29 April 2008

Barnes & Noble, Greenwich Village

I got out of Chicago early this morning, about 12 hours later than anticipated, and now am catching up on work at the Center for Inquiry and looking forward to a proper NYC booksigning at Barnes & Noble in Greenwich Village, followed by a reception arranged by my friend Nica Lalli, author of Nothing: Something to Believe In.

28 April 2008

USA Today: We're all values voters now

I must be in the only hotel in Chicago that doesn't give away USA Today. So I stepped outside in the rain and picked up the last copy from the street corner vending machine. On the opinion pages I found a nice quarter-page layout of my op-ed, now titled (by the paper) "A Values Voter's Trap."
Woody Allen confesses that he once failed a philosophy exam when he was caught looking into the soul of the student next to him. Like metaphysics, morality is not the kind of thing that can be lifted from someone else. And to the extent that one tries, one usually loses it in the process. This could pretty well describe what has been happening lately with the Democratic Party's relationship to religion and values in public life.
Read the full article at USA Today.

Meanwhile, I'm heading over to University of Illinois for an afternoon talk.

23 April 2008

The Guardian calls me part J. S. Mill, part Melanie Phillips

Who is Melanie Phillips? She's a British journalist, commentator, author of Londanistan, and a fierce critic of Islamism in the U.K. Apparently the reviewer for The Guardian didn't care for The Secular Conscience's message about the fecklessness of secular liberals, including reviewers in The Guardian:
Not surprising given the reason for the book's sense of urgency, which is the incipient Islamist apocalypse: "In the face of a challenge to the future of European values, the official ideology of multiculturalism has become a pact for mass cultural suicide." By this point near the book's end those who believe that our civilisation depends on the freedom to publish racist cartoons will be nodding energetically.
I'm convinced Mill would be with Phillips, and me, on Islamism. Of course, neither of us would be with her in her doubts about evolution, which she has called "a theory with holes in it."

Tomorrow I drive east for a Barnes & Noble outside of Detroit, Michigan and then a late night of writing a piece tentatively titled "New Religious Discoveries Confirm Ancient Secular Wisdom."

22 April 2008

Grand Rapids girl makes good

On my way to Grand Rapids, Michigan, I thought of my colleague Susan Jacoby, who hails from there. After a long wait, she is scheduled to go on Stephen Colbert tonight to talk about her book The Age of American Unreason. I hope Stephen will be alright!

20 April 2008

Where are the children are above average

It feels good to be back in my home state of Minnesota, where I'm off to a reading at Garrison Keilor's bookstore Common Good Books in St. Paul in a few minutes. My mother never would have forgiven me if I had not come back here.

18 April 2008

Did Ratzinger get my memo?

It was not to be. I left D.C. just as Benedict XVI arrived there, and now I'm leaving New York as he begins his visit here. Recently he has said, echoing a theme from The Secular Conscience, “Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted.”

My mind is still racing from yesterday's intensive hour of discussion at the New York Academy of Sciences, where I got some of my most probing questions yet, mostly on the nature of reason and the neurobiology of conscience.

We've often heard about new scientific discoveries confirming ancient religious wisdom. Hearing the Dalai Lama's remarks at his "Seeds of Compassion" event in Seattle last weekend, it struck me that this circling back has come all the way around, and now it is modern religion that is confirming ancient secular wisdom. The Dalai Lama mentioned three paths to compassion and moral development in children: the theistic path of Western religions, the non-theistic religious path of Buddhism, and the "secular, scientific" path. Surrounded by brain researchers and empirical psychologists, he declared this secular way the most promising.

Meanwhile, the pope is emphasizing reason's coequal role in the religious life, and urging Catholics to translate their contributions to public life into a "public theology" accessible to all. That sounds like secularism to me.

16 April 2008

Back in New York City

I spent the last three days in D.C., during which I spoke at the Center for Inquiry as well as at the University of Delaware in nearby Newark, Delaware. Meanwhile, I tried to find out what, if anything, the U.S. Department of State plans to do about a resolution to shock the conscience adopted on March 28 by the United Nations Human Rights Council, which effectively establishes a blasphemy prohibition at the heart of the international human rights system.

