August 12th, 2010

A Secular Society Interrupted

Those who argue that a secular system is lacking in values are being arrogant and patronising, says CONSTANCE SINGAM as she continues her discussion about secularism. They deny the possibility of moral human beings whose actions are governed by their innate sense of goodness.

Last year the extraordinary development that the media dubbed ‘The AWARE Saga’ forced us, AWARE members, to re-examine our commitment to a secular organization and to affirm our values. We – and many others in Singapore – realised that our secularism needs to be fought for, defended and protected.

History shows us that secularism is not a settled state but one that requires periodic reviews, and safeguards, especially when its concept and practice is threatened. Hindu fundamentalists in India, for instance, continue to challenge the secularism of India. Mahatma Gandhi paid the ultimate price when he was killed by a Hindu fanatic for his defence of pluralism. The main opposition to secularism comes from fundamentalism, and fundamentalism poses the greatest threat to women’s rights.

Singapore was a secular state at independence. With our early cosmopolitan population, we were in fact well on our way to being a secular state long before independence. The first Chinese Temple, the Thian Hock Keng Temple, was built in 1821; the first Hindu temple in 1823, the first mosque in 1824, the first Church in 1835.

Most secular states – UK, USA, and many European countries, for example – evolved their secularism over centuries, sometimes after bloody struggles to wrest power away from the dominant Christian Church. Countries which are well-known as constitutionally secular states include India, France, Turkey and South Korea.

So what is ‘secularism’?

Secularism, in its most extreme form, means completely denying any public voice to religious communities. In this view, religion remains in the private domain.

In political terms, secularism can refer to reducing ties between a government and religion and replacing laws and policies based on scripture (such as the Ten Commandments and Syariah law) with civil laws, and eliminating discrimination on the basis of religion. No one set of values has precedence over other value systems.

The more benign definition of secularism allows for public expression of religious views. In other words, religious groups have as much right as non-religious groups to promote and advocate their positions and their values. They are thus participants in the political process of the country. Last year’s takeover of AWARE by a group of fundamentalist Christian women was a highly political process as was the struggle by the secularist members to win it back.

Singapore’s secularism is a benign one given the existence of institutions, such as hospitals and schools, run by religious organisations which receive state aid but whose existence is contingent upon state approval and public policies. Their active participation in the state is a historical recognition of their contribution to society as serving the public good.

A more important condition of secularism is that public policies be based on facts and not on the basis of religious or cultural proscriptions. An obvious example of this is the attitude towards the use of condoms.

The fact is that the use of condoms prevents unwanted pregnancies and STI (sexually transmitted infections). That the use of condoms is wrong or immoral is a religious view not based on fact. Another example is the status of women. The claim that women should be subservient to men is a religious and/or cultural attitude and not one based on fact.

In this sense, secularism requires politicians to make decisions based on secular reasons rather than on religious ones. It follows then that decisions about many contemporary issues, such as stem cell research and sex education, should not be based on religious beliefs.

The opponents to secularism would argue that a secular system is lacking in values and is morally unacceptable. This argument, besides being arrogant and patronizing, also denies the possibility of moral human beings whose actions are governed by their innate sense of goodness.

George Jacob Holyoake, who coined the terms ‘secularism’ in 1851and ‘jingoism’ in 1878, defines secularism as ‘a code of duty pertaining to this life, founded on considerations purely human. Its essential principles are three: (1) The improvement of this life by material means (2) That science is the available providence of man (3) That it is good to do good. Whether there be other good or not, the good of the present life is good, and it is good to seek that good here in this world.’


  1. Lim Li Yin

    The problem is here is that the term “secularism” can be interpreted in many ways. Unless there is more education about what it truly stands for, and an analytic about “secularism” as both a political science theoretical tool and a living breathing meme, secularism will always be conflated with associated concepts, which though close, but do not always underpin secularism ideals.

    Some misunderstandings of secularism I have noticed in my friends and in reading articles or blogs about the term.

    1. Secular means non-religious.Which gets easily translated to irreligious, and so immoral and so on – the slippery slope knows no limits, I should say.
    2. Secularism means Pluralism.
    3. Secular means power of the state over religious groups.
    4. Secular means a humanist, i.e. rationalistic spirit/disposition.

