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The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Lifeby Austin Dacey
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"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." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"This work is 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 . . . is sorely needed." Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers
"With its discussions of the history, philosophy, theology, and science of how people think and talk about ethical truth, this book deserves to have significant impact upon the revitalization of the public sphere. Accessibly written, but with detailed scholarly and technical footnotes." Choice
"In a dazzling display of erudition, this book presents a cogent argument for secular liberalism.... This is a thoughtful, well-reasoned argument for progressive secularism." Publisher's Weekly
"A beautiful primer on how our secular tradition can be rescued from self-defeat....This is an extraordinarily useful and lucid book." Sam Harris, author of New York Times best sellers The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation
Book News Annotation:
Religious intolerance dominates public discourse, says Dacey (Center for Inquiry, New York City), only because secular liberalism has abnegated its responsibility to articulate and advocate an ethics free of religious belief. Among his perspectives are how secularism lost its soul, why there are no religions of the book, original virtue, and ethics from below. Annotation ©2008 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
In a world divided by religious and moral differences, how can we live together amicably in mutual respect?
About 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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