Why secularism is good for Sri Lanka
Posted on January 23rd, 2020

By Rohana R. Wasala Courtesy The Island

Secularism and nationalism are two terms which are deliberately misdefined by internal and external destabilizing agents in various forms in the current political context in Sri Lanka for confusing and misleading the largely monolingual Sinhala or Tamil speaking electorate. Properly understood, secularism will be found to be quite compatible with the country’s accommodating religious background, which is predominantly Buddhist and Hindu. Similarly, these diabolical destabilizers and their mindless dupes attack the rising nationalism as something  reactionary that is not found in the West.

The purpose of such verbal misrepresentation is not far to seek: it is to suppress the emergence of a truly independent stable state where the majority and minority communities live together in peace and harmony as equal citizens while realizing their potential for achieving contentment and happiness in accordance with their different ethnic and cultural identities and worldviews, without having to experience any discrimination based on those differences. Such suppression seems to be the wish of the powers that be whose agendas prescribe a politically destabilized and economically disabled Sri Lanka. Here I will focus only on what secularism  means and why it need not cause any anxiety among Sri Lankans.

The word secularism is usually translated into Sinhala as ‘anaagamika’ (not concerned with religion, not having to do with religion), which is usually misunderstood by common people as meaning anti-religion, or rejective or dismissive of religious values. This, I think, is mainly because of the term’s novelty. Hypocritical anti-Sinhala Buddhist champions of sham reconciliation propagate this misconception. What the word actually means in the relevant (political) context does not involve a rejection of religious values or any hostility towards religion in the affairs of ordinary life. 

In terms of general dictionary definitions, secularism involves the rejection or exclusion of religion from social and political activities, or neutrality towards religion in these spheres, which is not a bad thing. But let’s go to the origins of secularism in the West. The idea of separation  between church and state” came to prominence in political discussion after its advent in a letter dated January 1, 1802, written by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), who was the principal author of the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the third president of the USA, among other things. It was addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. The letter was later published in a Massachusetts newspaper. Jefferson was a steadfast advocate of democracy, republicanism, and individual rights and freedoms. He wrote thus in the above mentioned letter:

‘Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State….’

The phrase ‘separation of church and state’ is actually a rewording from the First Amendment (1791) to the US Constitution. However, the idea behind separation between Church and State” did not originate with Jefferson. The credit for that goes to an Englishman who preceded him by nearly one and a half centuries, Roger Williams (1603-1683). Williams was a Puritan minister, theologian and writer. (Puritans were English Protestants who sought to free the Church of England from Roman Catholic influence and its practices.) He was the 9th president of the Colony of Rhode Island and the founder of Providence Plantations on the east coast of America. Williams supported religious freedom, separation of church and state, and fairness in transactions with American Indians. He was a pioneer abolitionist, who organized events urging the abolition of slavery in the American colonies. Roger Williams was expelled by the Puritan leadership from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for propagating new and dangerous ideas”. In Thomas Jefferson’s language we hear echoes of this earlier revolutionary politician who, in 1644, wrote of the time

‘When they [the Church] have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the Candlestick, etc., and made His Garden a wilderness as it is this day. And that therefore if He will ever please to restore His garden and paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world, and all that be saved out of the world are to be transplanted out of the wilderness of the World’.

The term ‘secularism’ itself was coined by British writer George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906), an agnostic, to describe his idea of a social order that is separate from religion. Like his predecessors in his line of thought, Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson, George Holyoake did not actively dismiss or criticise religious belief, though he did so as a private person. Jefferson didn’t go that far in his secularism, but he was unorthodox in his religious beliefs and rejected such doctrines as that Jesus was the promised Messiah or that he was the incarnate Son of God. All these secularists accepted the moral code of Christianity, while refusing to mix government with religion. So, Jefferson’s attitude was that the government should be indifferent to the Church: religion should not be persecuted, nor specially protected. 

Holyoake’s following argument was compatible with Jefferson’s enunciations:

 ‘Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.’

