Ronald Dworkin’s Onto-Theology

Ronald E. Osborn

In Review | Books Religion without God, by Ronald Dworkin. Harvard University Press, 192 pages, $17.95.

In his final book, Religion Without God, based on his 2011 Einstein Lectures at the University of Bern, distinguished legal scholar Ronald Dworkin offers a provocative challenge to philosophical naturalism and a defense of objective values, including belief in “life’s intrinsic meaning and nature’s intrinsic beauty.”1 Such convictions are not matters of empirical proof or disproof based upon some set of data lying outside of the realm of values itself, Dworkin asserts. They cannot be grasped reductively using the vocabulary of neuropsychology or other natural sciences. Rather, they must be understood and embraced for what they are: a profoundly religious outlook on the universe and life that can only be accepted or rejected as a matter of faith. Drawing inspiration from Einstein, Dworkin argues for the necessity of belief in “something beyond nature”:

The beauty and sublimity [Einstein] said we could reach only as a feeble reflection are not part of nature; they are something beyond nature that cannot be grasped even by finally understanding the most fundamental of physical laws. It was Einstein’s faith that some transcendental and objective value permeates the universe, value that is neither a natural phenomenon nor a subjective reaction to natural phenomena. That is what led him to insist on his own religiosity. No other description, he thought, could better capture the character of his faith. (6)

At the “metaphysical core” of all religions, Dworkin argues, are two basic convictions. First, “The religious attitude accepts the full, independent reality of value” and “holds that human life has objective meaning or importance.” Second, to be religious is to accept “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” (10).

Yet even as Dworkin embraces “the religious attitude” in opposition to philosophical naturalists and materialists, he rejects any linking of faith in objective values with the grammars of theism or belief in a personal God. “I do not argue that there is no personal god who made the heavens and loves its creatures,” he writes,

I claim only that such a god’s existence cannot in itself make a difference to the truth of any religious values. If a god exists, perhaps he can send people to heaven or hell. But he cannot of his own will create right answers to moral questions or instill the universe with a glory it would not otherwise have. A god’s existence or character can figure in the defense of such values only as a fact that makes some different, independent background value judgment pertinent; it can figure only, that is, as a minor premise. (25–26)

According to Dworkin, the “status of value” must not be held “hostage to biology or metaphysics” (15–16). We should instead embrace an “ungrounded realism” that admits no appeal to anything other than values to certify the goodness of goodness, just as the only way to demonstrate the truthfulness of a mathematical postulate is from within the logic of mathematics itself. Dworkin acknowledges that, unlike in mathematics, “there are no agreed standards for moral or other forms of reasoning about value” (17). Yet he remains optimistic that this poses no real threat to the “felt, inescapable conviction” that “cruelty is really wrong” or that life has “intrinsic meaning” since we “have no reason at all, short of further evidence or argument, to doubt their truth” (11, 20–21). Dworkin thus offers no reply to Nietzsche and his postmodern heirs who have arrived at the felt, inescapable conviction that “without cruelty there is no festival.”2 Nietzsche’s name is nowhere mentioned in this book. Instead, Dworkin simply shifts the burden of proof back onto moral skeptics and antirealists. “I will not have convinced some of you,” he writes. “You just do not have the religious point of view” (11).

At some level, Dworkin must have known that this was a deeply unsatisfactory answer to the very real challenge of constructing a coherent and compelling metaethics after the “death of God” (or versions of transcendence that in different times and places have gone by other names). Although he declares that his account of objective values is based upon an “ungrounded realism,” it is striking that he nevertheless continues to trade on a vocabulary of pure metaphysics. He asserts that what the theologian Rudolph Otto “called the experience ‘numinous’ ”3 closely matches the “emotional reaction” of many scientists confronted by the vastness and complexity of the universe. These nontheists, Dworkin writes, even use “the very term ‘numinous’ to describe what they feel” (10). There is slippage in Dworkin’s reference to Otto, however, for Otto did not think that we have “experiences numinous,” but rather that we have experiences of the numinous.4 Is the “numinous” an adjective or a noun? Is Dworkin only concerned with numinous feelings, or, like Otto, with a reality that both transcends and encompasses all empirically observable phenomenon and is itself “numinous” or “sacred,” demanding a certain kind of feeling and response from us (whether or not we are willing or able to make it)?

Despite such ambiguities in Dworkin’s language (and it remains unclear whether he subscribes to the idea of the numinous or simply thinks it is one alternative to the idea of a personal God), he is opposed to any reduction of values to subjective feelings, whether individual or collective. He quotes approvingly from Paul Tillich’s famous statement that “God” is the “ground and abyss of being and meaning” and is manifest in “the experience of the numinous” (37). Highlighting similarities among Tillich, Einstein, Spinoza, and Carl Sagan, Dworkin suggests that all four thinkers point us toward the same reality: a universe saturated with objective beauty and value. However, it would be “much clearer and more accurate” to refer to pantheists and other believers in “non-personal” versions of the numinous as “religious atheists” rather than as believers in a “non-personal god” (42–43). The differences among them, Dworkin maintains, are less interesting and less important than their shared faith in the objective reality of value itself.

