By Dr. K. Sohail

When we focus on different communities of the world from a religious point of view, we find that, like human beings, these human communities also have distinct personalities, characters and lifestyles. Some of them are theocratic while others are secular. In religious communities, the church and the state, religion and politics are quite intertwined. On the other hand, in secular communities, religion is considered a private affair while the state runs according to humanistic values, where all citizens of the country irrespective of their ethnic, racial, linguistic or religious affiliations enjoy equal rights and privileges.

When we study the theocratic states, whether they consist of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or other religious communities, we discover that women, children and minorities are quite vulnerable.

1. Children In theocratic states, schools provide children with religious education as a part of the curriculum. Such education is based on blind faith, rather than rational and logical thinking. Children are not encouraged to think freely. Whenever there is a conflict between science and scriptures, children are required to follow the scriptures and the dictates of the religious institutions. Such an environment is very dangerous for creativity and spontaneity. If children do not follow the religious teachings of the school and the church, then they are punished and persecuted. It is unfortunate that over a period of time, most children accept the conditioning of their parents and teachers and become members of religious institutions. Only a few are courageous enough to challenge the authorities.

A few years ago, the case of a grade 9 student in Western Canada who got into conflict with the school authorities made the news on national television. He was enrolled in a Christianity class but he did not want to stand up as a respectful gesture for Christ and the Bible. When teacher asked the reason for his refusal, he said,

“I want to study Christianity as a part of History and not as a part of Religion. I want to learn about the world religions as my human inheritance, but they are not sacred for me”.

His answer offended the teacher, who was quite a religious person. The teacher gave him an option. He said, “Either you stand up or you leave the class.”

The student wanted neither to leave nor to stand up. The teacher sent him to the principal who suspended him for three days as punishment for being disrespectful.

The student complained to the higher authorities. When the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) heard about the case, they interviewed the student and his parents. The student said it was his right to study Christianity as a chapter of world history rather than an expression of faith. The parents, who were secular people, supported their son. They highlighted that their son was a respectful, kind and gentle person. He was not a delinquent or a psychopath as the teacher was trying to portray him. Finally the school had to retract their decision and ultimately the student’s protest changed the school system from religious to secular.

Those were the days when school children were singing a popular song by Pink Floyd:

We don’t need no education

We don’t need no thought control

Teachers leave the kids alone

If we study those adults who grew up in oppressive religious schools and communities, we find that they have to struggle with feelings of fear and guilt all their lives. They are generally afraid of authority figures. One of my Pakistani friends living in Canada pulls his car over to the side of the road whenever he sees a police officer. When I asked him the reason, he said, “The best thing the police can do is not to hurt you.” His might be an extreme example but it reflects how children can be traumatized by an autocratic and punitive upbringing.

Children brought up in strict religious environments also experience a lot of guilt as they grow up. Those feelings are most obvious in sexual matters. They feel guilty for sexual thoughts and urges. They are brought up with the idea that God is omnipresent and is always watching them. They believe God is aware of their private thoughts. Such belief systems have profound effects on their personalities. They feel that they need to be punished for all the real and imaginary sins they have committed.

On the other hand, children brought up in liberal and secular schools and environments are able to think freely and express their creativity without feeling ashamed and guilty. In this way they become confident and acquire healthy self-esteem and self worth.

2. Women  The second group most likely to suffer in a theocratic society is that of women. Most religions are patriarchal in nature and the rules and the laws of religious institutions are made by men. They accord men more rights and privileges than women. In Christianity, a woman cannot be Pope and in Islam, a woman cannot lead prayers in local mosques, let alone the Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina. When religious leaders are questioned about these double standards, they offer convoluted rationalizations from history and scriptures to justify their inhumane and unjust laws. In most theocratic societies, women are deprived of their rights from birth to death. They have limited choices. In some communities, they are deprived of education, in others of the opportunity to choose a life partner and in still others, of the right to divorce their husbands. In many, they do not have reproductive choices. Even in secular societies like Canada, the Christian moral tradition strongly influences law making. For example, women had to struggle hard for the right to legal and safe abortions. Ironically, it was a male Canadian Humanist and physician, Dr. Morgentaler, who strove to change the nation’s abortion laws at the cost of great personal sacrifice, so that Canadian women could have reproductive choices. In some liberal religious communities, women might have some social rights but they are still second class citizens in the eyes of the law and the church. I was shocked to see that in Saudi Arabia, a theocratic society, women were not only not allowed to drive a car, they were not even allowed to enter music stores. I saw a sign that said:

Dakhool-un-nisa mamnoo (Entry of Women Prohibited).

When I asked the owner the reason for the sign, he said, “Women cannot decide which music is good for them and which is not. Fathers, husbands, brothers or sons have to decide for them so that they do not buy lustful tapes”. I was also surprised to learn that Muslim women may not travel alone to perform haj, the religious pilgrimage.

In secular societies women have more rights and privileges, and they are a part of the national dialogue. I will never forget the comment one of my dear writer friends made to his cousin. He said, “If you want your son to grow up as a prince, you have to treat his mother as a queen, not a slave.”

3. Minorities    The third group that suffers in a theocratic state is that of minorities. They are not only deprived of their human rights, but are also persecuted. The state laws want them to abide by the religious laws. And if they do not, they are considered criminals and sinners and are treated unfairly and brutally. Many of them are fined, put in jail or even executed.

It is not uncommon for religious leaders of theocratic societies to declare holy wars

1. against Different Sects, for example, Sunnis and Shiites

2. against Different Religions, for example, Christians, Muslims and Jews


3. against Nonbelievers, for example Hindus, Atheists and Communists and kill thousands of innocent children, men and women just because they have a different religion, philosophy or lifestyle.

I believe Holy Wars are the saddest of all wars as they are fought in the name of a merciful Creator, and innocent human beings are killed in the name of a compassionate God.

I am of the opinion that we all, individually and collectively, have to do some serious soul-searching so that we can create secular and humanistic communities all over the world, where people enjoy not only freedom of religion but also freedom from religion.