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09/20/2010

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Steve Smith

I thank Steve for his perceptive comments on my book. Naturally, I thought the first post (with its claims that the book is intelligent, a joy to read, etc.,) was especially perceptive, but in fact there’s not much in this second, more critical post that I disagree with either. More specifically . . . .

Steve is surely right that American public and political discourse is not thoroughly secularized. There are forces and influences, both legal and cultural, that try to make the discourse more secular, and there are domains (e.g., the academy) that are pretty thoroughly secular. But there are also religious voices, and they keep breaking in. I like Fred Gedicks’s description:
"It is as if public religious discourse were driven into the mountains by public secularism, which then decided that it was not worth the trouble to complete the messy task of total eradication. As a result, religious discourse now makes periodic, guerilla-like forays into the public domain of secular neutrality."

Steve is surely right as well that religious discourse (and of course there are lots of different kinds of religious discourse, just as there are different kinds of secular discourse) has its own challenges and problems. Two obvious ones are these: the problem of truth/believability, and what is sometimes called the Euthyphro problem. And there are plenty of others. I acknowledge this fact in the book, but the book isn’t about the problems of religious discourse. (Every once in a while I start a project attempting to address the problems of religious discourse but in the end desist, leaving those problems to theologians and philosophers of religion. Since I make my living by teaching and writing about constitutional law and theory, I can’t as easily do that with matters of secular discourse.)

My own view is that the most fruitful results often come from an interaction between kinds of discourse, or different worldviews. A little book by Charles Taylor called "A Catholic Modernity" argues that Christianity benefitted from its encounter with the Enlightenment. And I think that through much of American history, we have been blessed by a healthy interaction between religious and more secular perspectives. In recent decades this collaboration has suffered, I believe, in part because of the legal and cultural influences that have tried to keep religious perspectives out. As a result, even when religious voices enter the conversation, there tend to be more suspicion and incomprehension than real engagement. One hope I had in writing Disenchantment was to do a bit to overcome that divide.

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