The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life

Austin Dacey

On the streets of London, the placards scream, “FREE SPEECH, GO TO HELL,” an unintentional masterpiece of British irony. In Beirut, twenty thousand mass at the Danish embassy with signs reading , “Damn your beliefs and your liberty.” In Damascus, the embassy is burned. In Pakistan, the national parliament unanimously passes a resolution of condemnation, and President Pervez Musharraf comments, “I have been hurt, grieved, and I am angry.” In the Palestinian Territories, the Hamas party, fresh from its victory in parliamentary elections, organizes a rally of fifty thousand people. Danish goods are burnt, and the crowd chants: “Let the hands that drew be severed!” In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proposes a Holocaust cartoon contest, while pastry shops rename Danish pastries “Roses of the Prophet Muhammad.”

Several months earlier, the small Danish newspaper Jyllands–Posten had published twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in hopes of raising questions about the limits of free expression in Denmark. As the editor Carsten Juste later told Der Spiegel, “We wanted to show how deeply entrenched self-censorship has already become.” After the images were distributed around the world (along with some pornographic additions by a group of Danish imams intent on fomenting a reaction), Jyllands–Posten gets its answer.

The experiment succeeds beyond all expectations, not for its violent outcome but in demonstrating the refusal on all sides to engage in critical debate about Islam. The Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, apologizes on behalf of the nation on Arabic satellite television; British foreign secretary Jack Straw calls the publications “insensitive,” “disrespectful,” and “wrong.” The U.S. State Department issues a statement saying, “Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief.” Some newspapers in Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands reprint selected images as a defense of free expression, and Die Welt asserts a “right to blaspheme” as crucial to the European cultural heritage. Yet astonishingly, British and America media refuse to exercise this right. CNN, NBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and all but a handful of major daily newspapers in the United States somehow see fit to run stories on the controversy without running what the controversy is about—the cartoons themselves. The managing editor of the Chicago Tribune expresses his magical belief that “we can communicate to our readers what this is about without running it.” When the secular humanist journal Free Inquiry becomes the first American magazine of note to reprint the images, leading book-sellers refuse to carry the issue. In effect, Western governments and media concur with the chilling comment from the Vatican: “Freedom of thought or expression . . . cannot imply a right to offend the religious sentiments of believers.”

Freedom of thought means nothing unless it implies the right to blaspheme, for blasphemy is a victimless crime. Why are so many Western liberals unwilling to say so? How is it that they are unable to distinguish between religious traditions that should be revered or tolerated and those—like capital punishment for apostasy and blasphemy—that must be denounced and reformed? Faced with the greatest threat to its core values since Stalin, the open society had turned the other cheek.

On his way to becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger argued that the West has lost its way and is suffering from dangerous moral disorientation. What, in the pope’s view, has precipitated this civilizational crisis? Secularism: “Secularism and de-Christianization continue to advance. The influence of Catholic ethics and morals is in constant decline. Many people abandon the Church or, if they remain, they accept only a part of Catholic teaching. . . . Many of the ideas put forward by modern society have led nowhere, and many young people have ended up mired in alcohol and drugs or in the clutches of extremist groups.”

The secularism of the West has loosed civilization from its moral moorings, leaving us adrift in a universe without absolutes where nothing really matters except self-gratification. Now we are caught between secular amorality and fundamentalism; only a return to the Christian vision of the good society can deliver us.

Some of Europe’s leading intellectuals agree. Jürgen Habermas, the reigning philosophical champion of the European establishment, has conceded that “Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy. . . .” Marcello Pera, an atheist philosopher and former president of the Italian Senate, agreed with then-cardinal Ratzinger in a coauthored book that only a return to Christian tradition could save Western civilization from the twin perils of multiculturalist relativism and ascendant Islamic illiberalism.

