Category Archives: Pulse

Dignity, Respect and Speech

May 2019 Pulse

There has been much discussion in recent months in Singapore about deliberate falsehoods (especially the online variety) and hate or offensive speech. Hardly a day passes that The Straits Times does not carry an article or two about these menaces and what the Singapore government is doing to address them in the interest not only of social harmony but also that of national security.

Global concern over the scourge of fake news and hate mongering and the harm they inflict show that words do matter and that what is written, spoken or sung can cause irreparable harm to individuals, groups and even to society as a whole. In the era of deliberate falsehoods and hate speech, we can no longer accept as a truism that well-known idiom: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’

The Christian Scriptures has much to say about the power of words, their ability to build up and tear down. For example, in Exodus 20:16 we find this clear injunction: ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.’ Commenting on this verse, Walter Brueggemann notes that the ninth commandment emphasizes that ‘community life is not possible unless there is an arena in which there is public confidence that social reality will be reliably described and reported.’

Writing to the Christians at Ephesus, the apostle Paul exhorts them to put away all falsehoods and to ‘speak truthfully’ to their neighbour (Ephesians 4:25). Peter echoes Paul’s exhortation in his letter to the Christians dispersed in Asia Minor when he writes: ‘Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit’ (1 Peter 3:10).

Christian speech must always exhibit the qualities of civility and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Words must always be spoken in love (Ephesians 4:15). However, to say that these virtues should govern Christian speech is not to suggest that truth telling should be compromised, or that we should acquiesce to the culture of ‘political correctness’. For political correctness can itself be a form of falsehood, dishonesty and deceit that, in the long run, is harmful to human relationships.

To treat our neighbours with civility and respect is to acknowledge and honour their inherent dignity. It is to recognise that they are created in the image and likeness of God and are therefore valued by their Creator. Although this principle is firmly rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the basic intuition it conveys is not lost to our secular culture.

For example, in a series of articles on hate speech, Jeremy Waldron has convincingly argued that this form of discourse is fundamentally an assault on human dignity. Working with a broadly Kantian account, Waldron insists that ‘dignity is inherent in every human person.’ Furthermore, Waldron believes that dignity does not only have to do with the moral status of an individual but his social and legal status as well, which have ‘to be established, upheld, maintained and vindicated by society.’

Noting that hate speech is mostly directed at minority groups, Waldron argues that it behoves the rest of society to do their best to address the problem so that the dignity of the members of the target group is protected. He maintains that when society takes measures to curb hate speech against a minority group, the members of that group will be assured that their basic dignity and social standing as citizens are valued and respected.

For Waldron, assurance, which he defines as the ‘pervasive, diffuse, ubiquitous, general, sustained, and reliable underpinning of people’s basic dignity and social standing, provided by all for all’, is a public good. Such an assurance is vitally important if members of a society are to live trustingly and peaceably with one another. Waldron explains:

[I]n a well-ordered society, where people are visibly impressed by signs of one another’s commitment to justice, everyone can enjoy a certain assurance as they go about their business. They can feel secure in the rights that justice defines; they can face social interaction without the elemental risks that such social interaction would involve if one could count on others to act justly.

But in order for society to offer such an assurance, every single member must recognise that it is their duty to treat their fellow citizens with dignity and respect. Seen from this perspective, laws against hate speech are not only meant to punish transgressors. They are also purposed to instil in the members of the public their (legal) duty to acknowledge each other’s civic status – as social equals and as bearers of rights – and to treat each other with dignity.

Hate speech violates the dignity of its victims by calling to question or rejecting their status as people that should be treated as equal members of society. As Jonathan Seglow has argued, hate speakers implicitly claim ‘that minorities do not really merit the basic civic entitlements which the majority of citizens enjoy.’ ‘Hate speakers’, he adds, ‘communicate the view that minorities, who are often already vulnerable and marginalised, are not members in full standing of society.’

In denigrating its victims, the hate speaker does not only treat them with profound disrespect, he also assaults their self-respect. Thus, Jonathan Seglow, in agreement with other commentators, has argued that ‘the damage to self-respect which hate speech causes is a direct harm: it sets back individuals’ interests in morally unacceptable ways. As such unless there are strong reason to the contrary, we should treat it as we do other harms.’

The menace of hate speech can be successfully dealt with only when members of a society learn to respect one another and see this not only as their civic and legal duty, but also (and more fundamentally) as their moral obligation. To respect an ‘other’ is to accord him or her with an inviolable dignity as an equal member of the human race. It is to value him or her as a unique human being, who, like the rest of us, is given the privilege to be a bearer of the divine image (Genesis 1:26-28).

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Words That Offend

May 2019 Pulse

In his recent ministerial statement on hate speech, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam stressed that society must not only condemn hate speech, it must also shun speech that is offensive. This is because if offensive speech is not checked, over time it would create an environment that is ‘conducive for discrimination and eventually violence.’ ‘If we normalise offensive speech,’ the Minister explains, ‘after a while, the tone, texture of public discourse will change. Giving offence to others will become normalised.’

What constitutes offensive speech has been a subject of much discussion and debate. Some commentators have suggested that there are at least two types of offensive speech.

The first type of offensive speech is described as speech that is objectively offensive. An example of objectively offensive speech is telling falsehoods or lies about people that can harm them by damaging their reputation and causing trust in them to erode. This would of course include online falsehoods about a racial or religious group that could generate public animosity against or create suspicion of the group in question.

Objectively offensive speech is in many ways closely related to (although not always synonymous with) hate speech. In some ways, speech of this nature is in most (although by no means all) cases slightly easier to identify and the laws that are already in place in Singapore are, broadly speaking, quite sufficient to deal with them. New laws may be introduced to supplement existing ones by filling the gaps in current legislation.

The second type of offensive speech is speech that is deemed to be subjectively offensive. This is speech that hurt someone’s feelings but otherwise does no real harm to that person. Subjectively offensive speech includes insensitive words or actions that cause displeasure or anger, even outrage.

Speech that may be categorised as subjectively offensive, however, is of a remarkably wide range. At one end of the spectrum, there is the hurtful language that we sometimes use in everyday conversations (including slangs and colloquialisms) or during a heated argument with someone.

For example, we say that this individual is ‘a retard’ or ‘an imbecile’ when venting our frustration at not getting through to him or in expressing our disappointment at him for his unwillingness (or inability) to see things the way we do. These and similar monikers are also sometimes used to mock an ethnic or religious group.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have publications or artwork that are offensive to people who belong to a particular religion or racial group. For example, recently the Ministry of Home Affairs instructed the Info-Communications Media Development of Authority to cancel the concert of metal rock band Watain because the lyrics of their songs are offensive to Christians. The most radical instance of subjectively offensive publication is the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that denigrate Islam and the Prophet Mohammed.

Although these materials are deemed deeply offensive and hurtful by the respective faith communities, some commentators have argued that they cannot be said to have inflicted actual harm on those communities. Much depends on how narrow or broad is one’s definition of harm. Be that as it may, what is of moment is that between the black-and-white instances of offensive speech lies vast swathes of grey.

And it is here (in this grey territory) that there will be profound disagreement and conflict. There will be debates not only on whether the speech in question is indeed offensive, but also whether it is offensive enough to warrant government intervention or legal action. There will also be disagreements on how the prohibitions of some forms of offensive speech (and the fear of transgressing these prohibitions) could encroach on free speech, and debates on how candid opinions should be distinguished from deliberate slurs. There will be disputes about who gets to decide where the proverbial bright-line, beyond which satire must never be permitted to cross, should be drawn.

But there also lurks the danger that the responses to different instances of offensive speech – by the targeted community or even by the Government – may be seen as being inconsistent and therefore construed as being biased or unfair. In such cases, subjectively offensive speech and the response from the targeted community and by the Government can easily be politicised and exploited by parties with the malicious intention of pitting one group against another. And this may result in more conflict and tension than the offending speech itself, making the situation more complex than it already is.

