Monday, June 29, 2009

In defence of secularism

In yesterday's edition of Lianhe Zaobao/《联合早报》, an opinion piece by Mr. 黄浩威, a local freelance writer, defending the principle of secularism was published.

Although the debate over the role of secularism and religion-informed opinions in Singapore have perhaps quieted down and while Mr. 黄浩威's opinion piece perhaps does not provide any new arguments (in that his arguments have already been espoused in other forms by others), it would seem to me that he has been able to weave together these arguments in a concise and cogent form. Hence, I decided that it would be worthwhile for me to translate his opinion piece and share it with you all (note: I would be making some edits to the original paragraphing so as to make it appear less clunky and easier to digest).

"Secular humanism is more practical"

In a speech made in Parliament on May 26th, Nominated MP Professor Thio Li-Ann expressed her opinions about the saga involving AWARE and secularism; her opinions are worth noting. She states that "Secular fundamentalists are oppressive where they seek to mute religiously informed convictions in public debate, by demonising a view as religious in attempting to make religious faith a cause for embarrassment or to distract citizens from the merits of an argument by discounting a speaker whose values are shaped by a religious rather than a secular faith".

Professor Thio seems to be concerned about having one's freedom of religion and expression being infringed in a secular order. Ironically, the fact that Professor Thio is able to speak freely in Parliament about her strong belief that religious values should shape the legislative process and that the local media reported her speech makes her allegations against secularism appear most fallacious. Indeed, it is Singapore's secular order that protects Professor Thio's freedom of expression and religion.

Professor Thio's arguments also attempt to conceptualise the relationship between those with a religious faith and those whom believe in secularism as being adversarial, if not diametrically opposed, to one another. The problem is that such a "us-versus-them" binary worldview is a very dangerous worldview.

In this diverse world which is being globalised rapidly, constantly changing and composed of various religions, ethnicities and groups of different sexualities, secularism is not equivalent with atheism. In reality, there are many proponents of secularism who would factor in the influence of religion into legislation and policy-making. The crucial point is, however, that more than one religion's opinions are being factored in; and beyond religion, it is also necessary to factor in the opinions of different disciplines and fields of knowledge e.g. economics, sociology, biology, sexual studies, cultural traditions, world history and humanism.

How can we conceptualise the world as being simply consisting of black and white when a myriad of religious sects and denominations, differing over how their religious texts should be interpreted, are in existence?

Another proponent of such a binary worldview would be the self-styled "Feminist Mentor" Dr. Thio Su Mien. Dr. Thio asserts that to have a "neutral" stance towards homosexuality is equivalent to promoting and supporting homosexuality. The issue, however, is not that simple: "neutral" means that one neither supports nor objects; that after considering the arguments of different sides, one choose to not support either side. Do we really have to force those with a neutral stance to choose a side or to even define them as being the enemy?

If we are to adopt a binary, if not adversarial, approach to religious, moral issues and issues pertaining to sex, we will easily fall into the linguistic trap set by former US President George W. Bush: "You're either with us or against us". An important reason why this hawish war-mongering former US President, who initiated wars against Afghanistan and Iraq and sidelined Muslim & developing countries in his foreign policy, was able to win two presidential terms would be the support he received from the American religious right-wing.

of course, those who are religiously fervent can forthrightly claim a right to involve themselves in the public secular space. However, if they are trying to covertly propagate their religious doctrines through disguising themselves with the sheep's skin of secularism, their intentions will nonetheless be treated with suspicion even though they may claim to be acting out of a genuine concern for the well-being of the country and society.

Simply put, secularism refers to how, in a society, people's actions and decisions (especially those of a constitutional or governmental nature) are not based on religiously-informed opinions but on scientifically-informed opinions. Of course, in a multi-religious society in which a majority have a form of religious faith, it is not possible to entirely exclude the role or influence of religion in society. Many may have moral/ethical standards which are based on their religious beliefs but moral/ethical standards vary from person to person.

But if and when all those living in Singapore (including those not from Singapore) are made to abide by the moral/ethical standards of a particular doctrine, for example: forbidding the consumption of pork, fining those who are non-vegetarians, prescribing that people need to pray/give thanks before the consumption of meals, this would not only create sectarian or ethnic conflicts in society but Singapore would perhaps also not be the dynamic and diverse cosmopolitian city it is now.

Hence, the middle path of secular humanism would perhaps do better in ensuring religious harmony, ethnic co-existence and to preserve the rights & welfare of different groups. More importantly, this enlightened approach would not only protect and preserve religious freedom but also not deny the existence of divine beings; the opinions of different religious faiths regarding the supernatural, life and death would also be tolerated. With such an approach in place, people would be able to pursue their religious beliefs and practices in private and still be able to be a secular humanist in the public space.

In the end, secular humanists need to constantly remind themselves to respect those whose views and opinions may differ from theirs. Even if they do not concur with the opinions of others, they should attempt to understand and tolerate them and to foster dialogue between different groups; they should not try to covertly put in place their belief and worship of the supernatural as the ideological basis for civil society or parliamentary debates. They should also not insist that they are in possession of the universal absolute truth and proclaim themselves to be the majority in society and hence have unquestionable authority. Only in this way, can genuine and honest exchanges, tolerance, respect and harmonious co-existence be actualised.

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