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Cosmic Meaning, Awe, and Absurdity in the Secular Age: A Critique of Religious Non-Theism

  • Ryan Gillespie (a1)


The notion of a meaningful life in secular modernism is often caught between two worlds: a deep human yearning for cosmic meaning, on the one hand, and a seemingly random, impersonal, contingent universe on the other hand. This is often referred to as absurdity. One response to absurdity is classical theism, and another is scientific reductionism. A third response, and the subject of this article, is religious non-theism. This article: (a) explicates the primary tensions of absurdity, in relation to both human expectations and discussions of beauty in contemporary physics and cosmology; (b) analyzes the arguments and motivations of religious non-theists and the attitude of awe toward the cosmos as a rapprochement between—or at least alternative to—classical theism and scientific reductionism, as a sort of post-secular response to absurdity; and (c) begins a critique of the religious non-theist perspective, explicating four worries, expressed as the Commitment Problem, the Standards Problem, the Moral Problem, and the Awe Problem.

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This article began as a public lecture delivered for the Center for the Study of Religion on February 25, 2015 at UCLA. I am deeply grateful to Carol Bakhos for the invitation and continued support, and to audience members for their engagement. Thank you to Howard Wettstein, three thoughtful anonymous referees, and the HTR editors for their time and critiques.



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1 The distinction is not as clean as subjective/objective meaning. Secular is used to signal not just contrast to transcendence and transcendent frames for living but also a life conditioned within—even when against—an immanent frame, with modernism indicating modernity (approx. 1500 to present) and serving as a synonym for contemporary. My usage is indebted to Taylor’s third notion of the secular (Secularity 3) and shifts in social ontology. See Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011) 1522, 618–75; see also Casanova, José, “The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms,” in Rethinking Secularism (ed. Calhoun, Craig, Juergensmeyer, Mark, and Van Antwerpen, Jonathan; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) 5474.

2 Nagel, Thomas, Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) 3.

3 Fleischacker, Samuel, Divine Teaching and the Way of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) 308.

4 Weinberg, Steven, The First Three Minutes (New York: Basic Books, 1993) 154.

5 Camus, Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (trans. O’Brien, Justin; New York: Knopf, 1955; repr., New York: Vintage 1991) 28. Page numbers taken from the reprinted edition.

6 Weinberg, Steven, Dreams of a Final Theory (New York: Vintage, 1994) 53 [italics in original].

7 The view is essential to natural theology in the Enlightenment, most famously William Paley’s 1802 work Natural Theology (ed. Eddy, Matthew D. and Knight, David; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). Even if it is controversial whether he believed it or not—or even if it is clear that he did not—Hume captures the essence of the view: The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author” (Dialogues and Natural History of Religion [New York: Oxford University Press, 1993] 134).

8 Contention to the meaningful or meaningless disjunction can follow in several ways. For an argument that cosmic insignificance is just a metaethical mistake about objective value and the so-called cosmic point of view, but that despite such a lack, or mistake, humans are still able to hold values firmly nonetheless, see Williams, Bernard, “The Human Prejudice,” in Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline (ed. Moore, A. W.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008) 135–52. For an argument that if objective value doesn’t exist, then nihilism logically follows, see Mackie, J. L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin, 1991). For a critique of cosmic insignificance and relation to metaethics, see Kahane, Guy, “Our Cosmic Insignificance,” Nous 48 (2014) 745–72.

9 Taylor, A Secular Age, 717.

10 Kahane, “Our Cosmic Insignificance,” 763.

11 There are important differences and distinctions across these thinkers and their views. I will try not to paint with too broad of stroke here, but, in another sense, it will be important to grant some latitude about particularities of views in order to see what this interesting philosophical move might be, if not exactly (yet?) a social pattern/cultural movement.

12 Or at least it has attracted the most significant scholarly attention. See, e.g., A Symposium on Ronald Dworkin’s Religion Without God,” Boston University Law Review 94 (2014) 12011355.

