22 May 2009

What 'secular state' should mean

Beyond saying "Keep religion out of politics", few Singaporeans can flesh out what the concept of a secular state should be. Without being true to secular humanism, the Singapore state will always be lurching between religious pressure groups. Full essay.


Anonymous said...

Dear Alex,

There are some assumptions you make which are troubling: Why is it that "conservative" is inherently bad or evil (and conversely, that all things 'progressive' or "liberal" must be good)? Why is it that "conservative" has to be bandied together with religion?

I cannot accept the argument that religion is antithetical to humanism. To take an example: Erasmus was a humanist and a fervent Christian too.

Anonymous said...

Conservatives have historically been consistently against all the things we take for granted today as part of basic decency.

They were against the abolition of slavery.

They were againt equality for all races.

They were for separation of races.

They were againt universal free basic education.

They were against universal suffrage.

In Singapore today, they are against treating gays as equals - don't say they are, our laws say what they do in the privacy of their own bedrooms is illegal.

Robox said...

Hi Alex,

Actually, any examination of secularism can only be helped by an understanding of how secularism came to be adopted by the modern state (as opposed to the feudal one). This is not the same thing as WHEN the ideas of secularism were first mooted - it had an earlier history.

Secularism was adopted as an anti-thesis to the practises in many feudal states such as states going to war in the name of religion, but even more, the practise of entire populations being forced to convert to a new religion/denomination whenever the monarch did so.

Modern secular humanism as practised by the State is also sort of codified in the UN Declaration of Human Rights to which Singapore is a signatory.

Section IV (Fundamental Liberties) of the Singapore Constitution, while embarassingly and shockingly anorexic, is in turn informed by the UN declaration, and is legally binding on the government.

This brings me to the question of secularism and the role it plays (or should not play) in the legislative process. In many British Commonwealth countries - Singapore included - the ground reality is a source of lawmaking, though not the only one.

Thus if religious views are a ground reality, then it does not make sense not to take those religious views into consideration. (It's also a vote securing move by politicians.)However, when those views contradict constitutional law - the supreme law of the land - then the "hard secularism" of not allowing religious law or injunction to become the law of the land kicks in, even while accomodation for those religious views continues. This requires a deft balancing act.

The above paragraph describes the only tenable solution to the gay rights conundrum. While there is clearly religious antagonism against gay rights, the Constitution, which once again is supreme, simulataneously accords legal equality to ALL persons. This is an irreconciliable contradiction. The only possible accomodation then to religious views is the status quo: you are still free to practise your religion to your adherents (only) as you always have been, but gays are still going to get their rights. (It is actually win-win but not viewed as such by the religious activists.)

The strongly religious should quit the pretense that anything is going to change for them because gays get their rights.

(Sorry if this is not too coherent; I had to write in a hurry.)

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

Anonymous 22 May 2009, 05:22

To your first point, I think Anon of 09:46 has answered it. Progress has not come about by being conservative.

Your second point is completely right. Humanism does not contradict religiousity or living a spiritual life. For one, Humanism focusses on THIS LIFE, not the AFTERLIFE. One can be both devoutly religious and a dedicated humanist at the same time. The Christian anti-slavery campaigners most certainly were. And that is why a secular state adhering to the principles of secular humanism in the public sphere can equally be a multi-religious society.

The problem only arises when one or more religious groups insist that their religious dogma supersede humanist principles int he public sphere, in laws and state policy.

It's a problem that the Singapore govt seems all at sea over, because they themselves do not understand that it is important to defend secular humanism, and they too think (erroneously) that secularism merely equates to averaging of faiths or averaging of public opinion.

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

Robox -

Your point noted and agreed with. What may be worth pointing out is that "the practise of entire populations being forced to convert to a new religion/denomination whenever the monarch did so" is not merely historical.

The issue in fact is right here with us. The disproportionately Christian ruling class is beginning to impose their religious values on the rest of society through laws and policies.

Anonymous said...

"The only possible accomodation then to religious views is the status quo: you are still free to practise your religion to your adherents (only) as you always have been, but gays are still going to get their rights. (It is actually win-win but not viewed as such by the religious activists.)"

