Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Religion and Secular State – A reflection presented at the 2013 Attorney-General’s Conference Natadola, Fiji 6th December 2013

Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am thankful for the opportunity given to the faith communities to share our perspectives on the issue of Religion and the Secular State.

I would like to begin by acknowledging that there has been some concern about the implications of the provisions in the new constitution which touch on religion, or exclude references to faith and the divine in the 1997 Constitution’s Preamble and Chapter 1, Section 5 on religion and the state.

While Fijians may be aware of the term “secular”, from its use in describing certain modern societies, this is the first time they are encountering it as a description of the state in relation to Fiji.

The question one fellow Fijian asked me was, “How can we have a secular state when we don’t have a secular society?” It was certainly pause for reflection on my part.

How does one invoke or develop a sense of sacredness about a document that may enshrine Fiji as a secular nation, given that the terms sacred and secular are often used to describe two distinct areas of life?

What separates the sacred from the secular in a society that attaches sacred values to leadership, community, land and the environment?

Essayist Peter Saint-Andre writing of the modern dilemma of sacred versus secular writes of a concept of natural religion argues that “the concept of the sacred runs deep in the human mind, and that at least some "religious" concepts are potentially universal. We all share in our nature as human beings, and there is much more that we have in common than is peculiar to each one of us.”[i]

Saint-Andre adds that, “the increasing respect for human rights in the world provides a good example of an ethical belief that is founded on a universal conception of sacredness.”[ii]

From a psychological perspective, the primitive understanding of the divine begins with the development of the super-ego [iii]

The point to note here is that the divine, the sacred, and so on, are spiritual concepts, which exist so that the human consciousness may have the fullest understanding of existence.  Such concepts have been and continue to be necessary, because, in the words of Saint-Andre, “they pick out aspects of human existence that no other concepts can.”[iv]

Religion is not merely a sociological construct, satisfying an emotional need, but provides knowledge on ethical behaviour as found in religious writing over the centuries and millennia on justice, peace and morality.

According to Roger Haight, while there is a dimension of each person’s faith that is individual and uniquely his or her own, it cannot remain merely or purely private, it inevitably and inescapably shares in the public sphere.

This is because the object of faith concerns ultimate truth or truths and as such both the nature of truth and its ultimacy demand that faith become a public act. Faith and religion by extension have both a personal and public dimension. [v]

While there are different concepts of the divine, different worldviews and a differing in understanding on the need, process and source of salvation among the different religions in the world, some vastly different; there are some universalities which ring true across the different faith traditions.

Indeed, the increasing respect for human rights in the world provides a good example of an ethical belief that is founded on a universal conception of sacredness. In spite of divergent philosophical views, it is possible to understand and approach religious traditions on the basis of common traits such as love of one's neighbour, kindness, and compassion.

For example if I was to say: “This is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you,” I would in fact be quoting the Mahabharata[vi].

“Regard your neighbour’s gain as your gain, and your neighbour’s loss as your own loss,” [vii] is from Taoism; while the saying, “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself,”[viii] is from Islam.

“The Golden Rule” of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is also found in the Christian faith (Matthew 7:1), Confucianism (Analects 12:2), Buddhism (Udana-Varga 5,1), Judaism  (Talmud, Shabbat 3id), Zoroastrianism (Dadisten-I-dinik, 94) as well as Jain, Sikh and Baha’i faiths among others.[ix]

The simple fact in Fiji is that religion and a life of conformity with a religious conviction is or has remained of significance for people. A Fijian with his or her religious or non-religious conviction is at the same time a member of society and a citizen of the state.

As a consequence religion and the negation of religion from a secular perspective are in fact interwoven with state and society.

I acknowledge the necessity of a clear boundary in that the state is and has to be neutral in religious and world-view matters. The consequences of this neutrality are the principle of parity, which is the principle of the equal treatment of religions and religious communities, and religious pluralism, including agnostic and atheistic movements that are also protected by the fundamental right of religious freedom.

The constitution dictates that as a secular state there ought to be a sort of neutrality on the issue of religion. However, public institutions work according to a set of values whether they acknowledge them or not. So when they claim to be neutral with regards to religious or other beliefs, that is a myth at best and a lie at worst.

It would seem that what is really happening is that religious values are being explicitly excluded from the public square while secular ones are allowed to hold sway. So what actually happens when we seek neutrality and demand that everyone talks a common, neutral language of the civic sphere is that religious voices are effectively silenced.

Although in theory everyone enters the public square on an equal footing, the fact is that its discourse is an implicitly naturalistic, atheist one, which means that the non-religious can talk as they normally do, whereas the religious have to hold back, rephrase and avoid expressing many of the things that most matter to them.

Secularism is not and should not pretend to be "neutral" in various important respects. Most obviously, it clearly asserts the values that are widely shared among the otherwise diverse population, such as tolerance, freedom of expression, rule of law and so on.

It can also treat different faiths and sects differently depending on how benign or malign they are, which is why some countries deny privileges to some groups such as Scientology and the Unification Movement enjoyed by other faiths.

Nor does this kind of neutrality mean, in effect, always imposing one set of values on everyone.

A secular society should allow for a plurality of ways of living as long as these do not compromise the common good, and these may include religious practices or traditions, such as those surrounding mediation in disputes.

The "neutrality" of a secular society is therefore of a very limited and specific sort, and that is precisely its strength. Being clear about the nature and limits of this impartiality is essential if we are to make the case that political secularism isn't just a vehicle for ever more social secularisation.

For example, what happens when there's a rising tide of religious sentiment in a state that is officially secular? How should governments respond to the demands or desires of a population that wants more religion in its public discourse, even its laws? 
I would like to suggest an alternative view of religion to that as set out in the section on the Secular State in Fiji’s new constitution:

1.      Religion is not a private matter, when and in so far as it is not only related to the individual and her or his relations to God (or whatever other term is used for the divine, the absolute, the sacred, or the unknown), but also demands responsibility for an appropriate societal environment corresponding to the respective religious teaching. The same also applies to those who have an agnostic or atheistic view and who postulate freedom from religion, and they also struggle for a societal content which goes along with their conviction.

2.      In a democracy, believers and non-believers will use all democratic instruments to influence and to shape the societal and political opinion and decision-making processes, in order to promote and implement their religiously or non-religiously motivated concept of state and society.

3.       The consequence of the two above-mentioned aspects is that religion, and its negation, are visible in the state and society, and that the public space is neither entirely free, nor can it be kept free of religion or its negation.[x]

What must be acknowledged in this process is the commitment by religious communities to the nurturing of a civil society and the common good.

As an example, the churches in the Pacific, Fiji included were at the forefront of shaping public attitudes and influencing policies in support of a self-determining and nuclear free Pacific. Recently, in the face of the negative aspects of economic globalisation churches collaborated to offer alternative visions of society base on Christian values. One could argue that these so call private values are in fact institutional and important to society. By engaging with what it perceives as a competing vision competing, speaking out against the negative effects economic globalization has becomes an expression of defiance against the emerging global system of domination, of one ideology, one political system, one international coalition of the wealthy and the powerful.

One of the key challenges that I see in the issue of religion and a secular state is the issue of communication and language. While religious communities will need to accept their voice as one among many in the marketplace and to be able to articulate their contribution to social justice and the common good in a secular language, the state must be willing to also hear and correctly interpret statements that speak about compassion, loving kindness and brother and sisterhood as not just language of the heart or religion, but concrete expressions of the type of society that many Fijians want to live in. The secular ear must still be tuned to the language of religious and cultural symbols through which many Fijians express themselves.

I would like to conclude with some remarks from a Methodist perspective. John Wesley the founder of the Methodist movement wrote that, “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness. ‘Faith working by love’ is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.” [xi]  Methodists believe that as followers of Christ they are called to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’ and ‘leaven,’ – theological concepts that are essentially social functions, argues Wesley, and for this reason we are not to restrict ourselves to associating only with Christians. Holiness is not an avoidance of the world but a challenge to it.[xii]  

For the Methodist Church to have a prophetic voice in Fiji, therefore, means speaking the truth, in love, and responding  to the issues of injustice, poverty, of peace, of making the church home for everybody in the household of God and being concerned about society. It means acting as an agent of a God whom we consider liberative to address the legitimation of oppressive structures. Thus there will always be a social and political aspect to our expression of faith.

While today is an opportunity for us discuss clarify any misconceptions that may exist, perhaps this is also an example of what can happen then there is an openness to listen and share from both sides of the “religious” and “secular” divide. This cannot be just a one-off event but a challenge for continuous dialogue so that we can learn each other’s languages, and find ways to work together for the common good.

Thank you again for your patience.

May God bless you all and bless Fiji.

Vinaka vakalevu, Shukriya, Thank you. 

 Secularism taken to an extreme level:
·         Banning religious education and enforcement of teaching of universal secular values in education
·         Phasing out government funding for religious schools
·         Removing religious references from statutory oaths and pledges – No more “blessing grant of God of Nations”…. What of the coat of arms … Rerevaka na Kalou ka doka na Tui…
·         Abolishing parliamentary prayers /
·         Ending state support for religious institutions and personnel – no more chaplains in the military, police, prison
·         Removal of Religious Holidays from the list of Public Holidays.
·         Banning wearing of religious attire in school or public –
 law 2004-228 of 15 March 2004
concerning, as an application of the principle of the separation of church and state, the wearing of symbols or garb which show religious affiliation in public primary and secondary schools"

The law does not mention any particular symbol, and thus bans all Christian (veil, signs), Muslim (veil, signs), Sikh (turban, signs) Jewish and other religions' signs. It is however considered by many to specifically target the wearing of headscarves (a khimar, considered by most Muslims to be an obligatory article of faith as part of hijab ["modesty"]) byMuslim schoolgirls. For this reason, it is occasionally referred to as the French headscarf ban in the foreign press.

[i] Peter Saint-Andre, Secular vs. Sacred: The Modern Dilemma,
[ii] Ibid.
[iii]Ana-Maria Rizzuto, The Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study, (Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), 6.
[iv] Peter Saint-Andre, Secular vs. Sacred: The Modern Dilemma.
[v] Roger Haight, Dynamics of Theology (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2001), 32-33
[vi] Mahabharata 5, 1517
[vii] Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien
[viii] Sunnah Islam
[x] Christian Brünner, The Function and Dysfunction of Religion in our Secular State, Statement to the European Leadership Conference, Geneva, 24.-26.3.2011
[xi] John Wesley, Preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739),
[xii] Theodore Runyon, The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998),  113.

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