13 Dworkin, Ronald, Religion Without God (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013) esp. 143.

14 Nagel, Secular Philosophy, esp. 3–17.

15 Gary Gutting, “The Way of the Agnostic,” New York Times, 20 January 2013,; idem, “Pascal’s Wager 2.0,” New York Times, 28 September 2015,

16 On the postsecular, see Gillespie, Ryan, “Religion and the Postsecular Public Sphere,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 102 (2016) 194207; idem, Reason, Religion, and Postsecular Liberal-Democratic Epistemology,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 47 (2014) 124; Gorski, Philip et al. The Postsecular in Question: Religion in Contemporary Society (New York: New York University Press, 2012); Habermas, Jürgen, Between Naturalism and Religion (Malden, MA: Polity, 2008).

17 Taylor, A Secular Age, 718.

18 Wittgenstein looms large in this article, both in the knot into which he ties ethics, religion, and questions of ultimate meaning together and the insight about potentialities for religious language to be about attitudes toward the world or limits of language in general (“as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water”). The central tension is acknowledging the limits of running outside of the boundaries of language, and that, knowing as much, even he still uses expressions of absolute value and miracle and so forth, as discussed in Wittgenstein, Ludwig, “Lecture on Ethics,” in Philosophical Occasions 1912–1951 (ed. Klagge, James and Nordmann, Alfred; Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993) 3644, at 40; see also Nagel, Secular Philosophy, 31.

19 I use the phrase telic orientation to mean something like our ultimate attitude toward the world, religious or not, and (likely) based on ultimate meaning (which is to say ultimate ends) as humans. It is akin to Fleischacker’s usage of the telic arena “in which we raise questions of our overall or ultimate end: of whether our lives are worth living, and what if so, makes them so” (Divine Teaching, 144).

20 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 30.

21 Ibid., 29.

22 Camus talks about the trouble of aiming for objective and universal normative understanding sourced in nature and coming up short, and of receiving normative understanding from art but being skeptical of its universality and objectivity: “you give me the choice between a description that is sure but that teaches me nothing and hypotheses that claim to teach me but that are not sure” (ibid., 20). Normative meaning is what Camus seeks, or says that humans are seeking, and he says that it will not (or cannot) be found in the world. The argument, then, seems to be something like this: Humans seek universal normative meaning, but there is no universal normative meaning to be found, on the grounds that such has not been discovered (via scientific inquiry). But that the world is silent is already to have made a judgment about (a) the way the world is and (b) what normativity is and what grounds it. For example, a non-natural moral realism might provide a robust counter to Camus’s claims. See Shafer-Landau, Russ, Moral Realism: A Defense (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Cuneo, Terence, The Normative Web (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Parfit, Derek, On What Matters (2 vols.; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). While the distinctions between natural and non-natural moral realism are contested, the essential tenants of non-naturalism might be that the moral world is independent from the empirical scientific world and that moral terms are neither reducible to nor re-describable as nonnormative or non-moral terms.

23 That religion can oppose science historically is well-known (e.g., Galileo). For the idea that Christianity, in particular, was a spur to scientific inquiry and traditional scientific concepts like order and regularity, see, e.g., Whitehead, Alfred N., Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1925); Klaaren, Eugene M., Religious Origins of Modern Science (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977); Lindberg, David C. and Numbers, Ronald, God and Nature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

24 MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue (2nd ed.; Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) 60.

25 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 36.

26 Taylor, A Secular Age, 11.

27 Ibid., 678.

28 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 31.

29 A prominent voice here is McGrath who articulates a natural theology consistent with Christian Trinitarian views to meet certain objections. See McGrath, Alister, A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009). For a pushing of the boundaries between naturalism and theology, see Haught, John F., Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). For a kind of Neoplatonism that is consistent with classical theism and/or a multiverse, see Leslie, John, Universes (New York: Routledge, 1989).