Having just arrived back in New York City for a few days, I found myself watching the sun set over New York Harbor and catching up in conversation with DJ Grothe, who had just finished an interview with Chris Hedges. Apparently there were some fireworks, which I look forward to catching on Point of Inquiry. Hedges' new book is I Don't Believe in Atheists.

I just learned I'll be filling in for my boss Paul Kurtz at a lunchtime address at the New York Academy of Sciences here in Lower Manhattan tomorrow, April 17.

13 April 2008

Watching "Compassion Forum" from Capital Hill

I gave a Sunday sermon at the Center for Inquiry in Washington, D.C. this afternoon, and then recuperated after several long days and red-eyes by watching the Democratic candidates discuss "faith and values" on CNN's Compassion Forum broadcast from Pennsylvania.

If I didn't know better, I'd say Obama had been reading The Secular Conscience. He chastised liberals who seek to preclude religious reasons from the public square, but also insisted that believers play by the rules of public conversation. They should not try to stop the conversation by citing divine authority, but admit that they can be wrong. He closed by reminding the audience "we are not just a Christian nation. We are a Jewish nation. We are a Buddhist nation. We are a Muslim nation, Hindu nation. And we are a nation of atheists and non-believers."

11 April 2008

Argument on Digby's blog

Tristero has started posting a conversation with me about The Secular Conscience over at the liberal blog Digby's Hullabaloo. He's generally sympathetic, but worries that anti-Islamist liberals like me are playing into the hands of the neocons. I know Tristero as my friend Richard Einhorn, a wonderful composer based in New York. From argument among friends emerges truth? We'll see.

UPDATE 4/12/08: A second post, on liberals and Islam, is now up and generating some heat.

New York Post review

Last Sunday, the New York Post ran a review of The Secular Conscience. The reviewer describes me as "a secularist philosopher spoiling for a fight." I'll take that. After presenting a good summary of the political portion of the book, Neil J. Kressel (author of Bad Faith: The Danger of Religious Extremism, like mine a Prometheus Book), states
When you criticize Christianity or Judaism sharply, you may be deemed impolite or politically incorrect. But when you hurl similar criticisms at Islam, you may well endanger your life and precipitate an international crisis. Dacey understands, but never gets to the heart of this essential difference.
This confused me, as I devote an entire chapter to Islam, as well as an extended discussion of how its inherently political nature sets it apart from other faiths.
From its beginnings, Christian thought placed a wedge between the temporal order and the spiritual order: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” With the Christianization of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, God and Caesar found themselves sharing the same throne. Increasing interference by Rome the Empire in Church affairs spurred Christian leaders to define the civil and ecclesiastical roles more sharply. In the early fifth century, Augustine described Christians as dual citizens dwelling in the earthly City of Man but belonging to a heavenly City of God, the community of all saved souls. . . . This foundational Christian dualism has no analogue in Islamic civilization. . . . Muhammad was simultaneously the spiritual, civil, and military leader, a tribal chief. Whereas the first Christians kindled the light of their prophet in cellars, catacombs, and caves hidden from the sword of earthly power, the first Muslims followed their prophet into battle, conquering cities, then empires, for him. Where they went, they would become the earthly power.

10 April 2008

Science magazine Policy Forum

In the new issue of Science magazine, I'm an author, along with my colleagues from Science Debate 2008, of a Policy Forum editorial entitled "Science and the Candidates." It explains how "the U.S. science community has converged at record speed with the unified goal of raising the profile of science in our national dialogue." Science Debate 2008 has issued a standing invitation to the candidates for an April 18 forum in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, I'm preparing to speak at University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

09 April 2008

Returning to Olympia

Today I visit my alma mater, The Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, for an early afternoon reading in the library. In the evening I'll sit in on two classes that have been assigned sections of The Secular Conscience. I'm looking forward to seeing my first philosophy professor and thanking him for leading me astray.

