ST: The Homosexual Debate (Jul 19)

Friday, July 20, 2007

July 19, 2007


Let the religious have their say too

People cannot be expected to give up their convictions, so let friendship reign

By Andy Ho

MR BAEY Yam Keng said at a forum recently that if it came to a vote in Parliament, and the whip were lifted, he would vote to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code which outlaws homosexual sodomy.At the end of the forum attended mainly by gays and their straight supporters, the Member of Parliament for Tanjong Pagar GRC admitted he had been 'talking to the converted'. He lamented the lack of alternative viewpoints on that occasion. Yet if someone had stood up with the opposite viewpoint, the animus would likely have been palpable - especially if he were also religious.

Many who want Section 377A repealed think it is not appropriate for MPs to base political decisions on moral judgments derived from their religion. They must use only secular reasons, they tend to argue.

Conversely, the religious who want the law kept on the books ask if it is fair to discriminate against an MP's moral beliefs just because they are religious in origin.

Both sides, however, assume that they are talking about the same things when they make distinctions between 'religious' and 'secular', on one hand, and between 'religion' and 'morality', on the other. I think they aren't, which is why they might be talking at cross-purposes.

Imagine two people discussing Section 377A - Tom, a 'religious conservative' , and Tim, a 'secular liberal'. Assuming Tim is a dyed-in-the- wool atheist, he thinks of everything as merely an unending here-and-now, since for him there is no Hereafter. For Tim, 'religion' is just a make-believe subset within the larger whole of Reality, which is, of course, wholly 'secular'.

Tom, however, thinks of God as having written a Narrative about human lives and has assigned to people their roles in it, so they should endeavour to play those roles by living well in terms of what we call morals - duty, gratitude, faithfulness, and so on.

Of course, he also holds to a set of precepts that tells him how to do well in life - like studying and working hard, which is practical wisdom, though Tim might call this secular. For Tom, however, both practical wisdom and morals teach him how to live well (in God's eyes), so what Tim calls secular is, to him, just a subset of the religious.

This all means that the secular/religious distinction depends really on who is using which term, so Tim and Tom might mean quite different things when they talk to each other using similar terminology. In other words, the distinction is not a robust one.

What about the morality/religion distinction? Since morality refers to that set of precepts that a Tom abides by because he thinks that is how best to live most pleasing to God, a Tim should logically just junk such rules. For various reasons, however, unbelievers have not found this acceptable.

So they might remake morality in, say, utilitarian terms, noting how morality makes living life together as a community more efficient for everyone in the aggregate, for example. Gratitude means you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.

And so on.

Or they could note that the consequences for social life of junking morals might be too harsh. What goes around, comes around, for instance, so it is better to render some kindness when you can.

And so on.

So Tim keeps morals on the cards but uses the term 'morality' as if it can be distinguished from 'religion'. When he does so, Tom is likely to believe on the quiet that Tim's assumption is quite mistaken but, out of civility, tolerates it silently so that unregenerated Tim can act on what he thinks are 'secular' moral grounds.

Tim, on the other hand, also thinks since that is the only kind of moral values we have, and they do seem to serve our purposes rather well, let us just continue to use them and, if that obscurantist Tom thinks morals are actually derived from religion, why not just indulge him?

So while both sides may even agree that public policy should be based on moral values - including those informed by religion - they are not really talking about the same things. And, all the while, they both think they are indulging the other.

(The occasionally religious MP may vacillate between the positions of a Tim and a Tom, which only serves to confuse things even more.)

It seems to me wrong, therefore, to ask if a religious MP should refrain from making decisions (as a legislator) based on religiously derived morals. Given that what is secular and moral to you is always already and ineluctably (a subset of) religious to him, it is not possible for the really religious MP to do so anyway.

How then to go forward?

Instead of asking Tom to desist from religiously informed deliberations, Tim might want to soften some of that animus, stop demanding that Tom resort only to 'secular' grounds and allow Tom to freely participate.

In other words, treat him not as an enemy but a friend for, as Aristotle said, 'when people are friends, they have no need of justice, while when they are just, they need friendship as well; and the highest form of justice seems to be as a matter of friendship'.

When the religious participate in public deliberation, they cannot (be expected to) give up their convictions but the friendly desire to participate most assuredly attenuates their desire to win the argument. Unlike justice that so many modern thinkers insist upon, friendship does not require neutrality - like having both sides to an argument settle on only non-controverted premises before deliberations can even begin.

Friendship seems to be the better path to take if we want to see where the place of religious argument in public deliberation might best be.

Can't we all just get along? sg