Tag Archives: secularism

Resurgent Religiosity: a Problem or Opportunity?

February 2018 Feature

Concern over a Resurgent Religiosity

Every now and then, we hear persons expressing concern about the rising religiosity in Singapore and throughout the world. These commentators warn us that such a trend presents a significant threat to the peace, harmony and well-being of our society. They long for a strengthening of the secular ethos, which ensures that religious considerations remain effectively excluded from the public square.

This prevalent concern was expressed in a short letter entitled “Challenges in tackling exclusivism and rising religiosity” which appeared in the Straits Times Forum page on 24 Jan 2017. The author, Mr S. Ratnakumar, offered his view that “cultivating national identity, pride and loyalty will remain a challenge if the rising trend of religiosity is not reversed”. For Mr Ratnakumar (and others who share his opinion), we are currently engaged in a zero-sum game: If our devotion to our religious convictions is not watered down, our commitment to the well-being of our nation would be severely compromised.

First Response: Trend is Unlikely to be Reversed

We can make two responses to this position. The first is to say that the hope for the “rising trend of religiosity” to be “reversed” and for the secular ethos to be correspondingly strengthened is a rather forlorn one, given our current climate.

Secularism has its roots in the Western Enlightenment and the age of modernity, which the Enlightenment has spawned. It is based on the philosophical notion that reason is the final arbiter of what is true and good. A government operating according to the dictates of reason and guided by scientific findings (whether discovered through the hard sciences or social sciences) has therefore the right to determine the policies and rules of the nation.

Religions, on the other hand, are viewed by modernity as being involved not with matters of objective reason, but subjective beliefs and opinions. It follows that religions should have no influence over public matters. At best, they should be consigned to the private sphere of an individual’s system of belief.

It is, by now, trite to say that the age of modernity has, in many parts of the world, given way to the postmodern. To many, postmodernity has successfully exposed the myth of the neutrality and objectivity of our appeal to reason. It has shown that the way we reason and interpret our experiences is significantly influenced by our particular cultural presuppositions. It has demonstrated that the boundaries between an “objective” fact established by reason and a “subjective” opinion or belief are not as clear-cut as we previously supposed.

With this dethroning of reason as the final arbiter of truth and morality, the foundations of secularism have been severely undermined. Those who appeal to reason as the basis for their fitness to rule will increasingly face the question, “Whose system of rationality are you relying on?”

This rebellion against the “reason” of the privileged class is exemplified in a comment made by former British minister Michael Gove, a key supporter of the Brexit movement. He was once asked whether there was even one reputable economist who supported the idea of Britain leaving the EU. His reply captured well the mood of the majority, “People in this country have had enough of experts.”

This weakening of secularism has been accompanied, in many places, by a rising religiosity—one which is increasingly dismissive of the boundaries placed upon religion by the age of modernity. This trend is likely to continue, given the continual dispelling of the mystical aura surrounding the “meta-narrative” of secularism, leading to the rise of other ways of conceiving our world and ordering our lives.

Second Response: A Resurgent Religiosity which Secures Public Well-Being  

What should our response be to the trend outlined above? Some will, no doubt, fall into despair and see a future in which our societies and nations inevitably fragment and descend into conflict.

There is, however, some cause for optimism. A resurgent religiosity represents not only a problem, but also an opportunity. Religious beliefs and values can contribute to the public well-being and strengthening of our national cohesion.

The major world religions are not monolithic systems. They have complex bodies of teaching, some of which pull in one direction, and others in another. Inevitably, there will be teachings about the need to exclude or even mistreat those on the outside. But if a religion is truly universal in scope, there will also be imperatives for its members to live in harmony with all human beings, and to respect and bless them, regardless of whether they are followers of that religion or not.

In fact, if one does a “postmodern” digging into the genealogy of the cherished values of secularism (e.g. freedom, justice, equality), we find that they arise out of religious roots. While outwardly rebelling against many aspects of their Christian heritage, the thought leaders of the Enlightenment were also (consciously or otherwise) drawing upon that heritage to advocate what should be true and right.

Religion, therefore, can be a potent force to promote justice and equality for all, as well as freedom and tolerance. The key lies in how the followers of the various religions make sense of the complexity of their faiths and the tensions contained within, in order to determine what truly is at the heart of their belief.

So, while every religion has its extremists who see their faith as mandating them to wreck death and destruction on outsiders, it also has adherents who seek to conceptualise their faith in a way which requires them to respect the rights of others to follow their own paths and to ensure that their interests and well-being are fully protected.

This second group is not made up of the religious “liberals” of a bygone age, who freely jettison key aspects of their belief in order to force their faith to fit into the procrustean bed of modernity. Rather, they are religiously conservative people, who find imperatives and resources within their faith traditions to work for the common good in their religiously diverse societies.

Their efforts represent our hope for the future. They deserve all the support and encouragement we can give them, as they struggle with the extremists in their party for the right to determine what their faith is about.

With the waning influence of secularism, we will probably have to learn to rely less on its norms to promote peace and the common good. The major world religions will have to do more to fill this gap, by providing the motivation, based on their particular teachings, for their followers to be loyal citizens of their countries and contributing members of their societies.

Will the resurgent religiosity of our time turn out to be a problem or opportunity? We pray with all our hearts that it will be a powerful impetus for peace, harmony and the well-being of all in our postmodern age.

Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.

Discrimination Against Christians

August 2017 Pulse

Reader’s Question: There appears to be a rise in anti-Christian sentiments in America, especially in its institutions of higher learning, where discrimination against Christians is evident. What are the reasons for this attitude? Are there similar anti-Christian sentiments in Singapore?

The stats speak for themselves. And they paint a worrying picture.

According to a survey conducted by LifeWay Research in 2015, more than 63 percent of Americans agree that Christians encounter intolerance in some form and that such incidents are on the rise. The LifeWay study also states that 6 out of 10 Americans believe that religious liberty in the United States is on the decline.

