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Austin Dacey - The Secular Conscience (merged)
Posted: 21 March 2008 05:46 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Austin Dacey serves as a respresentative to the United Nations for CFI, and is also on the editorial staff of Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry magazines. His writings have appeared in numerous publications including the New York Times. His new book is The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Austin Dacey argues that secularism has lost its sense of moral direction, ceding ground to religious positions it never should have. He explores the impact this has on the secular left’s criticism of the New Atheists, and its approach to radical Islam. He discusses the reasons secular liberalism doesn’t ally itself with the secularizing elements in the Islamic world, and why he thinks it should, also addressing “Islamophobia” and the “American Taliban.” He explains why questions of conscience and morality, whether religious or secular in origin, should not be excluded from public discourse—contrary to prevailing secular liberal opinion—and also in what sense they should (and should not) merely be matters of private belief and freedom of conscience.

http://www.pointofinquiry.org

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Posted: 21 March 2008 05:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Excellent, I was looking forward to this. Will definitely check it out when I’m back stateside.

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Posted: 21 March 2008 10:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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First: Thanks for another great podcast!

Second: The link to hear the podcast didn’t work. The following link does work though:

http://media.libsyn.com/media/pointofinquiry/POI_2008_03_21_Austin_Dacey.mp3

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Posted: 22 March 2008 02:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Is this guy kidding or what?

Isn’t the U.S. government currently conducting bloody and illegal wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan? What about the thousands of innocent Muslim victims of the U.S. sponsored abduction and torture network, the detainees of - the vast majority of which are innocent by the governments own admission - or the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilian victims (‘collateral damage’) claimed so far in the bogus ‘war on terror’ (which is not a war at all)? What about his own government’s role in propping up the worst Islamist theocrats, dictators and butchers who lord it over the populations of many Muslim countries. Given the sheer scale and currency of these crimes, which are going on even as he speaks, one can only conclude that Dacey’s silence expresses agreement.

Especially revealing is his ‘support’ for internal reformers of Islam and secularist forces in the Muslim world:

The young people of Iran are mostly secular humanists trapped in a theocratic nightmare. One would expect secular liberals to be in the forefront of this struggle.

I guess this means sitting silently, like Dacey,  as Iran’s theocrats and reformers alike are threatened with nuclear anihilation by Cheney and Bush - not to mention Hillary, Obama and Mclean - all of whom ‘refuse to take any option off the table’.

When I hear someone say ‘american Taliban’ it’s all I can do to keep from throwing a book at them. Yes, America has a noisy minority of christian fundamentalists, but get back to me when they start killing their sisters and daughters with impunity for the crime of dishonoring the family.Get back to me when they send gays to the gallows in the streets of American cities. 

 

“Honor” killings and the execution of gays are certainly abominable crimes - and not specific to Islam, but the fundamentalist christian/zionists in the US are too busy advocating the onging slaughter of Muslims, and the ultimate victory of Christianity over Islam as arrangements for the second coming of Christ are being contracted to Boeing, KBR and Blackwater… (They’ll get around to stoning women and hanging gays later)...

Until then stand with the Muslims and non-Muslims who are working to reinvent their faith.

Or as the marines say, “kill ‘em all - let God sort ‘em out.”

People like Hirsi Ali… should be the chief allies of secular liberals
this means giving up the private concience for the open conscience.

Riiiiight. Nothing like cluster bombs to “open the conscience of iIslam”!

The secular open society has met its antithesis. We are being tested in a confrontation with radical Islamism.

Every serious observer can see that it is the U.S. and other Western imperialists whose ongoing wars, occupations and other crimes in Muslim countries make the best recruitment posters for Islamic reaction.

Here’s some good advice for Dacey and the other ‘secular’ auxiliaries to the the new ‘Crusade’ as Bush calls it:

“Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

[ Edited: 22 March 2008 05:34 PM by Balak ]
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Posted: 23 March 2008 06:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Balak,

I don’t see where you disagree with Austin.  Where did you get the idea that “Dacey’s silence expresses agreement” about the abduction and torture of muslims, or that he supports the “propping up” of dictators in islamic countries?

You express contention with his views, but he speaks both critically of christian fundamentalism within the US and speaks in support of the human worth of persons in islamic countries.  Did you listen to the entire podcast?  I am extremely confused by your statements.

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Posted: 23 March 2008 06:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Fascinating ep. I’m listening to it on my iPod right now.  While I’m not sure how much of what he’s saying I agree with,  it’s far and away the most riveting ep in a long time. I’ve long believed that secularists had taken the easy way out and refused to get in there and tussle over the big moral issues of the time, using the old “science is ‘value-free’” as an alibi and copout. It’s good to see someone calling the secularists on it and acknowledging that, on the big moral issues, the fundies are eating our lunch because we just flat-out refuse to engage on these issues.

