The religion of John Rawls

by on March 21, 2009 at 8:50 am in Religion | Permalink

I sometimes jest with Robin Hanson that he is a Christian theologian, studying eschatology.  In my dialogue with Peter Singer I described his thought in terms of a longstanding Jewish tradition of commentary on the idea of suffering, a successor to Spinoza you might say.  In Law and Literature class I often ask my students: "What is the author's implicit theology?"

Now Kevin Vallier sends me this very interesting piece on Rawls:

When John Rawls died in 2002, there was found among his files a short statement entitled “On My Religion”, apparently written in the 1990s. In this text Rawls describes the history of his religious beliefs and attitudes towards religion. He refers to a period during his last two years as an undergraduate at Princeton (1941–2) when he “became deeply concerned with theology and its doctrines”, and considered attending a seminary to study for the Episcopal priesthood. But he decided to enlist in the army instead, “as so many of my friends and classmates were doing”. By June of 1945, he had abandoned his orthodox Christian beliefs. With characteristic tentativeness and a disclaimer of self-knowledge, Rawls speculates that his beliefs changed because of his experiences in the war and his reflections on the moral significance of the Holocaust. When he returned to Princeton in 1946, it was to pursue a doctorate in philosophy.

The article, by Joshua Cohen and Thomas Nagel, has much more of interest. It's one of the best mid-length essays I've read in some time.

1 josh March 21, 2009 at 9:23 am

Your comment to Singer reminded me of Mencius Moldbug, which made my day. You could tell Singer did not want to be called a theologian.

2 JF March 21, 2009 at 11:27 am

You are a very clever person Professor Cowan, and sometimes too clever for your own good. Engaging, publicly, as you do, with people like Singer, is a wonderful gift to the world. Engaging him on the aspects of his hypothesis where you share ground, and disagree, is surely only of benefit. However, reducing deep thought to ideology can be, in my opinion, very counterproductive.

As an academic exercise it is useful, but beyond that, ignoring ideology would be far more useful in general.

3 kurt9 March 21, 2009 at 1:53 pm

When someone mentions eschatology, I think of Frank Tipler and his concept of the omega point intelligence. Although I think Tipler’s theories of cosmology are likely wrong, I do give him and John Barrow credit for legitimizing eschatology as a scientific discipline and for making a religion a branch of science. Religion is really applied science as it is about securing immortality. Transhumanism is to conventional religion as astronomy is to astrology.

4 Lee A. Arnold March 21, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Gödel was an theist. His philosophical studies brought him to the strong conclusion that the world is both rational and a Leibnitzian monadology with God as the central monad.

5 BenjaminL March 21, 2009 at 6:02 pm

But see Peter Berkowitz, “John Rawls and the Liberal Faith”

http://www.wilsoncenter.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=wq.print&essay_id=8468&stoplayout=true

6 Anderson March 23, 2009 at 5:48 pm

I doubt if Rawls’s loss of Episcopalian faith between 1942 and 1946 was particularly driven by the Holocaust, which at the time was largely considered just one of the many horrors of WWII.

Dare one speculate that perhaps Rawls was sufficiently sensitive that the Holocaust affected him especially, without its first becoming a miniseries?

Observe the references to the Nazis in quotes from his thesis.

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