review essay on
The Secular Conscience
by Austin Dacey
Some of Dacey’s most original and interesting arguments have to do with two errors he thinks secular liberals often make about secularism itself. One, what he calls the Privacy Fallacy, is to suppose that since in an open society individuals are free to choose their fundamental beliefs about morality and meaning, these beliefs are strictly private matters, not to be debated in public or urged on anyone else. The other, the Liberty Fallacy, supposes that freedom of conscience entails that our beliefs should be free from criticism, not held to any shared standards of correctness. The prevalence of these misconceptions results in “a culture unwilling or unable to sustain a real public conversation about religion, ethics, and values.” Secular liberals, Dacey argues, are laboring under a self-imposed a “gag order” which prevents us from responding effectively to those, including religious fundamentalists, who mount vigorous arguments for their worldviews in the public square. But since the very nature of claims of conscience is that they should apply universally – they are essentially prescriptive, normative claims about what’s good, just and true – we liberals should not shrink from defending our own worldview commitments in public, while debunking the opposition’s. Such a debate will necessarily involve the very standards of what counts as good evidence, good argument, and good morals.
Dacey makes the case that each individual’s personal claim of conscience has a right, and duty, to be heard as a way to give policy decisions legitimacy:
So the idea that your own position on, say, the morality of abortion should remain out of public view and not party to the conversation is mistaken. The morality of abortion should be the direct focus of policy debates, not left as a private matter, as some liberals have suggested as a way to resolve (or more accurately, sidestep) what seems to be an intractable argument. (A secular, naturalistic defense of the morality of abortion is here.)
Dacey’s call for the public role of conscience necessarily brings worldviews into conflict, since after all, our claims of conscience often stem from our basic ideas about existence, human nature and the source of morality. Secularists should feel free, and indeed are obligated, to critique religious worldviews and their policy implications, not hold back on the politically correct grounds that religious beliefs, since private, must be respected whatever their content. The open society is best defended by conceiving of conscience itself as open, that is, a matter of public inquiry in which people and their most cherished beliefs take their lumps as worldviews duke it out.
This secular call to arms will invigorate those who’ve felt constrained by deference to delicate religious sensibilities, by the complaint of some believers that to question their beliefs amounts to a personal attack. Now, finally, we can take off the gloves. But of course vigorous critique of religion in the West has been ongoing for quite some time. The program of the new atheists, not to mention the old (Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Camus, Sartre) is precisely to call the religious spade a spade, highlight the absurdities and contradictions of faith, and explain religion as a natural phenomenon, not revealed truth. Still, Dacey aims to give us a principled rationale for the freedom (and obligation) to mount this critique, for why the open society is objectively better than a closed, hierarchical society, for instance one based on Islamic law such as Iran or Saudi Arabia. If successful, this rationale would convince just about anyone that she would prefer a culture in which no particular religion or worldview is permitted to dictate law and social policy, in which each citizen is free to reach their own conclusions about meaning and morality, and in which no person, by reason of gender, race, belief, or sexual orientation, has claim to more rights or opportunities.
Despite Dacey’s efforts, however, it isn’t clear that there is such a rationale, something deeper than, or independent of, the very claims of secularism itself. That is, the values of open debate, freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, equal and universal human rights, democratic procedure, and the entire nexus of liberties we take for granted in the West might be historically contingent norms, not ultimate truths about how everyone should live. They might simply stand opposed to other views of what’s fundamentally right and just, for instance the view that society should be ordered by revealed religion as set forth in the Bible or Koran.
Dacey disagrees, saying that “the secular conscience stands prior to and independent of all religions and points the way toward a shared vocabulary of public debate in a pluralistic society” (19). What is this shared vocabulary? Primarily it consists in giving reasons that we suppose stand some chance of convincing others:
The basic question, however, is why any religious or non-religious authoritarian or totalitarian would agree to be bound by such standards. After all, the very idea of politics as reasoned conversation is the central bone of contention between liberal secularists and the enemies of the open society. Although such enemies might be willing to engage in conversation pro tem, their ultimate objective is to end it once and for all, to establish universally the one true view, for instance that of Christ, Mohammed, Marx or Mao. They would categorically deny that “the secular conscience stands prior to and independent” of that view and so could offer a critique worthy of consideration. Even if in debates they appealed to “honesty, rationality, consistency, evidence, feasibility, legality, morality, and revisablity,” the meanings of those terms would simply reflect their worldview. Evidence, for the fundamentalist, is the sacred text or little red book, and any revisions thereof are dictated by the authorities, priestly or worldly.
