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On the Pope, condoms and messed up priorities November 22, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Religion, Society, Uncategorized.
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Perhaps you’ve already read about the pope relaxing the Catholic Church’s stance on the use of the condom. In a book that will be published this week, the Pope was quoted saying that the use of condoms could be justified in certain cases, such as by a male prostitute to prevent HIV. I wouldn’t disagree that despite this, there are still many aspects where the Catholic Church’s policies are outdated and unrealistic, such as its stance on abortion, homosexuality and attitudes towards women. But on the whole I guess we can all agree that this is a welcome step forward, a sign of progress away from archaic black-or-white rules about sexuality, towards (as the pope himself said) the “humanization of sexuality”. It is a very rare instance where, for once, a religion has got its priorities right.

Most of the time, I don’t let the incoherence of religious beliefs, traditional practices or superstitions bother me much. If you think sex before marriage is wrong, that’s fine as long as you don’t try and impose that view on others. If you think your dead relatives can receive your prayers and offerings, that’s fine if it gives you peace of mind. If you think a book written about desert nomads 2000 years ago contains a moral code that is still applicable today, then that’s fine too as long as you don’t try to use it as a basis for secular laws.

But what really REALLY gets my goat is when these irrational beliefs take precedence over human health and safety, and sometimes even human lives. The Catholic Church’s position on contraceptives is a key example. How could it ever rationally be argued that the preservation of sex as an expression of love between a husband and wife with a primary purpose of procreation, be more important than the ever growing problems of HIV/AIDS, STIs, and overpopulation? It’s one thing to view condom-less, contraceptive-less sex as an ideal (not that I can fathom why), but it is another thing altogether to impose that ideal as a moral law on real people, while expecting them to ignore real human urges or otherwise bear the lifelong or life threatening consequences. It is appalling how the pursuit of an ideal, “approved” circumstance to have sex is so important that the very real risks and outcomes become irrelevant.

The church’s lack of consideration for the problem of overpopulation is particularly worrying. Along with the “sex is only for procreation” mantra, there seems to be an accompanying view that isn’t so much “pro-life”, as it is “pro-birth”. By shunning all efforts for family planning, the Catholic Church is basically encouraging procreation as an end in itself, with no consideration given to the fact that resources are finite, and that uncontrolled procreation only adds the burden to family expenses, a country’s infrastructure, and the world’s already depleting resources. It may not be politically correct to mention so, but one can’t help but wonder whether the lowered social and economic status of Muslims in Singapore is somewhat linked to the increased rates of teen pregnancies, early marriage and divorce, and large families, all of which are consequences of a religion’s disapproval towards contraceptives. Should we really be worrying over the “sinfulness” of a piece of rubber when it involves compromising people’s quality of life and impeding the upward social mobility of a community, or even the development of a country (such as in the case of the Philippines)?

Another example of questionable prioritization is when people reject medical science at the expense of not only their own health, but also that of their loved ones. If there is one thing that humans have in common across all cultures and creeds, it is the empathy and love that we have for our family. It is shocking how religion or tradition can overwrite the very natural instinct of the preservation of self and family. This is exemplified in the biblical story of Abraham and his son, where Abraham shows his love for God by his willingness to murder his son (Genesis 22:2-13). It is even explicitly mentioned in the New Testament that believers should abandon their own parents, wife and children for Jesus (Matthew 19:29). So there is little question about the origin of such devotion to God that takes precedence over the life of an individual or his family, as seen when Christian Scientists withhold medical treatment from their sick children or when Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse blood transfusions for themselves and their children. I cannot decide which is worse: a person who would forsake his own family for his religion, or a religion which forces one to choose between being a good believer and being a good parent.

In the same vein, the practice of honor killings is extremely irrational and counter instinctive, and in my opinion, a serious case of screwed up priorities. Various cultures may place differing value on the concept of “honor”, but when such honor (or pride, or “face”) becomes more important than the life of one’s own child or sibling, there is something seriously wrong. It flies directly in the face of the human instinct to love and protect one’s own offspring.

Perhaps the examples I mentioned above may seem extreme and inapplicable to normal people in modern society. But religion and tradition taking precedence over family, loved ones and even public health is not uncommon in Singapore society, albeit to a less extreme extent. When a parent disowns his child for being gay, or when a staunch Christian refuses to attend his parent’s Taoist funeral ceremony, or even when parents and schools refuse to educate youths about safe sex by the rationale of conserving traditional values, it indicates that tradition, religion and policy are considered to be more important than family, love or health. It is sad how a an uncompromising belief can cause one to change his priorities such that love, empathy, and all other hallmarks of humanity have to take a backseat to moralistic ideals and doctrines.

