Religion and Governance in Sri Lanka by Prasad Mapatuna
January 18, 2010 29 Comments
This article has been updated, see the latest version here:
Table of contents
Religion and Governance in Sri Lanka
Organized religion influencing governance
Personal belief vs. Institutionalized belief
Fight against Abrahamic religious hegemony
Well-meaning religious people
Buddhist influence on Governance of Sri Lanka
Religion in public schools
Laws based on religion vs. scientific reasoning
Religion and Governance in Sri Lanka
According to a recent survey conducted by Gallup Consultants, (an international consulting body http://www.gallup.com) Sri Lanka is one of the top 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. The analysis is published on http://www.gallup.com/poll/114211/Alabamians-Iranians-Common.aspx. 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, 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.
A survey when conducted by neutral professional body, usually derives accurate representation of the reality. Although we can argue about the accuracy of this data, I do trust this organization to have used sound survey techniques; and figures in general seem to be solid. Also the terms “developing/underdeveloped” usually draw scorn from those who like to argue against the parameters used to determine such. I am also going to leave that debate outside the scope of this memo.
What do these figures tell us? It seems to tell us that when the socio-economic status of a country improves the 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 the society. Their biggest follower base seems to be consisted of individuals from “troubled” social classes even in their home base in USA. Even in a rich country like USA, unusually high religiosity may have a bearing in the inequality in wealth distribution creating the perceived poverty. We can contrast that with countries such as Sweden, Denmark, and Norway where the socio-economic conditions are favorable for the majority, with less inequality in wealth distribution. These countries have the lowest religiosity among developed nations.
Although the correlation between religion and socio-economical status is an interesting topic, I am more interested to find out what religious people think how their religion should affect others; Especially “others” that do not follow their religion. The above survey does not tell us much in that regards. I would have been more interested in the results of a survey, where a poll questions were as follows:
- Is religion an important part of your daily life?
- Should your government amend existing civil law based on the religious views of your denomination?
- Do you agree that active measures should be taken and new laws should be passed to stop followers of your faith considering adopting other faiths, or letting go of all faiths?
- Should religion be a mandatory subject in primary and secondary school education?
- Do you think someone not following any religion can be a moral person?
My fear is that from what I hear in the religious discourse of present day Sri Lanka, there can be a significant percentage of people answering …
… to above questions respectively. Now, such an outcome would indicate that the country is sliding down the slippery slope of religious extremism. Eventual outcome of such slippage is a country where personal freedoms are curtailed in the name of religion. We have seen several Islamic nations going down this path and ending up in utter chaos in the recent past. History has seen many such instances of oppression by Christianity although the numbers are less in the recent period of time. In my opinion, Sri Lanka is the only country in the world, where the same can happen based on Buddhism. Likelihood of such is much less due to the inherent tolerant nature of the Buddhism, where onus is mostly on personal choice rather than divine mandate. However, over the course of its history, we have seen Sri Lankan Buddhism adopting stereotypical artifacts and props of other major world religions, in order to compete and retain the follower base. I cannot rule out Sri Lanka ending up being a Buddhist-government in the same sense Afghanistan was an Islamic-government under Taliban regime.
Organized religion influencing governance
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. The ‘dogma’ can be religious or non-religious in nature. The former Soviet Union was governed by institutionalized communist ideology, which is non-religious yet highly dogmatic in nature. It is interesting to note that they also crushed the traditional religious expression with an iron fist of the communist governance. However, effects were the same as if another ‘church’ took over, as was in medieval Europe. As illustrated in above Soviet example, in summary, what I am against is any forms of organized dogma playing a hand in governance. Now that communist ideology is rapidly being un-institutionalized around the world; as of today, Religion is the biggest culprit in this regards.
Most governments in the world today do not recognize a de jure state religion. Even when there is a de facto state religion, most governments offer ‘religious freedom’ at least on paper. For example in Sri Lanka, the citizens have a constitutional right to practice any religion of their liking or not practice any religion. We are also free to change or let go of our religious convictions. It is true that there are a lot of cultural and social barriers to practice these freedoms. However, Sri Lanka by far has very good track record for maintaining religious freedoms comparing to other countries in the world having similar socio-economic circumstances. In fact, even though we do not have a secular mandate in our constitution, we are doing better in this regards than our neighbor India where secularism is a tenet in its constitution. 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 in to our governance. These lobbyists have significant political power and they are quite persistent. They pose a constant threat to the secular freedoms of our country. It is interesting note that there is a clause somewhere in our constitution that gives Buddhism the ‘foremost place’ (whatever that means) which can also be exploited by these extremist lobbyists.
These lobbyists are very good in twisting the facts in their favor. Once I confronted one of them and asked “what happens to religious freedoms granted in our constitution, if we are to bring in new laws to protect Buddhism”. This person then pointed to religious headscarf ban in French public schools and tried to portray it as Catholic move to stop Muslims from wearing religious symbols. Idea was to justify Sri Lankan Buddhist motives by pointing out that it happens elsewhere in the developed countries too. May be this person was genuinely misguided by wrong propaganda. The French move in question was not to protect any particular religion, but to keep public schools free of religion as per the secular mandate in the constitution. This over-the-top ban of conspicuous religious symbols by French authorities is questionable. (Although I personally think that it makes sense) That is a separate debate. However, it is definitely not a move by one religious lobby to “protect” their religion. Catholic symbols (wearing pendants with crosses etc) are most definitely banned in public schools in France.
I have observed that many Sri Lankans believe that ‘Religion’ just like ‘race’, is something that one is born in to, and therefore there is no choice but to maintain an allegiance with. Anyone who is not loyal to the religion and race are branded as a traitor, agent of an external force, conspirer, henchman of an invisible hand, etc, etc. Another interesting thing that I have heard in conversations is that some people actually believe the birth certificate issued by the government carry a field that mentions one’s religion. Not sure if these people actually checked their birth certificates before making such comments. It is true that the format of the birth certificate got changed over the time and fields got added and removed. However, I have never seen a single birth certificate that carries a field called ‘religion’ and it would be rather ridiculous to have such a field since one’s religion should be a conviction rather than something one is born with, like race.
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 ‘five precepts’ in Buddhism is a rather simplistic but useful personal value guide. However, if we adopt five precepts in to the civil law, and punish people for breaking five precepts; it will be an extremely hostile form of governance. Buddhist scholars might argue that there is no such danger since five precepts in Buddhism is viewed as a voluntary personal undertaking rather than a divine mandate. In fact, in theory, there is nothing god-given in Buddhism, and every rule is a suggestion for a voluntary personal undertaking, and in that sense, it may not even qualify as a religion. However, we know that Buddhism in its practical form is very much a religion having all the bells and whistles of a regular world religion. What are these bells and whistles that I was referring to; well, to name a few: Hierarchical structure for clergy, highly opinionated body of clergy and lay people providing guidance to the followers, rituals, chanting, idol worshipping, promise of ‘divine protection’ and ‘good luck’ for those who serve the interests of the clergy, superstition, claims of miracles etc. (Talking about miracles, the large number of Buddhists who saw “Budu Res” on the famous “Day of Budu Res” is a testimony of gullibility created by religious faith. Also in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami, a lot of religious idols from various faiths claimed to have been miraculously saved, Buddha statues topping the list. Nobody of course talked about non-religious structures like lighthouses that were unscathed due to their peculiar structural qualities.) So this whole package makes a “Buddhist Church” of Sri Lanka so to speak. In my opinion, without much argument, we can place all other major world religions and Buddhism in the same bucket. Some Buddhist scholars try to make Buddhism apart by pointing to the fact that it is not a theistic religion at the core. However, this hypothetical non-theistic (atheistic?) Buddhism only exists among a few educated elites. More advanced Buddhist scholars may point out that all these “separation” concepts are alien foreign ideas that flourished within the intellectual elites of Judeo-Christian cultures. That argument demands more respect than the former, but I like to point out that our governance model is already based on the alien concept of “democracy” and unless we totally get rid of that, we may not be able to marry those indigenous concepts of non-separation with those of alien “democracy”.
Fight against Abrahamic religious hegemony
Loads of literature has already been written and there are very active and enthusiastic people like Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, Salman Rushdie, etc fighting the Judeo-Christian (Abrahamic) religious lobby (i.e. many denominations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam). So I will not go in to any detail here about the need to separate theistic religions and state. “God Delusion” by Prof. Dawkins is a very good read for that purpose.
I am eternally glad that I was born in Sri Lanka where religious tolerance is almost in par with any other developed nation, despite us being a very religious country as per the Gallup poll. I am glad that Sri Lanka’s hegemony being Buddhist rather than any of the Abrahamic religions. I wouldn’t be brave enough to write this article if I had the similar circumstances as Salman Rushdee or Taslima Nasreen. I am 100% certain that Ven. Mahanayaka thero’s won’t issue a Fatwa against me for speaking against the Buddhist Church. And I have the assurance that I do not have to flee the country and be in hiding and then issue a statement contradicting my earlier stance just to save my life, like Rushdie had to.
Well-meaning 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 in to the governance. So while acknowledging the good intentions of these well-meaning people, we need to show them the danger of doing so. 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. Most religions do not identify that ‘change is the nature’. Conservative religious leaders will not agree that everything including the value systems should be subjected to discussion, and should be open for change. 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 belongs 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.”
If we are to consult religious leaders for their opinion, all we need from them is to distill out the “values” and then suggest accommodating them in to governance without any religious label attached to those values. 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 lot of people from the governance model.
Buddhist influence on Governance of Sri Lanka
Overflowing religiosity of the country has always influenced the shape of politics and governance of Sri Lanka. This is demonstrated by how any presidential candidate with significant chances of winning the election conducts his/her campaign. Receiving the ‘blessings’ of Maha Sanga and other religious prelates is a must. They also spend a lot of time participating in the religious ceremonies of various faiths and then those sessions are given a wide publicity in media. Even after winning, constant appeasement of prelates of every religion with clear favoritism to Buddhists is the norm. Much of the broadcast time in government run media is spent on showing the president offering flowers, participating in pririth chanting ceremonies, Bodhi Puja etc. This has been the case ever since presidential system was introduced to Sri Lanka in 1979. Pledge to protect Buddhism from unnamed enemies is a usual election promise. Lip service to other religions is also made in the sides. All this appears pretty normal to us in Sri Lanka who has not seen anything different for the last 30 years or so. All this presidential antics is quite ridiculous in my opinion where less attention is given to candidates’ stance on important issues related to economy, foreign policy, law and order.
Somewhere in the 90s, a ministry of “Buddha Sasana” (Buddhist Church/Affairs) was introduced in to the cabinet. And there were no similar ministries for other religions (Thanks God). I always wondered how tax payers of other faiths felt about having to maintain this ministry out of their tax money. Intentionally or not, President Mahinda Rajapasksa made a good move by consolidating Ministry of Buddha Sasana with ministry of Religious affairs in 2006 cabinet reshuffle. A better move would have been to abolish ministry of religious affairs altogether.
Again during the 90s, the Buddhist pressure groups successfully campaigned against and managed to dismantle a government initiative to support inland fisheries industry. Their claim was that livelihood of raring animals for food is against Buddhist principles. This is an example of religion seeking help from government to instill religious moral code on to the followers and affecting the country’s economy and much needed protein intake for rural under privileged. Fortunately, flying kites, producing movies and playing cricket were not against Buddhist principles or we would have seen an outcry to withdraw of government sponsorship for those as well. Taliban in fact banned all those during their regime.
To draw another parallel with Talibanism where change of Islamic faith was punishable by death; sometime ago the 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 in to the front again. This so called anti-conversion law is the Buddhist lobby’s solution for preventing aggressive evangelical religions (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses) from eating in to Buddhist follower base. The nature of the proposed law is not quite clear and is subjected to many interpretations. However at 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 that goes against the wishes of the Buddhist leaders can be prosecuted. For example, under such a law, writing this kind of an article might become illegal. This article forces the Buddhists that read it to rethink their thoughts. Since what I am trying to do here is to change them to more sensible people, which might count as a “conversion”
Religion in public schools
Regarding growing lack of discipline and prevalence of irresponsible behavior in our society, which is also manifested in schoolchildren of all age groups, the common solution we hear is that “we should teach them more religion”. For generations, we have been pouring more and more religion on them haven’t we? Should we just continue to pour religion on our children in a mechanistic manner, and see if things improve magically by themselves, or should we take a step back and see what we should really do to improve the situation?
If am to give an analogy here; I think most people will agree without argument that a 7 year old is too small to have an political opinion (communist/capitalist, conservative/liberal etc) and a child need not be taught their parent’s political opinion, and for that matter, public schools should not teach politics to little children. However, I know that most people will find it offensive that I even tried equating religious beliefs with political beliefs. Although I respect the opinion of those parents who believe that their children should be introduced to, and indoctrinated in a religion of parent’s choice; I do not necessarily agree that the regular school hours is an appropriate time or place to do so. I would argue that there are religious schools as an alternative for those parents, and also Sunday schools are available for most mainstream religions. I could argue that parents should be advised that religion should be taught outside of regular school hours.
Most parents will bring forth the argument that they want their children to be ‘disciplined’ and good values be instilled in them by making them religious. They might even ask “How do you teach your child what is good and what is bad without religion?” Above is a very popular rhetorical question asked by the proponents of institutionalized religion all over the world. It just shows our reluctance to recognize that morality has an existence outside of religion. If I may quote Sir Arthur C. Clarke again here; for the second time in this essay “one of the greatest tragedies in human history was the hijacking of morality by religion.”
For the starters, I do not believe that morality and good values can not be instilled without institutionalized religion. When we have children from multicultural and multi-religious backgrounds, the best way to instill good values in them is to have a common classroom subject to teach them morality and social values, rather than segregating and dispatching them to different religion classes to learn different and sometimes conflicting ‘versions’ of morality.
I am not sure where we are on this issue currently. In the mid 90s there was a dialog about making attending Sunday religious schools mandatory for all schoolchildren up to age 15. This was partially implemented at that time by banning private tuition classes on Sundays. I think that initiative had a natural death after several years. I hope this idiotic scheme will not even be brought forward for discussion again. Under such law where would children of atheist parents go on Sundays? I guess they have to go to a religious school of government’s choice, and parents would have to go to jail?
Laws based on 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 the society for a long time. I am not advocating anarchy! On the contrary, I am in favor of new laws that ban harmful practices in the 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. Science is all about continuous learning and continuous improvement to theories and models that we create about the universe. And science boldly discards models that have been held as ‘truth’ for generations when those models fail to explain new phenomena and new knowledge about how the universe works. 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 skepticism as a virtue. (Probably the only religious leader to praise intelligence, promote skepticism, and advice inquiry). However, my point is slightly different. It is true that Lord Buddha promoted skepticism and inquiry. However that does not mean Buddhist church in Sri Lanka today is willing to accept any other interpretation of Buddhist scripture, other than what is accepted and institutionalized already.
For example, if we are to analyze the current drive to ban Alcohol, which is said to inspired by the fifth of the five precepts “Surā-meraya-majja-pamādaṭṭhānā”, 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. There is no public discourse on the outcome of such bans tried by other countries of the world. How many of us even know that several countries in the world, including Canada, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Soviet Union, and 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 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 USA. A quote from a letter, written in 1932 by wealthy industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., states:
“When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”
If the “mathata thita” prohibition drive on alcohol is not motivated by religious scripture, but by the economical and social evils associated with it; then it occurs to me that may be the food containing loads of saturated fat and sugar do equal (if not more) harm to the health and wellbeing of the populace. Should we also start a campaign to ban such foods as well? (Note that most of the Sri Lankan delicacies including Kottu Roti will be banned!). I am a person with very high cholesterol levels in my blood stream owing to the bad food habits during my young adult years. This definitely has reduced my life expectancy; and I am not joking here but dead serious and feel very strongly about this. But wait a minute… should we rather work on educating the masses on good food habits, and give the individuals the onus of choice of food, rather than try baby-sitting grownups who can decide for themselves? Besides, different people have different tolerant levels to saturated fat, sugar and alcohol. What is bad for me is not bad for everyone and I certainly do not want to take the freedom of gorging on a tasty Kottu Roti away from Sri Lankans just because I had a bad experience of it. I would rather become an activist and educate younger generation, than campaigning for a government imposed ban.
To contrast and draw attention to the governance model of our neighboring 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. India does not have an official state religion; it enshrines the right to practice, preach, and propagate any religion. No religious instruction is imparted in government-supported schools. In S. R. Bommai vs. Union of India, the Supreme Court of India held that secularism was an integral tenet of the Constitution.
All those examples from Sri Lanka and India are from a multicultural and multi-religious setting. So does that mean it is fine to adopt religion in to governance in a single culture setting? Well, I don’t think in a globalized environment there is a place where we can claim to have a single culture. Even with 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 the world history and failure of former Soviet Union that followed “communist religion” is a testimony of that. In another example; I am sure that members of 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. Within less than 6 years, they were thrown out of power making Afghanistan one of the messiest places on earth. Yes, 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 wrote, 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 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 nice 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 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 the religion.
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