The Singapore Government has taken a practical approach to handling offensive speech.  In his interview with the press, Mr Shanmugam has explained the approach thus: ‘First, we look at the words, the material – how offensive are they? Second, we look at what is the likely impact of the speech? How would, for example, the community which is target of the offensive speech react?’ Then, there are also security considerations and whether the offense would escalate tensions or deepen existing fault lines.

Mr Shanmugam is right to maintain that it is not only impossible but also undesirable to ban everything. ‘Ban everything that is deemed insulting, offensive by anyone, or allow everything that is insulting, offensive. I have explained why that will eventually lead to trouble. I think Members will see that the absolute approach is undesirable.’

In similar vein, it is perhaps also not desirable to use the law to deal with every instance of offensive speech. Here, the principle of subsidiarity, especially in the way in which it is envisioned by the Christian tradition, can be employed in dealing with certain forms of offensive speech, particularly those that belong to the subjective variety.

Although this principle has been employed by Christians of all stripes, it was Pope Pius XI who articulated it most clearly in his social encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno (‘On Reconstruction of the Social Order’, 1931):

It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance to the right order to transfer to the larger and higher collective functions which can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies. Inasmuch as every social activity should, by its very nature, prove a help [subsidium] to members of the body social, it should never destroy or absorb them.

In a helpful summary, Andrew Murray explains that the principle of solidarity states that while ‘the government should intervene in the affairs of citizens when help is necessary for the individual as well as for the common good … [it] insists that all functions than can be done by individuals or by lower level organisations be left to them.’ ‘The government, therefore, has a subsidiary or helping role in relation to lower organisations or individuals,’ adds Murray.

The origins and the complex applications of the principle of subsidiarity as an approach to social organisation need not detain us. What is of moment is that this principle can and should be applied wherever possible in dealing with subjectively offensive speech.

In addressing this type of offensive speech, the principle of subsidiarity recommends that government intervention should not be the immediate first step. Instead, the different racial or religious communities should be allowed to resolve the issue on their own, through dialogue, mediation and other social and communal avenues and mechanisms.

For example, if a Christian pastor were to make derogatory remarks in public about Muslims or Buddhists that are deeply offensive and hurtful to the Muslim or Buddhist communities, the leaders of those communities should bring this to the attention of the pastor (and perhaps the leaders of the pastor’s church or denomination) and try to resolve the matter amicably and civilly. The same approach should be taken if the offensive speech or action has to do with race.

The distinct advantages of such an approach are many. In addressing offensive speech in this way, the racial or religious communities are able to negotiate conflicts on their own and in the process (it is hoped) grow in sensitivity and respect for each other.

Thus, in contradistinction to what may be described as ‘legalist’ or ‘statist’ approaches, the communal approach to dealing with certain types of offensive speech – inspired by the principle of subsidiarity – can deepen and strengthen the relationships between the ethnic and religious communities which provide the social ballast for a multi-religious and multi-cultural society like Singapore.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

An Anatomy of Hate Speech

April 2019 Pulse

On 19 March 2019, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam disclosed that there are plans to conduct a ‘proper debate’ in Parliament on issues such as race, religion and hate speech. This announcement came in the wake of the horrific shootings in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which claimed the lives of 50 Muslims. A 28-year-old Australian man, whom media describe as a white supremacist and a member of the ‘Alt-right’, is responsible for the brutal massacres.

Minister Shanmugam states that tough laws must be put in place to tackle and curb hate speech, but rightly emphasises that this must be the work of everyone in society. ‘So, we have been (actively working on), and we have to continue to actively work on, bringing people together. Without that, it will not work. Who is the we? It is all of you. Every community, every group, every religious leader and, of course, the Government. All working together to achieve this.’

Hate speech, of course, is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, hate speech – in one form or another – has been used as a tool to legitimise the persecution, discrimination, hatred and murder of select groups of people. Hate speech has been employed especially in war and in times of conflict and unrest.

However, with the advent of the digital media, hate speech can be effectively disseminated and spread to large swathes of the population. Even more insidious is the fact that because digital media has a wide catchment area, hate speech, which is ordinarily reckoned as extreme by most, gets the appearance of being universal. Because of its reach, digital media can ‘normalise’ hate speech and thus extend its damage.

But what is hate speech? On the surface, the answer to this question seems pretty obvious. But the fact is that hate speech is notoriously difficult to define, making legislation against it difficult to implement.

Several regional and international bodies have attempted to provide a comprehensive definition of hate speech. For example, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe defines hate speech as all forms of expression which ‘incite racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and all forms of intolerance, since they undermine democratic society, cultural cohesion and pluralism’ (Recommendation No. R(97)20).

According to the Report by the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombud of Norway, the Norwegian Criminal Code § 135 describes hate speech as speech that threatens or insult someone, or speech that incites hatred, persecution or contempt for someone because of their: (1) national or ethnic origin (including skin colour), or (2) religion or belief, or (3) sexual orientation, or (4) disability.

The Report elaborates that regardless of its motivating reason, hate speech has many common denominators. ‘It is often built on negative stereo-types, prejudice and stigmas, and it effects both individual and group dignity and reputation in society.’ Those who engage in hate speech often use exclusionary rhetoric to play up unfounded fear or contempt for a particular group.

The most extreme types of hate speech are those that would incite violence or hate crime against the group that is despised or discriminated against. ‘In its most extreme form,’ the Report states, ‘hate speech comes in the form of threats, glorification of violence, incitement to violence, death threat rhetoric – and in some cases in combination with violence and murder, i.e., hate crime.’

The many harmful effects of hate speech have also been carefully documented and discussed. Hate speech, which denigrates a targeted group (e.g., Muslims or Jews), also encourages the victimisation of that group. This generates deep anxieties and worries among members of the targeted group, which usually forms the minority of the population. Researchers have also found that hate speech has a contagious effect, and often results in even more hate speech.

Hate speech is an affront to democracy. This is because the people who are victims of prejudice and hate often avoid speaking out for fear of backlash and further harassment. And, in a multi-racial and multi-religious society like Singapore, the polarising effect of hate speech will jeopardise the social cohesion that we have worked so hard to foster.

Christians who are called to love not only their neighbours (Mark 12:31), but also enemies (Matthew 5:44) must of course reject the practice of hate speech because it not only demonises the other, but it also unfairly and damagingly tars the whole group with the same brush. Hate speech therefore violates the dignity of the other and subjects him to unfounded prejudice and unjust discrimination. In other words, hate speech dehumanises its victims.

While hate speech must be roundly rejected as a harmful and pathological way of treating the other, what constitutes hate speech is, as I have alluded to above, difficult to ascertain and identify. Although the definitions cited above may look straightforward and compelling at first glance, closer examination will immediately show that this is not in fact the case.

For example, according to the Norwegian Criminal Code, hate speech is speech that threatens or insult someone, or speech that incites hatred. Barring very extreme cases, what is ‘threatening’ or ‘insulting’ is in fact very subjective and mostly debatable. The definition offered by the Council of Europe that hate speech is that speech which incites racial hatred, xenophobia and intolerance is similarly problematic. This is because speech that is deemed to be inciting such attitudes is quite often subjected to a variety of interpretation. In addition, the context in which such speech is made can clarify as well as obfuscate the matter.

In their paper published by the Icelandic Human Rights Centre, Jóna Aðalheiður Pálmadóttir and Iuliana Kalenikova notes that ‘Hate speech is a complicated concept and there is no internationally accepted definition or understanding of it.’ ‘[A]lthough many countries have passed legislation prohibiting hate speech,’ they add, ‘what is defined as hate speech varies significantly between countries and regions.’

There are those that define hate speech in the narrowest way possible in order not to impose undue restrictions to the freedom of expression. For example, the free speech advocacy group ARTICLE 19 while eschewing hate speech believes that ‘offence should never be a basis for restricting expression, even if it is discriminatory …’ Furthermore, it maintains that direct blasphemy of a particular religion or insulting the religious feelings of a particular faith community should not be considered as ‘hate speech’. For this group, the only kind of speech that must be deemed unlawful is speech that incites violence on a particular individual and group.

