Austin Dacey seems to be pleading for a state of affairs more or less firmly established in the United States for at least the past century and arguably the past 250 years (slavery excluded).  Without a trace of irony, he declares himself fortunate to live in such an open society, as if hypnotically acknowledging its transparent debts to the Christian conception of human nature, while developing an argument that pits secular conscience against those adhering to this very conception!

The irony does not stop here.  No, for although there are real threats to such a society emanating from Christianity, no less a work than the Koran shows how secular conscience can be accommodated within an essentially religious perspective.  To believe this is to believe rubbish.  It is to render an author unserious in the minds of serious persons.  We can be thankful that some contemporary interpreters are doing all they can to contextualize certain of the Suras so that they might seem nearly palatable.  In saying this, I do not invite myself into a dispute.  The Koran is available in very nearly every language and readers can come to their own conclusions.  Trust me, it won’t take long.

But a far more important point is made obscure if we confine ourselves to only the ironies in The Secular Conscience.  What is projected from very nearly every page of this work is the taunting, When will you stop beating your wife? question aimed it would seem primarily at the Christian community.  Dacey rehearses the well-known wall of separation rhetoric advanced by Jefferson and ardently defended by Madison.  He seems less inclined to acknowledge that this was not a battle that needed to be won,  but one of the central causes for which the Revolutionary War itself was waged.  We were not to have a national religion, and we didn’t!  And we don’t!  And we won’t, Koran or no Koran!

The subtitle of Dacey’s book is Why belief belongs in public life.  He refers here to the beliefs widely and wisely embraced by any thoughtful community, surely including a community that would constitute itself in secular fashion.  He quite correctly laments the strong tendency on the part of secular liberals to abandon any number of core moral precepts, lest their allegiance to them suggest sympathy with the oppressive or bigoted aspects arising from unblinking religious conviction.  He knows that a rich and robust civic life depends upon the testing and sifting of all sorts of ideas and possibilities.  He knows, too, that the leaders of traditional liberalism – notably John Locke and John Stuart Mill – never assumed that persons freed from coercive control would routinely choose pointless and degrading forms of life for themselves.  (I resist the temptation to ask if, in light of contemporary culture, they might rethink their optimistic anticipations).

Between Locke and Mill, at least in the order of time, was the Enlightenmentitself.  The French version, impelled by a hatred of tradition, religion, rank, and breeding, proved to be the nurturing medium for the Terror – Robespierre’s (secular) “Republic of Virtue”.  In the colonies, Enlightenment took quite a different turn.  With roots in Deism (poorly understood by Dacey) and a reformed Calvinism, the late colonial expression of Enlightenment was in the form of a critical rationality shaped by a respect for the past and a keen awareness of how the field of history came to be littered with failed republics.  Accordingly, all of the colonial charters were predicated expressly on core Christian values, the dignity and the authority of individual conscience being central.  Clear to all who gave thought to the matter was the recognition that tyranny arises whenever one body serves as judge and legislator.  The founders did not reject the concept of sovereignty.  Instead, as Justice James Wilson made clear in Chisholm vs Georgia, it resides in the individual person.  For Wilson, the authoritative teaching in such matters is Christianity itself.

Note, then, that it isn’t at all clear how Dacey forms his enemies list or, more worrisome, how he thinks his adversaries form theirs.  He finds himself defending a group rather imprecisely referred to as empiricists – oddly thinking that this is somehow synonymous with scientists.  This is not the place to make clear the extent to which the greatest of scientific achievements can be claimed by those who sought divine guidance, or carried on their work under the patronage of the Church, or within institutions made possible by the Church – Galileo included!  We might remind ourselves that, to the extent we can date the modern launching of experimental science, we must turn to Oxford in the 13th century and the Franciscan school that hosted Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste and Adam Marsh. (Must we say all this again?  Is there something the Daceys of the world find inaccessible in this part of the historical record?)  Well, speaking for the empiricists of the world (after all, I actually have published in the Journal of the Optical Society of Americaand in Science), may I reassure Mr. Dacey that Church teaching never really discouraged me in my choice of low-noise amplifiers?

Yes, public life is public and is by definition not a restricted enclave.  One is not deported from the public square for failing to adhere to the protected “truths” of this or that dominant faction – except, of course, in Islamic states.  But one is responsible, as Dacey insists repeatedly, for justifying recommended courses of action in terms of there being good reasons for them.  As reasons go, acting in such a manner as to honor the memory and the teaching of Jesus Christ would seem to qualify as a good one, but the same actions and intentions are available to persons of other or of no religious conviction whatever.  Kant’s moral philosophy (which with incalculable hubris and questionable comprehension Dacey judges to be a failure; p. 154) is but the most influential of those developed independently of the strictures of religious belief.

That much granted – and who except those hopelessly in the thrall of some lunatic Imam would deny it – the public square is occupied by those who will then weigh the recommended courses of action and the reasons offered in their defense.  There is now much on offer: Prostitution, the on-demand aborting of fetuses, pedophilia, incest, various debilitating addictions, studying the thought of Christopher Hitchens – there’s virtually no limit to the penchants favored by some and urged upon others.  As Dacey is properly admiring of Jefferson, Madison and the other creators of our commendably free and open society, perhaps he would reserve an especially sunny spot for them in his public square where the recommendations of the Founders might receive a respectful hearing.  Let’s begin with what they put in place in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, adopted on May 15, 1776, less than two months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  We find in Section 1,

“That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights…”,

with this proviso offered in Section 15:

“That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people, but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles”

(Hmm…One wonders how this might play in, say, San Francisco, circa 2008).

Similarly, the Massachusetts Bill of Rightsof 1780 affirms the natural equality of all, each possessing “certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights”, quickly going on to observe that,

“…the happiness of the people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend on piety, religion and morality…”

The Massachusetts Bill goes even further, insisting that,

“…these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of public worship of God and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality”

All such recipes for a decent form of life are surely available to reasonable persons, whether devoted to Artemis and Zeus or to John Locke and John Rawls.  There is no reason why the secular community should (or, alas, even could) exempt itself from that long debate on just what sort of life is right for creatures of a certain kind.  As long as the founding principles of the United States are understood – for they will not be defended except by those who do understand them – Austin Dacey and all others with something to say can expect to be heard, not shouted down, and even followed by those who might find their arguments compelling.  But I would urge Mr Dacey to test out his ideas within those Western democracies forged in the kilns of Christian teaching.  It is a teaching that did stumble and more than once overstep the bounds of its own doctrines.  But in the ripeness of time it created the possibility of a secular state, respectful of the dignity of the person and the preciousness of every life, no matter how misguided – or young or old or otherwise unwanted.