In the always-ongoing debate about the role of religion in public life, the argument most often made on the liberal side (by which I mean the side of Classical Liberalism, not the side of left politics) is that policy decisions should be made on the basis of secular reasons, reasons that, because they do not reflect the commitments or agendas of any religion, morality or ideology, can be accepted as reasons by all citizens no matter what their individual beliefs and affiliations.
That’s one of the tricksy items – the inclusion of morality and ideology along with religion. Secular reasons are supposed to be separate from religion, not from morality or ideology. Right in the first sentence Fish stacks the deck in favor of himself by pretending that secularists claim and want to have no morality and no ideology when it comes to policy decisions. That’s a ridiculous claim – and the whole piece relies on it.
Later, for instance, we get
While secular discourse, in the form of statistical analyses, controlled experiments and rational decision-trees, can yield banks of data that can then be subdivided and refined in more ways than we can count, it cannot tell us what that data means or what to do with it. No matter how much information you pile up and how sophisticated are the analytical operations you perform, you will never get one millimeter closer to the moment when you can move from the piled-up information to some lesson or imperative it points to; for it doesn’t point anywhere; it just sits there, inert and empty.
Yes, but so does Fish’s claim, because in fact ‘secular discourse’ doesn’t confine itself to ‘statistical analyses, controlled experiments and rational decision-trees.’ Fish needs to pretend it does in order to end up where he does, with the lack of a leg for secularism to stand on, but his pretense is just that.
Once the world is no longer assumed to be informed by some presiding meaning or spirit (associated either with a theology or an undoubted philosophical first principle) and is instead thought of as being “composed of atomic particles…” there is no way, says Smith, to look at it and answer normative questions, questions like “what are we supposed to do?” and “at the behest of who or what are we to do it?”
Note the ‘says Smith,’ as if Fish doesn’t quite want to own such a reactionary and silly claim. If he’d said something like ‘it is difficult to look at it and answer normative questions in such a way that no one will ever disagree,’ then he’d have a point, but he said something much more sweeping than that, and the leg he is standing on is made of marshmallow fluff.