Dacey says early on that “God’s followers are of many names and tribes, and so citizens must appeal to a law higher than God’s if they wish to coexist in peace. That higher law is the rule of conscience” (22). But of course the very idea of peaceful coexistence is a secular liberal value, obviously not shared by radical political Islam, among other totalitarianisms. Nor does political Islam concede the existence of any law above God’s, which is precisely why it brushes coexistence aside as a goal of misguided non-believers - kafirs. The hard truth that secular liberals must confront is that the secular conscience expressed in democratic openness, equality and pluralism is simply one version of conscience, that is, one vision of how society should be ordered, views defended, and differences settled. It isn’t prior to religions or worldviews, nor is it shared by all combatants in the national and global culture wars. Indeed, it is the very question at issue.
In tracing the historical development of the open society, Dacey points out that it has some religious antecedents. Spinoza argued that the true religion – that of God as nature – could best be revealed in a society which encouraged the development and free use of our critical rational faculties. Dacey quotes Spinoza as saying “It is an absolute fact that nobody can be constrained to a state of blessedness by force or law; to this end one needs godly and brotherly exhortation, a good upbringing, and most of all, a judgment that is independent and free” (65). Similarly, in founding Rhode Island, Roger Williams argued on grounds of religious freedom that the state should not attempt to regulate personal conscience. And the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke wrote that “ true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force,” thus setting the stage for the First Amendment and its guarantee of religious liberty (70). But as Dacey himself notes, these were highly unorthodox religious convictions (69) of an essentially liberal, freethinking cast that many religious fundamentalists find repellent. That there are liberal religious grounds for secularism’s separation of church and state doesn’t help establish secular pluralism – the acceptance of diversity of belief – as a required or pre-existing norm for religious conservatives.
In seeking to parry the main religious critique of godless secularism, that it provides no secure basis for ethics, Dacey does his best to naturalize morality. For secularists and naturalists such as myself, he succeeds admirably, showing the stark limitations of faith as a moral foundation and the normative possibilities that survive if we admit the strictly natural basis of morality. He properly points out that even if moral norms aren’t absolute or infallible, this doesn’t mean they cease to exist or lose all objectivity. We needn’t retreat to the relativism of the Privacy Fallacy – that morality is just a matter of one’s personal, subjective beliefs – just because we don’t find ethics carved in the cosmos. But of course such arguments won’t move true believers, for whom it’s the absolute or nothing, God or nihilism.
Case in point: Dacey thinks that religionists should accept the argument, set forth in Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma, that one’s moral conscience is necessarily independent of faith, therefore a matter to be decided by unfettered inquiry into the nature of the good (143). But although most secular liberals find the Euthyphro logic compelling, many, perhaps most, religious fundamentalists do not. Raised within a sub-culture that celebrates authority and certainty, not reason or inquiry, they simply cannot set aside the ingrained belief that without God’s commandments as a foundation, human moral judgments lack normative force. To not believe this would be tantamount to giving up their religion. Instead, what we find are a host of religiously inspired counter-arguments to Plato, most of which raise the specter of moral relativism and nihilism.  These arguments aren’t very good, but that they are made with such regularity and conviction suggests that Dacey’s appeal to the primacy of free and open individual conscience will carry little weight with fundamentalists. For them, the deliverances of conscience must be matters of revelation, authority, tradition and faith to be trustworthy. To hold Dacey’s view of conscience, one must have been raised to respect diversity and debate; such respect isn’t an automatic human endowment.
But even if many religious and non-religious fundamentalists don’t endorse the virtues of the secular conscience and the open society, it’s still the case that secularism has unequivocally triumphed in much of the West. After all, we do enjoy democratic institutions, equal rights, separation of church and state, freedom of speech and belief, and a long-standing legal tradition which requires that laws have secular, as opposed to merely sectarian, justifications.  So in a way, and fortunately for secularists, Dacey’s book is a defense of a fairly robust status quo.
