Why Secularism is Important

Why is Secularism Important in South Africa?

The Secularist view holds that the right to thoughts, beliefs, expressions, and thinking associated with atheists, agnostics, non-theists, humanists, the non-religious and even those adherents to faiths with very small followings, are on par with those espoused by the majority religious.  It is a recognition that morality borne of the material world is not inferior to that arising out of a spiritual tradition or belief. Free from the implicit and explicit morals coded into religion, secularism seeks to foster an environment in which the fundamental principle of democracy – a voice for each citizen – is upheld.

“Where religious rights are at odds with other constitutional guarantees or a legitimate government purpose, the conflict must be weighed carefully, keeping in mind that in our constitutional democracy the constitution is supreme and there is no hierarchy of rights. All rank equally. We all have the right to be different.”[1] (Moseneke)

Historically, commentators have observed that the most basic freedom in a democratic society is religious freedom.  Accordingly, South Africa’s Constitution makes allowance for the pursuit of individual and collective freedoms, subject to the rule of law. The right to religious freedom is thus not unlimited, and may be restricted by other rights and interests. Religious adherents are free to propagate their religion, spread information about it, express and demonstrate religious convictions publically, and with the aim to convert people to that religion. This right extends also to non-believers, who in turn are allowed to promote their secular views of the world, and to criticise the nature and content of religions.

The rights to freedom of thought, belief, religion, and conscience, mean that it is incumbent on the state to shield the individual from the influences of religion in the public space in order to protect these rights: religious observances can take place at state institutions provided such observances are “done equitably and attendance is voluntary”[2] and reflects the state-religion interaction envisaged by the Constitution.

The right to religious freedom and non-coercion of minorities is, however, often in conflict with the right to freedom of expression of the religious majority. In the specific case of public schools, providing a space for religious observances means the danger exists that the line between accommodating religions and religious endorsement becomes blurred. In the public school context, religious coercion is often of an indirect nature, arising from the endorsement by the school of a particular religion. As a result, a learner may feel pressured by the school, teachers, other learners, and parents to conform and participate in religious observances. [3]

This spirit is echoed in Judge Albie Sach’s statement re State v. Lawrence:  “Even if there is no compulsory requirement to observe or not to observe a particular religious practice, the effect is to divide the nation into insiders who belong, and outsiders who are tolerated.”[4]  In South Africa, there is currently no legislation regulating the right of children to choose to be religious or not.

“In the open and democratic society contemplated by the Constitution there must be mutually respectful co-existence between the secular and the sacred…The hallmark of an open and democratic society is its capacity to accommodate and manage difference of intensely-held world views and lifestyles in a reasonable and fair manner …” (Sachs, Minister of Home Affairs v Fourie) [5]

Secularism, in standing outside of moral and ethical codes promulgated by religion, stands as a safeguard of the democratic principles and rights of each individual irrespective of belief, thought, conscience, and religion: “One of the functions of the Constitution is precisely to protect the fundamental rights of non-majoritarian groups, who might well be tiny and hold beliefs considered bizarre by ordinary faithful.” (Sachs, State v Lawrence)[3]

[1] Dikgang Moseneke, “The right to differ religiously”. https://www.pressreader.com/south-africa/the-sunday-independent/20101031/281930244355390

[2] https://theconversation.com/watershed-judgment-clarifies-limits-of-religion-in-south-africas-public-schools-80424

[3] https://www.secularsociety.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/vanschalkwyk_constitutionality_2016.pdf

[4] http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZACC/1997/11.html

[5] http://www.scielo.org.za/pdf/pelj/v22n1/02.pdf

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