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NYT columnist Stanley Fish asks "Are there secular reasons?"

NYT columnist Stanley Fish asks "Are there secular reasons?"

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From the New York Times. By Stanley Fish

In the always-ongoing debate about the role of religion in public life, the argument most often made on the liberal side (by which I mean the side of Classical Liberalism, not the side of left politics) is that policy decisions should be made on the basis of secular reasons, reasons that, because they do not reflect the commitments or agendas of any religion, morality or ideology, can be accepted as reasons by all citizens no matter what their individual beliefs and affiliations. So it’s O.K. to argue that a proposed piece of legislation will benefit the economy, or improve the nation’s health, or strengthen national security; but it’s not O.K. to argue that a proposed piece of legislation should be passed because it comports with a verse from the book of Genesis or corresponds to the will of God.

A somewhat less stringent version of the argument permits religious reasons to be voiced in contexts of public decision-making so long as they have a secular counterpart: thus, citing the prohibition against stealing in the Ten Commandments is all right because there is a secular version of the prohibition rooted in the law of property rights rather than in a biblical command. In a more severe version of the argument, on the other hand, you are not supposed even to have religious thoughts when reflecting on the wisdom or folly of a piece of policy. Not only should you act secularly when you enter the public sphere; you should also think secularly...

This picture is routinely challenged by those who contend that secular reasons and secular discourse in general don’t tell the whole story; they leave out too much of what we know to be important to human life.

No they don’t, is the reply; everything said to be left out can be accounted for by the vocabularies of science, empiricism and naturalism; secular reasons can do the whole job. And so the debate goes, as polemicists on both sides hurl accusations in an exchange that has become as predictable as it is over-heated.

But the debate takes another turn if one argues, as the professor of law Steven Smith does in his new book, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, that there are no secular reasons, at least not reasons of the kind that could justify a decision to take one course of action rather than another.

Read the full story at the New York Times.

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