Secular liberals may recoil from Dr. Ratzinger’s prescription but find it hard to shake the lingering feeling that there is something to his diagnosis. Something disquieting has been happening to the Western mind over the last half century. One philosophy professor reports that while none of his students are Holocaust deniers, a disturbingly rising number are worse: “They acknowledge the fact, even deplore it, but cannot bring themselves to condemn it morally. ‘Of course I dislike the Nazis,’ one student comments, ‘but who is to say they are morally wrong.’ They make similar observations about apartheid, slavery, and ethnic cleansing.” For these young people, to pass judgment, “they fear, is to be moral ‘absolutist,’ and having been taught that there are no absolutes, they now see any [judgment] as arbitrary, intolerant, and authoritarian.” Cultural critics trace creeping moral relativism to the permissive, antiauthoritarian ideology of the 1960s. Observers across the political spectrum agree that the relativistic shift has been correlated with lamentable social trends, for example, a dramatic rise in crime and social dysfunction in the United States and the United Kingdom in the decades following the 1960s. But the ideology of the ’60s can be seen as an outgrowth of the more fundamental liberal notions of autonomy, freedom of choice, and freedom of conscience. Britain’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, describes the liberal aversion to all “external authority over the one sovereign territory that is truly our own: our choices.” The liberal ideal, on this view, is an “autonomous being, a person who accepts no other authority than the self. By the 1960s this was beginning to gain hold as an educational orthodoxy. The task of education is not to hand on tradition but to enhance the consciousness of choice.”

In the United States, secular and liberal have become dirty words. The irreligiousness of the Democrats, claim the pundits, cost them the 2004 presidential election. Secular government based on reason and fact, say many elected officials, is no longer adequate to provide for citizens; we need “faith–based” services. Best sellers allege that liberalism is a dogmatic faith, a critique popularized by evangelical leaders in the 1980s who began arguing that secular humanism is the state-sponsored religion of America’s public schools (its tenets include atheism, Darwinism, sex education, and global socialism).

When a rare few secularists push back against religious belief in print, they are branded—often by fellow seculars and liberal religionists—as “dogmatic,” “evangelical,” “militant,” and “fundamentalist” atheists. Their scandalous premise is that religion is an urgent topic of conversation and therefore subject to the intellectual and moral standards of all serious conversation. There are dogmatists of every stripe, but God knows what an atheist fundamentalist would look like. If the mantra of religious fundamentalism is “I’m right, you’re wrong, go to hell,” the atheist credo seems to be “I’m right, you’re wrong, let’s talk about it some more.”

Secular liberalism is not a religion. It is an intellectual and political movement that puts the freedom of the individual first, before God or government. Here a secularist is not necessarily an atheist but someone who seeks sources of meaning, morality, and community outside of organized religion. A liberal is not the opposite of a conservative but anyone who asserts the priority of individual liberty. Secular liberalism cannot be confined to a character in the Punch-and-Judy show of contemporary American two-party politics. It has a proud and rich tradition stretching back to the founding of the country, to the European Enlightenment, and far beyond. Yet most secular liberals today seem to be incapable of standing up for their values in public debate.

In the summer of 2003, the Vatican finally speaks out against violence against children. It is not referring to the Church’s child sexual-abuse scandal then raging but instead to gay adoption. In a document titled Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asserts, “Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimization of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil.” Permitting children to be adopted by gay couples, the congregation continues, “would actually mean doing violence to these children, in the sense that their condition of dependency would be used to place them in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development.” The language got the attention of liberals around the world. But precious few could bring themselves to publicly disagree with Rome’s claim that same-sex coupling is “evil.” Most objected along the same lines as editors of The Boston Globe, who opined, “The greatness of America is its pluralism, and neither president nor pope can impose his religious beliefs on the public realm.” Apparently, there is no mistake in thinking that same-sex couples who adopt are perpetrating violence against children; the mistake lies in mentioning it in public. As the influential American philosopher Richard Rorty put it, “Religion is unobjectionable as long as it is privatized.”

Everywhere secular values are under assault, and almost nowhere are they being defended. On questions of religion, ethics, and values, secular liberals are strangely silent. At the moment their perspective is most needed, they have lost their moral identity, self-confidence, and voice in public affairs.

Where did secular liberalism go wrong? It has been undone by its own ideas. The first idea is that matters of conscience—religion, ethics, and values—are private matters. The privatizing of conscience started with two important principles: religion should be separated from the state and people should not be forced to believe one way or the other. But it went further to say that belief has no place in the public sphere. Conscience belongs in homes and houses of worship, not in the marketplace. By making conscience private, secular liberals had hoped to prevent believers from introducing sectarian beliefs into politics. But of course they couldn’t, since freedom of belief means believers are free to speak their minds in public.

Instead, secularism imposed a gag order on itself. Because “private” is equated with “personal” and “subjective,” questions of conscience were placed out of bounds of serious critical evaluation. Subjective phenomena—like the thrill of skydiving or the taste for spicy food—are determined by the attitudes and thoughts of the subject experiencing them. How can I evaluate your experiences? It seems I must simply accept them for what they are. If conscience is beyond criticism, however, liberals cannot subject religion to due public scrutiny when it encroaches on society. The result: in public discourse it is acceptable to say that addicts should give up heroin for Jesus but not to ask obvious policy questions such as whether faith-based social programs are actually proven more effective than secular alternatives (it turns out there’s no good empirical evidence that they are). Worse still, since secularists want belief to be left at home and not “imposed” on others, they are unable unabashedly to defend their own positive moral vision in politics. No wonder they are accused of having lost their moral moorings.