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Posted: 23 March 2008 07:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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This quote is from the podcast, provided by Balak above and I have added the final sentence.

When I hear someone say ‘American Taliban’, it’s all I can do to keep from throwing a book at them (a big book). Yes, America has a noisy minority of Christian fundamentalists, but get back to me when they start killing their sisters and daughters with impunity for the crime of dishonoring the family. Get back to me when they send gays to the gallows in the streets of American cities. Until then stand with the Muslim’s and non-Muslim who are working to reinvent their faith.

 

D.J. follow the above statement by saying, “What you just said, Austin, I can sink my teeth into. But, a lot of secular liberals…..”

This jumped out at me only because I had been reading the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer just prior to listening to the show. In the news and comment section of SI, a story on a Texas educator dismissed for her pro-evolution actions has a quote from the Center for Inquiry’s director of research and legal affairs, Ronald A. Lindsay, where he states:

“It appears that the Texas Taliban now controls education in that state.”

There is nothing in the entire quote from Lindsay that would tell me the above is a joke. I would advise not throwing a big book at him since he’s in the legal department. smile

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Posted: 23 March 2008 08:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Of course, creationists degenerating Texas’ educational system is a horrible thing.  Christian assertion of nonsensical creationist dogma is parallel to certain actions of the Taliban’s in many regards, and it is a powerful metaphor to refer to such folks in Texas as the “Texas Taliban.”  However, there are also several important differences between such christian nuts in Texas and such Taliban nuts in Afghanistan.  For example, the cases of “killing their sisters and daughters with impunity for the crime of dishonoring the family” and sending “gays to the gallows in the streets of American cities.”  Christian folks in Texas don’t do these specific things.  And this does illustrate a meaningful contrast in the severity of said religious dogmas.

No religious group is deserving of being inconsistently singled out for unreasoned emotional attack or prejudicial persecution of its members.  Similarly, no religious group (christian, muslim, jewish, hindu, jain, etc.) is deserving of any special sort of privileged respect in America or the Middle East or anywhere else.  Religious matters desperately need to be talked about in America and they need to be talked about publicly.  Without such dialog, there can be no constructive criticism of religion.  Indeed, no progress.  These are not private matters.  Dacey’s appeal to secular conscience is exactly what secular liberals need.

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Posted: 23 March 2008 09:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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erasmusinfinity - 23 March 2008 06:21 AM

Balak,

I don’t see where you disagree with Austin.  Where did you get the idea that “Dacey’s silence expresses agreement” about the abduction and torture of muslims, or that he supports the “propping up” of dictators in islamic countries?

You express contention with his views, but he speaks both critically of christian fundamentalism within the US and speaks in support of the human worth of persons in islamic countries.  Did you listen to the entire podcast?  I am extremely confused by your statements.

When it comes to the question of Islam and ‘the secular conscience’, how can Dacey and CFI ‘ignore the 500 pound gorilla in the room’, i.e. pass over in silence the issue of U.S. military aggression in Muslim countries?  How can one speak of ‘human worth of persons in Islamic countries’ without mentioning that these persons are, by the way, being threatened with nuclear incineration by the commentator’s own government? What kind of ‘solidarity’ is it that demands nothing from the giver but everything from the (ostensible) recipient?

Dacey & Co. should spare the self-righteous hyperventilating over clerical backwardness, the Danish cartoon controversy, etc.,  in the Muslim world until any such criticism has been clearly prefaced by a statement in DEFENSE of Muslims against the criminal acts, past, current and future, of the U.S. and other imperialist powers, including under the pretext of the phony ‘War on Terror’.

Once again, Dacey’s silence threatenes to reduce the notion of ‘secular conscience’ to a sterile platitude at best, and at worst a grotesque ideological cover for bloody colonial state terror against innocents. Despicable.

[ Edited: 23 March 2008 09:33 AM by Balak ]
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Posted: 23 March 2008 09:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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erasmusinfinity,

I agree it is a powerful metaphor, and one that is used by the religious right as well.  Are you saying the metaphor used is an appropriate one, or that you agree with Lindsay’s statement?

It reminds me of an article on the Daily Kos - How the Islamic crazies are like the Right. Amusingly, as the last entry in the list he has: “Liberals: Reality-based community.”

I just noticed how Kos starts the above listings by saying: “Funny how the wingers try to claim American liberals are in league with crazy fundamentalist Muslims.”

[ Edited: 23 March 2008 09:22 AM by bob james ]
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Posted: 23 March 2008 09:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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I think that it could be a meaningful metaphor in a specified context.  Perhaps Lindsays “Texas Taliban” scenario, although I’m not sure.  I don’t know enough about that particular situation.  But I don’t think that it is meaningful in the context that Austin was referring to in the podcast when distinguishing between the behavior of the actual Taliban and generalized statements of some sort of “American Taliban,” as if there were no differences at all.  The differences that he was illuminating were valid and important ones.

