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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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.Review:
"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, is sorely needed in the public square." -- Susan Jacoby, author, The Age of American Unreason and Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism
"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 New York Times bestsellers, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation
"On almost all the hot-button issues-abortion, embryo-destructive research, same-sex marriage, Darwinism as a comprehensive philosophy, etc.-Dacey is, in my judgment, on the wrong side. But he is right about one very big thing. These contests are not between people who, on the one side, are trying to impose their morality on others, and people who, on the other side, subscribe to a purely procedural and amoral rationality. . . The Secular Conscience was written in order to advance the fortunes of liberal secularism in the public square. On many questions of great public moment, most of us will disagree with Austin Dacey. At the same time, he should be recognized as an ally in his contention that these are moral questions that must be addressed by moral argument." -- Richard John Neuhaus, First Things
"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
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