Total or quasi secularism is not the issue
Posted on September 25th, 2016

By Rohana R. Wasala

Secularism is wrongly believed to be something negative, or something that denies the importance of religion, and it is seen (quite wrongly) as promoting immorality. When the term ‘secular state’ is translated into Sinhala as ‘anaagamika rajyaya’, many average Sinhalese speakers tend to think that such a state is against religion or that it denies religious freedom. But this is a serious misconstruction. Secularism in government means simply keeping religion out of politics; it is not anti-religious, but non-religious. The origin of the concept of secularism in Western democracy can be traced to the first amendment to the American constitution, which was really meant to safeguard the freedom of religious belief in a multicultural society, along with the freedom of speech and of the press (the media).

‘Amendment I – Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression (Ratified 12/15/1791)’ runs as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Thomas Jefferson mentioned above was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America and is generally acknowledged as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776). He was the third president of the US. Writing to President Jefferson, Nehemiah Dodge et al, members of a committee of the Danbury Baptist Association in the State of Connecticut, raised some concerns about religious freedom. In his reply letter dated January 1, 1802, Jefferson wrote, implicitly invoking the first amendment:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and 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 and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”

Jefferson was a deeply religious man. But he believed that priests were a hindrance to liberty. Actually, he was far ahead of his times in his religious beliefs, which far deviated from conventional ideas. He focused on the ethical content of Christianity, not on its dogmas. While accepting the ethical tenets of Christianity as the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man”, he held that the original teachings of Jesus had been misrepresented by his early disciples, and that this had eventually led to a Bible with diamonds” of wisdom and the dung” of ancient political programs. Jefferson’s rational mind was behind his justification of the wall of separation between Church and State” (i.e., the principle of secularism) that he was referring to in his letter to the Baptists.

Jefferson’s ideas find unquestioned acceptance in western secular societies even today. Graeme Smith, a university professor of theology, is a student of the role of religion in society. Though, usually, his or someone else’s religion leaves me cold, I find him useful in arguing that privileging a religion as an ethical basis in government without prejudice to other religions does not violate secularism. In his book A Short History of Secularism” (I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, UK. 2007), Smith shows that secularism does not necessarily outlaw religion. Smith writes:

Secularism is Christian ethics shorn of its doctrine. It is the ongoing commitment to do good, understood in traditional Christian terms, without a concern for the technicalities of the teachings of the Church. ……………… In Western secular society we talk about good deeds, and on the whole we are charitable to our neighbours and those in need. But in public we do not talk much about Christianity. …….. Secularism in the West is a new manifestation of Christianity, but one that is not immediately obvious because it lacks the usual scaffolding we associate with the Christian religion.”

The nationalist demand for Buddhism to be accorded in Sri Lanka the same preeminence that Christianity is given in democratic Western societies can be and often is misinterpreted negatively by interested parties including federalists. They argue that it is a sign of Buddhist supremacy, which is discriminatory towards people of other faiths; they usually try to portray Sinhalese Buddhists as traditionalist reactionaries on that basis in order to justify their own separatist demands. But the truth is that no religion practices tolerance towards other religions better than Buddhism.

If what we read and hear about the proposed new constitution that is allegedly going to be first passed in parliament, and then ratified through a referendum early next year is reliable information, the Sri Lankan state is poised to lose its already weakened unitary character before long unless the strong opposition that is still growing against that development successfully thwarts it. The country’s political and cultural identity as an island nation built on Buddhist cultural values which has survived for well over two thousand three hundred years is in real danger. We know that the Sangha has helped initiate, sustain and protect the island civilization down the ages and today they are being called upon to ensure  its survival for many centuries to come.  Their historic role of defending  the country, the nation and the Buddhasasana is a responsibility that they cannot be expected to relinquish. For that responsibility to be fulfilled effectively, there must be unity among the Sangha, and this unity has to be created by them with or without the support of the incumbent Mahanayake theras, who seem to have failed to totally extricate themselves from partisan politics.

There are some 15,000 Buddhist monks residing in 6000 monasteries in the country according to the 2012 general census. Since Buddhists number just over 14 million, there is roughly only one monk to every hundred persons of the Buddhist population.  Of the total number of Buddhist monks in the country only a very small handful are in active politics. The Sinhalese account for 75% while Buddhists for 70% of the Lankan population. The history of the Sinhalese and of Buddhism in the island is one and the same. If Sri Lankan politics is subject to Buddhist clerical influence, it is a fact that there is nothing to complain about. The preeminence of Christianity in American, British, and Norwegian national cultures is explicitly asserted, despite their diversity. Similarly, the strong link between the Sri Lankan state and Buddhism need not be stressed. Chapter II (or Article 9) of the current constitution is an explicit recognition of this reality:

‘The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e).’

