Debate It: Religion in Politics

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.


Introductory Thoughts

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

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.


Non-Abrahamic religions


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



  • The separation of church and state is necessary to uphold equality
  1. Due to the exclusive nature of religion (one cannot believe in two religions at once), allowing any religion to dictate policy would necessarily be detrimental to another.
  2. For example, Christian states might institute laws that gave churches special privileges, disadvantaging mosques.


  • Religious beliefs are just another school of thought that deserves to be represented in politics
  1. There is no fundamental difference between religious beliefs like Christianity and political ideologies like Republicanism – they both exclude other schools of thought (one cannot be both Republican and Democratic), and they both can inspire fundamentalism and irrational actions.


  • Bringing religion into politics encourages fundamentalism and religious divisions
  1. Bringing an emotive issue like religion into the political sphere will only encourage people to identify themselves along religious lines, and cause them to view other politically competing religions in an antagonistic light.
  2. This is made worse by the fact that it is fundamentally impossible to compromise over religious differences, as they all require one to deny the existence of others.
  3. For example, inclusion of Islam into politics has mirrored a rising tide of fundamentalism in the Middle East
  • Excluding religion from politics means that one cannot get the full spectrum of viewpoints represented in society
  1. Democratic politics is fundamentally about creating a government that represents the views of as wide a spectrum of society as possible.
  2. Considering the large amount of people who are religious in our society today and who define themselves by their religion, excluding their views from being represented in the state is tantamount to excluding them from true political representation.
  3. If people wish their leaders to make decisions along religious lines, what is wrong about that?


  • The separation of church and state is necessary to ensure fair representation
  1. While one political party may win power, they are representatives of the entire nation, and must take the viewpoints and interests of their detractors into account.
  2. They can do this because it is possible to rationally understand the motives and thoughts behind other philosophical viewpoints, as one can accept the possibility that one’s philosophical beliefs are wrong.
  3. However, policies of one religion can never represent other faiths, because it is fundamentally impossible to rationally understand another religion’s viewpoint as it would require one to deny one’s own immutable beliefs.
  • Excluding religion from participation in the state leads to a rise in religious violence
  1. Religious groups that are excluded from the political process may turn to other, more extreme and violent means to get their views across.
  2. For example, in Syria the Muslim Brotherhood was not allowed to take part in the political process. This saw them eventually radicalize, becoming the terrorist organization we know as Al-Qaeda today.



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

  • Context
  • 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.”[1] 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”[2], 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[3]. 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[4].


