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A Sin Or A Crime? – On Legislating Morality

(Click here for Chinese version)

October 2018 Pulse

On September 24 (2018), The Straits Times published an article by Professor Tommy Koh entitled ‘Section 377A: There is a difference between a sin and a crime’. This article was written in the wake of renewed debate in Singapore on Section 377A, sparked by the recent decision by the Indian apex court to repeal Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.

Both the ‘repeal’ and ‘retain’ parties have organised online petitions to garner support for their positions. Several prominent public figures, including Koh, have jumped into the fray and expressed their support for its repeal. The National Council of Churches, the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church and the Islamic Authorities have issued official statements arguing against the repeal.

In his article, Koh discusses a wide range of issues. They include the concepts of sin and crime in relation to homosexual sex, the scientific evidence for sexual orientation, the role of the courts and the place of religion in debates on the law.

However, Koh’s article, in my view, is riddled with a number of distorting generalisations and sweeping statements that have the potential to mislead. I hope to address some of them in this brief article.

LAW AND MORALITY

Koh argues that with respect to homosexual acts a distinction must be made between a sin and a crime. Sodomy, he asserts – in agreement with former attorney-general Walter Woon – may be seen as a sin by some religions, but it should not be regarded as a crime by the state.

On the surface, this argument may seem quite compelling. But upon closer scrutiny, this way of framing the issue can be misleading because it fails to capture the profound relationship between morality and the law. Although there are distinctions between morality and the law, there is also an intricate relationship between them that should never be trivialised or ignored.

It must be said at the outset that the entire legal system is in some profound sense based on the moral vision of a particular society. Thus we can say that there can be no law without morality.

This moral vision, expressed in part in the laws of the land, is absolutely vital for the well-being of any society. As Lord Patrick Devlin has famously put it in his essay entitled ‘Morals and Criminal Law’: ‘Society means a community of ideas; without shared ideas of politics, morality and ethics, no society can exist’.

Laws are made because they bring to concrete expression the moral sensibilities of a society, that is, its understanding of right and wrong. This proposition is so self-evident that it requires very little elaboration or defence.

A few examples would be sufficient to illustrate this.

Homicide is a crime because it is wrong to intentionally take the life of another human being. Rape is a crime because society deems sexual violence on a woman or a man as a morally reprehensible offence that should never be countenanced.

The recent review of the Penal Code also brings this out very clearly. New laws pertaining to marital rape, the protection of minors from sexual predators and crimes against the vulnerable are made because they uphold the moral vision of our society.

In other words, they are put in place to reflect the shared moral convictions and commitments on the basis of which we want to order our society. Lord Devlin would say that these laws are there to give voice to ‘society’s constitutive morality’.

Incidentally, in all of the examples cited above, what religion (in this case, Christianity) calls sins, the state also regards as crimes punishable under the law.

In relation to section 377A, we must therefore ask what is the moral stance of the Singapore public on the issue of homosexual intercourse and lifestyle.

In a survey conducted by IPS in 2014, 78.2 per cent of the respondents said that they were against the homosexual lifestyle, and 72.9 per cent were against same-sex marriage. In the recent IPSOS survey (2018) on section 377A, 55 per cent of the respondents were not in favour of the repeal of the law, while only 12 per cent wanted it removed.

PM Lee is surely right when he said in a 2014 BBC interview that the status of section 377A is a ‘matter of society’s values’. To use Lord Devlin’s expression, its presence in the Penal Code is an articulation of ‘society’s constitutive morality’.

However, it must be stressed that the relationship between the law and morality is a reciprocal one. This means that while societal values can shape the legal system, the lawmaker can also exert influence on the social habits of society.

This applies to section 377A. As Christopher de Souza has succinctly put it in the 2007 debate in Parliament:

A repeal of section 377A will not merely remove the offence. It is much more significant than that. Because of the concept of negative liberty, the removal of section 377A puts homosexual lifestyle on par with heterosexual lifestyle. It is to accord both lifestyles a sense of parity.

In other words, the repeal of this piece of legislation can gradually result in significant changes in the ‘constitutive morality’ of our society (Devlin).

The National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) understands this very well. Its recent statement expresses its concern that the repeal of section 377A ‘would result in the normalisation and promotion of this [i.e., homosexual] lifestyle, which in turn would lead to undesirable moral and social consequences’.

The Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church, William Goh, also understands the importance of maintaining the status quo. In his pastoral letter, he writes:

I am of the view that S377A should not be repealed under the present circumstances. This is because, by accepting homosexual acts as a social norm, the dreadful consequences for the stability of our families, the well-being of our children, and the risks to the common good will be long-term and irreversible.

The relationship between morality and the law is complex. It defies the simplistic dichotomies suggested by Koh in his article.

PUBLIC LAW, PRIVATE MORALITY?

In his article, Koh briefly alluded to the landmark ruling by the United States Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas that the criminalisation of sodomy was unconstitutional. He cited Justice Anthony Kennedy, who said that: ‘The petitioners are entitled to respect for their private lives. The state cannot demean or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime’.

The debate concerning the role of the law in the spheres of public and private morality in modern jurisprudence need not detain us. However, Koh seems to suggest, in concert with Justice Kennedy, that private sexual conduct of consenting adults should be off limits to the law.

