No God but Social Justice: A new secular religion

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This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly. The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.” – 44th US President, Barack Obama

The former leader of the free world was addressing a rising trend of activism where “certain young people” who think the way they would make change is “to be as judgmental as possible about other people and that’s enough.” Lauded by both ends of the political spectrum, his call against “cancel culture” isn’t new. In the US, over 150 public figures signed an open letter in defence of free speech. They decried “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” Over in the UK, a Times’ letter defending author JK Rowling after a slate of social media abuse, saw more than 50 prominent members of the literati speak out in support of her. These sentiments present a disturbing turn in social activism Singapore needs to grapple with. This “cancel culture” is part of a larger movement that’s taken a religious form.

Traditional religion and restraint

Traditionally, religion comes with its creeds, mantras, rituals, and symbols. It has its evangelists, adherents, and infidels, – sacred events and spaces that followers stand by. While often a constructive social force, with great contributions in areas such as welfare and education, history speaks of its ugly side. Malevolent actors feature in many faiths – Catholic inquisitors, Islamic fundamentalists, militant Buddhists to name a few. This extremism continues today, enabled by dogmatism, intolerance of dissent, the need to evangelise, and persecutory tendencies – all of which threaten social harmony. Along with its power to stir up strong, divisive emotions, religion proves a formidable force that requires restraint – hence Singapore’s religious harmony laws.

Singapore has managed to evade major clashes between its traditional religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, through prudence and self-restraint of the religious, and external checks by the government. However, seeds of a new secular “religion” are being sown in Singapore, and if left unchecked, may grow into a new faultline in society.

Social Justice, the new secular religion

This nascent religion is loosely understood as “Social Justice,” a political movement that has gained traction in the West in recent years. From being broadly understood as the “fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth,” to freeing the marginalized from “oppressive institutions and social structures,” the generic definitions social justice provide little clarity. This allows multiple social movements for different types of “justice” to fall within its ranks, such as LGBT issues, Black Lives Matter, climate change, and immigrant rights. Like different denominations in the faith, some movements are more radical than others. Yet they bear the common trait of moral language that rails against privilege and power.

The movement has its own mantras – “love is love,” “tolerance and diversity” not “discrimination,” “choice” above all. “Privilege” is the original sin that demands continual atonement, there is deep faith in “born this way” despite inconclusive scientific studies. Adherents join the struggle to “dismantle systemic racism,” and battle against “police brutality.” These are higher laws that cannot be detracted from. Any intellectual curiosity is discouraged, and viewpoint diversity, dismissed.

It also comes with quasi-religious rituals. There are baptisms through “coming out,” a new birth into a public LGBT lifestyle. Pride Parades are their annual worship processions where they venerate sexuality in all shapes and sizes. A rally may take the form of picnics too. The sacred Stonewall Riots are now immortalised in LGBT history. Pious adherents make pilgrimage to the Stonewall Inn – which birthed the riots against police raids of gay bars, and eventually led to the formation of early gay activist organisations. These echo the Catholic “Way of St James,” – a network of various shrines and relics that pilgrims visit before winding up at the shrine of the Saint. 

There are martyrs in their midst – black persons killed by policemen like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, or LGBT victims of bullying such as Matthew Shepard. These tragedies became a rallying point, and increased support for the different movements.

Blasphemy and ritual punishment

With religion also comes blasphemy – an offence that incites religious fervor beyond rationality. Those who speak against the creed, whether through outright denials or implied micro-aggressions, are called out. Chief among the culprits are many of the Abrahamic faith who disagree with same-sex relations, believers in biological differences of men and women, and white people who, by virtue of their whiteness, unconsciously perpetuate systemic racism.

Blasphemers are subject to ritual punishment, whether through the legal system, public flagellation on social media, or social and professional hell in the form of boycotts. First, dissenters are identified and shamed on various platforms. The use of rhetoric and labelling is central to this move. Dissenters, now termed “racist,” “something-phobic,” or “bigot,” are painted as enemies of the movement. When demonised, they become easy targets, especially as part of a bigger group that is a perceived threat to the movement.

Attacks on their channels of influence and support, whether through their employers, businesses, or social media followers, follow quickly. They find strength in social media, where people are reduced to caricatures, and anonymity breathes power to hate. The hate grows in tandem with the number of supporters that can rocket speedily. Offenders are presented with the choice to recant, but damage is usually done by the ensuing digital firestorms. The punishment continues if they refuse to repent.

These acts of public shaming have been loosely called “cancel culture,” a highly-contested term referring to calls for individuals to be erased from public prominence, or “de-platforming,” where political activism works to prevent a controversial person from speaking in public – such acts involve the intimidation of those who refuse to conform to social justice orthodoxy and their supporters.

LGBT activists subjected Jack Phillips, a baker who refused his service for a gay wedding, to a lawsuit spanning six years. The US Supreme Court eventually found in his favour. He now faces another lawsuit, for refusing to bake a trans-themed cake – a third attempt by LGBT activists to have legal victory over his freedom of conscience. Ex-CEO of Mozilla Firefox was pressured to step down days after his anti-LGBT views came to light. The software company faced boycott calls when it was discovered that, six years ago, its founder donated $1,000 to support a law against gay marriage.