Ironic isn't it. That a religion founded by martyrs can be so vindictive and intolerant.

They make a big deal about how the practice of their religion once caused them to be lion food in stadiums. See what happens when *they* control the stadiums.

Natasha said...

this is another valuable essay, but on one point I think it is important to make a clarification:

when it comes to establishing ultimate foundational values, we really are not in the realm of logic, critical thinking or scientific enquiry. More than 2000 years of moral philosophy, and we still have no 'truth test' for morality, and good reasons to suppose that there can be no such test.

You slip in 'well-being' as a core value for humanism, but this is both immensely slippery (is it self-reported happiness? some other criteria?) and ulimtately arbitrary.

I do not think religion has any lock on defining ultimate foundational values, but I think we have to acknowledge that these values, and our commitment to them, stems from a process that is more intuitive than rational, and ultimately rests on a kind of faith. Not necessarily at all a religious or supernatural faith, but a commitment based on direct experience, persuasion and aesthetics rather than logic or science.

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

Thank you Natasha for that clarification. Some foundational values that feel "right" intuitively or through life experience, and are yet broadly acceptable, do not really derive from science or rational analysis. One example is altruism. and as you said, one does not need belief in the supernatural to arrive at this common moral value.

Z said...

Imagine if we really were in a secular humanistic state. You make this comment:

"Modern humanism, on the other hand, asked the empirical question -– where is the evidence that one class of persons is inferior to another? And if there is no objective evidence of inferiority, then by default, all should be equal"

and I ask "why?" (I.e. the intellectual basis) to the 'conclusion' you shared. What would your answer be?

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

Z -

The answer would lie in principles #3 (growth and fulfillment), and #6 (ethics of respect for others).

Using equality as the default standard is the optimal basis for #3 and #6.

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

And perhaps from critical reasoning, as derivation from the golden rule: Do not treat others in a way that you would not want to be treated yourself.

Amalekite Infant of Midianite Virgin said...

What's a conservative? He is someone who is comfortable (and in all probability, a beneficiary of) the the prevailing order. He doesn't want any change even if it would improve things for others because - why take the risk - he is happy with the way things are. People should just accept their lot in life and not make trouble.

Conservatism is a character flaw.

Robox said...

One more point that I need to follow up with, Alex, is that the religious antagonism towards gay rights are based on a definition of SIN, a religious concept.

However, criminal law is not - and should not be - concerned with a definition of SIN, but one of CRIME.

What CRIME has been committed in any instance of consensual same sex coupling, even if some people will always continue to regard said coupling as SIN? Who are the victims if this were a CRIME and what HARM/LOSS - important criteria for the definition of crime - was inflicted on the 'victim/s'?

These are the questions for legislators as well as those in the criminal justice system.

When legislators, along with others in the criminal justice system, base their opposition to gay rights on a definition of SIN (even while they disguise their language in secular terminology) they are compromising the secularism of the State.

When they insist on doing so repeatedly, they go one step further: they are ANTI-SECULAR.

It is the ability to make these fine distinctions between definitions of SIN and CRIME that determine if our politicians and legal professionals have the competence to manage and work within a secular framework.

Robox said...

"...the practise of entire populations being forced to convert to a new religion/denomination whenever the monarch did so" is not merely historical. The issue in fact is right here with us. The disproportionately Christian ruling class is beginning to impose their religious values on the rest of society through laws and policies."

Thanks for saying that. That was why I felt I might have been incoherent because that was the conclusion I was struggling arrive at.

And it is because of your above scenario in quotes that there has been such widespread anger over this. One can certainly imagine why there were unrests historically as well as today resulting from the mismanagement that we seeing in Singapore today.

Z said...


what then, if one happens to see his "growth and fulfilment" with selfish lenses and does not subscribe to the golden rule ethics? The Golden Rule itself, or any normative ethics for that matter, is not begged, nor a necessary logical derivation, of a secular humanistic outlook. It can only be "assumed", or claimed to be "broadly acceptable" as you did in your reponse to Natasha.

I thus find this worldview rather empty.


Anonymous said...

Z sounds like he sat through the first half of philosophy primer class, got bored and left.

He mixes premiss and conclusion and practices his half digested ideas of self-refutation techniques used in philosophical argumentation on them.