However, the triumph of secularism is hardly universal, nor is it a sure thing over the long haul, so Dacey’s defense is very much to the point. There are still many for whom reasoned, open inquiry into matters of meaning and morality are anathema, an intolerable threat to their core beliefs. For them, a democratic, pluralistic society that allows a diversity of worldviews is the antithesis of their vision of the well-ordered life. And for the many religionists who accept the premise that core beliefs can be debated, their standards of argument, justification, proof and evidence are often sufficiently different from mainstream standards to make debate fruitless. Try convincing a Christian Scientist that prayer has no proven healing powers beyond the placebo effect. You’ll quickly discover that there are two very different notions of evidence and reality in play: yours, based in the material world of observable events, objects, and persons, and the Christian Scientist’s, based in the immaterial world of invisible souls and spiritual influences as taught by Mary Baker Eddy.
This suggests that an essential disagreement between secularists and their opponents is epistemological, about how we hold and justify our factual beliefs. Are they arrived at empirically, by consideration of public evidence potentially available to any observer (so that the evidence is intersubjective, not merely subjective), or are they more a function of religious tradition or faith? Are beliefs held to be fallible and thus corrigible by open inquiry and empirical testing, or are they held to be the infallible and unquestionable deliverances of authority, whether scriptural or institutional? On the one hand we have secularists such as Dacey, extolling the virtues of open public conversation about any and all questions, and on the other we have former president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, declaring the hegemony of “intuitive spiritual experience” and “belief in the unseen” (189). Dacey calls for “genuine dialog” about basic beliefs, a dialog defined by “openness and honesty, guided by reason, and pointed toward knowledge,” while current Iranian president Ahmadinejad insists that “the present problems of the world are the result of disobedience to the Almighty and the teachings of his prophets” (190).
On what basis do we choose between these opposing epistemologies? Why should we, or anyone, side with Dacey and the secularists, not the Iranians and other fundamentalists in deciding where to place our cognitive bets? To defend secularism, this root issue of our epistemic commitments must be brought into the public square. Dacey understands that the ultimate cultural contest is between “secular modernity – the world built of critical reason, science, and humanist values” and the “culture of totalitarian faith,” including empirically unfounded non-religious totalitarianisms such as Nazism. But his call to secular arms would be strengthened by an argument, should it exist, showing precisely why anyone and everyone should side with reason and science instead of faith when deciding questions of fact.
The beginning of such an argument is obvious but too often left unstated. It is simply that beliefs arrived at via publicly available (thus intersubjective) evidence, science, critical reason, logic, and open debate – what we might call open intersubjective empiricism – are far more reliable than beliefs based in faith and non-empirical modes of justification, such as appeals to scriptural authority. They are more likely to be true in the very tangible, practical sense of being good predictors of events, and thus good guides to action. This means that anyone wanting reliable beliefs about factual matters should, if rational, decide in favor of intersubjective empiricism, not faith. So the bottom line is that it’s simply rational to side with Dacey, not Ahmadinejad, on the assumption you want a good grip on reality. And indeed, even devout fundamentalists and authoritarian absolutists are more or less rational in this sense when dealing with everyday practical affairs. When navigating our material world they base their beliefs on the evidence of their senses and on the proven expertise of knowledge specialists – scientists, engineers, doctors, etc. They are this-world empiricists.
But of course these same true believers abandon the epistemic commitment to intersubjective empiricism when deciding about matters of God, human nature, human flourishing and ethics – all the traditional domains of religious belief. They have a double standard of justification, falling back on intuition, faith, scripture and authority when it comes to the basic metaphysical and moral content of their worldviews. The fundamentalist/authoritarian proposition is that we are warranted, when considering matters of ultimate import that make up our worldview, in carving out an exception to the basic epistemic norms that rule our everyday lives. It is because fundamentalists and authoritarians exempt themselves from empiricism when it comes to these questions that they seek to block challenges to basic worldview beliefs, thus closing the open society. It’s also why the beliefs themselves often centrally involve faith-based, traditional notions of gender and race that assign second-class status to women and minorities, thus denying them equal rights and opportunities (e.g., sharia). The primary threats to a liberal secular democracy, both in its operation (open debate) and assumptions (equal rights), are generated by the self-declared fundamentalist and authoritarian exemption from intersubjective empiricism when it comes to one’s worldview.
