A lot of people in our country misunderstand secularism. No, let me rephrase that. Majority of Filipinos do not even understand what it is. Yet, secularism is a basic principle of our government that is embedded in our constitution as stated in the Bill of Rights (Article III, Section 5):
“No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.”
Secularism is the principle of separation between church and state. In other words, the affairs, authority, principles, activities, teachings of one should not automatically carry over to the other. An example of this is that even if a priest, pastor, bishop or imam is head of a church, he has no power or authority in a government office. He cannot march into City Hall and demand all workers to stop working immediately and attend mass. Likewise, a mayor cannot simply march into church and collect the funds in the offering plate in favor of the government.
Some people have the mistaken notion that secularists want to promote atheism. Just recently, a student group from a religious school invited me to give a talk on secularism. The school authorities thumbed down the proposal because they thought it was going to be about atheism. In truth, the secularist abhors state-imposed atheism as much as state-imposed religion.
What secularism is all about, in one word, is neutrality. The late Isagani A. Cruz, former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, writes:
“The rationale of the rule is summed up in the familiar saying, ‘Strong fences make good neighbors.’ The idea is to delineate the boundaries between the two institutions and thus avoid encroachments by one against the other because of a misunderstanding of the limits of their respective exclusive jurisdictions…The doctrine cuts both ways. It is not only the State that is prohibited from interfering in purely ecclesiastical affairs; the Church is likewise barred from meddling in purely secular matters. And the reason is plain. A union of Church and State, as aptly remarked, ‘tends to destroy government and to degrade religion.’ It is also likely to result in a conspiracy, well nigh irresistible because of its composite strength, against the individual’s right to worship.” (Constitutional Law, 2007)
An interesting case is the recent brouhaha over the change in the Department of Education’s vision statement. The original phrasing had the intent, among others, of producing “God-loving” individuals while the restated (and current) text has removed that particular phrasing. (The core values though still include “Maka-Diyos” but that is a battle for another day).
The change prompted some strong reactions from the religious community and some media outlets capitalized on this by writing such sensationalist and provocative headlines as “DepEd No Longer God-Loving.” I myself penned a strong reaction against one religious leader (published in the Filipino Freethinkers website) and later wrote a satirical article in this column in an attempt to show how ridiculous it would be if the government made concessions to each religion instead of simply omitting the phrase altogether.
This is my argument, in a nutshell: DepEd, as a state-institution, cannot attempt to mold citizens to be “God-loving” for to do so would be to favor religion, or even only a certain brand of religion (what if the student’s religion involves a goddess, instead of a god, or involves honoring animal spirits, or a pantheon of deities?). This is not to say, however, that by removing the phrase, DepEd suddenly becomes anti-God or anti-theistic. That is a silly notion, especially considering the fact that the organization is headed by a religious brother. DepEd is only practicing neutrality and fairness, as mandated by the Constitution. Rather than include all sorts of concepts and definitions of “God” in the vision statement, it is much more efficient to simply remove the loaded phrase altogether.
Fr. Joaquin Bernas, a noted constitutional lawyer and former president of the Ateneo de Manila University, writes:
“What non-establishment calls for is government neutrality in religious matters…Government must not prefer one religion over another or religion over irreligion because such preference would violate voluntarism and breed dissension...Government funds must not be applied to religious purposes…Government action must not aid religion…Government action must not result in exclusive entanglement with religion because this too can violate voluntarism and breed interfaith dissension.” (The 1987 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines)
Secularism is important both for the religious and irreligious alike because it safeguards against abuses, and likewise preserves individual liberty and freedom of choice. A secularist is not anti-religion but simply someone who lives true to the idea of fairness and justice for ALL, not just a select few.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.