The privileged status given to Buddhism does not lead to any infringement of the rights of citizens professing other religions. Such constitutional recognition of the preeminence of Buddhism is, on the contrary, a perfect confirmation of the non-religious ethical basis of modern democracy that stresses the importance of protecting human rights (because, unlike any average religion, Buddhism is an ethical philosophy exclusively based on wisdom, compassion, and self realization, independent of any mystical belief in some imaginary divine authority, and hence it is, strictly speaking, ‘non-religious’). At the same time, the prominence given to Buddhism is in no way comparable to a breach of what Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) described as  the ‘wall of separation between Church and State’ that the American Constitution built in that country’s context.

The western nations of America and Britain are considered secular democracies despite their special recognition of a particular religion (Christianity) in their multi-religious multicultural societies. While western political ideologues and their local followers seem to take this apparent contradiction in western democracy in their stride, they argue that the inclusion of the Buddhism clause in the Sri Lankan constitution is prejudicial to its secular credentials, and that it should therefore be dispensed with when the proposed new constitution is formulated. However, as I have argued before (Lankaweb/2016.08.18), the removal or revision of that particular Article is not likely, but there is a distinct possibility that a sham threat to the status of Buddhism may be exploited to lead public attention away from the really more substantive issue of total federalism What we already have had ever since the forced adoption of the 13A is a quasi federal structure. And we are today faced with the task of reversing the slide towards total federalism – the ‘union’ solution that the outgoing UNSG Ban Ki Moon is reported to have (so outrageously) advocated during president Sirisena’s recent UNGA appearance.

Many of those who express concern about Buddhism being denied its rightful place in the proposed new constitution are  laboring under a misconception of the term ‘secular’ in this context. The popular confusion of the meaning of ‘secularism’ among ordinary Sri Lankans is exploited by antinational elements to  criticize the constitutional recognition of Buddhism and to attack the conspicuous involvement of some firebrand monk-activists in nationalist politics.

Just as former British PM David Cameron unselfconsciously described Britain as a Christian nation, we can describe Sri Lanka as a Buddhist nation that is nevertheless a secular state that protects the right to religious belief of all its citizens. There is no better guarantor of secularism than the ‘non-religious’ ethical philosophy of Buddhism. We need not worry about Buddhism being dislodged from its preeminence in the constitution. What is to be feared is total federalism which will invariably fragment the island into separate ethno-religious states in which fundamentalist religious sects opposed to secularism could dominate the polity with perhaps lethal consequences to those they condemn as infidels.

6 Responses to “Total or quasi secularism is not the issue”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    This is complete nonsense. I post my strong protest against this. Allow me to explain.

    [Quote] We need not worry about Buddhism being dislodged from its preeminence in the constitution. What is to be feared is total federalism which will invariably fragment the island into separate ethno-religious states in which fundamentalist religious sects opposed to secularism could dominate the polity with perhaps lethal consequences to those they condemn as infidels. [Unquote]

    The opposite is true. Don’t assume when Buddhism is dislodged from its pre-eminence, it will be a secular country. Constitution (legal) is just one aspect of imposing secularism (or a religion). There are other means as well – economic (we see this in operation to impose Evangelical faith), political (Hindu imposition through greed is already happening as politicians rejected by the people hold on to power courtesy Thirupati), social and technological (again we see this the world over particularly on a certain faith found in Saudi Arabia).

    Once Buddhism is dislodged, other religions with more economic, political, social and technological power will become de facto state religions of Sri Lanka. Their battle (as we can see in secular India where train loads of Muslims are burnt to death and church-loads of congregations are shot to pieces and shanty-loads of Buddhists (Dalits)) will be violent. Pakistan, Maldives, Nepal and Bangladesh are no better.

    As other religions have the upper hand in technological, economic, political and social spheres, Buddhism must retain at the very least the legal (constitutional) clout.

    Then lets turn to the ills of federalism. Surely a tiny island needs unitary status, not federal. However, if federalism is further imposed (Sri Lanka is already a de facto federal country after 13A as the writer says – What we already have had ever since the forced adoption of the 13A is a quasi federal structure. [unquote]) it can be managed to safeguard Buddhism in districts it survives. Buddhism has been totally wiped out in all Hindu majority districts (except Nuwara Eliya).