Is it really the case, however, that God can only figure as a “minor premise” in conversations about the good? And is faith in a strictly impersonal “ground of being” (let alone “ungrounded realism”) really sufficient to disclose, enrich, and sustain many of the values Dworkin held dear? What if it is the value of the personal that is precisely at stake? How, without falling into pure subjectivism or relativism, can we affirm the independent or real value of compassion for the weak and the marginalized, or of self-giving love for the Other, if the Ultimate Reality of the universe that somehow gave rise to humanity and toward which our lives can either bend or not bend is bereft of anything like personality, and so utterly devoid of compassion, joy, wisdom, and love?

Accepting Dworkin’s intuition that all of life contains intrinsic value and meaning, the question that Nietzsche forces us to face is whether we will continue to find the same things beautiful, valuable, and meaningful in the absence of belief in God; for religion without God also means religion without the imago Dei. Will we grow more attuned to the suffering of others and to the needs of our neighbors if we come to believe there is no God who hears our cries or who stands in radical solidarity with the weak and the lowly—that there is only a coldly sublime universe and the strength of our “felt convictions,” whatever these might be? The question, Nietzsche insisted, must be posed not only at the level of individuals or of personal psychology, but also generationally, so that we might know what the death of God would finally come to mean for an entire culture.

Whether or not Dworkin’s religion of objective values can logically sustain liberal conceptions of inviolable individual human dignity and equality, we must also ask whether faith in objective values alone can practically move us toward ethical action in the same ways the grammars of theistic anthropology can. As Jürgen Habermas has confessed, “enlightened reason unavoidably loses its grip on the images, preserved by religion, of the moral whole—of the Kingdom of God on earth—as collectively binding ideals.” It “fails to fulfill its own vocation…to awaken, and to keep awake, in the minds of secular subjects, an awareness of the violations of solidarity throughout the world, an awareness of what is missing, of what cries out to heaven.”5

A further problem arises from Dworkin’s religious reflections. His faith in objective values is, on closer examination, a form of that sickness unto death that Heidegger referred to as onto-theology. Dworkin’s claim that the personhood of God can add nothing of moral significance to the impersonal “ground of being” of Spinoza, Einstein, and Sagan conflates and confuses the God of classical theism with the God of the philosophers. But the “God” who Dworkin dismisses is also rejected by every serious theist on the orthodox conviction that we can enter into relationship with God insofar as God is personal, yet never turn God into a safe or convenient prop for our own moral or intellectual ends. Further, Dworkin’s religion is—from the perspective of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thought—a deeply onto-theological project; for onto-theology arises precisely out of the attempt to construct a religion without God when what we most urgently need is God without religion.6

The word “onto-theology,” Merold Westphal writes, has become “the abracadabra by which a triumphalist secularism makes the world immune to any God who resembles the personal Creator, Lawgiver, and Merciful Savior of Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim monotheism.”7 But Heidegger’s original critique of onto-theology was “not directed toward the God of the Bible or the Koran, before whom people do fall on their knees in awe, pray, sacrifice, sing, and dance,” but at “those that have sold their soul to philosophy’s project of rendering the whole of reality intelligible to human understanding.”8 The title essay of Westphal’s book is therefore addressed primarily not to religious believers, but to atheists who have misappropriated Heidegger in their critiques of orthodox faith and who have failed to realize that they might be engaging in onto-theology.9

There is a world of difference between believing—as in the traditions of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Pascal, Kierkegaard, or Barth—that a divine perspective exists, and thinking that we can fully capture or control it.10 Westphal argues that none of these thinkers, properly understood, were in fact onto-theologians in Heidegger’s sense, since all were acutely aware of the limits of human knowledge—limits that were central to their understanding of belief in God. “They are trying to make the best sense they can of their faith, but they have not bought into the project of making the whole of reality intelligible to human understanding with help from the Highest Being,” Westphal writes. “They agree with the twentieth-century psalmist who sings, ‘I cannot worship what I comprehend.’ ”11

By contrast, we can detect the onto-theological drive even in forms of atheism, “for the project survives the death of God.”12 Westphal suggests that onto-theology occurs: 1) Whenever the personal God of revelation and doxology is replaced by systems of conceptual mastery that strive to be completely self-grounding; 2) When mathematical physics finally replaces theology as our highest science, leaving us with a purely instrumentalist, depersonalized, and human-controlled form of “religion”; and, above all, 3) When we cut ourselves off from the relationships and the practices of worshiping communities—praying, singing, and dancing before the divine—that constitute the heart of any living faith.13 Onto-theology arises not only in fundamentalist or scholastic systems that have forgotten how and when to be silent and how and when to sing, but also in certain forms of “negative theology”; for “silencing God is one way of having God at our disposal and protecting ourselves against being seized by what we do not see. The act of protesting against onto-theology can become an onto-theological gesture.”14