No YB's viewpoint was not empty. Z's was juvenile.

YCK said...

You commented that what you see as "minimalist secularism" is not good enough:

Suppose a large plurality of a Singapore's population subscribe to this religion, and without the overt involvement of this religion's clergy, its adherents press for these values to be incorporated into law and policy.But that may be only the practical position to maintain. Granted that citizens holding religions are the majority, it is almost impossible to ensure that all religiously-based ideas not get formulated into laws and policies. I can only hope that the majority holds religions that are unbigoted, encourage broad-mindedness and thinking, i.e. toward the liberal side of your scale.

In my view, enforcing secularism only requires that any ideas being discussed be stripped of underlying religious justifications. In short one has to make reasoned arguments without recourse to religion, as one has to ensure that the ideas have currency outside one's flock.

Pretense of secularism will be seen through eventually, as a recent debacle has shown. But one cannot be certain that this can always be counted on. The only solution is to bring up people with the ability to think critically. To this cause blogs like yours contribute when there is intelligent discourse held. It ends when the flaming starts.

Anonymous said...

Z doesn't seem to have thought things through (or at all). If not secularism then what? Christianity? Islam? Buddhism? Hinduism? Secularism is like democracy. Has flaws, but there is nothing better.

YCK said...

There has been much discussion here about "conservatism". What is wrong with it? Why is it banded together with religion? Is it consistently against all things we take to be basic decency? Is it always guarding the status quo against change and progress?

Though these questions are important, I shall not take up space answering them. I shall stake my stand by asking a simpler question:

What are the conservatives, we are referring to, conserving?

If anyone does stop to think about it, it becomes apparent that they are holding an inconsistent position. Are they asking for the preservation of all things of antiquity? If I am not mistaken, they neither apply this rule universally nor unproblematically, sometimes with suspicion of having double standards. Their causes are rather parochial compared to the concerns of humanism.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alex,

This is a very complex topic you have raised and certainly worthy of more severe interrogation. I think you are spot-on in your assertion that the lowest common denominator would hardly work in achieving “secularism”, but herein lies the fundamental problem (pardon the pun) of law-like structural explanations; such explanations inherently seek to expunge contestability from debate and discussion, placing ambiguities under the control of a system of understandings, and bringing dissidents under control of a consensus which marginalizes debate and discussion. Monolithic religions fit this characterization, and problems arise when various constituencies – churches, states, cultures, and individuals – attempt to sanctify their own identities by defining differences along morality, ethics, and to some extent, rationality. Therefore secularism as an attractive alternative to religious strife and sectarian conflict provoked by competing truths seeks to carve a public space out of religiosity – one based on rationality, public reason, and public ethics; bearing in mind that Tocqueville’s contention that church and state could be separated rested on the premise that public life was already grounded in Christendom. Yet, in its insistence on drawing a firm line between public life and religious doctrine, secularism has itself tended towards making the same claims as religious narratives: of secularism as a monolithic, authoritative voice (the desire to ‘monolithize’ it perhaps subconsciously reflected in your title “What ‘secular state’ SHOULD mean”) in public life and a fix-all solution to conflict through the truth of reason and rationality. This has led to dogmatization of secularism, the cultivation of intolerance in likeness to the very religious fundamentalism it so labels, and even an intensification of the religious strife it seeks to prevent (think Iraq, Afghanistan). In this way we can locate in secularism the very same fundamentalism it seeks to demonize; hence contrary to what you pointed out, secular humanism is on a collision course with religion, and secular humanism will not work amidst the competing truths trapped in separate ideologies. Secularism is also attractive because it purports preservation of liberty – and here I use ‘liberty’ interchangeably with the ‘democracy’ everyone is in favor of – but this particular brand of liberty operates along a rubric of freedom that is so slippery (in the same way Islam did not extend equality to non-Muslims) and controversial that the very concept itself threatens to lose its utility in neutral empirical inquiry, as you experienced during your survey on defining secularism. Perhaps the ethos we’re searching for would be better expressed as pluralism in its purest form, but then again we’ll have problems drawing the line between that and anarchy.


Anonymous said...

Conservatives are conserving ... the prevailing status quo!

