Withstanding the offense quake (QnA)


This is the QnA summary after Paul’s presentation. The QnA was meant for all 3 panel speakers, but this summary is directed at questions and answers related to Paul only. The questions and comments from the audience are not attributable. The HSS would like to thank Ashley Toh, Nur Hakeem, Martin Piper and Dan Tang for helping to transcribe the lively exchange. 

First question

Addressing the panel in general, the first questioner said that when people allow others to blog or speak publicly about an alternative worldview, they will feel that their core identities are being compromised. She mentioned that cross-cultural communication teaches people how to converse about different worldviews without compromising on your own, and invites speakers to comment on that.

Paul quoted assistant professor of religious studies Alan Levinovitz from James Madison University, who argued that people can disagree with a religious belief without being intolerant, and that tolerance is not synonymous with believing someone else is right. Tolerance is a virtue that allows coexistence with people whose way of life is different, “without throwing a temper of tantrum or a punch”, said Paul.

Paul added that in Singapore’s context, people tend to feel that beliefs must be respected and this is misplaced. “We should respect the right to belief. Once we do that, like what you said, then you realise that whatever criticism that comes your way, it is not taking away your fundamental right that you have to believe what you believe,” said Paul.

Second question

The second questioner who addressed Paul thanked him for what he described was a “really interesting” presentation. Referring to Paul’s suggestion for society to develop thicker skins, the questioner wanted to know more about how Paul would do that from a policy perspective.

Paul said he is not an expert in the political issues involved. However, referring to the incident where a Filipino male nurse was jailed for disparaging remarks about Singaporeans, Paul questioned if Singaporeans have lost so much confidence in themselves and their country, to the point where they demand authorities intervene. This sort of “coffeeshop anger” indirectly reduces people’s own rights as well, and potentially jeopardise safety, he argued.

Paul said these attitudes towards offence will not change overnight, but suggested that it can start by telling people why individuals should not be jailed or incarcerated just because they said obnoxious things. In addition, the offended ones could be a small minority and social discourse should not be brought down to the level of these few, he said.

Third question

Addressing Paul’s reference to religious persecution of non-religious people, the third questioner argued that religious people too are being persecuted by extremists similar to those persecuting non-religious people. Secondly, he criticised Paul’s presentation as giving the impression that only religious people are often engaged in persecuting atheists, when this is just a small minority of religious extremists. Thirdly, he argued that atheists and humanists are also persecuting religious people, whether in outright violence or through discrimination and prejudice. Referring to prominent atheist Richard Dawkins, the questioner said many people in the West describe him as a fascist and bigot for his prejudice against religious people.

Lastly, the third questioner said that while the United Nations (UN) does not mandate against being offended, the UN does mandate against racial discriminations and religious discriminations. Thus, the questioner argued that it is not sufficient to simply ask Muslims to tolerate offensive Danish prophet cartoons. Instead, it is more reasonable to compare these Danish prophet cartoons to anti-Jewish Nazi cartoons. The questioner argued that Paul has to be more nuanced and accept that the issue is not always about the offender and offended, but also about perpetuating stereotypes, prejudices and myths about religious minorities which could lead to harmful consequences, such as genocide.

In response, Paul acknowledged that there are minorities as well as minorities within minorities and that more discussion is also needed with regards with free speech and hate speech. For example, is it okay to clamp down on discussions by categorising them as hate speech? Referring to Mr Nazirudin’s comment that the Islamic world is a diverse one, Paul said there are muslims who are not offended by cartoons, such as Maajid Nawaz from the Quilliam Foundation. Paul also acknowledged that there are people within religious who are persecuted by religious extremists, such as ahmadiyyah muslims. Overall, Paul said the situation is complex and the response of the Muslim community to offences are not uniform.

With regards to third questioner’s reference to Dawkins, Paul reiterated that humanists do not follow any gods or prophets, and that he himself disagrees with Dawkins on a lot of things such as historical errors in his book The God Delusion. Paul said that just because humanists regard someone else as a humanist, it does not mean they believe everything he says. At the Humanist Society, he added, people disagree with almost everything and even the president does not get special privilege.


Fourth question

The fourth questioner was concerned with the terminology used in Paul’s presentation. She wanted to know more about the definition of humanism as a “life stance” because it would help people understand people with “different inclinations” beyond religion. With regards to definitions of humanism in opposition to the supernatural, the fourth questioner said people rarely refer to God/creator as supernatural, because this is not in line with traditional scriptures and the scientific understanding within religious tradition.

The fourth questioner also said the other side of freedom of speech also includes the right not to offend, and the right to protect minorities. She said that throughout her educational life in Singapore, it is not so much about freedom of speech but more about respecting others. However, she also considers herself a “student of democracy” and understands that individuals need certain freedoms. She wants to know how to balance the freedom of speech, and understanding what is hurtful to other groups. Lastly, she said there is no absolute freedom of speech and that a stand on hate speech is missing when Paul was promoting freedom of speech in his presentation. She wondered how we can nurture a society that understands these nuances without going into political measures because society will not grow if it depends on the State to solve their conflicts.

Explaining that humanist is a descriptive rather than a prescriptive term, Paul said that humanism is a positive stance. There are atheists who are not humanists and not all atheists by definition are humanists. Paul said humanists stand on the idea that it is possible to be human, to be moral, to have a meaning in life without going into the supernatural. And this is a life stance.

Paul added that his own dictionary has seven different definitions of faith and one of the definitions of faith is “accepting something without evidence”. Paul said that most humanists like himself are not comfortable with the word “faith” because it appears like faking the content with no evidence. While faith can be used in the context of, for example, having faith in friendships, it is a different use of the word. In terms of worldview, Paul said “life stance” is a more neutral term. Because this “life stance” is informed by science and philosophical developments, the views will change all the time.

Fifth and last question

The last questioner to address Paul remarked that there is a big contrast between Paul’s and Nazirudin’s approaches. He is concerned that Paul’s stress on tolerating different beliefs and accepting their rights to believe, over understanding and respect for other beliefs, will lead to even less willingness to engage and hold difficult conversations. He puts this in contrast to Nazirudin’s argument that inter-religious marriages work quite well because people come in, ready to understand and engage different beliefs. The last questioner is concerned that Paul’s approach will lead to a “very brittle” society when people tolerate, tolerate, and tolerate until it snaps.

Paul disagreed that his approach will lead to brittleness. By “understanding”, Paul reiterated that there are still a lot of times where people have fundamental beliefs which are opposite to each other, and that pretending to understand and emphatise may not be very helpful.

By “tolerance over understanding”, it does not mean that you stop trying learn about other parties, he clarified. “Tolerance over understanding” would be needed at the point where there are unbridgable differences, it will be better for rival believers to acknowledge this difference instead of struggling to force an agreement, and focus on things they can agree on instead. This “tolerance over understanding” would then enable people of different beliefs to work together while avoid hypocrisy. For example, both religious and non-religious people would agree that gangsterism is a bad thing. Thus, “tolerance over understanding” would lead to a more robust society that allows discussion without people feeling angry, said Paul.