Saturday, April 19, 2008

We also have a right not to have a religion

(Published - ST Forum, Online Story. April 19, 2008)

I read with interest the article, 'Couple charged under Sedition Act' and letters by Mr Goh Ah Seng ('Is it illegal?'), Mr Julius Koh ('One can always say no to hard-sell religion') and Mr Dudley Au's ('Incident was not against the law') (ST, all April 16), the latter of which are in response to Mr Wee Feng Yi's letter, 'Let's respect a person's private space in public' (ST, April 12).

We may need to question and reconsider how religious freedom is being defined in the Singapore Constitution.

While I feel the adoption of religion should be voluntary, the notion of its propagation should be rethought.

We only have to look at history where various religions have exercised sexism, racism, xenophobia, discrimination and the condescending discrediting of other religions, class discrimination and other exclusions.

There is, apart from doctrinal baggage, the cultural, political and historical baggage in the propagation of religion.

As society becomes multicultural, owing to colonisation and immigration, religious institutions have to adjust themselves to allow for inter-faith integration. This results in a reinterpretation of otherwise authoritative scriptures, and a re-branding and marketing of the faith.

Hence, the concept of religious harmony now does not centre on wholesale conversion and homogenous communities, but coexistence of religious diversity. Coexistence is very problematic when there are communities that profess to have the one and only true set of beliefs.

Doctrinal ideas that once promoted social exclusion now have no place in diverse modern society, and are eventually harmful to the economic imperative of the ruling class or the state. That is why rules are in place to ensure no 'hate', as however appropriately defined by those in power, is expressed.

As much as everyone has a right to religion, we also have a right not to have a religion. I believe there should be adequate protection against public religious-oriented speech and expressions that could induce guilt, fear, anger or hate.

When different religions enter the public domain, there will be a contestation of many different ideas, despite their sharing many similarities. Furthermore, in the midst of such dialogues, we should also consider the interests of the non-religious, who are as equal a stakeholder as any one else in this country.

With this in mind, religious doctrine should be at best confined within religious communities and spaces.

Ho Chi Sam

No comments: