Sunday, October 23, 2005

*Thought experiments a.k.a. Why I believe in Secularism and Liberal Democracies*

It's a pity when many otherwise reasonably intelligent and rational persons turn towards strawman argumentation and sophistry in a attempt to justify/impose a conservative/religious or an intolerant viewpoint on others. The sadder part is that because of the misrepresentations, someone who comes into contact with such argument with an open mind is liable to be persuaded, not by the strength of the argumentation but because of its misleading nature.

So here's the first thought experiment. Assume two religious fundamentalist groups (Christian and Islamic or Hindu Fundamentalist) each of whom does not believe in secularism. What next? Can violence and conflict be avoided when the stakes are so high? For whichever group gains the reins of power will be able to impose their viewpoint on the Other, to the Others' detriment. I wonder whether the Christian right would be so quick to trumpet this concept if it were likely than another religious group antithetical to its beliefs that were likely to win.

So think instead to a group that does believe in secularism regardless of its religious inclinations. Does it 'impose' its beliefs (in this case secularism) on others? Yes, it does but not in the same fashion or with the same results as a religious group who does not subscribe to the same belief in secularism. For a group that believes in secularism will 'impose' a state of affairs where the state will not promulgate one religion over another. The state does not take sides. All are free to practice their religion as they will. Something we like to call the Freedom of Personal Worship or Religion.

What many do not realise is how secularism (as it is most commonly understood) came about. Back in the 1500s, Roman Catholicism was not simply a religion. It had political power and force. The Pope was not simply a spiritual leader but the head of state of the Vatican. The Holy Roman Empire could call upon the great Mercenary General Wallenstein and his huge army to impose its will upon its subjects. So along came a group of Christians called Protestants because they were protesting Roman Catholicism as it was then. There were substantial doctrinal differences that till today are not resolved. For example, if one looks at the Vatican 2 documents, Protestants are said to have an imperfect communion with God because they don't believe that the communion wafer and wine represents the literal body and blood of Christ. Anyway, the problem was that one could not worship freely, instead, one ostensibly had to adopt the type of Christianity that the Ruler of the land believed in. So if you were Protestant in a Catholic land, tough luck. Similarly, if your were Catholic in a Protestant land, watch out.

So eventually after a lot of debate, fighting, wars, deaths and atrocities and the Council of Trent, the Treaty of Westphalia in 1638 was the result. From there was born the freedom of personal worship and secularism as we know it. The state shall not impose its religion on you. I think it's always worth noting that the people who are opposed to secularism tend to come from the religious group that is powerful enough to gain power. A weak religious group will never be against secularism because it would be in most senses suicidal.

So what does this mean for religious opinion in a secular land? With the exception of the extreme secular humanism of France (kind of like a reverse theocracy but nicer), no secular state denies the right of religious organisations to make their opinions known on issues of public. I have addressed this issue at greater length here, so I won't belabor the point. Except that just because a viewpoint is a religious one does not grant it some automatic moral stamp of authority. And though such views should be solicited, it does not necessarily make good public policy.

So instead, lets take thought experiment number 2. How do we prevent theocracy by stealth? Something that is a legitimate fear within America today with the rise of the Religious Right and its influence on the President and the Republican party. Obviously then, other than a belief in secularism, you need institutional checks and balances to keep Church and State separate. This is where the modern functioning democracy comes in. Because contrary to how its opponents would love to portray it, it is only in a Democracy where we have the rule of the ruled that it becomes more likely than not that such concepts as a separation of power and institutional checks and balances are more likely to flourish than not.

{Editor's note: The bane of being a liberal and a debater means also being able to see both sides and as such most arguments are couched with caveats and on the basis of probability as opposed to outright 'certainty'}

Because while it is all well and good to proclaim that China's example proves a threat to the notion of democracy being vital to the rule of law, the fact remains that as long as it is in the Constitution (Basic Law) that the CCP will be the sole ruling party, you will never see the transcendence of rule BY law to rule OF law. Yes, you will see senior officials of the CCP punished once in a while, but either it's because they have fallen out of favour or such a state of rule of law will be utterly dependant upon a small ruling clique determining that this is how it should be. The question then becomes what becomes of this sense of rule of law when these people should pass on and there's no guarantee that the next batch will act in the same manner?

