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Mixing religion and politics May 28, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Education, Politics, Religion, Singapore.
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NMP Thio Li-Ann recently denounced the bewildering notions of “militant secularism” and “secular fundamentalists” in parliament. I suppose this is in contrast to mere secularism, where a certain dose religion can be allowed into politics? What a load of pointless semantics; what can only be perceived as an attempt to demonize secularism in order to legitimize the entrance of religion into public discourse. Indeed, she did argue that religion would sometimes be appropriate in policymaking, given the fact that many MPs themselves are religious. This view is flawed on so many levels.

 Firstly, MPs should be aware that they are not arguing for or against policies in their own individual capacities. They are representing the interests of all Singaporeans (or at least those in their GRC), inclusive of people of different religions, and nonbelievers. Because of this, it is essential that they put their own personal beliefs aside.

 Secondly, religious arguments are simply not applicable to those who are not in their religion. In alienates the rest of us, the same way conversing in Chinese to exclude a non-Chinese friend is alienating, non-inclusive and demeaning. By asserting that Policy A should be implemented because Religion X thinks it is good, it is making the self centered assumption that Religion X’s values must also apply to all other Singaporeans. Or worse, it is making the suggestion that the values of Religion X take precedence over the beliefs and principles of other Singaporeans.

 Thirdly, if an argument is made solely on religious grounds, it is usually an indication that there is no scientific or sociological evidence to illustrate its merits. Stating that something is a “sin” or an “abomination to God” makes an appeal to our emotions. But in no way is such an argument based on facts. In this way, an argument based on emotion instead of reason and logic simply has no place in public discourse.

 So what is considered an acceptable argument to be made in a secular public space?

 Take, for example, the debate from a few years ago over whether or not to allow a casino to be built in Singapore. Let us consider the following hypothetical arguments in parliament:

 

1. I am from Religion X. Gambling goes against my religion.

(Bad argument. So what if gambling goes against an MP’s religion? We’re talking about national policy here, not an invitation to poker night.)

 

2. Religion X says that gambling is a sin.

(Bad argument. Singapore is a secular country, not a Religion X-ian country.)

 

3. The Singaporeans from Religion X are against gambling because it goes against their religion.

(Bad argument. Why should that mean anything for the construction of a casino, or the other people who are not of Religion X who wish to gamble or reap in its economic benefits?)

 

4. Studies from other countries have suggested that the construction of a casino would lead to the following social problems:…

(Good argument. Instead of appealing to the beliefs of a single individual or a religious group, a good argument appeals to the issues that affect society as a whole, and provides facts and statistics to back up its claim.)

 Perhaps my point can be made most aptly with one of my favorite quotes from US President Barack Obama:

 Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason.

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The incoherence of religiously fueled homophobia May 26, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Religion.
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We’ve all heard it a million times before: the Bible clearly states that homosexuality is an abomination, so a good Christian should automatically regard homosexuality as immoral. A common argument used by fundamentalist and moderate Christians alike to defend discriminatory policies and attitudes against homosexuals. It doesn’t take too much to expose the incoherence of this position.

 Religiously fueled homophobes usually quote Leviticus to “prove” the immorality of homosexuality:

 18:22 Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination

 20:13If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

 Fair enough, you may say. Maybe the immorality of homosexuality can be justified by religious texts, even if only in the eyes of the believers. But let’s take a closer look at Leviticus. Is it really a source of Christian morality?

 11:7And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you

 According to Leviticus, it seems that pork is a forbidden meat.

 11:10 And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you:

11:11 They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination.

11:12 Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.

 It also seems that the consumption of oysters, clams, lobster, crab, squid and shrimp is an abomination as well.

 19:19 Ye shall keep my statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee.

 No mixed fabrics…

 19:28 Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.

 No autopsies or tattoos either.

 I will avoid making a rigorous critique of a religious text or its believers. Instead, I will simply make a broad statement. The bible and other holy text were clearly written at a time with wholly different social norms, morals and practices. Certain views and moral judgments are simply invalid in modern times. What they would consider socially acceptable in their day (slavery, sexism, the execution of nonbeilevers), we consider morally repugnant today.

 Those who choose to refer to such text to defend intolerance and discrimination are ignoring the fact that they are picking and choosing which biblical morals to implement and which to ignore. Instead of simply self righteously declaring that the bible states homosexuality is immoral, I believe that it is imperative for these people to concurrently explain why they feel that Leviticus 18:22 should hold more weight than the other less popular abominations mentioned in the same book.

If homophobes cannot logically explain why homosexuality should still be considered an abomination, but not the mixing of cotton and polyester, then using Leviticus to justify such discrimination remains an incoherent, unreasonable position. One would simply be interpreting the text in his own way so as to defend his own intolerance and bigotry.

Judgmental, moralistic sex education has no place in schools May 25, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Education, Liberalism v Conservativism, Singapore.
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Imagine that the Association of Wellness, Obesity and Nutrition Knowledge (AWONK) runs a course on diet and nutrition in schools. It teaches children about the nutritional values of certain foods, the negative implications of nutrition related diseases, and the importance of making healthy choices. It also teaches that some people have diet restrictions for moral or religious reasons, but does not pass judgment on this.

 Inexplicably, there is a backlash from parents. Angry parents have written to the newspapers about AWONK’s neutral stance on eating meat; after all, everyone knows that meat is murder and immoral. Other parents have complained that by teaching kids that meats such as pork and shellfish contain nutrients, we are promoting their consumption and blatantly going against the word of God in Leviticus 11:7 and 11:10-12. One parent piped up, “My child mentioned that he happened to learn about the consumption of horse or whale meat in other countries. You are supposed to condemn these actions because it does not reflect our social norms! How could you treat it in a neutral light when it would surely lead to the decline of our traditional values?” After much pressure from parents, the education ministry finally suspended AWONK’s program.

