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Secular-Based Ethics

During the heyday of the world’s earliest tribal societies, during which most, if not all, of our world religions gained form, the idea of a supreme being – benevolent or choleric – giving us all our social structure predominated. One need only read Christianity’s Bible, or Islam’s Qu’ran, or Hinduism’s Vedas, or Buddhism’s various scriptural texts to find your life laid out for you: its health doctrine, social hierarchy, ethics, and even a stab at general science.


Things began to change in Europe in the 1500’s (well, earlier, maybe – back to the 1200s), as philosophers and rationalists began to understand the flaws in such tribal thinking: The Sun doesn’t revolve around the earth. The earth isn’t flat. Things, real things, exist beyond the range of human senses. Religion held what science these tribal groups could muster close to its vest in an effort to use it to aggravate superstitions, to dominate through priestly “magic.”


I could go on to the point of ranting, but I won’t. Eventually, secular structures began to complement the religious ones, preempting most aspects of life that religion had previously engineered. Finally, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the secular revolution seemed complete. But it wasn’t.


Anything that was possible was deemed okay. This led to eugenics, to an escalation in the tools of warfare, resulting in nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction (MAD). As technology shrunk social groupings and tribal tenets to a one-world reality (although one that seems workable only from many shades of relativism), colonialism sought to supply an elite group of nations at the expense of others, resulting in genocide and slavery, and finally in Nazi Germany’s “ultimate solution,” i.e., that only certain cultural groupings should be allowed to survive. Most recently, as technology proliferated for widespread use, we’ve had to contend with its pollution, perhaps culminating in the dilemma facing us in today’s massive oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico.


In Europe, following WWI, most of these conditions led to a general feeling of unease, that something had gone wrong with Western civilization at its foundation. The conservatives among us (I classify as those who hold onto tradition with a deathgrip) suddenly are making the case of turning back the clock to various versions of tribal reality, to values that are inherently false and hypocritically applied.


What’s caused this? My contention: a lack of real ethical structure in the secular world. This lack has been recognized, and it’s in turn given credence to a turnback to religion in providing ethical standards. At the present, and for want of anything more functional, this is probably the lesser of two evils. But religion remains hierarchical in a world that is increasingly less so. The impetus of any religious ethos as we have it is based in social realities a thousand years old, maybe as much as five thousand years old, and that creates conundrums that lead to hypocrisy. We’re told that abortion kills humans, while we rationalize away war and genocide with a tsk-tsk. That sex is for procreation only, while priests diddle children. That science should always be held to the standard that many things are and should be inexplicable. This is the ignorance that has led us down many deadend roads as a world humanity.


But how do we formulate a functional set of ethics for today’s world? Legislation is limiting and inexact and subject to being reversed altogether. Ethics has to come from ground-up, not mountaintop-down, and that makes the process as messy as modernity’s mass politics. Given all that’s gone wrong in implementing the ethics our various religions have foisted on us, we should step slowly, perhaps even timidly, into a new ethics. And when we reach some new ethical consensus, we shouldn’t hammer it into stone as we’ve done for millennia.


I’ve broached the subject before the literature can be a new form of scripture, one that applies what may be universal to ever-changing social structures and conditions. This thought aside, perhaps as we enter this the final arena of secularism we can simply begin to understand that what we agree hurts others and undermines humanity as a whole should be banned socially. This isn’t a perfect idea, and it’s damnably unsophisticated, but it’s a start.