The illusion of neutrality – Musing on our mindset today
What is it about the illusion of neutrality?
A few years I heard a podcast by Ravi Zacharias on the illusion of neutrality. At that point, I read a post in one of the Singaporean websites. It criticises an article posted by the Christian Post about opening up the secular space for religious discussion.
Our new godless religion
This mirrors a poem by Arthur Guiterman. It describe our current state or attitude towards the issue whether can man live without God:
First dentistry was painless.
Then bicycles were chainless,
Carriages were horseless,
And many laws enforceless.
Next cookery was fireless,
Telegraphy was wireless
Cigars were nicotineless,
And coffee caffeineless.
Soon oranges were seedless,
The putting green was weedless,
The college boy was hatless,
The proper diet fatless.
New motor roads are dustless,
The latest steel is rustless,
Our tennis courts are sodless,
Our new religion — godless.
GK Chesterton’s sentiment
This poem echoes GK Chesterton’s sentiment in his book ‘Orthodoxy’:
“You are free in our time to say that God does not exist; … to say that He exists and is evil; … to say like Renan that He would like to exist if He could. You may talk of God as a metaphor or a mystification; you may water Him down with gallons of long words, or boil Him to the rags of metaphysics; and it is not merely that nobody punishes, but nobody protests. But if you speak of God as a fact, as a thing like a tiger, as a reason for changing one’s conduct, then the modern world will stop you somehow if it can. We are long past talking about whether an unbeliever should be punished for being irreverent. It is now thought irreverent to be a believer.”
I had a few discussions my honours classmates regarding the topic of God and absolute truth during my NUS days. I was studying a subject that depicts God’s hand in the picture. But I found it disturbing that I had to pretend that He is not in the picture. It seems that biblical historiography will never make inroad into the academic realm of Singapore. I expected this, since NUS started out as a secular university and rightly should remain so. But yet, even if so, the rejection of any discussion of the divine on a topic such as history is extremely disconcerting, especially since I was a student of history. There is something about neutrality that is biased against religion and metaphysics.
As Christians, we need to ask how we reach this stage (though not as bad as Europe or maybe America). The reasons, I believe, are three-fold: secularisation, pluralisation, and privatisation. I have obtained the clues from Ravi Zacharias and it is chilling to see that it almost describes the external context by which Singaporean Christians operate in. It is not exactly identical but similar enough for me to identify with what he has mentioned.
Reason 1 for illusion of neutrality: Secularisation
Secularisation is the process by which the people removed sectors of society and culture from the domination of religious institutions and symbols. It is the process where the society decides to remove all religious underpinnings and to cast any reference of the transcendence out of every aspects of our lives.
Singapore society is a predominantly secular one, though religious life is part and parcel of our ‘culture’. But our education is predominantly a secular one, we grow up in a predominantly secular society which claims to be neutral towards all religions and boasts a tolerance towards all religions. This is true, and because of that I am able to practice what I profess to practice.
But yet a society devoid of reference to the transcendence rips itself of the reference point for its morality and ethics. Think about it, in moral education in school, try asking the teachers why you should not be, say, telling lies or go around murdering people or even having a moral education in the first place. I suspect that the answer is most likely going to be “for the good of the society.” But to what ends? At the end of the day, a culture ripped of a transcendent reference point will find its replacement in other stuff, and indeed, the news we are seeing and reading everyday is the result of the void of transcendence in our society. In fact, the sad thing is that even those who claims to believe in the transcendence act as if they dun.
Rob Rosenbaum’s description of the secularisation process
As such, I think the following excerpt from Ron Rosenbaum’s article on ‘Staring into the heart of the heart of darkness‘ may well describe the logical conclusion of secularisation process in Singapore (we haven’t reached there yet but might well be on the way):
When I got back to New York I put in a call to Maury and asked him about that memorable line — “I can explain that, Maury.” Did it sum up the contemporary approach to evil?