While this may generally be the case, there are notable exceptions, adult incest being a compelling example. As section 376G of Singapore’s Penal Code makes clear, an incestuous sexual relationship between adults, even if it is consensual and conducted in private, is an offence punishable by imprisonment.

In 2012, The Straits Times reported that a 24-year-old woman was sentenced to 12 months’ probation for having consensual sex with her father and ordered to see a psychiatrist. Her father was sentenced to three years imprisonment for incest.

This means that not every private sexual activity between consenting adults is beyond the reach of the law. The onus is therefore on Koh to show why the argument that the law should not intrude on private sexual relations applies to section 377A and not to section 376G of the Penal Code.

In the famous Hart-Devlin debate, Lord Devlin argued persuasively that private acts should not be free from public sanction if they pose a threat to society’s morality. The sodomy laws of England and America were originally made in part on the basis of this reasoning.

SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE

In his article, Koh asserts that while scientists do not know what determines sexual orientation, they ‘favour biologically based theories, which point to genetic factors’. He maintains that scientists do not view sexual orientation as a choice, giving the impression that the scientific community has achieved consensus on the matter.

This, however, is not the case at all, and to make such sweeping and unqualified statements is surely to mislead.

From the 1990s onwards, a slew of scientific studies have been conducted to find a biological basis for homosexuality. These studies have failed to show conclusively that homosexual orientation is determined by genetic factors.

In fact, these studies suggest the contrary. For example, the twin studies, originally conducted in 1991 by John Michael Bailey and Richard Pillard and subsequently replicated by many other scientists, show quite conclusively that biology does not determine homosexuality.

In an article in Scientific America, William Byrne concludes that the Bailey and Pillard study ‘clearly challenges a simple genetic hypothesis and strongly suggests that environment contributes significantly to sexual orientation’.

This conclusion is supported by the extensive studies on twins conducted by Peter S. Bearman and Hannah Brückner in 2002 and Niklas Långström in 2010.

In their wide-ranging report on sexuality published in 2016 by The New Atlantis entitled Sexuality and Gender: Findings from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences, Lawrence S. Mayer and Paul R. McHugh conclude:

Some of the most widely held views about sexual orientation, such as the “born that way” hypothesis, simply are not supported by science. The literature in this area does describe a small ensemble of biological differences between non-heterosexuals and heterosexuals, but those biological differences are not sufficient to predict sexual orientation.

‘[H]ard science’ writes Jeffrey Satinover in his book Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth, ‘is far from providing an explanation of homosexuality, let alone one that reduces it to genetic determinism’.

Although science has hitherto failed to demonstrate that there is a biological determinant for homosexuality, gay lobbyists have repeatedly used ‘science’ to advance their claim that homosexual orientation is innate and immutable. Koh appears to be uncritically parroting that narrative.

In his article, Koh also mentioned the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

In 1974, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed homosexuality from the list of pathological psychiatric conditions published in DSM (II). The revised verdict states that ‘… homosexuality per se is one form of sexual behaviour and, like other forms of sexual behaviour which are not themselves psychiatric disorders, is not listed in the nomenclature of disorders’.

This change of status, however, was not the result of new scientific evidence for the genetic or neurological basis for homosexual orientation. As Ronald Bayer has clearly shown in his book entitled Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis (1987), this revision was made due to political pressure by the gay lobbyists within APA.

‘The result’, writes Bayer, ‘was not a conclusion based upon an approximation of the scientific truth as dictated by reason, but was instead an action demanded by the ideological temper of the times’. Albert Dean Byrd and Stony Olsen could therefore declare that ‘The stigma of a disease was gone due to politics’.

In his 1992 article entitled ‘Sexual Politics and Scientific Knowledge’, Charles W. Socarides warns that the APA decision

… remains a chilling reminder that if scientific principles are not fought for, they can be lost – a disillusioning warning that unless we make no exceptions to science, we are subject to the snares of political factionalism and the propagation of untruths to an unsuspecting and uninformed public, to the rest of the medical profession and to the behavioural science.

This is a story that is not widely known and needs to be told.

THE ROLE OF RELIGION

We turn finally to Koh’s remarks on the role of religious communities in the debate on section 377A.

‘I would respectfully remind them [Christian and Islamic authorities]’, Koh writes, ‘that Singapore is a secular state. It is not a Christian country or a Muslim country. It is not the business of the state to enforce the dogmas of those religions’. He goes on to stress that in Singapore, there is a separation between religion and the state and that ‘Church leaders and Islamic leaders should respect that separation’.

Koh’s tone is condescending and paternalistic. He assumes that the religious leaders in Singapore need to be tutored by him on the proper relationship between religion and the state.

To suggest that religious bodies like NCCS issue statements because they want the state to enforce their dogmas is ludicrous. When NCCS makes a statement on an issue, it is not trying to impose its worldview on society or to transform Singapore into a Christian theocratic state. Its purpose is merely to help its member churches to understand its position on that particular issue.

It is therefore extremely unhelpful for a public figure like Koh to politicise the statements that the Council issues for the purpose of guiding Christians on social and moral issues in this melodramatic fashion. In fact, such a suggestion coming from him may sow the seeds of suspicion and distrust that can compromise the fragile social harmony and cohesion that we have worked so hard to achieve.

In reminding the religious authorities that in Singapore there is a separation between religion and politics, Koh is implying that they have no right to comment on section 377A.