In another survey, conducted by the Public Research Institute in 2017, 57 percent of white evangelical Protestants think that discrimination against Christians in America is quite pervasive.

In American society, there is a subtle but undeniable eclipse of religious language and secularisation of Christian events as the courts debate about the removal of the words ‘under God’ from the pledge of allegiance and as ‘Merry Christmas’ is replaced by ‘Happy Holidays’.

Discrimination against Christians is evident in the universities in the US.

According to The Baltimore Sun (April 23, 2014), Brandon Jenkins was denied admission to the Community College of Baltimore City because of his religious belief. Jenkins said that he was denied admission to the Radiation Therapy Programme because when asked in an interview conducted by college officials what was most important to him, he responded: ‘My God’. The Washington-based American Centre for Law and Justice is handling Jenkins’ lawsuit against the college.

At Sonoma State University, a liberal arts student Audrey Javis was asked to remove her cross necklace because it might be offensive to other students. Javis, a devout Catholic, told Fox News that she felt a sense of outrage. ‘I was very hurt and felt as if the university’s mission statement – which includes tolerance and inclusivity to all – was violated’.

Christian organisations are also being removed from university campuses. In its September 10, 2014, issue The Huffington Post reported that all 23 campuses of the California State University have ‘de-recognised’ Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical Christian group with 860 chapters across the United States, because of its Christian beliefs.

These are all disturbing telltale signs of the growing secular hegemony in American society.

The situation is so alarming that, according to The Huffington Post, former GOP candidate Mike Huckabee opined that ‘We are moving rapidly toward the criminalization of Christianity’. Although this is obviously an overstatement, the growing presence of discrimination against Christians in America cannot be denied.

In addition, this development seems to be in tandem with the rise of global anti-Christian persecution documented in books such as Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (2013) by Paul Marshall and The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution (2016) by John L. Allen.

One reason for this trend is the ascendency of a militant and toxic form of secular humanism in the West that is in essence anti-religion. In rejecting the existence of God – and with it, institutionalised religions – these secular humanists have fabricated the myth of human omnicompetence and might.

The radical anthropocentrism (some would say, anthropomonism) it espouses has mocked traditional monotheistic faiths like Christianity and Judaism for their belief in a non-existence transcendent being by employing the spurious arguments of atheist authors like Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. But by professing unbounded faith in humankind, secular humanism has in fact erected an altar to a new god, and created a new religion.

This is evident in the writings of the Fathers of secular humanism. For example, in The Social Contract (1762) Jacques Rousseau proposed a civil religion where reverence and obedience are accorded to the sovereign state, whose dogmas and laws supplant those of traditional religions like Christianity.

John Dewey’s My Pedagogic Creed (1897) hailed the teacher in the secular society as a prophet of the true god, who will usher the children they teach into the kingdom of god. Except that Dewey’s true god is not the God of the Bible but the human community, and the kingdom of god about which he speaks is secular society from which religion has been expunged.

But it is precisely because of their anthropocentrism – their idolatrous worship of man instead of God – that makes the secular humanists prone to an insidious form of intolerance (an intolerance that is camouflaged by the rhetoric of inclusivity, diversity, and, yes, tolerance), tyranny and totalitarianism.

Secular humanism maintains that values and morals are nothing but mere opinions and personal preferences – there is no such thing as an objective moral norm. Yet it imposes its own dogmas and standards on society: even the staunchest secular humanist will admit, if he is honest, that he is shaped and guided by dogma.

This is nothing but an instance of self-absolutization.

The absolutist creed of secular humanism has spawned a history of violence and inhumanity. ‘Nobody except certain intellectuals’, writes Richard Bastien, ‘can ignore the fact that the two societies that have systematically fought Christianity root and branch – Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia – have also been the two most grossly inhumane’.

‘And as Western democracies do away with their Christian heritage’, he adds, ‘they become more and more cruel and inhumane. The deliberate starvation of Downs syndrome babies, unrestricted abortion, euthanasia, devaluation of life-giving and life-supporting roles such as motherhood and fatherhood, all bear testimony to the fact that ours is increasingly becoming a death culture like Nazi and Soviet culture’.

The intolerant dogmatism of the secular humanists is made evident in their penchant for closing down debates over opinions and positions they disagree with or are antithetical to their secular creed. They use the rhetoric of ‘hate speech’ or ‘inclusivity’ as political weapons to silence the people they disagree with, thereby disabling genuine public debate.

They assume that they alone have the authority to define ‘hate speech’ and they alone can determine the rules of the game as far as inclusiveness is concerned.

This is profoundly undemocratic!

Thankfully, this venomous form of secularism is not present (if present, it is not influential) in Singapore, a nation that takes pride in its religious diversity. The secularism of the state is not anti-religion, but a kind of ‘procedural’ secularism that celebrates religious plurality and recognises the profound contributions that religion can make to society.

Our constitution allows those who live and work in Singapore not only to profess their faiths but also to propagate them. The secularism of the state is a ‘minimalist’ secularism that respects and protects the religious liberty of its citizens. A survey conducted by the Institute for Policy Studies in 2014 showed that the majority of the respondents ‘agreed that there is religious harmony here’.

While there might be a few here who may find militant secularism attractive, it is doubtful that they are able to unleash the culture war we witness in the US here – at least, not in the foreseeable future.

But religious liberty and harmony in any society is always fragile, not least in this current climate of suspicion and hate.

To prevent religious discrimination brought about by hegemonic secularism, we must protect the religious freedom that we currently enjoy and never take it for granted. And we must strive to ensure that everyone in Singapore – people of different faiths as well as people with no religion – is valued and accorded proper respect.


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.






A Politically Correct View of Judaism?

March 2017 Credo

Recent years have seen the emergence of strongly Jewish sentiments in some Western Christian circles. The issue is not about whether Judaism should be understood on its own terms (we do that for other religions); what is objectionable is their disregard for a Christian understanding of Israel.

