Opinion: A message to us from outer space

A solar flare bursts off the left limb

A solar flare bursts off the left limb of the sun in this image captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory on June 10, 2014, at 7:41 a.m. EDT. This is classified as an X2.2 flare, shown in a blend of two wavelengths of light: 171 and 131 angstroms, colorized in gold and red, respectively. Photo Credit: NASA/SDO/Goddard/Wiessinger / NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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Earlier this week, the spacecraft Rosetta made history.

Launched more than 10 years ago by the European Space Agency, Rosetta not only made a successful rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, but has settled into orbit ahead of it. If all goes according to plan, three months from now the craft will release a lander, known as Philae, which will touch down on the comet's surface. Meanwhile, the images Rosetta is sending back to Earth provide a constant reminder of the beauty and majesty of the universe.

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Scrolling through the Rosetta photographs, I am reminded of "Religion Without God," the final book published by the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, who died last year. Dworkin, perhaps the academy's foremost serious defender of liberalism, argued for a rapprochement between atheism and religion.

They could come together, he insisted, around the realization that "the universe and its creatures are awe-inspiring," and that "human life has purpose and the universe order." To this end, Dworkin developed and defended the category of "religious atheists" -- individualists humble enough to acknowledge a "felt conviction that the universe really does embody a sublime beauty" without thereby positing the existence of a creator. What matters, he argued, isn't whether one believes in God, but whether one believes life to possess an intrinsic beauty and meaning. There religion and atheism might find common ground.

Dworkin conceded that religionists and atheists differ, both among and between themselves, in deeply felt "convictions about how people should live and what they should value." He insisted nevertheless that "what divides godly and godless religion ... is not as important as the faith in value that unites them." In other words, people might disagree on the right answers to difficult moral questions, but they agree on the fact that right answers exist. This agreement itself, Dworkin argued, is a remarkable fact, and should be celebrated.

No doubt Dworkin was too optimistic. His audience was the educated classes of the West, not, for example, the fanatics of ISIS, who are forcing conversion in Iraq and Syria at the point of a sword. Yet studying the Rosetta images, I find myself hoping that the world comes to see Dworkin's point.

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There is enormous order and beauty in the universe, and we needn't share a theology to share a sense of awe and humility at that basic truth.


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