    Of all the four broad interpretations, I believe the 4th embodies the true spirit of what secularism. But first, let me discuss each of the first three interpretations.

    1) Secularism as non-religious: This is a sociological or anthropological way of slicing the pie. Political science would see similarities in religious and non-religious organizations since it examines governance structures, power, policy and so on. It is a sociological or anthropological interpretation insofar as it demarcates between types of social functions, religion being one of the key institutions in society serving specific functions. I would argue that this schema of religious/non-religious unfairly puts secularism as the anti-religion. Which it is not. The pluralist interpretation sees secularism as accomodating religion(s) as part of the societal landscape, (perfect epitomy of this are inter-faith dialogues that profess to be pluralist and hence secularist)I disagree with this view but will discuss later. For this point, seeing secularism as anti-religion makes sense if one equates secularism with atheism. The key point is that religion is non-rationalist in the very first instance and hence, the presence of religious organizations/institutions are necessarily anti-secular. The link is reasonable only if one subscribes to point 4 – secularism as rationalism.

    The danger is (i) rationality can be a context-dependent construct – rather than a fixed blueprint of stimulus-outcome, but I will elaborate later. More importantly, (ii) secularism seen as anti-religion results in a polarization of societal attitudes towards collective harmony. It creates circular debate, where any argument advanced in the name of secularism is “poisoned” because it is deemed as “anti-religion”. Combined with the harmful Point 2 view of secularism as pluralism, those who see secularism as simultaneously point 1 and 2 push themselves into a dead-end of contradiction.

    2) Secularism as pluralism revives that melting pot versus mixed point, i.e. assimilation versus multiculturalism debate. Pluralism is an insurance against tyranny of any majority, in this case, cultural or religious majority. But it is not an insurance against rational thinking and evidence-based decisions. You could have many religious organizations coming together in peace and harmony but none of them affirms the use of reason to implement projects, to change society, to discuss moral and political/social/economic issues. What we you end is a situation where there is peace but there is no understanding and common platform for the constructive collective decision-making. Compromises / accomodative gestures made can be irrational and result in hurtful outcomes nevertheless. Agreement amongst different members or faith (or even the atheists) are artificial and probably reflect “alliance-making” rather than truth-seeking behavior.

    3) Secularism means power of the state over religious organizations. This is pure theory, since the state is also a living organism influenced by power play, which means it also reflects energies from different groups in society, competing for power and resources. The state, unless governed by a rationalist ideal or set of rational principles, e.g. the Constitution, will not be a neutral or objective player. Even in the US constitution, religious right groups used the Constitution as justification for a overtly Christian society, claiming the Constitution’s founding fathers were pilgrims and therefore the Constitution itself is a Christian ideal.

    4. Finally, the only reasonable approach I see to defining secularism is to see it as a rationalistic, scientific spirit. While there are many debates as to whether this “scientific method” is absolutely objective and non-interpretive, it is the best bet humanity has got so far. The simple idea of hypothesis-testing-conclusion-retesting is by Occam’s Razor principle, simple and “beautiful” enough to be of universal applicability.

    Secularism is not an outcome, but a means of reaching outcomes. It is a disposition that gears towards empirical verification and skepticism. This disposition has to be infused throughout society, possessed by individuals going about their daily lives, by government or international bureacracies making key decisions that will impact masses.

    The problem with entirely subscribing to point 4 is that people have a misconception that in the area of ethics or morals, science do not play a part. As if there were that division of labor between science and religion. Morality is like mathematics. Both are not science, but both follows from axioms that are trusted, challenged but proven to be sturdy.

  2. Amina Majeed Santos Lucas

    I do agree with Constance when she says:
    “This argument (that a secular system is lacking in values and is morally unacceptable) , besides being arrogant and patronizing, also denies the possibility of moral human beings whose actions are governed by their innate sense of goodness.”

    It is arrogance to assume that secular people are immoral.
    It is ignorant when people assume that the human being is entirely dependent on external rules and regulations (usually religious-based) in order to be good.

