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Why are we just talking past each other?,
This review is from: The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse (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. But in reality, they aren't."
Smith, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, p. 5.
Smith's explanation for the failure of discourse is that modernity truncated the scope of permissible discussion, locking discussion in what Max Weber described as the "disenchantment of the world." (p. 23.) Smith also uses the metaphor of an iron cage to describe modernity, deriving that image from Max Weber's idea that modernity is an iron cage in "which life is lived and discourse is conducted according to the stern constraints of secular rationalism." (p. 23.) Secularism taught that superstition - meaning anything that was not founded on reason - was bad and that nothing could be accepted which was not itself founded on reason. From that point on, secularist modern philosophy found nothing that could meet the requirements of secular modern philosophy and started "smuggling" in pre-modern assumptions about "equality" or "freedom" or "harm" as if those ideas met the prescription of modernity.
The problem is that these concepts are meaningless in themselves. Freedom is an empty concept until it is filled. (p. 28.) Freedom can be good or it can be bad. Is a freedom that permits people to appropriate other people's property good or bad? Well, perhaps it depends on whether one person is starving and the other has more than enough to share. Similarly, equality is "entirely circular." Equality means treating equal things equally, but in order to know if things are equal we have to bring something other than equality to our discussion. (p. 30.)
In his second chapter, "Living and Dying in the `Course of Nature,'" Smith demonstrates how much of modern discussion in the death and dying area is premised on a kind of truncated view of natural law through an appeal to a kind of final end. Thus, courts have regular distinguished between letting someone die, which is permissible, but affirmative euthanasia, which is wrong. From a purely rationalist perspective, there is no difference. The result of taking someone off a breathing tube is the same as that of turning up the morphine: the patient dies. The intent is basically the same: the patient is expected to die. But there is a difference in the sense of the person's natural lifespan. "Letting someone die" implies a respect for the way that nature - or God? - intends to let a person have a certain lifespan; killing someone seems to disrespect this plan.
But judges can't explain this insight. They have to keep it wrapped up and hidden from sight. This kind of thinking is simply not something that secular modernists can openly accept. Whose plan? What does it mean that there is a plan? Where is this plan located in a world of material reality? Secular modernity has replaced a consideration of nature with a consideration of moral insights and intuitions. We - or some people - seem to "feel" that some things are right or wrong.
Moral reasoning, however, requires such an ordering of behavior to a "normative order." (p. 63.) As Smith points out who cares about intuitions unless they are real. (p. 66.) Morality implies an order that is in some sense "normal" or "natural." Smith makes the insightful point that in the context of morality, the appeal to nature is ruled out of order, but science is nothing but an appeal to nature. (p. 62.) Thus, if appeals to the natural world were deemed inadmissible, science would no longer be possible: whatever might on under the label of "science" would not in fact be science." (p. 62 - 63.)
In Chapter 3 - Trafficking in Harm - Smith disembowels the single biggest "smuggled concept" - the "do no harm" principle - as being entirely question begging and circular. Smith points out that many people - including some judges - seem to think that John Stuart Mill's edict that the only reason the state has for interfering with someone is to prevent that person from "harming" others is part of the Constitution. Smith effectively demonstrates that the "harm principle" was incoherent and question begging in Mill's original formulation, and that the idea of harm itself has to be question begging and circular because if it was taken seriously then there would be no end to the government's regulation of behavior since someone's interest somewhere is likely to be harmed - if only because their expectations or desires for living in a particular kind of society may be frustrated.
In Chapter 4 - Disoriented Discourse: The Secular Subversion of Religious Freedom - Smith takes apart the incoherent position that the idea of "religious freedom" has devolved. Smith points out that the original idea of "separation of church and state" involved a recognition that there was an area of jurisdiction that belonged solely to religion. Under the pressure of secularism, which refuses to recognize religion as having a value in itself different than any other human activity, the idea of "separation of church and state" has placed the state in the position of treating religion as any other institution. In the spring of 2012, this evolution can be seen in the contemporary attempt by the Obama administration to require Catholic institutions to pay for contraception - notwithstanding Catholicism's two-thousand year moral opposition to contraception - and in the Obama administration's recent assertions that it could enforce discrimination laws against Church's, such as the Catholic Church, that refused to allow women to become priests.
In Chapter 5 - The Heavenly City of the Secular Philosophers - Smith takes an extended look at Carl Becker's classic essay on the "Heavenly City of Eighteenth Century Philosophes." In that essay, Becker pointed out that notwithstanding the philosophes sneering attitude toward traditional Catholic philosophy, at the end of the day, the philosophes merely managed to recreate the same tropes and philosophical ideas that their religious predecessors had established. Smith points out the interesting fact that for all of his posing as a provocateur pulling the mask of the philosophe's failed project, Becker - a classic liberal secularist - never suggested anything better.
Smith then considers Martha Nussbaum's attempt to define a theory of morality that is allegedly defensible from a secularist point of view. Nussbaum's theory is based on "capabilities," namely a moral system is one which permits, encourages and even subsidizes people to develop their uniquely human capabilities. But as Smith points out this quickly descends into question begging and circularity. Is torture a uniquely human capability? Obviously not, which Nussbaum would explain is because torture is not morally permissible. But wasn't moral permissibility the question that theory was supposed to address. And around and around it goes.
