Building Ethical Bridges in a Secular Age

Fear of the secular is not helpful or necessary in our religious conversations.
Appears in Fall 2014 Issue: Cracks in the Secular
September 1 st 2014

Are there ways in which an aggressively "secular" society is proving inhospitable to the human spirit? And might the human spirit call for something else, something more, if it is to endure, let alone flourish? Could we imagine a "post-secular" society?

But before we can discuss a post-secular society, we need to be clear what we mean by a secular one. In their efforts to define and promote secularism, those wanting to exclude religion from the public square have created confusion among freedom of religion; freedom for religion; and freedom from religion.

Freedom of religion—the state does not impose a religion on its citizens: there is no state religion.

Freedom for religion—the state does not restrict the free practice of religion by its citizens.

Freedom from religion—the state excludes religion and religious voices from the public square, in particular, in relation to law and public policy making.

The first two freedoms are valid expressions of the doctrine of the separation of church and state and describe a properly secular society. The third is not a valid requirement for a secular society, although people wanting to exclude religious voices from the public square argue that it is. It is this latter kind of secular society that the emergence of a post-secular society would challenge and change, not the former one.

Values surveys show that many people long for "something more" than they are able to find in present secular societies. This is often expressed as a longing to belong to something larger than themselves, a longing for transcendence. The opportunity to experience that should be framed as an invitation, not imposed as a demand. I have tried to do this through two concepts that have been central in my thought and work over the last two decades: the "human spirit" and the "secular sacred." I am hoping they can help us to see that we all have more in common than we might realize and allow us to engage with each other in such a way that we can move forward to a post-secular ethos that more of us, whether we are religious or secular, feel we can buy into.

I have spoken about what I call the human spirit in two of my books, The Ethical Canary and The Ethical Imagination, and emphasized its importance in dealing with ethical issues, especially in a secular society such as Canada. Let me explain what I mean by the human spirit.

Spirituality is a natural, inherent characteristic common to all humans that some people express through religious belief and practice, and others express in secular ways. We can call our capacity to experience that spirituality the "human spirit." Our longing for transcendence—the need to feel we belong to something larger than ourselves—is an expression of the human spirit.

Our human spirit is that which makes us human and enables us to experience amazement, wonder, and awe at the mystery of life, and through it we search for meaning. This search for meaning is of the essence of being human; we are meaning-seeking beings and, as far as we know, uniquely so. I believe everyone searches for meaning, even if they won't admit that or perhaps, in some cases, don't recognize that is what they are doing.

I use the term human spirit in a religiously neutral sense, so it's open to people who are not religious and those who are, regardless of their religion. A belief in the human spirit does not require a belief in the supernatural or any religious belief, but it is not antithetical to religious belief. In short, we can all agree that we have a human spirit and having that shared starting point is very important in searching for some shared ethics in our contemporary, pluralistic, multicultural multi-religious secular societies.

The human spirit, as I define it elsewhere,

is the intangible, immeasurable, ineffable, numinous reality to which all of us need to have access to find meaning in life and to make life worth living—a deeply intuitive sense of relatedness or connectedness to all life, especially other people, to the world, and to the universe in which we live; the metaphysical—but not necessarily supernatural—reality which we need to experience to live fully human lives.

All of us, whether or not we are religious and, if religious, no matter which religion is our tradition, have and share a human spirit.

The "Secular Sacred" . . .

I believe that we need to enlist a concept of sacredness to protect and promote our human spirit. So in The Ethical Canary, I introduced a concept that I called the "secular sacred." It was universally disliked. Secular people thought I was trying to impose religion on them and that religion had no place in the public square or public policy, and religious people objected that I was denigrating the concept of the sacred. One of my students said to me, " You know, Professor Somerville, when you have everyone mad at you, you are probably on to something important."

As I explained in my book The Ethical Imagination, in talking about the secular sacred, I am suggesting that the sacred is not only a concept that applies in a religious or ritualized context, but also one that operates at a general societal level, even in "secular" societies. I'm proposing it as a concept that, among other outcomes, might help us to find some shared ethics. I believe that each of us needs to experience a complex interaction of knowing ourselves, relating to others, appreciating our place in the great web of all life, and seeing ourselves as part of the earth, the stars, the universe, and the cosmos. The acute and continuous awareness of such a mind-blowing web of relationships is what I mean by the "human spirit," which I have already described.