“Absolutely,” he told me. But something’s changed, he went on to say. “Audiences are not buying it anymore. They never bought it from the hardened criminal but now they’re not buying it from the ordinary person who hadn’t been in trouble but gets in trouble and then has some kind of, well, let-me-tell-you-what-happened-to-me-as-a-child defense.”
Given that talk-show audiences are the barometer of national sentiment, Maury feels he can pinpoint the moment when the needle on the dial of national consciousness shifted from permissive green to angry red:
…when Lyle and Erik had emptied their shotguns into the bodies of their parents, but realized their mother was still alive, crawling around in the blood. The moment when the supposed threat to their lives from the Big Bad Abusing Daddy was over. He was dead as a doornail but Mom was alive and whimpering and, as Maury puts it, poor-little-rich-boy Lyle “went out of the house and then came back in to blow away the mother.”
In doing so, Maury believes, and then asking for our sympathy, Lyle and Erik blew away the delicate fabric of empathy that talk-show confessionals had woven around those who excused their crimes with tales of childhood abuse.
“That was the crushing blow for the whole abuse defense,” he said. “That jolted audiences. There’s been a backlash. Abuse defenses are now looked at cynically, and audiences are falling back on the old beliefs in good and evil.” They are, moreover, capable of making subtle philosophic distinctions between modes of evil, a fact that becomes apparent in Maury’s recollection of one of his Jeffrey Dahmer shows. Maury was telling me about his personal pantheon of evil. There was Charles Manson, of course: “The ultimate evil talk-show guest is Charles Manson. Why? No remorse. And Jeffrey Dahmer.”
He’d done a lot of shows on Dahmer, he told me. He’d had members of Dahmer’s family, members of the families of Dahmer’s victims; they’d discussed the childhood traumas that may have turned him into a serial killer and a cannibal.
But it wasn’t the horror of Dahmer’s crimes that audiences had reacted most strongly to, Maury told me. It was the cards. “We also had on these people who did these trading cards. Jeffrey Dahmer trading cards! Oh, my God. I had to hold them” — the audience — “back. It was universal.”
The audience was making a fascinating distinction between degrees of evil here: Jeffrey Dahmer killed and ate his dates, but it’s possible to see the pathetic Dahmer doing it not out of some Chianti-and-fava-bean, Lecter-like delectation, but out of some hideous, uncontrollable compulsion, the product of profound pathological damage to his psyche.
But those who go on national TV hawking Jeffrey Dahmer trading cards, taking some snickering delight in profiting off images of the victims, they can’t really say, “I was abused as a child, therefore I am compelled to earn a living turning other people’s tragedies into serial-killer chic.”
While they kill no one themselves they are more consciously wicked, the audiences seemed to think, more coldblooded, than Dahmer himself.
“When you start capitalizing on this in public, merchandizing it,” Maury says, “the public begins to think; ‘hey, they think we’ll be attracted to this.’ ” The audience thinks evil is being imputed to them.
Malcom Muggeridge’s commentary on secularisation
I am not suggesting that people will be losing their morals. A secularisation process begins the slippery road of replacing the conscience with something else, and we question why. This is what Malcolm Muggeridge has to say about societies which have secularised and decided to replace transcendent references from their philosophical underpinning of their so-called morality and ethics:
“I look back on my own fellow countrymen ruling over a quarter of the world, the great majority of them convinced, in the words of what is still a favorite song, that, ‘God who’s made the mighty would make them mightier yet.’
I’ve heard a crazed, cracked Austrian announce to the world the establishment of a German Reich that would last a thousand years; an Italian clown announce that he would restart the calendar to begin his own ascension to power.
I’ve heard a murderous Georgian brigand in the Kremlin acclaimed by the intellectual elite of the world as a wiser than Solomon,more humane than Marcus Aurelius, more enlightened than Ashoka.
I’ve seen America wealthier and in terms of weaponry, more powerful than the rest of the world put together, so that had the American people desired, could have outdone an Alexander or a Julius Caesar in the range and scale of their conquests.
