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Not secular enough

University of the Philippines law professor and dean, Raul Pangalangan wrote and essay in the Inquirer “ Church-State Separation in the Diliman Republic” Philippine Daily Inquirer 15 September 2006. about Church and State separation in the university. The university denied the request of a civic group to unfurl the largest Philippine flag (that would set a Guinness Book record) and hold a prayer gathering on grounds that this would violate Church and State separation clause in the constitution. The university as a publicly funded institution has to be neutral with regards to religious belief.

That is at the core of the secular principle. But is the University of the Philippines secular enough? Surely it cannot pretend to be separate from the rest of Filipino society the majority of members believe in God, gods and the supernatural. Thus it is interesting that constitutional tests for the secular ideal would be serious business in the UP but rarely on the outside.

One test of a truly secular society is whether it can tolerate heresy. A heresy is a strange doctrine as an Orthodox Church catechism would state it. It is a doctrine that may not be theological at all but that it may open or shut a mind, offend the liberals, scandalize the conservatives and but always should be the subject of impassioned discussion. Early this year, a newspaper in Denmark published cartoons offensive to Muslims. The Danish government refused to apologize and neither did the publisher. Their position respected the secular character of Danish society. While I did not fully agree with their actions, I believe that secularism should also have limits like the public expression of religious belief. Secularism should be subject to freedom of belief guarantees that are absolute only in one’s mind but may be legally limited in practice.

The question is whether heresy is tolerated in the UP. Probably it is but to a certain extent. The UP is not secular enough. I have been throwing heretical ideas for critical thought to students. One is that Marxism would remain a pipe dream since it fails to account for the evolution of human nature. A subject for impassioned debate? Yes. Human nature (as well as religion) may yet be a product of biological evolution as Daniel Dennett says in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”. It is dangerous because it undermines long held beliefs, beliefs held in faith rather than empirical evidence as science would require. Marxism is not scientific. For generations of students taught to believe that Marxism is scientific, this is heresy. But it is an old heresy. Karl Popper came to the same conclusion in the 1930s. I can't avoid but think that some members of the UP academic community are ideologically stuck in the mid 20th century!

Other heresies that are hardly tolerated are the idea that UP is still best and that it is liberal enough. Economics Prof Poblador published a book in the late 1990s disputing these widely held views. One bright lining for UP is that some heresies may not be tolerated in the campus, the expression of such are not suppressed at least initially.

Now let me throw a heresy on Professor Pangalangan’s idea of laicite. I cannot avoid but sense that his essay has an anti-religious and even atheistic bent. Secularism does not and should not deny religion its space in society. What the constitution prohibits is establishment of religion that implies state subsidy to a faith. The constitution mandates the state to be neutral to religion.

There are two churches in the UP, a Catholic and Protestant one. The churches are both works of art. And a former Chief Justice wrote the opinion that the UP needs to provide accessible facilities for worship in fulfillment of “free expression” of religious belief. I disagree with the law Prof that the right of worship in the university is relative in time. It is valid until now for freedom of worship is inalienable. What the university has to respect is that all faiths may be practiced in the campus without favouring one over the other.

And that even includes atheism. Atheism is a religion without practice and rites (unless one subscribes to Marxist-Leninist ideology). Why? Because the belief that there is no God has no empirical evidence to back it up. It is taken on faith like its converse, that there is a God. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In his essay I cannot but read that the Law Professor has favoured a faith! So much for laicite!

But we have to take the pulse of the students. I am aware that a significant fraction of my students do not agree to the theory of evolution on religious grounds. While no one has challenged my right to teach it in a science class, I have to be neutral to their religious persuasions and emphasize the idea that this scientific theory can explain a lot about biology. That is intself significant support in favour of the theory. I cannot even use the tempting argument that the Popes have said it is a “more than a hypothesis”! That would mean I favoured a religious position over another.

Our students and faculty have their religious convictions. But we have to be open to heresies and tolerate them until they are logically unsupportable. And this should extend to a critical view of how Filipino society deals of religion and state issues. Has anyone challenged before the Supreme Court the actions of local executives denying reproductive health information to people on grounds of immorality? Has anyone challenged the President on her decisions appointing clerics to head government investigation bodies? These are more interesting than challenging people’s rights to pray and unfurl the flag in the Sunken Garden!

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