29 February 2008

It's a book!

Faulkner advised writers: Murder your darlings. When I couldn't take mine anymore, I sent them off to school. Now all of a sudden they're back--clean, tall and hard-backed. They got their stuff together. I held a copy of The Secular Conscience in the flesh for the first time this week. Fresh from the printer, they are now shipping on Amazon. My darlings, you can't go home again.

22 February 2008

Book tour announced

The itinerary for a 20+ city promotional tour was just unveiled at www.secularconscience.com, with engagements still being added. After some pre-launch events in and around Toronto in early March, the tour kicks off in New York City with a March 18 publication party at People. I can't wait to hit the road.

18 February 2008

Is "secularism" going mainstream?

This week's Newsweek includes a right-on column by religion editor Lisa Miller defending the term "secularism" against its critics (among whom she includes Harvard's humanist chaplain, Greg Epstein--but see here). Miller contrasts secularism with nontheism and underscores its positive meaning:
"Secular" was first used in the Middle Ages to mean things and people not belonging to the church—as Webster's puts it, "not overtly or specifically religious; not ecclesiastical or clerical." This remains its best and most important meaning. In this great experiment that is American democracy, "secular" is the only word we have to describe the idea, handed down by the Founders, that our leaders do not belong to God, they belong to us.
In this sense, we're all secularists now.

17 February 2008

Gathering of top scientists marred by lack of conflict

In the exposition hall of the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston, the Templeton Foundation is passing out M&Ms that read "BIG QUESTION" along with its literature. The science-finds-God message that comes out of Templeton funding isn't necessarily sugar-coated, but it is shiny, appealing, and pleasing to the popular palate. And it starts melting even before you swallow it.

My friend Matt Nisbet, an expert on science communication at American University in Washington, believes that Templeton is far more successful than traditional scientific organizations at "creating news pegs around science and religion." Matt organized an impressive session on Communicating Science in a Religious America on this afternoon's AAAS program. The description of the session asserts that scientists need to learn
to craft communication efforts that are sensitive to how religiously diverse publics process messages but also to the way science is portrayed across types of media. In these efforts, scientists should adopt a language that emphasizes shared values and has broad appeal, avoiding the pitfall of seeming to condescend to fellow citizens or alienating them by attacking their religious beliefs. Part of this process includes “framing” an issue in ways that remain true to the science but that make the issue more personally meaningful, thereby potentially sparking greater interest or acceptance.

Matt suggests that writings like Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion make many religious Americans regard science and scientists as alien enemies. Of course we wouldn’t want Dawkins teaching high school biology in Texarkana. But that doesn’t mean his perspective has no place in the broader public conversation. In fact, the prominence of sciences-versus-religion messages may elevate the platform of science-religion reconciliation.

“Gathering of Top Scientists Marred by Lack of Conflict” is a not a story headline I’d want to have to pitch to any news desk in America. When it comes to “sparking greater interest,” a good conflict is hard to beat. Case in point: the 2006 Time magazine cover story “God versus Science,” which featured a Richard Dawkins-Francis Collins debate on evolution, creation, and beyond. I hypothesize that the pitting of Collins against Dawkins had two effects. First, it set Collins before a huge general audience who otherwise would have never given a moment’s thought to theistic evolution. Second, by presenting Collins’ accommodating stance on religion and science as the alternative to Dawkins' unflinching rationalism, Time’s conflict narrative made Collins’ view more palatable to the pew-bound than it would have appeared in isolation.

How exactly is this bad for public understanding of science? Science will be personally meaningful to the religious insofar as it has something to say about their deepest cultural beliefs. Saccharine rhetoric about "shared values" may fare better, but I'm aware of no compelling empirical evidence that it is. I find it at least as plausible, if ironic, that the presence of science-religion agonists in public debate makes accommodationists better known and liked, which in turn get them more news pegs.

Come to think of it, what is a news peg, anyway? Maybe it's what you hang a frame on.

10 February 2008

Spying Mr. Hitchens in the religion aisle

A recent trip to a local Borders Books in Manhattan came to a jarring end when I discovered Christopher Hitchens’ anthology, The Portable Atheist. It was in fact the title I had come to find. What jolted me was where I had come to find it: in the religion aisle. There at the end of the aisle were a couple of shelves marked by a protruding shingle reading “Atheism.” What was Hitchens doing here? Isn’t atheism a religion, as the saying goes, like not collecting stamps is a hobby?

Last year I saw Hitchens on panel discussion at BookExpo
America, a trade show for publishers in the giant Javits Center. The name of the session was “Atheism: A New Subcategory of Religion.” I took these for terms of art of the publishing industry, which divides the world up into various domains according to how those domains would be marketed to different target audiences. Presumably the idea was that people buy books about religion, and atheist books are about religion (specifically, how we’re better off without it). It seems that what began as booksellers’ shoptalk had become bookshop layout.

