Saturday, November 24, 2007

Rules of engagement for God and politics

Nov 16, 2007

Religion may influence your view on an issue. But when arguing your case in the political arena, you need to present arguments understandable and acceptable to those of different faiths.

By Chua Mui Hoong

JUST what role, if any, should religion play in policy debate?

This issue, simmering below the surface for years, broke out into the open during the recent heated debate on whether to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises sex between men.

Three years ago, I wrote a commentary on the need for Singaporeans to develop some consensus on what rules should govern the role of religion in political debate.

At that time, I argued that people of faith should not impose their moral values on those with different values. For example, a Christian who believes that his faith condemns homosexual behaviour, should not therefore insist that others think likewise.

The debate has advanced somewhat since then.

Law lecturers Thio Li-ann and Tan Seow Hon have argued that religion does and should have a place to play in policy debate.

They object to the agenda of liberal secularism, which at its more extreme desires to confine religion to a private practice with little public impact.

Some secularists proscribe religious arguments from public discourse, and are suspicious of arguments from people of faith even when these are reasonable.

In response, both Professor Thio and Professor Tan point out that secularism as expressed in such ways essentially has a bias against religion.

This is a common and valid critique of secularism.

But in Singapore, the notion of a secular state does not deny religion. The state is not anti-religion; it is just studiedly neutral in respecting different religions and allowing religious freedom among citizens.

At the same time, history and practical considerations have resulted in Singapore according Islam a distinct legal status, with a separate legal system to handle Muslim marriage and family laws.

Singapore's approach to religion and politics is thus neutral, yet pragmatic, rather than anti-religion or ideologically secular.

There is no hostility to religion in the public square in Singapore. Indeed, religious people are not just tolerated in the public square; their perspectives are welcome and valuable.

Having established a consensus of an equal right to debate regardless of religion, the more fruitful question to discuss is how religion may engage with policy in the public sphere, in a manner that furthers the public good.

In May this year, I wrote a commentary on precisely this issue. In that article, citing moral philosopher John Rawls, I argued that:

'Those who want to advance public discussion must make use of public reason, and put up public justifications for what they believe in.

'In other words, religion may influence your view on an issue. But when arguing your case in the political arena, you need to present arguments understandable and acceptable to those of different faiths.'

Ms Tan also advocates a Rawlsian solution, when she wrote on this issue in The Straits Times last month.

She considers 'attractive' Rawls' suggestion that in a pluralist society, citizens view one another as free and equal, and offer each other fair terms of cooperation based on a common understanding of what constitutes political justice - 'as well as agree to act on those terms even at the cost of our own interests in particular situations, provided that other citizens also accept those terms'.

In a society like Singapore, reciprocity and mutual respect are cardinal values for any productive debate on policy issues.

The civic virtues of reciprocity and mutual respect require people of different faiths or no faiths, to agree to conduct policy discussions in a manner that advances the public good, not take away from it.

Rawls put forward the idea of an 'overlapping consensus', which in my layman's view I understand as the common space between and among people of different beliefs.

A debate on a contentious moral issue can aim to advance, not reduce, the common space.

This requires everyone, including people of faith, to abide by some ground rules of debate.

The first rule says that if you want to ban others from doing something you consider immoral, you need to put forward public justifications, not personal religious reasons, for such a course.

In the debate on Section 377A of the Penal Code, this was more or less followed, in that no serious participant in the debate cited overtly religious teachings as the basis for their argument why the law should not be repealed.

The second rule of thumb is that of restraint: If no public justifications are convincing, then a citizen should restrain herself from supporting a coercive law that seeks to ban others from doing something she considers immoral.

Another liberal secularist thinker, Robert Audi, argues that religious arguments in the public sphere should be subject to three principles:

First, the principle of secular rationale, meaning the arguments put forth must be capable of being understood without recourse to religious beliefs.

Second, the principle of secular motivation. In the context of Section 377A, proponents of a ban on gay sex should be motivated by secular reasons (such as concerns about harm to society), not religious ones (ban such acts because my religion says so).

Third, the principle of secular resolution, meaning that political issues should be finally resolved in secular ways, with decisions that can be supported with secular reasons.

Similar kinds of principles should of course apply to secular liberalists. They should not dismiss arguments merely because they are put forth by people of faith, or spring from religious beliefs. Instead, the arguments must be assessed on their own merit.

In the end, whatever faiths we adhere to, as citizens we should be dedicated to developing the common space between people of different or no faiths.

This requires that secularists provide a hospitable, not just tolerant, public space for people of faith to advance their arguments.

It also behooves people of faith to impose restraints on their public actions, and to recognise that civil law need not uphold their religion's version of morality - that indeed, the public good is sometimes better served by doing away with coercive laws.

So those who want gay sex to remain criminalised need to put forth secular reasons why this coercive law should remain on the books, for example explaining just how it harms society.

One critical issue not sufficiently examined in the protracted debate is whether greater harm is done by imposing a coercive law on otherwise law-abiding citizens, than in removing it.

And if the secular reasons are not strong, why then, it behooves people of faith not to persist in pressing for such a coercive law to remain on the books.

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