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.’

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