The Sacred in the Public

Thio Li-ann
Professor of Law
National University of Singapore

A speech delivered by Deputy PM Wong Kan Seng delivered at an ISD intelligence service promotion ceremony was reported on in Today (April 15, 2010) entitled: ‘Growing religious assertiveness a concern’. The full text of the speech is available at here.

It made me reflect again on matters of ‘secularism’ and religious freedom, which has been a recurrent theme in our nation’s history and has featured prominently in political discourse of late.

Clearly, TPTB are concerned that the Internet might be abused as “a convenient and popular platform for individuals to vent their religious hatred and abuse recklessly.” Of course the Internet is a platform for all kinds of hatred, religious, secular, whatever; what is apparent is that the virtual world can affect the actual world, which should be subject to legal regulation.

DPM Wong notes that “there is a dangerous tendency among some people to shrug off their social responsibilities when emboldened by the cloak of anonymity of the Internet.” The irresponsibility is expressed through “insensitive, and at times inflammatory and incendiary, postings that denigrate other races and religions.” The fear is that “such cyber conflicts can spiral out of control, and spill over into the physical world.” Public order is of course a limit on rights of free speech and religious freedom under arts 14 and 15 of the Constitution. The Sedition Act has been applied to instances of religious propagation, a form of religious free speech, fairly recently (PP v Benjamin Koh, 2005, PP v Ong Kian Cheong, 2009)

I wonder why more specific attention is not paid to the fact that religious friction can be stirred up by the irreligious as much as the religious. Anyone can, by crying “Beware. Religion X being fervent”  play the religion card to sow seeds of disquiet amongst both adherents to other religious faiths and adherents to secular faiths, and cause a great deal of mischief.

Today highlighted DPM Wong’s statement that ” These days, public complaints against religiously offensive websites and net discussions are commonplace.” There are also non-religious websites which denigrate religious beliefs and which may also cause religious friction.

While affirming the fact that religious propagation is a constitutionally protected liberty, which is to be commended, DPM Wong warns against the “highly public and assertive manner” where “religiosity” manifests itself. Would not the same apply to any secularly driven agenda which seeks to impose its own humanistic values, which can also be done in an assertive and highly public manner e.g. protagonists of a sexual liberationist agenda to advance? We have already seen this in action.

“Secularism” is after all not simply the absence of something (religion) but the presence of something (ideologically speaking, secular humanism?). One of the posts on the Today website called for a system which is “totally religion free”  in stating that “religion has always been the dividing factor between people.” This is of course an unbalanced statement; people can be divided by religious factors as well as non-religious factors. Anyone with an appreciation of history appreciates  how both religion and secular ideologies can be  deployed to oppress dissenters, i.e. can be a force against peace. Think crusades, jihads, pogoms, gulags, auschwitz, pol pot, hitler, stalin, lenin etc…

The idea of “religious cleansing” of the public sphere is both oppressive and illiberal; it is a form of what some have called “sacraphobia” and constitutes a power-grab by an anti-theistic belief system (an ‘anti religion religion’ which also rests on a priori assumptions) seeking to displace competing visions of the human good as mediated through law, policy and culture.

Singapore is a secular state, but a religious society in that 86% of its citizens profess a religious faith. I suppose the remainder profess some kind of non-religious belief system, which is itself a kind of ‘faith’. Citizens shape the community they live in, they inform the content of collective goods like “public morality” and it would be insensible to discount the vitally important role religions play in forming moral convictions, without which the excesses of democracy, as de Tocqueville warned, would face no tempering force. Religion abused, can be a curse, but religion in its humanising and merciful dimension can bless. It is simplistic to attribute virtue to ‘secularism’ and vice to ‘religion’, where things are a lot more complex. Both ‘secularism’ and ‘religion’ are not self-evident terms, nor are they hermetically sealed off from each other; furthermore, religion and, for the lack of a better word, materialistic science, have done both good and evil, as any fair observer would find easy to acknowledge.

It is well that despite the call by militant secularists for the public realm to be a ‘religion free zone’ in propagating an anti-theistic conception of ‘secularism’, the government is sensible enough to realise that “the solution is not to roll-back religion in our society. Singaporeans must be free to practise their faith.” Indeed, that is why religious freedom is constitutionally entrenched. It is both an individual and collective good and the fundamental law recognises this to be so.

To vindicate  democracy, where all citizens of whatever persuasion, religious or irreligious, can shape public life and policy, ‘secularism’ should not be invoked to press a certain brand of liberal fundamentalism which in valorising individual autonomy is a philosophy hostile to any non-consensual based understanding of authority;  instead ‘secularism’ should be apprehended as a procedural or jurisdictional concept, delineating competences and thereby serving as a principle of limited government in resisting a totalising state.