So we come to thought experiment number 3. Fine, we do have secularism and we do have institutional checks and balances to ensure that this state of affairs is kept. How then, do we ensure that minority views AND practices are not at the mercy of the majority's sense of 'morality'. This is positive morality (morality) i.e. a society's concept of what is good and right as opposed to critical morality (Morality) i.e. the morality that we use to critique even positive morality. That's where liberalism comes in and with the extension of tolerance that’s how the entire web of secular liberal democracy is woven.

Too often the accusation comes that liberalism is merely another world viewpoint no better or worse than any other. Or that it is also a form of imposition to argue for liberalism. Or liberalism is empty because it's derived from post-modernism which believes that all values are subjective and "I cannot accept the subjectivity of all religions" or "I think this is simply moral relativism".

Let's start with the basics. What does post-modernism say and what does it not say. Yes, it does say that no values are objective and that all viewpoints are necessarily subjective because we are approaching them from a background of cultural and moral conditioning. Like law, much of what we term morality is actually positive morality, the ethos i.e. the 'ethics' of a particular society. And very often this is the result of a historic contingency (if Islamic globalisation had taken root, there probably would be Intellectual Property rights). So an anthropological study of positive morality by Mead turned up only 1 'rule' that could be found across 'all' cultures (she studied), and that turned out to be a prohibition against incest. And we know that at one point in time, even that wasn't a 'sin' in the eyes of the Judeo-Christian God. And also, we know that in some sexually permissive cultures, this is not a taboo at all. Having children from such a relationship yes, but not the act of sexual congress itself. Alternatively, we could say killing is wrong but that does not answer the point of whether capital punishment is wrong, or abortion, or euthanasia or even embryonic stem-cells. It's a good starting point for those of us who subscribe to such a belief but that's about it really.

But what post-modernism DOES NOT SAY is that all forms of action are necessarily right. Again, all views may be subjective but it does not mean that we cannot condemn Osama bin Laden. What it does suggest instead is that given this whole spectrum of valid views, what is the best way of accommodating all of them when one cannot on a normative level judge them to be better or worse than the other.

Which really turns out to be a question of tolerance and which brings us neatly to Utilitarianism and J.S. Mill's harm principle. The only true objective standard as it turns out seems to be harm. Does a particular action cause harm? More accurately, does it cause harm to a 3rd party? Because intrinsic to liberalism is the notion that the individual knows what is best for himself and what would give him the most happiness. And generally this is true. What this extends to is that if a person persists in a course of action that harms himself, we should entreat him but not use political power or criminal sanction to stop him. After all, once upon a time, you could get killed for engaging in atheism or pre-marital or one of the hundred things society previously frowned on. So this notion of 3rd party harm also protects the individual from the tyranny of the majority and a mistaken notion that a groups necessarily knows what's best for an individual. Or put another way, it prevents giving carte blanc to societal accepted discrimination e.g. frowning upon on inter-racial couples or for the some of you old enough, having long hair as a male in the 1970s.

Very often at this point, questions would be raised as to whether harm is necessarily objective and what constitutes harm (does offensiveness constitute harm). These are valid objections but the this really is a concession that we all speak the language of harm now. But even if we did not, the Harm Principle and say Objective Universal Morality are not mutually exclusive or exhaustive. What this means is that poking holes at the Utilitarianism or Liberalism does not automatically establish that OUM is automatically right. And even if one could tear down Liberalism or Utilitarianism, all it could mean is that OUM is one of the possible alternative theories.

Very often we forget that the freedoms that we take for granted today were fought for and that people have been tortured, killed or destroyed in the process. And more importantly, that we need to protect these freedoms from those who would take it away from us whether on the basis of they thinking they know better or simply out of malicious greed for power.

So thought experiment number 4. what is the effect of a conservative imposing his viewpoint and a liberal imposing his? Very simply, the liberal's 'imposition' is more accommodating.