But the lack of consensus on what hate speech entails has a more sinister consequence. It allows extremist groups to use the rhetoric of hate speech to silence all forms of criticism or challenges to their ideologies and agendas.

In an article published in this space entitled, ‘Islamophobia Phobia’ (March 2017), I cited the case of the sexual abuse of at least 1,400 children in the South Yorkshire town of Rotherham by Pakistani gangs from 1997 to 2013. The official inquiry revealed that although the police, city authorities and child protection agencies knew what was happening, they chose not to do anything about it because they were afraid of being accused of ‘racism’ and ‘Islamophobia’.

In the hands of extremists ‘hate speech’ can become a powerful political tool to conceal the truth by preventing it from being told. Even appropriate and legitimate public opprobrium or censure of the behavior or agenda of a particular group can be labeled as ‘hate speech’ and condemned as racist, intolerant, or bigoted by that group. Hate speech can force the public to adopt a form of self-censorship (a self-imposed gagging order) that can be detrimental to the security of our society and its members.

Laws against hate speech, which are meant to protect the dignity of certain members of society (especially those belonging to a minority group), may be used by unscrupulous extremists in a way that not only goes against public interest, but also puts the larger society at risk.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Far-Right Extremism

April 2019 Pulse 

On 15 March, terrorist attacks on two mosques in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, left 50 dead and dozens injured. The attacks were carried out by Australian-born Brenton Tarrant, 28, who was later arrested by police. Describing it as one of New Zealand’s ‘darkest days’ at a press conference, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also said that the attack was perpetrated by a suspect with ‘extreme views’ that had no place in the country or the wider world.

Brenton Tarrant is a ‘lone-wolf’ far-right extremist who has no qualms about resorting to violence to achieve his twisted nationalistic ideals. In his online ‘manifesto’ Tarrant admits that he has interacted with many right-wing groups and organisations, but denies being a ‘direct member’ of any. Their profound influence on him is all too evident in these horrific acts.

The Christchurch mosque massacres have highlighted once again the rise of far-right extremism and white supremacism not only in Europe and America, but also in Australia and New Zealand.

Scholars note that right-wing terrorism has been on the rise since the 2000s. The most spectacular instance of this brand of terrorism is the massacre of 77 young people in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011. Since then, there have been numerous reported cases of right-wing violence: the killing of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh, attacks on mosques in London and Quebec and the murder of British MP Jo Cox.

According to research by the Anti-Defamation League, over the last decade 73.3% of all extremist-related fatalities in the US could possibly be linked to domestic right-wing extremists, while 23.4% were attributed to Islamist extremists.


What does the term far-right extremism refer to?

 Scholars warn that the descriptor ‘far-right’ is extremely slippery because it often suggests a wide spectrum of non-mainstream ideologies and attitudes. This ranges from radical, populist and anti-establishment organised parties that are non-violent to clandestine terrorist individuals and groups that see violence as a means of realising their vision of society.

In similar vein, it is notoriously difficult to arrive at a clear definition of far-right extremism. Although the word has been bandied about by politicians, the press and in social media, there is no consensus as to what extremism entails or who gets to define it.

In his book Radical Right, Pippa Norris points out that there are many different labels for far-right political parties and social groups – ‘Far’, ‘extreme’, ‘radical’, ‘new right’, ‘ultra-nationalist’, etc. He suggests that it is best to see these groups as a cluster or family of parties instead of a single category.


Be that as it may, many scholars agree that far-right extremist groups of whatever stripe may be said to be in some ways opposed to the foundations of liberal democracy. These include ideas about national identity, citizenship and political pluralism well as liberal policies concerning minority groups.

These concerns are intertwined in a profound way in the mind of far-right extremists, especially those who espouse a more militant agenda. One obvious example is how perceived ‘enemies’ are constructed based on the way in which national identity and citizenship are construed by these extremists. When identity and citizenship are primarily, even if not exclusively, defined in purely ethnic (i.e., white supremacist) terms, ethnic minorities are invariably seen as threats.

It is therefore not difficult to see the relationship between far-right extremism and migration. A number of important studies have shown a correlation between the emergence and growth of far-rights groups in Western Europe and the United States and the increase level of migration from Muslim nations and the incidence of Islamic terrorism. Thus, it is not uncommon to find Islamophobia and a spike in xenophobic hate crimes targeted at the Muslim community after a terrorist incident perpetrated by Islamists, even if the attack occurred elsewhere.

Douglas Pratt uses the concept of co-radicalisation to describe this phenomenon. Co-Radicalisation, Pratt explains, is:

… the phenomenon whereby the awareness or presumption by one party that another is fomenting a threatening extremism then precipitates, within the first party, a reactive move in the direction of a like radicalisation even though, paradoxically, the perceived initial extremism of the second party is eschewed and denounced.

Seen in this way, Islamist militancy and far-right extremist violence may be said to serve as catalysts and impetuses for each other, the one group motivating the other to greater acts of violence.

But far-right xenophobia extends beyond the Muslim community. As Sophie Gaston notes, ‘a broader cultural disenfranchisement from particularly white working class communities in parts of Western Europe and the United States has fostered a more focused expression of far-right rhetoric and hate crimes towards more traditional minority targets, such as the Jewish, African American or Roma communities.’

Populism and Extremism

There is also a correlation between the advent of far-right populism, fuelled by the erosion of public trust in institutions, to the rise of right-wing extremism. As Gaston explains: ‘As citizens’ trust in institutions has reached historical lows, the proliferation of a widespread anti-establishment sentiment, propagated by the far-right but also far-left, has goaded appetite for disruptive political forces and “radical” perspectives.’

Consequently, even the more extreme sentiments and attitudes emanating from the far-right crusaders might become less radical sounding and more acceptable to the malcontent general public. Describing this shift, Gaston writes: ‘… it certainly is the case that the proliferation and open visibility of previously “fringe” perspectives on racial superiority, exclusionary language regarding migrant populations, nationalistic rhetoric and ethnically based conceptions of national identity and border policies, are contributing to a more favourable and normalised public environment for far-right extremism that has been the case for decades.’

The internet and social media have been widely and effectively harnessed by far-right populists and extremists as a source of political information and networking tool. Extremists take advantage not only of the ease with which the internet makes the formation of new communities and sharing of ideological material possible, but also the anonymity that it guarantees.

For example, in its 2016 research on far-right activities on Facebook, Demos discovered scores of dedicated pages across four European countries – UK, France, Italy, and Hungary – with hundreds of thousands of posts within the period of two months, contributed by tens of thousands of unique users.

Family Resemblances

Scholars have also noted the striking family resemblances between far-right extremism and Islamist militancy.

Just like their Islamist counterparts, far-right extremists sometimes use religion – in this case, mostly Christianity – to justify their violent acts of terrorism. For example, the members of Christian Identity often claim that their campaign of violence and criminal activities are sanctioned by religion. Sovereign Citizens, a white nationalist group, believes that its doctrines and programmes are inspired and sanctioned by God. And violent anti-abortion extremists in America believe that they are acting in concert with the teachings of the Bible and their online propaganda is often inundated with Scriptural references.

Like the Islamist jihadists, these far-right extremists often use religion to support their own political ideologies and to inspire imagination of some utopian social order that they feel called to bring about. Some employ apocalyptic imageries gleaned from the Book of Revelation to sacralise their political agendas, while others see themselves and their work as the fulfilment of biblical prophecies.

Still others imagine that they are a part of an ancient military order that has been defending Christianity since the time of the Crusades. For example, the Norwegian white nationalist Anders Breivik believes that he stands in continuity with the 12th century Catholic military order called the Knight’s Templar (Order of Solomon’s Temple). In his manifesto, Breivik maintains that Christianity is ‘the only cultural platform that can unite all Europeans, which will be needed in the coming period during the third expulsion of the Muslims.’ Yet he laments that the Church he has in mind ‘does not exist anymore because it has been deconstructed.’