 Utterly ridiculous, you say? Well it is precisely this ridiculousness which is occurring in Singapore right now with MOE’s decision to stop Aware’s sexuality education program on the basis of it not reflecting society’s norms. This issue goes far beyond sex education. With one single action, MOE has made its stance clear: pacifying parents and maintaining social norms are more important than teaching students unbiased, scientific facts. Never mind the fact that these norms justify intolerance and discrimination, or the many studies that have shown that such approaches to sexuality education cause worrying increases in the suicide rates of gay teenagers. No, no. Preserving the status quo is more important than that.

 Preserving the Status Quo as an End in Itself

 The question we should ask those who justify judgmental views towards homophobia or premarital sex based on the preservation of social norms is this: is the preservation of traditional norms and values a good thing in itself, or is there some sort of benefit achieved from this judgmental approach?

 Many conservatives view the preservation of the status quo as a good thing in itself. This is perplexing to me because there is nothing inherently good about something just because it used to be practiced in the past. In fact, societies have abolished many things that the conservatives of their time would have militantly defended on the basis of “traditional values”, yet even many conservatives of today would regard as morally abhorrent: slavery, bans on interracial marriage, the denial of the right of women and blacks to vote… Conservatives seem to have forgotten that society has always been changing, and find it difficult to accept that it will always change.

It is incoherent to defend the perpetuation of such judgmental viewpoints on the basis that they represent traditional (and therefore moral) values. Such is the fallacy of the appeal to tradition, where it is assumed that something is better simply because it is older, traditional, or “it has always been done”.

 If there is indeed something beneficial about labeling homosexuality and premarital sex as wrong, conservatives are welcome to state their reasoning and evidence. Numerous studies have already indicated that abstinence-only education not only is not effective in reducing the cases of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, it in fact results in a higher rates of pregnancy and STDs when compared to safe sex approaches to sexuality education. As mentioned before, a negative approach to teaching about homosexuality results in a higher rate of suicide in gay teens. Opponents to unbiased sexuality education should be able to provide evidence for their cause instead of relying on emotive, dogmatic “reasoning”.

 Non-Universal Morality

 Some actions are universally immoral, such as murder and theft. But other actions are not universally regarded as immoral across all religions, cultures and times, especially actions pertaining to sex. By implementing courses that portray homosexuality and premarital sex as wrong, policy makers and educators are alienating the families and parents who do not share these views. It is blatantly ignoring the existence of parents with more progressive beliefs. How’s that for a “pluralistic” society?

 Simply by the fact that there is much disagreement over the morality over such issues, it is the most fair to maintain a neutral stance in schools, and allow the moral judgment to take its more appropriate place at home or in religious institutions. In this way, MOE’s action does not merely reflect social norms; it alienates liberals with its conservative bias.

 Respect

 Ultimately, it’s all about respect. Not just respect for others and their lifestyles and choices, but also respect for your own children. Do you aspire for your children to grow up to simply dogmatically inherit all your beliefs, your values, your ideologies? Or do you respect your children enough to want them to receive all the unbiased information they can so that they can think critically to make their own choices and become mature, self-actualized individuals?

Why bother with politics? May 25, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, Philosophy, Rants, Religion.
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So here it is. First post. And already I am faced with cynicism, not just from myself but also from the general air of apathy that seems to plague the people of Singapore. It would be so convenient to submit myself to blissful political ignorance, just like so many other youths do. After all, I’m not gay, or working class, or impoverished, nor do I belong to a racial minority. There’s no reason for me to get worked up over political and social issues that would probably never directly affect me. Right?

 Wrong.

 Firstly, I am nonreligious. One would assume that it wouldn’t be much of a problem in secular Singapore, but that is sadly not the case. Too often, policies are defended and justified on the basis of reflecting the “universal” conservative opinion in Singapore, as represented by the various religions. When liberal atheists or freethinkers state their position on certain issues, we are brushed aside as representing a radical liberal minority, while other otherwise unjust and unreasonable positions (such as the justification of homosexual sex remaining criminal) are accepted on the basis of “religious reasons”. Where is our platform? Do we ironically need a “Church of Freethought” which claims to represent dogmatic liberal values (Ha!) in order to be taken seriously?

 Secondly, I am female, and many of our rights and freedoms are being contested and even denied in the name of fundamentalist religious or conservative reasons. I had never questioned the many freedoms that we Singaporean women enjoy, but the recent Aware saga involving the fundamentalist Christian takeover shook me out of my complacency. It made me realize how easily religious fundamentalists can take over an organization, and how hard won our freedoms are. Our reproductive choices, employment opportunities, protection from rape and assault and even the way in which society views women and their choices (sexual or otherwise) are so intricately linked to the activism of secular feminists, and ought to be fiercely protected in the face of religiously fueled misogyny and sexism.

 Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I am human. Discussions about politics and philosophy are essential for a fulfilling life as a human being. In Plato’s The Apology, Socrates says:

 I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living.

 Socrates would have rather died (and he did) than cease his philosophical inquiries. I only wish I were half as devoted to the pursuit of reason and rational discussion.

 I don’t expect my opinions to change society, but at the very least, this blog would serve to preserve my sanity which is constantly under siege by frustration over irrational and intolerant views. We liberals need to show that we exist, that we are not immoral or crazy, and that we do not deserve to be pushed to the fringes of society and have our views dismissed during policymaking.

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