I have believed for quite some time, as have many others, that one of the biggest problems with public discourse in this country is the insistence by folks on the left that religious and moral arguments are illegitimate in the public square; there are voices on the left who have sought to challenge this idea in a constructive way (as Sen. Obama did two years ago) but they’ve been few and far between. (There have been rather more who have followed the invidious lead of Jim Wallis in arguing that such arguments are permissible if they support liberal conclusions.) The idea that liberals should take the moral and religious arguments that undergird conservative positions seriously and engage them accordingly has mostly been anathema to folks on the left.
That’s why it was so encouraging to see Austin Dacey’s book The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life, which came out two months ago from Prometheus Books. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus commented quite positively on the book at the time, writing,
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. Over the years, some of us have been trying to elicit from our opponents the recognition that they, too, are making moral arguments and hoping that their moral vision will prevail. But in the world of secular liberalism, morality is the motive that dare not speak its name. Austin Dacey strongly agrees. I expect he would not agree that the secularist moral vision entails a quasi-religious understanding of reality, but one step at a time, and The Secular Conscience is a critically important first step. . . .
Dacey recognizes the gravely flawed view of John Rawls that public decisions must be advanced by public reasons recognized by all reasonable parties. That is not the case with most questions requiring political decisions. He writes:
“A policy can be justified when it is favored by a convergence of citizens’ varying reasons, without there being any consensus on those reasons themselves. And there is no reason why the claims of conscience can’t be a part of such convergence. . . . So long as our reasons converge, the decision is justified to each of us and the ideal of legitimacy is preserved. There is nothing necessarily illegitimate about conscience.” . . .
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.
Two months later, the New York Times’ Peter Steinfels has taken note of the book (and also, incidentally, of Fr. Neuhaus’ comments on it); and though it seems clear that his main concern is whether Dacey’s approach will in fact benefit the liberal agenda, he lets Dr. Dacey have his say. This is important, because while Dr. Dacey, too, seeks to strengthen secular liberalism, he believes that having “a fundamental conversation” is important enough to risk the possibility that it might not produce the results he wants.
The most interesting part of Steinfels’ article, at least to my way of thinking, is the last paragraph:
“The Secular Conscience” glows with Mr. Dacey’s confidence in John Stuart Mill’s principle that every idea should be “fully, frequently and fearlessly discussed,” lest it “be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”
The thing that interests me about that is the implicit admission that secular ideas can be dead dogmas just as easily as religious ones can; which is a truth that points to the big admission that secularists need to make, that secularism is in fact a faith like any other, and no more rational than other types of faith commitments (though there are certainly forms of both religious and secular faith which are less rational). That way lies the recognition, which we all need, that we should regard those with whom we disagree as equals with whom we should argue with respect and from whom we have much to learn, rather than as inferiors whom we may freely mock, berate, or dismiss. If Dr. Dacey’s argument leads eventually to secularists abandoning their self-assumed (and self-congratulatory) assurance of superiority to argue with their opponents humbly rather than dogmatically, he will have done our culture a great service indeed.
HT for the NYT article: Presbyweb