As long as there are those who believe in supernatural explanations to rationalize the completely natural world and as long as there are public choices that require collective decisions, religion will be relevant in our society. The relevance of religion, however, is not a ticket to be used with impunity in the public arena.
In The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World, author Matthew Stewart described how the religious of 17th-century Europe were anxious about the advancement of science. As the explanatory power of science grew, the room for supernatural explanation shrank. Four hundred years on, the room for the supernatural continues to shrink as we continue to understand more about the world around us. We have become more rational than ever.
Unlike in the days of old, this is an era when many assertions relating to the secular world require rational reasoning as its thrust. Many individuals no longer accept an assertion as true simply because someone invokes the name of god, or any being of similar status.
While the relevance of religion in society is not denied, it is easy to see how its relevance has been overestimated by some. That overestimation invites ridicule, especially so when the invocation of god’s name is based on self-interest.
When Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan swore on the Quran that Anwar Ibrahim violated him, it was quite clear that his purpose was to strengthen his case, regardless of the truth behind his allegation. While the truth in his case was at best uncertain, he tried to use religion to pre-empt the civil justice system. One can take comfort that the supernatural bows to rationality in the justice system for else, truth would be so cheap that it would be worthless.
A starker example involves former Selangor state assemblyman Lee Hwa Beng of the MCA. When he wrote that the Christian god commands Christians to oppose the concept of an Islamic state, he was using religion for his own political purpose. He linked the DAP with an Islamic state as promoted by PAS to cultivate the fear of Christians towards PAS so that they would vote for BN instead.
Of interest here is the use of supernatural-based rationale against another supernatural-based position. Even in the realm of the supernatural, supernatural rationale is problematic. It was so problematic that criticisms came in fast and harsh. What was supposed to be an insignificant statement on Twitter became a considerable embarrassment for Lee and he was forced to retract his statement and apologize.
Lee’s was a case where a person spoke on behalf of a god. He is, of course, not unique. Many members of PAS have taken the tone where the Islamic god wants this and that. Still, they are more or less Islamists and it is only expected of them to use religion to justify their political ambition. Nevertheless, they do struggle to justify the goal of an Islamic state while trying to widen their appeal and achieve their national ambition of wrestling Putrajaya from Barisan Nasional. Rather than appealing to supernatural reasoning, PAS has in the past tried to promote some of its ideal by stressing universal concepts like justice instead. If the 2008 general election is any indication, then secular methods are more successful than ones inspired by divine diktat.
And recently, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, president of PKR, said that her husband Anwar Ibrahim is a person granted by god to Malaysians to become our leader. As if the obvious needs pointing out, it is not hard to see how the fortune of Anwar is closely related to PKR. Maybe after criticism regarding PKR’s recent direct election, she thought that the outdated concept of divine right might justify Anwar’s position. Well, it did not work. She burnt her fingers. The wolves of Barisan Nasional pounced on her and she deserved it.
In each case, if they had resorted to the more rational path, they would have been less susceptible to ridicule. Saiful’s legal counsel could have presented convincing evidence in court. Lee could argue that an Islamic state may discriminate individuals based on creed. Wan Azizah could instead say that Anwar Ibrahim’s leadership is indispensible, for instance.
But no. They had to tickle the pink unicorn. Whether the unicorn has been entertained, we will never know. What we do know is that if they had chosen the more rational path, they would have been less susceptible to ridicule.
First published in The Malaysian Insider on December 13 2010.