Secularism, Science, and Attaining a Just Society

By Randall Margo, PhD
Board Director and Commentator, G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice

During my youth I heard many adult conversations lamenting the culture of my generation, as expressed in our music, art, language, work ethic, dress, and just plain civility. I always told myself that I would never be that person, criticizing contemporary youth and by extension modern times against some idolized version of my generation’s own past. After all, condemnation of existing society is ubiquitous throughout history, and perhaps more importantly, could reflect poorly upon older generations, which if not creating, at least acquiesce to current cultural mores. Moreover, it always seemed older adults shouldered some responsibility for raising these ostensibly narcissistic and discourteous youth.

Still, one needn’t condemn modern cultural shifts to be apprehensive over where these changes might lead. Significantly, western society’s ongoing conversion from its Judeo-Christian roots to secularism is at the forefront of ushering in a different societal paradigm that places man’s contemporary ethics as the centerpiece to obtaining a just society. This manifests itself in various ways, such as the issues of abortion and assisted suicide, where secularism clearly connotes man’s ultimate authority to decide when life begins and when it ends.  In conjunction with secularism, technology is turbocharging ethical challenges in ways
never fathomed by older generations. For instance, researchers from the Institute for Medicine and Genetics in Los Angeles recently discovered how to create babies without men “…through a form of asexual reproduction called parthenogenisis.” Dr. Michael Soules, president of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine in Florida commented: “If this works with human eggs, there could be tremendous opportunities for clinical applications. I think everyone is going to find this work to be very exciting.”i “But Dr. Jacqueline Laing, expert in medical ethics from London’s Guild Hall University noted: This is alarming. Just because scientists can do something, it does not mean that they should.”ii “This process does not respect human life, in seeking to procreate without the male or to use human eggs to turn them into some other part of the body for transplants.”iii

Opposite viewpoints on these issues suggests a more prominent dilemma: how does one establish a just society when historical traditions based on Judeo-Christian values come into conflict with modern secular beliefs. Biblical narratives whether from the old or new testament provide an ethical framework for individuals living a just life within boundaries that are meant to foster institutional goodwill. Secular criticism of the bible, beyond the questioning of God’s existence, frequently points to the apparent hypocrisy between what the bible encourages and how religious adherents actually behave. But, this critique seems to misconstrue both the bible and mankind. These biblical stories acknowledged that human beings were flawed and imperfect; that we did terrible things to one another and often sinned. Rather, these stories and their teachings provided us with a blueprint for how to live a benevolent life that would serve God, and therefore, a greater good. Secularism in its current form provides no foundation for living an ethical or moral life. That is not to say that secularists are immoral or unjust. But, without an underpinning for what constitutes justice, secularism can result in situational ethics, unmoored to any moral structure. Consequently, choices regarding such issues as abortion, assisted suicide or the creation of life are meant to address the here and now, with no context or acknowledgement of life thereafter. With respect to the purpose of God, secularism appears to reject the concept of any meaning of life beyond the present, and therefore, envisions a just society for mankind in simply practical terms.

This divergence in philosophy brings me back to my uneasiness over the direction of our culture and its path towards a more just society. In all likelihood, man’s trajectory of technological advancements will spawn more predicaments that test our morality and ultimately reveal what principles are sacred to us. Hence, a foundation of ethical standards seems imperative in order to navigate through those issues where technological progress confronts the basic precepts of humanity. If Judeo-Christian beliefs, which enabled western culture to formulate a legal and moral structure for society that stipulated the boundaries of technological application and by extension the values of our civilization are indeed waning, what will replace it? Secular standards driven in part by scientific advances might help ease man’s immediate afflictions, but perhaps at the cost of our humanity.

ii ibid
iii ibid

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice. We are a faith-based, nonpartisan organization that seeks to extend the conversation about justice with a posture of dignity and respect.