By Shyamon Jayasinghe –
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org