Call this liberal confusion the “Privacy Fallacy.” The Privacy Fallacy consists in assuming that because matters of conscience are private in the sense of nongovernmental, they are private in the sense of personal preference. A related confusion comes from the idea of freedom of conscience. This confusion begins in the core liberal principle that conscience must be left free from coercion. The mistake lies in thinking that because conscience is free from coercion, it must be free from criticism, reason, truth, or independent, objective standards of right and wrong. The indispensable principle of freedom of belief has mutated into an unthinking assumption that matters of belief are immune to critical public inquiry and shared evaluative norms. This is the “Liberty Fallacy.”

Fortunately, there is another way to conceive of secular liberalism, and it comes from understanding what can be called the “openness of conscience.” The basic idea of the open conscience (“open” as in the “open society”) can be illustrated by the example of the press. In a free society, the press is to be protected from autocratic control by the state and other power-wielding institutions. We want wherever possible to allow it to pursue its own course autonomously. But we don’t say that therefore it is “private.” The press is protected, left free and open, not so that it may be private but so that it may perform a vital function in the public sphere. In the same way, conscience is protected in order that it may pursue—in dialogue with others—its vital questions of meaning, identity, value, and truth.

The press may say what it wants, but we don’t say that, therefore, it is subjective or arbitrary. The press is free, but not a free-for-all. It is liberated so that it may be constrained, freed to abide by the standards that define its distinctive nature. These are the standards of journalistic objectivity, transparency, truth, and service to the public interest. In the same way, conscience is free so that it may respond only to the standards that define its nature, the standards of reason, impartiality, and concern for others. Conscience is open to the public. The press and conscience are open in another way, in that their answers are open-ended. They perform their unique roles by working through, and sometimes revising, their questions and conclusions over time and under conditions of liberty. The press is free so that it can be free to follow, free to follow the story where the story goes. Conscience is free to follow the argument wherever it leads.

According to this alternative understanding of secular liberalism, then, conscience is open in the sense of being socially protected from coercive power, open to public evaluation and discussion on the basis of shared standards, and open to future development, change, and revision. In other words, it is characterized by liberty, objectivity, and revisability. Secularism does not privatize conscience. It keeps conscience open; it protects conscience from autocratic control so that it may freely pursue its public, open-ended inquiry.

The Privacy Fallacy and Liberty Fallacy are not historically inevitable. In fact, they are relative newcomers in the West’s intellectual and political life. In some forms, these confusions have only been with us since the latter half of the twentieth century. The secular liberal tradition did not always understand itself this way. The great promise of America, and of Western liberalism itself, was the promise of a moral foundation for society that could transcend religious differences. That moral foundation, which seventeenth- and eighteenth-century liberal thinkers described in terms of natural rights evident to a universal moral sense, would support a new kind of government, a secular civil order secured against sectarian persecution and war. The public values of this civil order would be those enunciated in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution: justice, tranquility, common defense, general welfare, and liberty.

For the architects of the secular liberal tradition, like Baruch Spinoza, Adam Smith, John Locke, James Madison, and John Stuart Mill, the aim was not to ignore the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life. Less still did they want to deny all dimensions but the economic, reducing all value to market value and all interests to self-interest. Rather, the point was to move matters of belief from the governmental arena of law and coercion into the arena of conscience and conversation. The West has achieved their dream of an open society but forsaken the public ethics that it needs to defend itself and endure. Justice, welfare, and liberty have become husks of words whose moral substance has decayed away. The sphere of conscience has collapsed into the private sphere. Secularism has lost its soul.

Secularism is not dead. Those of us who identify with the secular liberal tradition can reclaim the language of ethics and values. We can relearn to speak with the voice of conscience and make it our own. This means rejecting the Privacy Fallacy. It does not mean commingling conscience with government, making it a subject for coercive law or decision by majority vote. Between the private sphere—of personal property, preferences, and relationships—and the civil sphere—of state power and institutions—there is a public sphere. This is the social space in which citizens carry on debate about their shared life in newspaper editorials, letters to the editor, blogs, houses of worship, local government forums, office break-rooms; it is the argumentarium, the agora, the marketplace where we weigh and exchange each other’s reasons for what we think and do. The public sphere is the proper domain of conscience.

