Debate It: Religion in Politics
A compilation produced by the Singapore National Team that participated in the 2010 World Schools Debating Championships and International Public Policy Forum
Series editor: Benjamin Mak Jia Ming
Team Members: Teoh Ren Jie, Adil Hakeem bin Mohammed Rafee, Ng Li Ki and Ashish Xiangyi Kumar
Coach: Mrs Geetha Creffield
The editor speaks
Having debated in Singapore for the past 5 years, I have come to realise the true meaning of Josef Joubert’s oft-quoted statement that “It is better to debate a question without settling it, than to settle than a question without debating it.” Debating is far more than just part of our intellectual growth as individuals; it is about enriching the quality of public discourse, applying our minds to deal with some of the most timeless controversies which continue to rage today, from the question of prostitution to the continued involvement of NATO forces in Afghanistan. Debate is crucial to the development of an enlightened and participative civil society, because it gives the next generation the skills and verbal armoury to argue with rigour and passion.
While online resources like Debatabase and classic works like Pros & Cons or the Opposing Viewpoints Series from Greenhaven Press remain relevant to new generations of debaters, we noticed a gap that we think should be filled. This gap relates to the absence of materials which provide beginning debaters with not only arguments they can use, but also the historical context in which they occur, how they pan out in the strategic action of the debate as well as advice on what they should avoid in terms of their general conduct as debaters and specific pitfalls relating to particular types of debate motions.
Having debated for so long, we felt it would be valuable for us to share our insights and experience in an organised compilation according to a thematic serialising of debate topics. We begin with religion and politics, because the resurgence of religious extremism in the 21st century has spurred a fundamentalist response exemplified most dangerously by the threatened burning of Korans in Florida in September 2010, creating a struggle for identity which we think parallels the struggle we often find in debates: a desire for resolution in the face of seemingly interminable conflict. It is hoped that the first edition of this compilation will begin our collective ascent to a better age.
Why debate matters in your life: Thoughts from Team Captain Ren Jie
Debate might seem foreign to most of you, but actually all of us debate on a daily basis. If you’ve ever argued with your parents about tuition or curfews, or with your teachers about homework or assignments, you’ve already had plenty of experience in debating.
This is because debating is essentially a structured argument – no matter how much we like to disguise it with fancy names or complex rules, the purpose of debates is simply to win the argument you are having with the opposing team. Not by convincing them, of course (can you ever imagine your teacher letting you get away with forgetting an assignment?), but by convincing everyone ELSE that you are right. Now we’re not saying that the purpose of debate is to help you win arguments with your teachers and parents (though it can help with that, mind you). Rather, what we want to show you is how debate encompasses many lifeskills you use on a daily basis, and how debate matters in your life.
Through debate, debaters learn how to think logically and construct better, more convincing arguments, which helps in all walks of life as well as in academic essay writing. Debate helps debaters improve their confidence and public speaking skills too, through the ordeal of speaking in front of audiences that are often hostile. Through debating, debaters also learn more about the world and the issues that face it.
But more than that, debate matters because almost all important issues in real life are decided through some form of debate. Laws are debated on in parliament, company decisions are debated on in boardrooms, and even your parents debate family decisions with each other! Understanding debate gives you an insight into how these decisions take place – decisions that will shape your present and future life.
In debating, what is important in definition is not necessarily scholarly precision, but rather a sufficient illustration of the concept so that a meaningful debate can proceed. That said, a background understanding of the concept (which doesn’t have to be articulated in the speech) is essential towards having a debate of any depth.
Religion is difficult to define. One approach is through listing criteria – the more of these criteria a candidate meets; the closer it is to being considered a religion.
General Characteristics of religion
- Religion is codified
- Religion involves belief in an otherworldly entity
- Religion informs you on how to live your life ethically
- Religion involves ritual practices, though they may not be central
- Religion provides answers in the spheres where scientific enquiry fails
- Religion invokes a belief in the supernatural
Are belief systems and religions the same?
A brief distinction can be drawn between religion and belief systems. All religions are belief systems, but not all belief systems are religions. Belief systems can be personal, whereas religion is a communal concept. Belief systems can exist purely in the mind, but religion is codified.
Gateway to World Faiths:
Below are presented some brief notes on major world faiths separated into 2 categories, the Abrahamic faiths and the non-Abrahamic ones. This information is accurate at the time of writing and is by no means to be construed as a substitute for careful research on each faith and its specific nuances and rules.
Abrahamic religions are an umbrella term for religions who trace their common origin to Abraham.