But the institutional separation between religion and the state, enshrined in the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act of 1990, does not banish religion altogether from the public square. Neither does it prohibit faith communities from commenting on moral and social issues that affect their members.

In the past few decades, NCCS has issued a number of statements on a variety of issues including euthanasia, organ trading and homosexuality. The Council made these statements to educate and guide Christians, and for the sake of the common good – not to impose its views on others.

The Council understands that Singapore is a multi-religious society and no single religion can pontificate on social and moral issues. But in similar vein, no individual or minority group can impose their views on sexuality on the majority.

Religion’s input is especially important in debates on issues pertaining to public morality, like section 377A, which as PM Lee has so clearly said, has to do with ‘society’s values’. Insofar as religious people and their communities are part of our society and are committed to the latter’s flourishing, their views have a right to be heard on this issue.

To exclude faith communities in such conversations is to deny them of their rightful place in our multi-religious society. In fact, we can go so far as to say that censoring religious voices from such debates is an affront to the spirit of deliberative democracy. It flies in the face of the inclusive society that we have been trying so hard to build.

To steer public discourse by silencing religious voices instead of encouraging an ever-greater inclusivity is to fuel a new and insidious form of intolerance.

Thankfully, the Singapore government does not share Koh’s perspective. Instead of excluding religious communities, it has made every effort to seek their views and feedbacks on important issues.

For example, in the recent Penal Code review, the Ministries of Home Affairs and Law organised special meetings with religious leaders to obtain their comments. In fact, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam even took the trouble to meet up with the different religious communities separately to explain the reviews and solicit their views.

Unlike Koh, the Singapore government recognises the secular state should not exercise hegemony on matters of public morality. It recognises that in such matters, the view of religious communities must be sought and taken seriously. This is especially pertinent to multi-religious Singapore, where more than 80 per cent of the population professes religious affiliation.



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 Betrayal of Medicine

May 2017 Pulse

One of the reasons that the National Council of Churches of Singapore gave for rejecting physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and euthanasia in its 2008 statement is that these actions are “against the very ethos of medical practice”.

The betrayal of medicine’s noblest purpose that the growing acceptance of PAS and euthanasia signifies and accentuates is of course the result of many different but profoundly related developments.

The first of these is the subtle shift of the focus of medicine away from the patient.

According to Edmund Pellegrino, the Hippocratic Oath that has served European and American physicians since the dawn of modern medicine is now under attack both from without and within the medical profession. This is because some are of the view that the values it upholds are unable to address the complex ethical issues presented by emerging medical technologies.

But the rejection of the patient-centric tradition exemplified by the Hippocratic Oath exacts a heavy price because it changes the very character of medicine itself.

As philosopher Dianne Irving has rightly observed, once this tradition was weakened, “bioethics began to replace it with medicine practiced for the greater good of society rather than for the individual patient. That threatens patient welfare and denigrates medicine into a business rather than a profession”.

Another possible contribution to medicine’s betrayal is the secularisation of ethics, as a result of which moral reasoning is bereft of the very assumptions and principles that are supposed to govern it.

To be sure, some ethicists – like Leon Kass and Gilbert Meilaender from the Jewish and Christian traditions respectively – still regard human life as sacred and insist that physicians should be committed to the bodily life of their patients. But such views are gradually going out of vogue, supplanted by a utilitarian ethic couched in heady rhetoric about “the greater good” of society, and about individual autonomy and rights.

Edmund Pellegrino and David Thomasma offer a penetrating diagnosis of the modern predicament in medicine as well as in other fields when they write: “Much of the moral desuetude [state of disuse] into which we believe the professions – medicine, law, even the ministry – have fallen is the consequence of ethical claims without a moral philosophy on which to ground them.”

“Moral arguments based on utility, cost-benefit analysis, contract law, economic restraints, unbridled individualism are all symptoms of ‘moral malaise’,” they add.

Utilitarianism has indeed become the new orthodoxy in biomedical ethics.

“All [leading] bioethicists,” writes Anne Maclean, the perceptive critic of bioethics, accept “some version of utilitarianism”. University of Cambridge Law Professor John Keown agrees. In an interview, he asserts that “in modern bioethics, nothing is, in itself, either valuable or inviolable, except utility”.

Ethicists must therefore shoulder some responsibility for the erosion of moral acumen and for the betrayal of medicine’s noblest ideals.

Theologian Richard John Neuhaus put it starkly: “Thousands of ethicists and bioethicists, as they are called, professionally guide the unthinkable on its passage through the debatable on its way to becoming the justifiable, until it is finally established as the unexceptional.”

We see this happening in so many areas in biomedical ethics, from stem cell research to gene therapy, and from the criteria for ascertaining death to the hydration of PVS patients. We also see this in the debate surrounding PAS and euthanasia.

For example, Peter Singer and utilitarian ethicists like him are constantly pushing the envelope with regard to euthanasia.

Singer envisions an ideal world where all terminally-ill patients would be routinely euthanised. He writes: “Perhaps one day it will be possible to treat all terminally-ill and incurable patients in such a way that no one requests euthanasia and the subject becomes a non-issue; but this is now just a utopian ideal, and no reason at all to deny euthanasia to those who must live and die in far less comfortable conditions.”

For the Christian, medicine is a gift of God, the outworking of His common grace in this fallen world. The true goal of medicine is always to help and to heal, never to harm or to kill.