Holyoake also described secularism in more positive terms (in his 1896 publication ‘English Secularism’):

‘Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life, founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable. Its essential principles are three: (1) The improvement of this life by material means. (2) That science is the available Providence of man. (3) That it is good to do good. Whether there be other good or not, the good of the present life is good, and it is good to seek that good.’ 

Professor Barry Kosmin of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture divides modern secularism into two types as hard and soft: Hard secularism considers ‘religious propositions to be epistemologically illegitimate, warranted neither by reason nor experience’; according to soft secularism ‘the attainment of absolute truth was impossible, and therefore skepticism and tolerance should be the principle and overriding values in the discussion of science and religion’. According to the Wikipedia as of January 11, 2020 (which is the source I consulted in developing my  argument up to this point and which is also the source of all the extracts given above), contemporary ethical debate in the West is predominantly secular; the work of well known moral philosophers like Derek Parfit and Peter Singer, and the whole field of bioethics (that is, ethics of medical and biological research) are described as clearly secular or non-religious. 

It is a fallacy to believe that secular states in the West are indifferent or hostile to religion. Former British PM David Cameron (2010-2016) took pride in claiming that the British are a Christian nation; he described what his government had done to support the Church. His predecessor Tony Blair was fanatical about his Christian faith. The Americans flaunt their faith even in their currency notes.Evangelical Lutheran Christianity was the state religion of Norway until a constitutional amendment in 2012; even after that, though, the state of Norway continues financial support to the Lutheran Church of Norway where Lutheran Christians form 69.9% the population, with non-affiliates, Muslims and Catholics accounting for 17.4%, 3.3%, and 3% respectively, according to 2018 figures. Though these avowedly secular states are, for the most part, protected by the enlightened principle of a ‘wall of separation between church and state’, they can’t exist in denial of their traditional religious culture that decides the moral standards of the ordinary society. 

The constitutional makers of the Yahapalanaya were determined to make Sri Lanka a ‘secular’ state by denying Buddhism the prominence given by Article 9 of the current constitution. They and the anti-national forces they represented held that giving special recognition to Buddhism was prejudicial to other religions. It was apparently because of that they supported secularism. But it is a known fact that the country’s  Buddhist cultural background is the best guarantor of the rights of other religions. Some others of the same bandwagon who pose as friends of the Buddhists, seem to take the opposite course: they oppose secularism deliberately misrepresenting it as a rejection of religion. But Buddhists don’t have to worry about secularism, because it is compatible with the soundest moral principles that can be worked out – science based secular ethics, which they can have no problem with. While this is true, the Buddhasasanaya itself needs to be protected from the destructive activities of religious extremists of other persuasions.

 This is why President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, while opening the new session of parliament on January 3, 2020, was able to state confidently: (NB: He doesn’t say ‘the majority community’)

We must always respect the aspirations of the majority of the people. It is then that (the) sovereignty of the people will be safeguarded. In accordance with our Constitution I pledge that, during my term of office, I will always defend the unitary status of our country and protect and nurture the Buddha Sasana whilst safeguarding the rights of all citizens to practice a religion of their choice”.

2 Responses to “Why secularism is good for Sri Lanka”

  1. dingiri bandara Says:

    Religion is a state of mind. As Dalai Lama said ” The Best Religion Is The One That makes One a Better Person”. Buddhism is not a religion as such. For secularism to succeed the people of different faiths must believe in it and act accordingly. People of individual faiths can not to try and spread and force their faiths to others by deceit or by any other means. People of any faith cannot spread their faith by deliberately increasing their numbers as we see today.
    It is like socialism and communism. All people must act according to its principles. All must be equal. Some cannot be more equal.

  2. Nimal Says:

    Yes secularism is the best for our country to stop our lives been unfairly controlled and obstructed by the main religion that is being exploited by many.With the present mindset of the people band the leaders it would be very difficult to achieve it and good luck.
    Religions should be private to ones self should not be used to deceive people.

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