30 This view holds that there is a deeply spiritual component to humanity and that a scientifically accurate view of the cosmos strengthens just such a commitment and offers place for it. Furthermore, it frequently holds that theistic religious language is up to the task and normatively appropriate, but that characteristically classical theistic terms like sacred and God need not have the same classical theistic referents. For this view of ecospirituality, sometimes called Big History, see Christian, David, Brown, Cynthia, and Benjamin, Craig, Big History: Between Nothing and Everything (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013). Two ambitious projects in this view are Dowd, Michael, Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World (New York: Viking, 2009), arguing for a New Theism/Religion 2.0, and the multimedia project Journey of the Universe, in Swimme, Brian and Evelyn Tucker, Mary, Journey into the Universe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014). Lisa Sideris calls these projects Genesis 2.0 and the return of mythopoetic science. See Sideris, Lisa, Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017). It appears as if Cosmic Eco-Theists have more cultural adherents than religious non-theism per se, and perhaps this reflects a certain bias or obstacle in the otherwise more academically philosophical religious non-theism.

31 Nagel, Thomas, Mind and Cosmos (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012) esp. 3570.

32 Kauffman, Stuart, Reinventing the Sacred (New York: Basic Books, 2010) x.

33 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 31.

34 Hudson, Hud, The Metaphysics of Hyperspace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) 36.

35 Leslie, Universes, 3.

36 Pierce’s connection of abduction and surprising facts isn’t as straightforward as contemporary notions of inference to the best explanation. But the structure given in Pierce is:

  • The surprising fact, C, is observed;

  • But if A were true, C would be a matter of course,

  • Hence, there is reason to suspect that A is true.

See Pierce, Charles, The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (ed. Hartshorne, Charles, Weiss, Paul, and Burks, Arthur W.8 vols.; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931–1935, 1958) 5:189. See also El Khachab, Chihab, “The Logical Goodness of Abduction in C. S. Pierce’s Thought,” Transactions of the Charles S. Pierce Society 49 (2013) 157–77.

37 I am using abduction in a mostly Pierceian, non-strict sense but one also tied very much to just dialectic (reasoning the probable) in general in Aristotle, as distinguished from apodeixis (scientific/demonstration) (e.g., Top. 1.1) or perhaps most saliently as rhetoric in Isocrates (Antid. 271). For present purposes, Paley’s description of his own notion of “the argument cumulative” suffices: the goal is not a conclusion of necessity, for “the proof is not a conclusion, which lies at the end of a chain of reasoning, of which chain each instance of contrivance is only a link, and of which, if one link fail, the whole falls” (Paley, Natural Theology, 46). The idea, writ large, focuses on the amount of evidence and reasoning it takes to weigh the scales toward one side as opposed to another in situations where ideal epistemic conditions are unattainable.

38 Wilczek, Frank and Devine, Betsy, Longing for the Harmonies (New York: Norton, 1989) xi.

39 Carroll, Sean, The Particle at the End of the Universe (New York: Dutton, 2012) 278.

40 Wilczek and Devine, Longing for the Harmonies, xiii [italics in original].

41 Zee, Anthony, Fearful Symmetry: The Search for Beauty in Modern Physics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007) 3.

42 Carroll also notes the interesting fact that some high-profile physicists of the current era—Fabiola Gianotti, Joe Incandela, Sau Lan Wu, David Kaplan—additionally studied art, music, or film. See Carroll, The Particle at the End, 277. It is an interesting contrast between these types of scientists and their discoveries of randomness, chance, and cold universes, mixed with excited talk of love and passion and beauty, and the literary celebration of coldness and chance, a festival of insignificance, resulting in a sort of misanthropy in the works of Samuel Beckett or Milan Kundera. See Huston, Nancy, Professeurs de désespoir (Paris: Actes Sud, 2004); Taylor, A Secular Age, 699–703.

43 Greene, Brian, The Fabric of the Cosmos (New York: Vintage, 2005) 225.

44 Weinberg, Dreams of a Final, 165.

45 See also Dworkin, Religion Without God, 51–65.

46 The statement is meant to document the tendency, the existence and persistence of the intuitive pull, not to use the persistence as decisive evidence of its truth. But such existence and persistence of the truth, beauty, goodness knot, especially within (after?) secular modernism, seems indeed worthy of attention. See Nagel, Secular Philosophy, 17; Gillespie, Ryan, “Normative Reasoning and Moral Argumentation in Theory and Practice,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 49 (2016): 4973, at 54, 64, also discussing what I have called here Existentially Nagging Intuitions.