Unlike the dispensationalists of yesteryear whose view of Israel was at least theologically driven (even if mistaken), these modern sentiments are driven more by political correctness expressed in two strategic moves.

One is the refusal to transliterate the tetragrammaton (YHWH) into a pronounceable form. For Jews it may have something to do with their belief in God’s mystery and transcendence: None can see God’s face and live; none can touch God’s ark without provoking him to break out in judgment.

There is also a tradition about not taking the name of the Lord (YHWH) in vain, etc. Ostensibly, this move is made out of respect for Jews. But why now, when the facts have long been known? The political climate has changed especially after the Second World War.

Like many forms of political correctness, there are usually powerful socio-political forces at work. First, the West seems to be burdened with a collective guilt regarding the Holocaust. Any action or speech perceived as anti-Semitic is immediately singled out for harsh censure. When a former president of Iran questioned the existence of the Holocaust, the Western reaction was swift and shrill. Now, anti-Semitism is indeed reprehensible—but so is any form of racism.

Another reason for Western Christians’ acting politically correctly is that the space where they once inhabited and enjoyed considerable influence has shrunk alarmingly. Christians of orthodox persuasion are finding themselves shunned, marginalized and evicted from the public square by an increasingly militant secular elite. But together, Christians and Jews could mount a counter-attack. This is amply illustrated in the influential magazine First Things.

Islam, potentially, could be another friend, but given the current geo-political climate an alliance with Islam would be imprudent. Also, one must not underestimate the influence of the Jewish lobby in America.

But political correctness comes with a high price. To refuse to name God implicitly undermines a central pillar of the Christian faith.

Christians have good reason to call God Yahweh or Jehovah, even if they are not sure what the actual pronunciation of the tetragrammaton is. The basis for Christian boldness is the Incarnation.

The God of Israel has taken on flesh. In Christ, God is revealed in visible and tactile concreteness: “that which we have seen, which we have touched with our hands…” With Christ’s coming, Israel’s God has acquired a face and a name: we behold his glory in the face of Jesus Christ; we dare to call him “Abba, Father.”

Some theologians have suggested that Father is the proper name of God in that the Person so named stands in a unique relationship to Jesus Christ as his one and only Son. If Christians are emboldened by the Holy Spirit to call God “Abba” why should they not dare call Israel’s God by his proper name, Yahweh?

The second strategy is to replace the phrase “Old Testament” with “the Hebrew Bible” or Tanakh. This move may seem like a small concession but it too comes with a price.
The “Old Testament” is, admittedly, a distinctively Christian designation. From the beginning, Christians have always regarded the Old Testament as fulfilled in the New, for it points to and prefigures Jesus Christ.

This understanding is encapsulated in Augustine’s dictum: “Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, Vetus in Novo patet” (The New Testament is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed). It is a relationship of the shadow and the real, of promise and fulfilment.

Understanding their relationship in this way does not imply that the Old is superseded. Some elements in the Old are indeed superseded and no longer necessary, such as the bloody sacrifices, as Hebrews teaches, but it does not mean that the Church replaces Israel as some supersessionists believe.

Israel is our still big brother or, putting it differently, the Church is Israel expanded. The Church is not a gentile church but the new people of God uniting Israel and the nations. It is the natural olive tree (Israel) into which the wild olive branches (gentiles) are grafted.

Some, however, are not content with this New Testament conception of the Church. For them the divine economy has to be so reconceptualized as to give Israel its own distinctive place, making it virtually a separate entity. Here again, I’m not thinking of dispensationalism but certain forms of modern nonsupersessionism. The result is a Christian Bible without a Christological centre.

For Christians the two testaments form a single Bible. This is why the early Christians interpreted the Old Testament typologically as pointing to its fulfillment in Christ. They used the Old Testament in their catechetical instructions for precisely this reason. Ambrose of Milan is a classic example, whose preference for the Old Testament is based on the rationale that just as the Old prepares for the New, it prepares catechumens for baptism into the Body of Christ.

Not to recognize the Old Testament as indeed the Old Testament is an implicit denial of the continuity and development of God’s covenantal dealings with his people. It is tantamount to denying its status as Christian Scripture. The New Testament would make no sense without the Old; on its own the New presents only a truncated story without a real beginning. The New without the Old would produce a distorted Christianity—in fact, another version of the Marcionite heresy.

Christians, especially those in the Majority World, should recognize these moves for what they are: they are not a theologically better way of understanding Jewish-Christian relations but strategies driven by political correctness. Why should Christians in the Majority World bear the guilt of the West? Our battle with secularism can be better fought not just by forging alliance with faithful Jews, but also with the faithful in other religions.

Rev Dr Simon Chan (PhD, Cambridge) had taught theology and other related subjects such as liturgical, spiritual, Pentecostal, and Third World theologies at Trinity Theological College for 27 years. His most recent publication is Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (IVP Academic, 2014).

Two Kinds of Secularism, and Social Peace

April 2016 Feature Article

Christians are severely persecuted in many places, including the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia.  Meanwhile, in the West, Christians are also subjected to increasing slander, vilification, and legal assault in all areas of life, both public and private.  Growing legal persecution and hostility to Christianity in the US is amply documented.[1]  Many of the cases represent tactical assaults in the larger cultural revolution in support of same-sex “marriage,” in which Christian individuals, businesses, schools, or ministries that refused to publicly affirm this position were targeted, even before the 2015 US Supreme Court decision that made it the law of the land.

It seems counterintuitive that such a thing could occur in a secular country like the US, because secularism is supposed to result in religious tolerance and harmony.  But sometimes it does not.  Arguably, this is because there are two kinds of secularism, and each tends to produce very different social dynamics in the public square.

Recognizing this distinction is very pertinent for Singaporean Christians as well as adherents of other worldviews who also regard religious questions to be meaningful, and who care about social harmony.