The question that should be raised publicly, while we still have the chance, is whether and why this exemption is warranted. What is its rational basis? Why are we suddenly permitted to abandon the normal empirical constraints on belief when deciding about such things as God, life after death, the soul, free will, and the status of women, homosexuals, and those of other races and creeds? Is it because there are means of deciding the truth of such matters that are superior to logic, science, public evidence, and critical inquiry? If so, what are these and why are they trustworthy?
As Sam Harris argues in his books (and Dacey of course joins him in this), such questions are fair, indeed essential, matters of public debate. It isn’t unreasonable to ask those who hold faith-based or otherwise non-empirical beliefs to show why such beliefs are warranted. It may sometimes seem impolite and impolitic, but too much hangs on the question not to ask it. Why should the epistemic viability of intuition, revelation and ideological authority get a free pass when the worldviews arising from them can (but not always of course) pose a direct threat to the very culture that permits freedom of belief and debate? The future of secularism may depend on using the open public square to expose the epistemic weakness of faith and non-empirical justifications for belief.
This challenge to faith – belief in the absence of evidence – has bite because the fundamentalist feels the pull of beliefs that are empirically warranted. When seeking medical care, buying a house, or choosing a school or job, he gathers reliable evidence and expertise, seeks out other’s opinions, and uses (mostly) sound logic. It seems prima facie irrational to abandon such tools when deciding the big factual questions of life, existence and human nature. Faith seems too slim a reed on which to build a worldview.
If the believer accepts the challenge (Ahmadinejad won’t, but others will), he might reply that worldview questions, for instance about the existence of God and the soul, are simply not answerable by the same methods we apply in everyday life or in the sciences. In the religious domain, public evidence is trumped by the intuition of God’s presence during prayer, the revealed truth of the Koran and Bible, or the authoritative pronouncements of the parish priest. But still, these subjective, authoritarian, and otherwise non-empirical grounds for belief are adduced in order to justify a view of how things objectively are – a worldview. So he can’t escape the next obvious question: why suppose your intuitions, sacred texts and priestly pronouncements are reliable routes to objective reality?
If the believer agrees that this is a fair question, he necessarily grants that objective reality doesn’t always conform to his wishes, preconceptions or prejudices.  That’s what objectivity means: not being merely subjective. The issue then becomes: when formulating a worldview, how does he know he’s not merely projecting his desires for certain states of affairs onto the world, e.g., for God, for an afterlife, or for an ultimate cosmic purpose? To have credibility, claims to objectivity have to show that beliefs are insulated from the influence of wishful thinking, that they have a provable basis beyond subjective intuitions and impressions, and that they employ non-mysterious ways of knowing (to fully trust our claims to knowledge, we have to know how we know). These very basic epistemic norms must constrain the formulation of a worldview for it to have pretensions to objectivity. Anyone – religionist or atheist, scientist or lay person, new-ager or skeptic – must respect them when making claims about reality. Such norms aren’t special to secularism or science, although of course secularism and science exemplify them (see here for more on this).
The difficulty for the religionist is that non-empirical justifications for belief – revelation, intuition, scripture and authority – routinely violate these norms. Such justifications are notoriously influenced by wishful thinking; they don’t require public evidence to corroborate subjective impressions and intuitions; and they are cognitively mysterious; for instance, we don’t know how the intuition of God’s presence, a “sensus divinatus,” might work (discussed by Dacey on p. 93). Why then should we trust them as guides to what’s fundamentally real? Unless the religionist can answer this question, his claims to objectivity – the basis for his worldview – aren't credible.