In summary, I proposed that linking the secular and the sacred, by adopting a concept of the secular sacred, could help to unite everyone who accepts that some things are sacred, whether they see the sacred's source as religious or purely natural or secular.

If we accept the sacred, whether the religious sacred or the secular sacred, we will accept that certain aspects of life are sacrosanct; not everything that could be done to life, to human life in particular, may ethically be done to it and certain moral and ethical principles that should be respected and should govern our conduct flow from that.

The sacred, then, requires that we respect the integrity of the elements that allow us to fully experience being fully human; in doing so, we protect that experience. The sacred is a concept that we should use to protect that which is most precious in human life, starting with life itself.

One place where we might find the secular sacred operating is in the environmental protection movement, some aspects of which mirror those of a religion. The movement functions through shared "truths" and ideology, and the bonding that results from sharing those beliefs; it causes people to focus on a reality external to themselves; it provides an opportunity for transcendence—belonging to and protecting something larger than oneself; its adherents demonstrate a willingness to make sacrifices and to suffer to promote the great cause they believe in; and they are concerned for future generations and want to hand on their values and beliefs to their descendants. Religious Studies scholars Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young have proposed that such movements are secular religions. If we can have a secular religion, it would seem logical that we can also have a secular sacred.

I note here that environmental protection advocates have made us aware that our physical ecosystem can be damaged beyond repair. We need to develop the same awareness regarding our metaphysical ecosystem, the values, principles, attitudes, beliefs, and so on that collectively make up the societal-cultural paradigm on which we base our Canadian society. That too can be irreparably damaged.

Questioning as a Prelude to the Common Good

I have already indicated my first principle: we should try to start from where we agree, not where we disagree, and move toward our disagreements. Doing so gives a different tone to our discussion and disagreements. It also gives us an opportunity to experience belonging to the same moral community, at least on some aspects of the issues we are discussing. So, for example, much as we might differ on the law that should govern abortion, we can all agree we want as few abortions as it's possible to achieve. Or much as we might disagree about legalizing euthanasia, we can all agree that we want people to have access to the best palliative care, including pain management, and to suffer as little as possible.

I have found it much more effective in terms of communication, especially in indicating what the secular might lack, to ask questions, rather than to make statements. Questions allow people to discover a new insight for themselves without facts or ideas with which they are not comfortable being imposed on them. Questions ask you to ignite your mind to imagine possibilities in real life. This is especially true in contexts in which two hardened sides have developed. Take, for example the debates surrounding abortion and euthanasia.

I recently received an email in which my correspondent wrote:

I spoke to a very successful and intelligent entrepreneur at an event on Saturday, who described himself as pro-choice, who explained, "I just have come to the conclusion that abortion is a woman's choice." So I asked two questions: "How would you feel if she was six months along in her pregnancy and the physician would make sure the baby was not born alive?" And, "What if the mother wanted an abortion because the baby was a girl and not a boy?" To both questions, he answered quite adamantly, "No I would never agree." And he concluded, "I just have never thought about it in those terms."

This email caused me to ask myself a series of questions about what the labels "pro-choice" and "pro-life" indicated regarding people's views and values in relation to abortion. Is this man pro-choice? He clearly doesn't agree with the 28 percent of pro-choice Canadians, who, one survey showed, reject any legal protection for human life prior to birth. Nor does he agree with the 6 percent of Canadians whom the same survey noted would legally prohibit all abortions. The reality is 60 percent believe there should be some law protecting unborn children, at the latest at viability (20 weeks gestation). The 28 percent and 6 percent are the two poles in our abortion debate, but their disputes dominate in the public square. Two thirds of Canadians fall somewhere on a spectrum between them— they are not absolutists, in either direction, about using law to govern abortion. For them, abortion law (in comparison with abortion, itself, for pro-life people) is not a black and white issue defined by ideology; many are uncertain where to stand, and their voices are rarely heard. Asking questions allows their imaginations to paint their ethics in the colours of real life and, as a result, to articulate a response that more accurately reflects their real beliefs.

This "questioning" approach might allow us, although we start from different bases, to identify where in fact we agree, or are closer to agreement than we've recognized, about what the law on abortion should be.

And here's an example relating to euthanasia. After Quebec's Bill 52 authorizing euthanasia became law, I published a piece in the Montreal Gazette that asked a series of questions:

Did the members of the Quebec Legislative Assembly fail to distinguish between obligations to kill people's suffering through good palliative care and pain management, and killing the person with the suffering? Did they fail to heed an old warning: "Nowhere are human rights more threatened than when we act purporting to do only good"? Has the media's almost sole focus on heart-wrenching cases of suffering individuals asking for euthanasia blinded us to the larger-picture consequences of legalizing it?