Finally, right-wing extremists and Islamists alike think that their respective communities are being perpetually threatened. For example, Jason Burk notes that ‘For Islamists, the belief that a belligerent west has set on the humiliation and exploitation of the world’s Muslims for the best part of 1,000 years is axiomatic.’

Consequently, both fair-right extremists and Islamists are resolved to resist the ‘tyrannies’ that oppress their respective peoples and communities. The former see the government as their primarily oppressor that must be challenged and fought until their imagined community – often defined by ethnicity or race, as we have seen – is no longer under siege. The latter believe that apostate rulers and regimes should be toppled so that true Islam can flourish.


Needless to say, Christians should have no truck with the extremism and violence of these far-right activists.

The use of Christianity to undergird their ideologies or sanction their (violent) campaigns should be rejected together with their radical politics of difference, ethnocentricity, racism, xenophobia, and their venomous rhetoric of hate and intolerance. The politics of exclusion embodied by these extremists cannot be more antithetical to the command that Jesus gave to his disciples to love not just the neighbour (Mark 12:30-31), but also the enemy (Matthew 5:44).

Let me conclude this article with a word of caution by returning to a point alluded to earlier to underscore its importance in public discourse. It has to do with the word that is often bandied about in various quarters but is notoriously difficult to define, and therefore potentially dangerous. I am referring to that vexingly problematic word ‘extremism’.

What constitutes religious ‘extremism’? Who is the religious extremist? The Oxford Dictionary defines an extremist as ‘a person who holds extreme or fanatical political or religious views, especially one who resorts to or advocates extreme action.’ An attempt to define ‘extremist’ by using the word extreme twice could hardly be described as successful or even helpful.

Be that as it may, arriving at some kind of consensus and clarity about what religious extremism entails cannot be more important in our day. As Jonathan Merritt has rightly observed: ‘In an age of religious terrorism, “extremist” is too damaging a word to be tossed around with such little discretion. When society slaps the E-word on something, it marks it for marginalisation.’

For the secular and uninformed public, certain orthodox religious beliefs and practices may be deemed to be extreme.

For example, in a study conducted in the United States, 60 per cent of Americans would label a person who tries to convert others to their faith as extreme. Forty-two per cent would apply this label to anyone who would ‘quit a good-paying job to pursue mission work in another country.’ And a quarter of those who participate in the study would accord that moniker to a teenage girl who is determined to abstain from sex until marriage.

In other words, a conservative Christian who wishes to be obedient to the Bible and a faithful Muslim who seeks to follow the Koran may be deemed as extreme because their worldviews and actions are at odds with what secular and liberal culture consider as the norm.

When religious extremism is not properly defined, a new kind of intolerance emerges that often leads to the exclusion of those whose views and behaviours the majority deems to be anti-social or simply odd. As Merritt put it: ‘Carelessly painting such wide swaths with a caustic descriptor is its own form of intolerance.’ When there is no clarity as to what constitutes religious extremism, the term can be used to condemn, marginalise and alienate.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Big Data, Ethics and Society

March 2019 Pulse 

We live in an age where we witness a truly unprecedented explosion of data – its collection, sharing and analytics. The phenomenon that came to be known as Big Data has impacted every sector of society – economics, politics, policing, security, science, education, policy, health care, public health, etc – in profound ways.

Although definitions vary, Big Data can refer to (1) the data or information collected, known as datasets, and (2) the process of analysing these ‘big’ datasets. ‘Big’ points either to the quantities and the electronic sizes of the data accumulated (gigabytes, terabytes, petabytes, etc) or to the techniques and technologies employed to analyse the data. As Brent Mittelstadt and Luciano Floridi explain, ‘The latter approach defines “big” in procedural rather than quantitative terms, by connecting the size of the dataset to its complexity, understood in terms of computational or human effort necessary for analysis.’

Big Data has to do with the volume, variety and velocity in which information or data is generated, processed, analysed and used.

In today’s world, the volume that data is generated is truly staggering. We are no longer thinking only in terms of terabytes (one million million [12 zeros]).  We are thinking in terms of exabytes (one quintillion, that is, a million raised to the power of five [18 zeros]) and zettabytes (one sextillion, that is, one million raised to the sixth power [21 zeros]). Scientists have estimated that by 2025, the Internet will exceed the brain capacity of the entire human population on planet Earth!

The variety of the data generated is equally mind-blowing. As Kord Davis points out, ‘Performance metrics from in-car monitors, manufacturing floor yield measurements, all manner of healthcare devices, and the growing number of Smart Grid appliances all generate data.’

In addition, because we leave our digital footprints and a trail of personal information whenever we use the Internet, Big Data impinges upon individual lives in unprecedented ways. Eric Freeman and David Gelernter, who coined the term ‘lifestream’, describe this phenomenon thus:

… a time-ordered stream of documents that functions as a diary of your electronic life; every document you create and every document other people send you is stored in your lifestream. The tail of your stream contains documents from the past (starting with your electronic birth certificate). Moving away from the tail and toward the present, your stream contains more recent documents – papers in progress or new electronic mail; other documents (pictures, correspondence, bills, movies, voice mail, software) are stored in between. Moving beyond the present and into the future, the stream contains documents you will need: reminders, calendar items, to-do lists.

The velocity in which we generate, acquire, process and output data has increased exponentially even as the number of sources and the variety of formats grow at an ever-faster pace. According to a report from IBM Marketing Cloud published in 2016, 90% of the data in the world today have been created in the preceding two years alone, at 2.5 quintillion bytes a day!

The ramifications of Big Data on institutions, organisations, businesses, nations and individuals are still unfolding and therefore cannot be fully anticipated at this point in time. More significantly, Big Data forces both stakeholders and society alike to re-conceptualise and recast the familiar social and ethical issues and concerns surrounding information technology. As the Council for Big Data, Ethics and Society points out, ‘Big data’s broad ethical consequences strain the familiar conceptual and infrastructural resources of science and technology ethics.’

What, then, are some of the pressing ethical concerns surrounding Big Data? I list a few in the remaining space of this article.

Privacy and Consent

The issue of privacy is invariably highlighted and discussed in the literature on Big Data ethics. Unlike the past when data collection was limited by human perception and cognition, in the era of Big Data the collection of data by information technologies is now automated and autonomous. The scope of the data has also expanded and grown exponentially over the past two decades. This unique characteristic of the age of Big Data has made privacy and personal safety an even more important and pressing issue.

Alongside the issue of privacy is that of informed consent. Traditional approaches to informed consent, where consent is sought from individuals who participate in a single study, no longer applies. This is because Big Data is designed to reveal unintended and even unexpected connections between data points. ‘Broad’ and ‘blanket’ consent mechanisms (as opposed to single-instance consent) have been suggested, but these are not without their own problems.


The next ethical issue has to do with ownership. As the European Economic and Social Committee explains, the issue of ownership ‘revolves around how to consider a user’s data that was produced after processing the original dataset: are they still a user’s data, or do they belong to the company that carried out the analyses? Or to the company that collected the original data?’

The concept of ownership is further complexified by the question of rights. This has led some to speak of two forms of ownership, as the rights to ‘control’ data, and as the rights to ‘benefit from’ data. ‘Control’ ownership suggests that the data subject has the right to restrict undesired uses of the data, while ‘benefit’ ownership refers to his right to utilise Big Data for his personal benefit.

The ownership question has sparked complex debates on ethics, legislation and public policy.

Surveillance and Security

The availability of more data and the advancement of technology has made it possible not only to track an individual, but also to generate insights into his behaviour. The ubiquity of CCTVs, positioning capabilities in mobile devices (GPS), the use of credit and ATM cards for payments and withdrawals all contribute to the surveillance and profiling of individuals.

While the ease of tracking has undoubtedly benefited society in some ways like ensuring public safety and swifter and more efficient police investigation of crimes, they have also come with a cost. The diagonal and non-directional nature of surveillance that takes place across the different levels of society can limit the liberties of members of society in subtle ways.

