Religion and the Secular Conscience

We often hear that some new scientific discovery has confirmed ancient religious teaching. It now appears that this hearkening back … Continued

We often hear that some new scientific discovery has confirmed ancient religious teaching. It now appears that this hearkening back has gone full circle, and modern religion is coming around to ancient secular wisdom.

At the recent “Seeds of Compassion” event in Seattle, the Dalai Lama spoke of three paths to compassion and moral development in children: the theistic path of the Abrahamic faiths, the non-theistic religious path of Buddhism, and the “secular, scientific” approach. Surrounded by brain researchers and empirical psychologists, he recommended this secular way as the most promising. For some time he has held that if any tenet of Buddhism contradicts contemporary science, science must trump.

Meanwhile, during his first papal visit to the United States, Benedict XVI stressed the coequal roles of reason and faith in the religious life, and urged Catholics to translate their contributions to public life into a “public theology” accessible to all. At the United Nations, he enjoined religious leaders to “propose a vision of faith not in terms of intolerance, discrimination and conflict, but in terms of complete respect for truth, coexistence, rights, and reconciliation.” In his first encyclical, Benedict wrote, “A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the church,” where politics is “the sphere of the autonomous use of reason.” He may not like the sound of this, but that sounds like secularism to me.

In 1864, Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors” took aim at modernity and reason itself. Today, the pontiff is taking a page from them. Forget the rhetorical revolt against the “dictatorship of relativism” (the ministry of forcing you to do what you felt like doing anyway?). Increasingly, orthodoxy is accommodating itself to modernity, rather than demanding accommodation.

You may or may not have heard that the Church recently released an upgrade to the Seven Deadly Sins. Appropriate to an age of globalization and biotechnology, the new list includes such supposed social vices as contributing to extreme poverty, accumulating obscene wealth, despoiling the environment, trafficking in or consuming hard drugs, and engaging in “morally debatable experiments” or “genetic manipulation” that violates the dignity of human nature.

The upgrade is welcome insofar as it marks a shift in moral preoccupation past concupiscence. What’s more, we all have been angry, proud, envious, greedy, lustful, gluttonous and slothful at least once in the last month, but next to none of us have dealt narcotics or modified a genome. So by doubling the number of sins, the Church may have inadvertently made most of us roughly 50 percent less sinful overnight.

The original Deadlies had a Dante to depict their consequences in lurid detail, inscribing them in the consciousness of every medieval European Christian from peasant to king. This time around, Rome had to put out a press release and hope that Reuters picked it up. USA Today ran the new list along with polling data on Americans’ own picks for sinful behaviors (not returning the excess change mistakenly handed out by a cashier turns out to be graver than gay sex). Then, sin had a poet; now, it needs a publicist.

Religious belief has become optional. No longer is it the inevitable, default state. This is the major theme of “A Secular Age,” the latest work by Charles Taylor, a renowned philosopher and believing Christian.

Its publication coincided with Taylor’s receipt of the 2007 Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities (worth about 1.5 million in material realities). Modern civilization has reached a point where “many people are happy living for goals which are purely immanent; they live in a way that takes no account of the transcendent.”

The realities of free societies in a globalized world make any given creed but one among many in a marketplace of belief. Unable to compel adherence to the One True Way, the many ways are compelled to compete for adherents. As the sociologist of religion Alan Wolfe observed recently, such encounters with modernity can have a profoundly moderating effect: “As religious leaders recognize that they are more likely to swell their ranks through persuasion than through coercion, they find themselves accepting such secular ideas as free will and individual autonomy.”

What believers are rediscovering is the central moral priority of individuals’ own uncoerced choices about what we have most reason to think and do. The future of religion, then, will depend on the oldest of secular traditions: the freedom of conscience.

Austin Dacey is a representative to the United Nations for the Center for Inquiry and the author of “The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life.”