    What the writer says will never happen. How many more Buddhists can be killed in the northern province (after realigning the few Sinhala villages in the northern province to North Central province recently)? None.

    What harm can Muslim majority eastern province do to Buddhists without losing power (as they need Buddhist votes to win the election and sustain provincial majority)? None. The harm done to Buddhists in the east were perpetrated by national politicians, not provincial.

    Of course, if Buddhists in the other 7 provinces are attacked, the attackers will be wiped out, federal or unitary. If Hindus and Muslims go for an inevitable showdown in the east (as they are poised to) it only favours Sri Lankan interests. Their conflicts are not confined to Sri Lanka.

    Between two disgusting options – dislodging Buddhism from its pre-eminent place and full federalism – the least damaging is full federalism. At least Buddhism will survive in 7 provinces – the most prosperous and fertile 7 provinces. If Buddhism is dislodged from its pre-eminent place, Buddhists lose the entire island. Obviously 7 is infinitely larger than 0 (zero).

    Christianity itself promotes the separation of the church from government. Don’t be deceived by the Holy Roman Empire and other political entities with no support from the Bible. Jesus said “give what belongs to (Augustus) Cesar to Cesar, and to church what belongs to church”. He made this knowing well the plunder the Roam Empire was doing with tax money. Obviously deeply religious Thomas Jefferson knew this popular phrase. Jesus avoided preaching governance. Separating religion from statecraft helped USA create hellholes around the world and kill millions of humans. No other country has killed so many people and destroyed a vast number of countries. But at the same time the US economy is the world’s largest for over a century with every dollar note stating “in god we trust”.

    It is not the case with Buddhism. There is a very strong association with governance and god is not trusted for material wealth.

  2. AnuD Says:

    Secularism is important for Christianity as there are 40,000 denominations and each is allowed to build their churches and the govt is not interfering with that.

    It is not the same when other religionsa re trying to build churches.

    It is completely a different process.

  3. plumblossom Says:

    When looking at Sri Lanka’s history, it is extremely obvious that from 600BC to around 1400AD there were three kingdoms, all Sinhala Buddhist, Ruhuna, Pihiti or Rajarata and Maya or Malayarata. Rajarata encompassed today’s North Central, North Western, Northern and even the Central Province. Ruhunu rata encompassed today’s Uva, Eastern and Southern Provinces. The Kandyan Kingdom from 1400AD encompassed most of the island inclusive of today’s Northern and the Eastern Provinces except for the Jaffna Peninsula. Even the Jaffna Peninsula was invaded and occupied by force by Aryachakravarthi (Pandyan) and actually did belong to Rajarata earlier and later the Kandyan Kingdom.

    Today’s provincial boundaries were drawn up by the British colonialists as per their divide and rule policy and the Sinhala people were not consulted when drawing up these provincial boundaries. In the meantime, most Sri Lankan Tamils of today were actually brought over during Dutch and British times to the Jaffna Peninsula and elsewhere to work on tobacco and indigo plantations which were planted extensively in all the colonies since they were much sought after and made a lot of money for the colonialists. Therefore they are recent arrivals and cannot claim homelands or separate states whatsoever.

    The usual practice when a colonial power hands over their former colonies is to hand it over to its original owners. Therefore the British colonialists should hand over the Kandyan Kingdom to the Kandyan Sinhalese from whom they took it by force. Since the Kandyan Kingdom encompassed the North and the East, these provinces too should be handed over to the Kandyan Sinhalese who are its rightful owners. Even the Jaffna Peninsula should be handed over to the Kandyan Sinhalese since it was part of Rajarata and was forcefully occupied by Aryachakravarthi (Pandyan).

    Since this has now been done already, the TNA and other separatist terrorists or the US, UK EU, Canada, Norway, Sweden and India cannot demand that present day Northern or even the Eastern provinces be provided any more powers or be made into federal states since this is totally going against the history and archaeology of the island and totally going against the rights of the Sinhala people who also have fundamental rights to claim the entire island inclusive of the North and the East as their homeland first and foremost. Therefore, the TNA , the separatist terrorists, the US, UK, Norway, Sweden, Canada and India has to respect the history and archaeology of the island and accept that the present day provincial councils are more than sufficient to run the affairs of the provinces. Sri Lanka must be a unitary state and no more powers should be provided to the provincial councils. In fact, when talking about the 13th amendment, the concurrent list subjects must be included in the national list. The provision where two provinces can merge should be deleted. The bogus claim of the North and the East being the homeland of the Tamil speaking people should be deleted. The entire island should be declared the homeland of all its peoples.

