29 November, 2021

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Giving Religion A Privileged Status Is Weird

By Shyamon Jayasinghe

Shyamon Jayasinghe

Privileging

Sri Lanka’s Penal Code protects religion in a weird sort of way and shelters it from open discussion with regard to their various claims. This kind of privileging of religion has no rational basis and it is not found anywhere in in the developed world today. We had this sort of privileging in the West until 500 years ago during the Middle Ages, also known as the ‘Dark Ages.’ It is a different world there now where statistics show a sharp decline of religious faith. The same with Australia.

In countries in this part of the world individuals are free to discuss religion as they do discuss any other subject. Religious instruction is not available in state schools where kids are encouraged to treat the claims of religion in the same way as they treat other beliefs. It is a wholly new revolutionary world that is being created in the West where individuals are free to make up their own minds on the basis of public evidence and not on the authority of Holy Books, priests, monks, and Mullahs.

Sri Lanka Penal code

Let’s look at the law in Sri Lanka. Articles 290-292 of the Penal Code provide the framework for restricting expressions that hurt religious sentiments. Article 291A and 291B limit expressions that are deemed offensive to religion.

Article 291A states:

Whoever, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person, or makes any gesture in the sight of that person, or places any object in the sight of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.” 

Article 291B states:

Whoever, with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of persons, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”

Police have known to take strict action against perceived insults to Buddhism. Foreign tourists perceived to be “disrespecting” the religion have regularly fallen foul of the law.  Even a local poetic youth was detained in custody for writing differently about the Buddhist religion

Intention

The wording in the Penal code is dangerous although presumably prefaced by an ‘intention.’ In the prevailing context of the politics of Sri Lanka it is easy to interpret a criticism as one “intended” to cause an “outrage of religious feeling.” If Martin Wickremasinghe lived today he would have been probably jailed for his non-conventional interpretation of the Buddha in Bavatharanya. There are many rowdy persons roaming in saffron robes who can be mobilised to inflict unnecessary damage to individuals who may merely be expressing their human rights to interpret and speak freely about the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha’s teachings are open to interpretation anyway as the Great Teacher did not leave anything in writing. If the justice system doesn’t deal with ‘offenders,’ these lawless ‘holy tribes,’ will. And politicos can exploit that to score points from a gullible populace.

Religion Has Lost its Magesteria

A Religion represents a system of beliefs pertaining to the reality of the universe, life and a posited afterlife. Depending on interpretations, innumerable rituals, prayers and worship practices follow.

Children are labeled at birth as ‘ a Christian child,’ ‘a Muslim child,’ or a Buddhist child,’ or ‘a Hindu child,’ and so on. The newborn infant isn’t aware of what is happening to him in Baptism, for instance. Now, this practice is abominable and constitutes a violation of a human being’s right to form his own beliefs and opinions. Yet, that is what happens. But that is not the subject of this discussion.

The central problem about religious beliefs is that they are based entirely on faith as given in some Holy Book. They are not the result of a scientific investigation of discovery derived by evidence and reasoning. This accounts for the numerous contradictions within the various religious faiths but the believer is brainwashed to ignore contradictions and take it that their particular faith is the true one and that their God is the right one.

In the era before science arose, religious teachers were the only guide as far as what reality, life and the universe is. Thus, the Bible told us that the earth was the centre of the universe and that it was only 6000 years old and that it was all created by an omnipotent God the creator in seven days. Furthermore, that this transcendent being watches each and every of the 8 billion souls living in different parts and corners of the world. So beware.

With the Renaissance and the dawn of scientific ways of thinking and discovery scientists have discovered by hard evidence that the world is at least 7 billion years old and that the life of organisms including men were not created but simply evolved by a process of natural -selection -guided evolution. The process of natural selection accounts for the apparent design that one observes in life.

It is not possible to have two overlapping systems of reality. We thus understand that with the advent of science the old magesteria of religion has been displaced. In order to understand the world, life, human behavior, the movement of stars and planets, geology, climate, health issues and death one must necessarily go to science. For instance, the scientific understanding of disease led to the technology of medicines and diagnostic devices. The understanding of space led to technologies of air travel and space travel.

Science must take precedence

It is clear from the foregoing that we have to invoke scientific methods of investigation and discovery when trying to comprehend reality and that the old religious interpretations have to retreat with grace.

Open and Competitive Environment

Modern mankind will live in an open-thinking and competitive intellectual environment. Individuals are to be encouraged to raise questions, check hypotheses and move on to the search for truth.

The hold of religious faith in these areas is thus redundant and unfortunate. The habit of questioning must grow if people are to be enlightened about their surroundings and life.