Written by

  • Mohamed MALLECK,Swift Current, Canada

    The general tenor of the propositions put forth in this piece is excellent. It is very much in line not only with what Professor Charles Taylor advocates, but also with what the other recipients of the Templeton Prize advocate, with what the late and sorely-missed Carl Sagan advocated (in particlualr in the relatively-recently-published collection ‘Varieties of Scientific Experience’), as well as with what Fethullah Gulen (who was voted the 2008 topmost world intellectual in a survey conducted by Foreign Policy Magazine) advocates and is contributing so mcuh to build up and advance.NONETHELESS….Nonetheless, this is all a work-in-progress. The conclusion that ” What believers are rediscovering is the central moral priority of individuals’ own uncoerced choices about what we have most reason to think and do” can be gravely misleading. Supporters of Ron Paul would have you beleieve that, just like, in the formative years of the American Republic, many wanted their contemporaries to read in the writings of David Henry Thoreau an endorsement of anarchism-laced libertarianism. Many profound thinkers (see, for example, Werner Heisenberg’s Essay on Science and Religion at Economists who study the logical implications of the process of the aggregation of individual values into a social choice function that would exhibit the most elementary desirable properties of such a social welfare function are pefectly aware that the process quickly runs into impossibilities (the most well-known being the Arrow Impossibility Theorem). Neuroscientists are aware that ‘reality’ and ‘meaning’ is as much a mental process that requires cross-checking with the perceptions of others to emerge, as the ‘physical reality’ not only of the daily objects that account for our materail welfare but also of the sub-atomic ‘matter and forces’ so dear to the physicist’s heart.In sum, the ‘holy grail’-type of search for a morality that reconciles the needs of the body and of the spirit (however defined to satisfy some sense of scientific rigour) with a modern intellect that is so dazzled by the progress of science and technology that I fear it may be drawn to it as fatally as the moth is drawn to the flame, is to be encouraged, but is not an adventure to be embarked upon by everyone. We will, in the coming decades, need ‘spiritual guides’ more than ever before. But, these guides will need to be far, far better educated in science than their predecessors had been.

  • E Favorite

    Austin – Well. by the sound of it, two of the world’s most renowned “spiritual” leaders are going secular – Great. I hope you’re right and I hope they’d agree with your characterization of themSteven – agree about the use of transcendent/spiritual. I’ve heard the term “transcendent being” used to mean supernatural being – which I’d agree with. It’s hard for me to imagine a transcendent being who is not an invisible God. Meanwhile, the idea of transcendence is not limited to that which is invisible or that which requires faith in an ancient religious story. It’s that which we do not yet understand and that which feels different (and better) compared to our everyday experiences. “Numinous” is another good word non-believers should not let believers co-opt. Wikipedia calls a numinous experience “the intense feeling of unknowingly knowing that there is something which cannot be seen.” The atheist experiencing this can accept it as something they don’t understand, while the believer is apt to explain it as God.

  • research

    Vatican released no such list of “upgraded sins.” Do your research – that was debunked the same day it was reported.

  • Enemy Of The State

    So it sounds like two major religious leaders have figured out that the path to god may take a more circuitous route than some in their respective flocks would like to acknowledge.Religious tolerance is a novel – and to some – a dangerou idea these days. I really hope it catches on. Just in case it doesn’t, I’ll continue to sleep with my friends Smith & Wesson.

  • BGone

    It’s all the same thing. All has been known for many moons. Let’s look at a little science and see how it leads us to God.The average temperature on earth is determined by sun spots. Yes, sun spots and not the burning of carbon based fuels. How sun spots work is extremely simple. No heat or light come out of sun spots and some that comes from elsewhere seems to be drawn back into them. Think of a bug on the lens of a flashlight blocking the beam and reducing it’s overall intensity. That’s how sun spots control the temp here.Sun spots appeared around 1450 and lasted until 1950 slowly closing, (they’re like holes). During that period earth experienced a small ice age with Greenland being one of the first and well documented victim becoming uninhabitable. People were living, farming etc in colony on Greenland and effectively went extinct. Since 1950 earth has been warming up. Ice has been melting and soon Greenland will be inhabitable again. Isn’t that nice.One other thing. Heat energy on earth has no place to go so to speak. It radiates into space and of course it sinks into the surface heating the crust. When most things heat they expand. Heating the crust of the earth causes expansion the cause earthquakes, volcanoes and other things as well.Ancient folk named the sun God. They were surely onto something. Hoax buster uses ancient documents to prove Judaism, leading to Christianity and in turn Muhammadism all spring from a woman who claimed to have been fathered by the sun. Thus we can say the sun IS God as faithed by all except Buddhist. Nice to see them coming on board.We know God is in control. We know the sun is in control. No scientist worth his salt will deny either one. Therefore all don’t just believe but absolutely know as has been absolutely known throughout recorded history that the sun is God.Keep the faith I always say.

  • Paganplace

    Your facts are wrong, Bgone. For one, sunspots occur in eleven year cycles, easily chartable, and solar intensity *increases* when they’re around. Yes, C02 and other gases do in fact trap heat in the atmosphere. Even if you want to place the blame for things on ‘solar intensity,’ (not borne out by peer reviewed science) …this doesn’t suddenly make it a good idea to trap *more* heat in the atmosphere with irresponsible use of finite fuels. Actually, if people were thinking, any increase in solar radiation would make it *far more urgent* that we do something about greenhouse gases and the like, not a reason to put our heads in the sand.

