29 February 2008
22 February 2008
18 February 2008
"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
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
“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
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
Last year I saw Hitchens on panel discussion at BookExpo
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
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
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.
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
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
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.