Religion and our state

Fr. Ranhilio Callangan Aquino

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Religion and our state
When 'secular state' becomes the reason that religion can no longer publicly manifest itself, that is most assuredly a threat to liberty

The topic “religion and the secular state” was what scholars talked about at a forum on Thursday, August 3, that starred, so reports say, several of the lights that shine brightly in the legal firmament. 

I had received an invitation to participate, but I was unable to confirm. I still would like to say my piece though.

First, about “secular state” – I assume the posture of a logical positivist. I want to know exactly what its advocates mean by that term. If by it they mean a State that adopts the ideology, the weltanschauung of “secularism”, then at least we would know what they mean. Is it a “description” of what the contemporary state is? And if it is, is it not rather presumptuous to assume that states take on a singular complexion that enables one to characterize them, with confidence, either as “secular” or “non-secular”? Is it, rather, the expression of a desideratum: that the state should be secular?

My point is that States are, among the different human institutions, creatures of their histories, and either their romance or their bitter experience with religion etches itself deeply into the character of a nation. This is the reason for my hesitation about assuming that “secular state” has a definite referent. 

And even when the State’s constitution announces its neutrality in respect to religion, that will not stop the state from assimilating so much that is religious into its public life. Its constitutional neutrality in respect to religion notwithstanding, there will be public observances of religious feasts, references to religion even in official documents, the services of ministers of religion in different departments of national life, and religious rites at public events. And to see in all this invariably a threat to liberty, a derogation of democracy, is just foolish!

If I get the general drift of the argument of the prophets of the “secular state” correctly, it is not really “secularism” as such on which there is a premium but on the liberty, the freedom from coerced association (laicité) and basic human rights that are the real issue. 

With the proposition so indisputably at the heart of any democratic society that a person be free to believe what he chooses to believe and to pursue the dictate of his belief, no matter that these may be bizarre, as long as they transgress not the rights of others, I have no quarrel. But that, to me, does not translate to a “secular state”. 

In fact, when “secular state” becomes shorthand for “state that institutionalizes secularism”, it is then that liberty is threatened, for the State takes on an ideology that makes it hostile to any public displays of religion and that makes of any religious or theological argument repulsive.

But the first demand of rationality is never to reject, outrightly, any claim to truth because of its provenance, particularly when one discriminates on sectarian grounds. But when “secular state” becomes the reason that religion can no longer publicly manifest itself, when faith is expunged from public life for fear of offending those who do not believe, then the latter has been given the determining vote on the shaping of society. And that is not democratic. That is most assuredly a threat to liberty. 

Just as it took some time for philosophy to debunk the myth of the “objective”, perhaps we should get to work speeding up the obsolescence of “complete neutrality”.

When one forbids the display of religious symbols in public spaces or in government offices because these might offend those who choose not to believe, a freer society is not thereby brought about, but one rather that has allowed one persuasion to say what may go public and what may not. And that is most assuredly not fair. 

A freer society is one that is cognizant of the history of a nation – and our nation is one that has religion woven into the fabric of the national character. Such a position, whether in policy or in jurisprudence, would in fact be the Trojan horse of intolerance. Wanting to undo that which is a part of our national narrative is as unphilosophical as the denial of facticity!

A freer society keeps public spaces public – with room enough and room to spare for the expression of all faiths, creeds as well as aversion to creeds and faiths. It is nothing else than the fundamental moral precept of not shutting anyone out a priori from public discourse. But when “secular state” means that priests and rabbis, imams and shamans will no longer be heeded, then the result is most assuredly not a more democratic society, not a freer society but an extremely restrictive society – the polar opposite of inclusiveness and tolerance. 

“Secular state” cannot be the pretext for the nurturing of national intolerance for manifestations of religion. That would assume that religion is wrong and non-religion is right. So why should the icons and symbols, the tokens and rites of religion be hidden from public view, hymns muffled and chants subdued for fear of offending skeptics and atheists? Is it because tacitly we have assumed them to be right and all believers, misled? But that would be a very prejudicial, unpardonably undemocratic assumption.

I prefer “free state” to secular state – for that is to me the highest attribute of mind and intelligence: freedom. And while no believer who does not trivialize his faith will ever grant that others faiths or that unbelief has the same worth and value as his posture, the free mind is one that assures the openness of the agora – so that there is room enough for the proclamation of the victory of God as there will be for the death of God, without anyone being silenced or shoved by law and jurisprudence behind shut doors. 

If anything at all, we should be nurturing the national habit of tolerance and the virtue of accommodation – not so that all religions may become eclectic and syncretist, but in the sobering relation that others with differing, dissenting world-views are as convinced as I, and are as entitled to public manifestations and proclamations of their convictions. –


The author is Vice President for Administration and Finance of Cagayan State University and Dean of the Graduate School of Law, San Beda College.


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