then this:
What, then, should we count as a religious attitude? I will try to provide a reasonably abstract and hence ecumenical account. The religious attitude accepts the full, independent reality of value. It accepts the objective truth of two central judgments about value. The first holds that human life has objective meaning or importance. Each person has an innate and inescapable responsibility to try to make his life a successful one: that means living well, accepting ethical responsibilities to oneself as well as moral responsibilities to others, not just if we happen to think this important but because it is in itself important whether we think so or not.

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. Together these two comprehensive value judgments declare inherent value in both dimensions of human life: biological and biographical. We are part of nature because we have a physical being and duration: nature is the locus and nutrient of our physical lives. We are apart from nature because we are conscious of ourselves as making a life and must make decisions that, taken together, determine what life we have made.
About this I am unsure. In some moods I feel certain that intelligent life does have some value, but in others I admit that I cannot really know this. Sometimes I feel that people really do make decisions, but other times I think that this is just mystifying language covering the operations of causality and chance. One day I am awed by the power of religious practice, religious language, and religious art, but the next it all seems ridiculous.

I do think of my own convictions and interests as religious in the definitional or legal sense. I do not believe that there is such a thing as a non-religious way to teach biology. Believing that there is some value in discovering and teaching the truth about evolution is in itself a sort of religion. Scientists sometimes justify their ideas as useful, but that is not why they hold them; they hold them because they see a real value in the truth quite apart from whether it has any use at all. What is the use of knowing that dinosaurs were related to birds? None. It is only wonderful.

That is where I always end up. To me, the universe is wonderful, and the opportunity I have had to experience and learn about it is a very great miracle.

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