The BLM movement has also left multiple newsroom editors jobless – one was caught brown-facing years ago, while another cleared an op-ed backing military intervention in the George Floyd riots. It doesn’t matter if the blasphemers are dead and long gone – statues of racists were threatened with removal, including that of Mahatma Gandhi. Figures of others like Edward Colston, philanthropist and slave trader, weren’t spared.

In Singapore, homegrown artist Tosh Zhang was denounced for his old homophobic tweets that were dug up after his appointment as Pink Dot ambassador. He stepped down after the backlash. There was also an unsuccessful bid by Yale-NUS students for the resignation of the school’s board member, Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee, after she defended local anti-sodomy laws.

Ex-communication of straying adherents

What of adherents who stray from the faith? Excommunication is swift, merciless, and extensive. Former believers include LGBT persons who turn and deny the lifestyle, children of LGBT persons who speak out against it, or anyone (including black people) who disagree with BLM. They too are cast out, along with blasphemers – whether through social media or in their physical communities, and it doesn’t matter if its family.

Famed author JK Rowling, once touted for backing gay rights is now deemed heretical. #RIPJKRowling trended in Twitterverse this week. She first faced online flogging for her comments supporting a female researcher who was fired over calling sex-change “impossible.” In a series of tweets this year, she took issue with using the term “people who menstruate,” instead of “women” and lashed out against “erasing the concept of sex.” The backlash included the trio of Harry Potter fame – Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint – and her fans speaking out against her. Accusations of transphobia continued to mount after the release of her latest book, “Troubled Blood.” Rowling defended the character in question, a male serial killer donning a woman’s coat and wig, as based off real-life murders. The snowballing vitriol has galvanized a pushback from friends and supporters in the literati to rally around her.

Secular religions in history

Past political movements have reached similar religious fervour, according to academics. Italian historian Emilo Gentile called Mussolini’s fascism a “sacralization of politics,” though it eventually failed. Nazism was also argued to be another such secular religion. What unites these political movements? A totalitarian approach towards culture, where a set of values are touted as absolute truths, and political dissidents are shut down. Such political hegemony is only possible through violence and intimidation. Mussolini had his Blackshirts, while Hitler had his Brownshirts – these paramilitary organisations identified by the colour of their uniform worked to quell any form of dissent. These state organs started out as gangsters who would randomly target enemies of the state in street violence or pub brawls – their intimidation tactics removed opposition, or ensured it was never public.

The Social Justice movement, though political, has taken on such a religious veneer, with its shutting down of dissenting views in public spaces. Traditionally, Singapore has thrived on the harmony between races and religions. The government has constantly made it a point to protect this social harmony. Much is done to preserve intra-religious harmony, which a government report named as one of two conditions vital to religious harmony (the other being the separation of religion and politics). It thus emphasized the need for the moderation and tolerance of religious adherents. This moderation and tolerance should equally apply to fervent political activism that has taken on a religious veneer. The government recognized this as early as 2009, when President Nathan addressed the AWARE saga – a highly politicised fight between conservative and liberal feminists – calling for “the need for all groups to practise tolerance, restraint and mutual respect in order to live peacefully together in a multi-racial, multi-religious society.”

This moderation and tolerance should equally apply to fervent political activism that has taken on a religious veneer.

Secular is not better – the call for restraint

Activism within the Social Justice movement often positions itself as “secular,” and thus above or opposed to religion, which is often painted as “emotional” and “irrational”. To that end, they argue that religious people should keep their beliefs private, and not seek to “impose their religious values” in a “secular state.” Such as state is arguably neutral and should be free of the bias of religion. A religious citizen’s viewpoint is thus invalidated.

However, in light of Social Justice’s quasi-religious nature, such neutrality from the Social Justice adherents may be lacking. Secular ideology should not be above reproach by dint of its irreligious nature, especially when it takes an anti-religious bent. Just as the religious person holds views motivated by theology, the Social Justice activist espouses values according to their own comprehensive “religious” creed. Both viewpoints must be tested on their substance, and not their source.

Viewpoints must be tested on their substance, and not their source.

What does this moderation and tolerance look like? Just as Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims do not speak condescendingly to each other on the basis of different faiths, Social Justice activists should steer clear of the same condescension with dissenters. As Christian evangelism was asked to be done “sensitively,” so should the evangelism of Social Justice. As the late former President Nathan said, the restraint should apply “not just to religious groups venturing into the secular domain, but also to secular groups which want to strongly push their views and change our social norms.” This may prove difficult, with the very ideals of Social Justice seen as too urgent to be civil about, and its dissenters seen too hateful to be polite to.

For this movement, their tenets of “love” and “tolerance” are values showered only upon their adherents. So much for the Golden Rule of treating others the way you want to be treated.

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