A secular democracy which respects religion (that is, the importance of religious faith to individual adherents and the social good religion has the capacity to exert)  will appreciate that the public realm is not a ‘religion-free zone’ but rather, one where all faiths, secular or religious, compete for adherents. Agnostic, rather than anti-theistic secularism, anti-theocratic rather than anti-religious secularism.

Of course the problems of co-existence between competing faiths and sensitivities will always have to be negotiated and that will not turn on legal solutions exclusively, but on an ethos of genuine tolerance which respects the right of all to articulate their viewpoints, hold to their convictions, without enforcing a relativistic diktat that all views share equal veracity. That is a postmodern absurdity.

Religious freedom is constitutionally protected because it is of primary importance and speaks to ultimate issues. Of course, there are those who are at enmity with Religion or a particular religious belief system and constitutional guarantees are there precisely to prevent a militantly secular (in the sense of being anti-religious and intolerant of religious pluralism) agenda from subverting religious liberties. There can be no peace without justice, and no justice without truth; it would be manifestly unjust in a democratic society to discriminate against religiously informed convictions or to intrude upon religious freedoms with due regard to the importance of this basic right, which is to be exercised within the bounds of ordered liberty.

This is not to propound a theocracy but a secular democracy, one where all citizens share in the shaping of the polity, where viewpoint diversity is respected, where all persons have the equal right to articulate a view, to believe what they believe, but where all views entering the public square are subject to the rigours of scrutiny, debate and rebuttal, as well as quite possibly, endorsement.

Once we recognise the totalising dangers of an anti-theistic secularism, such as that propounded by a Stalinist model or extreme liberalism which celebrates ‘choice’ as a final value, without care to what is chosen,  a more fruitful enquiry can be directed towards identifying the particular traits of the Singapore ‘secularism with a soul’ model.

Here are some candidates for a preliminary investigation of a “minimum core” of secularism.

1. In terms of state structure, there must be some degree of separation between Religion and State i.e. religion and politics are not entirely unitary (e.g. Islam ad-deen). This reflects an anti-theocratic conception of secularism.

2. In terms of political authority, this must be derived from a non-religious source (not a sacred text, as we cannot agree on authoritativeness in a postmodern, plural setting) e.g. Constitution, democratic elections. This is in fact recognised in para 5 of the maintenance of religious harmony white paper

3. Religion and the Peace Architecture: Just as secularist ideologies must not be allowed to tear apart the social fabric, neither must religious ideologies. Peace is an aspect of the common good all citizens value. The state in dealing with religion is not there to make pronouncements on the veracity of any one religion; its role must be confined to establishing working rules to allow religious faiths to co-exist peacefully, to compete for adherents in the marketplace of ideas. The state should not be the keeper of any sacred flame. It should be genuinely unconcerned or ‘agnostic.’ So too the state should eschew a militant hostile attitude towards religion and adopt a more accommodative stance in respecting the value of religious freedom to citizens and more generally, of religious pluralism. A Cooperation of State & Religion model.

4. Religious groups should recognise as part of an unwritten social compact, that we all live on our small island, and tolerance and civility should inform how we handle the inevitable disagreements that will arise from inter-religious friction, as well as religious-non-religious friction. Law should only step in a remedy of last resort, when people, whether religious or non-religious, forsake prudential rules of engagement.

Law never made man a whit more just, as Thoreau pointed out, but it can constrain some evil or anti-social behaviour through sanctions, carrots and sticks etc…

5. Lastly, from the perspective of the individual, freedom of conscience is an absolute value in having, not having or changing religious belief. In addition, individuals with religious convictions should not be discriminated against but should share the equal right of all citizens in a democracy to participate in public life and the shaping of public policy.

DPM Wong’s statements also expresses concerns about religious encroachment into the common secular space through the involvement of religions in business and the holding of worship services outside the mosque, church, or temple. This speaks to insecurity and fear which breeds intolerance; as fear is always rooted in loss. He said the solution “is not to roll-back religion in our society. Singaporeans must be free to practise their faith. However, the Government must continue to ensure that we maintain a big enough neutral, common space in which our different communities can engage in public life and with one another free from religious considerations and sensitivities. We have to find the right balance; we cannot have unbridled freedom of religion, at the expense of nation building and social cohesion; to the extent that it foments divisiveness amongst our people. We will continue to refine our policies to ensure this.”

These will be  new matters to which the Singapore ‘managerial’ model will be applied – but then, who expects resolution in this lifetime? For now, I will only add that the Singapore experience is further fodder for disproving the discredited ‘secularization’ thesis which posited that with modernity, religiosity would decline. Religion is primordial and religion is contemporary.  The rumours of the death of God, it seems, are greatly exaggerrated.

As Burke noted, ““Man is by his constitution a religious animal; atheism is against not only our reason, but our instincts.”

There are more things on heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. The Rest is Silence.

Prof Thio Li-ann

15 April 2010

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