Many people have committed acts, execrated and deplored by others, in obedience to sincerely held beliefs. Can we reasonably ask anyone to do better than simply to obey his own conscience?

Zheng Wei Lim, Raffles Institution, Singapore

Second place for the 2020 Theology Prize​ | 9 min read 

Rousseau postulated that man is naturally good, with the ability to co-exist in a prelapsarian Eden-like state had it not been for the corruptions of civilisation[1]. This sentiment is aptly embodied by Thondup in his assertion that life has “no need for temples [or] complicated philosophies” if “[one’s] brain and heart are temples; [one’s] philosophy is kindness.”[2] Yet, to the secular observer, there exists a tinge of irony in his statement. Thondup, the 14th Dalai Lama, is widely revered as the spiritual voice of Tibet. His unceasing advocacy for a compassionate, non-violent human race are rooted in Tibetan Buddhism, thus incorporating many tenets of the four noble truths and five precepts in his universal teachings. To scores of Tibetan Buddhists who submit to his wisdom, the Dalai Lama is but the foremost representative of the sangha who gather in ‘temples’ to reinforce their understanding of the Buddhist ‘[philosophy]’, dharma. Even as he adopts a more secular front, the Dalai Lama is still inevitably a spokesperson of religious conscience, amplifying the reality that our conscience is perennially intertwined with religion. With 84% of the world today drawing their conscience from organised faith[3], it is safe to say that theology can indeed elucidate the merits and shortcomings of humanity’s beliefs.

In this essay, I will thus use the baseline of ‘sincerely held beliefs’ to define ‘conscience’, considering their different manifestations in religious contexts. I will also break this question down into two segments:

 

  1. Should we ask anyone to exceed obeying religion?

  2. Can we reasonably achieve (1)?

 

In response to (1), it is important to dissect the definition of ‘conscience’ by establishing if it inherently gives rise to the commitment of deplorable acts, hence posing a negative externality to society and incentivising checks on religious morality.

 

1a Conscience should be heeded, since religion promotes amiability

 

I will concede that religion instils one with primarily virtuous morals. In most religions, sacred texts and their interpretations promote pious ways of life as a mean of fulfilling one’s divine obligation. Altruistic acts are prescribed to encourage the proliferation of goodwill, as evinced by the Islam pillar of zakat, referring to the encouragement of charitable monetary contributions amongst the able. In addition to adhering to a prescribed set of ethics, immoral acts are sworn off to avert deviating from a path of righteousness. In theistic religions, these transgressions are further elucidated as an immoral defiance of higher deities. Avoidance of sin, for instance, is stressed through the Islamic concept of Taqwa, whereby a moral contract is formulated between the humble man and higher deity, obliging the staving off of vice as a means of being cognisant of God’s potential wrath.

Furthermore, we can contend that many universal values are rooted in the moral baselines of different religions, proving that benevolence transcends cultural discrepancies and enables a more gracious human race. The principle of deference toward one’s elders, as encompassed in the salient Confucianist concept of ‘filial piety’, is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. Notwithstanding cultural barriers, identical concepts of honouring and respecting one’s parents are endorsed in both the Old Testament[4] and Qur’an[5]. Today, respect for one’s elders is a universally recognised virtue which strengthens family cohesion and holds together societal fabric[6]. Considering that conscience is primarily virtuous, it may seem difficult to go beyond it.

Rebuttal

Yet, utopic societies heralded in religion texts have all but transpired on Earth, as individuals have committed deplorable and amoral acts whilst heeding religious conscience. Indeed, utopia can only be achieved in microcosms wherein the human conscience is homogenised and unchanging. This, however, does not hold true in society.

