In praise of : Secularism

A growing tendency in India is to attack secularism, covertly and indirectly. The attack on secularism is somewhat similar to the attack on equality. They maintain since we can not define secularism (like equality) in a strict sense, it will be good if we stop using the term altogether, at least to avoid the intellectual confusion. More adventurous among them will go on to say that it does not exists at all and everything which is called secular is a form of pseudo-secular. In addition, they may also argue that many people those who speak in the name of the secularism are not strictly secular. Similarly, as one would say against equality, all those who speaks in the name of equality do not practice equality. Indeed, one can easily show that many of them practice in private just opposite of what they preach in public. But can we take these inconsistencies in the practices of these secularists against the idea of secularism itself? It yes, then it is easy to show that those who maintain that religion is a good thing often use it to achieve some other ends. Then, it is pseudo-religion which exists and therefore we must stop using the term altogether? We can drive a term to a logical nihilism but it will be a counsel of despair. Besides a meaning has to be given to secularism, even if it does not exists in strict sense for it has made its way into our constitution.

When we look at various concrete definitions of secularism then one can raise many serious doubts about it. In an engaging book, Amartya Sen has listed out six major criticism of secularism. They are :

  1. The Non-existent critique, 2. The ‘Favouritism’ critique, 3. The ‘Prior Identity’ critique, 4. The ‘Muslim Sectarianism’ critique, 5. The ‘Anti-Modernist’ critique, 6. The ‘Cultural’ Critique

And he goes on to defend secularism. Amartya Sen’s ability to make distinctions is amazing and he moves from one distinction to another at the breathtaking speed. I can not possibly give an overview of all of these distinctions in this post. I’d suggest that you read the essay ‘Secularism and its discontents’ [in the book The argumentative Indian] by yourself. What I wish to do in this post, however, is to give a sociological perspective to the idea of secularism.

If secularism is an ideology then like all ideologies it must stand for something. And those who stands for something have to stand against something else. Ideologies try to change the word and to change the world, they must pursue power. Therefore if secularism is an ideology, then it must take away the power from something and give it to itself. Is it religion?  The common definitions of secularism are dependent on religion and it generates a feeling of as if the spread of secularism will ultimately displace the religion from the public life. Therefore who are for religion must be anti-secular and vice versa. This view is not satisfactory. In sociology, many of us maintain that secularism does not necessarily work against religion. It does not eliminate religion from society or even reduce its influence on individuals. It brings out some places out of the grips of the religion such as universities, hospitals, banks, offices etc. With the spread of secularization, there will be more places in society where religion cease to play any [significant] part. To give an example, a modern hospital and a modern university are such places where religion does not play any visible role. Religion, on these institutes, is a private thing for its member. And it is very hard to see how these institutes can work efficiently, if they can work at all, if they were to be governed by religious than secular rules.

Is religious pluralism is a form of secularism or perhaps it’s  most exalted form as it is increasingly maintained in India? India has a good record in religion pluralism and tolerance. But it must not be forgotten that it has some dark spots too. There is a great deal of sympathy for minorities in our intellectual circles. Indeed, some of the most unreasonable demands made my minorities are not only tolerated, they are often encouraged. One of such demand was made by Muslims for reservation recently. A few centuries ago, their proud forefathers were the rulers of  most of these lands. Therefore it does not follow that they are left behind simply because majority has denied something to them. At least not in the way in which high castes Hindus had denied certain rights to many low castes Hindus and women. It has to be said in all fairness that it was also high caste Hindus above everyone else who attacked the foundation of caste system most vigorously. It is worthwhile to note in passing what Dr. Ambedkar said on this, ‘It is wrong for the majority to deny the existence of minorities. It is equally wrong for minorities to perpetuate themselves.’ One of the criticism of secularism is based on these feelings that secularism helps minorities to perpetuate themselves :  ‘appeasement of minorities’ as it is often called.

‘Dharam nirpekhshta’ or ‘religious plurality’ can do some of the work assigned to secularism, but it can not do all of it. Consider a country where there is only one religion i.e. a Christian country of Europe. In this country admission to university was granted to those men who subscribed to a certain church and it was denied to all women. It was secular forces and not ‘religious pluralism’ which opened the gate of universities to women. And in India, Hindu or Muslim religion are not particularly kind to many castes and women. If people from lower castes are allowed these days to vote or allowed to go to universities and seek employment in those professions which were not assigned to them at birth, and women are allowed to go to temples during their periods, it is due to secularization of society and not due to religious tolerance or religious plurality. Secularism is a modern value and it a new value even in those countries where it found its first adherents.

I am a university man and wish to be on an university for rest of my life. My whole existence depends on the fact that my university governed by secular rules. How can I ever ask secularism to leave even when I find that a great many things are being done in its name are against its spirit. And those who ask secularism to leave must also ask themselves how their life would have been if the institutions they are part of were to be governed by religious rules. They must carefully consider what they are abandoning and what they are asking others to abandon by abandoning secularism. If secularism has to go, a great many things which are essential to life of mind must also go. To the opponents of secularism, it would make them less anxious if they see it as a ‘habit of heart’ rather than an ideology. As a habit of heart, it will cease to be anti-religion. It will only asks people what Jesus is believed to ask his fellows, ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’.



Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

5 thoughts on “In praise of : Secularism”

  1. i never had these words secular,religion in my mind.i felt these words are meant for people who are into discrimination.people who define and categorise these words are people who want to sell their wisdom for a price.we can’t change people who are into discrimination and people who write books to define and classify religion,secularism can’t change people who are into this whole content is static except for intellectual studies and psychological evaluations which were never productive and din’t change n’t this whole discussions and debates useless if they can’t yield healthy society which is free from words religion and secularism.people think beyond religion and secularism when capitalism bring comfort to them.idealists don’t believe in religion or secularists.

    1. Well, discrimination is not alaways a bad thing. Universities too discriminate via competetions when they select some students over others. One should keep in mind for what reason someone is discriminating.

      Changing society is a novel quest. And to change a society one has to change the way people act. People act the way they think and they think the way they intrepret the world. Therefore, interpretation of world in equally important. Everyone has one interpretation or other about the things around him/her. And unless she can not find a better theory by which she can explain her experiance and remove some of her confusions; she has all the reasons not to change. Discussions and debates, if people look at them as potential theories which can help in explaining their confusion, will definately lead to a healty society. But they will lead to a more confusion if they are used to settle personal scores.

      The assertion that ‘people think beyound religion and secualrism when capitalism bring comfort to them’ is a naive one. People are living much more comfortably than a hundred years ago, yet the grip of religion is no less strong. One fact : while in villages, people are known to do violence in the name of caste; in cities, they are more likely to do violence in the name of religion. Even in the most capitalist country such as America, people are deeply religious.

      1. hmm on the whole,you din’t get my point.after babri issue,we din’t find any major riots cuz of economy or capitalism which keeps people priorities europe and usa,u don’t find people ignorant by religion .they are not superstitious as third world countries
        and religion is just existing superficially.

        debates and discussions do happen everyday on news channels and online forums.did ya find any real change among people who have access to these and who don’t have access.i wrote in my last post about why discrimination happens between guys and mtech,phd guys in iit.if you have understood your campus and india,can ya tell me why research scholars don’t get more importance like iit under graduates.most of issues are out of ignorance,people don’t like to kill their ego or personal interests to accept ignorance and to come out of it.

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