One kind of secularism advocates a non-sectarian state that neither promotes nor penalizes religious adherence, and governs a society in which individuals and religious communities are free to practice and propagate their religion within the bounds of public order and respect for others to do the same.  One’s choice of religion results in no governmentally-conferred advantage or disadvantage. Public servants employed by the state have no less religious freedom than others, but are not be free to abuse their office by propagating their faith on the public’s time or the public’s dime.  The religious identity and place of each individual and community in the public square is regarded as legitimate, yet without that conferring any kind of public advantage over another.  This is the kind of secularism that many in the modern world find it desirable to live under, regardless of their particular worldview or faith.

However, there is another brand of secularism that insists on what Richard John Neuhaus called “the naked public square,” in which religious identity, practice, and speech is purged from the public square.  Religion is thoroughly privatized and tolerated only as a private hobby.  It is rooted in an epistemological belief about what counts as knowledge that is variously known as scientism or empiricism: the empirical sciences are either (a) the only, or (b), the best source we have of the knowledge of reality. Questions that cannot be addressed in this way are therefore of minimal epistemic status at best, or at worst, are not questions of truth and fact at all, but of mere personal belief and opinion.  The inconvenient fact that scientism itself cannot be established scientifically may be why it is most persuasive when it is not examined closely but remains a hidden assumption.

The corrupt root of this form of secularism leads to rotten fruit in the public square.  For if life’s most important questions (e.g., “Is there a God?  If so, what is he, she, they, or it like?  How ought we to live?”) cannot be addressed rationally as matters of truth, then they will be settled by means of power by the group that is able to most effectively marginalize and silence competitors.  As Saul Alinsky said, “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”  This is usually accomplished through a campaign of caricature, slander, and delegitimization that progresses to the point that an entire community is systematically blocked from full participation in society.  This process is currently underway in the US, where Christian persons and institutions who refuse to accommodate same-sex marriage are being subjected to punitive legal harassment and the effective nullification of their first amendment rights. The secularist promise of tolerance for Christianity as long as it is practiced in private and not “imposed” on others is not kept, for the zealous activists demand to know one’s views and wage a campaign of destruction against them if they fail to affirm pro-gay position.  Therefore, Jewish social critic Dennis Prager has frequently observed that under this regime, religion is treated like pornography, and pornography like religion.  There is no possibility of social peace under this form of secularism, unless everyone else surrenders the public square to an essentially atheistic worldview.

One hopes that Singaporeans of all beliefs would prefer the first kind of secularism over the second.  Unfortunately, a survey of some of the more vocal secularist Singaporean websites suggests the same Alinskyite tendencies toward slander, caricature, and delegitimization practiced by their Western counterparts.  Who needs a thoughtful analysis of a rival worldview when ridicule is so easy and persuasive to the already-convinced?  As Christian, I confess that I do not recognize anything resembling my faith in the cartoonish distortions presented there.  It seems as if the contributors lack sufficient imagination to conceive how anyone could possibly have a rational reason for believing differently, or to imagine what it is like to do so.  As such, it is hard to imagine them having any kind of meaningful discussion with an intelligent, well-informed proponent of another religion.  Perhaps they should stick with the caricatures and straw men by which they are so comfortably entertained.

Singapore has often fared well as a pragmatic city-state that crafts effective policies.  In this case, Singapore has the benefit of observing the outcome of cultural conflict and disharmony in other nations that has been wrought by ideological secularism and the culture war it has helped to stimulate.  I am thankful that the secularism of Singaporean society in general more closely resembles the first type, and pray that it endures.

Dr. Brian Thomas- SBC photo, cropped

Dr. Brian H. Thomas is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Singapore Bible College (School of Theology English). He received a DTh in New Testament Theology from Trinity Theological College (Singapore), a MA in Christian Apologetics and a MA in New Testament from Biola University (USA), and a BA in History from Christopher Newport University (USA). He has lived in Singapore since 2005 with his wife, teaching and ministering with various Christian ministries and seminaries here and in the surrounding region. They have one son.

[1]Kelly Shackelford, et al., Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America, 2014 ed. (Plano, TX: Liberty Institute, 2014); Family Research Council, Hostility to Religion: The Growing Threat to Religious Liberty in the United States, July 30, 2014 ed. (Washington DC: Family Research Council, 2014).

What’s Wrong with Human Rights

One of the great achievements of the previous century is the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948. The Declaration was composed soon after the end of the Second World War when experiences of the horrific carnage are still fresh in the collective memories of its crafters.

Translated into at least 375 languages and dialects, the UDHR is established on the philosophical premise that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ (Article 1). It emphasises that ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’ (Article 2). As I have argued elsewhere, Christians should have no difficulties accepting the fundamental principles enshrined in the UDHR because they enjoy broad scriptural warrant and endorsement.

It is becoming increasingly obvious, however, that the language of rights alone is not sufficient to encourage civility in modern society. The right to freedom of expression is a case in point. Article 19 of the UDHR reads: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.

That the insistence on such rights alone is unable to foster social cohesion and ensure civility in our multicultural societies is brought to our attention by the furore over the publication in 2006 of the notorious cartoons of the prophet Mohammed by the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. Amidst protests and criticisms by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the paper staunchly defends his decision with this terse statement: ‘We do not apologise for printing the cartoons. It was our right to do so’.

A very different and more recent incident brings to the fore the same problem concerning the inadequacies of the exclusive use of the language of rights in society. It concerns the proposal to build an Islamic Centre and mosque near Ground Zero in New York City. Critics of the project argue that building an Islamic Centre just two blocks away from the World Trade Centre, the site of the 9/11 attacks is a blatant insult to the victims of the terror attacks that were perpetrated in the name of Islam.

In a speech at a White House dinner celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, U.S. President Barack Obama defended the project by appealing to the rights of Muslims to practise their religion: ‘But let me be clear, as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as anyone else in this country … That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.’ Obama’s statement is supported by Article 18 of the UDHR that deals with the question of religious freedom.