This answers the first two questions that emerged from Thought Experiment 3. Is Liberalism simply not another equally valid viewpoint and is it not simply another form of imposition?

Because if I as a Liberal 'impose' my viewpoint on you as a Conservative, you do not lose anything for you are still free to practice your conservative stance and lifestyle etc (though I might personally detest it). But if I as a conservative were to impose my conservative viewpoint on you as a liberal, then you would lose the ability to practice privately what is not to my taste. And if I dislike a particular minority group then here comes state sanctioned discrimination. Homosexuals as unnatural? The fact that you could fire someone for being homosexual and he/she would have no legal recourse? Therein lies the crux of the issue. Under a conservative regime, you lose a lot more personal freedom than you do under a liberal one.

So am I being intolerant when I deny your intolerant viewpoint and seek to prevent you from imposing it? Yes, but only in the linguistic syntax point of view. If we just look back at the prior paragraph, we see what the substantial core of the issue is. Sorry but the earlier proposition is simply a whole load of sophistry bunk.




At 8:03 PM, Blogger Huichieh said...

Strictly speaking, Westphalia did not guarantee religious freedom in any straightforward way. After all, it affirmed the principle cuius regio, eius religio, i.e., the prince, ruler, etc., of a area is given the progative to decide what religion the people in the area is allowed to follow. Though there was some freedom for the Calvinist, who were "recognised". Full fledged religious freedom came much later. For a more full fledged religious freedom, one has to look more to the American founding.

One confusion that erstwhile 'conservatives' often fall into is over the word "secularism". They suspect that it implies an actual denial of religious belief / commitment. And unfortunately, the word does slide into a substantive doctrine of this sort sometimes. But obviously, this is not what you are arguing for. Rather, you are talking about a situation whereby public power "does not take sides". It is suitably neutral.

Which is partly why I prefer to make the same case using the concept of "public reason"--i.e., public policy should be decided upon reasons that can--in principle--be agreed to by all groups, whatever their sectarian commitments (religious or otherwise).

At 11:40 PM, Blogger Shaun Lee said...

Mea culpa. Thank you.

Yes the treaty reaffirmed the principle by shattering the power of the Holy Roman Emperor to determine religion and gave that power back to the German princes of the individual states.

I have brought shame upon a entire's semesters work on the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. *Sigh*

At 8:18 AM, Blogger Agagooga said...

You're blogging as much as me :P

At 12:06 PM, Blogger Huichieh said...

Well, it's hard to keep everything straight after a while...

Since we are on the history: I forgot to mention the case of Holland, to which many 'heretics' and 'dissenters' flocked in the 17th century to escape persecution in their home countries. Apart from the US, Holland is probably the other important place where religious freedom was practiced.

There are also important *religious* (Christian) sources to the modern concept of religious freedom. The colony of Rhode Island was the first explicitly founded upon the principles of the separation between church and state, and that of religious freedom--and it was the brainchild of the Baptist preacher Roger Williams. And as far as he was concerned, it's not just a matter of expedience but a theorem of Christian doctrine.

At 12:34 AM, Blogger Shaun Lee said...

Right, the rise of the Dutch can be traced to the mass exodus of protestants there. If I'm not wrong they were the Calvinist right?

And of course, the Swiss had Zwingli as well.

At 9:18 AM, Blogger Huichieh said...

Yes, there were many Calvinists in Holland--among others. At one point, Holland was the favorite hideout for various dissenting groups persecuted in England. Some of those will eventually end up in America.

Calvin in Geneva and Zwingli in Zurich. But let's face it, the 'mainstream' reformers were not all that hot about 'religious freedom' themselves. Zwingli, for example, ran many Anabaptists who disagreed with him out of town. The reformers still bought the assumption (shared with Rome, going all the way back to Augustine) that society-state-church are one. The religious sources of the freedom of religion came from groups that disagreed with this assumption (all the way back to the Donastist opponents to Augustine, to the Anabaptist, Mennonites, and various dissenters, non-conformists, and Baptists--some of whom took refuge in Holland when things get too hasty in England).

