The secular conscience

I went to a talk by Austin Dacey yesterday to the Secular Students’ Union at the University of Washington. He’s a philosopher, he has a new book out, The Secular Conscience, and he’s a United Nations representative for the Center for Inquiry. It seems quite a good thing that CFI should have a UN representative, especially now. I’m looking forward to reading The Secular Conscience. Austin mentioned during his talk how reliably predictable it was that new students would be moral relativists, and the secular students lived up to the advance billing: all their questions were about how to ground morality. After about the fifth or sixth such question Austin wondered why people expect the answers to such questions to be quick and easy and definite, when we don’t expect that about any other kinds of difficult questions. I suggested that one reason is the desire to be able to match the quick and definite way believers can explain how they ground their morality by saying ‘I know X is wrong because God said so/it’s in the Scripture.’ Austin pointed out that thoughtful believers realize that that doesn’t do them any good (for the Euthyphro reason, which he started with). Yes; how unfortunate it is that there are so many unthoughtful believers.

This is related to my questions about what Blair said at the cathedral. If religion isn’t strange convictions, then what is it? What does religion bring to efforts to end global poverty that secular institutions and ways of thinking can’t bring? What does religion add that nothing else can add, other than the strange convictions? I can’t see anything. I can see lots of common ground, but it’s common ground; it’s as open to secularists as it is to believers.

Liberal believers can ignore the nasty parts of the bible and keep only the good bits – but if they do that, they are doing it for reasons that are independent of the bible and of religion. They are using secular moral judgment to do that – but giving religion the credit. That’s the sneaky part, and it’s why liberal religion is not such a beneficent arrangement as people think. It gives religion more credit for human morality, and it gives human judgment less credit. This means it encourages people to think that morality depends on religion when it really doesn’t, and it encourages them to distrust human moral judgment. That just sets them up to be subject to the authority of clerics, which at best stunts their own ability to think about morality and at worst turns them into arbitrary bullies and meddlers.

After the talk I asked Austin if as CFI’s representative to the UN he’d had a chance to protest the Human Rights Council’s ‘no jokes about religion’ declaration. He said there was no channel for doing that, and that creating one is the top priority. Yeah.

Austin is at the Green Lake library tomorrow at 1, and a lot of places after that. Go if you have a chance.

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