The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse

by Steven D. Smith

Harvard, 304 pp., $26.95

Pose a fundamental question on human values in America and you will hear three voices in response, sometimes simultaneously.

First is the slightly hectoring tone of scientific materialism: We are all products of natural forces. The same evolutionary pressures that fashioned the mountain and the amoeba made your mother. All synapse; no soul. This is the voice in the peremptory statement of evolutionary biologist David Barash that “there can be no such thing as free will for the committed scientist.” Partisans stand proudly in the disillusionary circle: You might think you have a mind (as opposed to a brain), but we know better.

The second approach, often spurred by a commitment to the first, argues for a common moral patrimony. Animals we may be, but we can still agree on values. This is less a voice than a cacophony. Public philosophers and theorists have set themselves the thankless task of seeking a foundation for values. One will argue for solidarity, another for the rock-solid necessity of human dignity. But why should solidarity or dignity outweigh other values? What, in the ugly but pervasive lingo of the modern academy, persuades us to “privilege” one or the other, or a third choice?

Martha Nussbaum argues that we should judge a society by capabilities—how much human flourishing of capability it allows. But those who favor rigid gender roles, for example, might perceive differences in capabilities of men and women. Or they might insist that social cohesion trumps capability. There is also the inconvenient fact that we are capable of some pretty reprehensible things. So while insisting upon “rights,” these voices find it impossible to agree on what rights are or which ones obtain, and for different schools the constitution is less a guide than a pretext. Can anyone raise a societal structure of values through the assumptions of evolution or the wayward operations of human reason?

The third voice is that of religious discourse. Here the foundation is solid, but also rigid. Human beings matter more because they are made in the image of God, and that’s that. You get a less messy argument, but you have also sealed off discussion.

Therefore, writes Steven Smith, professor of law at the University of San Diego, this third level has been ruled out of court, both the civil court and the court of public discussion. Again and again we hear that religion cannot participate in questions of politics because you cannot argue with another’s religious conviction. Philosophy and science are permitted, but not faith. Smith reminds us that religious people never say “don’t talk secular,” yet secular people do say “don’t talk religious.”

Who is the muzzler and who the muzzlee, exactly?

Smith insists that barring religious convictions from the public square enervates the debate. Even the greatest partisans of reason recognize (in David Hume’s words) that “reason is incompetent to answer any fundamental questions” about God, or morality, or the meaning of life. Moreover, religious life is rife with disputation. Saying one is religious does not close off the argument—indeed it often invites it, even within the same faith.

As a result, reasonableness replaces reason; people cannot bring their most deeply held convictions to the deepest societal questions. In place of a robust exchange, we get a pallid politesse—or, as often, unmoored insults. A strictly secular vocabulary is “insufficient to convey our full set of normative convictions and commitments.”

We cannot really manage without religious presuppositions but we are not allowed to invoke them. So public discourse is full of “smuggling.” When a legal theorist like Ronald Dworkin writes about “human nature”—whether we are basically good or essentially depraved—he is appealing to religious principles under the guise of secular argument. Look closely and you can see the mitre under the mortarboard.

Smith writes about legal theory, but also history, philosophy, and medical ethics. He reminds us of the pungency and relevance of Carl Becker’s little classic, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers. Becker demonstrated that the apostles of enlightenment could not untangle their philosophical feet from religious netting. As Smith puts it: “While purporting to derive ethical guidance from human experience, in fact they systematically imported their own preconceived values and imposed these values onto human experience.” Even Voltaire nods, and Becker caught him at it.

Value differences cluster around

two dominant normative families—not the Corleone and Tattaglia families, but rather the autonomy-liberty-freedom family and the equality-neutrality-reciprocity family. These powerful and eminently respectable normative families do a good deal of legitimate business, for which we may all be grateful—I certainly am—but they also run extensive smuggling operations.

Each is buttressed by religious values and assumptions—Man is in the image of God; I am my brother’s keeper, etc.—but is unable to acknowledge, invoke, or debate them. In successive chapters Smith shows how religious assumptions undergird debates on euthanasia, free speech, utilitarianism, human rights, our attitude toward scientific experimentation, and other public questions.

This is an engaging, clear, provocative, even witty book. In fact, the least winning part of it is the title: Such a cumbersome title seems designed to have the reader open the book with a sigh—there is fiber in this intellectual diet. It is a mild disservice to a sparkling work on the history of ideas and the hidden realities of public discourse. Smith makes a persuasive case that, if we were freer to express our allegiances, we would still disagree; but our disagreements would reflect the commitments on which they were truly based. Public discussion would be richer and deeper.

David Wolpe, rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters.

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