Thus they are anti-questioning, anti-creativity, anti-change, and anti-progress. By definition.

The actions of conservatives throughout history consistently show this to be true.

Yes, change is scary. So it death. It should not stop us from trying to evolve and excel ourselves.

Thanks for another GREAT article!!! I am a proud humanist.

Midianite Virgin said...

"What are the conservatives, we are referring to, conserving?"

Depends on time and place. Take today:

In parts of Africa, female circumcision.

In Aghanistan and Pakistan, honour killings of women.

In many parts of Asia, preference for sons leading to female infanticide.

In Singapore, criminalization of homosexual acts betweeen consenting adults.

In Greece, persecution of Ancient Greek religion revivalists (ironic if you think about it).

For the extreme TSM-wing, against the civil service employing homosexuals (see her old letter to ST).

Every single one (except the preference for sons) has the backing of some religious authority.

Anonymous said...

This article seems to have provoked in YB sampler humanities/social sciences/philosophy first year undergrads to try out their recently acquired vocabulary. Charming. But obvious.

Anonymous said...

A sample:

"Therefore secularism as an attractive alternative to religious strife and sectarian conflict provoked by competing truths seeks to carve a public space out of religiosity – one based on rationality, public reason, and public ethics; bearing in mind that Tocqueville’s contention that church and state could be separated rested on the premise that public life was already grounded in Christendom. "

I am reminded of a piece of software that mocks writings on post-modern themes by randomly stringing together post-modern buzz-words into grammatical sentences. Few could tell the difference from human generated ones.

But the sample above was definitely from someone who hasn't mastered the vocabulary.

Yeech said...

Hi Alex,

Good to know that you have been up to your mischief. I'd love to do that. May I suggest you take it further and ask them what are "conservative values" and "Asian values" too, and document your findings.


Z said...

Anon 12:50,

I did not say YB's view was empty. I said the philosophy of secular humanism was. I'm sure you can tell the difference?

Anon 20:58,

Secularism =/= Secular humanism. Please think AND READ things through.


Felicia said...

Awesome essay. Even before I read anything about secularism or humanism, I had always thought that there was something "off" about Singapore's so called secularism, and how it equates secularism with its multiracial, multireligious stance. I think your essay perfectly articulated how Singapore's alleged secularism falis to take into account the opinions of the nonreligious and how it is incompatible with the values of secular humanism.

A few of the comments here mentioned conservatism. I believe that conservativism is inherrently bad because it seeks to preserve the status quo solely on the basis of tradition, rather than on the merits of the things that it wants to preserve. In this vein, conservatives automatically view social change as bad, and create moral panic by labelling these social changes as the "decline of our moral values". They see change as inherrently bad, regardless of any sociological or scientific fact showing the opposite. In contrast, liberalism weighs social phenomenons and social changes on their own merit, and is therefore a more unbiased approach.

In this way, I think that conservatives are grossly unrealistic and idealistic; they idealize the past as a time of morality and traditional values. But in reality, that period of so called "moral stability" and tradition never existed, because the conservatives of that era were too busy reminiscing about their own past. Conservativism is just wishful hindsight; where conservatives hold the fallacious belief that society had always stayed constant up till now, when jews/blacks/communists/working women/gays/*some other moral scapegoat* came along to ruin society.

However, I think it is interesting that you make such a huge link between conservativism and religion. While it is highly likely that Singapore's conservative policies are largely due to the actions of the Christian elites (and also maybe some pandering to conservative Muslims), what about the many Singaporeans who base their anti-gay or no premarital sex stance on "Traditional Asian Values"? I think what is interesting about Singapore, as compared to say the US, is how the secular TAVs are used to defend many conservative opinions regarding homosexuals and women. And of course, the Christian elites are more than happy to appeal to this.

Amalekite Infant said...

About the writing style used in the comments, those who feel a need to write in an academic style should maybe try the style used in "analytic philosophy" and law and leave the postmodern stuff to classroom assignments. Agree or disagree with the 'tenets' of 'analytic philosophy' this style is closest to that used for any serious discussion of practical matters.

Frankly speaking, unless your are in the same class as Derrida and Heidegger, avoid writing that (post-modern-ish) way.