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Book of the Week: The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse

Title: The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse
Author: Steven D. Smith
Publisher: Harvard University Press

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Quick Thoughts:
Those who bemoan (or tune out) that American tower of Babel known as ‘public discourse’ should certainly tune in to these reflections on why such conversations are either deplorably shallow, degraded or at best inconclusive. Smith dismisses the usual suspects (technology, education, religion in the public square) to focus on the pervasive ‘loss of faith in the capacity of reasoned discourse to provide cogent resolutions of controversial political and moral issues.’ In a pluralistic, post-Enlightenment society, we’ve quit trying to talk to one another ‘because no one expects that anything called ‘reason’ will . . . [lead] people to converge on a unified truth.’ Freed from classical assumptions of an intrinsically purposeful cosmos, we live inside the ‘iron cage’ of secular rationalism. While popular wisdom considers some notions ‘inadmissible’ or even, in the case of religion, ‘conversation-stoppers,’ Smith locates the problem in secularism itself. By diminishing our capacity to speak from deeply held beliefs, secularism forces us to resort to vague principles like freedom and equality, or to ‘smuggle in’ undisclosed premises and assumptions. Various chapters explore how these shortcomings hamper the resolution of assisted suicide, church and state, and other issues where law and politics intersect with morality and justice. Smith concludes by urging us to ‘open the cage,’ in the hopeful possibility that ‘however much we disagree with another person’s worldview, something in that view [may] connect with something in our own that results in constructive engagement.’ (Eighth Day Books)

What’s Being Said:
This book presses us to look harder at closely held beliefs and to question deeply rooted premises and commitments with which we are perhaps too comfortable.
–Richard W. Garnett, Notre Dame Law School

Smith’s book is insightful, provocative, and wonderfully engaging. The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse challenges conventional academic wisdom and provides a welcome opportunity for others to reexamine their own positions.
–Michael J. Perry, author of The Political Morality of Liberal Democracy

About the Author:
Steven D. Smith is Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego.

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