Both these examples illustrate the fact that rights alone are insufficient for civilising societies. This is especially true in modern liberal societies where the language of rights is often embedded in a cultural ethos shaped by secularism and individualism. If human rights are to be properly understood, other values must also be brought into the picture. Put differently, human rights discourse must be located within a broader and more robust ethical matrix. It is my view that an account of human rights must be anchored by an ethics of obligation. Any human right, it must be pointed out, has as its counterpart some obligation. In fact, it is interesting to note that in the history of moral philosophy, theories of obligations antedate theories of rights.

It is therefore useful to think of the priority of obligations over rights. As Simone Weil has put it so perceptively in her book, The Need for Roots: ‘The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinated and relative to the former.’  It is perhaps beneficial for society to provide a counter-balance to its excessive appeal to the language and rhetoric of human rights by giving more attention to moral obligations.

Moral obligation is in fact stressed in Article 10 of the UDHR which states that the exercise of freedoms carries with it duties and responsibilities. The sense of moral obligation introduces sanity to the modern emphasis on rights. In the case of the derogatory cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, the emphasis on moral obligation would mean that the rights of free speech and expression must be limited and constrained by other important considerations, not least the obligation to respect other rights and the rights of others. The sense of moral obligation would keep the emphasis on the freedom of speech sane and civil by insisting that freedom does not confer an unconditional licence to intimidate, insult or incite hatred.

The ethics of obligation also brings with it an important corrective to the stark individualism that frames modern human rights discourse. The concept of obligation implies relationality and community – the relationship between the ‘obligation bearers’ and their ‘beneficiaries’, so to speak. And it is precisely on this critical issue that Obama’s White House speech disappoints.

Although Obama did allude to the sensitive nature of the proposed Islamic Centre near Ground Zero, the emphasis of his speech was mainly on the rights of Muslims. Even when he made a swift but clumsy about-turn later (which his office roundly denies) due to mounting criticisms of his endorsement of the project, his emphasis is still misplaced: ‘I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.’  The weight is still placed on rights when it should be placed on moral obligations.

The Christian ethic of love requires that concern for one’s moral obligations towards others (i.e., their interests and the rights) be given priority over one’s own interests and rights. It is on the basis of the Christian ethic of love that we should understand Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians: ‘Each of you should not look only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others’ (Phil 2:4). For it is only in serving one another in this way that the interests, rights and welfare of everyone are taken seriously and respected.

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).

Secularism and its Discontents

August 2015 Pulse

The American sociologist Peter Berger is perhaps one of the most interesting scholars of secularism and religion. In his book The Sacred Canopy published in 1967, Berger presented the famous secularisation thesis which postulates that as modernity advances, the influence of religion will diminish and eventually disappear altogether.

Thirty years later, however, Berger changed his mind. In The De- secularisation of the World published in 1999, Berger and his colleagues abandoned their earlier hypothesis because “the theory seemed less and less capable of making sense of the empirical evidence from different parts of the world”. Berger, who now could speak of the “myth of secularisation”, argues that modernisation and secularisation are not synonymous.

Secular philosophers and scholars are also beginning to acknowledge the limits of secularism. For example, the eminent atheist German philosopher Jurgen Habermas argues emphatically that secularists must take religion seriously because of the enormous contributions it has made to civilisation. He adds that the philosophy and values that the Judeo- Christian tradition has inspired are still important in modern moral and scientific life.

This is not surprising. Theologians have long maintained that it is secularism – not religion – that is an anomaly and must offer compelling justifications for its own outlook.

Can secularism do this? Can it present a substantial and comprehensive rationale and ethic for the moral and social life?

As a vision of reality, secularism has been shown to be wanting and impoverished. Even its extravagant claims of neutrality and as the supreme guarantor of social peace have been rightly challenged.

As a vision of reality, secularism has been shown to be wanting and impoverished. Even its extravagant claims of neutrality and as the supreme guarantor of social peace have been rightly challenged.

Let us begin with the myth of secular neutrality. Far from being philosophically and ideologically neutral, secularism is a way of understanding and constructing reality. It is a worldview.

To be a secular humanist, one needs to embrace certain commitments like “God does not exist” (atheism) and “the physical world is all that there is” (scientific materialism), none of which can be established on scientific grounds. It takes a lot of faith to be a secularist.

On its own secularism is unable to offer a moral vision that is indispensable for human societies to flourish. Irving Kristol writes perceptively that “The philosophical rationalism of secular humanism can, at best, provide us with a statement of the necessary assumptions of a moral code, but it cannot deliver such a code itself.”

That Western secular humanists can speak eloquently of values like dignity, freedom and rights is largely because secularism is parasitic on the Judeo-Christian tradition it denounces. But it is precisely because it has rejected the tradition that provides the philosophical and theological foundations for these values, that secular ethics will willy-nilly drown in the sea of relativism.

Secularism often appeals to the Enlightenment myth of the triumph of reason. But experience has repeatedly shown that reason alone is unable to forge a universal consensus, especially when the issue in question is complex and contentious.

Nietzsche is exactly right when he says that no man of reason would rejoice in the death of God. For if God is truly dead, reason’s demise will soon follow.

For if God is really dead, truth itself would dissipate. What is left is an ocean of conflicting and clashing opinions, preferences, and assertions. As the Catholic philosopher Michael Novak has pointed out: “If all is chance, random and inherently meaningless, reason has no North Star and its needle spins mindlessly”.

Because secularism fails to offer a substantial vision for the moral and social life, it is also unable to articulate the meaning of human existence. And in a meaningless world, the purpose of human action becomes frustratingly murky.

On its own, secularism must remain silent in the face of suffering because it simply does not have the resources to respond to human tragedy. What has secularism to say to the weak and the vulnerable, asks Novak, “that it does not borrow directly from Judaism and Christianity?”

The great 20th century theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg perceptively notes that “Secular culture itself produces a deep need for meaning in life and therefore also for religion”. Secularism raises a bitter protest, but offers no answers.

