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Progressivism as Religion: Dworkin's Flawed Belief

By Peter Berkowitz - October 6, 2013

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Rather than articulate the religious point of view in a plain and simple way that captures the unity within the diversity of religion’s manifestations, Dworkin provides an affirmation of his left-liberal faith. The extended argument of “Religion Without God,” including Dworkin’s approving references to his previous books and arguments, makes clear that the religious attitude as he understands it compels protection of abortion and also leads inexorably to progressive views about affirmative action, assisted suicide, same-sex marriage, and right on down the line.

In accordance with his partisan transformation of religion, Dworkin shows little interest in -- and demonstrates little knowledge of -- revealed religion. What interest he takes is decidedly antipathetic. He knows that “religious war is, like cancer, a curse of our species.” He seems, however, not to have considered Edmund Burke’s acute observations on the same subject. In “Reflections on the Revolution in France” Burke writes:

“History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites, which shake the public with the same -- ‘Troublous storms that toss/ The private state, and render life unsweet.’ These vices are the causes of those storms. Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, rights of men, are the pretexts.

Dworkin knows, or thinks he knows, that Americans who believe in God are an angry and intolerant lot. They “fight mainly in politics, at every level from national elections to local school board meetings”; and they view atheists “as immoral heathens who cannot be trusted and whose growing numbers threaten the moral health and integrity of the political community.”

Dworkin’s depiction, however, is sharply at odds with the extensively documented findings of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam. In “American Grace,” Putnam demonstrated that men and women of faith in contemporary America are more engaged in civic life, more tolerant, and tend to make better friends and neighbors than secular Americans.

Dworkin also overlooks a formidable problem latent in his sanctification of the progressive perspective. If progressivism counts as a religion, then enacting the left-liberal policy agenda would seem to represent an establishment of religion in violation of the First Amendment.

One reason that those within the conservative grassroots have grown so hostile to political compromise is because bitter experience has taught them to suspect that the left demands their total surrender, even in and through apparent gestures of rapprochement. Alas, Ronald Dworkin’s “Religion Without God” lends credence to that suspicion.

To affirm in the spirit of Albert Einstein, as does Dworkin, the “faith that some transcendental and objective value permeates the universe, value that is neither a natural phenomenon nor a subjective reaction to natural phenomena,” is to take a laudable stand against the reductionism and relativism of fashionable intellectual currents.

But to insist that the transcendental and objective value that permeates the universe prefers or requires progressive morality and public policy is to greatly underestimate the mystery and complexity of American politics, to say nothing of the mystery and complexity of the universe. 

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 Peter Berkowitz is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.  His writings are posted at www.PeterBerkowitz.com and you can follow him on Twitter @BerkowitzPeter.

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