It is generally believed that the two words ‘faith’ and ‘religion’ are absolute synonyms, i.e. they are interchangeable in ALL circumstances. Linguistics teaches us that that absolute synonymy is a highly questionable concept and this can lead us to dramatic confusion and conclusions.
I believe it is more judicious to consider religion as a cultural phenomenon made up of two important features: faith and rituals. Faith i.e. belief in a supernatural power is fundamental and rituals which include religious literature, prayers, services, customs and traditions, ceremonies, do’s and don’ts etc. are the scaffoldings meant to consolidate faith. If faith, a God-given intuition, stands outside time and space, rituals are determined by geography, culture and change. Rituals also help to carve devotees’ identity but may, unfortunately, also be a source of division, conflict and misunderstanding.
Viewed from this perspective, several possibilities emerge.
• There are people who strike the right balance between faith and rituals i.e. meditation on the nature and attributes of God go together with certain forms of religious practice;
• There are those who take faith for granted, as something beyond the grasp of the human mind, and prefer to obsessively focus on details of rituals;
• There are others who focus on faith only and are not at all bothered by rituals which they find absurd and boring;
• Finally, there are those who think rituals and faith are one and the same thing and, because they find religious practice irrational, superficial and full of contradictions, they opt for a non-faith stand.
In a theocracy, i.e. government of a state by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided, religious rule is omnipresent as in Iran, Saudi Arabia or The Vatican etc. The rise of democracy has meant separating politics from religious doctrine and rule and the development of a secular culture based on individual freedom and rights, on the right to believe or not believe, to practise or not practise, to worship or not worship, to pursue the scientific and philosophical road to knowledge and wisdom. Absolute secularism is, I believe, impossible to attain and is perhaps not desirable. However, we must avoid confusing secularism with anti-clericalism or atheism for secularism understands the importance of religion, recognizes its role but insists that policy decisions should be governed by reason and experience not by do’s and don’ts of ancient texts, the essence of which must be sifted from outdated and irrelevant details. In short, secularism means that there is no state religion although the practice or non-practice of religion is free. It also means that citizenship is not to be determined by adherence to a specific religion.
The Maritime Republic of Mauritius (MRM) is a secular state but the supreme laws of the archipelago recognize the existence and practice of religions which also receive a yearly subsidy. Recently, a leader of the Roman Catholic Church argued that the MRM state is not secular and that Hinduism is its state religion. We all know that he was wrong and he must have dropped this absurd belief for it has not been reiterated.
It is imperative that MRM’s secularism be preserved and developed to avoid futile and sterile conflicts. In that context, I find the joint press conference by the PM and the Bishop of Port Louis HELD IN THE OFFICE OF THE PM a ‘faux pas’. The argument that this was done because Pope Francis is the head of the Vatican state does not hold water. The PM is not the head of state but the head of government and the press conference should have been chaired by the acting President and HELD AT STATE HOUSE, in Reduit.