If you ever wonder about the wisdom of the Founding Fathers in separating church and state in the Constitution and banning the imposition of a state religion, just look to this story from Malaysia for the sorts of things that can happen when a nation is governed according to religious law:

A Muslim woman forcibly separated from her Hindu husband by Malaysia’s Islamic authorities after 21 years of happy marriage wept inconsolably yesterday after a judge endorsed her decision to hand custody of six of her seven children to her former spouse.

In an unprecedented move for Malaysia – where Islamic religious laws are strictly enforced – the children, aged four to 14, will be raised as Hindus despite being born to a Muslim mother. Last month Selangor state’s Islamic authorities took Raimah Bibi Noordin, 39, and her children away for “rehabilitation” and religious counselling after belatedly declaring that her marriage was illegal.

The couple cannot live together because the husband did not convert to Islam as required by law for their marriage to be legal. In a country where 60% of the population is Muslim, the law also stipulates that the children must be brought up to observe Islam. Anyone born into a Muslim family cannot legally convert.

But Mrs Raimah Bibi’s husband, Marimuthu Periasamy, 43, applied for custody of the ethnic Indian couple’s children after they and his wife were removed to a Malay Muslim village. He said he feared his children would be brainwashed.

This is lunacy of the highest order. A happily married couple together for 21 years has been forcibly separated, destroying their happy life together. Even worse, the children are forcibly denied what is best for them: A stable household with both parents to raise them.

Here’s the understatement of the year about the case:

Lim Kit Siang, an opposition leader, said. “For this to happen to a couple that has lived together for 21 years as a result of a religious conflict is not good for our international image.”

Indeed, it reveals nothing more than barbarism, in which fundamentalist religious dogma trumps freedom the happiness of a stable married couple, and the well-being of children. There is no rational justification that can be made for such a horrible miscarriage of justice.


  1. #1 wanderingprimate
    May 5, 2007

    This sad victory for heavy handed interventionist dogma
    is a stark reminder to watch our own “back yard” as well, with more than just a few proslelytising for a “faith” based government or a “faith” based science “for all the people”…
    The founding fathers be turnin’ in ther graves!!

  2. #2 Nobrainer
    May 5, 2007

    Researchers like Larry Iannacone have found that western nations with official, state sanctioned religion tend to have much lower rates of church attendance and much less religiosity.

    Mandated religion leads to bad religion which leads to less religion.

    Thus, counter-intuitively, atheism may be best served by heavily intertwined state and religion.

  3. #3 Robster, FCD
    May 5, 2007

    It isn’t God that worries me. It’s his fan club.

  4. #4 Matt Penfold
    May 5, 2007

    Picking up on what Nobrainer has said, here in the UK we have an established church, namely the Anglican church in its English, Welsh and Scottish guises and yet religion plays a much smaller part in public life. To give just one example, politicians here seldom mention god and their religious beliefs, or lack of them, are simply not an issue for the vast majority of people.

  5. The wall of separation is non-negotiable. It has to stand but the last twenty years has proven that the courts are not reliable. There is no substitute for electing people who will not do anything to make holes in it. It has been the Republican party that has made those holes, there is no point in pretending that using religious fundamentalists has been a major part of their planning. Due to their ability to tar Democrats with the charge of being “anti-religion” they have had the ability to pack the courts with hacks who will junk the Bill of Rights in order for their party to take over control. And they’ll hand out money to buy of the fundamentalist leadership in the process.

    Those who want to protect the separation of church and state had better try for all the alliances they can muster because we’re behind.

  6. #6 olvlzl The Heretic
    May 5, 2007

    And that’s why there is no state religion in Malay…. Wait, something doesn’t seem to cohere, here.

  7. #7 Richard Wein
    May 6, 2007

    A bit off-topic, but… A couple of years ago I made a stop-over in Kuala Lumpur and took the opportunity to do a bit of sight-seeing. I visited the Museum of Islamic Arts, found it quite interesting, but was disappointed (though not very surprised) to find the museum’s bookshop stuffed with creationist books by Harun Yahya.

  8. #8 beajerry
    May 6, 2007

    That’s not religion, that’s pure cultism.

  9. #9 JS
    May 6, 2007

    Mandated religion leads to bad religion which leads to less religion.

    Thus, counter-intuitively, atheism may be best served by heavily intertwined state and religion.

    Well, yes and no. It depends on who’s the alpha dog in the relationship. In Denmark, to take the example I am personally familiar with, the government funds a certain branch of protestantism, which is, in turn, expected to subscribe to two constraints:

    1) No person may speak on behalf of the church. In other words, a bishop is, in principle, no more qualified to pontificate on the nature of god than the drunken bozo at the bar next door.

