31 March 2008

Southern California

After arriving in Hollywood late last night, I woke up and gave my secular sermon this Sunday morning at the Steve Allen Theater in the Center for Inquiry on Hollywood Boulevard, where my brother Emmett and his wife Barb came out to cheer me on. The director of the Center gave me his car and set me loose on the L.A. freeways. I drove down to Costa Mesa, Orange County, where I spoke at a public library. By the end of the day, we had sold out all of the books that had been shipped to Southern California. A subject of conversation today: the adoption by the United Nations Human Rights Council of a new mandate to gaurd against the "abuses" of freedom of expression that constitute discrimination against the religious. And all this time we thought the point of the Human Rights Council was to protect human rights!

29 March 2008

From the Bay

Despite rain and a Critical Mass bike rally, we had a good audience at the World Affairs Forum in downtown San Francisco last night. I spent yesterday afternoon writing a release on the Medellin v. Texas decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, and doing a phone interview with Religion News Service on The Secular Conscience. Off to Palo Alto this afternoon.

28 March 2008

More fatherly love

Richard John Neuhaus is no longer the only prominent Catholic priest welcoming one of the main themes of The Secular Conscience. The "religious news analyst" Father Jonathan Morris (you may have seen his CNN or BBC coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II) says at FoxNews.com that when he picked up the book he was prepared for tears, but that it gave him hope that he can talk to atheists about politics.

26 March 2008

U.S. tour kicks off in New York City

This week I kicked off my U.S. book tour in New York City. We had some laughs about the newly released Deadly Sins, but once we got into my material, I began to encounter some serious push-back on my thoughts about secularism and Islamism. I was more than happy to reciprocate.

This Monday I had the pleasure beginning with a reading at The Half King in Chelsea. Many thanks to Clay Ezell and Sebastian Junger at the Half King for making this happen. We had a room full of sharp people, many of whom were eager to discuss the state of the American Left and the Democratic Party. Afterwards I engaged in a polite fight with a woman from Revolution Books, who wanted to turn me on to Bob Avakian, chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Lucky for me, she bought The Secular Conscience before realizing that I consider the Islamists a bigger threat than the Christian fundamentalists.

Last night I spoke at Columbia University, hosted by a student group the Columbia Skeptics. One audience member seemed to defend Ahmadinejad's statement on gays, suggesting he had been misunderstood. The NYC-based composer and secularist blogger Richard Einhorn wondered whether by reprinting the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, Free Inquiry magazine and others were playing into the hands of conservative bigots. Perhaps under the influence of cold medicine, I just blared that I didn't care. Should it matter to our defense of his free expression that Theo van Gogh was an asshole? Richard, a friend of mine, invited me to do an interview for his blog to discuss further. The leaders of the student group, Alon Levy and Jennifer Bernstein, presented me with some of the most probing questions yet. Thanks to Alon and Jennifer for bringing me on campus.

22 March 2008

Gays in Iran, moral relativists at home

Yesterday I had a good conversation with Mike Signorile on his talkshow on the SIRIUS Satellite Network station OutQ, which is advertised as "Information, and Entertainment for the Gay and Lesbian Community." We got into the moral relativism of secular liberals, in particular when it comes to Islam and human rights. I brought up a recent bizarre case in point: the Columbia University queer student group that agreed with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that there are no gays in Iran--on the conceptual grounds that "Western" concepts such as "homosexual" cannot be applied outside our borders.

After the interview I had a chance to thank Signorile for calling attention to the case of Mehdi Kazemi. Kazemi is a 19-year-old Iranian who came to Europe to study, learned that his lover in Iran had been apprehended and executed by the authorities for gay. His application for asylum in Great Britain was turned down in 2006 and he fled to Netherlands, narrowing avoiding deportation to Iran, where would face almost certain death. Now the Dutch are refusing to consider the case, which may end up at the European Court.

How, we wondered, has this story received so little attention from mainstream media outlets?

21 March 2008

Just finished taping Point of Inquiry

I just finished an in-depth interview with my friend D.J. Grothe at the Point of Inquiry podcast. We dug into the first half of the book, and he brought some really challenging questions. D.J. tells me they'd like to have me back to discuss the latter chapters on secular ethics. The show should be posted by the end of today at Point of Inquiry.

Now I'm headed uptown for a 4:30 interview on "The Michelangelo Signorile Show" on SIRIUS Satellite Radio. More on that soon.

18 March 2008

Where is The Secular Consience now? In stores

It is March 18, official publication date. I just called Barnes & Noble at Union Square and Lincoln Center to discover that The Secular Conscience is in. "Please hold while I transfer you to philosophy." So, these stores at least have opted not to file me under Atheism, in the Religion aisle, but instead in philosophy. No doubt they read my incisive blog about the mistake of defining secularism merely as the negation or religion. The point of The Secular Conscience is not so much to go after religion as to come before it.