  • Arguments



  • Upholds our right to freedom from fear
  1. People join society for the purpose of seeking protection and respect for their freedom of conscience
  2. Religion is core to their personal identity, because unlike other beliefs they hold, it is a life philosophy which explains for them the meaning of the existence and the moral codes that govern it
  3. Thus, respecting a person’s religion is central to respecting personhood and dignity.
  4. When religion is insulted, what is attacked is not simply an idea; it is an assault on the purpose in existence of not just one person, but of an entire group which subscribes to that religion.
  5. Hence, to insult a religion is to challenge the right of an entire section of society connected by its values to existence.
  6. Since this engenders a climate of fear in society, which runs contrary to the very reason why we joined society in the first place, insults against religion should be criminalised.
  7. By criminalizing insults against religion, we liberate people from this fear by demonstrating that society will crack down on those who would assault our identity.
  • Need to uphold freedom of speech
  1. In Voltaire’s words, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
  2. Freedom of speech is fundamental to our liberal society because it ensures that a healthy marketplace of ideas can be sustained.
  3. This marketplace is important because it allows the truth to cross swords with misunderstanding and misconceptions directly, allowing such errors to be clarified and removed.
  4. Inasmuch as we find insults to religion disgusting and abhorrent, we must recognize the greater harm inherent in criminalizing the expression of such views.
  5. Criminalising such views means removing them from public discourse and stopping them from being debated.
  6. It shows that our society is unwilling to face the reality that some people embrace such views.
  7. Moreover, it suggests that our society has overstepped its boundaries, because freedom of speech should only be curtailed in cases of direct incitement to violence, and insults to religion, which is a set of established beliefs rather than an identifiable person, do not fulfill this criterion.
  8. Thus, insults against religion should not be criminalized because they go against our base principle of allowing free speech in society, even we are irritated by some views some people might adopt.
  • Undermines the spread of extremism
  1. Much extremist sentiment today among groups like al-Qaeda is fanned by the idea that the West is intolerant and is attempting to wage war against non-Christians.
  2. Allowing insults to religion in the public domain confirms such sentiments, because it shows that our society takes a trivial attitude to the publicizing of such views.
  3. This fans terrorist sentiment further, endangering our society and contradicting governmental campaigns advocating religious tolerance and interfaith harmony.
  4. Indeed, this endangers our fight against extremist ideology in the world.
  5. This was most recently highlighted in the planned burning of Korans by the Dove World Outreach Centre in Florida which sparked threats of attacks on US soldiers from Shia insurgent factions in Iraq.
  6. Since this is dangerous, criminalizing insults to religion is an essential step forward.
  7. By doing this, we demonstrate to the radicals that our respect for the freedom and dignity of religion is sincere and we are willing to defend it from xenophobic zealots.
  8. This reduces the effectiveness of terrorist rhetoric and hence undermines their ability to recruit impressionable young minds into their fold.
  9. Even if some argue that situations like the planned Koran burning could be resolved without resorting to criminalizing insults against religion, this measures remains necessary to guarantee our society’s safety.
  10. In the status quo, it was fortunate that Terry Jones decided to call off the burning because the US government could not censure him for engaging in free expression.
  11. With our measure in place, he would have been arrested even before he could propose implementing such an inflammatory action.
  12. Hence, criminalizing insults to religion is justified because it undermines the spread of extremism.
  • Worsens situation by encouraging radicals to go underground
  1. While recognizing that religious insults are inflammatory, we must consider what can happen if such sentiments are shunted out of the public space.
  2. First, we must understand that people turn to religious extremism often because they have lost faith in secular or reasonable alternatives.
  3. This means they already feel marginalized in society and believe that extremist views propagating the creation of an Islamic caliphate to overthrow the existing government for instance are the only way forward.
  4. If insults to religion are criminalized therefore, all we have succeeded in doing is confirm their status as radicals.
  5. By negatively labeling them as deviants from social norms, society tells them that their views have been cast out.
  6. This leads them to construct a stereotyped self-image of having departed from the mainstream, such that only people sharing their views can understand them.
  7. Hence, they end up deep in subversive underground movements which radicalize them further because no alternative views are proffered to counter their extremism.
  8. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that runs exactly counter to what society wants: to rehabilitate radicals and reintegrate them in the community.
  • Fosters an inclusive and accommodating society
  1. When insults against religion are criminalized, we create a firm basis for interfaith dialogue and reconciliation.
  2. This is because all parties legally agree that society grants protection to all who profess a belief in their purpose for existence, regardless of what this may be, and prevents others from interfering with that purpose by creating fear through their insults.
  3. In an age of mass migration prompted by the forces of globalization, fostering an inclusive society is essential to attracting talent and creating a liveable environment for talents to come in, regardless of their faith.
  4. By criminalizing insults to religion, as Singapore has in its 2005 hauling of 2 local bloggers for making anti-Muslim comments online under the Sedition Act, foreign talents will be attracted to a particular place because they realize that they can live and work without the fear of others hounding them for their faith.
  5. Hence, criminalizing insults to religion is essential not only to encourage members currently within our society to relate to each other with respect, but also to widen our society’s appeal to those who fear religious xenophobia and persecution.


  • Creates strong propensity for abuse by  authoritarian governments
  1. Laws criminalizing insults to religion today remain arbitrary in their scope of definition.
  2. This is because it is difficult to distinguish first of all between an insult against a particular person and the whole religion, and secondly to determine the gravity of a particular insult.
  3. Hence, states will be empowered with the scope to use laws criminalizing insults to religion to clamp down on dissidents whom they dislike.
  4. It thus comes as no surprise that the countries most in favour of a current UN resolution to condemn the “defamation of religion” tend to be repressive regimes in places like Egypt, Sudan and Saudi Arabia.
  5. These states have shown a track record of clamping down on political dissent by claiming it to be a religious insult.
  6. In 2008, Saudi courts charged Raif al-Badawi for insulting religion simply because he questioned the conduct of the Saudi religious police.
  7. Similarly in Sudan in 2007, the courts charged British teacher Gillian Gibbons with having insulted religion for allowing her pupils to name teddy bear Mohammed after one of her students.
  8. Given the strong propensity of abuse already demonstrated with states who currently have legislation criminalizing insults to religion, it is unlikely that extending this principle to more countries is likely to improve this situation.
  9. In fact, the principle reason why it will not improve is because judges who are of a particular religion are likely to take an insult personally, prejudicing their views in the case.
  10. Even if Proposition argues that this can be altered if we simply choose an objective, non-religious judge, this simply reverses the bias because the judge is likely to take the insult less seriously than some might regard it.
  11. Hence, in making judgments on cases involving religious insults, the space for abuse by judges to defend their religious views is large and cannot be resolved by any practical measures.
  12. Thus, given the strong propensity for abuse if insults to religion are criminalized both by politicians and judicial authorities, it is unwise to implement this policy.


