A Space for Secular Ethics

Many of our most deeply held beliefs, the core principles that underlie our actions, are simply arational. The problem for a pluralistic society is incorporating diverse beliefs without oppressing any minorities; having a conversation that involves ethics on a deep level, without get caught up in a circular debate over definitions and principles. One field that focuses on these issues is religious ethics, and I recently had the pleasure of meeting Dr Charles Camosy, a professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University.

Camosy defines the fundamental of his field as follows:

Faith is the personal relationship with one's source of irreducible concern.
Religion is the pursuit of faith in a community.
Religious ethics is ethics in a religious community.

Camosy uses the word 'faith' in a somewhat nonstandard way, for him, faith and belief are not necessarily linked. Faiths can take many forms, from the usual religious traditions, to New Age mysticism, to more modern abstracts like Science, Money, Nation, Celebrity, etc. Everybody has some “source of irreducible concern”, whether it be a dogma, a question, or an ambition. There is no such thing as truly secular ethics, merely ethics which have been informed by non-deistic traditions.

I agree with Dr. Camosy definition of faith, and with much of his reasoning, but as a practical matter, his formulation does not provide guidance for what we should do when faiths conflict. Take as an example a community which is half Catholic and half Jewish (Dr Camosy is Catholic, and I'm Jewish, hence the choices.) These faiths have many similarities in the broadest sense of their rules and rituals, despite having deeply different sources of authority and tradition. This community, together, must make a simple decision: when are the stores going to close? Friday night for Shabbas, or Sunday morning for Mass.

It's one thing to say that what matters is that there is a holy day, and not when it is, but I doubt either side would be willing to compromise. Picking a holy day based on a vote might be democratic, but any decision will be against the will of half the population. Having both Friday and and Sunday off is a needless duplication of effort. Having every individual attend services when they want does nothing for those who are employed by a member of the other religion. What the law requires is more than allowing the validity of both holy days, it also requires that the right of another to their holy day be respected, even if it is not your own. This analogy is highly simplified, but it carries over to other areas where religion impacts public policy, such as prayer in schools or abortion.

In articulating this solution, we've created a space for ethics that is neither Catholic or Jewish, a third path that is secular ethics. But is secular ethics merely the commonalities between our mutually incommensurable faiths. No, the secular sphere has a single over-riding principle: Nobody should be denied the right to follow their faith, nor should they be forced to follow a faith other than their own.

This is easy for me to say, because I'm a secularist and don't believe strongly in any specific version of a higher truth. There is what we can touch and see, and everything else is argument. However, as the other authors of this blog are going to be quick to point out, this does not hold for everybody. A fanatic, somebody who believes that one faith is superior, or that other faith are lies, won't respect the faiths of others. A person can be both faithful and secular, but a person cannot be secular and fanatic.

Fanaticism comes in many guises, from the overt theology of the Islamic Revolution and the Taliban, to the only marginally softer forms practiced by American evangelicals and some hard-line atheists. The problem, for a secular society, is defending secularism from fanatic while not becoming fanatics ourselves. Where does the right to one's belief that the embryo is a person become the quest to deny reproductive choice to others? Where does respect for local traditions become the implicit support of female genital mutilation?

Secularism is no easy path, but I believe it is better than any dogma because it demands the continual re-examining of our own beliefs, justifications, and desired futures. Attempts by political actors on either side to lock in their preference for all eternity through constitutional and infrastructural measure should be avoided. Rather, aim for flexibility, compromise, and what is best the in the eternal now. After all, we all have to live in the present.


  1. I've got some bones to pick with this. First off:

    "Faith is the personal relationship with one's source of irreducible concern.
    Religion is the pursuit of faith in a community.
    Religious ethics is ethics in a religious community."

    These definitions raise some questions. To be honest, I think the redefinition of "Religion" is of more concern than the redefinition of "Faith". If faith is a "personal relationship" then what role is there for a community play in faith? Why is religion now defined so as to exclude individualistic pursuit of faith? If faith is simply the pursuit of matters of prime concern, then what communities are not religious by these definitions? It's not so much that I am concerned that we could be including e.g. "Goldman Sachs" as a religion, if Money can be a matter of prime concern as you suggest. It's more that I am concerned that these definitions are obfuscating the boundaries of these concepts rather than clarifying them. To be completely honest, I'm also concerned that the motivation behind adopting such definitions is to frame future debates such that Faith is universal, and concepts such as Atheism are rendered meaningless.