Christianity is a monotheistic religion that believes in an omnipotent personal God. Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament (The Hebrew Bible, which is common to both Judaism and Christianity). There are an estimated 2.1 billion adherents to the Christian faith today. It has had a profound influence on the development of Western Civilization. The sacred scripture of Christianity is the ‘Bible’, the Word of God.
There are many denominations of Christian faith, which can differ significantly in religious teaching. These include Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy and Protestantism. Other notable sects include the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Islam is literally translatable as ‘Peace’. It is a strictly monotheistic religion in the Abrahamic tradition. The God of Islam is typically known as Allah. The purpose of life for Muslims is to worship Allah. The sacred scripture of Islam is the Qur’an, which is treated as the Word of Allah transcribed verbatim. Islamic law (known as the Sharia), comprehensively covers every element of life and society.
The Prophet Muhammad is known as the Seal of the Prophets, the final conveyor of God’s message to the world, and the last in a line of prophets featuring Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus.
There are an estimated 1.57 billion Muslims worldwide, with significant minority communities on every continent.
Judaism differs from Christianity in that it does not regard Jesus as being the Messiah, because a number of conditions had not been met at his coming. Jews are also ethno-religious in association. Being a Jew is a necessary and sufficient condition for being considered an adherent of Judaism. There are 13.3 million Jews worldwide, including a significant diaspora outside of Israel. There are many denominations of Judaism (largely along the lines of how they treat Jewish law), and one should consequently reject monolithic treatment of it.
Buddhism is both a life philosophy and religion with an emphasis on escaping dukkha (suffering) and attaining nirvana. It believes in a cycle of reincarnation. There are two major strands of Buddhism – Theravada and Mahayana. Buddhism has about 230-500 million adherents, the difference in estimates stemming from the difficulty in defining and locating Buddhists.
Demographically, Hinduism is the third largest religion with more than a billion adherents, most of which can be found in South Asia. There is no defining moment for the establishment of Hinduism, as it is born out of a blend of traditions. It is difficult to define as a religion because of the multiplicity of denominations – each with its own tradition and end-goal.
Sikhism is the fifth largest organized world religion, with 26 million adherents, largely in Punjab, India. The God of Sikhism is non-anthropomorphic, to the extent that it can be characterized as the entire universe. Divorce is not condoned in Sikhism. Baptized Sikhs are obliged to wear 5 articles of faith, one of which is uncut hair.
Governmental distinctions relevant to religion & politics
- “Majority Rule with Minority Rights”
- Government that governs by the consent of the people, as expressed through free and fair elections
- Some constitution or body of core laws that guarantees minimum rights to all citizens
- Government that rules by “divine mandate”
- Leaders are considered to be guided by the will of a divine force
- Typically priesthood plays a leading role in civil affairs
- Modern day examples: Iran, Vatican City
Spheres where the state interacts with religion
- Many religious groups have a strong political influence
- Examples: Evangelical Church in America, Muslim Brotherhood in many Middle Eastern Countries
- Most democratic nations allow such groups to maintain their political influence, though in some nations there are restrictions on how far they are allowed to exercise their political clout.
- Examples: In America, churches are allowed to participate in political activity as long as no one candidate or party is endorsed. Therefore, they can express their position on issues such as abortion, but cannot support individual candidates. This is largely in keeping with their principles as secular states, which means that they do not privilege any one religion over another
- Many politicians are also deeply religious, and this guides their policies
- Examples: George W. Bush on America, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Iran
- Most states are perfectly fine with their politicians being religious, as long as this does not cause them to show a bias in their policies
- Examples: Germany, where the current governing political party is called the Christian Democrat’s Union
- However, some hyper-secular states are uncomfortable with politicians giving any hint of religiosity
- Examples: Turkey’s courts went ballistic when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s wife was pictured wearing a burqa
- To a large extent, the influence of states and religious groups tends to overlap in the social arena and do not interact so much as coexist
- Both run various youth programs aimed largely at the ends of instilling positive values in the nation’s youth
- Religious groups often support or oppose states’ social policies
- Examples: Churches in California stood against legalizing gay marriage; Mosques in Sabah and Sarawak support the institution of morality police
- One major issue of contention is pacifistic religions in countries that legalize conscription
- Examples: Jehovah’s Witnesses are forbidden from practising their religion in Singapore
- Not as much interaction, since religious organizations like the Catholic Church in Europe no longer possess the vast wealth they had in the past.
- Most religious groups are exempt from taxation, as they are classified under “charities.