    The human being is born with innate goodness.
    Nobody needs to tell us to be good.
    We are born with goodness, love and kindness within us.
    The human mind (when given the chance to think) is also able to see that goodness for all is goodness for me.

    • Lim Li Yin

      I like the idea that the human being is born with innate goodness, but evolutionary theory would suggest that this so called “morality” is adaptive, and that being “good” or cooperative has some advantages. In short, altruistic reciprocity. Of course, those studies are done on insects and birds.

      Evolutionary theory aside, I suppose that if we demand that “human beings are born amoral/immoral/morally good”, shouldn’t we expect some justification for each of those stand? Otherwise, they are equivalent view points? What makes one superior to the other view?

  3. Amina Majeed Santos Lucas

    if one argues that human beings are born immoral, or amoral it would ultimately lead to anarchy. And in the final analysis, what the human being wants is to be comfortable. This is what makes the “innate goodness” theory viable.

    • Lim Li Yin

      You get me wrong. I am not arguing that humans are born amoral/immoral/etc. I am saying that statements need to be justified, and not simply stated as if it were absolute truth.

      The fallacy made here is confusing cause and effect – that “humans are innately good” cannot be supported by pointing to a consequence of that. It is not a valid warrant for your claim.

      Many disciplines have shown this innate-good-prevents-anarchy to not be entirely true. E.g. Prisoner’s dilemma where an individual who acts rationally on his/her own and perceiving ‘good’in doing so, ultimately leads to collective disaster. Economics (supply and demand), psychological experiments, so on.

      While I believe in innate goodness, I have to admit that it is a belief that is not substantiateed, i.e. a value statement. Whether or not value statements needs to be justified is another concern altogether.

      But if we are saying that secularism is looking to scientific rationality and logical arguments as providence (as per Jacob Holyoake in Constance’s article), then we should imbue our disucussions with exactly that. So that we live out the spirit of secularism.

      Thank you.

  4. Lee Yin Peng

    I also like the idea that human beings are born with innate goodness, but sadly, it will be rather delusional of me to think of it as true. I also find it odd that as human beings want to be comfortable (I suppose, rich, too – if not, how to be comfortable?), it makes the “innate goodness” theory viable. How so?

  5. Amina Majeed Santos Lucas

    Read comfort zones in place of the word comfortable and then riches will go out of the picture.
    juxtapose survival with innate goodness: and the good of all equals to my survival where i get to eat work play and commute: then only can you see how this concept is viable.

  6. Lee Yin Peng

    I marvel at how words are easily replaced to support one’s argument. I still don’t see how human beings being comfortable or being in comfort zones make the theory of innate goodness viable.

  7. Lim Li Yin

    Your argument, if I break it down is as follows.

    Premise 1: Humans are born with innate goodness

    Premise 2: The good of all human beings results in no-anarchy, i.e. peace, or in your words, comfort zone.

    Premise 3: Humans want to be comfortable (or in their comfort zone)

    Conclusion: Therefore, the theory of innate goodness is viable.

    Isn’t this circular? The conclusion is used as a premise to support itself?

    In any case, premise 1 is a tricky statement because what defines “good” is not clear.

    Premise 2 is already falsified in many historical events and experiments.

    As for premise 3, I agree absolutely that human beings want to be in their comfort zone. But I would be more specific, human beings respond rationally to situations, weighing their trade-offs. Person X sees person Y being murdered, and will not automatically rush to help. It is simply not in person X’s comfort zone to risk being harmed. Unless the risks are lowered, or person X perceives a substantial benefit that outweighs the risk.

    People do good acts lead to overall benefits for society, agree to this general cause and effect.

    But in no way I can see how logically, this supports the view that humans are born with innate goodness at all. Like I said, the argument is circular.

    There is absolutely no difference in below Claims A and B.

    Claim A: Humans are born innately bad. Therefore we need religion to make us good.

    Claim B: Humans are born innately good. Therefore we do not need religion to make us good.

  8. Hail Teapots

    The comfort argument is not circular at all. The point is that altruism is an effective strategy for survival. Yes there are benefits to cheating but we have also evolved the tendency to punish cheaters so this doubly reinforces a natural drive towards communal “fair play”.