… England part of a tiny island off the coast of Europe, threatened with dismemberment and even bankruptcy. Hitler and Mussolini dead, remembered only in infamy. Stalin a forbidden name in the regime he helped found and dominate for some three decades. America haunted by fears of running out of those precious fluids that keep her motorways roaring, and the smog settling, with troubled memories of a disastrous campaign in Vietnam, and the victories of the Don Quixotes of the media as they charged the windmills of Watergate.
“All in one lifetime, all gone. Gone with the wind.”
He described the secularisation of societies, especially the regime of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, and these regimes are gone, gone with the wind. Implicit in his remark lies the stark sarcastic attitudes towards the evils and wickednesses of these regimes. I used to think that Singapore will go down this path. It is too extreme. Circumstances and articles from websites such as mothership.sg have led me to think otherwise.
The eviction of transcendence from our worldviews
Yet, these extremes are the logical outworking of secularised philosophies which have evicted the reference of the transcendence out of their worldviews. When we ask, why do we see Singaporeans behaving in particular ways, and when people question the way we are educated, we need to bear in mind, our education is a secularised one. This is one that evicts the transcendence from its philosophical underpinning.
The secular cultures tend to exalt the immoralities that religions abhor. I see the logical outworking especially in some of the lives of my classmates and friends, when they justify their acts with a thousand different qualifications. I read of stories of people, for e,g, a pregnant lady who was apparently scolded by a man for asking a teenager to give up his seat for her and they can justify their actions. Scary, isn’t it?
Viktor Frankl’s warning
I think we ought to heed Viktor Frankl’s warning in his book, “The Doctor and the Soul”:
“If we present a man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present man as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instinct, heredity and e nvironment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone. I became acquainted with the last stage of that corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz.
The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment–or, as the Nazi liked to say, of ‘Blood and Soil.’ I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.”
I argue strongly that a secular philosophical underpinning in our society bears the consequence of yielding a society that is corrupted by false concepts of man. It is not explicitly taught in our schools. But it might as well be imputed into our kids today implicitly. We keep on maintaining that we need to be secular in order to be neutral in things, but my question to my country is this: will we be able to do so given so many other examples around the world? Perhaps it’s because of this that today our secularisation process seems slower, although Singapore will end up a post-religion society like Europe in due time.
Reason 2 for the illusion of neutrality: Pluralisation
Next up, pluralisation is the increasing diversity in all aspects of the society. Furnivall has rightly pointed out that SEA is a predominantly pluralised society, due to one reason or another, that people mix but dun assimilate. It is great to grow up in a pluralised society. I get to eat different kinds of food and interact with different cultures and people.
But the danger comes when we take pluralism as moral relativism. This states that no one worldview can rightly dominant another and that all worldviews are equally valid in their own right. Indeed, we should not allow any worldview to dominate over the others. But we need to distinguish the difference between equality and elitism. We often confuse both, and think that elitism of ideas is the elitism of people. Nay, people should be treated equally no matter their skin colour, languages and religions but there need to be an elitism of idea.
Malcolm Muggeridge’s commentary on relativism
I agreed with Ravi Zacharias when he said that today postmodernism teaches that there is an equality of idea and as a result created an elitism of people when people who maintain an absolute view of the world are constantly being ridiculed or accused of being intolerant. My first reaction to postmodernism is always ‘huh?’ Maybe Malcom Muggeridge is right again in saying this:
“…it has become abundantly clear in the second half of the twentieth century that Western Man has decided to abolish himself. Having wearied of the struggle to be himself, he has created his own boredom out of his own affluence, his own impotence out of his own erotomania, his own vulnerability out of his own strength; himself blowing the trumpet that brings the walls of his own city tumbling down, and, in a process of auto-genocide, convincing himself that he is too numerous, and labouring accordingly with pill and scalpel and syringe to make himself fewer in order to be an easier prey for his enemies; until at last, having educated himself into imbecility, and polluted and drugged himself into stupefaction, he keels over a weary, battered old brontosaurus and becomes extinct.”
Have Singapore educated ourselves into imbecility?