The second issue is security. In January 2019, The Guardian reported that data breaches in Yahoo in 2017 compromised 3 billion accounts. Other breaches include Marriott International (500 million customers), Linkedln (164 million), Sony’s PlayStation Network (77 million), Uber (57 million) and Ashley Madison (31 million). Institutions in Singapore have also had their fair share of data breaches in recent months, due to the work of malicious hackers or fraudsters.

Social Ramifications

Besides these serious ethical concerns, there are also a number of social ramifications of Big Data that should never be trivialised. One major concern is that Big Data can force a digital divide in society, thereby worsening the inequality that already exists. Digital divide refers to the difficulty that some face in accessing services delivered by new technologies due to their unfamiliarity with them.

Big Data can also lead to the de-humanisation and discrimination of individuals and groups when opinions and perceptions are formed on the basis of their digital identities (information about them obtained from different sources). The Norwegian Data Protection Authority explains that this takes place when ‘we are no longer judged on the basis of our actions, but on the basis of what all the data about us indicates our probable actions may be.’

In other words, Big Data can ‘de-incarnate’ individuals by presenting distorting abstractions and caricatures that feed prejudice, discrimination and even hatred in a process known as the dictatorship of data.

The final question that we must consider is that of epistemology. There is a tendency in both mass media and industry to adopt a disturbingly naïve approach to the ‘facts’ presented by Big Data. They work on the assumption that Big Data is ‘objective’ and that it has the ability to reveal reality without the need for interpretation and critical assessment.

According to this epistemology, data is supposed to be able to ‘speak for themselves’ and the ‘truth is already there, waiting to be discovered’, implying that there is no need for theory or hypothesis. For example, confidence is placed in ‘data-driven science’, whose authority and impeccability are judged by the amount and the compelling quality of data it presents.

This mythological view of Big Data, which, as it were, signals the ‘end of theory’, will have serious consequences if it goes unchallenged.

As we celebrate the promise of Big Data and what it can offer to society, we must also be cognisant of the dangers that lurk in the brave new world of information technology. We must be aware not only of the complex ethical issues such as privacy, ownership and security. We must also be alert to the harmful distortions it introduces to the many things we take for granted such as human identity, dignity, value and relationality, and how they may undermine our society.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Bettering Humans

March 2019 Pulse

Since the mid-nineties, doctors in America have been prescribing human growth hormones to healthy children whose projected adult height is in the bottom first percentile – five feet three inches for boys and four feet, eleven inches for girls – in order to make them taller.

For many years, a biotech company based in New Jersey called Memory Pharmaceuticals has been developing memory enhancing drugs or ‘cognitive enhancers’ (sometimes dubbed the ‘Viagra of the brain’) and targeting the 76 million baby-boomers in America who are experiencing age-related memory loss.

These examples are just the tip of a large iceberg of what some philosophers and ethicists have been calling enhancement technologies, arguably the fastest growing and one of the most troubling developments in our biotech age. ‘Enhancement technologies’ is the hypernym that refers to the use of genetics, cybernetics, nanotechnologies, neuroscience, pharmaceuticals, etc., for human enhancement.

Enhancement technologies therefore refer to the use of technology to increase certain physiological or mental attributes that could not be achieved naturally. Height increase and memory enhancement are examples of the goals to which such technologies are directed.

The myriad of ethical and social issues raised by the use of biotechnology for enhancing human capabilities have been well rehearsed in the burgeoning literature of the subject. Many worry that enhancement technologies will exacerbate the injustices that already obtain in current biotechnologies and their applications.

For example, they may worsen social inequality because only the wealthy would be able to enjoy the benefits of these cutting-edge technologies. This could further result in the creation of two classes of humans – the enhanced and the unenhanced – thus further stratifying a society already polarised by racial and economic divides.

One could easily add to the list of social woes that the use of such technologies could bring about – rabid social discriminations, and even eugenics.

Despite these concerns, some advocates and visionaries of human enhancement are not satisfied with merely augmenting and strengthening existing capabilities. Their aim is to use these new technologies to create, where possible, novel human capabilities such as infrared vision.

The vision of these prophets is therefore to so radically transform the human being so as to transcend human nature itself. This, of course, raises profound theological and philosophical questions not only about human nature, but also if there is indeed such a thing as human nature to begin with.

To be sure, many transhumanists do believe in some broad and general sense that the concept of human nature has some utility because it enables us to distinguish the human from an animal or machine. In fact, the very term ‘transhumanism’ suggests that there is a ‘human nature’ that science and technology must now seek to transcend.

However, with the advancement of genetic science and cybernetics what constitutes ‘human nature’ has become so fluid that it defies any dogmatic description.

For example, in editing the genetic material of the germline certain transhuman traits may be introduced and irreversibly transmitted to future generations. For better or for worse, that trait now becomes part of human nature, although there’s nothing ‘natural’ about it. And in advanced cybernetics, the answer to the question where do the machine end and the human being begin might no longer be as straightforward as when computers and machines were external to the human body.

Enhancement technologies also raise the difficult issue of the extent to which we should allow human creativity – our scientific knowledge and technological prowess – to remake what we are. Put differently, they raise the important and pressing question about whether moral limits should be imposed on science and technology, and how such limits should be determined in the first place.

In its paper on human enhancement, the Conference of European Churches states that while human creativity must surely be encouraged, ‘there are eventually limits’. And it is in recognising these limits that we achieve greater sobriety about our scientific and technological endeavours.

The first step in recognising these limits is to acknowledge our own finitude as creatures. ‘The notion of humans as the image of God’, states the Conference, ‘embodies a fundamental distinction. God is eternal and unlimited, but humans are created and finite’.

In addition, we must also acknowledge the limits of our science and what it can or cannot achieve achieve. ‘Not everything is possible for science to solve, human ingenuity to engineer, or medicine to cure’, states the Conference baldly. To recognise these limits is to jettison that triumphalistic view of science called scientism.

The second step is to acknowledge that we are fallen creatures. ‘Our Christian heritage teaches us to be sceptical of romantic notions of unrestrained human improvement and scientific progress, not only because of finitude but also our moral failings … The borderlines between good and evil can be crossed all too easily’.

The quest for human enhancement reveals something profoundly disturbing about the human condition. It points to an innate sense of unease with our own humanness and creatureliness, or, as Helmut Thielicke puts it, our sinful protest against finitude. In seeking to remake ourselves, to defy the finitude in which we are confined, we reveal the depth of our rebellion against the one made us the kind of creatures we are, who sets the limits – our Creator.

Here is where the scientific community can benefit from the wisdom that can be found in the religious traditions, especially Christianity. It helps us to evaluate the human and cultural enterprise of science and technology and those who shape and apply them.

While the technological imperative urges the scientific community to pursue everything that science has made possible, the Christian tradition raises difficult and inconvenient questions.

In doing so, it emphasises the point that if the scientific enterprise is to be conducted profitably, that is, for human flourishing in the most holistic sense, if science is to achieve its proper goals, these questions are unavoidable.

The technological imperative is fixated with the question of what our science and technology are capable of, what they can do. The questions raised by the Christian faith have to do with whether there are immoral and illicit ways to use the powers that our science and technology have placed in our hands.

Christian faith teaches us that morality not only concerns the things that we must do but also the things that we must refuse to do.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Descent into Barbarity

February 2019 Pulse

Last month, Democrats in New York passed a bill that allowed women to abort their infant for any reason and at any point of pregnancy up to the moment of birth.

‘A standing ovation for abortion?’, writes Ashely McGuire in USA Today. ‘That’s what New York’s Reproductive Health Act got in the Senate chamber when it passed last week. Lawmakers and bystanders stood and applauded a law that legalized abortion all the way up until birth, for any reason.’

This lunacy has spread to the state of Virginia where Democrats there tried to emulate their counterparts in New York by issuing a bill to revise existing abortion laws. On The WTPO’s Ask The Governor, Ralph Northam, Virginia’s Governor, in support of the bill, openly made this shocking comment:

So in this particular example, if the mother is in labour, I can tell you exactly what would happen, the infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if this is what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physician and the mother.

