Christian Attitudes and The Rule of Law as the Mechanism of Secularization

1. So far, our answers have always taken this form: in the moment of secularization, the formal structures or cognitive schemes of Christianity are diffused accordingly as they lose their specific doctrinal content. In this formulation, it is as though the logical form of religion is able to spread itself by disposing of its semantic content. Thus, both the common sense of the West and the scholarly consensus of the academia accept the background assumptions of Christian doctrine, while they do not adopt its specific teachings. Balu has always been somewhat unhappy about this formulation. As he argues in chapter 11 of `The Heathen in his blindness: Asia, the West and the dynamic of religion’, it is not a specific set of assumptions which spreads in society, but rather certain attitudes. The claims about the universality of religion, the meaning of life, the necessity of norms, the superiority of liberal democracy, etc. do not generally appear as explicit premises held by a group of people. Then, it seems the only explanation one can give is to ascribe them to these people as implicit assumptions. To some extent, this works: theories about the origin of religion, or the nature of morality, or human psychology all presuppose that certain assumptions are true. So if one intends to reveal the conceptual problems of these theories, it is fruitful to analyze these assumptions as the hidden premises of theorizing.

However, when it comes to explaining how the Christian religion spreads in a secular form, these accounts are unconvincing. What happens? Do the implicit assumptions or formalized theological schemes expand their scope as a kind of unit ideas by jumping from mind to mind? In what realm do these assumptions and background frameworks exist and procreate? The problem becomes acute when we turn to the spread of secularized Christianity in pagan societies like the Indian. Do the elite of alienated intellectuals suddenly adopt these assumptions as the starting points of reasoning about politics and society? Do they spread automatically from the colonized elite to other layers of Indian society, because this is a basic dynamic of societies? Such answers would be unsatisfactory. But what then is the mechanism through which secularized religious schemes spread and structure the experience of an ever increasing number of individuals? This and other related questions have been bothering me for some time (not least because I have failed to solve any of them in my doctoral thesis).

2. As said, Balu has always stressed that secularized religion spreads in the form of certain attitudes towards life, society and the world: one begins to look at human lives, actions and historical events as carriers of meaning, intention or purpose; one views practices as the embodiments of beliefs or doctrines; one conceives of all cultural ethics as bodies of norms; one approaches society as a system constituted by a legal framework; one experiences natural phenomena as linked to each other by an underlying order, whose regularities should be disclosed. This formulation in terms of attitudes is promising as a step towards an explanation of secularization. Certainly, it is more promising than the account in terms of implicit assumptions and secularized religious schemes, which expand by casting off doctrinal constraints. But how do these attitudes or stances spread in society? Our recent research and reflections, I think, bring us to a very simple answer: the rule of law is the mechanism of secularization. Let me draw together some insights of Balu and others in order to defend this tentative hypothesis.

3. Law is the means through which traditions are reformed according to certain theological principles. If you look at law, including its institutional embodiments such as the state, courts and other legal institutions, it has done a number of things both in the western societies and in a colonized society like the Indian. At a first obvious level, it has reformed the traditional practices of early modern Europe and modern India. In Europe, this happened during the seventeenth century, through the imposition of a vast body of ecclesiastic laws in the confessional churches (both Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran). A variety of traditional practices were discarded as idolatry and immorality and replaced by legal procedures that embodied Christian norms (many illustrations can be found in chapter 4.2 of my doctoral thesis). In colonial India, a very similar development took place. All kinds of puja practices, which were considered as idolatrous and immoral were abolished through the famous Abolition Acts. This goes from hook-swinging through bird sacrifices to the devadasi tradition and polygamy. The norms that replaced these practices were not explicitly Christian. They merely spread an attitude of repulsion and indignation towards the `idolatry’, `cruelty’, `oppression’ and `irrationality’ of the traditional Hindu practices. Thus, law spread the Christian stance towards idolatry in a secularized form.

4. Law is the means through which societies are reformed according to certain normative models. Again, this is quite obvious. The legal system both in Enlightenment Europe and in colonial India forced all traditions to accept the normative framework of liberty, equality and fraternity as the superior model of society. These Protestant values were imposed by law as though they embodied secular reason. In European nation-states, for instance, the legal systems began to compel `citizens’ to pledge loyalty to the national sovereign alone in the temporal realm of our earthly lives. Catholic believers could no longer submit themselves to the papacy as a temporal authority, but only as a spiritual authority related to the heavenly realm and the salvation of the soul. This was enforced as the sublimely rational model of a nation-state which treats all citizens as equals irrespective of their creeds. In reality, secular law compelled the European Catholics to accept the Protestant notion of religion as an individual relationship with God over which no human being could have authority in this world.

