Voltaire in Singapore
Gwee Li Sui argues that support for another's freedom is not weakness
By Gwee Li Sui
The 230th anniversary of the death of the great French Enlightenment writer Fran็ois-Marie Arouet, better known to the world as Voltaire, was commemorated on 30 May 2008. It took almost another year for his central legacy of civil tolerance to be noted, albeit in passing, in the sphere of public discourse in Singapore. A few weeks ago on 26 May, then Nominated Member of Parliament Thio Li-ann also a university law professor gave a parliamentary speech that argued for the right of citizens to exercise their religious convictions in the socio-political realm. Describing a secularism that would not let what she called "militant atheism" mute religion, she claimed to cite Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I'd defend to the death your right to say it."
This line and an apocryphal one by another eighteenth-century public figure Edmund Burke "All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing" have been appearing when some Christian conservatives discuss secularism of late. Both quotes popularised by Thio are used so often in support of an alleged religious response that their real contextual meanings seem to be all but overlooked. Burke's Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), the likeliest source for the second saying, actually attacks a politics of "narrow wisdom and narrow morals" that employs catchy maxims to gain "a plausible air". His role in the current debate in Singapore is thus rather ironic, but this still pales in comparison to the incongruity of invoking Voltaire.
After all, if the few impassioned religionists were to travel back to France in the eighteenth century, they would discover one ready candidate for the label "militant atheist": Voltaire himself. This fact takes into account how the cultural climate then was marked by Christian sectarianism and a suspicion of marginal faiths such as Judaism and Islam. But, while many at the time had imagined those like the Mohammedans as wild, hedonistic, and oppressive, Voltaire was more keen to point out the devotees' supposed error in their chronic attachment to superstition. It was from this angle that he confronted a far more prevalent and formidable force in France, the Catholic Christian influence in the ancien regime.
To be sure, pre-revolutionary France was not a theocracy, but it was certainly religious for a long time as the celebrated "eldest daughter of the Church". What Voltaire opposed was the way faith-based values had so penetrated every sector of its life from private meditation to state administration that they undermined the just and practical use of reason. Decrying a murkiness where even cruelty and bigotry could have institutional support, he wrote in Dictionnaire Philosophique (1764; Philosophical Dictionary): "Of all religions, Christianity is without doubt the one that should inspire tolerance most although, up to now, the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men." Such candidness made him a highly controversial figure among his people, landing him in prison and forcing him into exile a number of times.
During a famous period spent in England between 1726 and 1729, Voltaire wrote letters that obliquely criticised France by praising both English politics and intellectual culture but reviling its High-Church practices. His real problem with Christianity was tied not so much to its teachings as to how its believers interpreted them for action in the wider world, part of which he happily set under the rubric of superstition. Conduct that intermingled religion and politics blurred both the line between the certainties of faith and of reason, and the clarity of what should have been commonsensically right or wrong. As the free exercise of private beliefs further seemed to reward the ability to manipulate emotions, Voltaire warned: "The superstitious man is to the rogue what the slave is to the tyrant."
This range of complications was best illustrated by the so-called "Jean Calas Affair" of 1761, in which a Protestant merchant was unfairly tried and sentenced for the death of one of his own sons who had become Catholic. Calas's subsequent demise from torture on the Catherine wheel compelled Voltaire to join a furore that culminated in his publication of a significant ninety-page pamphlet called Trait้ sur la tolerance (1763; Treatise on Toleration). Showing how the heart of religion could be distorted by the mind of superstition, "the mad daughter of a wise mother", Voltaire appealed for matters of public security to be based on good sense rather than on moral convictions. His involvement provoked much debate throughout Europe and helped to expose the religious bias behind the judicial decision and ensure the verdict's eventual overturn.
All this takes us back to the more recent debate sparked off by Thio Li-ann in Singapore and highlights how her use of Voltaire who shall check on her use of William Shakespeare, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, and G. K. Chesterton, among others? has been inaccurate. The cited line does not even appear anywhere in the Frenchman's voluminous writings and was rather a popular description made by Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her biography The Friends of Voltaire, published in 1906. What Voltaire did propound though was the need to allow everyone to believe or not believe freely but sensibly and to always practise tolerance since humans were "all formed of frailty and error". Freedom of belief or non-belief could not be a social menace unless it was used to diminish another's right to the same by affecting the public space where no lines of preference should have been drawn.
In this sense, there is a graver issue in what Thio has proposed, one she more openly declares in her new book Mind the Gap: Contending for Righteousness in an Age of Lawlessness (2009). Her call influenced by Christian Right movements in the West does not just aim to redraw the line between religion and the public sphere as one between theism and non-theism, read as atheism and, in turn, communism. By depicting secular beliefs as pushy, it also seeks to secure immunity for religious views even as it throws open the field of play for their social expansion. This much is admitted in her book when she redefines the role of state itself as what only "keeps the peace while ensuring maximum freedom for world views to compete for adherents in the name of religious freedom".
Let me make three quick but vital objections here: I am firstly not convinced that any random selection of clerical voices will agree that the goal of religion is a competitive, let alone a numerical, one. I am secondly as doubtful that many freethinkers like to be thought of in such patronising terms as trophies to be fought for or spiritual orphans in need of some adoption. Thirdly, while Thio's supporters keep insisting that Singaporean society is not anti-religious, their claim still falls short of the truth if they do not add that it is not anti-non-religious either. Without that latter qualification, this group of objectors may position their own vision as the next logical step in secularism, but it is actually a throwback to a time with far less width for personal belief.
The polarisation that such a religious incursion wants does not so much identify new menaces as create a reality through which modern challenges to religion can be externalised as social threats. Yet, if one understands the ideal of civil tolerance at all, then it should be obvious how the non-preference of one religious set of values over another extends to the non-preference of religious systems of belief over non-religious ones. It is wholly unnecessary to cast as part of some "anti-religion religion" views that centralise, say, logic, nature, science, and economics just because of a failure to grasp the complexities of one's own faith and respond constructively. Bold strokes that politicise atheism as communism ignore the former's long and healthy tradition involving even Voltaire and oversimplify the dimensions of common and local cultural life.
We should rather be asking how this kind of readiness to identify another's hostility has emerged and whether it derives from inexperience with genuine difference in people. Anyone who has looked hard at what seems threatening at first knows that nothing appears so dark as the stuff most distant from the light of one's mind. In this sense, the current urgent move is not to find even more ways to dissect the notion of secularism but simply to affirm the clear truth that the secular space must remain rational. It is precisely because we all have different moral opinions that the realm of public debate cannot be turned into a marketplace for unfalsifiable, non-logical, and anti-social assertions religious or otherwise to hold sway and set citizen against citizen.
Again, if the lessons of civil tolerance and of religious compassion are understood well, then one will take care not to trivialise or vilify a different moral position too quickly. An ungenerous move contradicts that attitude of Voltaire as axiomised by Hall and the Golden Rule of religion itself, which calls on one to treat others with the same dignity one wishes to be accorded. A standard that fails to be reciprocal by telling others to defend "to the death" a right not extended to them in return disqualifies its own attempt to forge a more satisfying form of civil relationships. What this neglects is a simple truth: the support for another's freedom is not weakness but, as Voltaire knew too, a point where religion and society actually meet, a unique sacred moment in secular practice.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 3 Jul 2009