Please ask for The Secular Conscience at your local bookseller, and if you have a moment, let me know where it is located. This will satisfy my curiosity and drive up demand for the book at the booksellers at the same time!

15 March 2008

"State of Belief" on Air America

I make an appearance on "State of Belief," a nationwide show on the Air America radio network, airing today 10-11 a.m. and tomorrow 7-8 p.m. EST. The show is hosted by Reverend Welton Gaddy, head of The Interfaith Alliance, a leading organization on the Religious Left. In our brief conversation, I wonder whatever happened to the Secular Left. Listen at Air America.

07 March 2008

Richard John Neuhaus disagrees with me for the right reasons

I'm pleased to report the endorsement of The Secular Conscience by one of America's leading religious public intellectuals. Well, partial endorsement. In a review for First Things, Richard John Neuhaus, author of The Naked Public Square, disagrees with me about the right things:

On almost all the hot-button issues—abortion, embryo-destructive research, same-sex marriage, Darwinism as a comprehensive philosophy, etc.—Dacey is, in my judgment, on the wrong side. But he is right about one very big thing. These contests are not between people who, on the one side, are trying to impose their morality on others, and people who, on the other side, subscribe to a purely procedural and amoral rationality. Over the years, some of us have been trying to elicit from our opponents the recognition that they, too, are making moral arguments and hoping that their moral vision will prevail. But in the world of secular liberalism, morality is the motive that dare not speak its name. Austin Dacey strongly agrees.

Are my secularist friends reading First Things? They should be. I sent the below letter to editor.

To the Editor:

It is not always easy to get my secular liberal friends to read First Things as often as they should. Happily, I now have an additional occasion to persuade them: Richard John Neuhaus’ review of my book, The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life. Of course, my fellow travelers may stop speaking to me once they discover that Mr. Neuhaus there refers to me as an "ally." Nevertheless, it is a designation I proudly accept, inasmuch as we both endorse a polity that engages with questions of conscience in public life rather than vainly insisting on "privatizing" them.

As an ally, I must clarify one misstatement of my views that appeared in this fair and thoughtful review. Mr. Neuhaus claims that I offer "a vigorous critique of the limitations" of John Stuart Mill’s thought. In fact, my aim is to rescue Mill the moral realist and objectivist about value from a superficial understanding that takes the wrong lessons from the Harm Principle. To adapt Bacon’s line: a little Mill inclineth man’s mind to subjectivism, but depth in Mill bringeth about men’s minds to objectivism.

Mill could not be clearer in On Liberty that his principle is not "one of selfish indifference, which pretends that human beings have no business with each other’s conduct in life, and that they should not concern themselves about the well-doing or well-being of one another, unless their own interest is involved." Instead, we "owe each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former rather the latter." For Mill, we protect conscience from coercion not so that it may be private, but so that it may be open, open to public scrutiny and revision in light of objective standards. Liberty of conscience matters because for creatures like us it is essential to a life well-lived.

In this way, Mill’s liberalism, like Spinoza’s, supplies the antidote to the philosophical and moral infirmity that besets too many of their secular liberal descendents. It is one of the chief of aims of my book to make us all closer allies to them both.


Austin Dacey

01 March 2008

Mammon bites god

In this month's Atlantic, the unassailable Alan Wolfe argues that secularism is winning the new religious wars, even though not everyone notices:
the idea of inevitable secularization has fallen out of favor with many scholars and journalists. Still, its most basic tenet—that material progress will slowly erode religious fervor—appears unassailable. Last October, the Pew Global Attitudes Project plotted 44 countries according to per capita gross domestic product and intensity of religious belief, gauged by the responses to several questions about faith (a rendition of the Pew data appears on the opposite page). The pattern, as seen in the Pew study and a number of other sources, is hard to miss: when God and Mammon collide, Mammon usually wins.
This is not just because the wealthier and better educated reject the faith of their fathers, but more fundamentally because modernity makes that faith but one among many in a marketplace of belief. Unable to compel adherence to the One True Way, the many ways are forced to compete for adherents. This encounter with modernity, Wolfe shows, can have a profound moderating influence.
As religious leaders recognize that they are more likely to swell their ranks through persuasion than through coercion, they find themselves accepting such secular ideas as free will and individual autonomy. And even religions that are culturally dominant and closely linked with the state must worry about holding on to the allegiance of the young, as well as retaining the loyalties—and the money—of those who have moved abroad and been exposed to religious pluralism and tolerance. As one part of the world becomes modern, those parts it touches also gain exposure to modern ideas. Few places remain where old-fashioned, rigidly dogmatic forms of religion are isolated.
In his monumental A Secular Age, Charles Taylor makes a similar point, although unlike Wolfe he often sounds nostalgic for a pre-secular age. Once belief becomes one choice among many, standing in need of vindication, secularism's work has already been done.