I also think that it is straw man argument and a distraction from the essential message of “secular conscience” that Dacey is promoting, which is that of a need for open discussion of religion in the public sphere.

Non-religious folk have ethical and cosmological beliefs, and aesthetic and social interests.  We are not lost souls nor apathetics.  Secularist liberals need to stop pandering to the idea that it is impolite or improper to speak critically of religion.  They are not just liberal, in the sense of being either loose or open-minded about something, but are also progressive in the sense that they have assertions about the way in which society can move forward positively.

Religious views and views that are critical of religion both belong in the public sphere and in open dialog.  So let’s get the dialog rolling.

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Posted: 23 March 2008 10:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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erasmusinfinity - 23 March 2008 09:55 AM

I think that it could be a meaningful metaphor in a specified context.  Perhaps Lindsays “Texas Taliban” scenario, although I’m not sure.  I don’t know enough about that particular situation.  But I don’t think that it is meaningful in the context that Austin was referring to in the podcast when distinguishing between the behavior of the actual Taliban and generalized statements of some sort of “American Taliban,” as if there were no differences at all.  The differences that he was illuminating were valid and important ones.

Yes, I do understand the differences that Dacey was highlighting. He made them quite clear in my opinion. I have to admit to being a little confused by your full response to me and it appears you are making a statement instead of this being any sort of dialogue. It all seems that you are only forwarding a partial understanding of what Dacey is advocating, that of criticism towards religious beliefs. It appears to me he is also calling for a more proactive approach in opening discussions of morality in public discourse. I also must say that there were many times in the podcast that I found Dacey to be overly vague which is unhelpful. Perhaps I am wrong about my interpretation of what is said and what is going on. If this is yet another call for religious criticism with little else, as you portray it as being, then I’ll listen again and accept it for what it is…

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Posted: 23 March 2008 10:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Let me quickly add to my above comment. This is where I sometimes felt Dacey was being to vague and it is something you have brought up when you say: “are also progressive in the sense that they have assertions about the way in which society can move forward positively.”

If I look at some of the topics discussed, such as abortion or stem cell research, I can’t help but react by saying that it is liberals that are advocating for both in large numbers and these arguments are based on moral understandings. Most liberals reject George Bush’s approach to stem cell research and his reasoning for it by advocating there is a higher moral principle at play. It is here I need to ask, which liberals are we talking about. With abortion and stem cell research the moral liberal argument is based on empiricism on many levels. In many ways I think Dacey advocates something that Stephen Gould’s wanted to get across which was it is the moral dialogue that is important here.

I suppose I should add here that the “secular liberals”, in my opinion, worry little about pandering to an idea that you must not be impolite or speak critically about religion. This is another area that appears to vague to me to be helpful in any real way. Are we talking about the beliefs, as in the beliefs that should be allowed in public discourse by the religious, or the religion itself. If it is the beliefs, then I have to say that the beliefs and actions of the religious are often criticized by the “secular liberals” (here now I’m being general). We know why George Bush holds the opinion he does on abortion and stem cell research, he has made no hesitation in making clear his religious views on these matters. These views are widely criticized and often condemned by both religious and secular liberals for being less than morally adequate.

[ Edited: 23 March 2008 11:02 AM by bob james ]
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Posted: 23 March 2008 02:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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bob james - 23 March 2008 10:25 AM

I have to admit to being a little confused by your full response to me and it appears you are making a statement instead of this being any sort of dialogue. It all seems that you are only forwarding a partial understanding of what Dacey is advocating, that of criticism towards religious beliefs.

I interjected this point because I felt that this thread was off track in analyzing a false dichotomy that did not pertain to Dacey’s statements, and that it was better to say something about what I thought Dacey actually was talking about rather than just criticizing the criticism.  Of course, I did choose a particular theme from the podcast that I identified with, but I also think that the theme I chose, that of “secular conscience,” was something of a central theme to the podcast.  No doubt there were many other themes that were touched upon.

It agree with you that, as a self-identified secular liberal, Dacey is calling for a more proactive approach in opening discussions of morality in public discourse.

bob james - 23 March 2008 10:25 AM

I should add here that the “secular liberals”, in my opinion, worry little about pandering to an idea that you must not be impolite or speak critically about religion.

In my experience, many secular liberals do.  Most non-religious persons that I know are uncomfortable expressing their views about religious matters openly in public.  In fact, as a life long secular liberal (I still prefer the label “progressive”) I spent most of my life believing that it was impolite and improper to speak critically about religion in the public sphere.