The upshot of this line of argument, what we might call the argument from objectivity, is that when deciding between competing epistemologies, that is, between open intersubjective empiricism and non-empirical grounds for belief, we have good, worldview neutral reasons to choose the former. If we want a reliable route to objective reality, it is unequivocally more rational to use methods that reduce the influence of subjective bias, arbitrary authority, and antiquated traditions and texts. To repeat: to favor empiricism over faith, intuition, revelation and authority is not an epistemic prejudice stemming from a worldview commitment (such as to naturalism), but simply a rationally defensible preference on the assumption one wants reliable, objective beliefs about the world. This assumption is the implicit common ground shared by all who make claims about reality, however disparate those claims might be.
Advocates of the open society can use this common ground to persuade religionists and other non-empiricists to change their cognitive ways and thus become more receptive to the free inquiry and pluralism at the heart of secularism. Because allegiance to empiricism isn’t a worldview-driven bias, but simply rational, it’s perfectly legitimate to seek to universalize it in service to secularism. We can do this by pointing out (civilly, not contemptuously, as do some new atheists) the cognitive pitfalls of faith and non-empirical justifications for beliefs.  Those who rely on faith, or justify their beliefs non-empirically, whether about everyday life or about worldviews, are being irrational, and it isn’t unfair or unjust to say so in prompting them to adopt better epistemic practice. How to do this without alienating them is a delicate proposition, but any shift towards empiricism will make them more friendly to secularism and the open society.
This is not to say that Dacey has overlooked the importance of interrogating faith. As he puts it:
I offer the argument from objectivity as yet another reason why the court of reason has a claim on us, and to give a rationale for this claim that religionists might find compelling (should they listen to reason in the first place). It seeks to leverage basic, inescapable epistemic norms, implicitly held by all parties to the culture wars, as grounds for showing why faith and non-empirical justifications should give way to intersubjective empiricism in the public square and in each person’s conscience.
From this perspective, we see that the open society in effect establishes the cognitive virtues of empiricism in government and public life. The separation of church and state, and the requirement that laws have an independent secular basis, both work to enliven empiricism and attenuate the direct public influence of worldviews based in faith and non-empirical modes of knowing. Because the public square is open, non-empiricists of course have equal opportunity to influence debate and shape policy according to their religions and worldviews, but the open society requires that government and laws must have a independent non-sectarian rationale (see note 2). This serves to keep government non-partisan when it comes to worldviews, maximizing freedom of conscience, while simultaneously respecting epistemic norms that maximize reliable knowledge about the world we have in common. Since most folks in the West are this-world empiricists – they don’t take things on faith, intuition or unquestionable authority when conducting everyday affairs – the public commitment to empiricism embodied in the open society generally suits them fine. They also enjoy having the liberty to believe what they like about life, the universe and everything. It’s only those wanting worldview dominance that have a stake in ending secularism and its liberties. They can be kept at the margins by pointing out the epistemic defects of their claims to objectivity (but see note 6) and also by making clear, as Dacey does, what their taking power would mean for our freedoms.
By keeping worldviews separate from government, at least as direct drivers of institutions and laws, the open society also works to reinforce the public norm of equality. Claims that genders, races, nationalities or religious groups are inherently unequal, or differentially deserving of rights and privileges, are usually based in traditional sectarian worldviews or other non-empirical understandings of human nature, e.g., sharia’s view of women and infidels, the Nazi view of Jews. Although secularism itself is not a worldview, but a method for achieving a peaceful pluralism, it helps to ground a substantive public ethics of equality by ruling out the possibility that a worldview with inequality as a core tenet might assume control. Why? Because the establishment clause of the First Amendment rules that no worldview gets to control, at least not directly. The core principle of equal rights derives from denying the validity of non-empirical beliefs underpinning claims of human inequality and it’s protected by limiting the political influence of such beliefs by separating church and state. In the United States, any law that discriminates on the basis of religion, gender, race, sexual orientation or other basic human characteristic must have a secular justification. But, because the secular empirical understandings of such differences show no reason for according different rights, the secular trend is necessarily towards equality. Empiricism and equality are thus happy bedfellows in the open society, and empiricism naturally supports progressive positions on human rights (more on empiricism and equality here).