And it is perhaps the very impotence of secularism that has led to what G.K. Chesterton has memorably described as the “revolt into orthodoxy”. It has caused atheists like Francis Collins and many others to put their faith in God.

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 March 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.


Secularism and Social Peace

June 2015 Pulse

It seems that it is quite impossible to read the papers or watch the news on television without encountering stories of unconscionable atrocities committed in the name of religion, whether by ISIS in the Middle East or by Boko Haram in Nigeria. These instantiations of religious violence seem to lend credence to the view, advanced by a good number of prominent atheist writers, that religion is the cause of much of the violence we see in our world.

Sam Harris, for instance, has insisted relentlessly that ‘most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith’. Harris feels compelled to arrive at the extremely vexed conclusion that ‘religion itself produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut’. This chorus of voices blaming religion for violence is of course directed by Richard Dawkins, who in The God Delusion declares quite categorically that ‘only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people’.

The proponents of this theory – that religion causes violence – often point to the Thirty Years War as perhaps the example par excellence of the kind of chaos and carnage that religiously motivated violence can unleash. The senseless war that caused millions of deaths and the outbreak of diseases and plagues was brought to an end by the Treaties of Westphalia (1648), which these theorists see not only as the genesis of modern state but also as a triumph of secularism.

This is an astonishingly simplistic reading of both the complex confluence of factors and ambitions that fuelled the Thirty Years War and the accomplishments of Westphalia. It is, however, repeatedly used as the undisputable example of the serious disruption to social peace that religion can cause. It promotes the unexamined secularist mantra that asserts that religion produces violence because it is divisive. Which leads to the corollary that in a religiously diverse world, secularism is the only guarantor of social peace.

Such rhetoric often directs attention away from the violence and atrocities for which secular and atheist regimes and governments are responsible in recent memory.

For example, according to Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, the Mao Zedong regime is responsible for the deaths of seventy million. In his classic, The Rise and Fall of Communism, Archie Brown estimated that Mao’s mass mobilisation programme called The Great Leap Forward alone had caused thirty million deaths.

In Stalin’s Russia, millions of people were either killed or starved to death as the result of the industrialisation programme of their new autocrat. The historian J. M. Roberts reports starkly that seven years after the programme for the ‘collectivization’ of land and the development of heavy industries began in 1928, ‘5 million families disappeared from European Russia’.

To this list, we must add Pol Pot, the secretary general of the Cambodian communist party in 1963 and leader of the ‘Khmer Rouge’ faction. According to Roberts, Pol Pot ‘presided over the killing of as many as 2 million (out of 7 million) of his countrymen and countrywomen in the name of radical Maoist and fanatically xenophobic (anti-Vietnamese) ideology’.

The list could easily be expanded to include Hitler, Fidel Castro, Lenin, Nicolae Ceausescu and Kim Jong-il. In fact, the deaths caused by Christian emperors and rulers in the five hundred period of the history of the Church which encompasses the Crusades and the Inquisition amounted to only 1 percent of the deaths caused by Hitler, Stalin and Mao in just a few decades.

What makes the crimes of Mao and Stalin more horrific than the deaths caused by the Thirty Years War, argues Dinesh D’Souza, is that the atrocities of these atheist regimes were committed in peacetime and against their own countrymen and countrywomen.

Now, of course statistics alone cannot settle the matter. It would be quite ludicrous to argue that religion is superior to secularism because the statistics show that it has been responsible for lesser deaths. In supplying this data, I merely wish to show that secularism also has a history of violence.

These historical facts dispel the smoke screen generated by the rhetoric of religious violence. They expose as false the myth that secularism is more tolerant and peaceful and that it alone is the reasonable arbiter and guarantor of social peace.

As Hunter Baker has perceptively put it: ‘Secularism tells a story about its differences with religion that are not necessarily true. For instance, one frequently hears about Christian failures such as the Inquisition, but we are led to believe that secularism represents cooler heads, rationality and common ground. What often goes unacknowledged is that secularism has itself often been associated with the coercive, the unjust, the violent, and the undemocratic’.

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. 

How should Christians engage in the public square?

As society becomes increasingly secular, religion is slowly edged towards the periphery of public life and reduced to a private experience without any social implications. The Christian faith is intrinsically opposed to the privatisation of religion because of its claim that the God it worships and professes is the Creator and Lord of the world. The Gospel that Christianity preaches is public truth, which addresses all of reality and which has profound implications to both the private lives of individuals and the public arenas of society. Christians are called to be light and salt of this darkening world (Matt 5:13-14). And although Christians as disciples of Jesus Christ are not of this world, that is, although they embrace a worldview and a set of values that are truly distinct they are nonetheless in the world (John 15:19). In fact, Christians are sent into the world to be authentic and faithful witnesses of their risen Lord (Matt 28:19). Christians therefore stand in solidarity with this world, but at the same time they have been given a prophetic function as they speak and embody the truth of God’s word. Social engagement is therefore not optional for the Christian. It has to do with the very heart of Christian witness.

As Christians get involved in public discourse they must realise that the public square is at once secular and pluralistic with people holding divergent and even contradictory views on a myriad of issues. Christians engaged in public discourse cannot expect their interlocutors to be sympathetic to their views, not to mention embrace them. In a pluralistic society, people shaped by different ideologies, traditions and rationalities approach the same issue with perspectives that are often inimical or antithetical (and sometimes even hostile) to the Christian perspective. Christians who participate in public debates with unrealistically high expectations of what their robust witness can achieve will only be disappointed. This is especially true for those who expect to see results within a short time frame. It took decades for our late (or post) modern society to slide into relativism, and it will take just as long, if not longer for us to dig ourselves out of it and its consequences. Christian engagement in politics and society therefore requires much patience.

