Monday, March 30, 2015

The rise of the ultra-sensitive religious

Imagine briefly that you and I hold starkly differing beliefs. Further assume, arguendo, that these views are deeply unpalatable to the other party.

Finally, consider this proposition: If I am vocal about my opinion, and indeed actively dessiminate the same in public (whether solicited or otherwise), I am exercising a constitutionally protected right.  Whereas if you espouse your views in public, it would be illegal on the grounds that I am legitimately offended by your beliefs.

You would beat your chests and fall upon your face at this grotesque unfairness. You would pull your hair and rend your clothes. You would be immensely outraged. And quite rightly so.

And therefore the million-dollar question (or 26 million if you are from a particular church) is this: Why do we continue to provide the religious with carte blanche to restrict freedom of speech of the non-religious? Why do we continue to have, in effect, blasphemy laws?

Embarrassingly, according to Pew Research, Singapore holds membership in a particularly regressive bloc of countries, where it remains illegal to blaspheme. Perhaps just to put things into context, (you know,  for better appreciation of the actual depth of embarrassment), you may wish to note that other members of this bloc include Sudan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Somalia, India, etc.  

And before all you apologists begin to froth at your mouths yapping endlessly about "defending Asian values from evil / selfish Western ideologies", note that most of Asia (including China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan) do not have blasphemy laws . Even in Catholic Philippines, it is only a crime to desecrate a place of worship or to disrupt an act of worship. Yes, that's right, even in religious Philippines, you are quite entitled to openly question the Immaculate Conception. Yet in allegedly secular Singapore, you could get hauled up by the police for making relatively mild comments on a Youtube video. Just google the poor sod Amos Yee. Admittedly, his repertoire is found wanting but his material was only as abject as his indignant detractors (who saw fit to lodge no lesser than 20 police reports over a perceived slight of the Christian faith).

I often wonder, is the faith of the religious so weak, that it could only be maintained and nourished in the absence of criticism? Is your Omnipotent Deity in fact so impotent that He is unable to defend a perceived insult? Are you so bereft of intellectual thought that any time someone calls out your ridiculous beliefs, your only possible response is to call your mama the police. If so, then perhaps faith isn't for you.  Consider doing something real like, you know, Science (where it is actually possible defend your ideas with tangible evidence).

I am also not convinced that the law is necessary to maintain social order and religious harmony.  Harmony is built on frank discourse, not censorship. How can true harmony be achieved when monotheistic faiths only publicly preach tolerance but secretly regard non-adherents as a contemptible and hell-bound lot? On that note, I found it amusing that at least one major faith group in Singapore found it befitting to hold Mass for our recently departed Founding Father, whose atheism is well-known. In my mind, I could only imagine how the prayers went:

"Oh pray for the poor soul of our great founding father, who is no doubt, burning in purgatory now and for the rest of eternity". Well of course they wouldn't say that.  But there is little doubt this would be their sincerely held belief when pressed.

And if members of any religion feel that it is their God-ordained right to respond to any form of criticism with violence and homicide, then I say, as a society, it is better we identify and rid ourselves of such malignant tumors early, lest they fester and corrupt society in its entirety.  The scary pace at which religious extremism takes root must never be underestimated. ISIS any one?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, blasphemy laws allow religious groups to unapologetically and shamelessly dictate (or try to dictate) social norms for everyone else.  You want examples? How about NLB's pulping of books. Or Focus on the Family's "seminars" on relationship/gender norms. In neighbouring India, while the consumption of beef is prohibited for Hindus only, the Hindu-backed Modi government is making the sale of beef extraordinarily onerous presumably to "respect" the sensitivities of the fragile.  Even more astonishing is that the beef ban extends to caged tigers and lions who now have to subsist on religiously insignificant poultry.  Closer to home, Kelantan's PAS is seeking to impose a dual-route judicial system based on religious affiliation.  In each of these examples, because of blasphemy laws, it is near impossible or at least substantially precarious to critique these theologically-motivated propositions. All it takes is for one hyper-sensitive believer to take umbrage, and suddenly the HARMONY-POLICE are at your door.  As a result, these ridiculous propositions become immune to criticism.  How is that at all healthy or beneficial for social harmony?

Make no mistake, give the religious right an inch, and they would lobby for the entire kilometre.  And that's exactly what blasphemy laws do.