August 30th, 2010

My goodness, you missed my point!

When policy-makers make decisions that profoundly affect the lives of people, are they able to suspend the influence of personal factors, such as sex, race and religion? That, says CONSTANCE SINGAM, was the question she was posing in her article A Secular Society Interrupted, and not the question of whether there is such a thing as innate goodness.

A war of words raged on these pages a few weeks ago. My article A Secular Society Interrupted led several readers to engage in a heated debate about whether there is such a thing as innate goodness.

I would very much like to believe in the ‘innate goodness’ of human beings. But I have no empirical evidence to support that belief.

The French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau believed in the innate goodness of man, that man did not acquire ethical and moral values but was born with them. According to Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, these innate ideas are the only things we have certain knowledge of, and thus are the most important and trustworthy of all.

Confucian philosophy is built on the l belief that man is basically good. He did say, though, “I for my part have never yet seen one who really cared for goodness, nor one who really abhorred wickedness.” (Analects 4:6)

What I was arguing in A Secular Society Interrupted was simply that one should not assume that those who do not subscribe to a religion have no sense of right and wrong, or that their stand on certain issues is suspect since they don’t believe in God.
In making that argument, my main concern is whether we are able, if we owe allegiance to a religion, to suspend our religious values in a public space in a secular society rich in diversity of religion, culture and race. This is not, however, a denial of the role of religion in public life and debate on issues and policies. Every individual has a civic responsibility to engage in public debate in areas that matter to them.
My point is that the need to suspend personal beliefs is a critical requirement of policy-makers. Every day, policy-makers are called upon to make decisions that profoundly affect the lives of people. Are they able to suspend the influence of personal factors, such as sex, race and religion, and make decisions based on facts? Or, at least, can they tell us, the citizens, on what basis they have made their decisions on matters that affect us? Are they able to be transparent?
As I see it, the problem, particularly in Singapore, is the lack of a safe place for such questions to be raised; for an open discussion on the role of religion, the role of conscience in public life.
Meanwhile, on the discussion about ‘innate goodness’ – my Google research revealed that it is a very hotly debated topic. I have yet to discover which side is winning the argument.
I conclude, on a lighter note, with a story. It’s from Faith without God: Finding Courage in Hard Times by Lawrence Bush of the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture. He writes:

There is a Jewish story about a devout man who is on a difficult business trip and realizes that he’ll never get home before the sun sets and the Sabbath begins. He presents himself at the home of the local rabbi and says, ‘Rabbi, the Sabbath is about to begin, please let me stay with you and keep me from sinning.’

The rabbi says, ‘My good man, I have a household full, I cannot fit one more. Go in good health; I’m sure that God will provide.’

The poor traveler goes to another house, with religious ornamentation on its door, and he gets the same friendly rebuff, ‘I’m sure God will provide.’ This keeps happening, as the sun sinks and darkness spreads.

Finally he comes to the home of the local Bundist, the radical, the atheist. And he is amazed to be brought in. And he is amazed that the Bundist has Sabbath candles on the table, waiting to be lit, and bread and wine, waiting to be blessed and eaten.

They do all that together, and the traveler says, ‘My friend, how can it be? All of the religious Jews in your town send me away from their door, telling me that God will provide; and you, a rascal, an atheist, you bring me in and treat me to kindness . . .’
‘Because, my brother,’ says the Bundist, ‘I know that God will not provide.’


  1. Celestine Thong

    I find the story from Faith Without God: Finding Courage in Hard Times by Lawrence Bush very disturbing and blasphemous. If one does not want to believe in God or be in a relationship with HIM, at least have some fear and reverence for HIM. Then at least in the after-life, his degree of suffering will not be as great.

  2. Since Constance is touching on issue which I am following closely (i.e religion in public engagement), I shall here examine the point she made:

  3. Perhaps anyone interested in innate goodness may want to know that the world has moved on since Kant.

    The two important works by Alasdair MacIntyre (‘After Virtue’ and ‘Whose Justice? Whose Rationality?’) have demonstrated how inadequate is Kant’s categorical imperative.

    Sometimes I can’t help but to wonder does anyone who talk about meta-ethic nowadays keep up with the development in this discourse, or they still stuck in the 18th century? The argument in this post seems to point to the latter part.

  4. Gary

    I find the last story, “Faith Without God: Finding Courage in Hard Times” by Lawrence Bush to also be disturbing, and misleading.

