Sometime last year, it hit me like a ton of bricks that I may have almost, emphasis on the word almost, grown up in a country where the state professes its faith to a certain religion. The idea almost, emphasis on the word almost, shocked me to my very core.

Secular government is not about being irreligious or atheist. It is not about outlawing the practise and professing of one’s faith. It is about having the freedom to be a believer or a non-believer. It is about not being deemed unworthy or less than for having religious or spiritual beliefs that are not sanctioned by the state.

In a country where the population is multi-ethnic and multi-religious, a secular government is our best option to create harmony. The state’s leaders may have their own religious inclinations, but they do not and are not permitted to promote or proselytise. This is good governance. If we allow ourselves to be led by people who promote or hijack the agenda based on religious and moral grounds, we’re going to create a culture of bigotry and hypocrisy.

I’ve always viewed the leader of a religious congregation as no different to a principal of a school. Their purpose is to guide and lead your soul through scripture, singing, doctrine and rituals. Should these religious leaders be allowed to influence the state? If you have a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population, then all of the different religious leaders should be allowed the same amount of influence. But I would still argue that it should not influence the state’s affairs anymore than a school principal should be allowed to influence the state’s affairs. Once again, I am speaking of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population here.

While there is no doubt that most countries do have a dominant ethnic and even religious majority; the growing number of atheists and agnostics, especially in developed societies, is a sure indication that people do not necessarily want the school principal of their professed faith to make political decisions based on religious doctrine.

From my understanding and worldview, religious leaders have to undertake a period of study, usually at a religious institution. Regardless of the denomination of the faith, these are not secular institutions where one gets much exposure to other belief systems and ways of being in the world.

To give a simple example, if I studied to be an English teacher, I probably should not be teaching math. Similarly, religious leaders have learned and been exposed to certain doctrines based on their education. So if you were not educated in other doctrines, you wouldn’t be the right person to teach it or pass judgment on it.

Countries which are self-declared secular and/or with no state religion.

Similarly, people who turn to their religious leaders for matters which are non-related to their education and scope, will not be able to receive adequate guidance on those matters. Matters of faith, when taken to an extreme and when they grow out of proportion, can create disharmony within cross segments of its population.

People, however, generally don’t choose their leaders based on their qualifications. In many countries, election fever in itself can be likened to a form of frenzy where people make uninformed decisions based on their feelings about the candidate. They don’t look through his or her CV and then decide whether this is the right person for the job they’re applying for.

A few years ago, when I was still teaching English, I would sometimes overhear my students ask the maths teacher to help them with their English essays. You laugh, but these things happen all the time. You don’t go and see a dentist when your foot hurts, right?

Charisma is undoubtedly a strong factor in why people choose the leaders that they do. And this makes sense, especially for political leaders and religious leaders who have to speak, convince and convey certain messages to a mass of people. If they are not charismatic and compelling enough, I highly doubt that they will be able to hold people’s attention for very long.

And you’ll notice, time and time again, that the leaders that do well, regardless of their field, are highly charismatic individuals who possess great oratory abilities. But the whole talking thing is just the start. They also have to walk the walk. No one likes a politician who makes promises he does not keep. Similarly, in matters of faith, religious leaders, too, tend to make promises about what their faith can or can’t do.

Developed societies tend to grow more secular with time. I believe it is not because people have lost their faith. They haven’t. It is more that organised religion tends to lose its appeal in pluralistic and diverse societies. The religious leaders themselves, not unlike political leaders, are not immune to scandals. But it is religious law, and not secular law, that takes such a hard stance regarding matters that pertain to the personal sphere–for instance, like adultery, pregnancy, extramarital sex and so on. And let’s not forget the other white elephant in the room–two people from different religions will generally not be permitted to marry under the watchful gaze of the religious authorities.

Secular law does not send people to jail for cheating on their spouse or having an abortion. And why should it? Because a secular state has to find a space within which a multi-ethnic and multi-religious people can get along with each other. It also has to account for aspects such as gender equality and equity. We cannot accomplish this if an entirely different set of laws apply to men and women. And nor can we allow for some groups within the population to prioritise their own beliefs at the expense of other groups.

What secular states do, or attempt to do, is to create bridges; instead of burning them or building walls. In any event, you can always build a new bridge or break a wall. As to when secularism started, it is fairly recent. A few centuries at most. Secularism is thus still in its infancy stage. It is not a perfect system. But then again, which system is? Secularism, however, is the best way to achieve societal harmony while protecting the right to religious freedom.

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