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 feel very strongly about the need of having a common classroom subject on ethics, morality, and good citizenship. For example how much we can teach children by the simple concept of a “queue”? Here are some examples of social values that can be developed around a proper queue (1) Leadership – form a queue when there is none (2) Corporation – join the queue when there is one (3) Respect – leave enough space for others and make them comfortable. Do not peek over the shoulder (4) Patience – wait for your turn (5) Compassion – give that pregnant lady the priority (6) Courtesy - Be nice to others in the queue and person serving behind the counter, Create a pleasant atmosphere. Smile and Nod (7) … and many more
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 scheme will not be brought forward for discussion again. Whether to send the child for religious indoctrination or not should be a decision of the parents, rather than the government. 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
Blanket opposition to birth control and abortion and indirect support or indifference towards capital punishment is a surprisingly common stance among conservative religious institutions of any kind all over the world. In Sri Lanka, the religious institutions are no different. However, there is no organized outcry as yet by the Buddhist lobby to withdraw government support for birth control or to totally ban abortion. The views related to birth control and abortion seems to be personal opinions of individual clergy. However, there are many other aspects in Sri Lankan society that the Buddhist clergy feels government should directly intervene and control using new laws.
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.”
Mathata Thitha (translates to ‘Full Stop to Liquor’)
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? (Kottu Roti could 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.
That said; I do understand the peculiar issues related intoxicating substances. Throughout the western world, strict laws prevail around alcohol and those laws often stricter than what we have in Sri Lanka today. Moreover, they are enforced effectively. (E.g. in USA, legal age of consuming alcohol is 21 (not 18!). Sale of alcohol to someone below this legal age is strictly prohibited, public consumption of alcohol not allowed, drink and drive laws are severe. Let alone drink and drive; in most states it is illegal to have an open (unsealed) bottle of liquor in a vehicle. Those laws are not inspired by religious scripture, but by scientific reasoning. It is evident that Sri Lanka legal system is lagging behind in this regards, and new laws are needed to prevent harmful effects of alcohol. The proponents of such new laws will be benefited by aligning themselves with scientific reasoning, rather than religious scripture. Wider public support from all corners can be obtained for this cause if government can disassociate themselves from religion in this regards.
Another sin the committed by the champions of this cause is to bring their personal values to the table rather focusing on the real issues. If you are personally against alcohol, you need to understand that it is your personal taste. If your thoughts are tainted too much by your personal opinion, you will not see the difference between strict control and a blanket ban. By “controlling” you are not taking away the right for someone to consume alcohol in a responsible way. In USA, liquor lovers are not affected by any of the above laws, yet liquor is not a social problem in USA as the consumers are forced by the law to be responsible both regarding society, and as well as regarding themselves. (Side note: one of the two authors of this article does not consume alcohol)
If you are a vegetarian, will you be campaigning for a blanket ban of meat? If you are still not clear about the difference between strict control and a blanket ban; do you agree that people should not have sex in public, but they can do so in private?
If the “Mathata Thitha” drive is not about a total ban but about control, then whether the inspiration came from religion or not does not matter; but how you position the initiative matters. In the political world, perception is the truth. No matter how pure your intentions are, if the Catholic/Christian crowd perceives this as another attempt by the Buddhist hegemony to curtail their freedoms, there will be an unwanted backlash. Also there are many liquor loves from all faiths in the country who silently protest this, mainly because they don't know what "mathata thitha" comprise of. If the government highlights the actual need, and actual plan of implementation, rather than paying lip service to the "fifth precept", they will be able to get wider support. It should also be noted that most Buddhist activists does not know what they want to implement, other than the fact that it is inspired by the "fifth precept"