Religion and the Social Contract: Can Religion be reconciled with Civil Society?

By Farish A. Noor

Modern nation-states are, for all intents and purposes, artificial entities that are the product of consensus and rational agency. Practically every modern nation-state in the world today traces its history to some founding moment and a founding document that lays down the terms of the social contract that brought together a disparate community of individuals to form a pact, which in turn sustains the nation as a whole and lends it sense of identity and cohesiveness over time.

Now of course the foundational moment of many a nation-state today is lost in the mist of history and some might ask the question of how and why should an agreement made by a handful of men (and it is nearly always men, not women, mind you) who lived centuries ago be relevant to the citizens of today? America’s founding moment, for instance, lay in the midst of battle and the struggle of the American colonies to break free from the yoke of British imperialism then. However even a cursory glance at the documents of the past will show that America’s founding fathers were a small band of landed white American capitalists, land-owners and slave-traders who cared little for the fate of the thousands of African-Americans who were the descendants of slaves brought there from Africa. Equally scant attention was paid to the plight of the native Americans who in time would be marginalised and corralled into their reserves and left out of the mainstream of society, relegated to the status of ‘savage natives’ unfit for modernisation. Likewise women who made up half of the colonies’ population are hardly mentioned in the founding documents of what later became the United States of America.

Be that as it may, there remained enough scope for expansion and development in the American Constitution to allow the country to adapt to the changing realities of the time, and crucial articles of the Constitution – which guarantee equality and freedom of speech, for instance – paved the way for the American Civil Rights movement and the American Feminist movement that came into being by the mid-20th century.

As in the case of the United States, so was it the case in many other secular democracies in the developed part of the world where social upheavals and transformation were facilitated by the looseness of their respective Constitutions, that in turn allowed for the continuous revision and re-reading of its meaning and intent. What is crucial to note in all these cases is the fact that the advances in terms of civil and political rights in these countries occurred via recourse to the Constitution and the rule of law. At no point was the Constitution rejected outright simply because the founding fathers of the nation all came from the same elite strata of white, middle-classed men.

The social contract that binds us together as citizens of a country therefore undergoes a constant process of challenge, re-interpretation, revision and recontextualisation. But this is the nature of a successful social contract in the first place, and like all good contracts it maintains the balance between its binding force and its ability to compromise and adapt.

The rise of religiously-inspired politics worldwide, however, poses a different sort of challenge altogether as the discourse of religion is often predicated on the vocabulary of absolutes. In countries like Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and even Thailand and Sri Lanka today where religiously-inspired politics is on the rise, we note with some degree of concern that the demands of the religious activists and religious communitarian parties are radically different from that of their secular counterparts for the simple reason that religious politics is often dictated by absolute demands and claims.

Whether it is India which is witnessing the slow resurgence of Hindutva politics, Thailand with the rise of Buddhist politicians demanding the creation of the world’s first Buddhist state, or in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh where Islamist parties are calling for the creation of a theocratic state that does away with the secular constitution and a radical re-working of the social contract altogether, Asian nations today seem to be witnessing the diminishing of its secular civil space and public domain.

The rise of religious politics across the world is certainly not a simple phenomenon that can be summarily essentialised in one unitary paradigm. Movements for faith renewal like the Tablighi Jama’at, for instance, do not necessarily call for the creation of an Islamic state in the way that Islamist parties do. But in the case of those religious parties that explicitly call for a return to a theologically-determined mode of governance, serious questions need to be posed to them:

For a start, Religion’s emphasis on a singular, unitary interpretation of the truth based on an absolute understanding of the cosmos does not sit comfortably with the reality of many complex plural societies today. How, for instance, do religious parties hope to reconcile the need to maintain balance and equality between faith communities when almost every religion in the world preaches to its followers that it, and it alone, is the only source of truth in the world? Here lies the comical and ironic aspect of so many of the global inter-religious dialogues we see today, where representatives of the various faith communities can only come together for the sake of agreeing on their differences, and are unable (still) to accept that other faith communities may actually view the world from a different angle from them?

From this there emerges the related question of how to maintain equality and fair representation in such a theological state where one religion has assumed the mantle of governance and all other faith communities are relegated to the status of the ‘protected faiths’ that are ruled over? Pious wishes and wishful thinking aside, the sad fact of human history is that in all such cases religious rule often leads to the pitfall of majoritarian politics, where the members of the dominant faith community lord it over the rest.

In the midst of this, we need to ask: What of the social contract? Religious conservatives the world over tend to bemoan the social contract precisely because it was and is a social contract agreed upon in the context of society, or precisely, human society. Arguing from the basis that only God has the power to determine the fate of nations and states, they conclude that any contract agreed upon by human beings have to be necessarily flawed as they do not partake of the divine and absolute. In short, the social contract is of no worth because God did not have a hand in it.