At 10:19 AM, Blogger Shaun Lee said...

Why am I not surprised by the actions of the 'mainstream reformers'? =P I mean being Catholic in a Protestant land was no cup of tea either.

But it gets a little confusing for me here because I didn't do much work on the anabaptist. But as far as I', aware, the anabaptist are a collective term given to the group that we would call the puritans today. And as far as I'm aware, this was a very diverse group. In fact, some of the views they held are pretty heretical by most standards i.e. that Satan wrote the Bible to lead the Faithful astray.

Didn't they mostly off and went to America?

At 1:56 AM, Blogger Huichieh said...

The term "Anabaptist" (= "re-baptizers") was given to an artificial collection of highly hetrogenous groups by their enemies. Mostly in Germany and other parts of central Europe. So it could range from the young humanist-educated followers of Zwingli who thought that he was not going far enough in returning to the New Testament and breaking away from Rome (and subsequently being persecuted by him), to various 'heretical' groups, to the German peasant rebels that captured the town of Munster and attempted to rule it Taliban style (before the city was recaptured by Catholic forces and they were brutally wiped out in turm).

So it varies: some are really 'out there'; others would have been considered totally sane by us but just too advanced for their own time. Nothing in particular unites them except for the fact that they were all considered outlaw by the religious authorities (both Protestant and Catholic) of the time.

In any case, the term 'heretic' gets thrown about so frequently in those days that it doesn't really mean much...

But in my earlier comments, I do have a more specific group of 'Anabaptists' in mind. These are people who disagreed with both the mainstream reformers and Rome over the issue of the conception of the church--in particular, whether it is a voluntary community of believers, or a territorial organisation the members of which are by default all the people who live in that area. It is their conception of the church as an in-gathering of believers drawn *out* from society at large that is an important Christian seed of religious freedom. On this conception, the church exists within society. It is not co-extensive with it. On the contrary conception, church is society; and church government just is the state.

The issue of baptism is actually an important aspect of the debate. Traditionally (i.e., from late antiquity onwards), the baptism of *infants* has been the method by which a new member is added to the church/society. Baptism records functioned as birth certificates would today (think through the implications of that). The Anabaptists insisted on adult/believer's baptism: you join the church by baptism when you actually declare for Christ (in line with the voluntary nature of the association). Since most of them were already 'baptised' (invalidly, on their account) as infants, they were derided as 're-baptisers' by their enemies. From the point of view of the enemies of the Anabaptists, these people were basically issuing new IDs that are in competition with the one that has already been issued by the government!

Most of the Anabaptists were killed (either by the Protestants or the Catholics), but their ideas lived on in successor and related groups such as the Mennonites, who also influenced the English Baptists more remotely, among others. They would have found safety in America, but I don't think many made it there.

Joseph Esherick has a good book on the Anabaptists. The really good one is by Leonard Verduin, who called them the "stepchildren" of the reformers.

The "Puritans", on the other hand, are members of the English church that became dissatisfied with the religious establishment around the time of Elizabeth onwards. Many were Calvinists. Their opinions ranged from those who sought to reform the Church of England from within to those who asked for a more radical separation. Again the term was given by the opponents; the 'group' is hetrogenous.

Some eventually ended up in America, or America via Holland. But others stayed in England as well.

With regards to the issue of religious freedom, most (but not all) puritans are still committed to some sort of church-state conception , or perhaps more accurately, even though they wouldn't identify the religious government with secular government, they still expected the latter to protect and uphold "true religion"--up to and including the punishing of heretics (seen as a menance to society in general). And some will bring versions of that conception to the colonies.

But there were others--especially among those who asked for separation from the Church of England--who were more 'radical' in this regard.

At 7:11 AM, Blogger Huichieh said...

Sorry, not, Joseph Esherick but William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism. And Leonard Verduin, The Reformers And Their Stepchildren

At 9:20 PM, Blogger Shaun Lee said...

Ah... Very enlightening indeed.


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