The utilitarian calculus that is so pervasive in the practice of modern health care is not only alien to the character of medicine. It has also seriously undermined and subverted medicine’s true and highest purpose.


 

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.

Common Morality in a World Wounded by Fragmentations

January 2017 Feature

“Get off your moral high horse,” we have heard this phrase thrown by people who think that you have been too demanding when making an ethical judgement or they just do not agree with a stand which you have made. Sometimes this is put differently.

They may appear as a convenient retort, saying “do not impose your moral views on us” usually in an attempt to cut short a conversation on a controversial subject, for example, when dismissing a person who thinks there is valid ground for reviewing the policy on current laws governing abortion.

This kind of reaction is taking an escapist way out of legitimate discussion. It short-circuits calm reasonable debate.

More seriously, however, that kind of attitude may suggest that on matters of morals, it is impossible to find consensus. In other words, morality, to use a phrase borrowed from Alasdair MacIntyre, is too fragmented in our post-enlightenment world that we cannot talk anymore with people who do not share, say, our religious beliefs or world views.

The assertion is that we cannot have any in-depth conversation with those who hold different perspectives on life especially on issues relating to what constitute moral standards deemed to be acceptable for people of differing faiths and those with no religious affiliation.

In many ways when we look at what is happening in our world today where conflicts seem to have escalated and opposing groups try to “settle” disagreement with violence or the imposition of will on other groups, we may have cause to conclude that finding common grounds is like trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Such pessimistic view seem credible enough if we consider the many interlaced factors to explain the surge in violence in our world.

From a historical perspective, we can see that most if not all the conflicts we have witnessed in recent times might have been brought about by a festering combination of combustible conditions, including failure to address dehumanising poverty and political disenfranchisement, worsened by the growing gap of the privileged class and those who are trapped in the quagmire of socio-economic cesspool.

The situation is compounded by the anxiety that it is unlikely that the privileged class will be able to understand fully the plight of, or talk sense with, those who have lived deprived and disadvantaged life.

Invariably, those who are deprived and disadvantaged would harbour suspicion of those who are in direct or indirect control over economic apparatus and tools for creation of wealth both at the national and at the international level. In other words, if there is a pernicious cycle of action and reaction, the violence is not just a response driven by politics of envy, as some might suggest. It has historical root often incubated over a long period of time in misery and a life of despair.

In the wider world scene, when talks have been initiated to resolve issues, such talks appear to be more like courtesy gatherings, a vacuous diplomatic road show, often with no concrete proposal and if there is a semblance of solution, they would be shot down by various legislatures and interest groups or placed at the bottom of a held-in-abeyance tray.

The unfortunate signal from such road show is that the participants seem more absorbed by political posturing and in exercise of political correctness marked by a clear lack of serious dialogue and commitment to find implementable common ground.

When people who are the under-class and marginalised are oppressed or pushed around over a long period of time, frequently crossing different generations, and when talks seem so detached from social reality, the disaffected tend to hit back and they have fought back.

That is why at the international level, this multi-faceted perspective explains in parts the rise of terrorist attacks when no meaningful avenues are open for negotiation and when there is no clear evidence of commitment to listen to each other in search of mutually beneficial and sustainable policies that would generate human flourishing.

In any case, often because of entrenched interest and suspicions, it is extremely difficult to expect trusting conversation to take immediate effect, assuming that we can bring people to the same table.

So while it might be correct to say, as an example, that a particular strand of Islamic teachings might have contributed to the radicalisation of young Muslims who have taken on extreme expression of their faith, might it not also be true that radicalisation is, in part, facilitated by the over-emphasis of an arrogant type of Euro-North American centric liberalism that worships unbridled individual rights aided by a constant persistent push by liberal fundamentalists among them politicians, the academia and those who control the major media who have sought to shut out the views of others or to ridicule them in the name of “progress”?

They underestimated that those who have found solace and strength in time-tested communitarian values would not accept such not-too-subtle cultural imperialism. You cannot legislate and export self-centred values by pushing such values down the throat of others who may not want to receive them.

Clearly fragmentations of the world and violent action and reaction could have been caused by failure to listen to each other and to respect legitimate concerns of different groups of people. Samuel Huntington might be correct after all when he postulated the idea of the clash of civilizations now made more pronounced by the evangelistic zeal of liberal fundamentalists and not just radicalised religious fanatics.

The future may look bleak in a world less than 20 years into the new millennium. The temptation is for observers of social events and human relationships to resign to cynicism.

The cynical response would be an appealing route to take when we think of the relentless march to export Euro-North American individualistic values and rights through the tools of political intervention, legislation, threat of economic sanction, and cultural imperialism on one hand, and the almost inevitable militant reaction from those who refuse to embrace the values unabashedly propagated and pressurise by incessant neo-imperialistic campaign.

So calling for others to “get off the moral high ground” may seem an expedient ploy to divert attention from serious conversation. Portraying the atomistic liberal ideology as progressive and everything else is intolerant if not primitive, only invites backlash because of their neglect of tested traditions which might not have Euro-North American origin and because of the selective preference of how to apply tolerance.

Such attitudes may just end up with none the wiser and we wonder why the seeming spiralling of violence in a world gripped with fear, nihilism, and despair.

There is still an option to help us steer clear of a using a fatalistic lens to look at the world.