This habit extends to the questioning of conventionally received alleged truths of religion. Was Jesus divine? How did the New Testament come into being? What was the Old Testament? Was Abraham true? Was Adam and eve true? Did God send Jesus to die on the cross and atone for our sins? Wasn’t that cruel? If our sins had been thereby atoned why are we still regarded as sinners? Was Jesus born of a virgin? How was that? Did Prophet Muhammed fly to heaven on a winged horse? How could it possibly be that the Koran was recited to the Prophet by Archangel Gabriel? How could the Buddha have spoken immediately upon birth? With the death of our brain nothing called consciousness or a soul is left. How, then, can we talk of after life: heaven or hell or Samsara? How do Hindus eventually get reabsorbed with Brahma? Can it be that the caste system is Brahma- originated? Should widows be doomed as the Book of Manu asserts?

Contemporary Minds are Set to raise Questions

Although not so to the minds of persons a century ago more and more contemporary minds raise such questions. Now, as suggested by the above observations, such doubts naturally arise in the modern mind.

What matters is what is true. We are entirely entitled to criticise any beliefs. These expressions aren’t necessarily criticisms of persons. They are attempts to get at the truth. It maybe that the new ‘dangerous’ ideas do hurt the sentiments of those who still hold onto them but the intention of those expressing them isn’t necessarily to “insult” persons but to call in question ideas. Rather, that “insult” is collateral damage. Are we to avoid denying that the world is merely 6000 years old on the grounds that such a denial might “hurt” those who might still like to stick to that belief?

The Penal code is open to the danger of treating any criticism of religious beliefs as “insulting,” or “hurting sentiments.” It can also be abused by authorities to crush dissentients and throw them into jail. 

*The writer can be reached at shyamonjayasinghe@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 5
    11

    As long as the laws do not impinge on your beliefs, religions remain harmless.
    Every religion has its strengths and weaknesses. No religion is better than the other.
    What is weird is the sermon of Shyamon Jayasinghe.

    • 2
      0

      Nathan

      I never liked Tamil Nadu crooks holding the people down.
      However the recent elections have produced some promising leaders.
      One of them is Palanivel Thiagarajan.
      He is discussing devolution of power or federalism in a practical and meaningful way. Please watch this clip:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9SSJZI1rQk

      There is a lot to learn from this clip.

      • 1
        0

        Thank you, Native Vedda. My gadget is not bringing the video up. I’ll see if I can overcome the difficulty.

      • 1
        0

        Nathan

        Here is another one
        ‘The Curious Case of Indian Federalism: from Cooperative to Centralised’
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKxR4UQYWHU
        Palanivel Thiagarajan makes sense of federal system.
        Those who oppose federal system should invite him to present the case for devolved federal system.

      • 5
        1

        Native,
        Unfortunately, this sort of thing is beyond the 3 wheeler mentality of much of our population. You really expect them to learn from a terrorist with a pottu? From Tamil Nadu of all places? Give them a philosopher like Gandasara any day.

        • 1
          0

          old codger

          “You really expect them to learn from a terrorist with a pottu?”

          Nopes.
          However I want JVP supporters to watch this type of clips and educate themselves if at all possible.

          They are still 100 years behind, parroting the old slogans such as, “workers of the world unite”, “Never benefit oneself, always benefit others”, “Serving the People”, “Let 100 flowers bloom”, ….. “Dictatorship of the proletariat”, … They keep inventing fire, wheel, democracy, …..

          It is your mistake you failed to educate them.

      • 0
        0

        Dear NV,
        .
        I’d like to ask you point blank why you think nobody (including you!) wants to even read about the Anglican Church when so many keep attacking it as a bastion of privilege.
        .
        I’ll accept any reason you give me!

    • 1
      1

      What a precious piece of analysis! Congrats Shyamon!

  • 9
    1

    I’ve recently learned I’m a direct descendent of Buddha ……. I guess I’m Nepalese.

    • 9
      3

      “It is not possible to have two overlapping systems of reality.”
      Oh, come on Shyamon, it is possible in this island like no other, where the Minister of Health can throw pots into a river to defeat Covid, or a team of University scientists claim their inspiration came from Natha Deviyo.
      When children in school are taught Science, but taught sanctimonious rubbish at the Daham Pasala, why should we be surprised when the President of the doctors’ union claims that Sri Lankans of yore lived to 140?
      Religion should be banned from education.

    • 7
      3

      nimal, That makes you one who believes that Buddha was a Nepalese. What a shame! Buddha was a Sri Lankan. Claim your vantage back!

    • 5
      1

      nimal fernando

      “I’ve recently learned I’m a direct descendent of Buddha ……. I guess I’m Nepalese.”

      You foot must be 68 in. long, 31 in. wide at the toes, and 29 in. wide at the heel give or take an inch or two, according to Sri Pada scale.

