Show 240: Austin Dacey on the Secular Conscience

In “The Secular Conscience,” Austin Dacey argues that we who are non-religious should be every bit as engaged in public discussions as are our religious counterparts… discussions which involve reflecting upon individual behaviors and/or public policies, as being problematic or as supporting our society moving in a direction we want.

Austin feels that the public discussion of behavior and policies are presently dominated by religion, and that if secularists do not find a way to participate in that discussion it will be at our peril. This of course makes total sense, but what exactly can we bring to such a discussion that would constitute a unique and much needed contribution?

With our basic understanding of ourselves and our world based upon evidence derived from the scientific method, what naturalists can potentially bring to such a discussion should be enormous in scope, analysis, and in effective solutions – all a result of applying the scientific method.

But to be easily understood by religionists, Dacey suggests that when participating in these discussions naturalists should loose the precise language of science, and instead bandy about the same old moralistic and judgmental terms like good, evil, virtue, and vice, as the religionists, but doing that will not facilitate naturalism bringing anything new or much needed to such a discussion.

If we deliberately try to express our naturalistic understanding of the human experience in anachronistic and religious terms we are throwing away an important tool with which to convey a century of naturalistic wisdom, which has been painstakingly compiled throughout the social sciences.

Should naturalists adopt the nebulous language of ancient religions, which is frequently loaded with anger and self righteousness and rarely offers any analytical value?

2 Replies to “Show 240: Austin Dacey on the Secular Conscience”

  1. Austin:

    What you seem to be advocating for is that secularists, atheists and humanists don’t shy away from the public square and all that is being discussed there (and currently dominated by a conservative media and the religious right). I agree of course, and wonder just what secularists, atheists and humanists you are talking about? Most I know (except at the Center for Inquiry) do just that!

    No, not all freethinkers feel comfortable with terms like ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nor certainly ‘guilt’ and ‘sin’ … but that is probably more because these words (excluding sin) are only useful (if they are at all) when they are backed up with real scientific analysis and proposals. It’s easy to join the public square and use superficial tags like these, but that is playing right into the hands of secular and religious conservatives who “own” these terms. And they don’t only own them just because they have spoken louder and have the soundbyte media doing their bidding, but because these terms are easy to twist this way and that… and the conservatives do lots of twisting!

    So, judgmental terms – no matter what we think of them – seem to me to be useless UNLESS we can explain what is really wrong with America today. The same people who have been called the “values voters” – conservatives both religious and not so religious – are blaming the problems with our society on atheism or secularism or Rock/Rap (always the music) because they have been convinced to think those are the causes of the problems. They have been ‘brainwashed’ because the real reasons for America’s woes are not religion or atheism at all, and our leaders know this.

    What we see today reflects the kind of society those with power want America to be, and their interests are best served if those hurt the most by their deeds spread the blame among themselves instead of the politicians, CEO’s, and the hierarchal capitalistic system itself.

    If atheists, secularists and humanists want to enter the public square and talk about social change (certainly a “moral” issue), they won’t succeed by co-opting the tactics of the right, but by addressing the real causes of people’s suffering, and what to do about it.

  2. I’m not sure how to evaluate this discussion, as I haven’t been able to verify the assumptions behind the “debate”:

    (1) Is it true that secularists/liberals/etc/ avoid moral(istic) language in public discourse?
    (2) Is it true that such language is useless, and that only (social) scientific language is useful?

    I have a hard time in believing in either of these assumptions.

    Another response is that “is” and “ought” have a relationship to one another and both implicate our conceptions of what is, how and why. Philosophically, the concept of “praxis” is predicated on the fact that we are not value-free, neutral observers of the world but have to decide what we are personally committed to, but that commitment also has something to do with our grasp of reality.

    Seidman is skeptical about concepts like guilt, shame, regret, etc. You’d think we are a bunch of professors living in the ’50s/early ’60s committed to a sterilized, conformist, value-free professionalistic ethos. Or maybe ’60/’70s New Age pabulum? Seidman’s exaggeration of the extent of compassion in humans and other animals seems rather naive. The notion of “evil” is purely supernaturalist to Seidman. But this depends on the nature of the discourse in question, does it not? Weak!

    “Sin” is a more loaded word, obviously, not to be asserted literally, if at all.

    But all in all, this seems like much to-do about nothing. Am I missing something going on in this society?

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