47 Nagel, Secular Philosophy, “Preface.”

48 I am focusing on the writings that explicitly endorse their view as religious. There are others who prefer the increasingly common (self-)identification of spiritual-but-not-religious, which, in an agnostic or atheistic view, might amount to something similar. A figure of the latter might be Abrams, with a view like the ones surveyed in the main text as far as it is indeed the insights of fundamental physics and cosmology, consisting partly of the “surprising facts,” that prompt revision and expansion in human relationship to the cosmos. Consider:

Many religious believers are convinced that the earth was created as is a few thousand years ago, while many people who respect science believe that the earth is just an average planet of a random star in a universe where no place is special. Neither is right. Both groups are operating with mental pictures of the universe that we now know scientifically are wrong.

See Ellen Abrams, Nancy and Primack, Joel R., The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Cosmology Could Transform the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011) xii [italics in original]; Ellen Abrams, Nancy, A God That Could Be Real (Boston: Beacon, 2015).

49 Gutting, “Way of the Agnostic.”

50 Dworkin, Religion Without God, 9.

51 Dworkin is explicit in this regard, see ibid. 3, 50; also, the book is based on his 2011 Einstein Lectures at University of Bern.

52 Einstein, Albert, “From Living Philosophies (1931),” in Living Philosophies (ed. Fadiman, Clifton; New York: Doubleday, 1990) 6.

53 Nagel (Secular Philosophy, 17) stops short of claiming the religious attitude, preferring absurdity. He ends an exploratory chapter: “… we must go back to the choice between hardheaded atheism, humanism, and the absurd. In that case, since the cosmic question won’t go away and humanism is too limited an answer, a sense of the absurd may be what we are left with.” But his themes are similar to the religious non-theists, and he even claims the overarching “cosmic question” as reliant on an attitude:

How can one bring into one’s individual life a recognition of one’s relation to the universe as a whole, whatever that relation is? It is important to distinguish this question from the pure desire for understanding of the universe and one’s place in it. It is not an expression of curiosity, however large. And it is not the general intellectual problem of how to combine an objective conception of the universe with the local perspective of one creature within it. It is rather a question of attitude: Is there a way to live in harmony with the universe, and not just in it? (Ibid., 5).

54 The priority or basicness of the attitude of awe is not necessarily on offer; in fact, it seems likely that there is a more essential attitude toward the cosmos necessary to give rise to awe (e.g., a substratum of reasonability, an attitude that is responsive to surprising facts, a kind of reflexivity).

55 Dworkin, Religion Without God, 5–6 [italics in original].

56 Ibid., 6.

57 Gutting, “Pascal’s Wager 2.0.”

58 Kauffman operates with similar rhetorical moves of identification of cosmic yearning and the notion of an attitude toward and beyond nature, and the scientific complexities and discoveries of the twenty-first century without falling into scientific reductionism. But his view is more aligned with the Cosmic Eco-Theism, the sort of Spinozan redescription of classical theism discussed previously, as he is fully comfortable with overtly theistic language:

We need a place for our spirituality, and a Creator God is one such place. I hold that it is we who have invented God, to serve as our most powerful symbol. It is our choice how wisely to use our symbol to orient our lives and our civilizations. I believe we can reinvent the sacred. We can invent a global ethic, in a shared space, safe to us all, with one view of God as the natural creativity in the universe (Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred, xiii).

59 For more on the split of belief that the gods exist and following, trusting, worshiping the gods in antiquity, see Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion (trans. Raffan, John; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985) and Kinneavy, James, Greek Rhetorical Origins of Christian Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

60 While there are certainly individuals in history who likely share some version of attitudes of awe toward the cosmos, choosing to express this as religion without deistic commitment, it is rare as a rhetoric; that plenty in, say, Enlightenment Britain remained outwardly pious (attending church) but expressed inner doubts is of a different order. There are numerous examples of abstaining from the trusting/devotion/practice side while maintaining the empirical belief side. For an argument on just such a take for certain “Christian Atheists,” see Poster, Carol, “‘If Thou Art God, Avenge Thyself!’ Sade and Swinburne as Christian Atheists,” in Straight Writ Queer: Non-Normative Expressions of Heterosexual Desire (ed. Fantina, Richard; Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006) 244–57. Again, religious non-theists reverse this relationship (by rejecting empirical belief that God/gods exists but maintaining the faith side of the pairing), or, in another sense, side-step the pairing altogether.