It requires humility to recognise that while we may hold dear to a certain well-considered perspective in life, there are still many spheres in life which people of different faiths and those with no recognised religion can still find in what the political philosopher John Rawls describes as over-lapping consensus.

The truth of the matter is that we are all members of over-lapping communities with shared spaces, shared values and shared vision for human well-being, and have to be humble enough to grant that possibility.

From first impression and a casual look, the world is clearly fractious and fragmented.

However, for those who are prepared to invest time for deeper reflection and fair engagement which can be robust and yet civil; and which allows for one to draw on resources from our own faith and philosophy and to recoup common humanity, there is always the possibility of reclaiming common grounds and common morality unless one is an anarchist in the Nietschean sense or one is swayed by a religious apocalyptic vision or a political messianic pretension that is bent on destroying the world as it is, through the use of arms or imposition of will and ideology.

In the realistic approach guided by humility and hope, it does not matter if the result does not meet the complete desire or demand of a particular group, for this is unlikely, so long as the steps taken, views exchanged, or alternative offered provides an acceptable proximation to what one has hoped for and can live with.

In such dialogic conversation, Reinhold Niebuhr’s understanding of human nature as both free and finite may help us in our search for social well-being. To know our freedom is to appreciate our human potential to find common consensus primarily informed by love and justice. To bear in mind our finitude is to carry with us a warning of our human limitation and proclivity to sin which, if allowed to dominate human social intercourse, can derail our search for a fair and just outcome.

In our Singapore context, we need to be alert to the blatant and subtle infiltration of ideologies, religious and political, which seek to impose their values and self-serving dogmas on our multi-racial, multi-religious society.

It is less likely for any kind of destructive political or religious ideologies to take root and find wide support if the government and people of goodwill work to ensure that no group is disenfranchised because of poverty and neglect, and no group is held up for honourable mention when that group has run away with disproportionate benefits and privileges.

It is also less likely for a society to be irreparably fractured if we do not dismiss without deeper reflection and appreciation our time-tested communitarian vision nourished by our unique mix of ancient rich cultural histories and traditions to be usurped by atomistic individualism. Of course one needs to be careful not to let communitarian benefit become a collectivistic nightmare or communal dictatorship. But this has to be dealt with in a separate essay.

The world is fragmented. But it is not fatal.

There is possibility for people of goodwill which, to avoid being elitist and self-serving, must include people of faith and those with none; the well-educated and the common people; the experts and ordinary workers; to listen to each other, to work for and reclaim common morality and vision for the well-being of our own society.


rev-dr-daniel-koh_cambridgewesley


Rev Dr Daniel Koh Kah Soon, an ordained minister of the Methodist Church is a part-time lecturer at Trinity Theological College and a pastor at Christalite Methodist Chapel. He is interested in social ethical issues and how the Christian faith may contribute to enhancing community well-being. This interest is reflected in his occasional reflective essays and his active involvement in the social outreach ministry of the Methodist Welfare Services where he is currently serving as its Chairperson. He is also been a member of an Ethics Committee of a major restructured hospital, as well as a member of a Central Institutional Review Board.

The Gay Gene Re-Visited

December 2016 Pulse 

In 2014 Alan Sanders, a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Northwestern University at Evanston, and his team conducted a study of 409 pairs of twin brothers to see if there are some linkages between homosexuality and chromosomal region Xq28.

This study – the largest to be undertaken to date – attempts to validate the results obtained by a study by Dean Hamer and his team of scientists in 1993 at the National Cancer Institute in the United States. Working with only 40 pairs of homosexual brothers, Hamer and his team discovered that 33 pairs (or 83%) had the same sequence of markers in the X chromosome region known as Xq28.

This had led Hamer to conclude that ‘One form of homosexuality is preferentially transmitted through the maternal side and is generally linked to chromosomal region Xq28’.

To their surprise, Sanders and his team – which included J. Michael Bailey, who together with Richard Pillard, conducted the famous twin study – found the same linkages between homosexuality and the chromosomal region Xq28 suggested by the earlier study by Hamer.

Hamer was understandably delighted with the findings of the Sanders study. ‘Twenty years is a long wait for validation’, he is reported to have said, ‘but now it’s clear the original results were right. It’s very nice to see it confirmed’.

However, like the Hamer study in 1993, the Sanders study of 2014 failed to establish conclusively the genetic determinant for homosexual orientation.

Sanders used the same method that Hamer employed twenty years ago in order to replicate Hamer’s study. But this method – known as the linkage method – has been found to be deficient in many ways and it has since been superseded by another method known as genome-wide association (GWA). Sanders himself acknowledged the fact that GWA studies are far more superior to genetic-linkage studies.

Although Sanders was able to confirm the link between homosexuality and the chromosomal region Xq28, the causative or correlative relationship between them is never established, making this finding insignificant. Thus, a number of researchers and scientists such as Neil Risch have pointed out the findings of both the Hamer and Sanders studies are statistically insignificant.

In fact, Sanders himself acknowledged that the findings have not crossed the threshold of significance. He further stated that even though he believes that Xq28 has something to do with homosexuality, a trait as complex as sexual orientation depends on many factors, genetic and nongenetic alike.

Geneticists have long understood that the exact relationship between the genotype and the phenotype is very difficult to establish. The genotype refers to the set of genes in the DNA that is associated with a particular trait, while the phenotype is the actual expression of that trait.

