Religious Public Holidays in a “secular” state

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

The commission with the improbably long name (more formally known as the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, or CRL) is currently holding public hearings on South Africa’s calendar. Following the receipt of four complaints from members of the public, the CRL has set out to determine the extent to which religious bias informs which Public Holidays we get to enjoy, and which we don’t.

On the one hand, the debate seems easy to resolve. We’re not officially a Christian country, so on the face of it, having Good Friday and Christmas Day as 2 of the 12 Public Holidays is surely discriminatory, in that it privileges one religion over others. If you include Family Day – surely Easter Monday in all but name – a full quarter of the holidays are Christian, and none represent other faiths.

If this discrimination is thought unmerited or wrongful, we’d have two options. We could try to represent all faiths, or we could resolve to represent none. Then, it is of course also possible to argue that the discrimination is warranted, seeing as roughly three-quarters of South Africans claim to be Christian.

You might not expect to hear this from an atheist, but I’m rather sympathetic to the claim that it’s not unfairly discriminatory to allocate 2 of the 12 public holidays to the Christian faith. Religion, per se, does not justify public holidays, even if your religion regards certain days as holy. But sometimes tradition, history or heritage does seem to do so, when it can plausibly be argued to represent a significant majority of a population.

In the case of South Africa, three-quarters of the country appear to self-identify as Christian, and therefore three quarters of the country happen to regard the same days as holy. Seeing as many of them won’t be showing up for work on those days in any event, it seems to make perfect economic and moral sense to recognise that day as special. For most of the country, in other words, it is indeed special.

Not recognising those days as special could simply mean that additional (non-official) public holidays would result. If these two (perhaps 3) days are indeed the most holy days in the year for Christians, a possible alternative is of course to let people choose to take these days as part of 12 holiday days everyone is entitled to, on days of their choosing. But why create the logistical nightmare of forcing this large community to co-ordinate their holidays in this way?

Second, if all holidays are a matter of choice, it’s not only the co-ordination of them between family, friends and communities that’s an issue – we might also suspect that some people would end up getting no public holidays at all. It’s one thing for an employer to pressure someone to work on an official Public Holiday – easier still would be for an employer to keep refusing to allow someone to take any self-designated day off. Having 12 pre-identified days makes everyone’s planning easier, and makes it more difficult for employers to exploit their staff.

So however we resolve the public holiday debate, giving everyone 12 days off – on days of their own choosing – seems the worst possible choice we could make. Our alternatives, as mentioned above, are to include all religions or to include none. Including all of them is clearly out of the question, unless by “all” we mean some limited set, rather than all. Deciding on who gets to be included in that limited set would require some discrimination, though, and seems to get us back to square one – who gets to decide which religions are privileged, and why?

If, as suggested above, making these decisions is premised on popularity, then we should bear in mind that we might sometimes need to revise which public holidays are celebrated and which not. If South Africa eventually becomes a majority Muslim or Jewish country, for example, the holidays should change accordingly. This is perhaps the main issue: such a revision will be unpopular and divisive, and therefore unlikely to occur.

So we might want to consider the discrimination to be unjustified, and resolve that public holidays need to be entirely detached from religious holy days. Then, the days would never need changing and would be selected on a more principled basis. They could be arranged in such a way that the impact on the work week – and the economy – is minimised. Public holidays in the middle of the week invariably result in absenteeism on adjacent days, and this problem could be resolved by stipulating holidays on “the third Monday of June”, for example, rather than on a fixed date.

As indicated earlier, though, arguments that the current arrangements are discriminatory (coming from both other faiths and nonbelievers) seem to my mind overstated. Discrimination is not always wrong, though it’s easy to understand a non-Christian religious person feeling more aggrieved in this case, seeing as to all intents and purposes, having two Christian days recognised where no other faith has a day does appear to present Christianity as the de facto national religion.

Debating this issue on the grounds of discrimination seems to result in more heat than light. We’re becoming a nation of complainers, always on the lookout for who is abusing our dignity or denying some putative right. If there is a slight to other faiths and no faith here, it’s a minor one. But if we are to consider whether the current public holidays are the right ones, there are serious issues to debate – most importantly how we can derive maximum public benefit at lowest cost to the economy. Let’s hope the Commission takes the opportunity to consider those issues, rather than being exclusively concerned with religious (and non-religious) sensitivities.

5 Replies to “Religious Public Holidays in a “secular” state”

  1. For the sake of consistency, should we also revisit the death penalty debate and the abortion debate? Most of the country would like the death penalty reinstated and abortion outlawed. Isn’t it therefore also reasonable to suggest that we give them what they want since most of the country wants this anyway? Not sure I’m comfortable with the ‘majority rules’ idea, least of all in a country where we are more progressing to the mean than regressing to the mean.

    As an atheist, I don’t take any more issue with religious holidays than I take issue with the other frivolous hegemony days (reconciliation day, freedom day, heritage day, and a host of other pat on the back days of which the purpose seems dodgy at best to me). It’s just a public holiday.

    I don’t feel discriminated against when I see the ironic Christmas trees, the Coca-Cola branded Santa Clause or get invited for family dinners and people insist on praying. I’m certainly less offended than some of my Christian family is when I suggest that we’re cousins of monkeys, for example.

    1. I don’t see how consistency is relevant, because the examples are not analogous. I’m not saying “everything is resolved by democratic consensus” – I’m saying this thing can be. One immediately present reason why this thing is different to the two you mention is that lives (of whatever value) aren’t terminated (for whatever reason).

      1. Makes sense but I don’t really feel comfortable with the idea of treating one religion with privilege. Even if it is supported by the majority. I’d prefer to have public holidays that do apply across the board, as the new regime did with repackaging ‘Gelofte Dag’.

        But to celebrate something like the Sharpeville Massacre is akin to celebrating a Darwin Award in my mind.

        Another alternative that should address the issue of some people missing out is to add religious holidays to one’s leave structure. So you’d get more personal days of which some should go towards celebrating religious days, then us atheists can also participate. Problem there is some religions have more special days than others.

        1. Re your last paragraph, as I suggest above in paragraph 6 you wouldn’t need to give everyone all their holy days. But I agree that this wouldn’t be a good solution, for different reasons.

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