24 May 2008

New York Times story

Today's "Beliefs" column in the New York Times is dedicated to The Secular Conscience, which, it says, "glows with Mr. Dacey’s confidence in John Stuart Mill’s principle that every idea should be 'fully, frequently and fearlessly discussed,' lest it 'be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.'"

During the more than two hour interview with Peter Steinfels in preparation for this article, I could tell that he had read the book closely. It turns out he is sympathetic to some of its main themes. This comes as a big relief to me, because I was so jet-lagged at the time I have no idea what I said!

By coincidence, a story about my work also appeared today in another publication, one which has never faced high-profile accusations of story fabrication: my hometown newspaper (well, near my hometown, which was so small that it had no daily paper). See The Marshall Independent for the local-boy-makes-good scoop.

20 May 2008

Free Inquiry magazine cover story

The Secular Conscience is featured in the cover story of the current Free Inquiry magazine (complete with an illustration of a naked man entering the public square, which the editor swears is not supposed to be me).

I'm taking a copy with me as I'm off to Raleigh-Durham for a reading at The Regulator bookstore, serving the Duke University campus.

14 May 2008

New article with my take on "framing science" and The Dawkins Effect

Observers of science like Matt Nisbet, Chris Mooney, Robert Pennock, and Jon Miller are known for claiming that Richard Dawkins and other scientist critics of religion are hurting the cause of science education in the United States.

In a major article in the newly released anthology, Secularism & Science in the 21st Century (edited by Ariela Keysar and Barry A. Kosmin and published by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, at Trinity College), I look critically at their writings. I find little evidence for their claim, and put forward my own hypothesis, which I dub The Dawkins Effect:
discussion of science-religion conflict in mass media-driven public discourse results in greater public awareness of messages of science-religion harmony. . . . it also makes the harmony messages seem like a reasonable compromise between anti-scientific religion and anti-religious atheism. In short, the presence of overtly agonist scientists such as Dawkins may make accommodationist scientists like [Francis] Collins appear more reasonable to religious believers, and may make the prospect of adopting accommodationist views as the basis for public policy seem more judicious and fair to the moderate middle.
My contribution, "Evolution Education and the Science-Religion Conflict: Dispatches from a Philosophical Correspondent," along with the rest of the book, is available for free download at the Institute.

11 May 2008

Mother's Day in Atlanta

I dedicated The Secular Conscience "to my mother, the creator of my conscience." As I explained , only half jokingly, to an audience in Atlanta today, the book and its dedication were really written in an attempt to make up to her for never calling or visiting her as much as she would like. Now they all could be the beneficiaries of my being a bad son.

09 May 2008

New Point of Inquiry episode on secular ethics

This conversation with DJ Grothe picks up where the previous left off, by exploring objective morality from a secular perspective. Here's the description from Point of Inquiry's site:
In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Austin Dacey argues for the objectivity of morality from a nonreligious perspective. Maintaining that the conscience is prior to and independent of God and religion, he advocates an "ethics from below" that steers a middle course between an empirical "science of good and evil" and a transcendental religious ethic. While sharply criticizing what he sees as simplistic and misleading applications of evolutionary science to moral matters, Dacey defends a naturalistic understanding of the right and good. He explains the advantages of consequentialist moral theories that seek to promote individual well-being, and returns to John Stuart Mill's On Liberty to show that the belief in objective values is perfectly compatible with the social philosophy of secular liberalism. Dacey also responds to Chris Hedges' assertions that secularists do not grasp the nature of evil and that the Enlightenment notion of moral progress is a myth.

08 May 2008

Review in Asharq Al-Awsat

"Making this book available in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and other languages of the Muslim nations would be an immense service," writes Amir Taheri in a review of The Secular Conscience for Asharq Al-Awsat, a leading Arabic international paper.

Dacey is aware of the fact that the debate over secularism is no longer confined to the post-Christian Western democracies but has also spread to other parts of the world where religion, especially Christianity and Islam, retains a strong hold on the popular imagination. Thus, he cites a number of examples that directly concern the Muslim world to show that Muslims, too, would benefit from an open, honest and respectful debate of the issue facing humanity as a whole.

07 May 2008

What I lost (and found) on my book tour

Now back from over a month on the road, I have taken stock.

What I Lost

1. my glasses (someone sent them to me later)

2. my laptop (for one harrowing afternoon)

3. my beloved cuff links constructed of the "shift" key from an antique typewriter.

4. too much money

5. my personal copy of The Secular Conscience, complete with notes and corrections. Apparently someone took it by mistake at the Barnes & Noble, Greenwich Village book signing (whoever you are, you now know where all the typos are!)

6. my hat

All in all, it could have been worse. Plus, I have:

What I Found

1. some old friends

2. lots of new friends

3. new confidence that there is a real need and an audience for my message

02 May 2008

Utrecht, Netherlands

I left for Holland on Wednesday evening, after returning from a lunchtime faculty seminar at Trinity College in Hartford on The Secular Conscience hosted by Professor Mark Silk at the Program on Public Values.

I am writing from Utrecht, where I am attending a conference on the future of secularism in Europe. The conference featured a lot of interesting people, including Stephen Law, a senior lecturer in philosophy at University of London and author of The War for Children’s Minds; David Nash, reader in history at Oxford Brookes University, and author of Blasphemy in the Christian World: A History; Herman Philipse, a leading Dutch atheist philosopher; and Azar Majedi, an Iranian women's rights activist and wife of the late Mansoor Hekmat.

Interestingly for me, the conference statement of purpose described secularism in precisely the terms I attack: "secularisms claims that religious arguments should not be used in politics"; and "religion should be a private and personal matter." I was happy to stir the pot.

I enjoyed some spirited after-hours discussions on Iranian secular politics (and jams to American rock & roll) with Azar. A committed socialist, she worries that Western anti-Islamists have discredited themselves by aligning themselves with neoconservatives.

I also had a good debate on the freedom of expression with Danish philosopher Malene Busk, who became a prominent secularist voice during the cartoon controversy and who now writes for Jyllens Posten. Eventually we agreed that blasphemous speech cannot be defended without presupposing some moral evaluation of its content. One reason why liberal societies should actively stand up for blasphemous speech--even while they actively oppose anti-Semitic speech--lies in the positive moral value of contesting illiberal religion.