Commenting on the governor’s remarks on the proposed legislation, Ben Shapiro writes in The Daily Wire: ‘This is pure infanticide … This is a statement that a fully-formed infant, born alive, ought to be murdered if the mother says the infant ought to be murdered.’

The Daily Wire reported that the governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, a Democrat and nominal Catholic, also advocated for the new legislation following her gubernatorial counterpart in New York. In addition, this new legislation also seeks to repeal current laws against the gruesome practice of partial abortion. As Steve McCann explains, this means that the law would now allow ‘delivering a healthy baby alive then killing it by crushing its skull and suctioning out the brain as it emerges from the womb.’

Alluding to the Wade decision of 1973, Governor Ralph Northam said in a press conference (to applause from the audience) that this new legislation will protect the full autonomy of women. Since Roe v Wade, states across America have been exploring how permissive they can be with their abortion laws.

This new abortion law signals western liberal society’s further descent into barbarity. It exemplifies what Pope John Paul II provocatively described more than twenty years ago as the ‘culture of death’ in his encyclical letter The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae). This is a culture that inflicts unconscionable violence on human life and conspires against the weak, the sick and the vulnerable, often in the name of personal autonomy and liberty.

The devaluation of human life has long been given voice by scholars like Peter Singer who is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. In his controversial book entitled Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics (1994), Singer repudiates the view that human life is sacred and that all human lives have equal claims to preservation. His staunch advocacy for the legalization of abortion, infanticide and euthanasia is evident in many of his writings.

Challenging the precepts of traditional morality, Singer replaces them with the ‘new commandments’ that stem from the preference utilitarianism he espouses and promotes. For example, the ‘old commandment’ which says that we must treat all human life as of equal worth is replaced by the new, which insists that the worth of human life varies considerably.

The old precept ‘be fruitful and multiply’ is replaced by Singer’s new dogma that we should bring children into the world only if they are wanted. Note the passive voice in the statement (‘if they are wanted’) that engenders ambiguity: wanted by whom? The mother? The parents? The state?

Christians must roundly and resolutely condemn any legislation that allows an innocent child (whether unborn or born) to be killed ‘for any reason’ and in the name of personal autonomy.

The human being is created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) and endowed with inviolable dignity and worth. Scripture categorically prohibits homicide (Exodus 20:13) because human life is sacred. As Pope John Paul II has rightly pointed out, ‘Laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual.’

The Church has throughout her history consistently, unequivocally and unreservedly opposed and condemned abortion and infanticide. For example, in the second century document called The Didache, we find this injunction: ‘Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn child.’ Echoing this clear instruction, the great theologian of Latin Christianity, Tertullian, writes:

For us [Christians], murder is once and for all forbidden; so even the child in the womb, while yet the Mother’s blood is still being drawn on to form the human being, it is not lawful for us to destroy. To forbid birth is only quicker murder.

 In similar vein, the sixteenth century reformer, John Calvin, condemns abortion in the strongest possible terms when he writes: ‘The foetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, and it is a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy.’

In our time, theologians like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have likewise condemned the killing of innocent children by abortion. ‘Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb,’ writes Bonhoeffer in Ethics, ‘is a violation of the right to life which God has bestowed on this nascent life … And is nothing but murder.’

Edward Scharfenberger, the Catholic bishop of Albany, has written to the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, to express his deep concern about the new law:

Although in your recent State of the State address you [Gov. Cuomo] cited your Catholic faith and said we should ‘stand with Pope Francis,’ your advocacy of extreme abortion legislation is completely contrary to the teachings of our pope and our Church. Once truth is separated from fiction and people come to realise the impact of the bill, they will be shocked to the core. By that time, however, it may be too late to save the countless lives that will be lost or spare countless women lifelong regret.

Christians must join their voices to this venerable chorus to oppose such legislations. They must see abortion and infanticide for what they truly are, namely, the wanton murder of innocent children. Together with Vatical II they must see abortion and infanticide as nothing less than an ‘unspeakable crime.’

The Church can never be passive or silent in the face of such an atrocity. She must protest against and oppose the culture of death, for as Pope John Paul II has again put it so eloquently and powerfully: ‘Every threat to human dignity and life must necessarily be felt in the Church’s very heart.’

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Embryo Editing

February 2019 Pulse

On 25 November 2018, the MIT Technology Review reported that a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, claimed to have created the first CRISPR-edited babies. In the first of five YouTube videos posted on the same day, He announced that ‘Two beautiful little Chinese girls, Lulu and Nana, came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago’.

This landmark case has profound ramifications for the ongoing debate among scientists, ethicists and theologians surrounding the ethics of human gene editing.

He and his team worked with couples where the fathers are HIV-positive. Employing a relatively new technology called CRISPR/Cas 9 they deactivated a single gene called CCR5 in the embryos created through in-vitro fertilisation and then implanted them in the mothers. CCR5 is the protein that the HIV viruses use to gain entry into human cells. Its deactivation would therefore theoretically prevent or reduce the risk of infection.

He and his team were not the first scientists to use CRISPR on human embryos. In 2015, Chinese scientists Canquan Zhou and Junjiu Huang used CRISPR to remove the gene that causes the blood disorder known as β-thalassema when it is mutated. And in 2017, Shoukhrat Mitalipov and his team at the Oregon Health and Science University used the same technology to successfully extract a genetic variant from embryos that causes a deadly heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

The difference between the earlier studies and the one conducted by He and his team is that the latter has disabled a normal gene to reduce the risk of a child from getting an infection – they did not remove a defective gene that predisposes an individual to a particular disease. In addition, the infection in question can be prevented by other means, such as safe sex-education or the use of anti-viral drugs.

Scientists have found He’s editing to be incomplete because some cells have silenced copies of CCR5 while others do not. They have also pointed out that CCR5 is not the only protein that transports HIV and that some strains of the virus can enter the cell through another protein called CXCR4. Deactivating CCR5 therefore does not guarantee immunity.

He’s work has resulted in a furore in the scientific community. Ethicists and biomedical watchdogs have condemned the work as ‘monstrous’, ‘unconscionable’ and ‘a grave abuse of human rights’. The Southern University of Science and Technology, where He and his team worked, claimed that it was unaware of the project and immediately launched an investigation. Its preliminary statement described the work as a ‘serious violation of academic ethics and standards’.

This case has once again brought to the surface the serious ethical questions related to genetic research in general and genetic engineering (in this case, gene editing) in particular. It is impossible to address all these issues in the brief compass of this article. I can only provide here a very brief sketch of the moral and ethical issues related to gene editing in a human embryo.

Moral Status of the Embryo

First and foremost, we must clarify the moral status of the human embryo. According to the Christian faith, the human being is a creature made in the image and likeness of his Creator (Genesis 1:26-28) and therefore possesses inviolable dignity and value from its conception. This means that the human embryo must be regarded as a person worthy of our respect and protection. The human embryo therefore must never be treated merely as human tissue that is created in the laboratory, experimented upon and then discarded.

To cause the death of a human embryo in the name of science is to violate the Nuremberg Code (1948), which states that ‘No experiment should be conducted, where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur’. Those who are of the view that gene editing does not violate human dignity fail to take into consideration the fact that in perfecting the technology and technique, thousands of human embryos are routinely subjected to research and subsequently destroyed in laboratories across the world.

Off-Target Results

Gene editing, whether conducted in an adult subject or an embryo, is often accompanied by significant risks, some of which scientists are unable to fully anticipate at this point. For example, there is always the potential of error in editing the gene of an early embryo, which some scientists have described as off-target genetic effects.

As the term suggests, off-target genetic mutations occur when the technology employed hits a DNA sequence that is not its intended target. Because of the nature of gene editing, even minor off-target hits may have major consequences. This is especially the case when the subject is a developing embryo. Such mistakes could result in genetic abnormalities or the onset of disease in the foetus as it develops or during adulthood.

