Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Mythology of Secular Common Ground

I wrote the following blog entry which was posted at Telic Thoughts. The piece provoked a number of amusing comments. Their authors supported the assumptions of Stanley Fish albeit unintentionally.

Stanley Fish wrote a brilliant opinion piece in the New York Times titled Are There Secular Reasons? Tom Gilson authored a blog entry on it at Thinking Christian. Fish takes notice of a debate centered around the role of religion in public life and cites an argument from Classical Liberalism that policy decisions should be formulated based on secular reasons and not values which are linked to a religious source. Fish goes on to describe this as a form of "intellectual/political apartheid known as the private/public distinction." He develops these thoughts is some detail and then refers to a new book by law professor Steven Smith titled The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse. The first paragraph at the link is a good one:

Prominent observers complain that public discourse in America is shallow and unedifying. This debased condition is often attributed to, among other things, the resurgence of religion in public life. Steven Smith argues that this diagnosis has the matter backwards: it is not primarily religion but rather the strictures of secular rationalism that have drained our modern discourse of force and authenticity.


Discussions which rule out entire blocks of thinking a priori are destined to be dull and unedifying. Moreover they cannot be searches for truth as they substitute dogma in a divide which thirsts for delineation of genuine alternatives. Fish writes this:

It is not, Smith tells us, that secular reason can’t do the job (of identifying ultimate meanings and values) we need religion to do; it’s worse; secular reason can’t do its own self-assigned job — of describing the world in ways that allow us to move forward in our projects — without importing, but not acknowledging, the very perspectives it pushes away in disdain.


Fish nails it. Identifying "secular values" entails smuggling intrinsically religious meanings and values into a secular nexus. Moreover attempts to "keep it secular" must deny this core element of secularism affording it an edifice based on a dishonest premise. Consider some of the major discussion points in America today. Global warming well illustrates the point. My own experience confirms the wisdom of Smith for when arguments proceed against global warming policies predictable responses point to data supporting global warming. Not one to hide my reasons I remind others that there is a good deal more to the issue than whether or not a warming trend exists. Opponents of global warming policies need to bear this in mind as well. When vast sums of money are earmarked for legislation in support of a cause's goals, underlying moral issues are always linked to it. To avoid rehashing the many arguments we can simply cut to the chase and point to alternative uses such funding could be put to in illustrating the balanced scale metaphorical description of any final choice. The persistent stuck in neutral arguments about warming indicate that at least some are caught up in the thinking that the tough moral decisions are dictated by temperature graphs. Yup, it's warming or no it is not is the starting point and not the conclusive dictum required. There are similar problems in the debate about health care and in the "origin of morality"- a fine piece of junk science if there ever was one. A book is needed on this. Fish says this more eloquently:

No matter how much information you pile up and how sophisticated are the analytical operations you perform, you will never get one millimeter closer to the moment when you can move from the piled-up information to some lesson or imperative it points to; for it doesn’t point anywhere; it just sits there, inert and empty.


HT: Nullasalus

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