A Secular Foothold?

“Insofar as modern
liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the
course of disinterested observation — secular reasons — and reasons that flow
from a prior metaphysical commitment, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on.”

And so
Stanley Fish concludes his recent
about the role of secular reasons and religion in public life. While
he briefly touches on a number of issues that stem from this ongoing debate, he
focuses his commentary on the ideas of Stephen Smith, whose new book is called
The Disenchantment of
Secular Discourse
. Since much of Smith’s argument circles around the
notion of secular reasons, Fish begins by explaining what these reasons are all

As Fish
defines it, secular reasons are typically understood as reasons that can be
accepted by everyone because they don’t reflect commitments to any religion,
morality, or ideology. A secular society should speak a language everyone can
be reasonably expected to understand, argue and be convinced in. Religious
language is not acceptable because it operates outside this discourse and
depends on certain already accepted notions and premises that not everyone
shares. Behind this idea of secular reasons, Fish says, is the public/private
distinction. Matters of the soul or salvation are to be kept private, whereas
all other aspects of civil society (commerce, law, agriculture, education,
foreign policy, etc) are to be public, operating under the direction of secular
discourse and reasoning.

Fish then
turns to Smith’s main argument: that there are
secular reasons, at least, not in the way they have been understood by
the liberal tradition. The “vocabularies of science, empiricism and naturalism”
simply cannot tell us what we are supposed
to do or what to value. Stripped of any underlying purpose or spirit (provided
by a religious notion of God or philosophical first principle), secular reasons
have no content with which to provide answers to normative questions. We cannot
jump from observation to judgment without “smuggling” in values. So even
secular concepts like freedom and equality depend on a partisan, ideological,
or theological basis to provide content – otherwise they are just empty

From the
outset of this discussion, Fish seems to imply that secular reasons are, by
definition, value-free. The secular is conflated with the empirical, and as
such cannot provide any guidance for acting in a particular way or another. But
not so fast – is this really the
claim the liberal tradition has been making? Is this the argument for why secular reasons are preferred over
religious ones? I’m not so sure. I think it’s acceptable to acknowledge the role of values in
secular discourse – no underhand “smuggling” needed – and uphold the liberal
tradition. The notion of secular reasons does not depend on any claim to
absolute metaphysical foundation, but rather comes out of a practical and
historical attempt to keep society functioning amidst religious wars,
persecution, and violence. Secular concepts like toleration, freedom, equality,
and justice are obviously value-laden, but they are values that the vast
majority of people understand and care about (so we can all speak a common

This common
language is what philosopher Austin
calls conscience. He argues
that conscience underpins the motivations and actions of all people (religious
and non-religious alike), and therefore values must be a part of the public discourse. He allows religious reasons
into this discourse, but only at the price of admission:
susceptibility to public scrutiny and
critical evaluation (just like any secular reason). Conscience must be free
from coercion, but this does not imply free from criticism or judgment. In
fact, it is through judgment that we respect each other’s arguments and reasons
– not by dismissing them, but by evaluating them based on standards like: do
they make sense? Are they consistent? Are they practically feasible? Are they
legal? Are they moral?

we don’t all need to have the same justifications for our values.
People may have very different reasons for
upholding the principle of justice: a Christian says we are all made in God’s
image, a Utilitarian says we must maximize the good, a Kantian says we should
not treat people as means, etc. Each person derives content from a different
place, but nevertheless, we can all affirm the same conclusion (justice does not, and should not, remain an empty
abstraction). By affirming these values, it is possible to reach agreement on
concrete problems and dilemmas that arise, making a stable political community
possible. This is what John Rawls calls an “overlapping consensus,” and for him
it was the only practicable alternative to destructive civil strife.

What we
cannot say – as Fish points out – is that any one of these justifications is absolutely correct, whereas another is
invalid. Yet this does not prevent us from reaching some sort of consensus, a
minimal condition for living together peacefully. Fish does not seem to engage
with this broader question, because he stops once he’s caught the secular
liberal in a false meta-ethical trap. Secular reasons do not depend on
independent value-free justifications, but the values they uphold come out of
historical experience and practical sense. This may not provide the
metaphysical grounding that some (like Fish) seem to want, but so far, it may
be the best thing we’ve got to stand on.

Related Link:
Rethinking secularism: The power of religion in the public sphere. A public dialogue with Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West (2009)

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