Singapore, being a westernised culture, might as well fit into Malcolm Muggeridge’s description of the westernised man. In terms of pluralisation, we keep on maintaining that every worldview is correct. But we forget one important thing, that truth is exclusive. Even the expression ‘all truths are relative’ is an absolute statement. We cannot run away from this. The law of non-contradiction states that no two mutually exclusive statements can be true at the same time without qualification. This applies in the case when we have a plurality of ideas and worldviews.
Yet, today, in our education, while we are taught to practice religious harmony (which is a good thing actually), we should not treat all of them as equal and we take it as treating them as equally right. Relativism thus slipped itself quietly into the fabric of our societal thoughts.
An encounter with my colleague
This is true. I remember talking to one of my colleagues once. It was a peculiar talk, but chilling down my spine as I think back of the conversation we had. She is by no means a bad person, and in fact quite a nice one. However, there was once when we were talking about morality and she criticised me for taking on an absolute position against cohabitation. She told me that as long as the rest are happy, and think it is right, then it’s okay. There is no absolute right or wrong.
I was honestly amused when she pointed out to me that the fact that the railing is white in colour is neither right nor wrong. I was really amused because when you describe an object, it is of course an amoral thing. There is nothing right nor wrong when I describe my laptop as black or having how many keys and how many buttons etc. There is however a sense of judgement the moment you start describing a behaviour or action that has consequences. It is not a neutral act. To demonstrate the point, I asked my colleague this question, “Do you think that it is wrong for me to say that it is wrong to cohabit?” Bear in mind the fact that she previously believed that we should not be saying the action of someone is wrong.
Loss of Reason in an era of postmodernism
That demonstrates the point, isn’t it? That we claim relativism of morality and ideas but we lose the ability to reason. We failed to reason that deep in our hearts, we believe in absolutes. I like what William Lane Craig said, that we all can claim to be postmodernist, but we dun want our doctors to be postmodernistic when they prescribe medicine to us. We want to be absolutely sure that the cough syrup is indeed cough syrup.
Another example on the loss of reason and I will move on to the next point. A few years back, I was walking with a group of friends to Railmall, which is some 3km away from my place. Normally we would take bus but it was nea midnight. Along the way, we were talking about things such as spirits and ghosts etc.
Then one of my friends commented that he has seen possessions happening to his bunk mates when he was serving his NS. He concluded, that he believe in evil, because he has seen these. But he won’t believe in God because he hasn’t seen God yet. Come to think of it, I should have said that I dun believe he has a brain because I have yet seen his brain (but I was too tired and too kind to do so at that point in time). But yeah, it’s a classic application of David Hume’s empiricism with a twist of the supernatural.
Reason 3 for the illusion of neutrality: Privatisation
We next move on to the process of privatisation. This is not the economic theory where ownership of organisations are transferred to the private individuals. I am referring to the schism between the public realm and the private realm. This refers to a belief that those which are most sacred should not be practiced in the public. It’s like saying that I love my wife but I can only show my love to her in private. This has yet manifested itself explicitly in Singapore yet, but it is slowly creeping in. Certainly I still see religious processions happening in the streets. We still see people celebrating Thaipusam, Puasa, etc publicly and I think rightly so.
How we treat Christmas
However, I can sense a changing attitude. My classic example in Singapore is the way we treat Christmas. I think it is fair that Singaporeans always respect the integrity of other religious festivals such as Puasa, Deepavali or Vesak, but it is always amusing to see how we have secularised Christmas.
A few years back I decided to send a bible to one of the gift exchanges that my friends (same group as the previous example). The end result was that they chided me for sending the bible because it is a ‘religious item’. My reaction is as always “huh?” I hemmed and hawed, arguing that Christmas is a legitimate reason to send in a bible as a gift, but the rest are not convinced. Apparently, I didn’t have a right, as a Christian, to suggest how we can best enjoy and celebrate the festival of joy and gift.
Contradictions of privatisation
Even more amusing is the URA’s new policies some years back to impose restriction on commercial buildings being used for religious purpose for the fear that it will affect the users of the buildings. Essentially what it is telling is that we are afraid of public expression of our beliefs and want to keep it private as far as possible.