Many geneticists maintain that the relationship between the two is never straightforward and warn against a naïve ‘genetic determinism’ that refuses to recognise the complexities. In fact, many would argue that the genotype typically undermines the phenotype.

With the advance of the field of epigenetics, scientists are beginning to see the importance of the interaction of the genes with their immediate cellular environment as well as the external environment. In addition, intrauterine influences (which includes nongenetic factors) as well as extrauterine influences also play their part.

Life experiences also play a significant role in forging a particular trait, especially one as complicated as sexual preference and behaviour. Experiences that were had in the early stages of one’s personal development are deemed especially important.

As Frances Campaigne of Columbia University puts it: ‘Social experiences throughout life influence gene expression and behaviour, however, early in development these influences have a profound effect’.

The Sanders study has left all these other aspects unexplored and the questions they raise unanswered.

Although science is important in our attempt to understand human sexual preferences and behaviour, for the Christian it cannot have the last word. Thus, even if science is able to discover the genetic basis for homosexual orientation, the Christian cannot on that premise alone conclude that homosexual behaviour is natural and therefore must not be prohibited.

For the Christian, it is the mystery of human sexuality that Scripture reveals that should serve as the basis for sexual behaviour. In our fallen world, supposedly ‘innate’ impulses cannot be indicative of what is natural – that is, what is intended by the Creator – even if the genetic or neurological determinants of these impulses are ascertained.

For the Christian, sexual conduct must be ordered according to the way in which human sexuality has been designed and purposed by the Creator. And according to the Bible, the only legitimate form of sexual activity is between a man and a woman, and the only legitimate context for such activity is the covenant of marriage.

It is in light of God’s design of and purpose for human sexuality that all other forms of sexual behaviour and activity – fornication, adultery, incest, prostitution and bestiality – are not only strictly prohibited, but are also often regarded as abominations.

This means that the meaning of human sexuality is too complex and multifaceted for science to unravel. It has to do not only with biology, but also morality. It has to do not only with impulses and emotions, but also ontology. It has to do not only with the individual, but also and more fundamentally with the ordering of our familial and social lives in a way that is harmonious with God’s design and intention.

In a word, human sexuality is too profound a reality to be left to science alone.


Dr Roland Chia


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.

Music and Morality

November 2016 Pulse

In February this year (2016), Pop Queen Madonna held her controversial Rebel Heart concert in Singapore amidst concerns expressed by religious groups.

In his pastoral letter, Roman Catholic Archbishop William Goh urges his 300,000 strong flock not to support ‘pseudo-arts that promote sensuality, rebellion, disrespect, pornography, contamination of the mind of the young, abusive freedom, individualism at the expense of the common good, vulgarity, lies and half-truths’.

The influence of modern pop and rock music on society and culture is a question which scholars – philosophers, theologians and sociologists – have been debating for quite some time. Although a consensus on the extent of music’s impact has not been reached, many are of the view that music does in some ways influence society.

The educational uses of music are, of course, already quite well documented. Children find it much easier to learn the alphabet if it is set to a song. This raises an important question: if children can be taught the alphabet or how to read through music, can they be taught what is right and wrong through the same medium?

To help us to reflect on these questions, we turn to the writings of two of the most eminent philosophers of Greek antiquity – Plato and Aristotle. What they have to say on this important subject is not only enlightening, but also surprisingly relevant.

Plato believes that far from being morally benign or neutral music has a profound if subtle ability to sway its listeners either positively or negatively. Thus, in The Republic Plato argues that music can be subversive and that certain kinds (or ‘modes’) of music can even engender a spirit of lawlessness.

The persuasive nature of music, Plato maintains, its ability not only to arouse particular emotions but also to habituate them, means that it can even shape the character of its listeners.

Now, the claim that certain forms of music produce certain effects in the listener is hardly controversial. It is obvious that listening to the Gregorian Chant and to Metallica’s ‘Creeping Death’ produce quite different effects in the listener.

But can listening to music mould the character of the listener (for the worse), as Plato claims? And if it can, how does it do this?

Rock music may influence the character of its listener – especially its teenage and young listeners – by the subtle and sometimes not so subtle messages it conveys through its lyrics but also through the sensibilities it generates.

Laced as it often is with themes of anger, frustration and self-indulgence, rock music presents the message of anarchy that is often very appealing to young people. For example, heavy metal contains such toxic messages of hatred against parents that it is sometimes described as music to kill your parents by.

But rock also urges the view that all social conventions and values must be overturned: nothing is sacred. A good example of this is Madonna, who throughout her career has attempted to desacralize sex and vulgarise (and even pornify) Christianity, especially its Roman Catholic variety.

Rock does not do this only with its provocative and damning lyrics. It does this by the music itself.

Here is where what our next philosopher, Aristotle, has to say about music is instructive.

According to Aristotle, music works on the will and the soul through representation. By this he means that music directly represents certain passions or emotional states such that by listening to certain types of music certain passions – courage and temperance or anger and rebellion – may be aroused.

Rock often arouses anger, angst and rebellion in the listener. As one commentator puts it, ‘One of the things that rock and the rock industry do best is to take normal adolescent frustration and rebellion and heat it up to boiling point’.

As Aristotle has taught us, we are not dealing here only with the lyrics but the whole emotional arc that the music creates. As (re-)presentational rather than discursive language, music abstracts feelings from lived experiences and impresses them powerfully on the listener.

