RFD: How Much Should Religion Influence the State?


Over the past few weeks, the Bridge the Divide community has focused on the role of religion in modern society through multiple lenses. In this room for debate, ambassadors weigh in on what they think the relationship between religion and state should be.

Question: To What Extent Should Religion Influence the State?

Secularism Should not Conflict with Freedom: written by Lucy Arundell, Australia

As the West becomes increasingly secular, discussions around the separation between religion and state have become more important. For most of human history, any kind of leadership and government has been strongly characterized by religion. The ancient Athenians created the world’s first democracy, while their leaders frequently referred to signs and portents from the gods to validate their decisions. Religion has gone hand and hand with leadership and government since the beginning of organised society. But what is the place of religion in government in our modern era?

Countries across the globe offer a variety of answers to this question. In the Middle East, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq have drawn criticism for their laws and governments as being too influenced by Islam. Religion plays a major role in the governance of these areas. In the eyes of the West, the heavily Islamic governments of the Middle East are totalitarian dictators. However, since Islam is the major religion of these areas, it is logical to expect that the government will be influenced by Islam, whether it wants to or not. In the case of the Middle East, governments dominated by religion are normal. Religious laws have become state laws. Religious figures become the authority. And while this is not in itself a bad thing, it becomes concerning when the religious laws go beyond what is considered fair and equal to the citizens of the country.

Turkey has taken a different path. It declared itself secular in 1928, becoming the first country in the Muslim world to have no state religion. Turkey is incredibly protective of its secularism- people took to the streets to protest the teachings of Fethullah Gulen, an imam who spoke of a democratic Turkey based on Islamic values. As a country, the removal of a state religion has not made Turkey more fair or equal. A referendum on the constitution held in April gave the president Recep Erdoğan dictatorial powers, and under him, Turkey is becoming more and more like a dictatorship. In Turkey, the removal of religion is not prohibiting President Erdogan from taking power.

France was the first Western and Christian country to become secular, after the revolution of the 1700s. In modern times, France has come under scrutiny for the lengths to which it goes to preserve it secularism. In some ways, secularism has become a religion unto itself. France has banned ‘burkinis’ on several of its beaches, and prohibits any sign of religious observance in its schools. This includes anything from a cross on a necklace to a hijaab. For France, the removal of religion from its government has led to greater calls for the removal of religion from every sector of public life.

Does religion in state create a better, fairer and more equal nation? Does secularism allow for greater freedom in religion?

I am a supporter of secularism in government. I don’t believe that any kind of forced observance of religious or religion influenced laws creates a healthy society. However, I do not support the kind of secularism that is present in France, Turkey, and other aggressively secularist countries. Everyone should have the right to practice their religion freely. I am a Christian, and while I do believe that a Christian government is the best form of government, I do not think it is appropriate for our modern world. If the laws of a country were determined by Christianity, all people would have to adhere to the rules of Christianity, whether they were Christians or not. And I do not believe that creates a good government and a contented country.

Against Official State Religions: Written by Alex Choi, UK

Having grown up in the UK, I have experienced massive religious diversity. Despite

almost every village in the UK having a church of some sort dedicated to Christianity,

there is also a massive proportion of our population which is not Christian. Political debate in the UK has often involved religion, but many politicians try to avoid it. However, recently in the UK and many other Western countries, more far right political parties have tried to bring religion into politics. In the UK, a political party called UKIP has tried to do this, particular in regard to immigration.

Political scaremongering over religion has often divided communities and that is the

main reason why I believe countries should not have official religions. The reason why

people have become divided from what I have seen is because they do not like it when

another religion or way of thinking is imposed on them and that is almost what an

official religion does. When politicians talk about how Islam, (for example) is invading

their country, it can make people feel like someone is ‘invading’ their home but really

that is not the case and people would normally mind their own business otherwise.

Although I don’t necessarily agree, some might argue official religions can actually break

religious tensions. In countries where there are official religions, there is arguably less

hatred towards people of other faiths as those people are generally less prominent in

showing their faith but that is what many people would call being oppressed. Although

people would not be able to express their religion, there might be the argument that

there would be less tensions.

In many countries too, the problem is that even if there is not an official religion set by

the government, it can still be seen prominently across the country. For example, in the

UK we have many churches and many of the old government buildings feature slogans

engraved on them featuring God. In the US for example, on cash it says, “In God we

trust” and it gives the impression of that religion being official, even if it is not.

Often people of other religions form clusters in our cities and build places of worship

dedicated to their own faith. These can make what was originally a western place look

like somewhere from a completely different country and from this I can sort of see why

some people really object to other religions in their countries and want an official

religion to keep them away and this goes back to the concept of feeling like someone is

just ‘walking into their home’.

The UK also has a slightly more complicated model than other countries. The UK as a

whole does not have an official religion but England itself does. The top 26 most senior

bishops in the church of England have seats in part of the UK parliament which gives

them a degree of political power so it could be argued that Christianity does have an

official impact on the UK and this is very controversial, to the same extent as to whether

The Queen should still have a say in politics.

So, in conclusion most people I know do not mind about whether someone dedicated to

a certain religion or not as long as it does not affect them. Official religions only create

more hate within communities as people feel like they have to ‘conform’ to the

expectation imposed upon them.