    With regard to secular ethics -- what about French secularists banning the Burqa? You seem to be trying to identify secularism with the American idea of "separation of church and state". But I think Continental secularism is somewhat different. The key point, as I understand, is that each person has a role as a citizen which is more fundamental within society than their role within any religion. Each person may do as they like, but in the public sphere, in school for instance, we are expected to meet as citizens, and check our religion at the door. This idea provides the basic protocol for societal interaction, and provides a domain and a means in which different religions *can* coexist. But there is surely a tradeoff taking place, as religious freedom is clearly impinged in the interest of secularism, and the idea that this is protecting minority rights is somewhat suspect. The question is, how do we balance the importance of our civic role as citizens and our private role within a religion. Incidentally, adopting the definition of Religion introduced before, we cannot even articulate this distinction, so secularism seems to be another concept which is obfuscated by Camosy's definitions.

    Indeed Secularism is clearly dogma just as any religion. And if Fanaticism means not respecting another's faith, then in practical terms we are all fanatics, as we observed before, and as you observed towards the end.

    Secularism certainly does not provide an impartial means to answer the difficult questions. We should not delude ourselves with the idea that we can somehow skirt around the inevitability of tyranny.

  2. I also am concerned that these definitions promote a false appearance of symmetry between religion, science, atheism, and secularism. I've seen the religious fringe label Reason itself as fanatical, tyrannical, and a religion in its own right. This is not OK. Reason can refute religions dogma, but the only thing that refutes reason is better reason. The asymmetry is clear.

    It seems to me that what we're trying to optimize is heterogeneity of belief and custom, and balance social control of this heterogeneity with our basic notions of liberty. To us, it seems clearly bad if everyone has and identical belief system, since we know that even tried and true scientific paradigms can be superseded. It also seems bad if people are off raping and murdering and genital mutilating in the name of their beliefs.

    Whatever .. you know what, I'm not a philosopher or ethicist.

    In summary, Robots. more. robots.

  3. Incidentally, Wikipedia has some particularly interesting and relevant things to say about secularism.

    1) Many scholars believe that the meaning of secularism is changing.
    2) In Europe, secularism is thought to be approximately equal to modernization esp. in the face of traditionalism.
    3) In America, secularism is less prevalent except in its role of "separation of church and state", and mostly does as you suggest, to try to promote egalitarianism of religions and protect minority religious rights.

    Following a link to this site (http://www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9606/articles/pannenberg.html), we discover another point of contention:

    "The most important example [of ambiguity due to mixing between Christian and non-Christian ideas] is the modern idea of freedom. There is a clearly Christian root in the belief that all human persons are born to be free and that such freedom should be respected."

    On the other hand, a good Secularist will naturally claim Freedom as a distinctly Secularist concept as promulgated by Renaissance thinkers.

    I'm trying to find support for the idea that "secularism is changing", which seems interesting... however the main contention of this writer seems to be that a totally Secular society fails to meet some deeper need of humanity for spirituality, and leaves us vulnerable to manipulation by cults etc. If so, if each person has a need to consume some religion in their life, as seems plausible, then its not much of a leap that the government should help to dispense it, leaving Secularism in a pickle.

    I don't want to comment or pass judgment on that argument, I haven't yet made up my mind about it. I would like to observe that, this may all be seen as an extension of Progressivism. The idea that the government should increasingly, as the possibility arises, provide for more and more of our needs, and indeed recognize novel fundamental needs such as access to health insurance, leads naturally to the idea that we should consider recognizing psychological needs as well, and perhaps spiritual needs. Should each person be entitled to find God?

  4. This is actually a huge blind-spot in my reasoning. In my mind, I cannot empathize at any significant level with people who adhere strongly to any given religion. From my own experience, people adhere to religions because it is socially very costly to defect, and they are stripped at an early age of the ability to reason about their faith. In other words, I'm not sure that there actually exists an intrinsic need for faith. But I acknowledge that other people may feel differently.

  5. Anonymous19.3.11

    "without get caught up in a circular debate over definitions and principles."