Yet this overlooks the fact that it is precisely because social contracts are human-made, and therefore contingent, arbitrary and historically and culturally-determined that they have proven to be the adaptable tools that can be revised and instrumentalised to serve the needs of political development and social evolution and emancipation. In short, it is precisely because we know that the social contract is vulnerable that we can still work on it, improve it, expand it and develop it. The recourse to the vocabulary of absolutes, which is the favourite destination of religious conservatives – be they Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Buddhist – is fundamentally an attempt to expunge from politics the dimension of the political, the contestational, the negotiable. For religious conservatives, God spells the end of politics.

This desire to end the moment of the political however, needs to be exposed for what it is. Despite the use of pious language to disguise their intentions, we ought to realise that the appeal to the language of religious absolutes and absolutism is just one step to the erasure of civil politics and opens the way for the rise of religious authoritarianism. So let us keep God out of the picture for now. For all its faults and weaknesses, the social contract has still served its purpose of holding together our communities on the level of a shared public domain and the negotiation of individual rational agencies. And after all, wasn’t that why God gave human beings the ability to think in the first place?

  1. #1 by yog7948 on Thursday, 26 June 2008 - 11:48 am

    “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination for injustice makes democracy necessary”.- Reinhold Niebuhr
    This quote could be an exhortation for people of faith to become involved in public life by giving a voice to those who are most
    often left out of political processes.

    Interesting lines from “Religion and Civil Society: A Critical Reappraisal”
    In apluralistic, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic democracy, a full and open re-negotiation of the social contract necessarily includes the use of conflicting religious and moral codes or what Rawls calls
    “comprehensive doctrines”. Such doctrines cannot be labeled as true or false, nor as right or wrong, but only as politically reasonable when used in a discourse among citizens.

    It is useless for sheep to pass resolutions in favor of vegetarianism while wolves remain of a different opinion. – William Ralph Inge

  2. #2 by yog7948 on Thursday, 26 June 2008 - 1:00 pm

    All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.
    What the point of talking bout religion if people still can deprive your freedom using Social Contract.

  3. #3 by taiking on Thursday, 26 June 2008 - 2:14 pm

    There are two things which a social contract is definately not: It is not a piece of dead instrument; and it does not stagnate. Its terms regulate the society. And since society is in a state of perpectual flux, the terms of the contract must, of necessity, be in a similar state.

    So what is the social contract? Whilst its existence and purpose are well and widely acknowledged, and to some extent adhered to, the answer to this question remains concealed somewhere in the mist. It is almost like the ghost that we all believed exist but could not quite describe.

    Unsure or even unknowing, though we may be, of the precise contract and what it amounts to, we are nevertheless blissful. We are so because nature has its own arsenal of responses to deal with changes and imbalances. The contract would vary itself without any need for external interference, and adapt to changing situations.

    Should we disturbe this?

    The nebulous state of its being (the social contract) is unfortunate. For uncertainty could be a driver of confusion and ultimately suspiciona and chaos. Upholding and enforcing the contract would only worsen the situation. And he who is bent on controlling the driver or influencing him somehow, certainly hopes to make use of confusion and suspicion as tools for ends which we know not of.

    Should we allow that to happen?

  4. #4 by Lee Wang Yen on Thursday, 26 June 2008 - 3:16 pm
    Nasharuddin denies holding secret meetings with Najib
    Jun 26, 08 1:28pm
    PAS deputy president Nasharuddin Mat Isa today denied holding secret meetings with Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak to discuss possible collaborations between his party and Umno.
    High speculation in recent months
    Nik Aziz said no meetings too

  5. #5 by One4All4One on Thursday, 26 June 2008 - 5:09 pm

    In the Malaysian context, it has been observed that certain parties are inclined to invoke their religious superiority or practices, short of imposing it outright in policies ( because of constraints, luckily). The oft mention of ‘mempertahankan agama’ is a weak, if not unacceptable, premise, simply because religion needs no one’s protection. On the contrary, man has been living under the protection of religion all the while.

    Also the mere mention of ‘agama kami’ (especially in the possesing context) is also erroneous because religion belongs to no one individual, it belongs to all humanity. So, to ‘ mempertahankan agama kami’ is used more often than not in a qualified manner, for reasons known to the utterer himself. It is often invoked in the socio-political fronts, where it is used as a means to influence fellow believers to take a stand which protect their interests, rightly or wrongly. It smacks of selfishness rather than to promote the true values which religions actually expound.

    Unless and until people are trully true to themselves and to the precepts of the teachings of religions, we can only hope that the people who helm the administration of the nation are guided by universal values which are fair to all and sundry. In the hands of bigots and extremists or fundamentalists, there are bound to be unfair and lop-sideded policies which benefit one party and discriminate against the others.

    However, all is not lost. There would come a day when humanity, who are generally searching for universal truths and about God’s will and wisdom, will see the light which all could accept.

    Please search for universal truths such as:

    Oneness of God
    Oneness of Religion
    Oneness of Humanity

    “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens”

    “Religion is the greatest of all means for the establishment of order in the world and for the peaceful contentment of all that dwell therein”

    “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”

    Let us put aside our suspicion, pride and discrimination and prujudice in order to allow good sense prevail. We must take the position that there are lots of knowledge and wisdom which we do not yet know. Keep an open and honest mind and be willing to learn. Unless and until then, we are indeed at most what we are, that is limited and restricted to the confines of yester-years. And remain ignorant of the forces of change that had been unleashed.

  6. #6 by k1980 on Thursday, 26 June 2008 - 5:59 pm

    More important for the civil society is whether religion can eradicate corruption

  7. #7 by badak on Thursday, 26 June 2008 - 6:21 pm

    Firstly we Malaysian must not be afraid to talk about religion openly. Talk and discuss yes Condemn NO WAY.Now when we try to discuss about religion .The goverment shouts sensitive don,t talk don,t discuss.

  8. #8 by One4All4One on Thursday, 26 June 2008 - 7:33 pm

    Religion should not be a taboo subject. Open discussion in a respectful and honourable way should be encouraged.

    It is funny why one race should be tied to such and such a religion. No one is born a so-and-so follower of any religion. It is a matter of learning and searching that one sees the importance and relevance of religious knowledge. What good is it if one were to call oneself a what-and-what if one is just as ignorant and does not practise the teachings.

    We are not living in the dark ages for goodness sake.

    It could be seen that religion is used to control certain society for their own ends. Nothing more , nothing less.

    There should not be any fear of learning the religions of the world. God gave us the capacity to do so.

  9. #9 by One4All4One on Thursday, 26 June 2008 - 8:15 pm

    We cannot blame religion when corruption happens. All true religions do not condone corruption. If it does, then it is not a religion at all, let alone a true one.

    The individual involved needs counselling; give him the chance to rehabilitate.

    To err is human, to forgive is divine.

  10. #10 by dawsheng on Thursday, 26 June 2008 - 10:43 pm

    Man has taken the wrong turn, man sucks! There is no god, if there is god then god will not let anyone to use his name to harm others. There’s only human and their imaginations.

  11. #11 by dawsheng on Thursday, 26 June 2008 - 10:50 pm

    Today, instead of saving lives, religion killed more people around the world. If religion is holy as god, such thing won’t happen. Those who said they believe in god are mostly liars.

  12. #12 by dawsheng on Thursday, 26 June 2008 - 11:01 pm

    Religion and the Social Contract: Can Religion be reconciled with Civil Society?

    Do we all want to be hypocrites?

  13. #13 by badak on Thursday, 26 June 2008 - 11:51 pm

    Will must all go the streets in protest of the Kedah goverment stand on logging in forest reserve.

  14. #14 by monsterball on Friday, 27 June 2008 - 5:31 am

    300 years go…the French..Spanish…British..Dutch use guns and bibles….to capture countries and control the minds.
    In all fairness..some good did come out…from forcing cannibals to become good Christians..stop eating human flesh.
    But it also did so much harm….by forcing the doctrines to the throats of the conquered people…creating fear and humans…not behaving.. not as humans….but must simply believe ..or else.
    Religions are now a huge profitable product in developed promote. It has blatantly shame the very person they say..that they are promoting with a holy personality. Most religious leaders are mixing politics into the religion.
    These are the modern days hypocrites.
    That’s why…you are seeing more and more humans from all over the world…turning to meditations… to practice yoga…to be their own master…..not depending on others.
    For that…the society is actually heading towards a better understanding to all humans…..with no race discriminations.
    This is not the work of any wonderful religion…but due to good educations background….not to simply believe….and able to think for themselves.
    In that sense…Buddhism and Hinduism..’Way Of Life” is a great success..before…some 800 years ago.

  15. #15 by Bigjoe on Friday, 27 June 2008 - 9:22 am

    The bottom line is this PM is not much good when under pressure. He basically is not emotionally intelligent enough to make the tough calls.

    The excuse to shelve the Monorail and PORR for rural development, food production is lame. What is the point of building more roads when rural folks can’t afford the petrol? What is the point of producing more food when our production is small and cost is high to make no difference in the price?

    Whatever the rational, his excuse that its not about placating Sabah and Sarawak politician is bullshit AND because it does little for the problems and issue, its a wrong compounded by another wrong.

  16. #16 by Jeffrey on Friday, 27 June 2008 - 9:36 am

    It would seem a natural course that if freedom and the exercise thereof is upheld as a birthright which extends to the right to believe, including the right to religious beliefs, and as a consequence of that exercise of freedom of thought and beliefs, different peoples within a society have come to believe different things and embrace different religious faiths (with some believing nothing as well), then the proper role of the state or the government in which is vested the peoples’ trust to wield authority for their general good, should, in a nation of diverse faiths and beliefs, take a neutral stance, pass no particular law in particular promotion of any particular one faith over the others but instead to allow all to practise their religious beliefs freely as they thought fit, consistent with the first principle of according freedom to thought and beliefs as a birth right,which necessarily implies the corollary that any government, which does not maintain the high wall separating religion and government – and instead substitute the individual’s private right to worship by a public and legally sanctioned and state enforced obligation to do so – must likely be a government comprised of individual elites who self aggrandise their own capacity to think, outwit and deceive the others, respecting not in others whom they lead either the capacity of thought or even the first right or freedom to think, except in such manner as shepards would of sheep.

  17. #17 by i_love_malaysia on Friday, 27 June 2008 - 1:07 pm

    Never Never Mix Religion With Politics!!! Just look around and you will see many e.g. where religion is mixed with politics, the country is ruined!!!

  18. #18 by One4All4One on Saturday, 28 June 2008 - 12:09 am

    Let’s move forward.

    The world has indeed changed. We are already in the 21st century and much has changed from even a hundred years ago. New scenerios call for new approaches and adaptations.

    We can certainly recall past applicatins to guide us through. A thorough relook at rules and regulations is a must if we are to adapt. Of course there are bound to be some which are still applicable and relevant. Having said that, however, it must be accepted that novel and updated ones must be adopted.

    We cannot afford to be over-emotional and clinging to old habits. Human activities have changed the world drastically. The era of globalisation is here. The internet is fast becoming the tool of communication for all. The way trade and business are done have changed. In fact everything else has changed.

    Mother earth has to be protected from being over exploited, or at the very least needs to be harnessed in a more sustainable manner.
    The rate global warming is going needs immediate and urgent atttention. Honest and impartial parties need to be roped in to chart the direction of action needed to be taken. A more concerted approach is indeed warranted. Or else more and more bizarre and dramatic climatic changes would occur, whose consequences would spell disaster for mankind.

    Mankind have to wake up from their slumber and take cognisance of the fact that indeed we are in a NEW ERA! We simply cannot afford to live in the old ways anymore. Not that the old are bad, just that new realities call for new thinking. There ought to be a new awakening.

    In fact religion has to be relooked. Progressive and New Realities are already available. Just that humanity is not not looking where they should. Perhaps the old order is not ready to be replaced by the new. Hence it is most important that new leaders with vision are needed to guide humanity forward.

    Certainly, civil society needs religion to move forward, because the rules and guidelines are indeed found in the religious teachings. Thus,to ask whether religion could be reconciled with civil society is an understatement.

    It is the stubborness of leaders or all sectors, whether political, religious, academic, business, etc., which is holding back the move forward. Some may be gunuinely ignorant and incapable of change. However there are those who are riding on the old ways, for personal and irrational reasons, to achieve their narrow and selfish ends.

    We cannot afford to be blinded by teachings which are narrow in scope. Of course what constitute new and relevant must be made available to replace the archaic and obsolete. It should be pointed out that old and archaic do not mean weak or bad, just that they are past their useful age and need to be replaced.

    The time will come for all these to change. The force will make its presence felt. The change would be for the better of humanity. Just that mankind would have to be ready for the change and move forward.

    Good luck!

  19. #19 by One4All4One on Saturday, 28 June 2008 - 3:03 pm

    Religions are not possesed by anybody or any group of people. Because the one true God is the God of all humanity, no one can lay claim to ‘own’ Him. We all belong to Him.

    So to say that because such and such a religion is what they profess, then they have the sole right to teach and even ‘own’ and ‘posses’ it is erroneous. So there is no question of anyone protecting the religion from anybody else. It is just the individual and the religion. It is personal. It is religion which is protecting the people, not otherwise.

    Religions encourage people to learn about them. Discussing about a religion, its teachings, and questioning about them are methods of learning about it. How could there be learning if there are no questioning? No one has a monopoly over the religion they profess. They cannot question anyone who is questioning it in the course of learning. Questioning should not be equated with disrespect.

    To make a religion a ’state religion’ is just a preference, an inclination. In fact there is no such thing as a ’state religion’. It should not be imposed on anybody. God does not impose, He encourages seeking and learning. If God does not impose, who are people to do so? The choice rests with the individual him/herself.

    Let’s not be overzealous. I think the wise know about this.

    We have to move away from erroneous man-made rules.

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