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The Humanities Conference 2003

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Decentring Religion: The South African Way

Alan M Weinberg.

Religion has been so relativized in the modern world that it is no longer tenable (if it ever was) for any religion to assume dominance. Yet religious conflict prevails and in effect the different parties may perpetrate and justify violence according to faith and dogma (no matter how tolerant these claim to be). Religions are tied to national interests and become indistinguishable from them, at worst acting as a cover for selfish ambitions (as was the case in the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition). Modern Islam remains a political force, as several Middle Eastern countries are theocracies. But even the United States - a supposedly secular country - draws heavily - albeit at times unconsciously - on fundamentalist doctrine (Protestant Christian) to buttress its cause against Islamic countries or ‘terrorism’.) And Israel - embattled with its co-inhabitants and neighbours, the Palestinians - is inextricably tied to strict Judaic lore (even if many Israelis are not practising Jews).

In South Africa the Apartheid system was bolstered by Calvinism and the country was constitutionally Protestant Christian. Black Christians (even Calvinists) were, however, not permitted to attend services with whites. They were considered fundamentally pagan, and Catholics were largely unwelcome. In the new transformed South African state, Christianity is the predominant religion (and Christmas and Easter are public holidays), but there is no state religion as in Britain (Anglicanism), Italy and Spain (Catholicism), and no civil religion as in the United States (reflected on the American dollar in the inscription ‘in God we stand’). The South African constitution regards all religions of whatever character (and this includes Atheism) equal before the law. It gives no precedence to any one. Religions follow whatever track they please but are, in all matters (including education), subject to the conditions not of any monarchy, or papacy, or bible belt, but to the Bill of Rights (which forms the preamble to the Constitution). The dignity of man is the foremost concept over-riding all others. In consequence, religious conflict has been successfully defused, and religion placed safely on the margin, out of harm’s reach, but obliged to reach out to, and embrace, the multicoloured society in all its extraordinary diversity.

By making religion subservient in law to Human Rights, and by removing religious subtexts which might underwrite or unduly influence national consciousness, South Africa points the way to a future in which humanity is united with itself and all living creatures, and not torn asunder by religious (or pseudo-religious) ideology.


Alan M Weinberg  (South Africa)
Lecturer in English
Department of English
University of South Africa

Prof Alan Weinberg is a lecturer in the Dept of English, University of South Africa. He has specialized in Romantic literature and especially in the field of Shelley studies. Religious and political concerns are fundamental to his interest in Shelley. His publications include Shelley’s Italian Experience (Macmillan, 1991) and Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts vol. XXII (ed. 2 vols) (Garland Press 1996). He is presently editing and contributing to a collection of essays entitled The Unfamiliar Shelley..He is married to Prof. Grazia Sumeli-Weinberg and has two children, Marc and Darius,

  • Religion
  • Politics

(30 min Conference Paper, English)