What is the place of religion in society? Two recent news stories from the US pointed to this question. Both by themselves had little significance for Singapore, but nonetheless gave food for thought.
The first, Republican horrified to discover that Christianity is not the only religion, was about Valarie Hodges, a state legislator in Louisiana, changing her position with respect to a proposed law that would enable school fee vouchers, provided by the state government, to be tendered at mission schools. At first, she fully supported the law, assuming that religiously-run schools only comprised Christian schools. Then, she was aghast to learn that in line with the secular underpinnings of the US, other religiously-run schools would be equally eligible under the program, in particular, a Muslim school that had applied for inclusion.
“We need to insure that it does not open the door to fund radical Islam schools. There are a thousand Muslim schools that have sprung up recently. I do not support using public funds for teaching Islam anywhere here in Louisiana,” the article quoted her as saying.
To say there are a thousand such schools is probably a wild exaggeration.
The law eventually passed, “opening the door for for god knows how many non-Valarie Hodge’s-religion schools that might interfere with her vision of America as a sort of Christian Saudi Arabia,” concluded the article on jezebel.com.
The second story, Alabama pastor holds ‘Whites only’ conference, tells of a church organising a meeting to whom only Whites are welcome, according to the flyer being distributed. WECT news reported that the flyer circulated by the Church of God’s Chosen (Christian Identity Ministries) informed interested parties that the three-day conference would end with a “Sacred Christian Cross Lighting Ceremony”, invoking images of the Ku Klux Klan.
The conference organiser, William C. Collier, says that his is not a hate group but adds that he believes “the white race is God’s chosen people.”
In response to the uproar, the founder of the church, Mel Lewis, said that objectors are showing disrespect for religious liberty.
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‘Religion’ spans a whole gamut of different things. While I am no believer, I can plainly see that to many people it is extremely meaningful, in the way it provides guidance, comfort and a call to do good in this life. Most organised religions also provide a sense of community, which many people value. The outcome of these often takes the form of concern for humanity and charitable work, a benefit few in society would quarrel with.
Problems arise when community leads on to assertive identity, and gets worse when that identity is cast as under siege. In many ways, this is almost a natural progression. Groups tend to throw up leaders, and unless leaders are watchful of themselves, they may become a little intoxicated with power. The corrupting influence of power can be seen in the desire to expand the reach of that power, and what better lever is there than appeal to group identity? This then comes full circle, when followers themselves feel the adrenalin rush of crusading identity.
Should little voices within the group question the direction it is taking, or should enthusiasm flag, it is common to resort to the rhetoric of threat to conserve unity and spur action. But to speak of being persecuted or threatened is to suggest that some party out there is the threat or persecutor; this does nothing for cordial relations with other faiths.
In any case, as group solidarity is promoted, interaction with those outside the faith is reduced. Moreover, there is a risk of circular reasoning within its internal discourse and the congregation becoming an echo chamber. The kind of mischaracteristion of other faiths, non-believers and motley others, and the erasure of the very presence of others from one’s field of vision, so exemplified by Louisiana’s Valarie Hodges, becomes all too common.
This sets the stage for conflict, since no society can ever be that homogenous that everyone belongs, with the same fervour, to the same creed. It is worse when a religious group is big enough to set its sights on capturing the state; for ambitions of power naturally progresses to seizure of the pinnacle of power – the state and its monopoly of violence.
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Assuming a state is not yet captured by a religion, and the people in that state want to keep it secular, where are lines to be drawn?
Immediately, I am reminded of a small debate in the comments trail of this blog not too long ago, about its very definition. I am surprised that this is being debated, for the meaning is clear. Secularism is the principle that religious dictates and assumptions should be excluded from civil affairs, which includes politics and law. That being the case, what degree of attempted encroachment needs to be resisted?
There is no clear answer here, for the practice of secularism varies from place to place. At one end there is something I’d call “Please feel free to walk all over me” secularism; at the other end, a more robust form. In the former, the democratic principle that the majority should get what they want, even if they bring their religious beliefs into the public domain, is given precedence. The result is that under the guise of democracy, a state can incorporate many ideas originating from a particular religion into civil law and governance, e.g. on divorce (or banning of it) and the teaching of creationism in schools. The robust form of secularism is self-evidently the opposite. It is more vigilant about attempts to inject religious ideas into the civil state.
Singapore seems schizophrenic to me. Drawing heavily from the People’s Action Party’s struggles against UMNO in Kuala Lumpur in the 1960s, and the more recent “War against terror” rhetoric, our secularism is very robust against Islam, but is shockingly “Please walk all over me” with respect to conservative Christianity. Examples that quickly come to mind include our hopelessly archaic sexuality education objectives, keeping Section 377A of the Penal Code, and the censorious attitude to sex and bodies on the part of regulators.
Granted, sex-phobia is not exclusively grounded in religion; it is cultural too. To link the behaviour of Singapore authorities (which tends to the prohibitive or restrictive when confronted with sexual expression, with no consideration for the right to freedom of expression) to religious lobbying alone would not be entirely accurate. But neither can it be denied that the conservative lobbies of the Abrahamic religions continue to breathe life into censorship through their interventions. To that extent, they are guilty of encroaching upon a secular state that should otherwise be giving due regard to the right to freedom of expression, and to the rights of other segments of society who do not subscribe to these religious positions on sex, nudity and the human form.
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Robustness in state secularism can (should?) go beyond just protecting the state from encroachment. Religious groups may well circulate and promote certain ideas within themselves that are inimical to the broader social good, even if those ideas are not meant to bind the state into any course of action. The example of the church in Alabama, referenced above, raises this question. Should a religion be allowed to promote racial superiority? Wouldn’t it bring in train external costs that the rest of society has to bear to solve the social problems it causes? If a state has every right to interfere with the smoking habit on account of external costs and injury to others, why not step in when a religious group preaches something as injurious to others?
Related questions: Should a religion be allowed to promote contempt for empirical knowledge and the scientific method, e.g. by badmouthing evolution? Should a religion be permitted to re-organise the minds and police the behaviour of its adherents, such that they open their wallets and donate far more money to the church than might be sensible?
In examining this question, we are likely to come up against the “human right” of freedom of religion. I have put “human right” in quotation marks, because the more I think about it, the more I feel it is nonsense. Or at least, very badly phrased. There may be a human right to the freedom of conscience, such that any deliberate manipulation of someone else’s mind to alter his fundamental beliefs, should be banned. These fundamental beliefs will no doubt often include beliefs in the divine just as it includes atheist convictions.
But “freedom of religion” twists the concept beyond recognition, chiefly because “religion” can mean so many things, from private faith to community celebration, to indoctrination of the young and impressionable, political lobbying and multi-million dollar business ventures by churches. Those at the front end of the list may meet few objections from others and cause no concern to society, but why should some of the things at the latter end enjoy the immunity from interference implied by “human right”?
When a church founder like Mel Lewis describes his racist conference as a matter protected by his freedom of religion, we have to stop and think. What if another religious group promotes the notion that the right age for girls to get married is 12 and never later than 15? Do we stand aside and do nothing? Should the state keep its hands tied?
What if yet another religious group promotes the idea that people of homosexual orientation are “sinners” and should be discriminated against legally and socially – how different is that from a church that says [insert racial group here] are an inferior race and can be enslaved/exploited, or that [insert a faith group here] are terrorists?
Shouldn’t a robust, socially-responsible secularism step in? Why flinch just because someone waves the “freedom of religion” flag? Singapore may claim to be secular, but my experience is that it is not conscientious or robust enough.