Religion and our state

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.