22 May, 2022


A Secular State Is Best For Sri Lanka: Marx’s Core Propositions On Religion

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Let’s give Marx a 200-th birthday present (yesterday) by contemplating his views on religion. There are several interpretations, most expounded by people who have read little and understand less of Marx. Was he an atheist or an agnostic? Did he oppose the philosophy of the religions he knew (Christianity and Judaism)? Or was his critique limited to institutionalised religion as a force giving ideological support to the propertied classes and deceiving people into accepting the hegemony of the state, the agent of the exploiting classes? Since these interpretations are not all in conflict with each other, some sorting is in order.  In the second part of this essay I argue that it would be good if we repeal Chapter 2 of the Constitution and explicitly declare Sri Lanka a secular state.

The best-known Marx quote on religion is from the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right written in 1843. Somewhat abbreviated, it reads as follows:

QUOTE: “The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness, because it is an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form. The struggle against religion is the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is a criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo”. END QUOTE

The criticism is forthright and turns on two points. One; religion is a web of illusions that deludes men and women into accepting their condition in exchange for imaginary payback in heaven, nirvana, one-with-the-atman, etc. Two; delusions impede the pursuit of liberation and need to be cast aside.

Ok let’s move on and next ask Marx: “What about those who have no illusions about exploitation and oppression but freely hold firm to a faith – Liberation Theology clerics (Paul Caspersz), radicals who also adhere to a faith, and so on?” Marx would have no problem as they are not high on the figurative opium. “If you raise your voice against exploitation and oppression, good luck buddy, your views on Jesus, Buddha, and the afterlife are no concern of mine”, he would respond.

The quotation was written when Marx was only 26, long before he got stuck into economic researches and the groundwork for Kapital.  It belongs to the period called ‘Young Marx’ which peaked in the famous 1844 (or Paris) Manuscripts, exploring alienation, humanism and philosophy, and before he went over to hard social analysis, political-economy and the scientific method. A spot quote from the latter period sums up his later formulation of the same point:“The English established church will more readily pardon an attack on 38 of its 39 articles than on (1/39)th of its property”.(Preface to the German and French Editions of Kapital, 1867).

Was Marx an atheist or only concerned about institutionalised religion and society? The old fogey was never explicit in the way Voltaire was, or specific about the existence or otherwise of god. There is nothing in Marx like Russel’s Why I am not a Christianor the abrasive atheism of Dawkins. I am conversant with all Marx’s major texts including Kapital (3 paradigm creating volumes), Theories of Surplus Value(3 boring ones),German Ideology, Grundrisse, obscure works like Holy Family, The Jewish Question, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and all the shorter works. From that vantage my take is that he did not much bother about whether god existed or not and he is best described as a beer guzzling, cigar chomping agnostic who was prepared to explore the dialectics of the afterlife once he got there. “There is no necessary connection – in logic or in history – between atheism, science and liberalism” says John Gray, himself an atheist, in the Guardianof 15 March 2015. And I would add “and Marxism”; though Engels and the others at Highgate Cemetery could not have stomached a religious send off.

How odd, there were a grand total of just eleven at Marx’s burial, but a BBC on-line poll in September 2000 scored him as the most influential thinker of the last millennium! Einstein, Newton and Darwin were the runners up.

State and religion in the 21-st Century

A theocracy, and a state with an official religion, are not the same. Theocracy is when religion is adopted as the foundation of political institutions and laws. The institutional and legal standing of Sharia in Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen mark them as theocracies. Nigeria and Pakistan are half-way; Nigeria gives its States the choice; in Pakistan the Supreme Court can overrule the interpretations of Muslim scholars.

State recognition of religion is more widespread. Here is a partial list. Christianity including Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxies, Calvinism and Anglicanism: Costa Rica, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, Italy, Andorra, Argentina, El Salvador, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Greece, Georgia, Bulgaria, England, Hungary and Zambia. Islam is the official religion of the following (non-theocratic) states: Algeria, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordon, Libya, Malaysia, Morocco, Tunisia and a few others. Islam is not the state religion of Indonesia but you would have thought otherwise to judge by the screw-loose zealots running wild.

Haiti recognises Voodoo – my kind of place! They should move the Royal-Thomian there, hire the sakkili band as a seasonal orchestra and induct Vernon Rozairo as High Priest. Israel is another odd one; constitutionally Judaism is not the state religion, nevertheless it determines relations between state and religion. Nepal was the world’s only Hindu kingdom till a revolution corrected the anomaly about 10 years ago. The USA, India, Brazil, Australia, South Africa, Canada, China, Singapore, Russia and about 60-70 others are hard (state-religion nexus prohibited), or soft (small overlap as in the five Nordic countries), secular states.

