Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life

Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life

by Austin Dacey
     
 

From Washington to the Vatican to Tehran, religion is a public matter as never before, and secular values — individual autonomy, pluralism, separation of religion and state, and freedom of conscience — are attacked on all sides and defended by few. The godly claim a monopoly on the language of morality, while secular liberals stand accused of standing

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Overview

From Washington to the Vatican to Tehran, religion is a public matter as never before, and secular values — individual autonomy, pluralism, separation of religion and state, and freedom of conscience — are attacked on all sides and defended by few. The godly claim a monopoly on the language of morality, while secular liberals stand accused of standing for nothing.

Secular liberals did not lose their moral compass: they gave it away. For generations, too many have insisted that questions of conscience — religion, ethics, and values — are "private matters" that have no place in public debate. Ironically, this ideology hinders them from subjecting religion to due scrutiny when it encroaches on individual rights and from unabashedly advocating their own moral vision in politics for fear of "imposing" their beliefs on others.

In his incisive new book, philosopher Austin Dacey calls for a bold rethinking of the nature of conscience and its role in public life. Inspired by an earlier liberal tradition that he traces to Spinoza and John Stuart Mill, Dacey urges liberals to lift their self-imposed gag order and defend a renewed secularism based on the objective moral value of conscience.

Dacey compares conscience to the press in an open society: it is protected from coercion and control, not because it is private, but because it has a vital role in the public sphere. It is free, but not liberated from shared standards of truth and right. It must come before any and all faiths, for it is what tells us whether or not to believe. In this way, conscience supplies a shared vocabulary for meaningful dialogue in a diverse society, and an ethical lingua franca in which to address the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In a dazzling display of erudition, this book presents a cogent argument for secular liberalism. Dacey, a philosopher who teaches at Polytechnic University and the State University of New York at Buffalo, claims that values and ethics-defining what is right and wrong, good and bad-are not the sole domain of theologians. To contribute to our understanding of enlightened secularism, he cites like-minded thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Dewey, Adam Smith, John Rawls, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Plato, John Locke and Baruch Spinoza, among others. Dacey's presentation is especially timely in view of the emphasis by some current presidential candidates on their religious identity. Not since 1960, when John F. Kennedy, as a Roman Catholic, argued for church-state separation, has the issue of secularism versus religion been so prominent in a national election. Dacey's analysis helps to put this question into the larger perspective of liberty and conscience. Dacey advocates for democracy over authoritarianism, not hesitating to challenge theocratic Islam, for example, as a "new totalitarianism." He calls on secular liberals to stand up for "reason and science, the separation of religion and state, freedom of belief, personal autonomy, equality, toleration, and self-criticism." This is a thoughtful, well-reasoned argument for progressive secularism. (Mar.)

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Library Journal

No book published during this important election year more effectively addresses religious/secular issues than this study by philosopher Dacey (Ctr. of Inquiry, New York). Arguing that secularism has lost its soul, Dacey proposes a secularism based on the objective moral value of questions of conscience. Calling on the liberal traditions of Spinoza and John Stuart Mill and drawing from the latest research on belief, the mind, and ethics, he says that the role of the church should be to "bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good" rather than to impose certain ways of thinking and conduct. For him, secular liberalism is not a religion but a moral, philosophical, and political outlook committed to reason and science, the separation of religion and state, freedom of belief, and a public ethic affirming the values of personal autonomy, equality, toleration, self-criticism, and this-worldly well-being. This thoughtful, informative, and tremendously interesting primer for secular ideas raises the bar for books dealing with world rights and makes sense of a philosophy foreign to many people of faith. Highly recommended for well-informed readers in public and academic libraries.
—Gary Gillum

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781591026044
Publisher:
Prometheus Books
Publication date:
03/18/2008
Pages:
240
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.80(d)

What People are saying about this

Richard John Neuhaus
"On almost all the hot-button issues-abortion, embryo-destructive research, same-sex marriage, Darwinism as a comprehensive philosophy, etc.-Dacey is, in my judgment, on the wrong side. But he is right about one very big thing. These contests are not between people who, on the one side, are trying to impose their morality on others, and people who, on the other side, subscribe to a purely procedural and amoral rationality. . . The Secular Conscience was written in order to advance the fortunes of liberal secularism in the public square. On many questions of great public moment, most of us will disagree with Austin Dacey. At the same time, he should be recognized as an ally in his contention that these are moral questions that must be addressed by moral argument."--(Richard John Neuhaus, First Things, leading conservative Catholic journal, "On the Square" blog)
Susan Jacoby
Austin Dacey's The Secular Conscience is sorely needed at a time when both the religious right and the religious left claim that there can be no public or private morality without religion. With wit and a philosopher's insight, Dacey explains exactly why secular morality, grounded in an ethical approach that relies on reason rather than supernatural faith, is sorely needed in the public square. (Susan Jacoby, author, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism)
Ibn Warraq
Whenever I watch a riot over cartoons or meet another Muslim dissident forced to write under a pseudonym, I wonder, where are the Western secular liberals? Why do they shrink from defending freedom of conscience for all? Thanks to Austin Dacey, I now have an answer. As his piercing analysis shows, liberals have lost their grip on the real meaning of freedom. Only with a restored commitment to conscience as an objective moral ideal can they face down fundamentalists while constructively engaging with reformers of the faith. The Secular Conscience should be read by every friend of the open society. (Ibn Warraq, author of Defending the West)
Sam Harris
Dacey seeks nothing less than to interrupt a suicide, and he has written a beautiful primer on how our secular tradition can be rescued from self-defeat. The Secular Conscience reveals how simplistic notions of privacy, tolerance, and freedom keep dangerous ideas sheltered from public debate. This is an extraordinarily useful and lucid book. (Sam Harris, author of New York Times bestsellers, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation)

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