Living by Religious Values even if not a Religious Government: Written by Aung (Kelly) Myo Htun , Myanmar

Religion is very important to many of us and it has the power to inspire the creation of beauty and wonder. Over millions of years, humans have developed to be multicultural creatures. It can be argued that human beings were born together with religion. During the Stone Age, religion appeared in various ways. For example, some researchers say that some people believed fire or the sun to be a god. These beliefs are the original of customs based on the fear during that period. The most important aspect of religion is its relentless struggle to focus on the dimension of depth in our lives. After the BC age, each country has developed different religions based on their belief and spiritual sense. Currently, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and other religions appear around the world. Each religion has its respective basic rules to obey throughout each follower’s life. Religion informs and inspires the values and visions that are part of one’s existence. It supports a backdrop for one’s life, present and future and beyond, real and visualization.

Nowadays, the main popular five religions that people believe are Christian, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. Christianity is the world's biggest religion, with over 2.2 billion followers worldwide. Christians follow the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Bible. Islam is the second largest religion, with over 1.5 billion followers. The Islamic religion is based on the teachings of the prophet of Muhammad in their holy book the Quran. Hinduism is the oldest of the most popular religions being the world's third largest religion, boasting almost one billion followers. Buddhism has more than 350 million followers worldwide, and its followers believe attaining “nirvana” is the ultimate goal. Judaism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions. In my opinion, these five religions are similarly the same based rules on honest, love, kindness and sympathy. As a Buddhist I would like to talk about what makes Buddhism different from other religions.

Buddhism has no God. People outside of Buddhism often think that Buddhists worship the Buddha. However, the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) never claimed to be divine, but he is viewed by Buddhists as having attained what they are also striving to attain, which is spiritual enlightenment and, with it, freedom from the continuous cycle of life and death. That is why the ultimate goal of Buddhism is “nirvana” (peace in heaven). I don’t believe in any gods or God except our Buddha who is a pioneer of the natural basic rules that is how to live in life, how to communicate with people, what is honest, how to remind ourselves every day.

Occasionally, some of the ideas of religion are a bit complicated with the State and Government. For example, the important root of Islam is to create a great Islamic state with all people. Islam is the most common government-established faith, with 27 countries (including most in the Middle East-North Africa region) officially enshrining Islam as their state religion. For example, in Afghanistan, Islam is the official state religion, stated explicitly in the constitution: “The sacred religion of Islam is the religion of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.” The constitution also requires the president and vice president to belong to the state religion.I am not sure if this is good or bad as I am not Islamic and do not know absolutely the rules and values of some ideas of some religions. I do know however, that I respect people of all religions and believe that we have the equality to live peacefully.

According to the political ideologies, in some cases, some countries favor a specific region, as an official, the government is established religion together with the State reform, especially, monarchist countries. For example, Vatican state city is a smallest state in the world. But its political system is “Absolutely Monarchy." That is why that state cannot divide the State and Religion. In Vatican City, all of the people worship and believe ‘’The Pope." The government of Vatican City has a unique structure. The Pope is the sovereign of the state. But there are many Monarchist countries around the world such as European countries, Thailand, Cambodia, Netherlands, Qatar, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Japan and so on. These countries significantly accept and believe the ideology of monarchy, but the sovereign of the state is not the religious person. The sovereign of these countries may be the King and Queen, and are usually from the Royal family of the country. But, in some countries, the sovereign of country is the religious person like “The Pope”. I think this depends on some political conditions. Especially, in Vatican City, the government must need the religion, Roman Catholicism because of the belief of the people who live in that countries.

All human beings have the responsibility to live together peacefully in the earth. We don’t have freedom to insult to anyone or to insult the beliefs of other people. That is why, the government of each country should protect religious freedom. The government should not influence the roles of religions in a country. A country should avoid using religion as a political tool except in countries with low development, where religion is a conflict inducing and sensitive issue inciting violence.

Government Should Avoid Religion for its Own Sake: written by Hasan Farooq, Pakistan

Pakistan is a Muslim country - but forget that. Everyone has an identity, beliefs, culture, systems - we can't lose these things, nor can we all agree on the same point. That's how the world works. Each country has its own beliefs, and these beliefs shouldn't attempted to be broken by the government. If the government disrespects the people's views or they're not on the same point, then you know what happens - Kashimir, Syria, even the US. If you need more explanation, try being Muslim in a foreign country. When I started writing on Quora, there were questions like: When will Pakistan and India go to war again? In answer to these, I wrote that we all can't agree on the same beliefs, but we should respect each other. You should have seen the criticism I got. Religion should play a role in society because every society believes in something, but each society has to respect the beliefs of other societies.

Now It's Time For Your Input

Is there any case in which theocracy could be justified? Is religion an archaic way for a society to define its moral values? Should the State moderate in religious conflicts? No matter where you're from or what your situation is, we want to hear from you! We want as many perspectives as possible. Only then can we begin to Bridge the Divide.

Join the Discussion HERE:


#LucyArundell #AlexChoi #AungMyoHtun #HasanFarooq #religion #Debate

The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author, and in no way reflect the opinions of Bridge the Divide or its affiliates.

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