Book Review: Austin Dacey, The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2008). 240 pp.

by Kenneth W. Krause.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer.  Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well.  He may be contacted at

In America, self-annointed “values voters” receive an intellectual pass every election year.  Rarely, if ever, are alternately furious or teary-eyed “pro-lifers” asked to publicly and rationally defend their bald claims that non-feeling, non-sentient fetuses and, in some cases, even 150-cell blastocysts possess rights superior to those of hopeful billions who are conscious of themselves and their world and, in fact, can sense the pain and despair with which all people should be able to empathize.

Surely, secularists must realize that in a wild, standard-free struggle between emotionally charged sound bites, “pro-choice” can never triumph over “pro-life.”  Indeed, were the issues that uncomplicated, it should not.  But the technical and societal details of these matters easily favor both legal abortion and, despite recent scientific advances, generous public support for embryonic stem cell research.  So why do most secularists refuse to argue the salient facts to the common American voter?

Throughout the world, Islamist terrorists issue death sentences to authors and apostates, support so-called “honor-killings,” and bomb innocent civilians consistent with their perceived duties to God.  Although secular world leaders and news organizations rightly condemn the perpetrators as individual fanatics, they seldom dare to so much as question the religious motivations behind such fanaticism.  Instead, Islam is ever so diplomatically dubbed “a religion of peace.”  Why not at least acknowledge the apparent correlations between religious conviction and senseless violence?

Because secularism has “lost its soul,” replies Austin Dacey, professor of humanities and United Nations representative for the Center for Inquiry Transnational.  Ironically, the modern post-Enlightenment era has seen secularism undermined primarily from within.  Although the American model of secular government was premised on open and vigorous competition between numerous philosophies and religious sects in the free marketplace of moral visions, American citizens of all persuasions have since deeply internalized at least two logical fallacies that have prevented them from achieving that ideal.

The Privacy Fallacy, Dacey instructs, decrees that all matters of conscience—secular or religious—are utterly personal and, hence, forbidden subjects for public discourse.  So long as beliefs are not “imposed” on others, this hopelessly regressive mantra goes, every person has a “right” to believe as she will without interference of any kind.  Enter the Liberty Fallacy, which mistakenly concludes that because conscience must not be coerced, it is equally immune to reasoned critique and objective intellectual and moral standards.

But unlimited deference to others’ beliefs, consistent with the Privacy and Liberty Fallacies, does not constitute respect for those beliefs, but instead only blind, blanket acceptance of or careless indifference to them.  Respect for truth and decency, by contrast, necessarily entails serious consideration, scrutiny, and when appropriate, direct public criticism.  Despite prevailing opinion, anything less would be both undemocratic and uncivilized insofar as a given society values moral progress.

History assures us, however, that the ascendancy of these modern fallacies was anything but inevitable.  Indeed, Dacey argues, the architects of secular liberalism would scarcely recognize their descendants today because they would never have tolerated, much less recommended, political neutrality regarding matters of conscience.  When in 1670 Baruch Spinoza identified the most tyrannical government as “one where the individual is denied the freedom to express and to communicate to others what he thinks,” he by no means proposed to deny the state its right—indeed, its responsibility—to enforce a non-denominational civic religion upon its citizens.

Although Spinoza’s ideal government would never impose sectarian dogma or ritual, Dacey continues, it was nonetheless obliged to ensure obedience to an undeniably rational and universal set of principles consisting of justice and charity toward others.  Spinoza’s mix of theological skepticism and catholic piety was undoubtedly reflected in the American founders’ deism, as well as their First Amendment to the United States Constitution that was at once both strictly prohibitive and unconventionally liberal.

But Enlightenment thinkers never envisioned the public square as an exclusive, conscience-free zone.  In distinguishing a Liberty Principle from the Liberty Fallacy, Dacey invokes the much-celebrated writings of utilitarian John Stuart Mill, who in his 1859 essay, On Liberty, observed of government, “It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth … that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation.”  Thus, only specific compulsion from above is prohibited by the Liberty Principle; lateral persuasion among peers, by contrast, is encouraged.  Freedom of conscience, Dacey adds, was not intended as an end in itself, but only as a means of achieving a more elevated existence for all.

