Tag Archives: policy

Religion, Public Discourse and the Common Good

November 2016 Pulse

Without doubt, one of the most important – if highly contentious – ideas in political and social philosophy today is that of the common good.

Although the idea is once again in vogue in recent public and academic discourse, its origins can be traced to Aristotle, who refused to designate a government just if it neglected to pursue the common good. As the Greek philosopher and scientist put it in his famous work Politics: “The good is justice, in other words, the common interest.”

It should be emphasised that the envisioning and quest for the common good is the responsibility of every member of society, not just that of the government. Participation is key. As The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states: “Participation is a duty to be fulfilled by all, with responsibility and a view to the common good.”

This is especially the case in modern democratic societies.

In our postmodern and culturally pluralistic societies, it is sometimes difficult to arrive at a notion of the good that can be truly described as common, shared by communities with very different cultural sensibilities and habits.

However, it is important not to exaggerate the incommensurability of the different cultures. As the Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon has perceptively pointed out – against the instincts of some postmodern fundamentalists – “Where basic human values are concerned, cultural diversity has been exaggerated.”

Be that as it may, cultural differences can sometimes become an impediment to social life by obfuscating important issues and should therefore be taken seriously. That is why in the quest for a shared vision of the good, the participation of every member of society in the deliberative process is extremely important.

“In a society where everyone has a share in government,” writes Robin Lovin, “the deliberative process cannot be irrelevant to the search for the common good.”

Does religion have a role in this deliberative process?

Many secularists – even those of a benign variety – question the legitimacy of religion’s contribution to debates about the political and economic wellbeing of society. Procedural secularists – namely, those who do not oppose religion per se, but insist that public debates should be kept secular – assume that religion and politics simply do not mix, and that the former’s participation in public debate would result in confusion instead of clarity.

Such misgivings, however, are unfounded.

Not many people would doubt the sterling achievement of the United Nations in promulgating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, in the aftermath of the atrocities of World War II.

But what is sometimes missed is that this document was put together not only with the input of diplomats from different countries, but also that of scholars and intellectuals from different faith communities.

The Declaration shows that it is quite possible for people shaped by different philosophical and religious traditions and who belong to divergent political and economic systems to have common convictions about what it means to speak of the rights of a human being.

But there is another reason why religion – especially Christianity – should not be excluded from the ongoing effort to envision the common good. Its presence can in some important sense challenge our idolatries, the myriad of “isms” to which we give our unquestioning allegiance.

To say this is not to naively suggest that religions are somehow immunised from perversions. Indeed, some of the most sinister idolatries can parade under the banner of religion.

It is to recognise that religion can encourage certain important ways of seeing and of thinking about what it means to be human or what it means to be a community that is forgotten, obscured or simply absent in secular accounts.

Even a secular philosopher like Jürgen Habermas recognises this. In his famous 2005 essay “Religion in the Public Sphere”, Habermas notes that “Religious traditions have a special power to articulate moral intuitions, especially with regard to vulnerable forms of communal life.”

Against the oft-repeated refrain about the divisiveness of religion, religious traditions like Christianity – with its emphasis on equality and justice – can in fact help society achieve a clearer vision of the common good by exposing and correcting veiled intolerances and fanaticisms.


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. This article is first published in Methodist Message.

 

Secular Intolerance

October 2016 Pulse

In November last year, The Straits Times reported that, according to Attorney-General George Brandis, Australia is experiencing an “alarming emergence” of religious intolerance. “Members of the Christians faiths”, Australia’s top law officer reportedly said, “are routinely subject to mockery and insult by prominent writers and commentators” (ST, 4 Nov 2015).

To be sure, Australia is not the only country to witness the surge in public attacks on religion by atheists. This phenomenon is seen across Europe and even in America, making plain what Christian theologians have known to be true all along – that secular tolerance is a myth.

Atheists and secular humanists have for a long time demonised religion, blaming it for intolerance and violence, and held up secularism as the bastion of tolerance and freedom. As British journalist Matthew Parris has so provocatively and unabashedly put it, “Godlessness is a humanising force”.

However, it is not very difficult to show just how vacuous and deceptive such rhetoric is in reality.

For example, on 15 Sep 2001, just four days after the horrific events in New York, Richard Dawkins laid the responsibility for the unconscionable act of violence at the door of religion.

“To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind”, he said scornfully, “is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used”.

Dawkins was applauded for his courage, but this surely is a typical example of secular bigotry.

In recent years, secular intolerance has reared its head in a number of famous court cases involving the central Christian symbol, the cross.

In Lausti v Italy, the atheist applicant Mrs Soile Lausti sought to have the cross or crucifix removed from classrooms across Italy. Their presence in the public square, argued the applicant, tantamount to coercion and even indoctrination.

In Eweida and Chaplin v United Kingdom, the applicants Nadia Eweida and S. Chaplin sought the right to wear the cross visibly in the workplace. Eweida’s employer, British Airways, had insisted that the cross she wore around her neck should either be hidden or removed.

It would be a mistake to think that these examples are rare exceptions, quirky blips on an otherwise admirable record of secular tolerance.

The dark history of secular intolerance can be traced to its birth during the great cultural and intellectual movement in 18th century Europe called the Enlightenment. Although the Enlightenment is a complex movement that can be variously characterised, its most venerated thinkers were fiercely anti-clerical and antagonistic to revealed religion.

For example, Voltaire, one of the Enlightenment’s most eloquent advocates of tolerance, is also well-known for his ferocious and relentless attacks against Jews, Catholics and Calvinists, and for rubbishing the most cherished tenets of Christianity. Karl Marx, arguably one of the most important heirs of Enlightenment rationalism, sought nothing less than the “abolition of religion”.

The philosopher John Gray has exposed the intolerance of secularism with brutal honesty. Tracing the roots of the violence perpetrated by atheist regimes in the 20th century, Gray, himself an atheist, observes that “the mass murders of the 20th century were not perpetrated by some latter-day version of the Spanish Inquisition. They were done by atheist regimes in the service of Enlightenment ideas of progress”.

Secular intolerance comes in many different guises in modern society.

It may be seen in the erroneous view of religion – widely advanced by secularists – as being only concerned about “spiritual” matters, thereby forcing the conclusion that religion has no place in the public square where political and social issues are debated.

Secular intolerance may appear in the argument that because religious language is incommensurable with other forms of public discourse (a fallacious view), religious actors in the public square must put aside their theological and religious commitments and adhere to a hegemonic secular rationality euphemistically referred to as “public reason”.

Secular tolerance is a myth.

This myth has been used again and again by public intellectuals, politicians and the media not only to discredit the church and Christianity, but religion in general.

It is therefore in the interest not only of Christians and people of faith but also of society as a whole that the myth of secular tolerance is exposed and challenged.

Roland Chia (suit)_LargeDr 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. This article is first published in Methodist Message.