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Book Review: The Secular Conscience - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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You are contemplating doing something but decide not because you think it is wrong. How do you know it is wrong? If you were religious, you would probably say: because God forbade it. If you were merely a law-abiding citizen you might point out that it is illegal.

In either case, one thing is certain: before taking any action, you would refer the matter to your own conscience. Regardless of what any religion or law might say, the ultimate arbiter of your action is your own conscience. You would not do something that your conscience considers as wrong, even if commanded by religion or allowed by law.

Does this mean that, because all men are blessed with a conscience, they need neither religion nor law?

The atheists would certainly argue that no religion is necessary while the extreme anarchists might dismiss all laws as so many unnecessary constraints on human freedoms. Liberals, on the other hand, would argue that while laws are necessary religion should be regarded as a “private matter”. A man is free to believe whatever he likes, provided he keeps them out of the public sphere. It is on that basis that secularism is defined as a separation of religion and politics. Individuals can be religious, if they like, but a society as a whole must remain secular, that is to say be open to all beliefs and no belief at all.

Austin Dacey, one of he rising stars of the new generation of American philosophers, rejects that analysis as inadequate if not ultimately self-defeating. By insisting that belief systems belong only to the private sphere, we prevent any serious discussion, let alone critique of religious systems in the public space.

Dacey rites: “Call this the Privacy Fallacy. The Privacy Fallacy consists in assuming that because matters of conscience are private in the sense of nongovernmental, they are private in the sense of personal preference.”

He then introduces another fallacy. This, he calls the Liberty Fallacy: Because conscience must be free of coercion it must also be free of public enquiry and criticism.

Dacey argues that while we must not allow anyone to be forced into believing anything against his or her wish, we must not force others, indeed society as whole, to eschew its right of submitting all beliefs to critical scrutiny.

In rejecting secularism in its current fashionable form, Dacey advocates a new secular approach.

The left tried to privatize religion while collectivizing property. Claiming that it was impossible to evaluate any belief, it then decided to shut all beliefs in the private sphere.

He writes: “When you think for yourself about what you have most reason to do about a matter of central human concern, you are exercising your conscience. Reasons are universal. To say that some course of action is best is to say that you have a reason to pursue it, and that anyone in a relevantly similar situation would have a reason to do the same.”

Dacey rejects the classical charge that secularists are amoral, if not actually immoral.

He writes: “Genuine religion requires conscience. If one’s practice of a religion is to be authentic, it must be based on one’s own honest assessment of what makes sense.”

Dacey’s book is both timely and important for at least two reasons.

First, it comes at a time that the debate about the place of religion in society is raging in virtually every corner of her world. The standard secular view is that one should respect other people’s religious beliefs regardless of whether or not these are respectable. In other words, believers should be treated as children whose fancies and fantasies one must tolerate with good grace. After all one would not argue with a child, let alone fight him, because of the childish belief in the existence of Father Christmas.

Dacey, however, believes that the only meaningful way in which one can respect the religious beliefs of pothers is to submit them to the same level of critical scrutiny, albeit with the same degree of sympathy, that all other ideas are examined in the public space.

The second reason is that Dacey rejects the fashionable political correctness of the past few decades that, obsessed with moral equivalence, promotes

“otherness” as an intrinsic value.

In a sense, Dacey’s brilliant essay is a return to the sources of the secular conscience. He draws on Erasmus, Spinoza, Hume, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill to sustain his argument in favor of restoring reason to its proper mandate.

He writes: “Although conscience issues reasons to an individual, its exercise is inherently public. Like goods in a marketplace, it can be appraised by others. We can inspect the reasons of others and assess their strength, weakness, and relevance. Moreover, we share our reasons with others. It is by citing pour reasons that we explain our behavior to each other.”

Dacey is aware of the fact that the debate over secularism is no longer confined to the post-Christian Western democracies but has also spread to other parts of the world where religion, especially Christianity and Islam, retains a strong hold on the popular imagination. Thus, he cites a number of examples that directly concern the Muslim world top show that Muslims, too, would benefit from an open, honest and respectful debate of the issue facing humanity as a whole.

The book includes 45 pages of endnotes designed to provide pointers to extending most aspects of the debate through further reading and discussion.

The message of the book is simple and strong: We live in a world of competing beliefs and un-belief and can gain nothing by erecting a firewall of privacy behind which people could nurture their beliefs in private.

The only way we can live together in peace and respect is by allowing everyone to examine our beliefs and unbelief in public and without condescendence.

The arbiter would be reason, the faculty that all humans, believers and non-believers, have in common. The home of that reason is out conscience. Making this book available in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and other languages of the Muslim nations would be an immense service. Both believers and non-believers will appreciate its scholarly excellence, generous spirit and easy to grasp demonstration.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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