Can we imagine physicians teaching medical students how to carry out euthanasia and clinically role-modelling it for them?

Will many physicians decline work in institutions in which colleagues administer euthanasia? Imagine sitting down to lunch with a colleague who 10 minutes before killed a patient.

Will patients refuse admission to institutions that provide euthanasia? Will they refuse palliative care and pain management for fear of being euthanized? The Netherlands and Belgium, where euthanasia is legal, both show these are valid concerns.

If euthanasia remains permitted, how do we think our great-great-grandchildren will die? What kind of society will we have left to them? Will it be one in which no reasonable person would want to live?

In each case, I have advocated for the use of the imagination in forming our ethics. Imagination is a "human way of knowing," a way that allows us to project into the future and to try to understand what the consequences of our actions in the present will be, for good or evil. I believe many ethical mistakes are made because there is a failure to use imagination, especially when the decision-making focus is only on an individual person and their rights to autonomy and self-determination, their right to "choose" what happens to themselves. Yet again, abortion and euthanasia provide powerful examples. Imagining a fetus as a blob of cells as compared with an unborn child with a beating heart and ten baby fingers and ten baby toes will provoke vastly different ethical responses. Seeing euthanasia as the merciful relief of the suffering of a dying person is likely to shape a different ethical response than seeing euthanasia as a state-approved law that has become the norm that will determine how your great-great grandchildren die.

Because hope is generated by a sense of connection to the future, a failure of the ethical imagination can also be connected with a loss of hope and resultant cynicism, the antithesis of hope. This is extremely dangerous, because hope is the oxygen of the human spirit: without it our spirit dies, with it we can overcome even seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And I suggest that cynicism—which I've labelled elsewhere as a secular mortal sin—can be a root cause of breaches of ethics.

Imagination allows us to project into the future; history—or as John Ralston Saul calls it "human memory"—allows us to access and take into account what we can know from the past. There is a current danger of "present-ism," an attitude that the past has nothing to teach us, in particular in relation to what values we should hold in trust as our shared cultural heritage to be passed on to future generations. So-called "progressive values" are lauded and those who disagree are labelled, at best, as conservatives and passé or, most recently, as "restrictives." (Terms that have been applied to me in the past, include "dinosaur" and, in an editorial in Nature, "Canada's neo-Luddite bioethicist.") But as Pope Francis has warned, often we are dealing with "adolescent progressivism," a compound belief that we need to reject what is characterized as the ossified past and that change is always good, a belief which can easily give rise to "totalitarian utopianism." Apocalyptic as it is, we need to heed Friedrich Nietzsche's dire warning, "Nihilism is standing at the door. A triumph of nihilism is inevitable. The highest values have lost their value. Morals have lost their purpose. The past must be broken." The "past" I take Nietzsche to mean here, is the immediate past of the loss of values he describes. If he meant the larger human past and the values that has given us, which we need to hold on trust for future generations, I would disagree that it "must be broken". On the contrary, it needs to be re-respected.

It's very old and ordinary advice, but no less important for being so, namely, that in interacting with others who disagree with us, we need to use our imaginations to try to place ourselves in their shoes and to govern how we approach them accordingly. Using religiously based arguments with someone who is adamantly atheist is not only a waste of time and energy, it's likely to further confirm them both in their beliefs and that you have no valid arguments. If our values are religiously based, we need also to have good non-religiously based arguments as to why they are the values that society should adopt. Similarly, the metaphors, analogies, and arguments we employ should not be chosen on the basis of what would convince us, but what the other persons can relate to and might convince them. Words and images matter. On a more, although not entirely, positive note, we can take heart that there are more people with active ethical imaginations than we realize. Many people who agree that the value of respect for life should take priority and that community deserves more protection than it's being given won't say so, for fear of retaliation by those who reject these values, whether by shaming them for being "politically incorrect" or by loss of friendship, or because of concern about harm to their professional life and advancement. I've been astonished by how many people have told me privately, "I just want you to know I totally agree with you, but I'd never say so publicly." These are the newest group of "closet dwellers." Activating their imaginations may be a way to help to persuade them to come out.