It seems to me that the case of abortion is a perfect example of this matter.  Most commonly, the debate is framed between the “life” of the fetus and the “choice” of the mother.  I have never heard it boldly asserted in public debate that a fetus does not have a soul because there is no such thing as a soul.  Such a statement would be considered a denial of a fundamental belief to which a religious person is considered in society to be “entitled.”  And to argue from such a scientifically accurate angle, one involving a reasonable assessment of a being’s capacity for suffering and/or sentience, would be regarded by the status quo in America as an intolerant imposition upon a religious view.

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Posted: 23 March 2008 03:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Those are interesting points, erasmusinfinity. Perhaps I’ll address them at another time, for I don’t want to bring this thread off track.

Having listened to the podcast again, there was something else that jumped out at me. It was the quote Dacey used by Barack Obama and the following statements.

It is of course from Barack Obama’s - ‘Call to Renewal’ speech.

I would strongly suggest a reading of the complete speech because he is in fact making many of the same points Dacey does.

I am not suggesting that every progressive suddenly latch on to religious terminology - that can be dangerous. Nothing is more transparent than inauthentic expressions of faith. As Jim has mentioned, some politicians come and clap—off rhythm—to the choir. We don’t need that.

In fact, because I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality, I would rather have someone who is grounded in morality and ethics, and who is also secular, affirm their morality and ethics and values without pretending that they’re something they’re not. They don’t need to do that. None of us need to do that.

[ Edited: 23 March 2008 03:41 PM by bob james ]
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Posted: 24 March 2008 07:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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After giving this some further thought along with a conversation with my sister, I felt like posting.

My sister, who is a Christian and leans toward liberalism, has worked for the state of N.Y. for the past 25 years. I decided to run some of the ideas expressed in the podcast by her. She unflinchingly was excited about the ideas. After an initial back and forth she told how in her environment she not only feels, but is told that expressing the basis of her beliefs is off limits. She recounted story after story of incidences of expressing her beliefs and the reasons for them only to be shunted and shown complete intolerance.  She says that the real intolerance is not to be told her beliefs are wrong or crazy, but to be told she can not express them in the first place. So, we ran through some scenarios of me telling her that her beliefs are unfounded with the idea we are in the “public square”. In every instance, even when we agreed on the basic moral questions, we ended up debating the existence of God.

This morning while going over this in my mind I was reminded of two ideas forwarded by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (I realize there are others, but I am assuming that on this forum these authors/scientist/freethinkers will be quite familiar).

The first thought was of Richard Dawkins idea that indeed there is a culture war but this war extends to naturalism vs. supernaturalism. I think it’s obvious why this thought came to mind after the conversation with my sister.

Here is an example of Richard expressing this idea:

[I] think the real war is between supernaturalism and naturalism, between science and religion. If you think the war is between supernaturalism and naturalism, then the war over the teaching of evolution is just one skirmish, just one battle, in the war. So what the scientists you’ve been talking to are asking me to do is to shut my mouth. Because for the sake of what I see as the war, I’m in danger of losing this particular battle. And that’s a worthwhile political point for them to make.

I think he’s right. That the course of action that leads to getting past the skirmishes in the isolated instances will be a war between naturalism and supernaturalism. I do think from what I’ve witnessed of late that this war will be long while the battles still take place (here I am thinking of the fact that many religious people do accept the scientific basis for evolution). The battles over stem cell research, abortion, evolution etc. will continue and if we decide that it’s the core beliefs that need to be dismantled then we must accept some of these battles will be lost in the short term with the hopes that in the future the religious beliefs will become obsolete. In other words, in it to win it and religion is done.

I say this because it’s a big “public square” and there are a lot of religionist chomping at the bit to open it up and expose what is viewed by many on both sides as a false tolerance. 

These thoughts naturally lead to the next idea offered by Sam Harris. It is the idea that we should now put away any labels that identify us. I first became aware of this idea through Richard Dawkins web site. On the forum at RD.net, the issue that Sam brought up in a speech called, “The trouble with atheism” is the most discussed issue. It is often at the top of the list of topics and last I checked was at 56 pages. Sam’s idea does make a lot of sense when we are considering opening up the public square and having the “secular conscience” engage in an open war. Sam says we should do away with labels such as atheist, skeptic, humanist because these will invariably lessen our contingency.

I think he’s right also. It does not make sense to speak from a stand point of a beleaguered minority when this war transcends the skirmishes. I put this idea together with something else Sam Harris has put forth. I’m just going to give my interpretation here, but it’s part of Sam’s ‘science must destroy religion’ essay. It is the understanding that the scientific approach can and will win out, in fact, must. Again, if viewed as a war between naturalism vs. supernaturalism or science vs. religion,  the labels are meaningless. The “secular conscience” is not bound to any ideology, that’s the point, the moral debates can also be viewed as skirmishes as long as the focus stays on creating an environment where religion (or religious beliefs or the like) are vanquished.

[ Edited: 24 March 2008 09:59 AM by bob james ]
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