Equally instructive for the author is ethicist Adam Smith’s 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments, which appealed to every man’s “impartial and well-informed spectator” as “the great judge and arbiter of their conduct.”  The moral point of view, according to Smith, is anything but subjective.  Rather, it transcends the individual and is, at least in theory, accessible to every citizen.  In the larger societal context, Dacey concurs, accessibility necessarily depends on a permissive public attitude.  Freedom of conscience, in other words, is inherently social because it loses all meaning if it fails to include the liberty to speak publicly as conscience compels.

So, if secularists are committed to morality’s rational foundation, they shouldn’t object to open political religious expression on any grounds, less said on the basis of personal autonomy or subjectivity.  In so doing, they would forfeit precious opportunities to confront religious extremism and expose it as the institutionalized fear and bigotry that it plainly is.  Nor should religious speech be barred for its proven divisiveness.  All moral questions are intrinsically provocative.  If secularists wish to publicly reclaim the ethical high ground, they ought not to exclude certain ideas arbitrarily.

Religion must be freed from its rhetorical and ideological closets before it can be fully exposed to the light of reason.  For perhaps the first time in history, faith must be held to the same practical standards routinely applied to other claims of both fact and conscience.  For Dacey, these include honesty, rationality, consistency, evidence, feasibility, legality, morality, and revisability.  Although the author admits there can exist no concrete and all-encompassing Theory of Everyone (which the Golden Rule and Kant’s Categorical Imperatives attempt, but fail, to accomplish), he insists that ethical objectivity and universality can nonetheless be achieved with a method—a shared language of public examination.

Even if we can’t assent to a sufficient number of values and principles, we should be able to agree on the means by which we converse about and distinguish them.  Such, in general terms, is the objective, transparent, and merit-based method of science.  When all beliefs are liberated for (but not from) inspection, Dacey concludes, they will necessarily be forced to stand trial in the common and supreme court of reason.

Dacey’s philosophy, as such, is both hopeful and theoretically sound.  The problem, however, is that from the philosopher’s ivory tower, the cruel and cluttered scientific facts—especially those describing the ordinary person’s evolved psychology and tribal character—are nearly imperceptible.  What the author fails to recognize, or at least to account for, is that both reason and morality have always taken a distant backseat—not so much to religion specifically—but to humanity’s innate tendency to fracture into mutually sanctimonious and ultimately antagonistic in- and out-groups.  Nature has never selected for completely independent, much less impartial human spectators.

Religion continues to hold popular sway, in other words, not merely because people don’t know that other options exist—although that might be true in many unfortunate cases—but rather because group constituents don’t really care to know about other groups’ ways of life.  Secularists can invite anti-intellectuals to a candid, open, and rational debate until their tongues seize, but rarely will they succeed in extricating a person from the tribe with which she has long enjoyed comfort, safety, and reinforcement.  Arguably, Dacey assumes too much of people too quickly.

That said, maybe it’s worth a shot anyway.  Secularists have much or very little to lose, depending on one’s perspective, but any argument calling for a more sincere and inclusive discussion can’t be all that bad.  And certainly Dacey is correct that, once achieved, an empirico-rational moral system would prove far superior to one based on religious dogma (he notes, for example, that although secular Americans are significantly less likely to give to the poor than their religious counterparts, the second most generous nation, Denmark, also claims one of the lowest rates of church attendance and, not so incidentally, the highest rate of self-reported life fulfillment).

People do change at both the individual and species levels, if ever so methodically.  A new Pew Forum survey of the American religious landscape reveals that 28 percent of adults have fled their childhood faith to another religion or to no religion whatsoever, that Protestants now comprise only 51 percent of the population compared to two-thirds in 1980, and that 16.1 percent of Americans are not religiously affiliated—twice the rate as when they were children.  One can only hope, of course, that these apostates have managed to supplant religion with something much better.

Regardless, perhaps Dacey’s secularism can reclaim its common democratic sense and, thus, its soul.  And given ample time or, alternatively, an emergent mass rebellion against humanity’s selfish genes and memes, maybe secularists can achieve their ultimate goal of cultivating among all persons a truly thoughtful, empathetic, and responsive secular conscience.


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