Sri Lanka

Buddhism gets into the act in a few places: Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka. Chapter 2 of our Constitution says: “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the state to protect and foster the Buddha Śãsana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e)”. Article 10 guarantees every person religious freedom and 14(1)(e) assures the right to practice, observe and manifest religion in public or private. (Buddha Śãsana is a general term which I think means the teachings of the Buddha and the practice of Buddhism).

Constitutionally, Sri Lanka is a soft religious-state; Chapter 2, ameliorated by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e), is only a mild handicap on rationality. An essay like this one, in a theocratic Islamic state, would provoke an institutional backlash, while in Lanka it may elicit some ideological rhetoric. Our problem lies in the mass domain. Public displays by extremists, in robes and without, take the form of confessional intolerance, recurring pogroms, jaw breaking renaming of roads and barring citizens from purchasing a well-deserved tot or a pound of beef on poyaday. These are not acts of veneration but a means of asserting dominance. The “you do what we say” syndrome in matters of race and faith is psycho-pep for a petty-bourgeoisie afflicted with an inferiority complex. In a formally secular state such atavistic practices would lack legal sanction and face moral discouragement.

Mahinda Deshapriya is reported to have told a seminar on ethnicity that “Most Sinhalese are pleased about recent anti-Muslim riots by mobs and were happy to see Tamils attacked in Black July”. That means Sri Lanka has a long way to go to reach civilised pluralism; secularism will help the journey. In the US and Europe thousands of Whites march and campaign to protest violence against blacks, Jews and Muslims, but Sinhalese mass protest against butchering minorities or STF complicity in provoking violence is zero. When I discuss this with Sinhalese friends a shutter comes down behind their eyes. Imagine Rajapaksa, Sirisena, or for that matter Wickramasinghe raising their voices to condemn majoritarian racism! They will condemn specific acts of violence but never will they identify its socio-ethnic character.

In much of Asia majoritarian nationalism is a central feature of the attempt to consolidate a nation state. India though a secular state is suffering Hindu epilepsy. The reluctance of Modi and the BJP leaders to condemn Hindutva is read as encouragement because of the former’s RSS past. The lesson is that in addition to constitutional secularism, leaders must espouse a secular style in public functions in multi-faith nations. A secular state alone does not guarantee a secular culture. Regrettably, and to the contrary, our chaps fall over each other, no doubt for the edification of the electorate, to fill the front pages with photos bowing, scarping and supplicating at shrines and temples. But thankfully a few trade unions took a stand and refused to be cowed down on May Day because the waxing moon reached its maximum the same day. The JVP has capitulated and somersaulted to Jaffna. In the past it had a hard time with Sinhala nationalism, it seems religion has become its latest opium. Anura K’s Vesak message on the JVP website will surely win him ordination in pink-and-yellow robes!

To put this essay in balance I need to conclude by adding that I have more regard for the Buddha’s philosophy than those of other religions. I readily accept four of the Five Precepts – I drop the fifth about missing my tot; Omar Khayyam’s Bacchanalianism suits me better. The Precepts are more sensible than the Ten Commandments, the first four of which are a straightjacket. The Eightfold Path is sagacious; I find it helpful when encapsulated into three: Right Understanding from which will flow Right Attitude, which should translate into Right Action – Effort, Speech, Livelihood, Mindfulness and Concentration are aspects of Action.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    The Messenger

    “My Sri Lanka is not a Sinhala Country or a Tamil Country or an English Country. It is not a Buddhist Country or a Hindu Country or a Muslim Country or a Christian Country. It is not a Sinhala Country that belongs to Sinhala-Buddhists, Sinhala-Hindus, Sinhala-Muslims and Sinhala-Christians. “

    Very Good.
    What are you doing in my ancestral land?
    When are you leaving?

  • 3

    I have read Kumar David’s most of the articles published in CT. I have formed the view that he is a Separatist.

  • 1

    What we have in Sri Lanka is an opportunity to shape her into a …..Multi Cultural, Multi lingual, Multi Ethnic hot spot of an amazing nature. This is not only an opportunity but also our way of paying tribute to all Mother Lanka’s children who died for various causes directly and indirectly since independence. To achieve this a “secular” politics need to be in place creating a conducive ambiance for her people to unit to shape a beautiful future for themselves and to the greater world too. We could be the most technologically advanced bio diverse nation in the world taking care of her population growth at a balanced level she can live in harmony with the nature she is already blessed with etc. Nothing is exploited and wasted but put to good use through Reserach and Development making her a place for sustainable growth looking beyond the normal growth indicators such GDP’s but more on Gross National Happiness. Perhaps we need to enshrine this into the Constitution as Bhutan has done in 2008. When this kind of philosophy that get ensrined into state mechanism we the citizens can focus on a collective way forward where religious priciples contribute to human dignity but not to undermine the fundamental of human existence in the name of “whatever” Thank you for the article.

  • 0

    Agree with Okanda. I have noticed a suttle effort to create a separation nation in Sri Lanka in most of Kumar David’s articles. Not happy.

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