In a discussion of John Dewey’s contribution to secularism, Dacey nicely points up the affinities between democracy and science, the prime exemplar of intersubjective empiricism:
This returns us to the issue of how we hold our beliefs, our epistemology. Dacey continues:
Secularists, including many religious progressives who want an open society, will of course vigorously assent to this assessment, but for fundamentalists raised to believe in strict conformity of belief, it will ring hollow. For them, knowledge of what best suits human beings is to be found in scripture – end of story. The appeal to empiricism, and the supporting argument from objectivity outlined above, can’t overcome the authoritarian prejudice against inquiry if it’s too deeply set.
Indeed, fundamentalists might go on the offensive here, and say: doesn’t secularism, by favoring intersubjective empiricism, in effect establish naturalism as a worldview? After all, naturalism takes a self-critical, philosophically informed empiricism, exemplified by science, as dispositive about what fundamentally exists, what we call nature. But it’s important to see that, in establishing the public centrality of empiricism about this world, secularism nevertheless rules out as a governing worldview the naturalistic claim that nothing exists beyond nature. It does so because it rules out the establishment of any worldview in government.
Secularism, the naturalist is happy to note, encourages the epistemic virtues of empiricism that underlie naturalism, but the political rules of the open society forbid naturalism from becoming its official philosophy. Naturalists can and should advocate for naturalism, but if they are wise, they will refrain from even trying to make it the law of the land. To legislate a worldview, after all, is automatically to disengage from the empirical, open basis on which the most objective understandings of the world emerge, the natural ground of naturalism. Legislating naturalism (hardly a possibility in any case) would betray both the epistemic openness at its heart and the open society itself. It would also suggest that naturalism can’t make it on its own in the marketplace of belief. But naturalism has credibility and power because it doesn’t need establishment by law, it only needs the open society and its empirical habits of mind to gain support. This is why Dacey’s defense of democratic secularism is also, in a way, a defense of naturalism, or at least of the possibility that naturalism will emerge as a mainstream worldview.
Dacey’s last chapter, "The Future Is Openness" (let’s hope he’s right), is a declaration of secularism’s core values and the freedoms and obligations they confer on us: to explore, experiment, argue, justify, brook dissent, question conventional wisdom, and find common ground. All these work in favor of the explanatory transparency and reliability of belief that are the hallmark of a science-based naturalism. Dacey says “open talk makes wisdom” and quotes John Stuart Mill on how openness to challenge produces reliable beliefs:
Mill’s criterion for the soundness of belief, that it must be open to and withstand any evidential and logical challenge, is the philo-scientific naturalist’s as well when constructing a worldview. Dacey’s book makes a good case for this criterion, even in the moral domain where many suppose basic claims about values must stand above any possibility of doubt. But to really buy into The Secular Conscience, and to be receptive to naturalism, one must already be predisposed toward openness and empiricism, as opposed to faith, revelation and authority, as guides to human flourishing and the ultimate nature of things. As the rise of global political Islam illustrates, that predisposition isn’t an automatic human endowment, but a reversible cultural achievement we sometimes take for granted in the West. Dacey makes clear how much we have to lose should we rest too long on our laurels.
TWC, July 2008
 As John F. Haught puts it in his book God and the New Atheism, “If faith in God is truthful, then, as the new atheists rightly point out, there must be something in reality that corresponds to the idea of God…Since faith gives rise to all sorts of fantasies, how do we know that the idea of God is not just as wild and removed from reality as belief in the tooth fairy? As [Sam] Harris insists, in order to be accepted as true there has to be a way of confirming the reality of God independently of faith” (pp. 44-5, emphasis added).
 Of course this appeal to people’s better epistemic natures won’t move the hardened fundamentalist or non-religious authoritarian, whose anti-empiricist commitments are unshakeable. No mere argument will persuade such opponents, so the defense of the secular state against them is ultimately a matter of force, should it become necessary. Regrettably, the argument from objectivity won’t work on those who need it the most.
Thomas Jefferson, quoted by William Kristol in a New York Times
op-ed column, wrote that “The general spread of the light of science
has already laid open to every view, the palpable truth, that the mass
of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored
few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of
God.” From a letter to Roger Weightman of June 24, 1826.