    2) The church does not take political position or action.

    This has several positive effects: First, it means that virtually all of Danish protestantism is collected under one organisation, which means that when some lunatic says something nutty, or when a wingnut starts politicking, there is almost inevitably a great number of more reasonable people shouting ‘not in my name!’

    Second, it means that priests do not have to proselytize in order to recieve their monthly paycheque. It will arrive every month, whether the churches are empty or full.

    Third, the church has (virtually) no independent economy, because all financial dealings go through the government accounting system (including the membership fee – another quid pro quo, in which the church is spared the hassle and cost of adminstration and the government is given control over and supervision of the financial comings and goings of the church).

    Last, whenever a priest or bishop needs to be yanked up short, the civilian government has – shall we say – leverage to apply…

    I like that model, and I think it should be extended to other religions as well, if they are interested. Of course, in many ways this model is a result of Danish history and tradition – it would never work w.r.t. the Catholic Church, for instance, since Pope Ratpoison (or any other pope for that matter) would violate both conditions pretty much instantly.

    Whether this ‘serves atheism’ is debatable. But it clearly serves secularism, and that, in my considered opinion, is the salient point.

    That’s not religion, that’s pure cultism.

    The difference being?

    – JS

  10. #10 obscurifer
    May 6, 2007

    | |That’s not religion, that’s pure cultism.

    |The difference being?

    When I was a pup, and I was regularly attending the church my parents had decided we would attend, we had a presentation on cults and how awful they were. It was pretty amusing to listen to the torturous logic used to explain how *they* were a cult, and *we* were a legitimate religion. *They* would try to influence the way you thought, while *we* would simply tell you what The Truth was so you could make up your own mind.

    I wish I knew the source of this quote, “No matter how thin you slice it, it’s still baloney!”

  11. #11 PlanetaryGear
    May 6, 2007

    Why, the difference is obvious! They are just a group created by a madman, where we have the unaltered, certifiable word of God himself!

    I was dragged to a service in college by a friend who I thought was catholic but it turned out to be a scary cultist thing and they actually said that. And held up their version of the bible that had just recently been revealed to the founder of said madhouse…

    If I have learned to live with the ambiguity and contradiction that is the universe and humanities place in it without requiring the machinations of a purulent deity, does that make me brain damaged or more evolved than some other folks?

  12. #12 Russell
    May 6, 2007

    nobrainer writes:

    Researchers like Larry Iannacone have found that western nations with official, state sanctioned religion tend to have much lower rates of church attendance and much less religiosity.

    The restriction to western nations makes me suspicious of this research. The legal separation of church and state in the US was the result of a unique nexus of Enlightenment thought by a few leaders creating a federal government where various sects held sway in different states. Its application to those state governments was another fortuitous result, this time of a Civil War, and of liberal Republicans who authored a 14th amendment written in broad strokes. A few Supreme Court cases later, and separation of church and state is foisted on a very religious nation that never otherwise would have allowed it.

    Most European governments were officially entwined with religion from way back, partly as a side effect of monarchy. Pop forward a couple of centuries, and it turns out that the US is more religious than Europe. Is that a result of the peculiarities of US history regarding the 1st amendment, and of the officially established churches in Europe?

    I seriously doubt it. I bet studies such as Iannacone’s could be just as well phrased, “western nations with nominal monarchs are less religious.” And then the implication is that all the US need do, to become less religious, is to join the commonwealth nations and reinstate the Queen. 😉

  13. #13 Matt Penfold
    May 6, 2007

    I think there is a good case to be made in support of the argument that having established churches has made Western European nations less religious and it is this: In a nation with an established church that church will be restrained from holding positions that are to far from what the general populace holds for fear of loosing support. An established church that looses support will start having to deal with those who question whether there should be an established church. Thus in order to keep their priveliged position an established must change as the views of the population change, which results in a moderate line being taken by the church. This then sets a kind of bench mark against which other relgious beliefs can be judged.

  14. #14 JS
    May 6, 2007

    Thus in order to keep their priveliged position an established must change as the views of the population change, which results in a moderate line being taken by the church. This then sets a kind of bench mark against which other relgious beliefs can be judged.


    That being said, I think Russel has a point about the importance of the historical church/state relationship – particularly the relative strength of the state and the church throughout a given country’s history.

    Taking Denmark as an example again, because that’s the history I know best, the reformation had the primary effect of transferring control of the church from Rome to Copenhagen. Since then, the clergy has been a wholly owned subsidiary of the Danish crown, whether the crown was controlled by the nobility, the king or the parliament. No ruling body has ever cared to relinquish that control for extended periods of time.

