Sunday, May 20, 2007

Is there a place for God in public morals debate?

Pub Date: 18/05/2007 Pub: ST Page: 33
Day: Friday
Edition: FIRST
Headline: Is there a place for God in public morals debate?
Page Heading: INSIGHT
Source: SPH

GOD often enters the picture when there is debate on issues of morality and
When it comes to gay issues, for example, some Christians may say that
homosexuality is a “sin” – not just any old sin but a particularly grievous one
that harms individuals and children and families and indeed puts the entire
bedrock of society at risk – and should thus be criminalised.
Back in 2003, when the Government liberalised its hiring policy and said being
homosexual was no longer a bar to holding a sensitive government position, the
gay issue erupted into the national consciousness.
Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s recent remarks have caused the issue to be
raised again. He said that if homosexuality is genetically determined, “why
should we criminalise it?” But he also said Singapore is a conservative
society, and the Government did not wish to upset citizens’ sense of propriety.

So the situation in Singapore remains: homosexual sex acts remain a crime, but
the state won’t act like a moral police and go around barging into bedrooms.
Once again, the battle lines are drawn clearly, with the notion of homosexual
sex acts as a “sin” cropping up.
But “sin” is a theological concept, defined by some religions as an offence
against God. Should it have a place in a public discussion on morals?
Or to frame the question in another way, should religion have a place in public
discussions on morality? To what extent? And are there ground rules for such
debate, so people of different or no faiths can engage in meaningful dialogue?
One solution is to give up and say that people of different beliefs can never
engage since they start off with different a priori positions.
Nominated MP and lawyer Siew Kum Hong noted: “How do you convince, through
argument, a Christian who is convinced that homosexuality is evil and immoral,
a sin that needs to be outlawed? I don’t think you can.”
I am more sanguine. I not only believe Singapore can evolve ground rules for
discussing moral issues among people of diverse or no faiths, but I also
believe it is essential that we do so, given the increasing sway of religious
teachings, and the rise in values-related issues Singapore will confront.
The gay issue is just one example. Others include recent debates on casinos and
stem-cell research, and sexuality education (abstention or contraception?), and
one day, perhaps, euthanasia.
With moral debate a certainty in public discourse, it behoves Singaporeans to
develop an understanding of how to engage in such discussions fruitfully.
Some people may respond by saying that religion and private morals have no
place in public debate.
The thinking here is that Singapore is a secular state made up of people of
many or no faiths, so God should be kept out of policy discussions.
But this position ignores the psychological reality that people’s values are
shaped by their religion, so religion will slip into the picture anyway.
As the 1989 White Paper on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act states: “It
is neither possible nor desirable to compartmentalise completely the minds of
voters into secular and religious halves, and to ensure that only the secular
mind influences voting behaviour.”
In Singapore, 85 per cent of the population profess a faith, such as Buddhism,
Taoism, Islam, Christianity or Hinduism and others, with diverse teachings on
It may be more realistic to acknowledge that religion affects an individual’s
private morality, and hence shapes his view on public issues.
Should the line then be drawn here, to let citizens practise their private
morality, but curtail their ability to use religiously motivated views to
influence the public agenda?
In 2004, I wrote a commentary arguing this point of view, saying that religious
groups should limit their influence to their own flock, and not try to organise
to get others round to their point of view.
I have since come to see the limits of such a position, which curtails
individuals’ and organisations’ right to influence the policy process.
So, should people of faith be allowed to use religious justifications for their
views and influence others accordingly? For example, can the argument to keep
homosexual acts a crime be based on religion?
Prescribing this would be foolish in a multi-faith society with people who
adhere to different religious teachings.
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.
Influential moral thinker John Rawls’ The Law Of Peoples is devoted to the
issue of whether religious doctrine is compatible with democracy.
He sets out to distinguish a person’s value system or “comprehensive doctrine,
religious or non-religious” as one which “we do not expect others to share”.
In political discussions on an issue, however, “each of us shows how, from our
own doctrines, we can and do endorse a reasonable public political conception
of justice...The aim of doing this is to declare to others who affirm different
comprehensive doctrines that we also each endorse a reasonable political
For example, Christians may cite the Good Samaritan story to say that Jesus
taught that we should care for our neighbours.
But to convince non-Christians, they have to “go on to give a public
justification for this parable’s conclusions in terms of political values”,
notes Rawls.
How can they do so? Well, they may argue that we owe a duty of care even to
strangers, using the principles of proximity and reciprocity: You were there,
and can help, so you should, because you would want others to do so if you were
in such a situation.
Such use of “public reason” is accessible to all regardless of religious faith.

This way, individuals may hold fundamentalist religious views that are
non-negotiable, yet are able to take part meaningfully in discussions on
morality using “public reason”, appealing to common values held by those of
different faiths.
But this requires mutual respect, a spirit of civil tolerance and a willingness
to bracket one’s own religious beliefs to hear others out.
Most important of all, it requires a willingness to consider that one’s private
morality, based on one’s own religious beliefs, need not be the basis of public

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