What you might encounter in debate competitions:
In this section, we will be examining how the background knowledge and theoretical conceptions of the relationship between religion and politics are often applied in debate motions which have appeared in competitions so far. This includes some of the major arguments which can be used, some of the pitfalls that might be avoided as well as some of the examples which can be employed. This does not form a definitive guideline as to how such debates should be run, but it does provide some useful principles through which such debates can be introduced at the beginner levels.
Applying theory to debating motions:
The motions that will be examined in this paper are:
- THBT the separation of church and state should always be upheld
- THW ban the wearing of religious symbols on public property
- THW make insulting religion a crime
- THW make religious education mandatory in all schools
THBT the separation of church and state should always be upheld
- Does inclusion of religion in the functioning of states prove detrimental in ALL cases?
What is at stake:
- This is essentially a debate about the validity of secular ideology, that demands a separation of church and state
- If Prop wins, all state policies must be driven by economic/social reasons, not by religious ones
- If Opp wins, religious reasons are perfectly valid reasons for which to institute policies
- An interesting question to ponder, while not exactly relevant to the debate, is whether a separation of church and state is even possible in the first place
THW ban the wearing of religious symbols on public property
Setting the scene:
Religious symbols are articles of faith in a number of ways – they declare a believer’s faith in the religion, they remind of and enhance a believer’s religious beliefs, and they help with the formation of a religious identity.
Both sides are unlikely to disagree over the wearing of religious symbols on private property, such as within a household, or on privately owned land. Both sides are unlikely to take an anti-religious stance denying the validity and place of religion in society either. If such matters are raised, they can be largely dismissed as irrelevant in the latter case or as an affront to the fundamental dignity of human beings in a society to choose what they want to believe in. Thus, the main clash of the debate lies between the notion of separating church and state versus the individual’s right to religious expression.
This debate is not universally relevant. It does not pertain to theocracies like Iran, nor does it apply to societies with an established tradition of multi-religiosity. The debate is most pertinent in countries like France, where significant immigrant minorities coalesce along lines of religion and pose a perceived (valid or otherwise) threat to the prevailing secular ethos.
The debate can take two forms – about the display of religious symbols on public property, or the wearing of religious symbols on an individual basis, in public places.
Of the first type we have disputes over the Ten Commandments being erected on the premises of state-level Supreme Courts in the United States, or Nativity displays during Christmastime on public property. The second type sees debate over the banning of skullcaps, tudungs, hijabs, turbans, crucifixes and others.
Some of the arguments described are generic, but others are specific
The public display of religious symbolism is an affront to modern society’s commitment to secularism. A separation of church and state is an accepted principle of governance, and it is important that citizens perceive this.
The wearing of religious symbols is core to the formation of religious identity on an individual level. Banning it is tantamount to religious persecution.
A single symbol can have religious undertones, but also have profound historical and cultural implications. A mature society should undertake to strike a compromise that can embrace all of these, instead of being paranoid and destroying everything.
Wearing these religious symbols are mostly cultural add-ons and not intrinsic to the religion. Accusations of religious discrimination are hence invalid. For example, Sikhs are campaigning for their turbans not to be seen as religious symbols, not all Muslim women necessarily wear the tudung, and the crucifix is most certainly optional. Hence religion isn’t really a target of this policy
Religion cannot be sorted nicely into major monolithic faiths. Many smaller denominations exist, some with more stringent requirements on the display of such symbols as a part of religious expression. Discriminating against these smaller denominations though such policy is influencing the course of intra-religious debate, something government should steer clear of.
Further, discrimination along cultural grounds is as reprehensible as discrimination along religious lines
Religious symbols are inherently confrontational in nature – they seek to highlight differences along religious lines – ‘I am of X-religion and you are not’. Religions are mutually exclusive – one cannot at once subscribe to both the worldviews of Hinduism and Judaism without contradiction.
For example, Nazi policy required all Jewry to prominently display the Star of David. Why? Because it forced ordinary citizens to look at them as though they were inherently different – part of a differentiating and dehumanizing process that implied that they could be treated differently. We should not allow people to set themselves apart.
Religious symbols are rarely loud proclamations. They often are most meaningful to the adherent himself/herself. Often, it is simply a quiet affirmation of one’s own faith.
The Nazis were coercive in what they did – it simply doesn’t apply to the voluntary display of religious symbols. We should believe in our ability to view each other as fellow citizens, even if we may hold different beliefs – that is the true bulwark against discrimination and extremism.
In many societies, the ideal of religious tolerance and harmony is nowhere near. Exacerbating tensions along religious lines by the explicit display of religious symbolism can only stall efforts at building religious tolerance.
