Thursday, May 29, 2008

Austin Dacey: The Secular Conscience

5/29/2008--Austin Dacey, Executive Editor of the philosophy journal Philo and staff member at the Center for Inquiry, has written a very important book: The Secular Conscience (Prometheus 2008). Dacey argues in this book against the privatization of values in secularism. He argues a rather traditional objective approach to values. Thus, abortion, for example, is not simply a private matter, but a social policy to be defended or challenged on publicly stated grounds.

Dacey’s book has been praised by people such as Richard John Neuhaus, who disagree with him on almost all issues, because Dacey recognizes that morality is not mere opinion. The Secular Conscience was discussed last week by Peter Steinfels in a New York Times column. I wrote a letter to the editor concerning that column, which I share below.

The importance of Dacey’s book is that it may begin a controversy within secularism. This blog and my book, Hallowed Secularism, argue that secularism cannot go on as it has been understood. Dacey agrees with that. I argue that only religious sources can deepen secularism and render it a sustainable and healthy human alternative. Dacey strongly disagrees with that. He adopts the same kind of juvenile tone about religion that the rest of the New Atheists do, but beneath that sneering, he understands that he must create and defend a non-religious objective morality.

Whether he succeeds or not, secularism is not likely to be the same. Dacey may succeed in breaking the logjam in secularism that will create room for consideration of Hallowed Secularism.

The reason I don’t think he can succeed is that Dacey wants to maintain a very narrow naturalism as the foundation of human life. I don’t think meaning ultimately resides there. His praise for Confucianism, for example, which he calls a “humanistic ethical philosophy” omits that all Confucian judgments are rendered under “heaven”. I am not competent to say what heaven is exactly in Confucian thought, but it is not simply a human ethical category. Yet, I have a feeling that when the sneering at religion is over, Dacey and I may be quite close in our understanding of reality.

Here is the letter:

Peter Steinfels' column discussing Austin Dacey's new book, The Secular Conscience, misses the key consequence of Dacey's insistence that standards of right and wrong are objective. Dacey believes that secularism must discard moral relativism, which is a stance with which many agree. But Dacey also believes that this can be done without embracing a religious worldview. He is probably wrong about that. Secularists invented both existentialism and pragmatism in order to avoid the very claim that Dacey is now making, that values are objective. They knew better than Dacey that conceding this point will eventually destroy a certain kind of secularism and will usher in instead a secularism infused with traditional religious values. In his Riddell Lectures published as The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis called the doctrine of objective value "the Tao" because all traditional value systems have shared this viewpoint. Lewis was contrasting "the Tao" with the very forms of anti-religious secularism Dacey thinks he is defending. Dacey's book may mark the beginning of the end of the secular/religious split that has so marked our politics. This will be a great achievement that Dacey will not be pleased to have accomplished.

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