07 April 2008

Steering to Portland

According to all sociological estimates, Washington and Oregon are the epicenter of the secular boom in American demographics. I'll be at Reed College tonight and then Portland State University Tuesday at 4:30 p.m., with a local radio show early that morning.

04 April 2008

Thoughts on A Secular Age from Seattle

Arriving in Seattle today for a talk at the University of Washington, I'm posting a portion of my forthcoming review of Charles Taylor's book, A Secular Age.

A Secular Age
is a polemic. Exceptionally drawn out and mild though they may be, serious arguments are at work in it. If successful, they would vindicate a number of highly controversial philosophical claims about the nature of morality and the good life. Unfortunately, Taylor’s controversial philosophical views are neither clearly identified as such nor justified through rigorous argumentation. Instead, they often surface only in his rhetorical framing (Taylor chooses to describe humanism as “exclusive” rather than “self-sufficient,” and to talk of a “Great Disembedding” instead of a “Great Liberating”), in the hues of his prose, or in the mood that hangs over the book. That mood is, in a word, ennui:
Almost every action of ours has a point; we’re trying to get to work, or to find a place to buy a bottle of milk after hours. But we can stop and ask why we’re doing these things, and that points us beyond to the significance of these significances. . . . The issue may arise for us in a crisis, where we feel that what has been orienting our life up to now lacks real value, weight. . . . But the sense of emptiness, or non-resonance, may arise in a quite different way. It can come in the feeling that the quotidian is emptied of deeper resonance, is dry, flat; the things which surround us are dead, ugly, empty; and the way we organize them, shape them, arrange them, in order to live has no meaning, beauty, depth, sense. There can be a kind of “nausée” before this meaningless world.
The cost of the secular age is this malaise of modernity, the malaise of immanence. We moderns are “restless at the barriers of the human sphere.” We have “deeply felt need” for something more, something beyond our ordinary flourishing. We are haunted by the thought that the suffering all around us is irredeemably pointless. If Taylor were sitting in a café this Sunday afternoon, he’d be the one gazing dejectedly while his tea goes cold, thinking, Is this all there is?

Taylor explores several different cultural responses to the perceived malaise of immanent humanism. Alongside the reactions by traditional, transcendental religion, Romantics sought transcendence in nature or beauty, rescue from the alienation of instrumental reason from the sensual world. And an “immanent counter-Enlightenment”—exemplified by Nietzsche—indicted the morality of humanism for denuding life of the heroic, tragic, and Dionysian by valuing equality and universal happiness above all. In its most virulent expressions, neo-Nietzschean anti-humanism gives meaning to suffering by embracing it, and deals with death by becoming the death-dealer. Believers and humanists might align against neo-Nietzscheans to affirm the worth of mercy and justice, while neo-Nietzscheans and believers converge in thinking that humanism’s vision of life is lacking in some crucial dimension.

Is humanism missing something? What are we to make of these feelings of emptiness, or the specter of irredeemable suffering? Can we continue to find sense in our moral strivings for a better world? What are we to do with these longings for a transcendent good? For those of us who are moved by such questions at all, I see three possible strategies.
Fast. We acknowledge the hunger for the transcendent and we resolve not give in to it until it can be satiated in some good beyond life, perhaps The Good. We accept no substitutes.

Diet. We acknowledge that the hunger for the transcendent is real, but because we also realize that it cannot be satisfied in any way we can live with, with we learn to live with the hunger. We sometimes get pangs, but we perceive them for what they are.

Feast. We recognize the hunger for the transcendent, and while we see that it cannot be met by some good outside of life, we find that it can be nourished by others goods, by forms of transcendence within life.
Taylor takes the Fast approach. Of course, any Faster needs to explain why his favored good is the only kind that can successfully stave off transcendent hunger. Although he devotes zero space to analyzing the concept of transcendence in A Secular Age, Taylor characterizes it as “the full-hearted love of some good beyond life” or “some goals beyond human flourishing.” Why think that these goals must be found in traditional religion, let alone in a relationship to the God of Abraham, as Taylor hopes?