In the schoolyard for instance, it is perfectly imaginable that young children be alienated because he/she is made to wear a religious symbol. This only leads to an inculcation of religious misunderstanding, especially in societies where the predominant instinct is not understanding and reconciliation
The best way to bring about religious tolerance and harmony is by allowing its expression, not by pushing all religious activity underground.
There can be no avenues for reconciliation and peaceful coexistence if you do not even permit the most elementary of displays.
Equality is a foundation of many societies worldwide – the only way to ensure this in the eyes of fellow citizens is to remove blatant declarations of religious faith.
Where religion contradicts the wider social ethos, the question is whether society should bend over backwards to accommodate religion. Government is obliged to serve society’s interests.
Equality is not the denial of difference – we should actively reject being pigeonholed into certain modes of existence.
This is unfairly and unrealistically characterizing the clash in today’s debate. The display of religious symbols is not necessarily a fundamental clash between religion and state, and construing it as such can be dangerous
Such policies are the equivalent of state atheism, even if it discriminates against all religions equally. It endorses atheism as a belief system, elevating it above the rest. This contradicts the principle of religious non-interference.
One cannot let such extreme probabilities inform domestic policy towards religion – that is tantamount to letting terrorists hold you hostage without them actually doing anything.
When one remembers that religion is spread across borders, the implications of domestic policy towards religion can well be international.
Religious fundamentalists can see such policies as religious suppression, warranting violent countermeasures through terror. The belief systems of religious fundamentalists are unlikely to include ‘modern and enlightened’ ideals like equality and secularism. Thus it would be ripe for manipulation and misunderstanding that could result in violent attacks.
Instead of providing ammunition for the grossly oversimplified worldviews of religious fundamentalists, we ought tread with caution and work towards promoting understanding instead of possible discord.
Advanced lines of thought:
Where do you draw the line, if you would ban the wearing of religious symbols in public?
– People can most definitely see inside the compounds of places of religious worship, does the selective placing of religious sites need to be curtailed as well?
– Would you ban coverage of all religious events on national television? Would that not shut out a valuable part of society? How far can we extend this policy without denying the valuable role religion plays in society?
– All in all, is the policy overly confrontational and extremist in its defense of secularism? Is the best ground to be struck perhaps in the middle, for purely pragmatic reasons?
THW make insulting religion a crime
- As the 21st century emerges, the world has witnessed the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalist movements in both traditional areas like the Middle East and increasingly in Western European countries themselves. From their primarily homogenous Judeo-Christian origins, the composition of many Western societies has altered greatly with the influx of immigrants from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. At the same time, we have seen the rise of successful politicians who have built their careers on insulting religions. In Denmark for example, the government currently relies on the fragile support of an anti-Islamic coalition led by Geert Wilder who argued this year that “Islamism and democracy are incompatible.” In the wake of such socio-political trends, the status of religion and its relationship to personal identity has emerged as a divisive issue today.
- The debate over whether insulting religion, or blasphemy, should be criminalised has manifested itself most recently in 2 events. In July 2009, Ireland passed a law against a blasphemy, defined as “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted”, with a maximum fine of €25000 for offenders. At a global level, a campaign has been led by conservative Muslim nations including Egypt and Pakistan to pass a UN resolution against the defamation of religion and succeeded in doing this in March 2009. Notably however, Britain broke this trend by striking down its ancient law against blasphemy towards the Church of England in 2008 in a decision by the House of Lords.
- In the beginning, Proposition can declare that they will set up inter-faith classes and discussion forums alongside the criminalization of religious insults. Opposition can do the same without criminalizing religious insults, leading the debate to expand into one about how society should best support the creation of a tolerant environment.
- A major question running through the debate will be on what exactly an insult to religion is. An early Opposition POI could be to question Proposition on what it does not consider an insult to religion, because that is unlikely to be a part of the case and it might in fact be disadvantageous for them to spell this out because it will leave much space for Opposition to widen the exclusion to the point that it becomes meaningless and ridiculous.
- One should also decide in this debate whether a secular or religious court should try offenders convicted of insults to particular religions, such as a syariah court being made to try someone charged with insulting Islam instead of a state tribunal, because each has their strengths and pitfalls.
This House Would Make Religious Education Mandatory in Schools
Context: This motion is not suggesting that everyone be forced to turn pious – religious education here means teaching students about religions in general, the basic beliefs of major religions, and most importantly, how religions coexist with each other.
This motion is debated because of the recent resurgence of religious extremism. Most followers of different religions have coexisted with one another, despite each believing the other is wrong, because they leave the judgment of piety up to God, but of late some have advocated taking judgment into their own hands by force. The basic motivation for extremism is usually political in nature, but its direct cause is extremist interpretation of holy texts, which justify their acts “in God’s eyes”. This we must counter.
