I was encouraged to start writing this article at 4.00 in the morning on the Independence Day as I was woken up by the loud noise emanating from two rival places of worship in a particular Kandyan town where I spent the night. The preachers at both places of worship commenced the airing of their sermons or calls to prayer very early in the morning and one could not continue to sleep beyond 5.00 am unless one was so insensitive to noise. You could not follow medical advice to have enough sleep, unless you went to bed quite early in the evening.
As I have pointed out earlier in this column, religiosity is at a peak in this country today. This is true for both public religion as well as religious practice on a personal level. For some, this would certainly appear to be a positive development or a blessing in disguise but when we look around the world, it has also become quite problematic. This is due to two major concerns in the world today. Firstly, fundamentalist religious groups account for many of the violent conflicts around the world, though larger global forces can also be seen in the background of many violent conflicts. Increasing religiosity has not made the world a safer or more peaceful place for many people. This is understandable because increasing religiosity often makes religious groups more exclusive, more inward looking and often more intolerant and increasingly compels them to perceive the other as very different and suspicious. In this country, the first recorded inter-religious riot in its recent history, known as Kotahena riots, took place in Colombo in 1883 and the situation has not got any better to this day. A recent study on inter-community relations conducted in Sri Lanka showed that tensions are much higher in localities where different religious groups are competing for resources and space, including air waves to propagate their respective faiths.
" For instance, those who eat meat are perceived as bad, sinful and immoral, not simply as careless or environmentally irresponsible consumers. Those who sacrifice animals in anticipation of divine help are perceived as practitioners of primitive, inhuman rituals rather than those who are cruel to animals "
The second major concern today is the growing demand for material goods and services both within and across countries. Increasing competition for resources is largely perceived as one between rival groups and, in many countries this is often translated into a competition between religious groups. Recent events in Sri Lanka show that this is already the case in this country. Increasing religiosity thus can only make the situation worse under certain conditions, not better. It often makes resource wars more intense and contentious.
For many people in this country, particularly for Buddhists, becoming too involved with religion is often part and parcel of growing old, though religiosity is also quite common among youths. Some of those who have been quite hedonistic during their younger years have become too enmeshed in religion in the later years in their lives. They have given up alcohol, become almost vegetarian and organise religious functions at home replacing drinking parties to celebrate birthdays, etc. Many give up reading books for pleasure and knowledge and turn to religious texts. They start collecting and exchanging CDs containing popular sermons, instead of music.
With the onset of age-related chronic ailments, many people are attracted to popular preachers who are vociferous about the negative consequences of hedonistic lifestyles. But the medical doctors would also ask you to cut down on alcohol, fatty food and sweets, if you are already careless about these things, in addition to avoiding too much stress. So, whatever the source of information, the result is the same sort of behaviour change. But, the two approaches represent two quite different world views. So, the adherents of different religious faiths evaluate one another in moralistic terms, not on the basis of secular values. For instance, those who eat meat are perceived as bad, sinful and immoral, not simply as careless or environmentally irresponsible consumers. Those who sacrifice animals in anticipation of divine help are perceived as practitioners of primitive, inhuman rituals rather than those who are cruel to animals.
" Some of those who have been quite hedonistic during their younger years have become too enmeshed in religion in the later years in their lives. They have given up alcohol, become almost vegetarian and organise religious functions at home replacing drinking parties to celebrate birthdays, etc. Many give up reading books for pleasure and knowledge and turn to religious texts. They start collecting and exchanging CD’s containing popular sermons, instead of music. "
Increasing religiosity at the expense of secular values facilitates the formation of exclusive, inward-looking faith groups often with no capacity or desire to transcend boundaries and find common ground which is critical for coexistence in a multi-religious society. The highly-moralistic views of such groups force them to evaluate each other on the same basis, not on the basis of some common human values. From here, it is a small step to perceiving the other as a threat and a danger. We witness this happening in this country today, creating considerable inter-community tension.
As I have discussed on many occasions, our education system that prevents most of our young children from learning about each other across ethno-religious communities has been a major obstacle to creating an inclusive citizenship based on secular values. National politics has followed the same fault lines, rather than transcending them. This is largely because politicians in general are also the products of the same education system. Many religious leaders facilitate the process further. By taking over the air waves to reach out to their faithful followers without waiting for them to turn up at their respective places of worship, they do not simply inconvenience those who do not want their sleep interrupted so early in the morning but make a significant contribution to the increasing divisiveness among faith groups in the country. The resultant tension between religious communities not only threatens public order but also create anxiety and a sense of insecurity in the minds of many people. This is certainly not the way to tap the potential of great religions to promote the well-being of people and peaceful coexistence among communities.
Many religious dignitaries did not remain silent on the long standing ethnic conflict in the country. They have often spoken out from the point of view of the communities they are identified with. So, it is natural for the persisting tensions between religious groups to have ethnic undertones. Increasing religiosity thus tends to reinforce existing ethno-religious divisions in society, making social cohesion more difficult to achieve in post war Sri Lanka.