    Though I may not be a devout Christian, and can understand the reason why you may have chosen to place that story at the end for the purpose of your article & argument, I cannot help but feel uncomfortable with the manner in which God and religion is depicted.

    From what I see, God’s work and presence should not be seen as a micro-examination of events, but from a macro perspective of how things pan out. And, how, with Faith and determination, one will never be shut out.

    And from another interpretation/perspective, can it also not be seen that God has provided by ‘providing’ the traveler a final opportunity to be fed by the atheist?

    That the atheist does not believe in God is no matter – for He works his way around everything on Earth.

    But it always takes two hands to clap, the Man’s efforts and God’s opportunities. And Faith is always the case.

    To serve as a balancing story:

    Check out this story:


    A young man had been to Wednesday night Bible Study. The Pastor had spoken about “listening to God and obeying the Lord’s voice.”

    The young man couldn’t help but wonder, “Does God still speak to people?” After service he went out with some friends for coffee and pie and they discussed the message. Several different ones talked about how God had led them in different ways. It was about ten o’clock when the young man started driving home. Sitting in his car, he just began to pray,”God, if you still speak to people, speak to me. I will listen. I will do my best to obey.”

    As he drove down the main street of his town, he had the strangest thought to stop and buy a gallon of milk. He shook his head and said out loud, “God is that you?” He didn’t get a reply, so he started on toward home. But again, the thought came to him… buy a gallon of milk.

    The young man thought about Samuel, and how he didn’t recognize the voice of God, and how little Samuel ran to Eli. “Okay, God, in case that is you, I will buy the milk.” It didn’t seem like too hard a test of obedience. He could always use the milk. So, he stopped and purchased the gallon of milk and started toward home.

    As he passed Seventh Street, he again felt the urge, “Turn down that street.” This is crazy, he thought, and drove on past the intersection. Again, he felt that he should turn down Seventh Street. At the next intersection, he turned back and headed down Seventh. Half jokingly, he said out loud, “Okay, God, I will”.

    He drove several blocks, when suddenly, he felt like he should stop. He pulled over to the curb and looked around. He was in a semi-commercial area of town. It wasn’t the best, but it wasn’t the worst of neighborhoods either. The businesses were closed and most of the houses looked dark, like people were already in bed.

    Again, he sensed something, “Go and give the milk to the people in the house across the street.” The young man looked at the house. It was dark and it looked like the people were either gone or they were already asleep. He started to open the door and then sat back in the car seat. “Lord, this is insane. Those people are asleep and if I wake them up, they are going to be mad and I will look stupid.”

    Again, he felt like he should go and give the milk. Finally, he opened the door and said, “Okay God, if this is you, I will go to the door and I will give them the milk. If you want me to look like a crazy person, okay. I want to be obedient. I guess that will count for something but, if they don’t answer right away, I am out of here.”

    He walked across the street and rang the bell. He could hear some noise inside. A man’s voice yelled out, “Who is it? What do you want?”

    Then the door opened before the young man could get away. The man was standing there in his jeans and T-shirt. He looked like he just got out of bed. He had a strange look on his face and he didn’t seem too happy to have some stranger standing on his doorstep.

    The man asked, “What is it?”

    The young man thrust out the gallon of milk and said, “Here, I brought this to you,” he said.

    The man took the milk and rushed down a hallway speaking loudly in Spanish. Then from down the hall came a woman carrying the milk toward the kitchen. The man was following her holding a baby. The baby was crying. The man had tears streaming down his face.

    The man began speaking and half crying, “We were just praying. We had some big bills this month and we ran out of money. We didn’t have any milk for our baby. I was just praying and asking God to show me how to get some milk.”

    His wife in the kitchen yelled out,”I ask him to send an angel with some. Are you an Angel?”

    The young man reached into his wallet and pulled out all the money he had on him and put it in the man’s hand. Then he turned and walked back toward his car and tears were streaming down his face. He knew then that God does still speak to people… and answer prayers.

    • Hi Gary,

      That’s a wonderful story. I can relate to that story because I went through a similar incident similar with the story. Just that in my case, I was the man in jeans and t-shirt that ran out of money.

    • Annie Ang

      Your story, although it is touching and meaningful is not analogous to the story from Faith Without God. Without the word of God, the young man will not have been persuaded to go out of his way to be charitable. Everything was coincidental. However, the Jew going from house to house was making a conscious choice to approach fellow Jews first. The fellow Jews were making conscious decisions to reject him and the Bundist made a conscious decision to help him.

