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The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life

The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life

Book Description

The open, secular society is in retreat. From Washington to Rome to Tehran, religion is a public matter as never before, and secular values–personal autonomy, toleration, 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 in public debate, while secular liberals stand accused of standing for nothing.

Secular liberals have undone themselves. 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 prevents them from subjecting religion to due scrutiny when it encroaches on individual rights and from unabashedly defending their own moral vision in politics for fear of “imposing” their beliefs on others.

In this incisive 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 he traces to Spinoza and John Stuart Mill, Dacey urges liberals to lift their self-imposed gag order and argues for a secularism based on the objective moral value of questions of conscience. He likens conscience to the press in an open society: it should be protected from coercion and control, not because it is private, but because of its vital role in the public sphere. Conscience is free, but not free from shared standards of truth and right.

Marshalling the latest research on belief, the mind, and ethics, The Secular Conscience delivers a compelling ideal for the future of the open, secular society.

Table of Contents

Introduction    7

1. Secularism Lost Its Soul    23

2. Why Belief Belongs in Public Life
   (And Unbelievers Should Be Glad)    43

3. Spinoza’s Guide to Theocracy    59

4. Why There Are No Religions of the Book    85

5. Has God Found Science?    97

6. Darwin Made Me Do It    115

7. Original Virtue    133

8. The Search for the Theory of Everyone    151

9. Ethics from Below    165

Index    261


“In a dazzling display of erudition, this book presents a cogent argument for secular liberalism … Dacey’s presentation is especially timely in view of the emphasis by some current presidential candidates on their religious identity … Dacey’s analysis helps to put this question into the larger perspective of liberty and conscience … This is a thoughtful, well-reasoned argument for progressive secularism.”

Publishers Weekly

“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 the New York Times best sellers
The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation

“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, must be restored to the public square.”

– Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and The Age of American Unreason

“With intellectual vigor and moral confidence, Austin Dacey demonstrates the self-defeating fallacies of efforts to privatize individual conscience and belief. Secularists and nontheists should heed his call to join public debates about fundamental ethical values, instead of questioning the impulse to conduct them.”

– Wendy Kaminer, lawyer, author of Free for All

The Secular Conscience breathes new life into an old topic. Dacey thinks outside the box. His argument for allowing believers back into the ‘public square’–and then subjecting them to a forceful critique–is fresh and convincing, as is his surprising critique of the reasoning in Roe v Wade. And his chapters on secular ethics are superb.”

– Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, Princeton University

“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

“Finally, a case for secularism that does not seek to rid the public square of religion, but which shows that it can be a place for all to exercise their deepest convictions civilly and on equal terms. Bravo!”

– Mark Silk, Director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center
for the Study of Religion in Public Life, Trinity College

“There is much here for a religious believer to applaud. Dacey’s insistence on conscience as a corrigible moral guide, on a public square informed by the vigorous discursive pursuit of first principles and their defense in reason are extremely positive. At a certain point, a believer must part company, but for much of the way we can walk and work together.”

– Alan Mittleman, Director of the Louis Finkelstein Institute
for Religious and Social Studies, Jewish Theological Seminary

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