  • Paganplace

    I mean, doesn’t *that* make sense, Bgone?We know what greenhouse gases do…If it’s getting hot in your house, you don’t say, ‘It’s not my fault, it’s summer,’ and throw another log on the fire.

  • vales

    I suggest that Austin read Philip Rieff in addition to Taylor.The disappearance of the “Covenant” peoples – esp. the Church – is not something that is to be encouraged. Individual conscience and decisions are fine and dandy; however, taken to an extreme, this form of relativism leads to moral decay, dislocation and barbarism on a wide scale.Then again, what more can we expect from a UN scholar…

  • BGone

    Paganplace:The subject is getting secular and religious types together, ecumenical like.What is it you have cockeyed besides sun spots and their affect on weather? Were there Europeans living on Greenland at one time? Did they farm? Is there any farming on Greenland now? Is global warming greater or lesser now than it was then?The earth is cooler today than it was 600 years ago. We need to burn more fossil fuels to warm the earth. God is smiling on earth with a glowing warm smile. But God needs help. Burn more coal.Great economic upheaval is always cause by religion. It’s easy to blame the evangelicals for today’s nerve racking conditions. All they want is their 10 commandments in the court room, so they say. The ecologicals have their commandments already there. They have just one. No one will do anything without their permission and they’re not giving permission for anything, (what evangelicals want too).Great economic upheaval is always accompanied with a change in religion. Who’s going to change the evangelicals or the ecologicals? Both? I’m betting they’re going to fight.Obama says, “tell Bubba he’s heating the earth with his pickup truck. And tell him to take the bus to church.” McCain says, “drill, drill, drill.” Who’s going to change the sad state of economic affairs? No change in religion is change that can only be believed in for it changes nothing. The religion that must change for our very survival is Ecologism. Do you really want to be on their side and take the bus to church?Do you have any laboratory on that greenhouse gas stuff or is it the results of a mind experiment? Every molecule of methane, (natural gas) that is burned reduces it’s greenhouse affect by a factor of 25. We got the laboratory on it. Burn more gas and save the earth!!!

  • Thomas Baum

    AUSTIN DACEYYou wrote, ” “As religious leaders recognize that they are more likely to swell their ranks through persuasion than through coercion, they find themselves accepting such secular ideas as free will and individual autonomy.”First off, if any religious leader’s, of any religious affiliation, goal or purpose is to swell their ranks then I feel sorry for them.Granted, thru the ages many religious affiliations have used coercion and in probably most, at least some members have used coercion.Jesus did not teach coercion even if some who say that they are His followers do try to use coercion.Actually, Jesus said to His followers to “Proclaim the Good News” and if people did not want to hear it, “to shake the dust off of their sandals and leave” not to try and cram it down their throats.By the way, the “Good News”, is for ALL OF HUMANITY that is why so many, whether they call themselves believers or non-believers, get so upset about it.As far as “free will” and “individual autonomy” being secular ideas, this I don’t know, but that is exactly what I have been saying and plenty of people, no matter what “label” they apply to themselves don’t seem to want to hear it.As in: God is a searcher of hearts and minds, not of religious afffiliations or lack thereof, It is important what you do and why you do it and what you know, We have free will and we are responsible for what we do whether we take personal responsiblity or not, to mention a few.As far as someone claiming to be a “christian” and saying that it doesn’t matter what they do, well knowing God’s Name does not make one a “christian”.”Free will” and “individual autonomy” are very much taught by the Catholic Church whether anyone has ears to hear or not but also what is taught is to Love thy neighbor and also to Love your enemies, that is what Jesus taught.Some times people get so caught up in religion and/or spirituality that they lose sight of God or Love which happens to be ONE AND THE SAME.I suppose people can get caught up in secularism also and lose sight of the fact that other people are people also.”Individual autonomy” without caring for the “other” can lead to, well a glance at history can give you some ideas of where it can lead you.I guess one way of looking at it is: How do we think of the “other”?Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • Paganplace

    You’ve still got it backwards, Bgone. For starters, Greenland is *losing* its ice pack at a precipitous rate, and the North Pole is expected to be ice-free this summer, when it’s been frozen *since* the Ice Age. (the big one.)Burning methane (if it comes from fossil fuel deposits) doesn’t take greenhouse gas *out of the atmosphere,* it takes it *out of the ground* and turns it into *CO2,* which is *still more than there was before,* Bgone.

