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Friday, January 29, 2010

Religion and governance in Sri Lanka

Religion and governance in Sri Lanka

- Lakbima News

By Prasad Mapatuna and Mahasen Bandara

According to a recent survey conducted by Gallup Consultants, (an international consulting body Sri Lanka is one of the topmost religious countries in the world. This survey was based on a few simple questions such as “is religion an important part of your daily life” asked from a sample of around 1000 individuals from each country. According to this survey, Sri Lanka is at 2nd place where 99% of the participants acknowledging that religion is an important part of their daily lives, just behind Egypt where the percentage was 100%. It is also interesting to note that according to this survey, the United States of America has unusually high religiosity among the developed countries of the world. However when you take the world as a whole, the median religiosity is around 82% and USA is well below this mid point being at 65%. Almost all the topmost religious countries belong to “developing/underdeveloped” category of nations in the world.
What do these figures tell us? It tells us that when the socio-economic status of a country improves religiosity drops! Does this mean religion is a phenomenon associated with something that goes away when the socio-economic status improves? In support of that theory, aggressive evangelical religions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to flourish mostly on socio-economically “challenged” layers of society. We can contrast that with countries such as Sweden, Denmark, and Norway where the socio-economic conditions are favourable for the majority, with less inequality in wealth distribution. These countries have the lowest religiosity among developed nations.
I am more interested to find out what religious people think and how their religion affects others; Especially “others” that do not follow their religion. I would have been more interested in the results of a survey, where a poll questions were as follows:

1. Is religion an important part of your daily life?
2. Should your government amend existing civil law based on religious views of your denomination?
3. Do you agree that active measures should be taken and new laws be passed to stop followers of your faith considering adopting other faiths, or letting go of all faiths?
4. Should religion be a mandatory subject in primary and secondary school education?
5. Do you think someone not following any religion can be a moral person?
I cannot rule out Sri Lanka ending up being a Buddhist-government in the same way that Afghanistan was being an Islamic-government under theTaliban regime.

Organized religion

I see evil in all forms of organized and institutionalized religion that meddle with affairs concerning governance. I like to support the worldwide movement to separate governance and religion. In the western world, this concept is called “separation of church and state”. This does not necessarily suggest that I am an opponent of religion per se. What I am opposing is the use of institutionalized ‘dogma’ to determine matters of governance. It is however, worrisome that there are also ongoing attempts by the Buddhist lobby to curb some of these freedoms, and bring about Afghan style Talibanism into our governance.

Personal belief vs. Institutionalized belief

By the way, I need to underscore the difference between personal belief vs. institutionalized belief. A harmless (or even useful) religious belief or a religious practice can become a dreadful dogma when used in governance. For example the ‘five precepts’ in Buddhism is a rather simplistic but useful personal value guide. However, if we adopt the five precepts into civil law, and punish people for breaking the five precepts; it will be an extremely hostile form of governance. However, we know that Buddhism in its practical form is very much a religion having the subjects of a regular world religion. In my opinion, without much argument, we can place all other major world religions and Buddhism in the same group.

Fight against Abrahamic religious hegemony

Loads of literature have already been written and there are very active and enthusiastic people like Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, etc fighting the Judeo-Christian (Abrahamic) religious lobby (i.e. many denominations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam).
religious people
No doubt that a well-meaning religious person who guides his/her life according to his/her own religion will very honestly see no harm in adopting religious values into the governance. First of all, interpretation of religion-based-value-system is extremely subjective, and is at the mercy of the interpretation by the so called religious leaders. Even a religion like Buddhism, that talks a lot about ‘change’ at the core of its philosophy, have not bred lot of followers open for change.
In a multicultural setting, (like in Sri Lanka) giving ‘foremost places’ or state sponsorship to a particular religion will only alienate people of other faiths from the governance model. They will not be able find a sense of belonging to a country giving special treatment to a religion which they find no allegiance with. Those people become susceptible to anti-state forces and will likely have their own agendas that they like push, rather than contributing to a common goal. We have already seen 30 years of bloody and devastating war where a community that could not find a sense of belonging with the state went on their own tangent. There is no guarantee that it will not happen again unless we do the right thing.
We also need to question the advocates that campaign for a marriage of governance with religion, the purpose of doing so. In their opinion, if the basis for ‘good’ human conduct is associated with any particular religion, then we immediately have a problem with accommodating multi religiosity. So such opinions are not in the interest of harmony between communities. If that is not the case, and if they agree that we can find common moral values amongst all religions, then all we need to do is recognize that morality has an existence outside of religion. If I may quote Sir Arthur C. Clarke here;
“one of the greatest tragedies in human history was the hijacking of morality by religion.”
It should not matter whether it is “Thou shall not kill” or whether it is “Panathipatha Veramani...”. Giving any particular religious version of that moral code the limelight will only help to get a few cheers from religious hardliners, but alienate a lot of people from the governance model.

