Who’s Poisoning the Well of Our Political Discourse?
It’s Secularists, Not Believers, USD Professor Smith Says
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Many Americans believe that the conversation around political and social issues in this country has become cruder, meaner and less civil in recent years, and quite a few — especially in the circles University of San Diego (USD) law professor Steven D. Smith travels in, academe and law — blame that on the increasing reach and power of religious believers in civic life. But Smith says it’s secularists, not believers, who have done more to coarsen political debate in American life, and on February 22 at the San Diego Public Library downtown he brought his contrarian message to an unlikely audience: the San Diego Humanist Fellowship, whose members share a skepticism not only towards the existence of God but the role of religion in public life.
Smith began his presentation, distilled from a book he recently published called The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, by saying that all people “engage in moral reasoning” about political issues, particularly hot-button ones like abortion, same-sex marriage and the use of torture in the “war on terror.” “Through much of history,” he explained, “moral reasoning proceeded on the assumption that there was a built-in moral order in nature, and the task was to find out what it was and bring human life into conformance with it. Aristotle had the idea that things had a built-in telos [a Greek word generally defined as ‘end,’ ‘purpose’ or ‘goal’] that they’re supposed to realize.” Smith also cited what he called “the Jerusalem view,” the belief on which the Abrahamic (Judeo-Christian-Islamic) religious tradition is founded, that “we are created by God under certain moral values.”
The rise of science in the 17th and 18th centuries changed all that, Smith argued. Scientists rejected the classical Aristotelian view of telos and believed instead “that matter consists of physical particles that combine and recombine and sometimes end up looking something like us,” Smith said, paraphrasing author John Searle’s statement of that viewpoint. “This is the view [of nature and humanity], almost mandatory today,” Searle summed up Searle’s view, in a tone that made it clear he disagreed. “In our deepest reflections, we cannot take claims of God and the afterlife seriously. There isn’t any inherent morality; the more the universe is understood, the more it seems pointless. As Bertrand Russell said, man is the result of processes that have no intentional end.”
Citing philosopher Max Weber, who called the scientific/secular view “the disenchantment of the world,” Smith described its triumph, especially in the academy, as a dual-edged sword. “At one end, there’s complacency or even jubilation and liberation to approach human freedom and reason in a new way,” Smith said. “At the other end, there’s a reaction that sees [the scientific view] as nihilism. As Dostoyevsky’s Ivan said, ‘If there is no God, then everything is permitted.’ … The loss of faith signals the ruin of moral principles and, indeed, of all values. Some people think you can build a moral philosophy purely on secular things, but that’s an illusion.”
As an example of why that doesn’t work, he cited an attempt at it by a former law professor of his, Arthur Alan Leff (1935-1981), who in December 1979 published an article in the Duke Law Journal called “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law” which argued that the nonexistence of God meant that there were no hard-and-fast rules of moral conduct by which people must behave that could form the basis of a legal system. “There is no such thing as an unchallengeable evaluative system,” Leff wrote (italics his). “There is no way to prove one ethical or legal system superior to any other, unless at some point an evaluator is asserted to have the final, uncontrollable, unexaminable word.”
At the end of his article — which Smith quoted in his lecture — Leff wrote that, “if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel.” Leff wrote a series of moral prescriptions in which he implied he believed — “Napalming babies is bad. Starving the poor is wicked. Buying and selling each other is depraved. Those who stood up to and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin and Pol Pot — and General Custer, too — have earned salvation. Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned. There is in the world such a thing as evil” — and then finished his article, “All together now: Sez who? God help us.”
Whereas Leff — at least according to Smith’s reading of him — bought into the view that there is no God, no afterlife and no “unchallengeable evaluative system,” and therefore we’re on our own to create our own morality, Smith argued that it’s the closing of the doors of academe to religious arguments that has brought down the level of our political discourse. His idea is that “many of our normative positions” — including the ones Leff listed at the end of his article — “are based on a classical view of nature. But modern secular discourse tries, and to some extent succeeds, in ruling those considerations out of order.” Smith said that in law and academe, “the discipline is total,” and even in popular circles many people feel they can’t openly base their arguments on religious beliefs.
Instead, said Smith, they engage in what he called “smuggling” — a term that clearly made his audience uncomfortable. “I suggest we sneak in our deeper convictions without fully acknowledging them,” he explained. He argued that the “smuggling” of religious values into ostensibly secular debate centers around two basic value systems: “freedom/liberty” and “equality/reciprocity.” Citing author Peter Westen’s essay “The Empty Promise of Equality” (Harvard Law Review, 1982), Smith mentioned an example that shows how difficult using “equality” as a value to make social decisions can be: should a blind person be allowed to vote, and should a blind person be allowed to drive? His argument is that there’s no reason to argue that blind people are “equal” to sighted people to decide either question because there are “substantive criteria … we can apply … without invoking ‘equality.’”
“Some qualifications are needed to Westen’s thesis,” Smith admitted. “Most people understand the basic point about substantive criteria, but issues like same-sex marriage and religious freedom are argued in terms of ‘equality.’ If Westen is right, some major smuggling is going on.” Indeed, said Smith, “Much of our public discourse is about smuggling. I have chapters in my book about euthanasia, religious freedom and civil rights.” He also wrote a chapter called “Science, Humanity and Atrocity,” dealing with the ability of scientists in authoritarian regimes like Japan-occupied Manchuria, Nazi Germany and Pol Pot’s Cambodia to rationalize conducting brutal scientific experiments on human subjects, and said that the “professor I know” on whose work most of the chapter was based, Joseph Vining, was “trying to get out of the secular cage.”
Noting that his publisher, Harvard University Press, had asked him for a closing chapter explaining how he thinks people should argue and approach the issues he wrote about, Smith said he really didn’t want to do that, “What I write is clinical and diagnostic, not prescriptive,” he explained, — and he described the final chapter he did supply was “essentially a plea to be open.” Smith also criticized author John Rawls’ appeal for a “public reason” that left out religious values “as saying that we’re not going to get agreement about a comprehensive doctrine except through government coercion. ‘Public reason’ is an attempt to get along by agreeing we’re not going to bring these things up in public discourse.”
According to Smith, “consensus is not likely to happen” if we follow Rawls’ formula and require religious believers to “smuggle” their beliefs into ostensibly secular arguments. He cited philosopher Richard Rorty’s line that religion was “a conversation-stopper” — essentially a rebuke to those who say things like, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” — and Smith believes that, at least in the academic and legal circles in which he travels, it’s secularism that’s the “conversation-stopper” because as soon as anyone invokes an openly religious argument, the secularists rule it out of court and refuse to engage it.
“In this book, I’m not arguing one way or another that a secular world view cannot support morality, I’m saying that as we know it, it doesn’t,” Smith said. “What you could do is have a conversation where people’s deepest convictions won’t be sneered at, and that might bring people around to different views.”