Advanced Thoughts:

  • 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

  • Mandatory religious education in secular schools achieves this because it provides an easily accessible source of information regarding religion, which is also more readily recognized due to the state’s superior level of organization.
  • As such, students are more likely to turn to the moderate interpretations espoused by school-based religious educators, which are more easily regulated by the state, as they work within state infrastructure.
  • At the very least, it shows students that religion has multiple interpretations, and no one interpretation will enjoy an easy monopoly over their minds – this explains why 95% of Muslims in Singapore receive religious education from government-recognized madrasahs.
  • This ensures societal stability through rejection of antagonistic extremist ideology.

Propensity for Abuse

  • The inevitable favoring of one interpretation over others causes societal alienation of people believing in other interpretations, causing harm to such minorities and encouraging more radicalism (because they feel alienated by mainstream ideology).
  • Such alternative beliefs may or may not be legitimate; the lines being drawn are themselves less than clear-cut and thus open to abuse by governments or individual educators which decide to favor their own interpretations – which may themselves not be ‘moderate’ if religious education becomes a didactic means of suppressing dissension, for we would then have no way of deciding as a society what is ‘moderate’.
  • Turkey’s religious education deliberately leaves out alternative interpretations like Alevism, diminishing its legitimacy in society’s eyes.


Increasing Religious Tolerance

  • Apart from directly countering extremist interpretations, fostering tolerance will reduce the distrust between followers of different religions, which has made them turn to exclusivist interpretations of religion.
  • Mandatory religious education in schools fulfils this in two ways.
  1. 1) It provides the platform for students of different faiths to understand each other, instead of harboring misconceptions of each other’s beliefs.
  2. 2) Such inter-religious interaction also allows people to see each other as fellow human beings and empathize with them, making it easier to reach a peaceful consensus, rather than treat them as enemies of God, a perception made more palatable by anonymity.

Upholding Individual Freedom of Religion

  • This point is very similar to ‘propensity for abuse’.
  • Even without reaching that extreme however, the government’s advocacy of one interpretation of religion is an affront to individuals’ freedom of choice (including that of worship) – the means of protecting against oppression and crime and thus the means of society’s existence.
  • Mandatory religious education in schools deprives people of the right to worship freely because other interpretations are delegitimized for the sake of one, especially since parents, as children’s proxies and holders of their right to choose, have the right to decide their child’s beliefs, without due influence from the state – not to mention that the constant hammering in of one opinion above all also hammers at one’s identity, the very basis for treating all humans with dignity, as opposed to merely working in the collective’s interest.

Reconciling Religion with the State

  • Much of religious minorities’ grievances (which fuel religious extremism) rest on the perceived oppression of their faith by governments, especially in France where a strict interpretation of secularism prevents conservative Muslims from donning their religious symbols like the hijab.
  • Mandatory religious education in schools shows that the state is willing to recognize the importance of religion in society, and is willing to work with religious bodies, assuaging minorities’ concerns that their religion is being trampled on and preventing extremism.
  • Denmark’s collaboration with imams on an educational programme about the immorality of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Islam (a practice hitherto associated with the religion) has been successful, with medical reports of FGM-related complications dropping 40% in 3 years.

Forcing Extremist Views Underground

  • The nature of such religious education is to favor one interpretation of each religion over others, and this will be widely known.
  • Thus students with less moderate viewpoints may be afraid to raise the issues in classes due to fear of social discrimination by other students, or recrimination and scrutiny by the teacher, or if the subject is tested, of academic failure. (Not testing it makes measuring success impossible).
  • Furthermore, the teacher’s obligation to champion a moderate view may cause students to feel that no objective discussion can be obtained.
  • As such, they are led either to remain silent or provide politically correct answers during classes, while seeking a more radical alternative outside.
  • Indeed, the status quo is better as students have greater faith in their own religious teachers, whom they feel are not pressured to take a certain position on the spectrum.
  • Such increased receptiveness ensures that religious teachers can imbibe the appropriate values in students. Moderate viewpoints can be fostered by dialogue between religious teachers and the state, not by compulsion.

Producing Apathy

  • Proposition’s didactic approach causes students to be disinterested in such lessons because they feel disengaged, reducing the effectiveness of the lessons, and even of religious education (public or private) as a whole.
  • This has negative effects if these people, who now know nothing of religion, are subsequently confronted with rather compelling radical views and are unable to fob them off, leading to radicalization, or the inability to prevent others’ radicalization.
  • Another consequence of apathy is that they may be ignorant of religious people’s sensibilities, causing friction when these sensibilities are inadvertently offended, or that they may ignore the increasing effects of religious tension, leaving it to fester.



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:

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:





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