Secular liberals must lift the gag order on ethics, values, and religion in public debate. We can no longer insist on precluding controversial moral and religious claims from public conversation. Let believers and unbelievers speak their minds and let honest debate ensue. This is not to say anything goes in public discourse. Claims of conscience in politics should be held to the same standards as other serious public proposals: honesty, consistency, rationality, evidential support, feasibility, legality, morality, and revisability.

This means understanding and avoiding the Liberty Fallacy. Susceptibility to public criticism is the price of admission to public debate. Religious conscience does not get in free. Many secular liberals have convinced themselves that freedom of belief entails respect for all religions, and that respect means refraining from criticism. But that is not respect; it’s just blanket acceptance, even disregard. Understood correctly, respect is not just compatible with criticism—respect entails criticism. To respect someone we must take him or her seriously, and taking someone seriously sometimes means finding fault with him.

Finally, secular liberals must rediscover and defend the ideal of the secular moral conscience against the old shibboleth that secularism equals amorality. Secularists are constantly accused of believing in nothing greater than themselves. However, if you look carefully at the connection between religion and morality, it turns out that the relationship is in fact exactly the other way around.

The story of Abraham and Isaac—foundational to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—is usually presented as a paradigm of religious faith in which ethical obligation flows from obedience to religious authority. And yet, Abraham is always free to obey or disobey. If his act of faith is to be genuine, it must flow from his own reflective judgment about what he has most reason to do. All normal people naturally have capacities of reason and empathy—the ability to feel and understand what it would be like to be in another person’s situation—and with these faculties we can form judgments about what makes most sense to believe or do, taking into consideration all the relevant interests and reasons. This is conscience.

The conventional view that genuine conscience requires religion has it precisely wrong: genuine religion requires conscience. If one’s practice of a religion is to be authentic, it must be based on one’s own honest assessment of what makes sense. The difference between believers and unbelievers, then, is not that the latter lack a conscience but rather that their conscience inclines them away from belief. That same conscience, however, can guide them in living ethically, without religious reference points. In this way, the secular conscience stands prior to and independent of all religions and points toward a shared vocabulary for public debate in a pluralistic society.

Secularists have the moral high ground, if they will only claim it, and in so doing break the religious monopoly on the language of ethics and values. After all, they’re the ones who don’t have to be told by anyone to love their neighbors. Secularists believe in moral rights and wrongs, and it is in these terms that they must stake their public claims about secular government, freedom of expression, human rights, the integrity of science, as well as culture war issues like stem cell research, gay marriage, or the right to die.

Secular liberalism is in disarray. Abroad, the confrontation with Islamic totalitarianism shakes the complacency of the open society. At home, liberals are soul-searching. The Secular Conscience attempts to show how they can reclaim the language of meaning, morality, and value in the culture wars at home and in the struggle for toleration abroad. They must remove the gag order on ethics, values, and religion in public debate; hold religious claims accountable to public criticism; rediscover the secular moral conscience; and advance a moral case for their values of personal autonomy, equality, toleration, self-criticism, and well-being.

By treating matters of conscience as open, secular liberals could engage in serious ethical debate and address religious intolerance without compromising the separation of religion from government. They could subject religion to due public scrutiny when it encroaches on politics. Just as important, they can advance their own positive moral vision in public affairs without fear of “imposing” their beliefs on others. By embracing the open, public role of conscience, secularists could rededicate themselves to the future of their tradition.

Conscience is what unites thinking persons and free peoples across ethnic, national, and creedal lines, and in its unfolding through public conversation, our moral lives are measured out. Conscience cannot be found in duty to God, for it is conscience that must judge where one’s duty lies, and so the faithful cannot hold a monopoly on morality. Before anyone is a member of the Body of Christ, the Umma, or the Chosen People, we are all members of the community of conscience, the people who must choose for themselves.

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey is an associate editor for Free Inquiry and a representative to the United Nations for the Center for Inquiry. He is the author of the book A Secular Conscience (Prometheus Books, 2007).


On the streets of London, the placards scream, “FREE SPEECH, GO TO HELL,” an unintentional masterpiece of British irony. In Beirut, twenty thousand mass at the Danish embassy with signs reading , “Damn your beliefs and your liberty.” In Damascus, the embassy is burned. In Pakistan, the national parliament unanimously passes a resolution of condemnation, …

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