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The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse Hardcover – July 1, 2010

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (July 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674050878
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674050877
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 5.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #733,077 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


This book presses us to look harder at closely held beliefs and to question deeply rooted premises and commitments with which we are perhaps too comfortable. (Richard W. Garnett, Notre Dame Law School)

Smith's book is insightful, provocative, and wonderfully engaging. The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse challenges conventional academic wisdom and provides a welcome opportunity for others to re-examine their own positions. (Michael J. Perry, author of The Political Morality of Liberal Democracy)

About the Author

Steven D. Smith is Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego and Co-Executive Director of the USD Institute for Law and Religion.

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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Peter S. Bradley on March 18, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Smith diagnoses the place where public discourse finds itself today, locked in an iron cage of secularist assumptions, hypocritically smuggling in non-secular first principles, and zealously policing the borders to prevent anything with the whiff of religion from entering into public discussion. According to Smith the result has been a break-down of the ability to engage in public discussions because of the loss of confidence in reason.

Smith's first chapter - "The Way We Talk Now" - surveys the current landscape. It seems that the consistent opinion of philosopher and public intellectuals is that modern secular discourse is particularly shallow and ineffective in its modern iteration. The ineffectiveness of modern discourse stems in part from a lack of confidence by many people that reason can actually work, i.e., do the things it is supposed to do, such as lead people to the truth. Significantly, this view is held by secularist intellectuals, who ought to be the people with the biggest incentive to see discourse as effective and rational.

The result is that many public discussions are not discussions. They are just people rehearsing their statements of their own commitments to something or other. As Smith says:

"There is indeed a good deal of contention, Dworkin might respond - a good deal of sound and fury, or noisy clash of opinion. Even so, there is precious little real argument, strictly speaking - little genuine debate. Because if you look closely at what people say, they do not really engage their opponents, or even reveal the real bases for their own positions; they merely dress up their pre-established conclusions in verbiage. People may look like they are engaged in debate. They may even think they are engaging in debate.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Charles A. Clough on August 16, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a rich resource on exposing modern secular discussion's reluctance to openly mention the worldviews it surreptitiously uses. Steven Smith does a masterful job of documenting how especially the academy and the legal community studiously avoid acknowledging the classical ethical sources of Western civilization even while using ill-disguised substitutes. The reader's eyes are opened to what really goes on in major controversies like assisted suicide, use of the do-no-harm principle, and separation of church and state. He documents his claims with careful citations including US Supreme Court publications.
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Format: Hardcover
Excellent analysis and critique; solution rather “bland,” as the author himself admits. But the critique is so effective that I still must award the book 5 stars. (And I enjoyed his gentle humor and easygoing writing style.)

The real strength of this critique, in my mind, is that Smith bothered to search out what leading secularists in the liberal tradition (and here I speak of the kind of “liberal” that All Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, generally are) actually said at the highest levels of academic discourse and jurisprudence. As a law professor, his mining of court opinions on euthanasia was particularly valuable. That leg-work demonstrated his thesis that even the most ardent secularists “smuggle” metaphysical and/or theological assumptions into the “iron cage” of secular discourse (a concept similar to Charles Taylor’s “immanent frame”). Smith also spent time critiquing renowned philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s viciously circular—he says—justification for human rights. And he offered a valuable critique of scientism, drawing from Joseph Vining (The Song Sparrow and the Child: Claims of Science and Humanity), namely that while evolution may provide an explanation for morality, it doesn’t seem to be one that scientists themselves personally believe with consistency. Scientists do not act as if we all live in a closed system of material causes. This brief summary demonstrates, I think, that Smith was not critiquing no-name lightweights or picking odd, extraneous issues.

I have written a much longer review article about this book that I hope to publish elsewhere, but I want to share one conclusion for the Amazon community (and for both of the readers of my blog).
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10 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Robert A Beezat on April 26, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Thank you for wrting such an interesting and timely book.

I have been thinking about the limits on public discourse since the mid-1970's when I could see the range of topics which could be discussed in language reflecting deep human experience became more and more limited.

I am a relatively old guy (69) who was born and raised in a world where people lived through and survived the Great Depression and World War II. There was a more shared common experience and language which tapped into most people's deeply shared world views. Those deeply shared views had a greater emphasis on belief and the idea that we were all in this together. Hardly anyone made it through the Great Depression and WWII without losing something or someone important to them and who also were helped out in one way or another by their family, neighbors and community.

Those ideas and experiences were reflected in our common language and were an important part of public policy discussions. I think that common experience and language was captured perfectly when John F. Kennedy gave his inaugural address in 1961. The language/rhetoric he used and embodied caught the imagination of many people, including myself. It was a peak of common language and aspirations which has not been approached since then, though it was somewhat captured by the Presidential campaign of Barack Obama.

I have been involved in public life since the early 1960's. I have successful experience in government, business, and community leadership. But very interestingly, and I think unnoticed by many, except the author, is that the language and discourse necessary to be successful in all of those areas has changed significantly over the last 50 years.
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