In his most recent Opinionator article at, Stanley Fish comments on the epistemological and ontological assumptions made in discussions of secular law and action:

Whether the argument [for the necessity of secular law, thought, and behavior in the public sphere] appears in its softer or harder versions, behind it is a form of intellectual/political apartheid known as the private/public distinction: matters that pertain to the spirit and to salvation are the province of religion and are to be settled by religious reasons; matters that pertain to the good order and prosperity of civil society are the province of democratically elected representatives and are to be settled by secular reasons.

Debates over the form and sufficiency of ‘the secular’ vis-à-vis ‘the religious’ have taken many forms, Fish notes, but Steven Smith’s book “The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse” adds a different twist.  In short, and most strongly, Smith argues that there are no ‘secular’ reasons, data, or categories capable of justifying meaningful action on their own, at least not without importing perspectives from the other side of the dualistic divide. Secular empirical data (“X’s and Y’s”) and concepts (“freedom and equality”) are themselves meaningless or empty; therefore humans, insofar as they must act upon them and invest them with meaning, do so by “smuggling” values from the counter-constructed worlds of metaphysics and religion. Fish concludes his review thus, with reference to his and others’ work:

Smith does not claim to be saying something wholly new. He cites David Hume’s declaration that by itself “reason is incompetent to answer any fundamental question,” and Alasdair MacIntyre’s description in “After Virtue” of modern secular discourse as consisting “of the now incoherent fragments of a kind of reasoning that made sense on older metaphysical assumptions.” …  (In “The Trouble With Principle” I myself argue that “there are no neutral principles, only principles that are already informed by the substantive content to which they are rhetorically opposed.”)

But no matter who delivers the lesson, its implication is clear. Insofar as modern liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the course of disinterested observation — secular reasons — and reasons that flow from a prior metaphysical commitment, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on.

See the full New York Times Opinionator article here.