Another possible risk of gene editing in embryos is mosaicism. As a result of the intervention, the embryo may come to possess two different populations of cells (a mosaic of edited and unedited genes) with two distinct genotypes.

Several studies have shown that mosaicism is especially common when the CRISPR/Cas 9 system is used on embryos. Studies have also indicated that mosaicism can result in major phenotypic changes that can adversely affect the health of the child. Some known genetic disorders that are directly attributed to mosaicism include: Down syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome and Turner syndrome.


Scientists and ethicists are also concerned about the way in which gene editing in embryos may affect the epigenetic code that controls the thousands of genes within each cell and determines whether they are switched on or off. They believe that editing the gene of an early embryo could result in changes in the epigenetic information that may have adverse consequences on the health and wellbeing of the offspring.

While we have certainly made great strides in bio-medicine and technology, the fact remains that we are only beginning to understand the genetic factors that regulate embryological and foetal development. That is why leading biologists like Jennifer A. Doudna of the University of California and David Baltimore, the former president of the California Institute of Technology, are calling for a worldwide moratorium on human genome editing.

Future Generations

Besides inflicting possible harms to the embryo, scientists are also concerned that genome editing in embryos could have adverse consequences for future generations that are difficult to predict at this point in time. This is because the genetic modifications made to a developing embryo can potentially be irreversibly transmitted down the line.

Scientists working on the human genome must take seriously their responsibility for future generations. Mark Frankel and Audrey Chapman have rightly cautioned the scientific community, which often displays ‘too great a readiness to attempt to control the genetic inheritance of our offspring’, to carefully consider the consequences that their work might have on their children’s children.

The theologian Donald Mac-Kay has argued that Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbour (Luke 10) extends even to future generations. And in the context of the present discussion, that love is expressed in the careful evaluation of how our current scientific interventions might benefit or harm our children.

In its instruction on bioethical issues, Dignitatis Personae, the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith of the Roman Catholic Church provides some clear perspectives on the issues we are considering. Dignitatis Personae is clearly in favour of certain forms of gene therapy. For example, it explicitly states that ‘Procedures used in somatic cells for strictly therapeutic purposes are in principle morally licit’.

But a bright line is drawn when it comes to genetic modifications on the germline or the early embryo that may have unpredictable consequences for the future generation.

The moral evaluation of germ line cell therapy is different. Whatever genetic modifications are effected on the germ cells of a person will be transmitted to any personal offspring. Because the risks connected to any genetic manipulation are considerable and yet not fully controllable, in the present state of research, it is not morally permissible to act in a way that may cause possible harm to the resulting progeny (emphasis on original).

Much more can be said about this important and complex issue. But I hope that this brief discussion has sufficiently shown that there are profound theological and moral reasons why gene editing in human embryos should not be permitted.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Clarifying Inter-faith Dialogue

January 2019 Pulse

In a recent interview published by The Straits Times, Mohammad Alami Musa, said that faith communities in Singapore ‘are still at the lower level of inter-religious engagement and discussion, unlike America, Canada or Britain, where the level of inter-religious dialogue and communications is advanced’.

The Head of Studies of the Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies added that ‘It is not enough for religious leaders to sit around and have a meal and bring the press in and take a photo of them drinking and eating together. That is good, but we need to go beyond that with regard to dialogue and conversation’.

Given the current global situation in which acts of atrocities and violence are repeatedly committed in the name of religion and where tensions between religious communities are at their tipping points, the call for faith communities to be more concerted in their efforts to foster friendly dialogue and engagement cannot be more urgent.

Christians should not shun such interfaith engagements, but should instead actively participate in them. Indeed, in the past 15 years or so, the National Council of Churches in Singapore has been actively involved in dialogue with other faith communities, especially the Muslim community (mostly through the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura or MUIS).

However, it is extremely important that we have a clear understanding of the nature and purpose of such interfaith conversations. There are a number of approaches to dialogue, proposed by religionists of a certain philosophical or theological persuasion (some of whom are Christians), that we should be quite critical of if we are to take the Bible and the teachings of the Church seriously.

For the orthodox Christian[1], dialogue cannot be conducted on the basis of the religious and epistemological relativism associated by pluralists like Paul Knitter and Stanley Samartha. For them, dialogue demands that participants regard the truth-claims of their respective religions as tentative, inconclusive, and therefore in principle open to radical revision.

For example, in his book No Other Name? Paul Knitter (a liberal Anglican) insists that ‘dialogue is not possible if any partners enter it with the claim that they possess the final, definitive, irreformable truth’. Based on such a criterion, evangelical Christians would find it quite impossible to participate in dialogue because it would require them to deny that the claim that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ is ‘final, definitive, irreformable truth’.

In the same way, evangelical Christians would be very wary of interfaith dialogue if they were required to follow the rules prescribed by the Indian theologian, Stanley Samartha (Church of South India). In his book Courage to Dialogue, Samartha insists that no religion should claim to have absolute status. ‘A particular religion can claim to be decisive for some people’, he writes, ‘and some people can claim that a particular religion is decisive for them, but no religion is justified in claiming that it is decisive for all’.

For scholars like Knitter and Samartha, the participants of interfaith dialogue are all searching for an ever-greater insight and appreciation of the truth that no particular religion can claim to fully possess. As Knitter puts it, ‘dialogue must be based on the recognition of the possible truth in all religions’. It is only when the truths of the various religions are weaved together into a kind of spiritual and theological tapestry that the Truth (with a capital ‘T’) may be discovered.

For orthodox Christians, interfaith dialogue cannot be understood in this way. Dialogue cannot be seen as a common search for the truth.

This approach to dialogue would require Christians to hold the view that God’s revelation in Christ and in Scripture is incomplete, that the Christian Faith possesses only some aspects of the truth. According to this approach, Christians must be open to the truths found in other religions that are also necessary for ‘salvation’, however salvation may be conceived in the pluralist view.

Christians cannot accept this approach because we believe that God has revealed himself supremely in his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. In accordance with Scripture, the inspired Word of God, Christians maintain that ‘there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given upon man by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).

Does this mean, then, that Christians should not participate in interfaith dialogue, and that such activities are futile? I believe that the Christian who embraces and embodies these truths can still be fruitfully involved in interfaith dialogue, but not on the basis of the assumptions of writers like Knitter and Samartha – and certainly not on their terms.

In 2002, the National Council of Churches published a paper that outlines a Christian theology of religion. In that paper, it also discusses interfaith dialogue and argues that the fundamental purpose of dialogue for the orthodox Christian is to achieve greater understanding of the religious other. Interfaith dialogue or engagement is but an inescapable aspect human sociality, especially in a multi-religious country like Singapore.

‘Understood in this way’, the Council explains, ‘dialogue between members of different religions can be seen to be an aspect of the larger matrix of social intercourse between persons. Dialogue is a “natural” process of interaction, sharing, evaluation, discovery and respect that characterises every conversation between persons’.

The Council added that through dialogue, ‘we seek to discover one another, understand each other, appreciate our differences and develop respect for each other even as we cherish our common aspirations and commitments’. Dialogue can therefore go a long way in breaking down social barriers, exposing and correcting misconceptions, and dispelling prejudices.

Such engagements should therefore be honest and open. It should be conducted with civility and respect. And, as Alami has rightly cautioned in the interview, interfaith engagement should not be limited to specially orchestrated and sanitised gatherings, and characterised by superficial exchange of pleasantries.

Rather it must be enacted in the rough and tumble of everyday life, amidst its energies and messiness (‘dialogue of life’). And interfaith relations must achieve a certain character and depth that would spur different communities to work together for the common good of the society to which they belong (‘dialogue of action’).

The approach of the Council is in harmony with the 1991 document published by the Vatican entitled, Dialogue and Proclamation which states that ‘In the context of religious plurality, dialogue means “all positive and constructive interreligious relations with individuals and communities of other faiths which are directed at mutual understanding and enrichment”, in obedience to truth and respect for freedom’.