In his opening chapter, Dworkin offers Spinoza as an exemplary model of “religion without God,” but who Heidegger pointed to as a paradigmatic onto-theologian. “Spinoza’s God is not an intelligence who stands outside everything and who, through the force of his will, has created the universe and the physical laws that govern it,” Dworkin writes. “His God just is the complete set of physical laws considered under a different aspect.” He continues, “Couldn’t that god be eliminated as only window dressing? If Nature, in the form of determining physical law, is and accounts for everything, and does this without any ambition or plan or purpose, why bring god into the story at all?” (38–39). For Dworkin, once we have clarified what Spinoza actually meant when he used the word “God,” we can fully embrace his metaphysics—just as Einstein cited Spinoza as a vital inspiration and as his religious predecessor (40).

The onto-theological drive in Dworkin’s religious atheism comes into still sharper focus in his second chapter, “The Universe.” Dworkin marvels at the ways in which “secular science” has become “amazingly like the science of theology” (93). He expresses hope that theoretical physicists will one day find “a final theory of everything,” embracing the dream of modern science that “there is, waiting to be discovered, a comprehensive, simple, and unified explanation of how the universe was born and how it works” (61). Such a total theory would “radiate that transcendent beauty” of the universe that, at present, can only be taken on faith (62). According to Dworkin, the elusive theory of everything that science is striving toward, if attained, will be a theory displaying “shielded strong integrity”—it will provide not only a logically complete explanation of all of reality, it will also reveal from within itself that no other explanation can ever possibly arise (87). If some find this idea profoundly disturbing, Dworkin does not. He concludes, “the scientific presumption that the universe is finally fully comprehensible is also the religious conviction that it shines with real beauty” (104).

Dworkin’s faith in objective values is therefore best seen as a religion of logical necessity that—despite his disavowal of metaphysical systems as well as any personal God—stands in the onto-theological traditions of Aristotle, Spinoza, and Hegel. His critique of the intellectual poverty and moral nihilism of any fully consistent philosophical naturalism or materialism provides a welcome opening that might indeed lead to “improved communication” between theists and atheists, just as he hoped (2). Yet part of that communication requires that we name the ways in which a “religion without God,” which looks to mathematics and physics as the highest revelation of the “sublime,” is yet another totalizing metaphysical dream—one that places heavy burdens of knowing and mastering the cosmos as a closed system that can never be penetrated by any deeper meaning nor embraced by any ultimate love.

As such, onto-theology is deeply corrosive of those personal and humanistic values that find their wellspring in the lived and felt practices of communities of prayer and praise. Did Dworkin ever offer a secret song, prayer, or dance before a shrine for objective values? It would be remarkable if he did, for onto-theology does not contain the spiritual resources or depths that might free us to sing songs of receptive hope or joyful gratitude before the mystery of a divine love that is radically beyond our pretensions to philosophical, scientific, or even theological control. In the final analysis, this is why onto-theology must always be resisted: there is dignity and decorum in it, but no deeply humanizing community or life-sustaining joy.  


  1. Ronald Dworkin, Religion without God (Harvard University Press, 2013), 11.
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, ed. Walter Kaufmann (Vintage Books, 1967), 67.
  3. Otto coined this term in his 1923 book, The Idea of the Holy.
  4. Otto does on occasion use the phrase “the numinous feeling,” but as his translator John W. Harvey writes, “it would certainly have been better had he always preferred the alternative phrase ‘the feeling of the numinous’ ” since “far from stressing the place of the subjective state of mind in the religious experience, Otto’s emphasis is always upon the objective reference, and upon subjective feelings only as the indispensible clues to this.” Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John W. Harvey (Oxford University Press, 1958), xvi–xvii.
  5. Jürgen Habermas, An Awareness of What Is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age (Polity Press, 2010), 19.
  6. I am indebted in this insight to David Congdon, who generously read and responded to an early version of this article.
  7. Merold Westphal, Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (Fordham University Press, 2001), 3.
  8. Ibid., 4.
  9. In addressing this topic, Westphal says he has “two audiences in mind, one quite secular (or at least anti-theistic), the other rather traditionally theological.” He goes on to say in the next paragraph, “The main argument of this essay has been addressed to the first audience,” i.e., to the secular or anti-theistic reader. Ibid., 22.
  10. Ibid., 6, 8.
  11. Ibid., 8.
  12. Ibid., 13.
  13. Ibid., 17–18.
  14. Ibid., 23–24.

Ronald Osborn is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Wellesley College and a 2015 Fulbright Scholar to Burma/Myanmar. He is the author of Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (IVP Academic, 2014), and Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence and Theodicy (Wipf & Stock, 2010).

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