Friday, October 24, 2014

Religious Values in Public Discourse

[From 2011 around the time of the AWARE saga.]

The principle of separation of politics and religion and secularism is under attack. Not to be dramatic about it, so far (in 2011) it is some skirmishes at best. The first sortie was by NMP Thio Li-Ann in Parliament, right after the AWARE saga. Now a series of articles and letters to Today. This is the first article that launched the debate.

Room for religion in public discourse

Why, in some situations, it makes sense to let religious citizens speak up on their convictions

Apr 07, 2011

by Tan Seow Hon

At the end of a philosophy of law course that I taught, a student told me that his only regret was that "religion was kept on the sidelines". He felt it could add something to the topics discussed. But he understood that it might lead to "irresolvable differences and controversy".

The idea that religion is an ultra-sensitive topic best avoided is ingrained in the Singaporean mindset.

[I think we have to disabuse Singaporeans (particularly those with strong convictions) that we do not discuss religion because it is an "ultra-sensitive" topic.

It is not about sensitivity. 

It is about there being no common grounds. No possibility of common ground. No possibility of compromise.

The issue is not "ultra-sensitive". The issue is value-laden, grounded in mutually exclusive conviction and beliefs, and is a matter of Faith (with a capital "F", or even all caps - FAITH).]

When religious citizens engage in public discourse that leads to public decisions and laws, others fear they make arguments supportable only by religious worldviews. Intractable debates result. Government might end up pronouncing on the rightness of one religious view over another.

[That's naive, if not moronic.]

Moreover, public decisions and laws affect everyone in our multi-religious democracy. If they are supportable only by religious views, are not the religious imposing their views on the rest of society which may not share such views?

When several persons from the same church won executive committee seats at the annual general meeting of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) in 2009 and were opposed to the manner Aware conducted its sexuality education in schools, the public were concerned about the appropriate role of religious persons and groups.

This concern also arose in the 2007 debate over whether section 377A of the Penal Code, which prohibits acts of gross indecency between males, should be repealed. Some say the prohibition is justifiable only on religious grounds.

The Government's approach is that of sensitivity, neutrality and consultation. The pronouncement of our Constitutional Commission in 1966 that Singapore is a "democratic secular state" is affirmed in the Declaration of Religious Harmony. The Government recognises the vitality of religious harmony in our multi-religious nation.

Its call for sensitivity is bolstered by laws such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act and sections 298 and 298A of the Penal Code.

These laws regulate, among other things, acts that cause feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious groups.

The secular nature of the state means laws and policies are neither dictated by the views of any religious group nor justified by religious authority. Religion, however, often contributes to the mores of societies. As such, the Government receives the views of religious groups as interested parties, for example, in relation to the integrated resorts.


Given our commitment to democracy, pluralism and the secular nature of our state, what argument is legitimate in public discourse which leads to laws and decisions that affect everyone?

First, treating a particular religion as authoritative without consideration of anything else is out.

Second, excluding religious persons [This may be a strawman] cuts off the majority of Singaporeans who regard themselves as religious. Unless a state is anti-religion, why should having a religion bar one from public discourse?

Third, denying someone the right to participate in public discourse if she is religiously motivated or influenced does not make sense. We reasonably expect people to treat their religions more seriously than hobbies. [Another possible strawman.]

Furthermore, as Columbia Law School professor Kent Greenawalt suggests, it is hard to determine how a religious person would decide an issue if she only refers to publicly accessible reasons and personal non-religious bases and detaches her religious bases from the analysis.

We might think those who are religiously motivated are unlikely to change their minds on an issue, whereas those who begin with personal non-religious motivations are open to reason. Prof Greenawalt notes that this distinction is "overblown", as the latter might not be open to arguments to the contrary while the former might be. 

[A definite oversimplification, and possible strawman.]

The late Harvard professor John Rawls suggests we refrain from deciding basic questions of justice by comprehensive doctrines of truth, which include conceptions of what is of value in human life. Examples include religious worldviews and secular doctrines such as John Mill's ideal of individuality.

