Honorable mention: College essay contest — Olivia Sato

Olivia Sato

Secular ethics: A path of convergence

By Olivia Sato

Inherited religious belief systems come with baggage. Their codes of ethics and propriety promote conformity, but unthinking adoption shifts moral agency into the background.

Cross-generational commitment to founding principles is not inherently bad when the values are timeless. Unfortunately, religious systems also integrate bias, ritual and narrative to such a degree that the composite religious identity supplants constitutional values. Agents relinquish ownership of spiritual reasoning in favor of community and tradition. This trickles outward from their religious lives into their sociopolitical attitudes. Differences in outdated religious notions, undergirded by the fervent belief in the immutable perfection of religion, impedes progress and foments animosity. Secularism removes these barriers by engaging moral agents in active, culturally sensitive dialogue.

For something so personal, religious identity’s implications on status and opportunity mark it as the longest-running case of identity politics in the United States. “American Exceptionalism” has always been inextricably linked to white Protestantism. From Winthrop’s 1630 sermon characterizing early America as a Christian “city upon a hill” to the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial regarding evolution in public education to the profound influence of the evangelical vote on the 2020 presidential election, Christian social capital has been leveraged politically and legally to ensure conformity to a narrow definition of rightness. Perhaps the Christian narrative could go unchallenged in severely socially stratified worlds of past, but it can no longer dominate or silence divergent thinking.

Division is an agonizing first step toward progress. Religious division is uncomfortable at best and deadly at worst, but it is more valuable than passive agreement because it necessitates multiple empowered voices. Individuals seeking resolution must first bridge interreligious hermeneutic gaps, to which the only answer is ubiquitous secular principles.

The final evolution of a society’s moral development occurs when diversity exists without painful division, as agents democratically defend their political and social assertions along universal secular lines. For example, a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and person of indigenous faith may find it impossible to reach a common policy decision if attempting to consolidate inconsistent teachings. Instead, concepts grounded in the dignity of human life, i.e., justice, peace and truth, are called upon to rationalize judgments. Such unifying principles are inherently secular, referenced across faiths but also intrinsically understood in the absence of religious pretext.

Policy decisions must hold up under the microscope of our current ethical climate. Instead of looking to the moral authority of religious institutions, secularism reflects prevailing scientific and philosophical thought. For instance, religions hold wildly different views around procreation, but teen pregnancy is a public health issue due to its socioeconomic and health consequences for the parents, child, and community. Thus, policymakers advocate for sexual education and public funding for contraception on the bases of utility and human potential: secular considerations of the society’s best interest. Furthermore, homosexuality draws vitriol from some religious groups and ardent support from others, but in the landmark 2015 case Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court defended same-sex couples’ right to marry according to secular values of equality and justice. When individuals recenter themselves around basic ideals, their ethical judgments converge along the secular path.

I trust these secular, universal ethics because they are self-evident. The complicated, ritualistic teachings of many organized religions, on the other hand, seem overtly contrived to conveniently align with social convention. Admittedly, some religions can be counter-cultural, but a through line of power and spiritual control remains. People commit body and soul to diverse faiths, resolute in their incompatible conceptions of our universe. Instead of one perspective miraculously representing ultimate truth, it is much likelier that no religious invention of humankind accurately captures the beauty of our extraordinary existence. I am not a cynic. I believe in empiricism and extrapolation. And until I personally observe evidence that opposes my Occam’s razor approach, I firmly root myself in the wonderful pragmaticism of secular humanist wisdom.


Olivia Sato, 19, attends Northeastern University, majoring in physics and philosophy. “I am a member of the STEM education outreach organization FirstByte, in which I design accessible STEM curricula to distribute to Boston Public Schools educators,” Olivia writes. “This past year, I received the Lawrence Award for Academic Excellence and the Science Scholar First-Year Research Project, where I served as the Project Lead in designing a clinical study for a preeclampsia diagnostic device in collaboration with a biotechnology start-up, Kalia Health.”