Friday, February 17, 2006

Thought Experiment: Why I believe in Secularism and Liberal Democracy

Taken from an earlier post, some amendments made, particularly with regards to my mistaken interpretation of the Treaty of Westphalia.

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. But even then, it wasn't till the original colonist 'founded' the United States of America that we truely had freedom of religion i.e the state shall not establish a religion and 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.

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 Abrahamic 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.

I had hoped that I would have had more time to flesh out my comments on the following few issues as mentioned in Public Law class today but due to rather severe time constrains, it's going to be short. But I hope that my views shall be seen as natural extensions of my personal beliefs and principles above.

The Tudung issue

As I make mention elsewhere, there is a Christian basis for secularism when one consider's that it is said to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's.

But leaving aside the point of whether this is a religious or cultural issue, I personally like the Individualised Self Determination approach adopted by the British as justification for allowing a schoolgirl to wear whatever restrictive dress that she so wishes. And like the ACLU in USA, I personally think that the right to education should not be dependent on restrictions on your personal right to expression or religion in terms of dressing. And contrary to popular belief, the ACLU fights for the rights of Christian students to profess their faith on campus. What they oppose is the state or the school doing so and imposing it on everyone. I personally think it's more than a little hard to draw a line between 'supporting' particular relgious beliefs and in effect imposing a religion on everyone (and offending everyone else of a different religion). A good example of this is school prayer. By all means, do so privately or in a group that wishes to do so. But making everyone do it when not all pray to your notion of a god or even the notion of A god (or its existance) is flouting the establishment clause.

Unfortunately, even apart from the political issue that lay at the heart of the Singapore 'debate' on this issue, I feel that this battle had honestly been long lost once you accept or permit the notion of school uniforms and the uniformity that is imposed by both state and the school. While one could carve out an exception for religious beliefs (as is done in Physical Education), I think it places religion on an unjustified padestral. But then again, that's the way history has worked and the way our language and social constructs have been built. If one checks a dictionary, the connoctation of being a religious person as opposed to an irreligious person or worse an atheist is startling. There is a huge moral assumption that is not borne out on any empirical evidence at all.

But at least the French approach has the element of being consistent is banning all forms of ostentatious religious symbols. I personally think that the Nike comment, while cute, isn't terribly relevant to the debate because no one associates it with the Greek mythology anyway (much less worshipped as part of a religion). But even so, I disagree with the state determining what is considered orthodoxy and what is not. While I do not dispute that the state has the power to do so (on the simple basis that they hold power), nevertheless, I dispute it on the notion that it is inappropriate, detrimental and counter-productive. As I've expressed elsewhere, it's all well and good if you're in the club and part of the protected class. But outside of it e.g. homosexuals, you are left to fend for yourself.

Proper and improper prolytisation a.k.a. enforcement of a non-aggression pact

Apparently this was one of the reasons why the Maintanance of Religious Harmony Act was passed. I personally find being proselytised to rather annonying (especially when you come knocking on my door when I'm watching cartoons in the morning) but I'm not going to stop you from trying. Although I might well counter-proselytise.

But the personal observation that I have is this, while entering a place of religious worship and being antagonist and denouncing people of that faith is a fairly obvious form of improper proselytisation, what about a group that quietly prays outside another religion's shop (assuming that they stay under the whole demonstration treshhold?

And oh, you can be as antagonistic towards atheists/agnostics as you want =P


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