At the BookExpo, Hitchens appeared perfectly comfortable with the designation of his newfound genre. Standing up to the microphone, he began his talk, “If one cannot be erect, at least one can be upright.” And why shouldn’t God is Not Great do well by the religion market? I would venture that this literary intellectual is more comfortable there than in the Science section, where the entire New Atheist crew is stationed at the Barnes & Noble at
Lincoln Center.

The Secular Conscience is not an atheist book (whatever that means), and I hope it won't end up in that section, esteemed though the company would be. Still, I've been wondering what the new categories imply about the ordering of our thinking.

As an editor with the secularist magazine Free Inquiry, I reserve a special subcategory in my heart for the Borders chain. When in 2006 Free Inquiry became the only magazine of note in America to publish the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, Borders refused to carry the issue, resulting in headlines around the world for us. A common criticism then, as today, is that critics of religion offer nothing of their own; they only tear down. Atheism does nothing to expand knowledge or enlarge the human spirit. It is pure anti-ism. Atheism, in a word, is just negative.

The more I hear this charge, the less I get it. Of course atheism is merely negative, if you classify it as a subcategory of religion. But that is precisely not the point.

Undeniably, atheism is what logicians call a negation: it is not the case that there exists a perfect being which created and sustains the universe. But logical form alone is not enough to tell us whether a claim is merely critical in any pejorative sense. Con
sider: It is not the case that you have anything to fear. Atheist assertions take place within the context of a larger cultural conversation. Whether a contribution to a conversation is merely negative depends on what the conversation is about.

Suppose you and I are building a house, and I voice a concern about whether the foundation will be stable without some solid bedrock beneath. You know that with enough of the right kind of clay for the foundation to settle onto, we don’t need bedrock, and so you reject my concern. In doing so, you are not being merely critical. You are making a criticism, but with the broader purpose of furthering a project that is itself constructive: building a house. Furthermore, your contribution is not an attack but a defense, a rebuttal of my skepticism about a part of that project.

Most of the great pre-Socratic thinkers of ancient
Greece, such as Democritus, had no room for supernatural beings in their theories of reality. The atheism of the ancients was a part of a broad, constructive, naturalistic inquiry into the structure of the cosmos. Over the following centuries, as Greek philosophy was synthesized with Judeo-Christian theology, the naturalistic tradition was to be swallowed up by theology, of which it became a subcategory. Since the whole point of theology is to articulate and vindicate faith, this subcategory of naturalism was merely critical, and its only purpose was, as the American philosopher Quentin Smith puts it, “stimulating further development of the argumentative defense of theism.”

Today we can ask, what is the context of the current conversation about atheism? What is its broader purpose? In post-Enlightenment, post-Darwinian civilization, the dominant outlook is the naturalistic worldview, in which the universe is understood as a system of natural processes unperturbed by occult or spiritual forces. The world doesn’t get to cheat and bring things about by magic, but always by some causal mechanism. This is the outlook presupposed by all of the biology, psychology, and history with which we understand ourselves and our place in nature, as well as the physics, chemistry, medicine, and engineering by which we have transformed ourselves and our places. The open-ended investigations of the empirical sciences—in which people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are engaged—are gradually filling in an ever-more coherent and complete naturalistic world-picture.

Against the backdrop of this naturalistic conversation, it is the supernatural theists who are the naysayers—evolution can’t account for living things, physics doesn’t explain where the universe came from, morality is impossible without transcendent enforcement, and all the rest. It is the believers who are the skeptics, doubters of the foundations of modernity, and the atheists who are shoring up the construction project.

So when atheists today are accused of being negative, they can respond: that depends on what you are talking about. One day, if Dawkins and Hitchens are running the store, you might well find the religion books in the philosophy or literature section, instead of the other way around.

01 February 2008

The Goldstein standard

I have to say I was bit intimidated when I sent my manuscript to the incomparable Rebecca Goldstein, author of Betraying Spinoza. What would I do if she said I got Spinoza all wrong? (The name of my chapter, after all, is "Spinoza's Guide to Theocracy.") Instead, to my delight, I got this:
Against the cliche that there can be no morality without God, Austin Dacey mounts a rejoinder so intellectually and morally satisfying that all should think twice before repeating that "truism" again. His arguments are so fair-minded, knowledgable, and objective that they demonstrate, in their very form and tone, the values of fair-mindedness, knowledgability and objectivity for which he advocates. A work at once philosophically rich and morally inspiring, The Secular Conscience makes an invaluable contribution to the charged conversation concerning religion and reason.

I have Rebecca to thank for getting me to read Spinoza as a secularist--maybe the secularist--and that after years of failed attempt by my dissertation adviser (God love you, Loren!). Read more blurbs at my website.