Christians engaged in public discourse must also learn the language of such discourse. The language of the pulpit would not be very effective in the secular and religiously and ideologically plural public square. Theologians writing in the area of public theology have long acknowledged the need for Christians to use ‘natural law’ arguments that are accessible and persuasive to all and that appeal to public reason. This does not mean that Christians should abandon their particularist standpoint that is informed and shaped by the Bible and by the tradition of the Church, and begin with common assumptions shared by the majority. Christian responses to social issues must always be guided by Scripture and tradition. But Christians must present their theological perspectives on these issues in a way that is accessible to the wider and often unbelieving public. Thus, although Scripture must always be our guide, we must craft and present our arguments in a way that would resonate with those who do not recognise the authority of the Bible. As Scott Rae and Paul Cox have put it, ‘In this effort at persuasion it is essential that the position taken be identifiably Christian, but the means of persuasion need not and should not be limited to theological and biblical notions’.

Christians engaged in the public square must always be humble and civil. Christians must be humble in their engagement with society because even the most sincere often bring with them their own biases and prejudices. Richard Mouw issued this timely reminder in his essay, ‘The Spirituality for Public Life’: ‘The challenge, then, is to keep reminding ourselves that, at the heart of the Christian message lies the insistence that we are all sinners who are regularly tempted to the arrogance and self-centredness that lead to pretensions beyond the scope of our true grasp of reality’. The exhortation to be humble alerts us to the fact that we sometimes enter into the conversation with a less than adequate understanding of the complexities of the issues at hand. And it also alerts us to the fact that although we may be certain of the teachings of Scripture, we are sometimes less certain of how these teachings ought to be applied in the concrete world of politics. Christian humility in this regard is based on a clear appreciation of our own finitude and sinfulness.

Christians must also engage in public discourse with civility. Christian civility is best described as convicted civility: it is a civility that is not the result of intellectual wooliness or moral laxity, but one which stems from profound and robust convictions. According to the Christian understanding, therefore, civility should never be reduced to superficial irenics or political correctness. For the Christian, civility can never mean compromising our deepest convictions. But if Christian civility demands that we must always speak the truth, it also insists that we must also do so in love, respecting those whom do not share our convictions. Civility does not come easily; it requires much work on our part. Such civility is itself demanded by the Bible, which exhorts Christians to approach everyone with gentleness and reverence, and to strive to live at peace with everyone (1 Pet 3:15-16), even with those with whom we disagree.

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 published in Word@Work (March 2013).


March 2015 Pulse

It is quite fashionable to label the period in which we inhabit by the use of the prefix ‘post’: post-liberal, post-colonial, post-modern and even post-human.

While the prefix annoyingly tells us very little, it does suggest that ours is an age riddled with ambiguities. The prefix points to a culture that is still somewhat dependent on the status quo it has revolted against.

Writers as diverse as Jurgen Habermas and Graham Ward have argued quite persuasively that we are beginning to see the emergence of a post-secular age. Post-secularism of course does not signal the end of secularism. It points to the novel miscegenation of the secular and the religious in a way that is both amorphous and treacherous.

The Roman Catholic aesthetic theologian, Richard Viladesu, has said that one way of discerning the evolution of culture is to study its artefacts. Since film continues to be one of the primary mediums in modern culture, in what follows I will briefly reflect on two films to track this shift in sensibility.

On December 26, 1973, Warner Bros. theatrically released The Exorcist in the United States. The film grossed over US$441 million worldwide and earned 10 Academy Award nominations. It starred Ellen Burstyn (as Chris MacNeil), Jason Miller (as Father Karrass, the exorcist) and Linda Blair (as Regan Teresa MacNeil, the demon-possessed adolescent girl).

In many different ways, The Exorcist portrays modern secularism with its stark (one might even say, overwrought) dualisms that pervades almost every aspect of the film. It accentuates a characteristic trademark of secularism, namely its neat compartmentalisation of reality, especially its dogmatic division between the sacred and secular.

Thus in The Exorcist there can be found not just the dualities of good and evil, but also the sacred and profane, church and society. But what is critical is that The Exorcist seems rather determined to ensure that these divisions are never blurred, and the boundaries strictly enforced.

The church, which is always in the background in the film, is called upon only when there is a crisis that science is unable to resolve. But after the successful exorcism, the religious symbols are returned to Father Karrass the exorcist as if to say that now that the crisis is over, church and religion are no longer needed.

The family returns to the usual dualities, and life reverts to the prepossession secular norm. The Church recedes once again into the background, and religion is once again relegated to the periphery of secular society.

In Rupert Wainwright’s 1999 film, Stigmata, the dualities and dichotomies that The Exorcist has carefully defined and guarded appear to have collapsed. Reality is presented as seamless where the distinct categories of sacred and secular no longer apply. In the post-secular age, we see a decisive shift away from the barren materialism of the scientific worldview to a world that is re-enchanted and re-sacralised.

Stigmata underscores the disappearance of dualities in very striking ways. In Roman Catholic piety, the stigmata are granted only to those who are wholly devoted to God, like Francis of Assisi. In the movie, the marks appear on the hairdresser Frankie (played by Patricia Arquette) who is not only an unbeliever but also a promiscuous hedonist. In the post-secular age, the dissolution of the secular and the sacred has led to the democratisation of spiritual experiences.

The removal of these boundaries is also powerfully portrayed by the rosary, which Frankie’s mother bought for her while vacationing in Brazil. Not knowing its significance, Frankie wore it as a necklace, thereby treating a religious object as a mere fashion accessory. Yet it is through the trivialised rosary that Frankie received the supernatural stigmata.

Although post-secularism wants to re-sacralise the world, it is important to note that it has no desire whatsoever to return to traditional religions like Christianity. Some writers have pointed out that God has made a comeback in the post-secular world. However, the God that has appeared on the scene is not the God of the Bible, but a nebulous spiritual force that permeates all of reality.

While The Exorcist presents an ever enlarging secular space where religion is pushed to the margins, summoned only when science is unable to solve a problem (the old ‘God-of-the-gaps’ idea), Stigmata insists that everything is spiritual. Yet, in emphasising spirituality, Stigmata roundly rejects religion as it is traditionally understood and practiced.