  • Mr Mark

    Dear BGone -You are missing the point of global warming, which is real and cannot be denied.The fact is that the Earth has been much hotter than it is now. It has also been much colder than it is now. Global warming and cooling have and do happen.There have been billions of species on this earth. 99% of them have gone extinct.The question we all need to be asking about the current global warming is singular: how will it effect the life that is currently occupying the planet? For much of life, the answer is, not very much. For certain life forms, the answer is, very, very much.Man happens to be one of those life forms in the latter category.When one considers the impact of global warming, one is not considering it in regards to the life of the planet, but to the life forms upon the planet. The earth has survived much, and it will survive this current warming. It will even survive man’s deleterious effects on it. We, like all other species, are only visitors on this planet.In short, the question is not to deny global warming, which is happening. The answer is not to propose that just because the earth has gone through many climate changes that such a fact somehow offers proof that man can survive these changes. We probably can’t. Neither is the solution to affix blame to one element or another for causing the change. In the long run, the agent of change is immaterial. The survival of A specific species is of the utmost importance (at least to that species, it is), and as we are the one species on the planet that thinks about such things and has the power to effect the same, well, you get my point.Climate change viewed in a vacuum is easy. Considering climate change’s real-world impact is something else.

  • Mr Mark

    Is it just me, or does Vales comment have nothing to do with what I posted?

  • wiccan

    It’s not just you, Mr. Mark. I can’t see any Malthusian reasoning in your post. Maybe Vales is thinking along Reasonable Not Hateful’s lines of conditions are just so because we are here, instead of we are here because conditions are just so.

  • Paganplace

    ” Mr Mark:Is it just me, or does Vales comment have nothing to do with what I posted?”Nothing to do with *reality,* while we’re at it. What he think is supposed to become of *capitalism* when the *capital* people think they’re protecting is worth toodles, I dunno.

  • Steven

    Vales:”Individual conscience and decisions are fine and dandy; however, taken to an extreme, this form of relativism leads to moral decay, dislocation and barbarism on a wide scale.Then again, what more can we expect from a UN scholar…”..could I hazard a guess you won’t be voting for Obama?

  • vales

    Won’t be voting for McCain, either…

  • BGone

    Mr Mark:Do you understand that this, what you said is pure speculation?>>The question we all need to be asking about the current global warming is singular: how will it effect the life that is currently occupying the planet? For much of life, the answer is, not very much. For certain life forms, the answer is, very, very much.Man happens to be one of those life forms in the latter category.Global warming is a blessing. That’s just so much speculation but it’s no more or less than global warming is a pending disaster.The greatest disaster possible is an ice age. That is punctuated by ecologist demanding we don’t burn anything to warm ourselves. Thank God for warm winters. Don’t thank God, blame Bubba and his pickup truck? Tell Bubba to take the bus to church and pray for Santa Claus to bring him an electric car. Bubba is pretty dumb but he knows better than that. If your hype candidate wants Bubba’s vote he had better change his position on drilling. Obama won’t win California, the commuter state to end all commuter states, with the price of gas and pie, (Manhattan project) in the sky for the solution. Ecologism is a mindless ‘blind faith’ religion just like Judaism, Christianity, Mohammadism, Paganism, or any other. As all religion seeks to take over any government within reach Ecologism presently enjoys the position of controlling the US government in a way the evangelicals only dream of. Obama is stuck with both of them. The Gop dumped the evangelicals and never let the ecologist in.With earth’s population exploding, (evangelicals demanding it) global warming frees here to fore barren wasteland for human habitation. Endangered species of flies, rats and owls must go extinct so man can live. Delicate Alaskan eco system is a bunch of crap. The whole earth is one of them eco systems. If mankind is lucky the ice can be held back by people, once the ice is gotten rid of. Soon we’ll be figuring ways to stop the several hundred million folks living in Antarctica from loosing their homes to snow that doesn’t melt. Global warming is not a curse. It’s a blessing.

  • Mr Mark

    BGone writes:”Global warming is a blessing. That’s just so much speculation but it’s no more or less than global warming is a pending disaster.The greatest disaster possible is an ice age. That is punctuated by ecologist demanding we don’t burn anything to warm ourselves. Thank God for warm winters.”Global warming will actually cause colder winters in much of the northern latitudes.I leave it to you to educate yourself to find out how that happens.

