Can Religion Without God Lead to Religious Liberty Without Conflict?

49 Pages Posted: 27 Jul 2014 Last revised: 22 Jun 2015

See all articles by Linda C. McClain

Linda C. McClain

Boston University - School of Law

Date Written: July 25, 2014


This Article engages with Ronald Dworkin’s final book, Religion Without God, which proposes to shrink the size and importance of the fierce “culture wars” in the United States between believers and nonbelievers – theists and atheists – by separating out the “science” and “value” components of religion to show these groups that they share a “fundamental religious impulse.” Religion Without God also calls for framing religious freedom as part of a general right to ethical independence rather than a “troublesome” special right for religious people. This article compares the argumentative strategy of Religion Without God with prior Dworkin works, such as Life’s Dominion and Is Democracy Possible Here?, which tackle a polarizing issue where parties are at “war” – such as abortion rights or the place of religion in public life – and submit that, by dispelling intellectual confusion and offering a fresh understanding of what is really at issue, they may be able to have a ceasefire or, at least, a substantial reduction of hostility and conflict. The article also highlights how Religion Without God, with its appeal to the aesthetic and the scientific and to the challenge of living well, incorporates characteristic features of Dworkin’s philosophy of ethical liberalism, articulated most fully in Justice for Hedgehogs but dating back at least to Foundations of Liberal Equality. Finally, the article asks how persuasive Dworkin is as a theologian or philosopher of religion and whether the new constitutional frame he offers will help to reduce conflicts over religious liberty. Or, as some critics assert, does Dworkin make religion safe for liberals and liberalism in a way that denudes or marginalizes it? Because the current controversy over same-sex marriage is a particularly significant test case, I compare Dworkin’s approach, centered on a right to ethical independence, with that of natural law theorist Robert P. George and his co-authors Ryan Anderson and Sherif Girgis.

Keywords: Ronald Dworkin, liberralism, religion, religious liberty, marriage, atheism, values, ethics, culture wars, objectivity, dignity, responsibility, First Amendment

JEL Classification: K19, K39

Suggested Citation

McClain, Linda C., Can Religion Without God Lead to Religious Liberty Without Conflict? (July 25, 2014). 94 Boston University Law Review 1273 (2014), Boston Univ. School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 14-45, Available at SSRN:

Linda C. McClain (Contact Author)

Boston University - School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States

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