As John Dewey has put it, ‘Music, having sound as its medium … expresses in a concentrated way the shocks and instabilities, the conflicts and resolutions, that are the dramatic changes enacted upon the more enduring background of nature and human life’.

That is why Plato emphasises the importance of proper education in music. ‘Education in music’ he writes, ‘is most sovereign because more than anything else rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost soul and take strongest hold of it’.

What sort of music, then, would contribute to the healthy moral development of an individual?

To answer this question would require another article. But briefly put, it is music that is wholesome, music that celebrates the good and the beautiful and music that tells the truth. It is music that is firmly rooted in a community, music that tells a story that captures the profoundest human experiences and emotions, and music that has stood the test of time.

We find such qualities in the music of Bach, Mozart and Handel. We also find them in varying degrees in Joan Baez’s ‘Barbara Allen’, in spirituals such as ‘Go Down, Moses’ and in ballads like Paul Simon’s and Art Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’.

In his letter to the Church at Philippi, the Apostle Paul writes: ‘whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things’ (Philippians 4:8).

These qualities are of paramount importance to good music, music that will form its listeners into people of virtue and substance.


Roland Chia (suit)_Large
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 Role of Government

In Paul’s epistle to the Church in Rome, we find the most profound statement in the New Testament on the role of the state or government. The Apostle teaches that governing authorities have been instituted by God to establish social order and justice (Romans 13:4-15). This understanding of the role of the governing authorities is undergirded by Paul’s concept of the state as an institution that is established by God. ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities’, he writes, ‘for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God’ (13:1).

What is truly remarkable is that Paul could write in this way about the governing authorities despite the fact that he was a subject of a totalitarian state ruled with an iron fist by Caesar, who regarded himself as a demigod. Be that as it may, Romans 13 has become the locus classicus of the Church’s theology of the state. It has led the great Reformers of the sixteenth century to teach that despite its obvious imperfections and even perversions, the state is a manifestation of divine grace, used by God as an instrument to maintain earthly justice and restrain evil.

Of course, the concept of the state and government has evolved radically since the time of the Apostle Paul. In modern democracies the concept of the government and its role is extremely complex and nuanced. This subject was the focus of the Perspective 2013 Conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at the Shangri-la Hotel on 28 January. This flagship conference attracted more than 800 participants, many of whom were academics, civil servants, business people, and civil society advocates. The theme of the conference – Governance – and the fact that it was held only two days after the Workers’ Party won a decisive victory in the Punggol East by-election made it all the more poignant.

Among the distinguished speakers were Professor Chan Heng Chee, the former Ambassador to the United States, Kishore Mahbubani, the Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Lawrence Wong, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information, and Sylvia Lim, Chairperson of the Workers’ Party. Security was tight as the Guest-of-Honour at the conference was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

That the political culture of Singapore is undergoing a transition is made quite evident in the 2011 General Election as well as in the more recent, but no less telling, results of the by-election in Punggol East. Not only are the younger electorate more political aware and vocal, they are also eager to play a more active role in shaping the future of the nation. This, together with the sweeping political and social changes that are taking place in many parts of the world, have resuscitated the old question of the role of the government.

Since independence, the government of Singapore has played a significant role in almost every aspect of the development of the city-state: economics, education, infrastructure, social cohesion, etc. It is through the fore-sight of our founding leaders and the interventionist approach to governance they espoused that a country like Singapore, with zero natural resources and profound constraints, is transformed into what it is today. Put differently, we may say that it is the ‘soft-authoritarianism’ of the government, as Professor Chan puts it in her talk, with its principled pragmatism that were largely responsible for the Republic’s success, against what appeared to be almost insurmountable odds.

But with the emergence of a younger electorate and the changing political and social scenarios, a tectonic shift appears to be taking place and big government may no longer be prized as highly or even deemed as effective as before. Democracy, as Professor Chan has perceptively pointed out, is after all, elastic. This emergent political sensibility is accompanied by the desire for greater citizen involvement, a shift from big government to a participatory form of democracy. This is surely to be welcomed because it would create the requisite  political ambiance for civil society in Singapore to truly flourish. PM Lee himself explicitly encourages this in his 90-minute session that concludes the IPS conference.

But, interestingly, while Singaporeans now want a greater say in national issues, they still think that the government must continue to play a prominent role. This came across quite clearly in the results of the Prisms project conducted by IPS, which sought ‘to engage the people of Singapore to reflect on the different dimensions of governance and to work towards a future they desire’. Whatever one’s concept of the government might be, the latter still has an important role to play in the life of the nation. But the role of the government has to do not only with the economy and the general wellbeing of the citizens, important though they undoubtedly are. It has to do essentially with the establishment and development of a social order that would ensure that justice and equity prevails.

This brings us back to the Apostle’s teaching in his epistle to the Christians in Rome. One of the ways in which the government maintains social order is of course through the Rule of Law. But to speak of social order is surely to presuppose a certain moral standard, no matter how vague and broad that standard may be. Therefore to say that the role and responsibility of the government is to maintain social order based on justice and equity is to suggest that the government should also take a keen interest in the moral integrity of society.