    To suggest that humans don’t generally tend towards an innate sense of morality because they don’t always do is is a straw man. Yes there are wars and murder and theft… But saying we’re either all good or we’re all bad is nonsense. It’s just more nuanced than that.

    Counting on others to act in accordance with their own ideas of what a prime mover may or may not want is a gamble with variable outcomes. And as we have seen time and again, every possible atrocity has been committed in the name of religion so it seems that religion is no prophylactic against immoral behavior.

    And generally it seems a flawed strategy to address this area with terms like “good” and “bad.” What you may believe is an act of love between two consenting adult may, to another, be a ticket to inferno.

    What we can discuss more objectively is altruism and whether humans naturally behave in a cooperative ways to succeed in social groupings or whether they do not.

    Clearly they do. All of civilization has grown from this very fact. It has been true since before we were even sun worshipers.

    Will some people try benefit personally from not playing by the rules? Absolutely. The cheaters, whether donning a Black Sabbath T-shirt or a priest’s collar, will always cheat.

    • Jay

      I totally agree, especially with your final paragraph. I would add the conclusion that secularism and religiousness are inconsequential.

      Cheaters will cheat and looters will loot. We always have the law to give them a good hoot.

      And then there are what you call the more ‘nuanced’ areas of morality, like depriving our children of their childhood for the long-term ‘good’ of a great academic record.

      We will be what we are, so lets stop fighting over imagined turf wars. Or at least let’s start realizing that all we are doing is drawing lines. Keep on drawing and pretty soon we’d have dug trenches. That, to me, does not further the cause of greater morality at all.

  9. admin

    For those interested in the topic of natural morality (the belief that moral sentiments are a result of evolution) there is a recent article in the NYT here:

    As well there is as a much more thorough reference site on it here:

    • Hi admin,

      The nytimes article cites Marc Hauser as a support.

      Hauser famously wrote: “I will argue that this marriage between morality and religion is not only forced but unnecessary, crying out for a divorce.” (Marc Hauser, Moral Minds [USA: HarperCollins, 2006], p.xx)

      Yet he is in deep deep trouble now for betraying the trust of his scientific community.

      He claims that morality is immune to religion and government. I wonder if it was due to this conviction that Hauser thought it was not immoral to provide false report; betraying the faith the government and the scientific community have on him, and so lying to the whole world?


      • On the ‘Natural Law’ article on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. You may want to notice that the notion came from Christian theological discourse (Thomas Aquinas). It has its root and being in religion.

        So those who argue that natural law has eliminated the reference to religion is really cutting off the branch that he or she is sitting on.

  10. Lim Li Yin

    I am not saying humans do not drive towards innate morality. I am appealing to the need for justification when making sweeping claims, and the clear explication of “innate morality”. If not, all discussion is simply table-thumping high fives of yay-we-agree.

    The reasonable counter-argument to the argument that morality cannot exist with a secular system is to say, it does not with religion either. And not to propose an essentially scientifically unverifiable concept or theory of innate goodness.

  11. Lee Yin Peng

    I don’t see how every possible atrocity has been committed in the name of religion. So when the husband bashes his wife, it is in the name of religion; when the mother abuses her child, it is in the name of religion; The Tiananmen Massacre is in name of religion. And thanks for summarizing that cheaters will always cheat, despite their innate goodness.

  12. Hail Teapots

    Every type of atrocity need not be every instance. Does that really need to be pointed out?

    “And thanks for summarizing that cheaters will always cheat, despite their innate goodness.”

    As you have done when summarizing Amina’s position, this is yet another case of paraphrasing which serves to completely misrepresent the argument presented.

    You could build an army of straw men.

    PS: Child abuse per the bible:
    “Withhold not correction from a child: for if thou strike him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and deliver his soul from hell.” (Proverbs 23:13-14)”

    Wife Beating per the Quoran:
    “Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them.” (Quoran, 4:34)

  13. Lee Yin Peng

    Well, then, Teapot, do you know what exactly is the argument?