    Sinhala people should be resettled in the North in quite a large number if there is to be peace and harmony within the island since Sinhala people have every historical right to live in the North as well as the East. It is only due to ethnic cleansing of the North of Sinhala people by the LTTE and the other separatists that Sinhala people are not at present living in the North. Many thousands of landless elsewhere in the island especially Sinhala people should be provided land in the North since most of the vacant land in the country is in the North and in the East since both these provinces encompass over 28% of the land area of the island. Then only will there be peace since when people mix, there is more harmony. This is the only way towards peace and development in the island.

  4. plumblossom Says:

    Apart from highly commending you for taking legal action against the treacherous CBK (Chaura Rejina) regarding the defamatory and utter lies she keeps repeating to defame her rivals, legal action should be taken against her for stating that she will definitely devolve more powers to provincial Councils within the new constitution. Does this evil woman CBK think she owns Sri Lanka and that she is the one who is going to draw up the new constitution of Sri Lanka (according to the wishes of the imperialistic US, UK, EU, Canada, Norway, Sweden, India, the racist TNA and the separatist terrorists)? The constitution of Sri Lanka should satisfy first and foremost the majority of people of this island i.e. the Sinhala people and the Sinhala people firstly do not want to draw up a new constitution nor do they want any more powers whatsoever be provided to the provincial councils especially land, police and fiscal or to illegally merge the North and the East.

    Someone has to go to the supreme court and take action against treacherous CBK for suggesting that she will definitely devolve more powers to provincial councils within the yet to be drawn up constitution since this means the treacherous Ranil, Sirisena, CBK and Mangala have already drawn up a constitution to satisfy the imperialistic US, UK, EU, Canada, Norway, Sweden, India, the racist TNA and the separatist terrorists which is illegal.

  5. . Says:


    Rohana R. Wasala says:

    Dear Dilrook,

    I greatly appreciate your perspicacious comments about my article “Total or quasi secularism is not the issue”. Thank you for caring to offer some richly informative and truly constructive criticism. However, my feeling is that your strong disagreement with me is due to your having misconstrued the intended meaning of the single sentence “We need not worry about Buddhism being dislodged from its preeminence in the constitution” in the concluding paragraph. You seem to have taken it out of context.

    The fault is mine, though. To make my real meaning more explicit, I should have added immediately following it something like “There is no such danger; my informed guess is that Buddhism’s preeminence will be retained in the new constitution.” In other words, what I mean is that there is no danger of Buddhism being dislodged from its preeminence in the constitution.

    In fact, the central thesis of my essay may be paraphrased thus: “The suggestion that the proposed new constitution drop the Buddhism clause is not likely to be carried out when the new constitution is formulated. The preeminence given to Buddhism in the existing constitution does not make Sri Lanka a non-secular state. (Ref. Lankaweb/2016.08.18 where I pointed out that the PRCR mentions the fact that the supreme court has declared on a couple of occasions that the Lankan constitution is effectively secular in spite of Buddhism being given prominence.)

    However, a feigned threat to Buddhism could be used as a means of distracting attention from the federalist project. At the same time, though secularism could threaten religions which are vulnerable to fundamentalist (violently authoritarian) interpretations, Buddhism is comfortable with secularism, which is regarded as a positive principle in Western type of democracy, especially in multicultural societies. Secularism does not exclude observance of moral values, religious or non-religious.
    Both of my recent articles attempt to argue that Buddhism should retain its due place in the Lankan constitution and that there appears to be no danger of Buddhism losing that position. The greater menace facing us is the looming danger of the country being fragmented on a so-called federal basis.

    Rohana R. Wasala

  6. Dilrook Says:

    Thank you Rohan for taking time to respond.

    This is the first time I seriously disagreed with an article (emphasis) by you. By no means it is disagreeing with you.

    After the clarification [quote] There is no such danger; my informed guess is that Buddhism’s preeminence will be retained in the new constitution [unquote], I agree with you. Once again appreciate the clarification.

    However, I’m still sceptical if that will be the case especially after Sumantiran demanded Buddhism’s foremost place must change and Chandrika (the instructor to the constitution making process) openly declared the new constitution will make Sri Lanka secular or “quasi secular” (if there is such a thing).

    I also agree with the possibility of “trading” the retention of the foremost place for Buddhism with the introduction of federalism. “We reluctantly agree to keep Buddhism in its foremost place provided you agree to federalism” seems to be their strategy. In that case, we must outright reject federalism as Buddhism’s foremost place is a given already. It is not up for bargaining.

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