1b Conscience should not be heeded, since religion promotes animosity

Indeed, there exists a plural number of religions, all of which profess different creeds, birthing fatal contradictions which stir discontent amongst man and distort natural goodwill. Monotheistic religions propagate the existence and worship of a singular God. To strengthen the legitimacy of His authority, proponents of these religions seek to discredit other deities, antagonising their worshippers as an expression of their own deference. In the Old Testament, Yahweh demands unchallenged fidelity from the Israelites, commanding them to ‘[kill those who] serve other gods’[7]. Similarly, the first pillar of Islam, Shahada, uncompromisingly stresses that ‘There is no god but God’. Whilst these proclamations serve to reinforce intra- faith unity, they irreconcilably sow discord by promoting triumphalism. Consequently, with the inability to achieve reconciliation being deeply embedded in one’s conscience, there will exist the perennial threat of inter-religious conflict, condemning any well-meaning unification attempt to failure. The Baháʼí faith’s proposed ‘new world order’, premised upon the unification of mankind and establishment of equity and justice, has provoked “[the] most egregious forms of repression, persecution and victimisation[8]”. Whilst well-intentioned, their innocent calls for homogeneity have incited enmity from monotheistic religions which view the Baháʼí belief in ‘Manifestations of God’ as fundamentally blasphemous. Today, as the 300,000 Iranian Baháʼís unwaveringly champion their cause of harmonisation, their government’s Islamic theocracy continues to repudiate any attempt to recognise or uphold their rights, paving the way for institutionalised persecution. Along similar lines, conflict between Abrahamic religions regarding rightful ownership of the ‘Holy Land’ (as so recognised in religious text) has incessantly divided the Middle East pre-dating the Crusades with no sight in end, creating an unresolvable conundrum under the guise of religious faith which has led to the loss of millions of lives. In the words of Karl Marx, ‘history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.’

Fracturing of religions furthermore accentuates polarisation, giving rise to radicalisation and even the perpetuation of religious extremism. Wiktorowicz[9] detailed how the openness of activist organisations can promote ‘acceptance of extreme norms’, creating a culture of indoctrination which can overwhelm the actor’s personal conscience and steer them towards committing violence. Often, this is further exacerbated through conflating extremism with political agenda. Hindutva[10] ideology complemented India’s drive for nationalism with reactionary religion by heavily prizing Indians’ Hindi identity, thus spreading quickly amongst the majority Hindu nation and leading to the pervasive ostracisation of non-subscribing citizens such as Muslims and Christians. Acts of ‘Saffron terror’[11] are furthermore enabled by a lax prosecution of extremist groups by governments, who have historically attempted to appease the majority of the electorate through non-intervention. This is thus further compounded in present day under the rule of the nationalist President Modi who has even sought to entrench Hindu superiority within the constitution. These acts of prejudice and oppression can be thus considered especially deplorable.

I have thus posited that religious conscience, whilst furnishing a largely virtuous moral compass for its believers, has the capacity to exacerbate sectarian disunity and spark turmoil. Thus, we can surmise that humans must do more than their own conscience to quash such tensions.

2 Can we do better than conscience, whilst still being reasonable?

In defining the term ‘reasonable’, I will establish that one can only be expected to cast aside their conscience if given rational self-incentive to do so.

2a Secular institutions should rein in conscience

Given the subliminal threat posed to earthly societies by religion, secular institutions are inclined to rein in detrimental impulses by imposing restrictions upon antagonistic religious practices. After all, religious instability threatens to spark wider unrest which might tear apart the very fabric of society, undermining the very stability which all authorities strive to uphold.

Hence, to enable disparate sects to coexist peacefully whilst harnessing the merits of religious conscience, I will foreground the assumption that secular authorities will adopt Mill’s harm principle in prohibiting the undertaking of all actions which harm other individuals. For this essay, I will establish the boundaries of ‘harm’ to comprise all aspects of physical hurt and “actions [which] are prejudicial to the interests of others”[12].

2b Secular institutions can reasonably rein in conscience

Under the social contract, humans are – above all religious obligations – bound to state legalities, therefore relinquishing certain personal liberties in return for the reaping of state benefits. From a rational perspective, people should thus disengage from their conscience if it goes against the law and hence, self-interest.

This, however, places the onus of maintaining religious harmony upon the construction of laws which promote fair, yet free, religious expression. Therefore, we see the rise of three issues:

2bi Difficulties in qualifying harmful religious acts as deplorable or ‘prejudicial’

As aforementioned, inter-religious contradictions render the granting of unconditional autonomy impossible in a multicultural world, given that offence can be easily drawn from derogatory, yet faithful actions.

Rebuttal

This conundrum is dealt with by non-libertarian governments through the criminalisation of all ‘words’, ‘signs’ or ‘visible representations’ which ‘[cause] feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will between different racial groups’, as manifested in the penal codes of Singapore[13] and India[14]. Moon further narrows the definition of hate acts to ‘[degrading] racial groups [as being] less worthy than others’[15]. People should, hence, aim to uphold peace by averting the drawing of malicious comparisons to other religions in their own practices.

2bii Unwillingness of libertarian governments in restricting religion

 

In countries which promote free and fair religion through the relaxation of hate-discrimination laws, we might expect religious intolerance to flourish since it is no longer disincentivised by the state.

