Is there a place for God in public morals debate?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

May 18, 2007


Is there a place for God in public morals debate?
By Chua Mui Hoong, Senior Writer

GOD often enters the picture when there is debate on issues of morality and values.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 ethics.

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 conception'.

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 law.