Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Religion in public debate 

In an article in The Straits Times today titled “Hearing out religion in public debate”, law professor Thio Li-ann writes:

What is the legitimate role of religion in public policy debate? The issue was highlighted recently during the presidential election in the United States, where the success of President George W. Bush’s “moral values” campaign was aided by the evangelical Christian vote.

There are two warring camps. On one side are radical secularists or “exclusionists”, who insist that religion has no place in public life and should be excluded from public debate. On the other side are “inclusionists”, who insist on free and open democratic debate, and welcome both religious and secular arguments in this.
This is a fine example of how to bias an argument in favour of your own view. Notice how the writer represents the secularists as “radical” and “exclusionists”, while representing the religious side as “inclusionists” who “welcome” free and open debate. This caricature of the two sides set the tone for the rest of the article.

Which is a pity because the apparent dichotomy in the secular view and the religious view has great relevance in the Singapore context. Taking either one or the other path in a national debate presents problems.

The problem with a purely secular basis for debate is that in reality, religion is important to many people. Telling such people to refrain from asserting views that are based on their religion is to deny them the right to shape society according to their deepest convictions.

However, relying on religion is also fraught with problems. What distinguishes religious morality from secular morality — yes, despite what is implied in Thio’s article, secularism does not preclude morality considerations — is the belief by the former of divine being or beings who determine moral standards. This means that when the moral standards of one religion are in direct conflict with the standards of another religion, it becomes extremely difficult to find a compromise.

Another article in The Straits Times today by Malaysia correspondent Leslie Lau provides additional perspective on the problem. In his article, Lau states that in Malaysia, the strong religious influence presents the Malaysian government with a serious problem:

Most of these [Muslim] voices are not stridently fundamentalist. Religion just plays a big part in their lives... But the preoccupation with matters of canon underscores the problem facing the government: How to balance the interests of Muslims and non-Muslims, and between conservatives and liberals within the Islamic community... And while not anti-Christian, Christian symbols can provoke a negative reaction.
Which is ironic considering that Islam and Christianity share the same roots. But it underlines the problem: Strong religious beliefs can lead to antipathy towards rival religious views. A point to consider for all multi-religious societies.


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