On the illegality of (certain) drugs November 6, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Politics, Singapore, Society, Uncategorized.

As Singaporeans, we learn to never question the law. If something is illegal, then it must be inherently wrong. How do we know stealing is wrong? Because it is illegal! Why is murder bad? Because the police will catch you and put you in jail! It’s funny (or sad, really) when people mix up causes and effects.  Laws may stem from value systems, morals or the harm principle, but ideally their ultimate function is to protect our rights, our safety, and in some cases, our “moral values”.  But when one is brought up to fear the law, to never question it and to accept it as an unchanging truth, it’s no surprise when he gets things mixed up.  The law doesn’t seem to serve our interests anymore; instead, it appears almost like a state endorsed scripture dictating what is acceptable and unacceptable, good or bad, right or wrong. The morality of an action is now decided based on whether or not the law allows you to perform it.

An interesting effect of this mindset is the average Singaporean’s misconceived opinion on the issue of drugs. If you ask someone on the street what he/she thinks about drugs, chances are that you are going to get the standard reply: Drugs are bad. They’re bad because they’re illegal. Don’t you know you can get sentenced to death for the possession of drugs?

In other words, the average person rationalizes that drugs are bad because the law prohibits them. If pressed further, he might bring up the adverse health and social effects of drugs, but how does one know that such effects are really that bad? “Well, they’re bad enough for the government to outlaw drugs!” That is simply putting the cart before the horse, an unfortunate (and sometimes disastrous) result of putting unquestioning faith in an authority to always look out for our best interests. Goodness or badness is no longer an inherent trait, but is instead dictated by an authority.

It seems that the biggest misconception of all is that drugs are prohibited only because of the immense harm that they cause to the individual and to society. To illustrate how that is not the case, we just have to look to the drugs that aren’t illegal: alcohol and tobacco. Just a couple of days ago, a paper was published in The Lancet, accessing the relative harms of different drugs with regards to the user and to wider society. Considering 16 criteria including the drug’s effects on the user’s physical and mental health, adverse effects on the family, crime, and economic cost, alcohol emerged as the most harmful drug while tobacco was evaluated to be about as harmful as cocaine. Other illegal drugs such as ketamine, marijuana (cannabis) and LSD were ranked markedly lower than alcohol.

So why are alcohol and tobacco still legal, while everything else isn’t? There are a myriad of reasons, ranging from the social approval and acceptance of these drugs, to the power of the tobacco and alcohol industry, to the amount of tax these drugs generate. [1] In all cases, the amount of harm caused is but a minute factor contributing to why these drugs are selectively allowed over others.  As a result, we mistakenly believe that alcohol is a much safer drug than say, cocaine, simply by virtue of the fact that the government allows it. Similarly, we start dreaming up reasons why marijuana is evil and bad for health, whilst accepting tobacco smoking as a social activity.

 Is it fair then, for a piece of legislation to be falsely rationalized as intending to protect us, but when it is instead driven by economic, political and social pressure? Is it fair then, to demonize certain drugs as deadly, additive and destructive (not to mention demonize those who use them), when tobacco and alcohol are equally, if not more deadly, addictive and destructive?

I wouldn’t suggest banning tobacco and alcohol. But neither would I suggest legalizing drugs (not at this juncture with Singapore society’s maturity level, anyway). The takeaway message is this: the law (the authorities, the government, or anyone else who makes “the rules”) should never be shielded from question, and should never be immune to change. Instead of blindly accepting definitions of acceptable and deviant, moral and immoral, and what is “for our own good” from a source which is so influenced by politics, economics and power, we should instead ascertain for ourselves whether a piece of legislation has any rational merit. The mere act of questioning the norm, a tradition, or the status quo, is an act in freeing oneself from the constraints of authoritarianism and paternalism. Ubi dubium ibi libertas – Where there is doubt, there is freedom.

1. Interestingly, the criminalization of marijuana as opposed to tobacco in the United States in the 1970s was somewhat influenced by the fact that marijuana, a drug long used by African Americans and other minority cultures, was now linked to the negative values of individualism and youthful rebellion. The so labelled deviant youths, along with the minority races lacked the resources or power that the tobacco-using and producing elites had in order to influence policy. Marijuana was seen as a threat to the established order and to the tobacco industry, and was thus prohibited. Today, it is this fact that tobacco remains a hugely profitable industry run by big corporations which make generous donations to political parties that makes the suggestion of criminalizing tobacco almost unthinkable.
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