By Hans Dembowski
Secularism is often misunderstood. This principle of enlightenment is not about government fighting religion, it is about the state being equidistant to all faiths.
Some fervent believers are and were secularists in this sense. Consider the founding fathers of the USA for instance. They separated church and state not because they were hostile towards region, but because they did not want their various churches to become corrupted by politics. They were aware of the bloodshed Europe had suffered when political leaders tried to enforce their religious beliefs, relentlessly persecuting dissenters and even going to war.
The idea of separating state and religion may seem counter-intuitive at first glance as both make rules. They make different kind of rules however. Religious rules are meant to guide the personal lives of believers and are geared to supernatural salvation. State rules, in contrast, are meant to facilitate peaceful co-existence in the daily lives of people who may have quite different backgrounds and regions principles, but must get along in the society.
Belief is a subjective matter, and only the individuals concerned can tell whether they truly believe – and what kind of minor or major sin they may be willing to commit or condone. Misbehaviour in an earthly jurisdiction, in contrast, is an objective matter that affects others. Religious rules, when observed, give believers peace of mind. Secular rules, however, should be signed in a way that facilitates social life, focusing on reasonable and enforceable principles, but not emphasising morals.
While believers are free to accept for themselves whatever norms spiritual leaders stipulate, citizens must be free from clerics and others meddling in their private lives. Yes, a strong set of moral principles can give people a sense of personal discipline that helps them cope with challenges that might otherwise overwhelm them. Ultimately, however, this is a private, not a public matter.
Of course, the human right of freedom of speech applies to religious leaders too. Like everyone else, they are entitled to argue their case in the public sphere and try to convince people. They must not assume, however, they are the ones to ultimately define laws in the world, nor must they demonise whoever disagrees with them. To demonise is to de-humanise and spread hate.
Religious leaders who insist that everyone, believe or not, must follow their doctrine overstep their authority. No elaborate theology imposes its standards on non-believers. It will always leave after-life punishment to the Devine.
The sad truth, however, is that no religion is immune to identity politics, and identity politics can spawn intolerance, even supremacist attitudes. Ethnicity, race and language are often instrumentalised in similar ways. In many places, such issues overlap. Things become dangerous when identity politics instills a strong sense of “us versus them” in society. In view of social change and crises, many people long to belong to clear-cut community.
Faith-based identity politics, however, is always more about politics than about faith. All world religions emphasise peace, and any faith is soiled by fanatics who resort to violence in its name.
True believers don’t call to arms. Whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu or other, they trust that the Devine is in charge of their lives.
Hans Dembowski is editor in chief of D+C development and cooperation / E+Z Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit Magaine. This article is taken from a printed version of the magazine, No. 5 | 2013
* The original title of the article is “a longing to belong” i inserted “for religious Ethiopia”
** I informed the author about reposting it on my blog
*** I have found the original article online. Thank you Monika Hellstern (part of D+C team) for directing me to the link. http://www.dandc.eu/en/article/alle-weltreligionen-predigen-frieden-und-wuetende-fanatiker-jedweder-konfession-besudeln