Instead, rely on "public reason". Offer fair terms of cooperation to others. Propose what is most reasonable to us. We must also think the proposed terms are at least reasonable for others as free and equal citizens to accept.

But how does one know what is "reasonable" or "fair" without reference to standards of truth in comprehensive doctrines? Oxford professor John Finnis thinks Prof Rawls's approach results in basic questions being remitted to hunches, as one is not allowed to resolve them by reference to what is true.


On whether laws should permit abortion, for example, Prof Rawls asserts that women who reject the claim that foetuses have a right to life from conception are not "unreasonable".

Prof Finnis suggests that medical science shows the difference between the unborn and the newborn to be no more and no less than the difference between being inside and outside the mother's body. He thinks it is arbitrary to deny the unborn the rights of free and equal citizens - rights accorded to newborns - by allowing women to abort them. Following from Prof Finnis's view, it is not true that the only reasons for restrictive abortion laws are religious in nature.

Prof Greenawalt, on the other hand, thinks that science can trace the growth of the unborn, but does not resolve its moral status. Permissive abortion laws settle the metaphysical question of the moral status of the unborn by deciding that an unborn is not worthy of the same protection as a newborn. Such metaphysical questions are in fact answered differently by different religious and non-religious convictions, by reference to reasons that are not necessarily publicly accessible.

Prof Greenawalt thinks that if publicly accessible reasons and shared premises can't resolve such issues, the religious and the non-religious are both reaching beyond such grounds in law-making. All may rely upon their convictions while committed to a secular democracy, although realistically, laws would be changed only with substantial support.

Allowing religious citizens to participate according to their religious convictions in such situations may be as sensible as allowing non-religious citizens to participate according to their personal convictions. After all, what grounds democracy and the very belief that we should not impose on others is a metaphysical belief in equal moral worth.

Religious or not, we may share these premises, which may well be quite beyond the realm of publicly accessible reasons.

Dr Tan Seow Hon is an associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University. She was a panelist yesterday at the Asia Journalism Forum-Institute of Policy Studies Conference on Reporting religion: Dilemmas of public discourse.

[My take away from this article is simply an observation that everyone accesses their values and convictions in public discourse. But I don't go overboard in trying to read too much into people's agenda. If the argument is fair, I try to take it at face value. But Dr Tan has a history of pushing for a role in religion in public discourse.]

Why one defends the secular state

Apr 13, 2011

Letter from Zhou Ziqian

IN HER commentary "Room for religion in public discourse" (April 7), Associate Professor Tan Seow Hon advocates allowing room for religious arguments in the public decision-making mechanism.

Assoc Prof Tan considers several possible positions that an individual committed to a democratic, pluralistic and secular state might take. He might, as Assoc Prof Tan suggests, champion a system which bars all religious persons from entering into public debates. But, as she rightly notes, this would preclude a majority of religiously-inclined Singaporeans from public debates.

I disagree, however, with her characterisation of the defender of the secular state - he could simply be one who views with unease political arguments backed by reasons whose force are ultimately traceable to religious sanctions.

[She did not create or characterise a "defender" or "champion" of the secular state. Poor reading comprehension skills. Leading to wrong conclusions.]

The advocate of the secular state would prefer a state of affairs in which ideally, all input into the public decision machinery are of the species "public reasons" - that which should appear fair and reasonable to well-informed individuals.

But Assoc Prof Tan is sceptical. She asks, "how does one know what is 'reasonable' or 'fair' without reference to standards of truth in comprehensive doctrines?"

We may come to know what is reasonable and fair by investigating whether or not, say, a certain public decision unduly burdens a certain group of individuals on arbitrary grounds, such as sex or race. We may come to know what is reasonable and fair by availing ourselves of empirical data which reveals, say, that a certain policy is impractical for reasons such as a lack of resources.

The notion of a "public reason" need not be a mere synonym for our brute, unreflected convictions, nor vague and prejudiced.

[Creating an issue out of nothing and arguing against false constructs. Strawman fallacy.]