61 I have in mind here a certain kind of religious orthodoxy that encourages one to try the rituals, attitudes, and practices on for size, so to speak, and see whether one does not end up closer to God. For an excellent account of this in Judaism, see Wettstein, Howard, The Significance of Religious Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015) 5254. For secular correlates of try-first-then-(you-will)-believe, see Fleischacker, Divine Teaching, 536, n. 1.

62 Sean Carroll, “Science and Religion are Not Compatible,” Discover, 23 June 2009, See also Weinberg, Dreams, 241–61, esp. 245.

63 Sorensen, Roy, “Parsimony for Empty Space,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 92 (2014) 215–30, at 217, cautions of an “aesthetic prejudice” within certain scientific fields, in that “awe makes us big spenders,” favoring the sublime and vast grandeur opposed to parsimony. This reflects a shift in preference from Enlightenment science to Romantic science, also discussed in Holmes, Richard, The Age of Wonder (New York: Vintage, 2008).

64 The notion of beauty as harmony or symmetry runs deep, of course, but there might be other elements as well (dissonance, say, as Palestrina might fruitfully argue). There is also something interesting about the scientific appeal to the beauty and symmetry of the cosmos before, essentially, its inception. Recall that it is with the breaking of symmetry that the perpetuation and expansion of the universe/multiverse occur, including the existence of humanity and so forth.

65 Dworkin, Religion Without God, 104. For his full case for moral realism, arguing for a mind-independent morality and the unity of all value, see Dworkin, Ronald, Justice for Hedgehogs (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

66 Leslie, Universes, 120–21.

67 It might be that these smaller sources of awe are too quickly dismissed, as one reviewer cautioned. But the point I am after here is not that these smaller sources of awe can be explained rather tidily in reductionism or theism or that these smaller sources are somehow insufficient (psychologically or philosophically). Rather, I am contending that these smaller sources are not awe; they might be surprising, exciting, stupefying, wondrous, and so forth, but they are not awe in the sense of permanent, religious awe—which is the kind under evaluation. Claiming to be scientifically sophisticated and then being in permanent religious awe about small odds seems incoherent on its face.

68 William James notes the ordinariness, or at least non-uniqueness of the experience of awe, that “religious awe is the same organic thrill which we feel in a forest at twilight, or in a mountain gorge” but is keen to note that those experiences and objects, properly understood, are not enough to garner religious awe, continuing “only this time it comes over us at the thought of our supernatural relations.” See James, William, Writings 1902–1910 (Library of America 38; New York: Viking, 1987) 3. The need for religious awe in James’s description is for precisely something supernatural in relation. Similarly, the worship or divinity of nature, in either the Spinozean or the Mother Gaia sense, both hold that there is some divine element. Perhaps this is why Burkert, Greek Religion, 175, says the worship of gaia is often thought the “prototype of all piety.”

69 Joshua Heschel, Abraham, God in Search of Man (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976) 75.

70 Ibid., 74.

71 Ibid.

72 Wettstein, Significance of Religious Experience, 38.

73 In the Christian tradition, one might think of Paul at the Areopagus (Acts 17:22–34), where, upon seeing the inscription to the unknown God, he says, in effect: “I see that you are very pious, and that’s good insofar as it goes; but now let me share with you the name and character of that God so that you might be strengthened and worship properly.” The fact that Stoic piety, in the sense of living in accord with Nature, is not a matter of merely accepting what befalls us but of loving it, too, might counter this argument. If so, this is because the enactment of a cosmologically-given function is an act of love (e.g., Marcus Aurelius, Med. 10.21)—though Stoics possess theological (if not Jewish, Christian, or Islamic) commitments (in contradistinction to the randomness and void of which the Epicureans made so much). One might also think of Heschel, God in Search, 77: “we must grow in awe in order to reach faith.”