  • mo

    realism vs delusionism.no mankind ever decided his/her birth nor will they decide their death,in other word ,there is upper will above every mankind ,mankind can see that every day you may decide to go tommoro to florida but you end up landing in ohio you may eat and stay healthy but you may drop dead any time any where without why or excuse.every aspect and attribute of mankind was put in mankind even befor he/she drop from their mother ,remember every mankind came to this life with 2eyes 2ears 2legs conscieus was also put in mankind .with all due respect to the freedom of conscieus ,mankind is not on his/her own, if you can live for ever ,if you can provide your own air that you breath and the water that you drink then by all means you on your own you your own creator and the lord of your kind ,but the ground reality of life is not like this ,if i work for fed x for example and then tell the comany that i,m on my own i,ll sell bannanas at the company instead and the comany is to pay my salary at the end of the week??wd this make any sense?freedom of conscius was given and put in mankind since day one ,every mankind can go and make an honest living and every mankind can as well go and sell drugs or steal or kill .what and where is the scale then ,the scale was also giving to mankind long long long long time ago thru divine revelation ,the creator wd not creat mankind and leave them to their freedom of conscieus it will be a diastor as you see it so far.heros and pionners of freedom of conscieus realy need to study the reality of (at least)this life.

  • Jeff

    Believers are re-discovering the central moral priority of uncoerced choices in religion? Where? Only in certain parts of the west. In many parts of the U.S., and of the world, the trend is toward fundamentalism and intolerance.

  • Jeff

    Vale: “Individual conscience and decisions are fine and dandy; however, taken to an extreme, this form of relativism leads to moral decay, dislocation and barbarism on a wide scale.”I could not disagree more. Individual conscience and decisions are NOT relativism. You are repeating the same lie we’ve heard and seen a million times before. That I choose to make up my mind about what is moral and what is immoral does not make me a moral relativist– quite the opposite, as I force myself to take responsibility for my decisions- not to ascribe responsibility to a god or gods. The assertion that individual conscience and decisions lead to “moral decay” and barbarism is not borne out by history. Look who’s insigated the majority of the killing recently – it hasn’t been athiests or humanists!

  • TJ

    It isn’t surprising to see a man on the ground dying from lack of water make all kinds of concessions in order to get a glass to drink. I’m surprised they aren’t offering free gas cards for church attendance yet.

  • dcp

    Yes, both religious leaders are going secular. But religion will never die. There is a human need to worship and interpret reality. Humans are accutely aware of the fact that they are helpless and small. Our lives seemed to be controlled by factors outside of our control from the very beginning. Some people worship the Spirit. Some people explain reality through science. Thus science becomes for some people a religion unto itself. It is their psychic need being fulfilled to connect to the forces greater than themselves. Either way, religion will never die. Otherwise, the human race goes with it.

  • BGone

    Mr Mark:Global warming causes colder winters? How can anyone argue with that. Got any facts to show that’s so? Global warming causes warmer winters, no winter at all. That’s what the ecological scientist warn us will happen, is happening.I see you’re the standard religious type honoring the ecological, “you had better believe it or else hell” dogmas. And your faith shows up just like the evangelicals. Both want the strangle hold on America but only the ecologist have it.Flexing ecological muscle recently a project to build a solar-panel driven electric power facility on public lands was blocked on the grounds it might upset the delicate natural ecological balance. The public lands must belong to the ecologist. Just like other religions Ecologism owns tax exempt real estate.Technically, only religion actually owns real estate with all others paying rent to the government called real property taxes. Ecologist have made monkeys out of evangelicals on that front, owning real estate by getting their real property free, paying no taxes on it and having it tended to at public expense.It’s estimated to be over 200 million gas powered vehicles on the road. Ecologist want them to get off the road and so far ecologist have gotten everything they want. Will they get their wish? With every disaster there was a change in religion. Is the pending disaster the end of Ecologism or it’s confirmation?Rome fell after less than 100 years of religious control of the government. Ecologist have had control of the US government for about 40 years. We have less than 60 years to go before the government falls applying history to the situation. Ecologism would appear to be the deadliest of the faiths. Like all faiths it comes with learned men who know all, hear all and see all through the magic mirror.

  • Mr Mark

    BGone writes:”Mr Mark:Global warming causes colder winters? How can anyone argue with that. Got any facts to show that’s so?”Well, you’re too lazy to do your own research, so I’ll ‘splain it to you:The arctic ice cap melts. The melted water – which is freshwater – makes its way south, where its lower salinity impacts the northern arc of the Gulf Stream. The fresh water dilutes the upper layer of salt water which then fails to sink below the warmer waters, upsetting the engine that drives the GS. Land masses in the northern latitudes that depend on the warm GS to keep their temperatures moderate see a drop in their average temperature. The result is longer and colder winters in those areas.Scientists have hard evidence to show that this scenario actually happened 8,200 years ago.See here: BTW – these scenarios are included in the predictive models that GW scientists have been using for a while. I’m surprised you didn’t know about them.Hope that helps.