Even what seem rational reasons involve norms

Apr 14, 2011

Letter from Ronald Wong Jian Jie

I REFER to the letter by Zhou Ziqian, "Why one defends the secular state" (April 13).

The definitional concepts of "public reasons", "secular" and "reasonableness" are highly contested. I, too, am of the view that public discourse should be done via public reasons, that is, reasons everyone can understand and hence are rational.

[Starting to get confused...]

But "reasonableness" based solely on empirical facts is not reasonable. As Arthur Leff has argued, there is no "rational" way to prefer one "rational model" over another.

[And here is where he starts getting all twisted up. And he started quite well.]

For instance, implicit in the preference for an economic analysis of policy-making is the fundamental premise that rational economic behaviour is the ideal. How do we test if that is indeed true - or more true than a premise based on behaviour that promotes human dignity?

[And here's the narrow, one-dimension definition. Politics is more than economics. Otherwise we won't have politicians, we'll have economists. Only economists argue rational economic theories. Politicians argue and debate policies. Some may be economic. Some may be military defence, foreign policies, human services, welfare, etc.]

When one asks if a group is "unduly burdened", there is hidden a normative criteria to determine what is "unduly".

Facts do not tell us what norms are. We all assume genocide is a grave wrong. But it is only wrong if we assume the value of sanctity of life of all persons. Genocide of economically burdensome people is arguably not wrong if one's only value is economic productivity.

[Still stuck in one dimension. Is he seriously saying that you can find a mainstream culture that considers "genocide of  economically burdensome people" a valid, reasonable position? Or is he positing theoretical constructs with no basis in reality?]

So, "public reasons" must allow for normative ideals - whether these ideals come from religion or a sociologically constructed sense of morality. The problem with the latter is that it is nebulous and unstable. During the German Third Reich, many thought it acceptable to kill people deemed "sub-human". Today, the German conscience speaks otherwise.

["Nebulous and Unstable" is just another way of saying "Dynamic and Adaptable". Also no cite for "many (Germans) thought it acceptable to kill people...". Presumptive. Or another strawman.]

Let's re-examine our assumptions lest we forget.

Secularism in its extreme can be intolerant

04:46 AM Apr 18, 2011

Letter from Sanjay Perera

I REFER to "Why one defends a secular state" by Zhou Ziqian (April 13), where there seems to be a misunderstanding of what "public reason" implies. Having a secular state as believed by some is to give preference to a set of beliefs that can be characterised as secularism.

Secularism is that which favours a secular ideology as an imposition on society, just as would be done by an overtly religious state by its imposition of religious dogma on everyone.

No one religion should dominate the agenda of a country like Singapore. But secularism also means you are apparently barred from bringing in spiritual or religious ideals into public discourse. This is just another form of discrimination.

The fact is, none of us is immune to the values of our upbringing, culture, traditions or spiritual beliefs. We may discuss issues in public without quoting verses from a religious text, but that does not mean the ideas we "secularise" in public are not influenced by spiritual values.

When we demand that a government or society show compassion, how certain are secularists that all those who clamour for this do so on grounds not rooted in spiritual values? If you discover that a person who champions human rights, tolerance and fairness for all in society is motivated by spiritual or quasi-religious beliefs, does this then invalidate the person's causes?

To say that your motivation and values must be based on a secular humanism, whatever that means, before it can be allowed in public is not only hard to verify but smacks of intolerance of one's personal beliefs.

As long as a spiritual idea is made acceptable in public discourse and is shown that it is meant to express a view that puts forward the good of everyone without bias against others, that view would be one of public reason and acceptable in our society.

It would be bizarre to condemn the views expressed by leaders and citizens who say "my prayers are with you" to the Japanese people as they struggle with their problems.

[I don't usually agree with Perera, but his letter summarises the key issue very well. You can argue for your values, but your argument must be able to persuade without resorting to scripture or religion, or values based on conviction. In other words, your views may be informed by your values, but in seeking to convince and persuade another, you need to based your argument on common grounds. Your inability to do so, speaks to your cognitive limitation.]

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