74 I thank an anonymous reviewer for highlighting this angle.

75 High comfort level in calling the pre-theoretic Beyond something like the divine or the Absolute or the One might indicate one as a Cosmic Eco-Theist and not a religious non-theist.

76 It could be that the religious non-theist is in awe of the surprise: that there is beauty when randomness was expected. But this too sounds like temporary wonder, not a permanent attitude of religious awe.

77 For example, the refusal to name the center, so to speak—in this case, the denial of theism—could be an apophatic communication strategy. The reference to something that is “beyond nature” but still unarticulated could serve as an implicit critique of meaning-reference theories of discursive rationality. But again, for the science-and-analytic-philosophy-heavy emphasis of the religious non-theism I’ve discussed here, that seems unlikely. And even if negative theology was intended in the “beyond nature” invocation, the fact that it must remain inarticulable, still bespeaks a position consistent with many classical theisms. For a case for understanding Dworkin’s religious non-theism as onto-theology, the idea that theology is bound up with questions of ontology, perhaps even most especially in attempts to otherwise excise theology from ontology, see Osbourne, Ronald E., “Ronald Dworkin’s Onto-Theology,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 43 (2015),

78 Absurdity remains a possibility too, though the challenges of fine-tuning remain.

79 In the same way that Parfit is hopeful about a similar trajectory of convergence for non-religious ethics. See Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984) 454. For an historically informed critique, on stadial consciousness, of the “superiority of our current outlook over other earlier forms of understanding,” which is “variously understood as the story of Progress, or Reason and Freedom, or Civilization or Decency or Human Rights; or as the coming to maturity of a nation or culture,” see Taylor, A Secular Age, 289, 716.

80 Hermann Weyl, working on his theory of gauge symmetry, had a temporary notion concluding that a moving clock could not keep time. Einstein wrote him a letter about it, quipping, “except for the agreement with reality, [your theory] is in any case a grand intellectual achievement.” See Einstein, Albert, “To Hermann Weyl (8 April 1918),” in The Berlin Years: Correspondence 1918 (ed. Schulmann, Robert et al.; vol. 8B of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998) 523,

81 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 21.

82 One way to read reconciliation efforts after the Great Collision is as a rescue mission: the rescuing of value from its supposed annihilation by scientific methods and paradigms—in short, from cold impersonal universes by those of us with deep concern for value (which is to say, for example, justice, graciousness, goodness). On the idea of reigniting the sphere of value in a moral realistic project in just such a way—something on which we are in full agreement—see Dworkin, Justice for Hedgehogs, 417.

83 Jay Gould, Stephen, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (1997) 1622.

84 McGrath, Fine-Tuned Universe; Fleischacker, Divine Teaching. A Pew study on science and religion, despite assuming a fixity in either of those terms and practices, revealed an interesting set of statistics about the polled portion of the American populace: while 59% of respondents believe that science and religion are often in conflict, only 30% believed that science often conflicts with their own religious beliefs. Perhaps most noteworthy is that the least religious respondents held the strongest beliefs about science and religion being in conflict (73%). This could be explained by ignorance on the part of the science-committed about what certain religions actually claim, or by ignorance on the part of the religiously-committed about their own beliefs or ignorance about certain scientific implications. It could also be the case that the scientifically-committed better understand the implications of their beliefs. See Cary Funk and Becka A. Alper, “Religion and Science,” Pew Research Center, 22 October 2015,

85 The theme of courage seems to run through much classical theistic, existentialist, and scientific reductionist literature—the courage to face reality, to leap, bite the bullet, and so forth. It is perhaps curious that I have made this charge of its being absent for the religious non-theist, when the point might just be that such courageousness gets us into trouble.

86 Taylor, A Secular Age, 680.

* This article began as a public lecture delivered for the Center for the Study of Religion on February 25, 2015 at UCLA. I am deeply grateful to Carol Bakhos for the invitation and continued support, and to audience members for their engagement. Thank you to Howard Wettstein, three thoughtful anonymous referees, and the HTR editors for their time and critiques.

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