As Becker explained about the philosophes, all Nussbaum has managed to do it repackage non-secular conclusions under the rubric of a modernist, secular philosophy.
Smith's sixth chapter is "Science, Humanity and Atrocity." This chapter is an extended meditation on Joseph Vining's "The Song Sparrow and the Child." Vining's essay contemplates the role of science and humanity in horrible atrocities, such as that which induced Japanese scientists to experiment on a three day old child in order to learn about frostbite. Vining was not making an "anti-science" point, but was noting that people have a singular ability to act in horrible ways when in the grip of an idea that purports to explain everything. We can see such a phenomenon in the writings of some scientists and philosophers whose adherence to a "totalistic science rules" out anything that is not material and secular. (p. 193 - 195.)
Of course there is always something that falls outside the "total theory," and that thing may be the most important thing. Vining and Smith suggest that an antidote to total theory may be to take a lawyer's approach to claims by people that they believe something and subject them to cross-examination in light of their actual behavior to see if what they say they believe is what they actually believe. In the case of "totalistic science," one example might be to take a person who claims that love is nothing more than a chemical reaction, and ask them if that's what they really tell their beloved wife or child. (p. 206 - 207.) In the grip of a theory, we can pretend that love is nothing but a chemical reaction, but when we are "being reflective and candid" we really know that reducing everything down to one thing is not what we really believe.
Smith's final chapter - Opening the Cage - Smith's suggestion for reform is really quite modest. He suggests that we permit discussion to go where it wants to go. If people want to talk in religious terms, then let them. The cost of policing the boundary of public discourse has been shown to be too high for whatever benefits it creates. A benefit of permitting discussion that is religious - or is simply defined as being religious by the guardians of the boundary - might be a greater honesty on the part of everyone involved in the discussion. Smith makes a singularly powerful rejoinder to the argument that "religion shuts down discussion," namely "says who?" The irony of the "religion shuts down discussion" crowd is that they are doing nothing but shutting down discussion.
People can learn civility in public discussions. Based on the quality of public discussions we see today, it is not clear that much more civility could be lost by permitting religious themes, concerns or interests to be part of the agenda. Moreover, people are not likely to learn the habits of civility if they don't have the opportunity to practice those habits.
Smith's book is a powerfully insightful book for those who want to know where we are and how we got here.
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Initial post: Aug 28, 2013 10:10:07 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 28, 2013 10:10:43 AM PDT
This is a very thoughtful and useful review. Thank you.
As someone who has abandoned religion, and now has no patience with it whatsoever, I agree that our increasingly secular discourse is limited. Much of what once functioned as "eternal verities" has been exposed as myths, lies and pernicious nonsense. We do not die and go to Hell or Heaven. We just die. We were not "created," we evolved.
So of course our thinking changes: the demise of simplistic religious notions means we have a moral imperative to make this life long and fulfilling, for all. We cannot afford to live life as if it were merely a stopping place before we get to the big country club in the sky - although the rich and powerful (including popes and bishops) never believed this anyway: they were too busy enjoying their wealth, their mistresses, oppressing the poor and doing acts of cruelty to worry about the hereafter. Funny how the custodians of religion and the status quo almost never believed what they were peddling. Organized religion has finally been exposed as one of the most immoral phenomena in history. Look at the Crusades, witch-burning, pedophilia, torture, conversion by the sword, burning of heretics, and on and on. Nothing could be farther from what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount.
The outrages and the failure of religion appear more and more clearly every day. Look at how the Catholic Church insists that being able to deprive women of contraceptives is a matter of religious liberty! They mean the "liberty" of the bishops to oppress others and deprive them of their liberty! LOL! Of course one may grow nostalgic for the old days of misogyny and racism if one is a misogynist or a racist. Religion once provided cover - and still tries to - for a multitude of evils - like polygamy. And theology - what a sad joke: arguing intensely - even launching wars - about what was only a fabrication in the first place.
I am tired of the whining of religious apologists who miss the bad ol' days. Science and rationalism may not afford us all the answers, but they are the best route toward truth. After all, philosophical questions cease to be such once they have been answered by physicists or biologists.
Our discourse is not impoverished because it is secular. It is vastly more inclusive. It also needs to open up many old discussions and articulate bases for moral behavior in terms of this life, since the last thing the organized church has done is to foster the morality of Jesus! Where do you ever see Christians demanding to display the Sermon on the Mount in public parks? It does not happen. One things atheists, skeptics and people of faith can and should agree on is the intrinsic value of this world and this life. But so many get caught up in greed and rapaciousness, or insisting on conformism, that they miss the fact that time is slipping by and we are making a huge mess of a world that is beautiful, unique and irreplaceable, and that all any of us has is one chance at a good life. That is too precious, too important, to be left to religious hustlers and mountebanks, or those suffering from arrested development who are the disciples of Ayn Rand. We are all in this together.
Posted on Aug 28, 2013 11:41:05 AM PDT
Peter S. Bradley says:
The point is that when you start criticizing "religion" in favor of some other value, you are ultimately incorporating "religious concepts" about the nature and ends of humanity. For example, you write "we have a moral imperative to make this life long and fulfilling, for all." Where does that insight come from? It's not self-evident. It's an insight derived from a particular religious view about the essential equality of man before God.
But all of that is probably besides the point. Smith's point was that if the discussion happens to track into religious metaphors or ideas, we shouldn't blow a whistle and reset the players on that ground alone.
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