      I think that the people who left the comments here have missed the point yet again. As an agnostic, I believe the story was not about rejecting faith. It was about how even without faith, people can be kind and charitable. The Bundist believes God will not provide but that doesn’t prevent him from extending his help to the Jew. In the story, in no way was the Bundist protrayed as saying his last statement out of spite.

      I am not a great thinker but here’s my take. Suppose a Christian was drowning and he/she believes that God would provide a savior. The fellow Christian present at the scene could not swim and thus did not extend a helping hand. An atheist walks by who does not believe that God would provide saves the Christian nonetheless out of basic human empathy (A normal human being wouldn’t want to drown to death, whether he/she is a person of faith or not). Does that mean that the atheist was saving the Christian out of spite, to prove that God does not provide? On the flip side, the Christian would believe that God has provided a savior, an angel, although in the form of an atheist.

      I agree with Constance that issues of rights and laws have to be kept above religious interference. You can still respect religions in decision-making but in no way must faith determine the ultimate course of policy.

      • Annie Ang,

        Constance’s story and argument is what logicians call ‘equivocation fallacy’.

        Both scenes are not comparable at all. Even the story you shared is not a fair treatment.

        You should stated something like this if you were fair:

        “The fellow Christian present at the scene could not swim and thus did not extend a helping hand. An atheist walks by who COULD NOT SWIM and does not believe that God would save the Christian nonetheless out of basic human empathy.

        Is this the best you can present your case, by using equivocation fallacious analogy?

        That’s like asking which is sweeter when comparing sour plum and sugar?

        If you were to be fair. The atheist would drowned. In that case, both he and the drowning guy died.

  5. Gary

    To the point of you were trying to make in your original article, Constance, I can relate.

    Are we truly able to shed our religious beliefs and values in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society?

    I think not. Religious values and beliefs form an integral part in one’s personal values and beliefs. Socialising and socialisation by our parents and society (be it at large, or by religious communities, mainstream media or personal groups), more so fundamentally by those closest to us and those whom we spend more time with.

    How can one fully isolate and detach their values and core beliefs that contribute to their sense of identities, from themselves?

    With education, and training, perhaps. I have to admit that with both, one may learn to see things from a wider perspective, and learn to be more broad minded.

    But the next question bags, are singaporeans, if not people in general, proactive enough to step up?

    I think not.

    Hence policies are crafted, not independent of religious beliefs in a place that is filled with lots of religious beliefs and values, but WITH consultation and balance with them.

    What’s happening in Singapore is that the respective religious councils are in place and serve as point of consultation for the politicians to craft policies to ensure tolerance (not acceptance) and harmony.

    The good thing is that with better education, more are able to speak up and argue their points with logic, be it citizens or politicians.

    The bad thing (if any), is that the logic will always in some part be coloured by personal beliefs, and religion (among others). And since not everybody will be educated as much as the best, a whole range of debate will rage – to the point that the ordinary people give up and concern themselves with their ordinary lives of kopi, toto, and makansutra.

  6. Rose

    Yes, religious values and beliefs are a core aspect of many people’s lives. Which is why everyone should be given the right to live by their own religious precepts in private as well as public shared spaces. But more than that they should not expect. They cannot demand that national policies, governing people other than those of their religious faith, be formed in tolerance of their specific religious reason. National policy must be formed on the basis of secular reason.

    Section 377A is a perfect example. Arguments against its repeal should never be based on religious considerations, not even on the basis that we want to respect the value and belief system of those from any specific religions. That would amount to a tyranny of a minority, holding to ransom the value system of other social groups. Debate should proceed on neutral secular reason. Having said that, if a religious sect wishes to ban gays from their place of worship, they should be given that right.

    • Hi Rose,

      You mentioned, “National policy must be formed on the basis of secular reason.”

      Ask any leading thinkers in the field on political philosophy and international relations what is secular reason, and they will tell you that either there is no such thing or it is anything.

      Read Slavoj Zizek, John Gray and Charles Taylor.

      You talked about ‘secular reason’ but do you know the earliest political reference “saeculum” articulating this reasoning was actually a religious ideology (i.e Christian theology) by St Augustine in his work City of God in the fifth century?

      So, you are actually saying that we should avoid public discourse that is based on religious conviction. Instead we should ground the discourse on a concept inherited from religious ideology.

      Try eating your cake while wanting to keep it the next time.