      How tall are you, …. the length of your hands, legs, from neck to …. and other parts of body? How do you manage your mundane everyday routine …?

      Gota believes he is Buddha.

    • 1
      0

      Nimal, replace ‘Buddha’ with ‘Mohammed’ and you will be living in fear of retribution from Muslims. Only Buddhists think you’re a simple-minded fool.

      • 2
        0

        “Only Buddhists”

        The 6.9 million?

        They don’t have a great track record for intelligence: now do they? :))))

  • 3
    2

    It is true that the religious prominence of one over the other should have no role when it comes to the governance of a pluralistic country. But all religions can play a greater role in preventing and detecting crime too. Similarly in the name of religious belief denying the right to have a critical study about religions is a state crime.

    On the theological ground, I would like to read more from the author, when he stated that religious beliefs are being declined in the west. and Australia. But the vacuum created by such ‘decline of faith is filled by what?’ is a theological question we all have to ponder. Because religious beliefs are rooted in metaphysical sciences and metaphysical science is one which is hard to replace by science.

    What is problematic in pluralistic countries like Sri Lanka and Bhutan is politicizing the religion in the constitution by making one religion the state religion.

  • 1
    0

    I haven’t been in SL since i left in 2006 so I have no interest in politics or ever coming back. This is got nothing to do with the Rajapaskes’ .
    There is a global trucking and shipping crisis. Everywhere truckers ( 10-20 % ) are are refusing to get vaccinated. Causing distribution problems. The world is not some small place. These not like our Tata lorry drivers. These a massive containers with 20-30 Wheels. A driver is a well-paid union job and a dangerous job. Trucks have to be driven hundreds of miles with millions of dollars worth of merchandise.
    There is an shipping problem was as well. Few months ago a Indian ship got stuck in the Suez canal. It took them about 3 weeks to pull the ship out. This blocked thousands of ships. It broke down the worldwide supply chain. All these ships went late to their destination. You can’t just dock into a port when ever you want . If you miss your spot, you have wait in line. Right now there thousands of ships are outside the ports waiting to get in. This disruption , along with covid worker shortages and caused a massive backlog. It will take months. to clear. The food and produce has already gone to waste. Say you send a shipment of Mangos from Sri Lanka to Spain. What do you think happens to the mangos when they come 5 weeks late ?

  • 6
    1

    Article 241 A and B seems like comedy. The way it ‘s written, pretty much anyone visiting Lanka should be dumb and deaf so that not to hurt feelings of SB. If you apply the same to Ape Man Ganasara, then he should be in prison for life term, for all the rubbish he had said and done in public. What is practised in Lanka is not religion but fanaticism, hatred and evil.

    • 6
      1

      Chiv,
      These articles are a legacy of British rule. Even the Brits had laws against blasphemy and “indecency”, but they have moved on. We haven’t. Even our much-vaunted “morality” is inspired by 19th century missionaries.

      • 0
        0

        OC, Lanka sure is weird and the voting public is not just weird but insane. There is a video posted on social media, where a young couple visiting Lanka were in Viharamaha Devi park on a stroll and decided to take a breather under shade. From no where two cops showed up in civil questioning whether they were Tamils. Reason, they were not suppose to sit in that vicinity where an idol is placed. In fact girl’s mom is Tamil, father is Burgher but boyfriend is out and out Sinhalese. Only when the boy revealed his identity, the two men started giving excuses saying they were just following instructions. Article 241, my foot. A person with a tattoo (own body , own choice) is arrested because it’s objectionable to SB, in that case will Lanka warn tourist with potential objectionable tattoos from visiting the country.( under visa section ???)

        • 0
          0

          Chiv,
          Yes, I read of Roel Raymond’s experience. If these ignorant layabouts can do that to an articulate journalist, what wouldn’t they do to someone who can’t speak Sinhala? What, in any case, is the point in “guarding” these fake concrete statues?

  • 8
    2

    Religion is blind following.

    When Ranil W maneuverer himself to parliament despite his 50 year political career being totally rejected by the people, you wrote that Ranil always rises from his defeats and that the opposition will soon gather around him.

    Truth ?

    Blind following ?

  • 2
    1

    Sorry it’s its article 291 and not 241 (does it matter ??) as mentioned in my above comment. Shyamon, you mentioning religious beliefs will sure open floodgates on various religion and merits than discussing about the stupidity of article 291 A ,B and how Lanka has returned to dark / stone ages. Gift of Viyathmaga.

