The other day, a German expatriate — a political scientist — who has lived some ten years here said one of the things he liked about living here compared to neighbouring countries was the way religion played no role in politics and policy. Naturally I couldn’t completely agree: Gay people see the influence of fundamentalist Christianity in the way the state approaches the question of equality for us. However, he was right in that, in the larger scheme of things, it is true that Singapore is relatively free of religious politics.
But I also said to him: “It’s because we have an authoritarian government. If not for that, this place might well be no different.”
He waited for me to elaborate.
I obliged: “Look at Indonesia. Under Suharto, religion was not a significant political force either, but as soon as he was kicked off the stage, Islamic parties came to the fore.”
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While there is an eagerness to see Singapore’s political space open up, we need as well to pay attention to this risk. The solution obviously is not to entrench authoritarianism for that would be like living inside a plastic bag (and suffocating) for fear of breathing polluted air.
What we need as we open up, is a shoring up of consensus among citizens (as opposed to top-down fiat) that appeals to religion should have no place in our politics, and citizens themselves have to police this social contract vigilantly. We also need to develop a comprehensive secular discourse on all matters of public interest; there should be no need to resort to religious solutions for public affairs.
In this connection, I was pleased to see two robustly-argued letters in the Straits Times on 4 December 2010. The background is this: There has been some moral panic about youth gangs resorting to violence against each other. Suggestions have been made that solutions to this social issue lay in strengthening the moral fibre of our youths, but, as often is the case in Singapore, once the “moral” word is used, it is equated with religion.
Paul Tobin, writing on behalf of the Humanist Society called them on this intellectually lazy conflation:
The Saturday Special report last week (‘God wants youth’) stated that religious groups were determined not to lose a generation to godlessness, especially now with youth gangs in the news.
It also noted that what is at stake is the potential of losing the youth to cynicism, violence and even fanaticism.
These remarks suggest a prejudice against those without any religious affiliation.
The article essentially suggested that this group, ‘the godless’, are cynical and prone to violence.
As a society for non-believers, the Humanist Society (Singapore) disagrees.
The reality in societies everywhere is that there is no difference between non-believing youth and the religious youth in their propensity towards violence. There are actually higher levels of violence among those who identify themselves as ‘religious’ or ‘faithful’.
As for cynicism, there is certainly no correlation between non-belief and a cynical attitude. Many non-believers are involved in the world around them, trying to make it a more humane, compassionate place.
I know of many non-believers, people who identify themselves as humanists, atheists and agnostics, who regularly donate to charity. Many also do volunteer work for humanitarian causes.
One does not need to have a religion to lead a good, happy and meaningful life and to have compassion for our fellow human beings.
Humanist Society (Singapore)
Lee Seck Kay was more blunt, pointing to surreptitious attempts at conversion under the guise of “helping”:
The bad behaviour of many of our youth probably stem from a combination of relentless peer influence and inadequate supervision by their parents or guardians.
This is a social problem and it is presumptuous to suppose that their plight is a consequence of straying from any celestial being and that it can be solved by divine intervention.
The report also gives the impression that godlessness is bad and is responsible for much of the trouble with our youth. It also suggests that something is not quite right with youth who do not believe in a god and must be saved by the mere act of surrendering themselves to a faith.
Nothing is farther from the truth.
The growing number of secular humanists in the world is testimony to the belief that we all can be moral and lead happy and fulfilling lives without belief in a god or dogma.
Mankind is forever indebted to this group, especially the scientists, who have helped their fellowmen conquer ignorance and fear, and taught them to better understand the world. I laud the efforts of the various faiths to lure troubled youth away from self-destructive behaviour.
If such programmes can be implemented successfully without proselytising them, well and good. Otherwise, they will be viewed only as nothing more than surreptitious attempts at conversion, which is not so good.
Lee Seck Kay
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Political involvement under the banner of religion stems from two very different motives.
The first is a genuine belief that one has an answer to a particular social problem, an answer which springs from religious teaching. This is characterised by sincerity of belief and the fact that the problem is a real one; even non-believers will agree that there is a problem to be addressed. The difficulty comes from a difference in perspectives and priorities. Believers have different perspectives and priorities from non-believers, and what to the first group is an optimal solution, based on their priorities, is a sub-optimal solution to the second group when assessed according to different priorities.
This is compounded by the tendency of religious groups to rank other-worldly considerations high among their priorities, but these considerations are neither rational nor meaningful to those who do not subscribe to the same other-worldly goals.
An example of this would be the influence of the Roman Catholic Church on the policies of countries where Catholics make up a large percentage of the population (e.g. Ireland and the Philippines) with particular respect to state policies on abortion. Here is an issue which even non-believers may agree is a moral hazard, but a blanket ban is only optimal when seen in relation with the absolutist demands of Papal teaching. When balanced against other considerations, e.g. maternal health, the economics of population control — and it’s a pressing problem in the over-populated Philippines — a blanket ban looks horribly misguided.
Another example, again from the Roman Catholic Church, but this time springing from its grassroots and disavowed by the Vatican, is liberation theology. In this movement, the religiously-minded see their calling as one of helping the downtrodden and disempowered cut the social and economic chains that tie them down. But from the perspective of those committed to “stability”, the rights of the privileged classes or the capitalist system, this kind of religiously-motivated politics can seem dangerous and threatening.
The second motive is a lot more sinister. It occurs when some people, in their quest for power, see in religion a useful mobilising tool to achieve their ends. Organised religion is, for them, a ready-made booster to temporal power. Emotive appeals can be made to identity and solidarity, the web of churches / temples / mosques a ready money-raising and mobilising resource. To use this resource effectively though, the power-hungry tend to create issues that capture attention and heighten a sense of threat to the religious group.
These therefore are the characteristics of this second motive: the social issues didn’t exist, or were not important until they were manufactured; they tend to be articulated in language that is divisive and combative.
For many readers, I’m sure the gay issue comes to mind. But more pertinent to the opening paragraphs of this essay, I’d say look at what is happening in Indonesia. On the extreme, fringe (and I stress: fringe) Islamist groups in Indonesia are stepping up attacks on Christian communities. On a broader front, there is an increase in Muslim political rhetoric (e.g. the “Anti-pornography” law — a manufactured issue), boosting Muslim-based parties, which in turn has meant that President Yudhoyono does virtually nothing to stop the steady descent into sectarian violence.
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As Singaporeans take political space back from the government, it is important to engage in a debate about the boundaries of politicking. I lean towards a heightened watchfulness over religiously-motivated politics, though I would make a distinction between the the first motive and the second. With the first, engagement and dialogue is called for, even as we gently point out that scriptural or other-worldly biases can skew their response to social problems. With the second, an open society should be as tough as an authoritarian one is nipping such efforts in the bud. Attempts to manufacture divisive issues that did not exist, or to carve fault lines where there were none before can do no good. Openness, inclusiveness, rationality and tolerance must be defended against those whose chief objective is to capture the state and close off society.
Inevitably, I will be called a “militant secularist”. So be it. Militancy is necessary when the other side would resort to religious militancy with no hesitation at all.