Secular society does not require religious fervour

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Jeremy Thorpe’s letter “We are Christians first and foremost” (The Star, June 15) refers.

Regardless of what the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities decides on in terms of the appropriateness of Christian-only public holidays, I am sure Mr Thorpe’s Christian fellowship with his religion will not suffer.

For decades Jewish people and Muslims have had no state-decreed public holidays on the calendar, and they have not found the slightest decline in their religious dedication. When necessary, they have merely closed their businesses.

I welcome Mr Thorpe’s comments, as this will encourage debate on religious freedom in our secular society.

What part of “secular society” do people not understand?

Religion is an admirable societal crutch that provides crucial moral guidance to its adherents, but has also been a hugely divisive instrument in the hands of oft bigoted leadership, and been the root cause of many of the wars that plague our planet.

Our constitution was formulated in the spirit of rectifying the apartheid-era imbalances where the tyranny of the majority was used to subjugate minority religious and political freedoms. We found the conservative Calvinism of the Dutch Reformed Church being rammed down the throats of all South Africans. I have noticed some inconsistencies in Mr Thorpe’s train of thought that I would like to address.

l Our magnificent constitution is now based on a new ethos of minorities not being prejudiced by the majority. Consequently, Mr Thorpe’s fascinating comparative stats detailing the breakdown of SA’s religious adherence is irrelevant.

l As a humanist, I am part of the 15 percent of the population who have no religion, and am offended that he considers that my opinion does not count in this debate. Whether an atheist, agnostic or basic secular humanist, we are all affected by the public holidays on the calendar, and have an opinion.

l Mr Thorpe claims he is not a devout Christian. I would venture to suggest that description applies to the majority of Christians in his quoted stats. Many of them are, in fact, non-practising adherents and are Christian only by virtue of birth from Christian parents.

I pose the question to Mr Thorpe. Where in the Bible is there a commandment from his God to have a public holiday on Christmas Day or on the Easter festival? They were man-made injunctions to honour the birth and death of the Christian prophet Jesus, only decreed many centuries after the passing of the Messiah.

I am thankful that we have such a commission in our democracy that can decide on the equity and fairness of religious and cultural practices whereby they don’t unfairly prejudice minorities.

As Madiba famously said: “Never, never and never again.”

I am sure they will come to the right decision. The cardinal criterion in this issue is that our religious freedoms are constitutionally protected. In our secular state, the government concentrates on politics and the church is the prime adjudicator on religious matters. So we no longer have religious instruction in state schools, but confined, where it belongs, and with absolutely no interference from the state, to church premises.

I am sure that, as has been the norm in SA, we will find a constructive and equitable way forward. For example, do we need the discrimination of having officially decreed religious-oriented public holidays? The government is constitutionally bound to ensure our religious freedoms and uphold the rights of people to worship according to their beliefs. If the official Christian holidays fall away, or are equally bracketed with other main religions, Christian companies will simply close on Christian holidays.

Or maybe not.

As already happens, if there are enough non-Christian staff, some will remain open to serve communities who are of different faiths.

We need to open our minds to new ideas and open our arms to various religious and multiple cultural norms so that we can progress in togetherness as a nation in harmony.

Elle Tredoux

Brakpan, Ekurhuleni


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