It goes without saying that genuine and robust interfaith engagement requires a profound theology of religions grounded in Scripture and tradition.

It is a theology of religions that clearly and unapologetically affirms the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, while at the same time acknowledging that the various religions contain moments of truth due to general revelation. On the basis of such a theology, Protestant Christians can, together with the theologians of Vatican II, declare that the Church should reject ‘nothing of those things that are true and holy’ (Nostra Aetate 2) found in the religions.

The presence of the ‘things that are true and holy’ in the other religions makes dialogue possible. But more importantly, as the documents of Vatican II also stress, the truth found in the religions ‘is considered by the Church to be a preparation for the gospel’ (Lumen Gentium 16).

This brings us to a very important point in the Christian understanding of interfaith dialogue.

For the Christian, interfaith dialogue can never be seen as an end in itself. Dialogue must always be understood as part and parcel of the Christian community’s mission of bearing witness to the grace and love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. It is an aspect of the ministry of reconciliation that God has given to his people (2 Corinthians 5:11-21).

The evangelical Christian can therefore fully and unreservedly declare with the Roman Catholic Church that ‘Interreligious dialogue is a part of the Church’s evangelising mission’ (Redemptoris Missio, 1990)


[1] In this article, I use ‘orthodox’ and ‘evangelical’ interchangeably to refer to Christians who believe in the primary authority of Scripture as the written word of God, and whose interpretation of the Bible is guided by the Tradition of the Church.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.


The Internet of Things: Ethical and Social Concerns

January 2019 Pulse 

Imagine that your humble refrigerator is able to replenish your food supply by taking stock of individual items and ordering them directly from the supermarket. And imagine that your smart fridge is able to monitor your diet and purchase only the foods that are good for your health.

Now imagine that the computer in your home is able to track your whereabouts by GPS on your mobile phone. It can turn on the light and air conditioners in your house as you are parking the car, and unlock the front door as you approach it.

Welcome to the brave new world of the Internet of Things (IoT)!

IoT may be described as an integrated ecosystem where there is an increasing cyber-physical-biological interconnectivity, linking devices, systems, data and people. According to Andrew Whitmore et al., ‘The core concept is that everyday objects can be equipped with identifying, sensing, networking and processing capabilities that will allow them to communicate with one another and with other devices and services over the Internet to achieve some useful objective’.

Pundits believe that IoT can increase efficiency, create opportunities and respond to a variety of needs. IoT, it is said, can empower people through technology, and technology through intelligence. Other commentators, reflecting on its potential impact, have gone so far as to argue that IoT must not be seen only as the Internet of ‘things’. It will eventually become the Internet of ‘mind, body and soul’ – the Internet of ‘behaviour’ and even of ‘life’.

The size of the IoT is projected to be immense. Some commentators estimate that by 2020, there will be 20-50 billion things connected as part of IoT, and that 1.7 trillion U.S. Dollars will be invested in these technologies. This has led Tim O’Reilly to predict that ‘This wave of technology has more chances of reimagining swathes of the world than anything we’ve seen before. This is really going to disrupt everything’.

How will this emerging technological phenomenon – which is part and parcel of the Information Revolution – affect society? How will it change the way we live, and the way we relate to one another? What are the ethical concerns surrounding this integration that promises to blur the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres?


One of the main issues surrounding IoT is safety. By assembling an ecosystem of integrated sensors, processors and actuators we have in fact created what Adam Henschke has called a ‘network of vulnerability’. An incalculable number of things could happen that would result in serious (in some cases, very serious) consequences.

For example, the Internet connection may slow down at a particular point, suddenly shutting off critical life supporting devices. Or take self-driving cars, which are expected to be a common feature on our roads in the near future. The crashing of an IoT system can result in physical car crashes and loss of lives.

People with criminal intent can also exploit this vulnerability. Henschke describes a hypothetical case where a malicious actor exploits the vulnerability in the phone to manipulate linked devices, like the car. He then locks children in the car on a hot day until ransom is paid.


The second issue associated with IoT has to do with privacy. The problem of online privacy has been with us since the beginning of the Internet and Social Media Revolution. But IoT greatly accentuates the problem because it creates such an informationally rich environment that governing it and protecting the privacy of its users will be very challenging, if not impossible.

In addition, IoT is organised in such a way that seemingly innocuous data can carry the personal information of users. As Henschke explains:

‘… what the IoT represents is not just a vast capacity to collect and store information on people, but the capacity for that information to be aggregated, analysed, and communicated to people far beyond those receiving the initial information. This means that increasingly intimate elements of our lives can be revealed by the collection of seemingly innocuous data’.

It is not difficult to see how such data can be misused and exploited.


The third issue is security. The smart devices that are in the market today already pose the challenge of informational security. For example, strangers can easily access the camera in our smart phones remotely. In a similar way, hackers can access personal information in our phones and computers. The security mechanisms that come with these devices often provide inadequate protection.

IoT will predictably sharpen the tension between individual privacy and the use of personal information. Existing privacy laws have shown themselves not only to be difficult to interpret but also challenging to enforce. As IoT technologies become more pervasive and intrusive, privacy protection will become ever more challenging. As Francine Berman and Vinton Cerf put it, ‘personal information will become more valuable to a diverse set of actors that include organizations, individuals, and autonomous systems with the capacity to make decision about you’.

To compound the problem, the information that is variously obtained can be reused. As Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite point out, ‘Information doesn’t wear out. It [can] be endlessly recycled [and] repackaged’. To return to the example of the smart fridge, information about your shopping and eating habits obtained from it can be used to target advertising.

Some have called for an IoT ‘Bill of Rights’ that gives users the basic right to op out or delete data. But even if they have these rights and the know-how to remove the data, they may be able to do so. According to Berman’s and Cerf’s realistic assessment, ‘it may be infeasible or impossible for an individual to control all the data generated about them by IoT systems’.

Informed Consent

Related to the problem of the reusability of data is that of informed consent. According to the principle of informed consent, the source of the information must be informed about who is using that information, where they are using it, and what for. His consent must then be obtained before the information can be used.

But, as Henschke has pointed out, ‘given the range of devices, the networks that arise between devices and the potential for multiple users are so vast that prediction is close to impossible’. And if it is impossible for suppliers of the products and services to predict the full range of the uses of the source’s information, then obtaining the source’s informed consent will also be quite impossible.


Another important consideration related to the proliferation of autonomous systems is accountability.

A good example is the autonomous vehicle, which is required to make many decisions without human assistance as it navigates traffic. We may expect automobile companies to take responsibility for faulty engines or brakes. But who should be held accountable when an autonomous vehicle is involved in a serious accident that caused fatalities?

To be sure, this question relates to other kinds of autonomous or semi-autonomous entities, such as robots programmed to function with minimal human supervision or control. But as Berman and Cerf have rightly argued, ‘As systems take on more decisions previously made by humans, it will be increasingly challenging to create a framework for responsibility and accountability’.

Impact on Society

The question about how IoT will impact and change human self-understanding and sociality has not been sufficiently explored thus far. IoT has the potential to reshape human abilities and capacities beyond existing forms of ‘enabling technologies’, and in ways that we are unable to clearly foresee. In IoT, the challenges of the control of technological processes and the ramifications of actions mediated by technology are magnified.

As the European Commission’s (EC) report puts it:

‘In IoT the traditional modern construction of the subject – the subject of knowledge and the moral subject –, still pervading most current ethical and legal concepts, has to confront the complexities of the duty to know in context where knowledge can be limited, as well as the hybridized interactions between subjects and objects, agents and actors (object behaving subject-like)’.

Finally, when IoT becomes pervasive in society, it will introduce a division (a ‘digital divide’) and inequality in society. Those who are knowledgeable and skilled will be empowered to master the new technologies and take advantage of them to the fullest. They are able to choose which technologies they wish to use, protect themselves from abuses and opt-out from certain services and networks. But as the EC report points out: ‘Those who cannot keep the pace with the pervasiveness will progressively become deskilled, disempowered and unknowledgeable’.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.