Separation of Religion and Governance

It is interesting to note that the core philosophy of almost all major world religions survived humankind’s relentless pursuit of determinism by way of scientific enquiry. Defenders of these religions always found ways to stay above science or, at least, to be even with the propositions of the scientific modeling of the universe. The origin of the modern scientific approach is found in cultures with a Judeo-Christian background. In those cultures, most scientists treated their efforts as a pursuit of finding the ultimate equation of God. The theories, like the Big Bang beginning of the universe, in fact, were supportive of the argument of the creation of the universe by a personal God. The laws of nature seem to break down at the Big Bang singularity and scientists agreed that only God knows what happened there. On the other hand, with the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum theory, and modern concepts of subatomic physics, the wisdom traditions of the East found their way into the minds of the scientific community. The concepts, like ‘observer-created-reality’ in quantum theory go hand-in-hand with Buddhist philosophy. Also the modern notion of ‘an undivided universe’ where the observer and the observed are treated as a single system, and every observed phenomenon is treated as manifestations of ‘an underlying wholeness’, goes well with the Hindu philosophy of undivided wholeness of the Brahman Paramaathma.


The links between scientific theories and religious views of the universe however can be just superficial, poetic or metaphorical. For example, Albert Einstein often used the word ‘God’ in his literature. However, Einstein use of the word ‘God’ is purely metaphorical. The ‘God’ can easily be replaced with ‘Nature’ and Einstein’s statements still retain its meaning. (As in his famous quote ‘God does not play dice’ which refers to his concern towards randomness in events in quantum mechanics). There still are many theists today who take Einstein’s statements out of context to “prove” that he believed in God. It is true that Einstein has never been a vocal critic of creator God concept like Richard Dawkins, nor did he subtly ridicule ‘God’ in his writings as Stephan Hawking did; However, Einstein’s can be anything but a theist. He could be an atheist, agnostic, deist or apathiest but not a theist. In another instance, Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel price winning quantum physicist named one of the mechanisms in quantum theory the “Eightfold way” (with obvious reference to the Eightfold Path in Buddhism.)  This is only indicative of Gell-Mann’s interest in eastern eclectics, and not an argument for a relationship between quantum mechanics and Buddhism.


Enlightened religious scholars are wise enough to state that science and religion belongs to different knowledge systems, and to downplay the relationships.


The philosophical base which serves as the seed for the intellectual discourse within and among religions has often little or no bearing to the way the religion is practiced in the field. The people rally not around the philosophy, but around the institution. The leaders who run the institution hold the key to the emotion-buttons that they can press to mobilize the followers in a direction that they please. A dangerous mob can be easily and quickly organized using power of custom or arbitrary authority. This is the danger of endowing religious institutions with more and more resources and authority.


In most of the religious implementations, relationship between the underlying philosophy and the practice of the intuition is similar to the relationship between the Koran to Taliban OR the Communist Manifesto to Stalin’s regime OR Eugenics to Nazi Germany. It is true that it is unfair to judge The Koran, The Communist Manifesto or Eugenics by Taliban, Stalin’s regime or Nazi Germany respectively. We all can hopefully agree that the seeds (Koran, Communist Manifesto or Eugenics) were not evil by themselves, but these three institutions were.

Separation of Religion and 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 EuropeAs 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 worshippingpromise of ‘divine protection’ and good luck’ for those who serve the interests of the clergy, superstition, claims of miracles etc.


Above and beyond all of other factors, the telltale sign of a ‘religion’ is the claims of miracles. Nature of these Miracles are surprisingly common across all monotheistic, polytheistic, and even the non-theistic religions such as Buddhism. 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)


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

Religious scholars looking for examples in the developed world where religion plays a major role in the society, often point to America. Like I said in the early part of this essay, USA is not a country I would turn to as an example to model our governance against. Actually USA is a country founded upon a secular constitution, but notoriously religious in its implementation. Its pledge of allegiance to the national flag and the its currency carries the word God (“nation under God” and ‘in God we trust” respectively). Those are the most prominent religious symptoms visible to outside world. Within America, the public schools are used to indoctrinate the children in the concept of God in most states. However, religiosity varies from state to state and in certain parts of USA, atheist lobby is strong enough make an impact (whereas in Sri Lanka, the atheist/secular lobby is virtually non-existent)


Loads of literature has already been written and there are very active and enthusiastic people like Richard Dawkins, Bill MaherSalman Rushdieetc 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 country in the world that can boast about its religious freedoms, 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 theros won’t issue a Fatwa against me for speaking against the Buddhist establishment. 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 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.”


I would like to add to that great quote and further point out that morality came first and religion came later. In that sense, religion comes from morality rather than morality comes from religion. If we are to accept Darwinian evolutionary history of ours; modern humans have been around for at least 200,000 years and modern religions came in the picture at most 5000 years ago. The human traits such as honestly, love, compassion, altruismand non-violence provided an evolutionary advantage for the collective survival of humankind. These traits can then be argued as innate values coded in to our genes. When Clarke said that religion hijacked morality, he must have been referring to the fact that now we do not see an independent existence of morality without getting it associated with whatever religion that prevails around us.

The “state of flux” has been the state of affairs with respect to morals and ethics throughout human history. The morals are always relative to the environment even in a Darwinian evolutionary point of view. Although there can be significant commonality, morals helpful for survival for people living in larger groups in open plains, that seldom come in to contact with other groups, could be slightly different from morals for small groups living in thick forests, who frequently cross boundaries of other groups.

When the socio-economic conditions changes around us, the morals and ethics has to change as well. Even those who loudly argue that morals come from religion will agree that even within religious communities, the “value systems” associated with the religious communities changed over the course of the history.

At the end, religion is only capable of creating memes that is helpful for wider population to easily adhere to. In that sense, religion provides easily digestible moral code. I actually won’t argue against the usefulness of religion in that regards. The problem is with the attitude of religious scholars, where they actively hinder the process of the evolution of moral frameworks outside of religion – a true “hijacking” or morality.


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.