  • 1
    0

    What more could go wrong under Rajapakshe-brothers ?
    .
    All these were not overlooked to anyone with some sanity- but over 6.9 mio of MODAYAS made it possible.
    :
    Ewa Wanasundhara and her direct INVOLVEMENT exonerated all high criminals from their crime investigations. This appointment was made for that purpose. Except this, Gota has achieved nothing – nothing for the benefit of masses, but he DELIBERAELY ruined it.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxxy8UjiXKY

    Dog Sir has ruined it as no other leaders in this god punished nation.

    • 0
      0

      This is simply the LEVEL of Judges in SRILANKA …. so what more talks needed ????????????????????????????????????????????????

  • 3
    5

    In Germany there is a political party named Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and there is a separate tax to support the Church.

    • 3
      0

      Eagle Bumb Eye

      “In Germany there is a political party named Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and there is a separate tax to support the Church.”

      FYI
      Germany’s GDP

      2011 – 2012 – 2013 – 2014 – 2015 – 2016 – 2017 – 2018 – 2019 –
      2,703.1- 2,758.2 -2,826.2 – 2,938.6 – 3,048.9 -3,159.8 – 3,277.3 -3,386.0 – 3,449.1 (Bil Euro)

  • 4
    2

    Anyone, whether a local or a tourist, can hurt the religious sentiments of a Catholic, Christian, Hindu or Muslim here without suffering any bad consequences. Only those who hurt the religious sentiments of Buddhists are likely to get into serious trouble. Articles 291A and 291B are enforced selectively, on that basis. Can anyone recall an instance of anyone being harassed by the police or being prosecuted for hurting the religious sentiments of a Non-Buddhist?

  • 2
    1

    Not just SL, this is across the world in USA, UK, France, Russia, Saudi, Malaysia, Turkey, Israel, etc.

    Noting unusual.

  • 2
    1

    Religion and Religious leaders can play a key role in helping people those who are happy to follow faith on Religion. But politics is very dangerous place for Religion and religious leaders to follow the principles of religion. Politics divides people. Religions unite people. So the religious leaders can play a key role in educating guiding the people about kindness, love, sacrifice, tolerance, non violence by working with the people at Temples, and villages etc. For example after the Easter Bombing, they should have worked with those who were affected by Bomb blast and those who were affected by riots and so on. Unfortunately, the President, Prime Minister and Ministers spend more time and resources in religious places and with Religious leaders than they spent time on official matters or with public problems. Now we talk about the wastage of money but never worried about the waste of money and resources in spending time in religious activities.
    Let both Religion and politics should be independent from each other! Don’t damage Religion and Politics together!

    • 1
      0

      This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.

      For more detail see our Comment policy

      • 1
        0

        Truth is a bitter pill to swallow! Do not like the truth that Tamil Catholic priests gave their support to Tamil terrorists.

  • 0
    2

    I congratulate Shyamon for reaching his second “youth-hood” in discarding religion, beliefs etc. and advocating a place for science and rational thinking. Among the many an incident that has taken place here, the youth today in Sri Lanka, on the average will not believe or accept anything just because the textbook says so but appeal to reason. They are quite good at using logical thinking and that is amazing. But there are a few young who do believe the “mythical” world even amounting embracing witchcraft, extremism and sadly terrorism. Sri Lanka is a country having a population of all kinds. The amity amongst them is paramount. As Shyamon is aware, most religions have a graphic symbol in statues. Others don’t and they detest such statues. Imagine a discussion takes place on a religious teaching the hall mark of which is there are no graphical images. Those who are offended by it, misunderstanding that it is from a party that values such symbols damage such statues leading to violence. Prevention is better than cure. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned the law as it is on religion is timely. Perhaps the average Australian agrees to disagree but not here.

  • 0
    0

    SJ has got himself into a hopeless muddle this time. He mistakes the object of the cited sections of the Penal Code, as being to ‘give religion a privileged status’ when what their actual intention is to prevent religious conflict. The law is unconcerned about whether religious beliefs are true and if they can stand the test of objective scientific scrutiny; the law’s concern is the importance of those beliefs to the people. And in SL for most people, their religious beliefs and practices are very sacred. So, it is imperative that the particular provisions of the Penal Code, should remain on the statute book. A country’s laws should be relevant to the that country’s conditions and reflect community expectations. A comparison with the law in other countries with different conditions is irrelevant and pointless. As for the position in Western liberal democracies, it is debatable if that is the ideal. Remember what happened a few years ago with the work of a Danish cartoonist? That is clearly not the sort of thing we want to see repeated.

  • 1
    0

    Giving Religion A privileged status is weird says Shyamon Jayasinghe………
    True; And it has been so right along; Religion is all-too-often a refuge for scoundrels……….

  • 1
    0

    ‘Giving Religion A Privileged Status Is Weird’
    .
    How true. God Bless America, one nation under God, and while He’s at it, God Bless the Queen too.

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