Review: The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse

by Jun 9, 2014Books

The Disenchantment of Secular DiscourseThe Disenchantment of Secular Discourse by Steven D. Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Excellent analysis and critique; solution rather “bland,” as the author himself admits. But the critique is so effective that I still must award the book 5 stars. (And I enjoyed his gentle humor and easygoing writing style.)

The real strength of this critique, in my mind, is that Smith bothered to search out what leading secularists in the liberal tradition (and here I speak of the kind of “liberal” that All Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, generally are) actually said at the highest levels of academic discourse and jurisprudence. As a law professor, his mining of court opinions on euthanasia was particularly valuable. That leg-work demonstrated his thesis that even the most ardent secularists “smuggle” metaphysical and/or theological assumptions into the “iron cage” of secular discourse (a concept similar to Charles Taylor’s “immanent frame”). Smith also spent time critiquing renowned philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s viciously circular—he says—justification for human rights. And he offered a valuable critique of scientism, drawing from Joseph Vining (The Song Sparrow and the Child: Claims of Science and Humanity), namely that while evolution may provide an explanation for morality, it doesn’t seem to be one that scientists themselves personally believe with consistency. Scientists do not act as if we all live in a closed system of material causes. This brief summary demonstrates, I think, that Smith was not critiquing no-name lightweights or picking odd, extraneous issues.

I have written a much longer review article about this book that I hope to publish elsewhere, but I want to share one conclusion for the Goodreads community and both of the readers of my blog. Smith’s biggest contribution to me was actually how he helped crystallize the message of After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre looks at the same problem Smith did but at much greater length and in a somewhat more purposefully historical fashion. MacIntyre demonstrates that the major phases of philosophy since the dawn of the Enlightenment have all critiqued each other pretty decisively on the question of the basis of morality, and nobody in the broad tradition thought anybody else found a firm foundation for morality. MacIntyre spends a great deal more time than Smith did proffering a solution, and MacIntyre’s solution is Aristotelian: the recovery of telos. Despite his conversion to Catholicism, MacIntyre’s solution is not so much theological as metaphysical. What Smith crystallized for me was that theology and metaphysics are the only viable places from which to get true, substantive norms. Secularism cannot provide them.

That’s because the rules of secularism allow for “ises,” but not “oughts.” If the material universe is all there is—or all we’re allowed to appeal to in public debate, even if we believe in the supernatural—then there’s no standard available by which to say that one state of affairs is morally better than another. Atheists and adherents of scientism hear this and howl that Smith et al. are saying atheists are all immoral. But Smith (and I, fwiw) are not saying that; we’re only saying that they can’t account for morality within the iron cage of their own worldview.

Unless we’re prepared to go the nihilistic direction and say with Alexander Pope, “All that is is right,” some facts of our experience are going to have to be judged “wrong” by some standard or other. And unless we’re happy with purely local, cultural, conventional standards—and Stanley Fish has shown in this fantastic essay that we’re not—we’re going to have to look to metaphysics or theology. I believe the former is a subset of the latter, personally. Smith hints that direction, too (he went to BYU), but he never really shows his cards. The closest he comes is in the small, final chapter in which he calls for more “openness.” This is very similar to what Michael Sandel of Harvard concluded in Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? At the very least, it would be nice for people to be honest to others (and to themselves) about their value systems, rather than dressing them up in supposedly neutral terminology.

This is a great book I’d love to see more secularist liberals interact with. Judging by the quality of the comments on a review of this book at the New York Times, I don’t hold out much hope that many secularists will pay the kind of attention to Smith necessary to have their blinders removed, to come to themselves and recognize their smuggling operations. They still think they’re all objective, scientific, and neutral.

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