On a confusion about "imposing one's belief on others"
Now I don't really have a considered view about whether or not the 'R' word (whether "religion" or "race") should be part of our public discourse. I emphasise public because unless I am completely mistaken about Singapore Law, the sanctions are not against religious discourse per se. The point, as I understand Singapore's religious harmony policies, is to keep religion out of politics, rather than to put a complete lid on religious speech per se. In other words, while peaceful preaching and proselytizing are not forbidden, inciting people to violence is. So in a way, Gu's letter is pretty much off base:
I am a Chinese free thinker. Therefore, I am always irritated when people try to convert me to their religion and impose their beliefs on me. It is all well and good that they can find something to believe in, but it does not mean they need to impose their beliefs on others.I am sorry that he is irritated, but that's not something the law can and should do something about--unless we are willing to go the whole hog and curtail the freedom of religious people in preaching and proselytizing even when they do so in an entirely peaceful manner!
That, by the way, was and still pretty much is the position of Communist China. And of course, it remains a punishable offense for Christians to evangelise in many Muslim countries. But any country that claims to practice religious freedom must allow people of different faiths to preach, to proselytize--if such is called for by their religions--and likewise, it would have to allow individuals the freedom to join, or leave, or remain in some religion as they so choose, or for that matter, to not have a religion at all.
But there is a deeper confusion that is worth pointing out, as it is not an uncommon one--again,
It is all well and good that they can find something to believe in, but it does not mean they need to impose their beliefs on others.I am interested in this phrase "impose...beliefs on...". What does the following sentence mean? Take two agents, A and B, and proposition P
(1) A imposes his belief that P on BLet's assume that this is always a bad thing, that (1) describes something reprehensible. But now we need to see what would count as an instance of (1). [I've edited this paragraph so as to make the overall argument flow better.]
Presumably, (1) is a specific instance of a more general set of phenomena:
(2) A believes that P, B does not believe that P, A wants B to believe that P, A does X where X is some action undertaken with the aim of getting B to believe that POnce we've broken it down this way, it should be obvious that, so described, (2) can be innocuous, in fact, entirely commonplace. I'll state just one example: two friends A and B are taking the same course in NUS. They believed that that final exam is on Wednesday. One of them came to the belief that it is in fact on Tuesday (he rechecked the schedule, say). Being a friend of B, he is concerned to make sure that B gets news of this. He calls B on the phone and tells him, viz., he undertakes an action with the aim of getting B to believe that the exam is on Tuesday instead of Wednesday. Completely innocuous and utterly commonplace.
Let's say that B is stubborn; he insists that the exam is on Wednesday. He might even exclaim to A: just because you believe that the exam is on Tuesday doesn't mean that you have a right to impose your belief on me. It's not hard to see that he's being hyperbolic. A wasn't imposing his belief on him. He called on the phone, spoke in his normal voice, etc. Now if A had came to B's place with an electric baton and threaten to hurt B unless the latter believes as he does, we would have a case for saying that A had been attempting to impose his belief on B.
The lesson: the construction (2) describes a case of imposing one's belief on others only given the relevant X--e.g., the threat or use of force, or some other sort of coercion. Given some other stuff in X--the entirely peaceable actions of talking, say, it would be entirely unjust to talk about imposing.
The funny thing is that Gu's own formulations is as ambiguous as (2):
No belief is offensive in itself, but it becomes so when one tries to override the original belief of another individual. By bringing this discussion into the open, we allow such 'offensive' action to take place.So A believed that the exam is on Tuesday and "tried to override" the "original belief" of B, i.e., that the exam is on Wednesday, and this is offensive? Surely he can't mean that. The mere attempt to change a person's beliefs is not by itself offensive. It's all going to depend on how this "overriding" is done, what sorts of actions that A undertake. Otherwise, Gu must be incredibly easy to offend. ("I'm sorry sir, but you gave me $5 short for the taxi fare"..."stop trying to impose your beliefs on me!" "Huh?!")