Anyway, why assume that having God around will relieve ennui? Given all that we know about human beings, why not instead expect that if there were a heaven, someone would be sitting there this Sunday afternoon thinking, Well then, is this all there is? So long as we remain persons in the next world, such questions may be inescapable. And inasmuch as we do not remain persons, we literally have nothing to look forward to. I’ve decided that if there are any goods worth wanting in the next world, they will turn out to be goods that we already have in this one—goods like love, knowledge, and beauty. Can the Fast approach conceive of some other-worldly values so different in kind from this-worldly values that they promise a nourishment of a different order?

What should further weaken the will of the Faster is the fact that there are plenty of naturalistic explanations for the transcendent urge. To the extent that we find sources of this urge in inescapable features of the human condition, we stop seeing them as the stamp of a real supernatural realm, and we become inclined to Diet rather than Fast.

For example, as Thomas Nagel has observed, the occasional impression that our deepest pursuits somehow lack metaphysical heft might be explained by a simple fact about persons, that we are capable of seeing our lives at once from the subjective point of view and from the objective point of view. From the subjective point of view, the view from the inside as it were, our concerns strike us as real and important; they are always splashed across our psychic foreground. But our cognitive equipment also permits us to regard ourselves and our lives as objects, and in this view our concerns disappear into the uniform grain of the physical cosmos. When these two frames of reference collide, the effect is absurdity, much as when a head of state slips and falls off a stage in mid-address. The absurdity, and, often, humor, spring from the sudden juxtaposition a frame of reference appropriate to persons—with the dignity of intentional agency and responsibility—and a frame of reference appropriate to objects—inert players in the slapstick of Newtonian dynamics.

Astonishingly, Taylor neglects empirical scientific explanations for transcendent longings. He seems to think that Freud’s discredited psychodynamic accounts are still the state of the art in this field, ignoring decades of new literature on the evolutionary psychology and neuroscience of religious and moral experience. He does mention the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who in The Fragility of Goodness cautioned against the impulse to “transcend humanity,” locating the root of that impulse in our discomfort and anxiety about our own bodily finitude, neediness, and vulnerability. But Nussbaum is not opposed to stepping beyond the bounds of ordinary experience. She points towards a Feast strategy, which embraces the kinds of going-beyond of which we are capable: “There is a great deal of room, within the context of a human life . . . for a certain sort of aspiration to transcend our ordinary humanity.” We can seek and cherish transcendence of an “internal and human sort.”

Taylor gives an extended hearing to the Feast strategy, but in the end fails to show why it is inadequate. He presents Luc Ferry’s exploration of “le sens du sens”—the meaning of meaning:
[Ferry] sees in the succouring of human life and well-being universally a goal which really transcends the ordinary ambit of life. And he cites moving testimony how service in organizations like Medécins Sans Frontieres has effectively given a strong sense to life for many young people. It is as he argues a kind of transcendence of our ordinary existence, but one which is horizontal, not vertical. He even wants to use the term sacred . . . but this doesn’t take us outside the human domain; on the contrary, it is very much part of the human life-form to propose such ends which transcend the ordinary.
Horizontal transcendence delivers us from the small, cramped world of the self and its hide-bound concerns. And by calling us to impartial, universal moral regard for well-being, it gives meaning to suffering and injustice: they are our enemies. What is wrong with Feasting? Should we not celebrate the worldview that makes possible these secular people who find self-transcendence and le sens du sens in extraordinary service to others? Is something still missing? How could the ascendance of immanent humanism be considered a defeat for humanity, let alone “a victory for darkness”?

02 April 2008

Raising Arizona

Blogging in the sun outside of Tucson, where I arrived this morning for two days of Arizona appearances. Last night was Arizona State University in Tempe. Tonight I speak at a hotel in Tucson. After two days and one long night, I've finished my book review of the colossal new book by Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. I'll post some highlights later.