Rebuttal

Checks against discrimination can also be undertaken by other members of society. Via the ‘cancel culture’ phenomenon, intolerant individuals who make their views public can be ostracised in both their personal and private lives, thus serving as a disincentive toward acting inappropriately in a public setting. Thus, if the state and judiciary fail, society can act as a final purveyor of morality.

2biii Tyranny of the majority and the enabling of systemic persecution

Lines between secular and religious authority can dissolve in regions where a singular religion forms a majority of the populace. Adopting of an official state religion may furthermore spark institutionalised discrimination if the interests of the majority are championed at minorities’ expense. In certain Arab countries, adoption of Sharia law as legislation has ‘[sanctioned] discrimination against minorities’[16] as detailed in Iran’s treatment of the Baháʼí. Indeed, strict compliance with Sharia entails segregating the non-Muslim population into two lower groups: ‘People of the Book’[17] and ‘Unbelievers’[18]. The former, bound to a contract of dhimmh, are barred from public practices of faith and interference in state affairs. The latter face the threat of being ‘killed on sight’, unless entering into an ‘āmān’ whereby they are granted impermanent safety. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have seen a rise in institutionalised Islamophobia as many unjustly equate Islam with terrorism, thus unfairly infringing on their rights of expression. In Switzerland, a man was fined after uttering the Takbir in public, despite doing so in harmless context[19].

Concession

In countries where the triumphalism of Islam is widely perpetuated, the pursuit of secular equality would subvert the social norm and attract unjust stigmatisation, thus rendering it unreasonable to expect Muslims to do better than following their own conscience since both divine and secular forms of authority are inherently flawed. Similarly, if Islamophobia is heavily ingrained into societal rhetoric, there is no conceivable incentive to uphold religious tolerance.

Tyranny of the majority can thus obscure cultural relativism, as both triumphalism and paranoiac xenophobia can undercut rationality.

Consequently, I will assert that we can only expect one to do more than heeding their conscience in secular and inclusive societies.

A premise for the future

We must recognise that it is fundamentally difficult to qualify ‘righteous behaviour’ as the face of our society is ever-changing, complementing the dynamic boundaries of one’s conscience. Notwithstanding its fallibility, the progressiveness of secular law – as evinced by the weakening of Sharia in many Middle Eastern countries – indeed serves as a valid counter to the fixity of most religious ethics. Therefore, governments must serve as a check on religious polarisation since it is the only reasonable way through which we can expect people can do more than their conscience. It is only through this common consensus that we can effectively establish inter-religious amity.

Footnotes:

1 Younkins, E. (2005, July 15). Rousseau's "General-Will" and Well-Ordered Society. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from http://www.quebecoislibre.org/05/050715-16.htm

2 Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho; Piburn, S. D. (1998). The Dalai Lama, a policy of kindness: An anthology of writings by and about the Dalai Lama. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion.

3 Hackett, C.; McClendon, D. (2020, May 31). World's largest religion by population is still Christianity. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain- worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/

4 Exodus 20:12

5 Surah Al-Isra 17:23

6 Zed, R. (2016, March 04). Faith Forum: Is the concept of 'filial piety' still valid today? Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://www.rgj.com/story/life/2016/03/03/faith-forum-concept-filial-piety-still-valid- today/81294620/

7 Deuteronomy 13:6-9

8 Rehman, J. (2019, July 18). Situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. United Nations.

9 Wiktorowicz, Q. (2005). Radical Islam rising: Muslim extremism in the West. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield

10 A movement which first gaining prominence in the 1920s as an opposition to colonialism,

11 A neologism describing acts of violence in the name of Hindutva

12 Mill, John Stuart (1859). On Liberty. Oxford, England: Oxford University.

13 Section 298A

14 Section 153A

15 Moon, R. (2019, January 18). Religion and hate speech. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://tif.ssrc.org/2019/01/18/religion-and-hate-speech/

16 An-Na'im, A. A. (1987). Religious Minorities under Islamic Law and the Limits of Cultural Relativism. Human Rights Quarterly, 9(1). doi:10.2307/761944

17 Referring to subscribers of other Abrahamic religions

18 Referring to subscribers of non-Abrahamic religions and freethinkers

19 Man fined 210 Swiss francs for saying 'Allahu akbar'. (2019, January 10). Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://www.thelocal.ch/20190110/man-fined-210-swiss-francs-for-saying-allahu-akbar

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