Extending Invitations Beyond the Secular

So how might we open up these cracks in the secular? How can we turn the limits of the secular into an opportunity for a post-secular society?

First, we should recognize what post-secular means. It would indicate that we were a secular society, we know that we are no longer that, but we don't yet know what we are or will become. We would be in transition, but it would not yet be clear to what. It's important to recognize the movement to a post-secular society would not simply be a return to the past, but a move forward to something else. The best image is of a helix, like the DNA helix, a spiral that progresses upwards bringing some of the past values with it and incorporating with those some of what it has picked up along the way. A misleading image is that of a pendulum that swings back to its original starting point.

Second, we should point out that everyone has beliefs, so the argument that those with religious beliefs should be excluded from the public square because of those beliefs is discriminatory and anti-democratic. The new option, "none," in answer to the survey question about religious belief, reflects a belief system.

Third, we must not take ad hominem attacks personally. That they occur is a sign of the strength of the arguments of the people against whom those attacks are made. As that indicates, we should never engage in such attacks. They weaken one's case, not strengthen it. And they are disrespectful of one's opponents, which does likewise.

Fourth, being closed to hearing those who do not, or even just might not, agree with us, or who are not members of our "tribe," is a serious mistake. I just received an email from the convenor of a conference at which I have agreed to give a speech, asking me whether I am a Christian. He apologized for enquiring, but said some members of his organization were worried that I might not be. It seems they believed that would have made me ineligible to address them.

I am often asked why I don't give up arguing for the values positions I believe are the right ones, because I'm losing all those battles at the levels of the law and public policy. Why don't I get discouraged and stop? It's true that being defeated can cause demoralization and argument fatigue. But I believe my obligation is only to try to convince people of what I believe to be ethical or unethical. I can't guarantee I will convince them—in fact, it seems I do not. But I can guarantee I will try and that's all I believe that I need to do—indeed it's all I can do. My family's ancient motto is "Never give up, no matter the odds."

Two of the major issues we face in a secular society are how to deal with suffering and the overwhelming dominance of the right to individual autonomy and giving it absolute priority when it conflicts with other rights or values. Dealing with these might prove to be a step toward a post-secular society.

Religion is a way to give meaning to suffering. It is very difficult to do that without religion, although some people who have courage and hope find it possible. When suffering has no meaning and is considered the greatest evil, whatever is necessary to relieve it is regarded as a lesser evil and justified. This is one of the reasons some people see euthanasia as justified. The argument against such a stance is the damage that will do to communities, institutions, and society, especially its most important shared values, such as respect for life. The dominance of the right to individual autonomy is closely linked to the inability to be able to give meaning to suffering and their combined consequences are synergistic. One possibility in a post-secular society is that we will give more weight to protection of communities and society than we do in a secular one, while still retaining the value of respect for the individual person and for their innate human dignity. In other words, we would rebalance the rights and claims of individuals and protection and needs of community. That would, indeed, be for the light to enter through a crack.

We can also ask, might a transition from a secular society that overtly rejects religious voices in the public square, to a post-secular society be mirroring a change to accepting a broader spectrum of values? American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt's findings were that we all share the values of care for others and fairness, but conservatives also value respect for authority, having a sense of the sacred, and loyalty. These additional values could be based in "human ethics" for those who are not religious and in that and, as well, in religion for those who are religious. In that way, we may find more of a shared ethics than we had thought possible and, it is to be hoped, that would add to the richness of all our lives as both individuals and members of society.

In conclusion, to return to the importance and relevance of imagination in relation to values and ethics yet one more time, we need to imagine the post-secular society we would like to create. That imagining is to jump a chasm that separates the present from the future. We then need to return to the present and start building the ethical bridges that will span the chasm to allow us to reach that other side. The Nobel Laureate, the late Seamus Heaney gave just this advice in his poem Cure of Troy:

Let us give birth to the unexpected
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge
Believe that a farther shore
Is reachable from here
Believe in miracles and cures and healing

Poetry is the language of the imagination and also a language of ethics, it allows us to engage most fully our ethical imaginations.

Heaney's last words to his wife were in Latin, "Noli timere," or "Don't be afraid," a message that we all need to take to heart in our search for the shared values that should inform a post-secular society.


Margaret Somerville is Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor Emerita in the Faculty of Medicine, and Founding Director Emerita of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, Montreal, where she taught from 1978 to 2016, when she returned to Sydney to become Professor of Bioethics in the School of Medicine at The University of Notre Dame Australia.