    Obviously, the American clergy does not have a five-century history of taking orders from the secular government, and one should, in my view, be careful when drawing parallels across the Atlantic for precisely this reason. Nevertheless, I do think that a carefully circumscribed state religion is preferable to a free market of whacky cults, since the free market for religion seems to be encouraging religious interference with public debate and the political process, and/or rewarding outright insanity in the clergy.

    – JS

  15. I might be willing to take up arms to prevent the imposition of a state religion, don’t worry, I’m blind as a bat and afraid of guns.

    JS, the “free market in whacky cults” has been the norm in the United States during the entire period and it wouldn’t change with a state church. It could radicalize the wackiest of them. The fundamentlists, apparently the ones you worry about being rewarded and interfering in the political process benefit from the tax exemptions and favorable broadcast policies of conservatives in government. Do you think that they wouldn’t stand a good chance of being chosen as the state church?

  16. #16 Justin Moretti
    May 6, 2007

    On a more positive note, in Turkey the people are turning out in large numbers (claimed over a million) to protest against the presidential candidacy of a self-proclaimed Islamist, and the Army is warning of possible consequences if the principle of a secular Turkey is threatened (i.e. they will undertake a coup against an Islamist government to restore a secular democratic state).

    An interesting nation, where the Army sees itself as the guardian of secular democracy!

  17. #17 Rick
    May 6, 2007


    you might want to check this story.

    What in the name of God is wrong with India’s faith?
    Posted Monday , May 07, 2007 at 02:34


  18. #18 Ali
    May 7, 2007

    An interesting note not clipped was that the woman had converted to Hinduism herself, but as this is not legal under Islamic law, her conversion was invalid. I must admit, if you’re going to do the crazy and have a religion, atleast Hinduism comes with neat clothes.

    On a serious note, I understand what JS is trying to say about secularism (just as important, if not more so, as atheism, to me) and having a state church. But I don’t think that would ever work in the US, as the current trends show that if we just picked the biggest faction, the fundies would end up in charge of all religion in the US. I fear it would lend them more power to influence education, health, and other human-rights type funding; just because it has not done so in Europe, where a church of one type or another has been in power for a couple thousand years and the governments are used to ignoring them, doesn’t mean the American version wouldn’t get a bit…creative.

  19. #19 josh
    May 8, 2007

    I agree, as secular as the founding fathers may have been, an awful lot of our european religious nutballs did head across the pond. Many were so strict about stopping change they wouldn’t even adopt new words. Thats actually the reason for some of the conflicts in american english and english english. You guys are using many of the origonal words which we replaced with more fashionable continental ones. Technically your english is more english than our english english.

  20. #20 Calli Arcale
    May 8, 2007

    This is the best quote I’ve seen on the subject, courtesy Robster, FCT above:

    It isn’t God that worries me. It’s his fan club.

    That’s the best way I can put it too. Gandhi put it well too. He once said that the biggest problem with Christianity was Christians. The same language can be used to describe the basic problem with Islam, Judaism, and pretty much any religion.

    The cult/religion thing is right on the money. The practise of Christianity is a cult. (I am a Christian, and I think it is vitally important to recognize this.) “Cult” is a word which has come to have a lot of negative connotations, such that we are all so desperate *not* to be part of a cult that we lose objectivity when analyzing our own cultish practices. Yet if one removes the baggage and looks at it purely objectively, Christianity is a collection of cults. So is Islam. Arguably, so are a lot of secular organizations. My pastor was actually speaking on this very subject in church last Sunday. In order to get the congregation to recognize that yes, it too is a cult, he deliberately reordered the service, putting Communion before the sermon to emphasize his point. Being a cult just means you have a common set of rituals that must be performed in a particular way — and of course Communion counts. It was part of a larger point he was making, that one element of religion is “cult”: a set of rituals. It’s only part of it, though. Creed is another big part; religions insist upon a particular set of beliefs. Religions are also divisive, and as such, very dangerous things. One might find it strange that a Christian pastor would preach against religion, but isn’t that what Jesus did? Religions are about a set of things you must do in order to be considered a good person. There are some seriously bad implications to that. Beware any belief which makes you feel good. It’s an application of critical thinking, really, because you should similarly beware any finding which seems to prove your hypothesis, lest you not apply the same standards to it as you do to findings which work against your hypothesis. Yet religion tries to dissuade us from applying standards consistently. It doesn’t like to be questioned or doubted. That’s why one should not trust it. People do get to where they trust their religion more than the god they worship, though.

    And I think that’s the root of the problem in the separation of church and state. Once people start to trust the religion, it has too much power to ever be a responsible government agent. Certainly, religious people can be a part of the government, and they should be, so that the government can represent its people effectively. But religion itself becomes deadly if it has government power. I would much rather see a government driven by critical thinking.

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