The above is terribly simplified because normally, part of the usual and peaceable action we often undertake to get someone to believe in something is to show the person a reason--of the relevant kind--that he should do so. For example, the taxi driver points to his fare-meter and shows the passenger the money given to show that he's still $5 short, or in or earlier example, A directs B to the relevant website showing the (updated) exam schedule, etc. And often times, the reason or evidence is of such nature that the other person need not be irrational even if he rejects it. ("Guess what I heard from Jane about Peter and his new girlfriend...etc"..."Yes, but I don't trust Jane.") And the sorts of reasons and evidences that might be appealed to in getting another person believe in the truth of some religious doctrine are often of this nature--they are seldom knockdown reasons (otherwise, we won't be talking about "faith"). I'll have more on this later.
So much for that. This other bit caught my eye:
I was shocked to realise certain religions capitalised on the tsunami disaster to gather more converts. About a week after the disaster, en route from Yio Chu Kang MRT station to Nanyang Polytechnic, no fewer than three people were distributing a booklet detailing the association between God and the tsunami.It used to be that it's the people with strong religious beliefs who are offended when their god is blasphemed against. But now I'm trying to understand what exactly is it that offended Mr. Gu, the self avowed free thinker.
After I scanned it, I threw it away as I found it offensive to my own beliefs. They were also distributing to people who were obviously of other religious beliefs.
First, a short detour. Some things in life are such that given the evidence, reasonable (or properly trained) people will tend to draw the same conclusions. But other things are not so. In those cases, entirely reasonable people acting in good faith (humanly speaking, that is) even when faced with the exact same set of evidence, might draw very different conclusions. Sometimes, these conclusions are not only different, they are contrary and opposed to each other. Religious and philosophical doctrines are often of this nature. Even without the complications of ignorance, perversity, rivalries for power, status or economic gain, people often come to fundamentally different conceptions of life, of value, of answers to "ultimate questions". The philosopher John Rawls calls this the "burdens of judgment" (see his Political Liberalism, p. 55). Incidentally, religion (and philosophy) is hardly the only area of life that is of this nature.
Given any two positions on the "ultimate questions", it is not difficult for one to be in some sense "offensive" from the perspective of the other. From the point of view of the pro-choice people, any ban on abortion (no matter how qualified), tramples on the rights of women to determine how and what they will to their own bodies. From the point of view of the pro-life people, abortion on demand is an affront to the sanctity of life. The issue for society is not: how would any one set of these views affect the subjective feelings of someone who does not hold to them? Offense is inevitable--unless the society is willing to simply ignore the burdens of judgment and impose by coercive means one uniform set of beliefs on all issues pertaining to "ultimate questions" (i.e., end of religious freedom). The issue is: what are the peaceable and legitimate means by which these views may be expressed, and by which adherents of these views may seek to have others come to share their views?
No one can determine for Mr. Gu what he would feel upon encountering the views about the "association between God and the tsunami" or any other set of views that are contrary to the ones he hold. But why should such feelings be the basis for condemning the entirely peaceable actions of religious people (of whatever faith) to persuade others of the truth of their views?
More to come...
...Continued (Feb 28): Let me be absolutely clear about one thing. My intention is not to pick on Mr. Gu. It's just that his letter as published by ST (I don't even know if ST published his letter in full) furnished a useful launch pad for discussing certain (in my opinion) commonly encountered confusions. As I said, I don't really have a considered opinion on Jamie Han's proposal in his letter of Feb 17. On the one hand, I sympathetize with the sentiment that ideally, there is no in principle reason why religion or race cannot be part of our public discourse. The best way to keep crazy and irresponsible ideas of religious or racial extremists from doing damage is not to put a lid on them, but to expose them to the light of day and allow them to be contested, refuted, argued over, etc., by the public at large. But that said, it is possible that the specific condition in Singapore (and the region) poses special difficulties that call for a more prudent approach. I am thus undecided.