Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life

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 ...

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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: 3/18/2008
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 1,175,786
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Austin Dacey is a representative to the United Nations for the Center for Inquiry in New York City, where he works on issues of science and secular values. He is the author of articles in numerous publications including the New York Times. He holds a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy. His Web site is www.austindacey.com.
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2008

    Brilliant discussion of the secular basis of ethics

    Austin Dacey is an American philosopher and a representative at the United Nations of the Center for Inquiry, which promotes the secular, scientific outlook. He is also on the editorial staff of Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry. In this brilliant and original book, Dacey advocates a public, objective and secular ethics. He argues that matters of conscience are fit subjects for public discussion guided by shared evaluative standards, evidence and experience. Conscience must be free from coercion, but not free from judgement. Conscience is protected so that we can pursue the vital questions of meaning, truth and value in public dialogue and forums. But the Roman Catholic Church has decreed, ¿Freedom of thought or expression ¿ cannot imply a right to offend the religious sentiments of believers.¿ But this would end freedom of expression, because any criticism of religious doctrines could `offend the religious sentiments of believers¿. The assertion, `I¿m right, you¿re wrong¿ is not intolerant it is the nature of thought, as is then moving forward to saying, `and these are the reasons why you should change your mind¿. This is not imposing one¿s opinion on others: persuasion is the opposite of coercion. To defend one¿s point of view by saying, ¿I¿m entitled to my opinion¿ is to refuse debate. The only opinions worth respect are those derived from investigation and debate. The basis of ethics is independence of mind, with which we can evaluate all ideas and ideologies in the light of reason. Dacey argues that ¿the secular conscience stands prior to and independent of all religions.¿ Religion is unnecessary to ethics: if God approves an act because it is good, then God is superfluous: if an act is good because God approves it, then there is no ethics, just assertion of authority. As Dacey writes, ¿The real sceptics about ethics are those who think that human beings are incapable of fairness, responsibility, care, and compassion without divine enforcement.¿ These sceptics privilege religion at the expense of ethics, faith at the expense of reason, and dogma at the expense of people.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2008

    Not groundbreaking, but the language is good

    Dacey uses flowing and well-written language to tell us almost nothing new. His major thesis, that somehow liberals have undermined secularism, is a straw-man argument unsupported by any evidence. His philosophical ethics is recycled utilitarianism, which is a nice introduction for those studying ethics, but which breaks no new ground, nor defends utilitarianism in any useful way against long-standing objections. It's a decent read, but at the end you'll wonder what you were supposed to get out of it that a re-reading of Mill wouldn't have given you.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2008

    A reviewer

    I don't understand why someone would write a book of 211 pages and include a 14 page introduction. That is 7% of the book. I tried twice to read the introduction, it was vague and full of jargon, and each time I never got to the first chapter. The third time I went to the first chapter right away. Why was it necessary to write such a long introduction? A good writer could have written a one page introduction and put the remainder in the body of the book. did the author complete the book and then write the introduction because he rememebered something he left out? In that case, he could have gone back and placed it in the body of the book. If it was to explain the context, that also is part of the book. if I had not read material by this author before I probably would not have gone back a third time after failing to complete the introduction twice. The book itself is good and I learned a lot of information by reading it.

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