Of course morality cannot be legislated and there are certainly profound differences between law and morality. But there are also significant overlaps in the relationship that should never be hastily dismissed. Although morality is irreducible to law, there is a profound sense in which sound laws are not possible without morality. To some extent as least, the law is based on the moral values that society affirms and which are then translated into rules for the ordering of the common life. Having been so shaped by moral norms, the law in turn provides the ground and possibility for morality. As theologian Helmut Thielicke has put it, ‘For the state, as the majestic organ of the law, makes ordered existence possible, and this means that it makes ethical existence possible by creating its physical presuppositions’.

In this regard, the representative democracy according to which Singapore has elected to fashion its politics is perhaps the best model of governance to achieve the right balance of a strong government and energetic citizen participation. It is also the model which enables the government to resist the slide to a crude ‘majoritarianism’ or a crass moral populism, and exercise significant leadership that will not only ensure the establishment of social order, but also the preservation of the moral integrity of society. And it is precisely in the exercise of such governance that the state becomes by divine providence a faithful servant of God, even if it does not know his name or acknowledge his sovereignty.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in The Trumpet (TTC).

Morality, Democracy and Marriage

September 2015 Pulse

On 24 May 2015, the citizens of Ireland voted to legalise same-sex marriage, making the predominantly Roman Catholic country the first in the world to do so by popular vote. 1,201,607 or 61% of the voters said ‘Yes’ to same-sex marriage in a landmark referendum, while 734,300 voted against.

Ireland’s political leaders of every stripe were united in welcoming the decision. Prime Minister Edna Kenny said that the vote ‘disclosed who we are – a generous, compassionate, bold and joyful people.’ Deputy Prime Minister Joan Burton agreed and called it a ‘magical, moving moment’, while Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said that it was ‘a huge day for equality.’

The Irish referendum has much to teach us about religion, culture, morality and public opinion.

But the one important lesson that stands out is that this incident makes clear that, despite its obvious merits, the democratic process does not guarantee that morality will be upheld and that democracy in and by itself is unable to provide a clear moral compass for society.

One glaringly obvious weakness of the democratic process and indeed of democracy itself is that it is premised on opinions. Voters may feel that they are in control because of their active participation in a process that allows them to determine the outcome by choosing from an array of options and viewpoints. But in reality, it is those who set the agendas – sometimes by reducing complex issues to simplistic sound bites – that are in control.

In a sense, voting is akin to the capitalist economic system that is often allied to democracy. The producers dictate the agenda, and the consumers are simply taken up in choosing from the different opinions available in the competitive marketplace of ideas.

In addition, the sloganeering that sometimes accompanies the democratic process often obscures and obfuscates important issues even as it impedes rational deliberation on these issues.

For example, supporters of same-sex marriage portray themselves as passionate and uncompromising champions of equality. Same-sex marriage is all about equality, they emphatically declare. It is about allowing two people who love each other to enter into this union called marriage regardless of their sex or gender.

The traditional view of marriage, they insist, violates the principle of equality because it discriminates against same-sex couples who wish to get married. They therefore often compare laws against same-sex marriage with antimiscegenation laws that support the unjust system of white supremacy by prohibiting interracial marriage.

But the analogy to antimiscegenation, and with it the appeal to equality, fails on a fundamental point. Antimiscegenation has to do with whom one is allowed to marry, and not with what marriage is essentially about. The issue with same-sex marriage, however, concerns the essential meaning of marriage.

Put differently, antimiscegenation laws are not put in place to change the fundamental definition of marriage. They are there in order to prevent the possibility of a genuine interracial marriage from being realised or recognised.

The same-sex marriage debate is different. By insisting that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, the proponents of same-sex marriage are not simply expanding the pool of people eligible to marry; they are redefining marriage itself.

In using the analogy of antimiscegenation, supporters of same-sex marriage are in fact implying that race and sex are equally relevant to the essence of marriage.

This assertion is simply false! Race is never relevant to the intrinsic nature of marriage. Sex, however, always is.

In addition, if equality is the only basis for determining who can marry whom, then proponents of same-sex marriage must also support open, temporary, polygynous, polyandrous, polyamorous and incestuous unions as long as they are between or among consenting adults who love each other.

Rational argument and sound judgement are sometimes submerged under the loud sloganeering, aggressive lobbying and charged emotions that many times accompany the so-called democratic process.

For the Christian, marriage is not a social or legal construct. It is a special covenantal relationship between a man and a woman instituted by God (Genesis 2:22-24). In this union called marriage, the man and the woman are permanently and exclusively committed to one another.

Marriage provides the proper relational context for the man and the woman who have become ‘one flesh’ to bear and rear children. It is not only a union that makes procreation possible, but it also provides the natural social order for children to be raised and nurtured.

The structure of marriage is so basic that it is found universally across cultures and religious traditions. As Robert George has rightly pointed out, ‘the demands of our common human nature have shaped (however imperfectly) all of our religious traditions to recognise this natural institution.’

If this is indeed the case, the question that must be put to modern societies is whether the meaning and structure of marriage can be radically revised by a ballot box? Or, to put the question differently and more generically, can morality be democratized?

The answer must surely be ‘No’. The Christian understanding of human sinfulness suggests that morality must be based on more impeccable foundations than the fleeting views of the majority. Human sexuality, marriage and the structure of the family must be established on the design and purposes of the Creator.

As Robert Kraynak has so perceptively put it in his intriguing and provocative book, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: ‘We must face the disturbing dilemma that modern liberal democracy needs God, but God is not as liberal or as democratic as we would like Him to be.’


Dr Roland Chia


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