Book Club: The Secular Conscience

The premise, opening up conversations, seems difficult to argue against, but here’s one thought.  This is an academic talking to academics. So is this a call for the intellectual, politicians, and judges of the world to discuss / break down the validity of faith values influencing the secular space and then funnel that down to us simple people?  Or does he expect my neighbor, a recent Christian-convert with a criminal record and a new GED, to engage in this conversation about why his men’s prayer group cannot meet at the new school/community center they built down the road?  Who will represent his argument and who will represent the other side?

So let’s start there. I actually agree with the premise, but I am doubtful it can work and suspect we keep religious ethics “private” to keep the can on the worm guts. Then again, perhaps only leaders need to have these conversations, but that seems icky to me. If common people don’t have the mental faculties to engage in these arguments (I barely had them to process the book), will they simply allow a representative to do so for them or will they take to the streets with dogmatic arguments? What does society “do” with folks that can’t argue properly with great academic acumen for their position?



  1. On Sage’s last comment: It may be that Puritans, whose religion was too strident for Europeans and thus they were kicked off that continent, had a hand in developing the colonies that would later turn into the US, there is nothing in our constitution to suggest we are a country founded on Christian beliefs. Quite the contrary. And when I refer to our society being founded on secular understanding (tolerance, debate, conscience), I refer to our founding fathers, not that ragtag team of germ-infested aliens who displaced the Native Americans. Even if they had written the constitution, their contributions to society (intolerance and white supremacy), would be enough to get them kicked out of the debate.

    Otherwise I agree with Sage. It’s pretty pointless arguing anything with anyone these days. Besides which, I’m right and all other view points bore me. 🙂

  2. “Our society was not founded on any religious premise.” Except that Puritanical work ethic.

    We are a highly moral society based on Christian beliefs.

    Those pilgrims loved their bible.

  3. I have to say I’m not excited about the idea of conversation helping this topic.

    Humans, as a whole, are not rational enough to think for themselves.

    I’ve been recently considering this point and feel that any kind of open-minded discussion on virtually any debated topic is nearly pointless.

    We are a product of the marketing we listen to.

    Liberals believe organic food is good and hybrid food is bad. Conservatives believe Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. and we need tax cuts.

    None of those positions are based on facts. How could they? Do you know how difficult it would be to independently prove any of those things on your own?

    So we just cling to what we believe. Facts will never change that.

    While I no longer have the mental capabilities to plow through a book like this, I can say that the parts I did read felt rhetorical. Of course secularists should have a voice. But getting Christians to think that’s the case is too exhausting to even consider. Do you know how much money we’d have to spend on PSA commercials for that kind of change?

  4. Agreed. We agree! And I chose the book because I noticed (in reviews) agreement from both sides on the premise of ethical and moral conversation in the public space. And so, tah-dah! A point of togetherness. 🙂

  5. Point taken. I don’t have an answer for that, but the basis of democracy is informed debate. It’s a sad state that most of the registered voters in this country refuse to look beyond their already deeply held beliefs for answers or enlightenment. But even tho that seems to be the state of affairs, the value of this book is not diminished – the conversation has to begin somewhere. In our ridiculously polarized society where religion is all too often used as an excuse for intolerance and unethical laws, a light needs to be shed on the true meaning of conscience and the value of not shying away from the debate but instead engaging. This book is not for everyone. In fact, I think its primary audience are those secular liberals like myself who have too long been willing to let the debate (for example, the abortion debate) hinge on un-scientific, religious conviction. It’s important that we all play by the same rules. This book is a rallying cry to secular liberals everywhere to get out of their rut, stop excusing religious fanaticism, and reclaim the debate based on common ground – the conscience.

  6. I agree Jamie with comment #1 but wonder how this is truly done among non-intellectuals. How does this look to you / play out in current modern society? Also does it not matter if some people are left out of the conversation because of their inability to debate the issues? Or is that irrelevant?

    As for comment #2, many founding fathers were Deists and so secular depending on how one defines it. But they had a grounding in absolute value — an argument Dacey takes on, but in my opinion glosses over, in his Original Virtue chapter.

    I felt that each chapter could have been its own book and was instead an overview of each argument. Some arguments were thorough due to their topic’s limitations, others not so much.

    For me, however, the real issue is the application of the conversation. How do you argue against more dialogue and openness? I can’t really, and so in that regard, hooray for Dacey. But seriously, how do we get this conversation out of the ivory tower?

  7. Our society is based on liberalism and secularism, and that should no longer be thought of as a dirty word. Our society was not founded on any religious premise, contrary to what many in politics would have you believe. Perhaps the discussion needs to begin there.

  8. I don’t believe that he is at all saying that the men’s prayer group can’t meet at the school. In fact, he’s insisting that secularists no longer hide from the stigma of debating the merits of any given religious moral certainty. It is only in debating these things that a clearer understanding can come about as to what is possible for the society at large to accept. We can no longer say, “well, that’s a matter of belief, so, therefore, it can not be discussed”. On the contrary, it MUST be discussed in a democracy so we make sure we do not trod on the rights of ANY citizen, including the country’s atheists.

    The book was a difficult read at times, and, indeed, not set up so much to be read by Joe Tea Bagger, but more Professor Joe Soy Latte. But I really appreciated many of his arguments. I appreciated the refresher course on Utilitarianism and liberalism in general, especially as it relates to John Stuart Mill. And I REALLY appreciated his assertion that any ethical debate must include our beliefs and they must be available for inspection and introspection. If a religious belief is found to impede the liberties of any member of society, it must be discarded as an ethical basis for law. The law must be based on a religion-free understanding of what is ethically acceptable for all of us. And the only way to arrive at that is by airing our religious and non-religious laundry publicly and openly. This book changed me as a secularist, I will be less afraid of offending my religious friends, and I will be more open to the idea of discussing what has previously been taboo. Dacey is right – it’s not taboo; it IS the discussion we need to be having.

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