Stigmata is truly post-secular in the sense that it abandons both the rationalism and scientism of secularism and traditional religion. In one sense, post-secularism is intrinsically postmodern because it subverts both scientific and religious authorities and abandons their respective metanarratives.

Both films diminish the role of religion and the church in society, but in their own ways. The secularism of The Exorcist says that religion is mostly irrelevant, while the post-secularism of Stigmata says that traditional religion is no longer necessary since spiritual experiences are available everywhere to everyone.

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.

Contending with Gaia

Feb 2015 Pulse

In the past five decades, debates on the environment have seen a notable shift from anthropocentric to biocentric thinking. Theologians, philosophers and ethicists generally acknowledge that the traditional human-centric approach cannot adequately address concerns about the welfare of animals and the environment. This shift is further precipitated by the current concerns about climate change.

In his 1979 book, Gaia: A New Look at Life, James Lovelock, an independent scientist and futurist proposed a theory that provided the basis for philosophers and scientists to think about humans and their environment. ‘The Gaia Hypothesis’, Lovelock writes, ‘states that Earth’s surface conditions are regulated by the activities of life … This environmental maintenance is effected by the growth and metabolic activities of the sum of organisms, i.e., the biota’.

Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is based on a number of assumptions, not every one of which can be said to be in agreement with current scientific understanding.

The first assumption is that every living organism in the planet in some ways influences the external environment. Gaia works on a grand vision of organic harmony, where the myriads of different species that populate the earth act in concert to produce and maintain the necessary conditions for life.

In other words, according to Lovelock, the biosphere is self-regulating and is therefore capable of preserving the conditions conducive for life. The Gaian earth is a single organism that has evolved precisely in the way that it has to ensure the preservation of life.

Most scientists are critical of Lovelock’s hypothesis, and some have even called it a pseudoscience. They maintain that Lovelock’s understanding of evolution is antithetical to the Darwinian theory. While Darwin postulates the competitive model with his idea of ‘survival of the fittest’, Lovelock advocates the cooperation model.

Be that as it may, many people are attracted to the sheer elegance of Lovelock’s hypothesis because it presents a geo-physiological way of understanding our planet and the life it supports. The hypothesis urges us to look beyond the purpose or telos of individual organisms, and to consider their collective contribution to the survival of the planet.

When we evaluate the Gaia hypothesis in light of the Christian understanding of God, the creation and human beings several serious problems present themselves.

At the outset, it is important to note that Gaia is a hypothesis about the nature of living organisms and how they relate to one another. Although it is in part based on current scientific knowledge, it is by-and-large a philosophical construct. In fact, Gaia hypothesis can be even said to be a kind of myth, quite similar to the myth of evolutionism.

One fundamental problem with Gaia is that it fails to make the distinction between organisms. There appears to be no ontological difference between human beings and algae. Every living organism is blended into what proponents of ‘deep ecology’ call ‘a single life force’. The distinction between self and non-self is obliterated: human and bacteria share the same ‘consciousness’.

Although Gaia wishes to address the stubborn anthropocentrism that continues to lurk in the way we think of nature, it has swung to the other extreme. In failing to acknowledge the ontological distinction between human beings and other creatures, it has also failed to give an account of human uniqueness.

This is at odds with the Christian understanding of human beings as bearers of the divine image, that are at once continuous and discontinuous with the rest of God’s creation. And in failing to recognise human uniqueness, Gaia is unable to conceive of the proper relationship between man and the natural order.

Theologians rightly saw that the peculiar naturalism of Gaia has subjected human behaviour to its own brand of biological determinism. The atheist Richard Dawkins has famously asserted that ‘We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes’.

Although Lovelace would not put it in quite the same way, he would have no quarrels with Dawkin’s general intuition. Such a view, if taken seriously, would spell the end of any meaningful way of thinking about human freedom and morality.

As it stands Gaia does not in principle encourage responsible human behaviour towards the natural order. For if nature has an intrinsic ability to adjust and achieve equilibrium, why is there a real need for human beings to take care of the natural environment?

In fact, Lovelock explicitly rejects the idea of ‘resource management’ because it implies that human beings have the ability to somehow ‘manage’ the earth. Lovelock believes that human beings do not have this ability, despite the great achievements of science and technology.

Stewardship, for Lovelock, bespeaks of a certain kind of arrogance. It is perhaps another instantiation of anthropocentrism.

Both Christian and secular conservationists, who stress the importance of responsible stewardship, have great difficulties with the implications of Gaian theory on environmental ethics.

Finally, Gaia postulates that nature is the fundamental reality. In fact, according to the hypothesis, the biosphere is what is ultimately real.

One on level, then, we could say that Gaia presents a new version of naturalism. But in its attempt to sacralise reality by portraying the earth as one living and conscious organism, Gaia may also be accused of promoting a form of pantheism. And with its allusions to teleology or purpose, Gaia may also be said to be implicitly reviving a version of the anima mundi, the mothering earth.

That is why Gaia is so popular among New Age enthusiasts. It inspires what has been described as eco-paganism. Modern theosophists like Alice Bailey and David Spangler have associated Gaia with the theosophical Earth Logos. And New Age leaders like Otter and Morning Glory G’Zell of the Church of All Worlds have described themselves as priest and priestess of Gaia.

How did Gaia, which started life as a unifying theory about living organisms, become a religious symbol? Gaia has inspired the imagination of a culture that is at once dissatisfied with a stifling individualism and a suffocating secularism. It has provided our postmodern culture with a sense of community and inter-connectedness as well as a re-enchanted nature.

Gaia is therefore more than simply a hypothesis about biota or organic life on this planet. It provides with an insight into the restlessness that characterises a culture that is on a quest for a more profound vision of reality than the one science and technology are able to offer.

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 Methodist Message.