  14. Lee Yin Peng

    By first saying that every possible atrocity that has been committed is in the name of religion, it is wrong because it is not true. By quoting from the Bible or Quran for the sake of justifying one’s argument is a dangerous thing to do. I’m an atheist and I do not think that religion is bad or teaches people to be evil. The idea of being comfortable or being in comfort zone, which is a modern-day euphemism for being risk-adverse, is not a fact, or a scientific proof or an evidence that supports the “theory” that man is born with innate goodness. I do believe, however, that it is possible that an individual is born with innate goodness but it is not a fact that we are all born with innate goodness. Posting in this forum has given me a glimpse of how very often religion has been held responsible for every possible thing that has gone wrong in the world, when very simply, it’s often human greed or ignorance, among a host of other reasons (including deficiency in brain development) that is really behind most (not “all” or “every”) atrocities committed by humans. While I started off perceiving the comments made here as academic discussion with arguments presented with clear premises, I understand that it is just an emotional fairground for certain people to make sweeping statements. I don’t buy the idea that ALL human beings are born with innate goodness. None who is sitting on the other side of the fence has presented a clear, well-supported academic argument that enables me to believe otherwise.

  15. Hail Teapots

    “religion has been held responsible for every possible thing that has gone wrong in the world”
    Saying that religion is not a prophylactic for such behavior does not imply that it is in fact the cause of it. Honestly it is tiring to keep spelling out the logic here.

    You keep insisting that we are arguing all or nothing when evolution is purely about tendency. You are upset you have not heard a sound argument for these “sweeping statements” but the only sweeping statements put forward are your paraphrasing of others positions. So really you are arguing with yourself.

    So feel free to carry on. You should be able to hold up both ends of your debate without the need for other comments.

  16. Lim li yin

    Hi i came here hoping to have a rational discussion about issues and this is what i understand by rational discussion.
    1. Clear reasoning is presented. That does not mean mere sentences but an understanding of what are reasonable support claims made. One should always strive to be clear when presenting ones claim. Premises as well as marshall evidence where possible should be clearly written too.
    2. That one recognizes fallacies accurately and when ones lapse of logical reasoning is highlighted by another, the willingness to acknowledge.
    3. That qualifiers are used to avoid sweeping statements and common understanding of what justification consists of.
    4. That the spirit of learning is always there and that challenges are responded to rationally not emotionally.
    5. That concepts and theories proposed are clearly articulated in the first place.

    It is diificult to have a meaningful discussion when fallacies are used relentlessly and when pointed out, the reaction is yet another fallacy.

    Thats it.


  17. LOL

    Teh Internets hz been mean to me.

  18. Hail Teapots

    Very funny. Thanks LOL! Brilliant summary :)

  19. Tania De Rozario

    Excellent article :)

  20. Hi,

    Constance is calling the public to cultivate a habit to evaluate public issues based on facts rather than personal factors such as one’s sex, race, and religion.

    I do see her good intention.

    Nonetheless, I find some problems in Constance’s two articles. She wrote in her first article: “Mahatma Gandhi paid the ultimate price when he was killed by a Hindu fanatic for his defence of pluralism.”

    That statement is wrong on two counts. First, the assassin, Nathuram Godse, and his conspirators did not kill Gandhi on religious reason (as “Hindu fanatic” seems to imply). Second, defending pluralism is not the reason why Gandhi was killed.

    Constance urges people to engage based on facts, but she fails to do so herself. She got too carried away by her own personal factor (a secularist who is arguing for secularism) that she simply disconnects with facts?

    Besides that, Constance’s categorization of “facts” as opposed to “personal factors” is dubious. First, personal factors are facts; a person’s religious belief affects the person’s thoughts.

    For instance, someone whose religious belief commands equal treatment to all humans despite different races will advocate public-policies according to that religious belief. Hence the distinction is not between facts and personal factors. Rather, it is between facts and facts; which fact best serves what cause?

    In using misleading categories, Constance has committed what is known as the ‘equivocation fallacy’.


  21. secular state, pluralistic society

    It is more accurate to say a secular state rather than a secular society. Our society is pluralistic (i.e. not secular) while our state is secular.

  22. A Secular Society Interrupted : Civic Advocator * Shout and be heard in Singapore

    […] Source: AWARE […]