Extremism also exists among those who feel threatened by radicals, and respond with extremism too. Violence harms life and quality of life, in terms of the constant feeling of fear, but it is preceded by the already harmful instability borne of extremist backlash in the form of discrimination against religious minorities – for example the burnings of mosques and assault of Muslims in the Netherlands further fuels the mistrust Muslims have of Europeans, and the desire of extremists to retaliate. The worst part of extremism is that it is but an idea, so one cannot physically detect it or stop its easy spread, making its effects harder to prevent.
Clash: (PROP) government duty to protect society from harm vs. (OPP) separation of church and state
PROP summary: To prevent it, we must convince people to resist extremism. Religious education is an alternative, moderate (and hopefully more convincing) interpretation of religious texts, aimed at dissuading people from following extremist ideologies and committing acts of violence against society, preventing harm. Making it mandatory in all schools counters extremism before it affects students, who due to their youth are particularly impressionable, and prevents any students from slipping through the gaps since religious education is otherwise unregulated and hard to counter (extremist classes can take place anywhere!). Such programmes can be directly administered by the state, or involve state supervision of helpful non-government religious bodies.
OPP summary: Such a programme is a form of state regulation and, like most state-led solutions, has its harms, most notably the propensity for abuse by governments or individual educators to advocate one interpretation at the expense of others, alienating followers of legitimate minority interpretations and bringing discrimination (i.e. harm) upon them, and further tension. Note that it is hard to decide what is legitimate and what is not, and those decisions are often controversial.
What Is Irrelevant: Arguments which espouse the benefits of generally being religious. Not relevant where no religion is recognized at all.
- Detailed arguments:
Reducing Religious Extremism
Propensity for Abuse
Increasing Religious Tolerance
Upholding Individual Freedom of Religion
Reconciling Religion with the State
Forcing Extremist Views Underground
After the mind, the heart: Emotion and etiquette for debates on religion and politics
Considering the sensitivity and polarised nature of debates on religion and politics as they occur in society online and offline today, it is possible that one might get carried away with the xenophobic and extremist nature of comments made by both religious ideologues and ardent secularists. Hence, it is useful for us to remember that even on the intellectual battlefield of debate, we must maintain a sense of decorum and respectability towards the issues we address and the perspectives we present.
This is not only strategically valuable because judges will be impressed by a team’s maturity and linguistic verve, but is also a manifestation of the very reason we choose to debate. We debate because we believe that matters can be discussed in a reasonable fashion and we are prepared to defend our views with justification and a wide range of examples drawn from both countries in our favour and places which might seem superficially to be against us. It is useful to present these perspectives with emotion and one’s personal style, but this must not come at the expense of the ethos of debate, which is to rise above crude cacophonous assertions to sensible, substantiated arguments. You can be passionate about your arguments, but that should never lead to physical conflict or bald name-calling during the course of the debate.
Thus, one should remember to be politically correct in both vocabulary and thinking. Consider for example a debate on whether religious symbols should be worn in public spaces. In the heat of the moment, one might say that Christians should be banned from wearing the crucifix because the Book of Genesis is a lie. Regardless of the truth or falsity of the aforementioned statement, it is clearly offensive to members of the audience if they are religious or even members of the opposing team. Such errors should be avoided at all costs, and one way to do this is to put yourself in the shoes of those who are listening to your speech and think about how they are likely to react to it. Are they likely to sympathise with your views, or are they more likely to be repulsed and aghast at what you have just said? Perhaps a quote from a Holocaust survivor cited by the famous conductor Benjamin Zander captures the essence of our advice: “I will never say anything that couldn’t stand as the last thing I say.”
Useful books and references
BBC. Irish atheists challenge blasphemy law . 2 January 2010. 8 August 2010 .
Beal, Timothy Kandler. Religion in America: A Very Short Introduction . New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Rorive, Isabella. “Religious symbols in the public space: In the search of an European answer .” 2010. Cardozo Law Review. 8 August 2010 .
Sweetman, Brenda. Why politics needs religion: The place of religious arguments in the public square . New York: InterVarsity Press, 2006.
Former US President John F. Kennedy on the separation of the Church and State
Full Text: http://catholicism.about.com/od/history/p/Address-Of-Sen-John-F-Kennedy-To-The-Greater-Houston-Ministerial-Association.htm
On Religious Belief and Public Morality
Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide
A primer on political science and religion by Miroljub Jevtic, Political Science Professor at the University of Belgrade: