Separation of State and Religion

I was pleased to read the analytical and sensible, albeit brief, exposition by Dr. S. Abeysundara in ‘An open letter to Sarath Fonseka – a reply’ in ‘The Island’ of December 21, 2009. He states, ‘The separation of State and religion must be something that should never be violated’.

We, of the Sri Lanka Rationalist Association, have advocated such a separation throughout our history. When we repeated the same in these columns recently, D. H. Gunadasa contradicted us citing European countries, Islamic countries, Norway, etc. adding that ‘Hinduism too is given such status in some countries’ (18/07/09), which is not factually correct.

One may add to the list. We are of the view that it is not sensible to say that since it is so in such and such country, therefore it should be same in Sri Lanka as well. It is a pity that Mr. Gunadasa does not realize that in none of those countries, has the situation given rise to anxiety among the populace as in Sri Lanka. What is sauce for the goose is not necessarily so, for the gander.

When the Minister of Constitutional Affairs at the time, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, sought public views on the proposed Constitution, our Association submitted a memorandum, proposing among other things, ‘In a multi-religious country like Sri Lanka, the best protection for the freedom of conscience is a secular State’. However, our proposal was overlooked and Buddhism was made the preferred religion of State in the 1972 constitution.

This is a feature, that never existed before, beginning from the Colebrook, Manning, Devonshire through Donoughmore up to Soulbury reforms. We are firm in our view that this position acted as a strong catalyst for the prevailing religious and ethnic strife in the country. Now, it is better to undo the wrong late than never.

After all, what is religion? It is a set of dogma, clung on to by one group of people with emotional overtones. In Sri Lanka, there exist different sets of such dogma among different groups of people, each set of dogma is in conflict with others. When the State recognizes one set of dogma in preference to others, religious strife is unavoidable.

Why not leave it to the individual, with the State remaining aloof, like in multi-religious India, which is secular in its Constitution?

Dharmapala Senaratne
President – Sri Lanka Rationalist Association