Buddhist influence

Again, during the 90s, Buddhist pressure groups successfully campaigned against and managed to dismantle a government initiative to support inland fisheries industry. Their claim was that livelihoods dealing with raring animals for food is against Buddhist principles. This is an example of religion seeking help from the government to instil a religious moral code on followers and affecting the country’s economy and the much- needed protein intake for the rural underprivileged. Fortunately, flying kites, producing movies and playing cricket were not against Buddhist principles or we would have seen an outcry to withdraw government sponsorship for those as well.
To draw another parallel with Talibanism where the change of Islamic faith was punishable by death; sometime ago Buddhist pressure groups campaigned for a new law that prevents “conversion of faiths”. Although this campaign is low key at the moment, it is just in the backburner and at a suitable time it will be brought into the front again. This so- called anti-conversion law is the Buddhist lobby’s solution to prevent evangelical religions (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses) from eating into the Buddhist follower base. However, on the surface, it sounds really a bad idea. First of all, such a law can be abused not only to control evangelical groups but also any secular group campaigning for free thought. It can create an environment where anyone who goes against the wishes of Buddhist leaders can be prosecuted. For example, under such a law, writing this kind of article might become illegal. This article forces the Buddhists that read it to rethink . Since what I am trying to do here is to change them to being more sensible people, which might count as “conversion”

Religion vs. scientific reasoning

It should be made clear that I am not against introducing new laws to ban things that have been liberally practiced by society for a long time. I am not advocating anarchy! On the contrary, I am in favour of new laws that ban harmful practices in society. The issue with ‘religious scripture motivated’ laws is that scripture is not something subjected to scientific inquiry. Religious scripture is not something continuously challenged and changed based on new knowledge. In that sense, a religious scripture is highly unscientific. For that matter, any concept that is accepted as an unchallengeable and unquestionable truth can never be a scientific concept. That said, I am sure Buddhist scholars would now point me to “Kalaama Sutta” and assert that Lord Buddha himself advised that his teaching should not be accepted without inquiry, and promoted healthy scepticism as a virtue. (Probably the only religious leader to praise intelligence, promote scepticism, and advice inquiry). However, my point is slightly different. It is true that Lord Buddha promoted scepticism and inquiry. However, that does not mean Buddhists in Sri Lanka today are willing to accept any other interpretation of Buddhist scripture, other than what is accepted and institutionalized .
For example, if we are to analyze the current drive to ban alcohol, which is said to be inspired by the fifth of the five precepts “Sura-meraya-majja-pamadathana”, it is evident that other than going by the popular interpretation of the fifth precept, there is no other scientific inquiry into the pros and cons of such a ban on liquor. How many of us even know that several countries in the world, including Canada, Iceland, Norway, Finland, the Soviet Union, and the USA tried banning alcohol in the first half of the 20th century with disastrous outcomes that prompted lifting of such bans? When society is not ready for such a substance ban, what happens is that rather than the substance going away from use, it goes underground and gets associated with criminal culture. This situation is aptly summarized by following comment from a then-supporter of the alcohol prohibition in the USA.


To contrast and draw attention to the governance model of our neighbouring nation; the preamble to the Constitution of India proclaimed India a “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic”. The word “secular” was inserted into the Preamble by the Forty-second Amendment Act of 1976. It mandates equal treatment and tolerance of all religions.
Even with the same religious and cultural background, each individual will have different tastes and personal values. A single minded governance model will inadvertently suppress personal freedoms and personal expression. Such governance, although will seem to succeed in the short-run, will crumble due to various forces both internal and external, acting on it. Also the close minded nature of such governance will hinder the progress of the community as ‘change’ will not be a virtue encouraged by religion. Failure of such religious states throughout world history and the failure of the former Soviet Union that followed “communist religion” is a testimony of that. In another example; I am sure that members of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, when they rose to power might have felt the same way that some of the Buddhist leaders in Sri Lanka feel today. They must have thought that they are doing a good thing for their country by establishing good governance, guided by a religion that is close to their hearts. In less than six years, they were thrown out of power making Afghanistan one of the messiest places on earth. Yes,a lot of external factors outside of Afghanistan played a hand in that mess. However, that is exactly the point! No country is isolated and self-contained to do whatever they please. We need to be smart and understand how the world works, or accept dire consequences.If it is not obvious from what I have written, I do have a Buddhist background and a Buddhist upbringing. Whatever personal beliefs that I may or may not have should not matter in the topic of separation of governance and religion. In my opinion, one’s own religion should only be discussed among the likeminded. It should not be a public affair. In Sri Lanka, and all over the world, there are billions of people who believe in astrology. It is a classic example for a personal belief system that survived without any official patronage from any government. We do not see many people openly discussing their beliefs in astrology. We certainly do not see any group demanding state patronage. We do not have ‘astrology’ as a mandatory or optional subject in primary or secondary education. In fact, even suggesting that would be met with ridicule by even those who believe in astrology. There are healthy debates between believers and non-believes but (hopefully) no one ever got killed due to those differences in opinion. However, we all know that the belief in astrology will be passed down many more generations to come, and there will be believers and practitioners despite astrology often being an easy target for ridicule. If astrology can survive and thrive, despite being low profile in public discourse, and despite lack of state patronage; so can religion.

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