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A more religious brand of secularism

ICC Note:

Essay on Malaysia’s future in tolerating religious differences. Author quotes Christian, Islamic and secular sources

11/27/09 Malaysia (MalaysianInsider) — Religion is a problem for PKR. The recent bouts of infighting over Kulim MP Zulkifli Noordin’s claims that Malaysia is an Islamic state seem to indicate a party uncertain of its stand on religious affairs.

By deciding not to explicitly censure Zulkifli, PKR has risked alienating the urban, liberal set who are one of its crucial entrenched bases. Most of these people accept as gospel the idea that secular government is necessary and religious government necessarily evil, and have responded to Zulkifli by singing the praises of a secular, liberal, democratic Malaysia.

Their arguments are generally founded on two assumptions: one, that a society with minimal oppression and a strong distinction between public and private spheres is, all things considered, the best kind of society, and two, that such a society is best achieved through liberal democracy. These aren’t indisputable, but they’re strong enough that for the purposes of this article I will proceed as though they should be accepted as sensible.

Most liberal democratic thinkers fiercely interdict any links between political power and religious canon; they argue that religion seeks to regulate people’s personal lives to an excessive degree, and brooks no compromise — the final rationale always being that divine law is above mortal question.

Most of these secularists don’t seek to restrict religion altogether; being liberals, they realise that this would be a hideous violation of the rights of religious people. History provides ample accounts of attempts to banish religion — Stalinist Russia, post-Revolutionary France, etc — and the outcomes have never been picturesque. Most contemporary secularists seek only to declaw religion, as it were, and prevent religious edicts from influencing the formation of coercive laws. If you can discourage people from seeking legislation on the basis of religious belief, then their religion can be freely practised without presenting a threat to the liberal and tolerant character of society.

The underlying assumption of the DRR is that not all reasons are born equal, and that for political purposes secular reasons are inherently superior to religious ones. To me this smells suspiciously like a kind of blanket discrimination. It’s far from Maoist China, and there certainly isn’t any active persecution involved, but is the absence of active persecution really the same as a lack of oppression? Is there not a possibility that the religious are oppressed by the DRR, since it dismisses the political validity of their beliefs, and restricts their freedom of conscience?

Secularist thinkers have a tough time proving that this isn’t the case — so tough, in fact, that they still resort to variations on the wheezy old “false consciousness” riff, essentially arguing that secularism is not discriminatory because any rational person would accept it. This is ludicrous, and is entirely comparable to the logic of a religious fundamentalist — “if you were in your right mind you would believe what I believe”.

For those who prioritise political equality, it’s tough to explain why the concerns of every non-religious interest group in the world — the environmentalists, technologists, market capitalists, sports enthusiasts, etc, etc — should be given political legitimacy when the religious are denied it.

The secularist may bring up religion’s lamentable track record of derailing tolerance and freedom, and suggest that this alerts us to the risks involved and justifies the suppression of religious arguments in politics. To my mind, no proper liberal will accept this. It’s a damning reminder of how easily even the most well-intentioned liberal ideology can slip towards self-defeating paternalism.

Considering that even today there exist strains of bigotry that not only thrive within secular political systems, but are actually justified using secularism — think of the headless histrionics that flare up in France over the sartorial preferences of Muslims — it’s difficult to accept that secularism is as clear-cut and unadulterated a virtue as it’s made out to be. Perhaps in the interest of liberty we need to temper our secularism and accept religious arguments in the political sphere.

This does not necessitate an anything-goes society; it simply means that we should evaluate political arguments not on the basis of their religiousness or secularity, but on the basis of how well they contribute to the overall project of a society free of oppression.

Some may cry foul over this, and suggest that it seeks the impossible, because tolerance and individual liberty are anathema to religion. This is a curious view, because it overlooks the religious origins of many of the values integral to liberal society.

Take human rights, for example, which many see as having been first systematically formulated in the American Declaration of Independence. In making their assertions of individual human dignity, the American founders were influenced by the work of British philosopher John Locke, whose ideas are rooted in Protestant theology. Locke’s philosophy builds from the assumption that all things belong to the divine, including humans (which is why we shouldn’t kill or hurt one another). This, and not secular thinking, is the basis of America’s famous (and inconsistently observed) tenets of human rights.

Furthermore, while there have been many attempts to formulate foundations for human rights through reason and logic, even the most well-established and cogent of these — such as Kantianism or Utilitarianism — have been as controversial as religion, and ultimately always rely on some kind of foundational value-set which cannot be derived through hard reason alone. This value-set is precisely what religion provides for much of the world’s population.

In 2004 Pope Benedict XVI — then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — took on Europe’s foremost liberal thinker, Jürgen Habermas, in a debate. Back then the European Constitutional Treaty was being deliberated and Habermas, like many of the leading European intelligentsia, had been pushing to exclude any reference to Christianity as a fount of European liberal and egalitarian values, preferring instead the concept of “neutrality between worldviews”. Ratzinger argued that such neutrality cannot bear the weight of the values it is meant to support. Denying religious contributions to the development of human rights would be amnesic and fraudulent, he contended, and would hinder religious and secular folk from moving forward in pursuit of the goals many of them share, such as peace and freedom from oppression.

In order to maintain human rights, Ratzinger claimed, a staunch worldview of common values is required, and this should not be considered a matter of compromise. Such a set of values should have a “thick” foundation in history, tradition and — if one happens to be religious — spirituality, in order to overcome arguments in favour of oppression.

Habermas was so struck by Ratzinger’s points that he conceded the debate, and went on to revise his ideas, saying that “Universalistic egalitarianism is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle post-modern talk.”

Liberals ought to take note of Habermas’ change of heart; an acceptance of religion as a stakeholder in the founding of human rights will serve to include the religious in the continual battle to uphold these values, in a way that staunchly secular politics simply fails to do.

Rather than claiming that we only need secular foundations for our values, we should, as British philosopher John Gray suggests, accept that “our criteria for judging religions shouldn’t be truth or falsehood, it should be like judging poetry or art. We should adopt ones which are the most beautiful.” Inconsistencies notwithstanding, we should acknowledge that religion has made beautiful and important contributions to ethics.

Once we accept this, it becomes hard to deny that a free political system should encourage religious arguments just as much as secular ones, because no idea can be judged as harmful or beneficial until it is tested against a society’s overarching values. Liberal democracy provides a suitable, if very messy, arena in which we can conduct this testing. It seems a ridiculous waste to adopt a system of government that fosters and balances so many worldviews, and then impair it by ostracising such a rich source of ethical acumen.

The problem with the arguments of any given Zulkifli Noordin is not that they are religious, but that they are intolerant and shallow. But we cannot let secularism run rampant, any more than we can let any one religion run rampant, because secularist thought is capable of equal feats of intolerance. We should instead encourage ulamaks and swamis and priests to speak out on politics. Provided equal footing is given to all religions, and that the religious adhere to anti-incitement laws (of the kind so often disregarded by Umno leaders), there is no reason not to give them a share in the big political dialogue. We should build a society where even people like Zulkifli Noordin can have their say; both religious and secular folk should be brave enough to accept that the fact of their inevitable disagreements doesn’t at all provide enough reason for one side to muzzle the other. At its core our society must be cognizant of the fact that whether or not we believe in a god, our decision to live ethically and be tolerant of others will always be a kind of spiritual leap.

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