It is not surprising that the very first reply to my article (Debunking Multiculturalism, The Star, August 22, 2006) came from a Christian Theologian, Ng Kam Weng of Kairos Research Centre. And it is not at all surprising for a Christian Theologian today to defend secularism. It only reminds us of some familiar names like Harvey Cox, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and many others.
In Kam Weng’s case he boldly asserts that a secular worldview be the basis of national unity, instead of (my proposal) a common religious worldview, because the latter, according to him, suggests an imposition by a dominant religion (namely Islam). My proposal has been described as unnecessary and counterproductive.
Kam Weng’s disagreement rests upon his refusal to accept the dominance of Islam in this country. Hence, instead of Islam, he proposes secularism, which is an alien ideology altogether.
Both of us are calling towards a national unity but under a different banner: mine, a common religious worldview; Kam Weng’s, a secular worldview. Kam Weng thinks he is right because our history, to him, begins in 1957; and I think he is clearly wrong because our history, to me, goes back hundreds of years before 1957. I take Kam Weng’s mentioning of 1957 as his partial answer to my question: “who says, and since when is the secular worldview our common worldview?” What he does not make explicit is the answer to the question “who says…?” For the intelligent and well-informed readers it is very clear who says so.
Now Kam Weng suggests that I adopt a modest attitude of willingness to learn from the past rather than judge it with sarcasm. To him the ongoing conflicts in Asia and Africa cry out for equivalents of the historic Peace of Westphalia.
To me that is plain eurocentrism; a skewed reading of contemporary events from someone who believes that Western society is the most developed and refined of all human societies. The rest of the world, being left behind in the predetermined evolutionary process, cannot avoid experiencing what the West had experienced before. Hence, their conclusion is always instructive for them!
The thrust of my argument lies in what I consider a historical fact, that “secularism” as an ideology and “secularization” as a process is a phenomenon which is relevant only to Western culture and civilization; with Christianity being one of the key elements. This time around let the readers themselves judge whether my reading of Christian history is “skewed”, as Kam Weng accuses.
The Peace of Westphalia, signed on October 24, 1648, was actually a redrawing of the map of Europe according to the principles agreed upon in the Peace of Augsburg, by which religion was territorially determined. For thirty years, one army after another dragged itself across the soil of Germany, killing, raping, burning, sacking, leaving famine and disease in their wake. By 1640 German cities lay in ruins, villages were deserted, fields untilled, and roads torn up. The people had taken to eating dogs and horses, even human corpses.
That was the situation when the warring parties began negotiations to end the war, leading finally to the peace treaty. That was hardly a toleration. On the contrary, they desperately wanted peace because they could not tolerate the unending ‘religious’ war anymore. Only in 1962, at the Second Vatican Council, the non-Catholics could see the documents which clearly define the end of the church’s Counter Reformation hostility to other faiths, acknowledges that Protestant churches also share God’s grace and favour, and condemns anti-Semitism.
Now what actually is the lesson we can learn from the Reformation, the ‘religious’ wars, and the ‘historic’ Peace of Westphalia? It is the problem of Western Christianity and the Western people. From their experience ‘religion’ simply means intolerance, and their experience is irrelevant to us, particularly the Muslims.
At its birth, the church was a beacon of moral light that stood apart from the Roman society in which it flourished. For more than 1,000 years after Constantine, it was a power within society, acquiring some of the pride, intolerance, and triumphal spirit which is part of power’s corruption. At the Reformation and after, the church reacted badly to the loss of its claim to be God’s only spokesman and clung to its shrunken patrimony of power in ways that justified the exasperation of those who stood outside it.
To the Western man, the Reformation is one of the most important phenomena prior to the emergence of the Modern World. Besides bloodshed and vilification, it had succeeded in destroying the dominance of a certain caste to the priesthood institution by tranferring its function to the individuals. The church, though not totally obliterated, was gradually loosing control over public affairs.
Today, to be relevant to a modern secular man is a matter of survival for Christianity. In order to respond to the human needs of this earth, even the ‘immutable’ dogmas are subject to rethinking and reformulation. There is widespread recognition by the theologians that their major task now is to justify Christianity in this world since the central axis of religious concern has shifted from matters of ultimate salvation (heaven and hell) to questions of the meaning, necessity, or usefulness of religion relative to this life.
To many important theologians and clergymen the spread of secularization is not necessarily evil and not necessarily new. Hence, the events which have led to the crumbling of religious institutions and ideas are now conveniently interpreted as the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of God himself in history. Secularization, according to them, is not a threat to Christianity, rather it is a divine gift to man having its root in Biblical revelation.
Harvey Cox, the author of The Secular City, and a well-known proponent of secularization asserts that Christianity must be conceived as a developing religion. He believes that Christianity does not have “a timeless and irreducible essence”, which is a precondition for secularization. It must be conceived “as a movement of people, a church moving through history with a memory and a vision, entering into riotously different cultural and social forms along the way.” (Harvey Cox, “Why Christianity Must Be Secularized”, The Great Ideas Today, 1967). Cox, in agreement with Alfred North Whitehead, maintains that Christian beliefs pertaining to creation along with scholastic philosophy are the bases of modern science; and this, he remarks, is a testimony that secularization is not a mass departure from religion but a step ahead in a historical relation between Christianity and human culture.
We have to mention all these in order to deliver the public from confusion. It is a gross injustice for Kam Weng to point out 1957 as the first day of Malaysian history, and for him to give the idea that on that very first day all Malaysians would have embraced secularism!
Secularism is by definition antithetical to all religions except those which have been ‘secularized’. To embrace secularism as a national ideology would entail adopting secularization as a national programme and that is not possible without a coherent theology of secularization. It assumes that all other religions are susceptible to secularization, or, like it or not, they must be secularized for the sake of Malaysian unity. Perhaps it is clear now whose idea is unnecessary and counterproductive.
My idea of a common religious worldview which rests upon common moral and ethical principles, I believe, is not only very pluralistic and tolerant, but also practical. It does not involve any theological implication because it accepts theological difference as it is. I must reiterate, too suggest secularism as the basis of Malaysian identity, is historically baseless, philosophically absurd, and culturally irrelevant. It betrays a colonized mentality unable to free itself from the shackles of eurocentrism.