Apparently our society is arguing for one that keeps its faith in private but then what happens to our public lives? I want to ask, ain’t our public lives a reflection of our private lives, unless we are saying we like to live a double life. I might as well say that atheists in Singapore are not allowed to practice or live an atheistic life in public.
The process of privatisation therefore create faiths devoid of any meaning. When I first penned down this reflection a few years ago, I just got my performance grading. It was better than I have expected. But it would have had no meaning if I have no Christ in my life.
Christ created me in his image. If I do not live a life that honors Him, a performance grading is just another grade. It means nothing, other than the fact that I performed well and would receive more bonus. But a performance grading that reeks of the grace of Christ and my worship to Him bears far more significance. It is not just another performance grading, it is my offering to Him. Privatisation would never have allowed me to think that way as it would have dictated that my work is my work.
The logical conclusion of the illusion of neutrality
We ask ourselves why our society is becoming the way it is. We got rid of transcendent references in our culture, introduced relativism in our morality and decided to privatise our sacred beliefs. It is not very surprising and indeed very scary and heartaching.
I don’t, for a moment, argue that we are becoming immoral or what, but we will one day move towards that direction if we are not careful. The signs are already there. Others have been there, and the solution is not economic, neither is the problem. Singapore, at the very least, remains a pious nation on the surface, but emerging is a generation of people (my generation in fact) who represents the three moods that I have described in this post so far.
We try to be neutral. It is all but an illusion. Ravi Zacharias summed it up quite well for America, and again I think we should consider this as well. I have taken his ideas as a clue to what’s happening in what we see in Singapore so far:
Ladies and gentlemen, secularisation – no shame, pluralisation – no reason, privatisation – no meaning. Secularisation lives under the illusion of neutrality – it isn’t neutral. When you produce a shameless culture, an irrational culture and a meaningless culture, Reality will stalk you and call your bluff…
A final quote
Steve Turner’s Creed is a good conclusion to what we have discussed so far:
We believe in Marxfreudanddarwin
We believe everything is OK
as long as you don’t hurt anyone
to the best of your definition of hurt,
and to the best of your knowledge.
We believe in sex before, during, and
We believe in the therapy of sin.
We believe that adultery is fun.
We believe that sodomy’s OK.
We believe that taboos are taboo.
We believe that everything’s getting better
despite evidence to the contrary.
The evidence must be investigated
And you can prove anything with evidence.
We believe there’s something in horoscopes
UFO’s and bent spoons.
Jesus was a good man just like Buddha,
Mohammed, and ourselves.
He was a good moral teacher though we think
His good morals were bad.
We believe that all religions are basically the same-
at least the one that we read was.
They all believe in love and goodness.
They only differ on matters of creation,
sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation.
We believe that after death comes the Nothing
Because when you ask the dead what happens
they say nothing.
If death is not the end, if the dead have lied, then its
compulsory heaven for all
Hitler, Stalin, and Genghis Kahn
We believe in Masters and Johnson
What’s selected is average.
What’s average is normal.
What’s normal is good.
We believe in total disarmament.
We believe there are direct links between warfare and
Americans should beat their guns into tractors .
And the Russians would be sure to follow.
We believe that man is essentially good.
It’s only his behavior that lets him down.
This is the fault of society.
Society is the fault of conditions.
Conditions are the fault of society.
We believe that each man must find the truth that
is right for him.
Reality will adapt accordingly.
The universe will readjust.
History will alter.
We believe that there is no absolute truth
excepting the truth
that there is no absolute truth.
We believe in the rejection of creeds,
And the flowering of individual thought.
If chance be
the Father of all flesh,
disaster is his rainbow in the sky
and when you hear
State of Emergency!
Sniper Kills Ten!
Troops on Rampage!
Whites go Looting!
Bomb Blasts School!
It is but the sound of man
worshipping his maker.
So what are you.r thoughts? Let me know in the comments below