Thursday, 15 November 2007

Secularism has a role in providing a common space for all
by Yeo Chow Khoon (ST Forum, 15 Nov 2007)

I REFER to the letter written by Mr Heng Cho Choon, 'Religion cannot be divorced from politics, society or culture' (Online forum, Nov 10), commenting on the article of Mr Janadas Devan, 'What place religion in a secular society?' (ST, Nov 9).
It stresses the importance of religion, but seems to have overlooked the points on state secularism and accommodation. It is precisely that these do not come easily that they and not religion have to be argued for.

That Matteo Ricci was able to reach what might be called the contextualisation of Christianity for the Chinese culture, shows that he was ahead of his time. It is even more significant when we consider that he lived through the Protestant Reformation, a period when religious feelings flared, while even in the matter there are still detractors even in pluralistic Singapore.

Secularism might be more acceptable if one sees it as not a negation of any religion, but a position taken to accommodate all by excluding religious views where they disagree or are irrelevant. In these cases, secular knowledge, conceived outside any religiously based doctrinal framework and based on empiricism, could be a less contentious and more effective guide.

Another example of a person who understood the pragmatism of tacitly ceding ground to secularism was the Italian Jesuit Martino Martini, who was a missionary to China involved in the Chinese Rites Affair. Being conversant with Chinese history, he came to be aware of a problem with a biblical chronology to encompass all histories and genealogies. Being a contemporary of James Ussher, who calculated the age of the earth based on such a chronology, he was again ahead of his time. In fact, the construction of a biblical chronology remained a respectable pursuit for most of the Age of Reason even for scientists as illustrious as Isaac Newton. It has to be left to the Age of Enlightenment to sort out the proper places for religion and empiricism in the many fields of human knowledge.

While not denying Mr Heng's point that 'religion basically teaches peace, love, harmony and accommodation but the radicals and the extremists have turned it into a militant movement to serve their own ends', it must also be admitted that religions do disagree on important points and adherents do not need to have excessive zeal for this to show. Thus, secularism has a role in providing a common space to all where creed is irrelevant. It is also not against peace, love, harmony and accommodation and more importantly it need not be exclusivistic.

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