In India, the Temple Entry Acts provide a good example. These masqueraded as a struggle of reason, equality and morality against the horribly inegalitarian tyranny of caste (apparently, the British and colonized lawyers had forgotten that European societies were dominated by `clubs’ with restricted entry). In reality, these Temple Entry Acts imposed the Protestant model of religion as a relationship with God in which all souls ought to be free and equal as though it was the one true morality. Again, the secularized Christian attitudes towards morality and equality were imposed and diffused by the legal system in India.

5. Law forces people to defend their cultural traditions as religious doctrines and thus reforms tradition into religion. This is where law as the mechanism of secularization becomes truly fascinating. Colonial law in India embodied the normative model of toleration and religious liberty. At first glance, this may seem to be good, since it implied that the traditional practices of `the Hindoos’ were to be tolerated. This impression is wrong, however. In fact, the legal model of toleration compelled the Hindus to make their traditions into religions. This policy systematically forced Hindus to prove that a particular practice was founded in `the true religious doctrines of Hinduism’. This happened, because the liberal colonial state would only tolerate a practice if the proper `religious authority’ had demonstrated that the practice really belonged to the realm of religion. Thus, in the nineteenth-century controversy over the practice of widow-burning, the Governor-General in Council decided in 1805 that “the best course to follow, according to [the] fundamental principle of religious toleration, would be to allow the practice in those cases in which it was countenanced by their [Hindu] religion, while preventing it in others in which it was by the same authority prohibited.” In the same controversy, a colonial observer commented that “the true interpretation of the religious law/will no doubt diminish, if not extinguish the desire for self-immolation. The safest way of coming to a right understanding on a point so interesting to humanity, is a rigid investigation of the rules of conduct laid down in the books which are considered sacred by the Hindoos.”  Consequently, the orthodox Hindu community began to aggressively defend the practice of self-immolation by demonstrating its foundation in the `religious doctrines’ and `sacred texts’ of the `Hindu religion’.

Following this route, the colonial legal policy of religious toleration gradually transformed the self-confidence and vibrancy of the Hindu traditions into a fanatical defense of their alleged `religious doctrines’. Before the early nineteenth century, the Hindu spokesmen had protected their traditions from the missionary onslaught by pointing out the antiquity of their ancestral practices. Or they insisted that “every one may be saved by his own Religion, if he does what is Good, and shuns Evil,” as a Malabar Brahmin told the missionary Ziegenbalg in the early eighteenth century. This changed once the liberal colonial state implemented its policy of religious toleration: now these traditions had to prove that they were proper religions in order to be legitimate. In the same way as its colonial precursor, the secular state of post-independence India has forced the Hindu traditions to identify and stand up for themselves as religious doctrines, variants of Islam and Christianity. The result is the Hindutva movement: a rabid attempt to establish the doctrines of `Hinduism’ as the superior and dominant form of religion in the Indian society. Hindutva imitates all the strategies of religious self-assertion, which Muslims and Christians have developed so as to exploit law for their own purposes. For instance, ever more cases occur in India of Hindu organizations going to court, because “their religious sentiments and sensitivities have been violated.”

Again, law spreads a typical Christian attitude in a secularized form: it forces one to defend one’s tradition as a religion, with its own sacred doctrines and sacrosanct sentiments. Turning to the West, this has taken tragic forms today. A week back there was an account in the newspaper about a controversy in the UK. Apparently, a `Hindu organization’ calling itself the “Hindu Forum” had objected when the British postal services issued a stamp depicting a painting of an Indian-looking pair wearing tilaks, who are doing puja for the Infant Jesus. The spokesmen of this organization found it unacceptable that “Hindus were depicted as worshipping Christ.” This shows how a pluralist tradition is being reformed into an intolerant religion, because the British legal system will only respect a cultural community if it is able to invoke its sacred doctrines and sacrosanct sentiments. The U.S. legal system also promotes such religious self-assertion and such demands for the recognition of a separate identity. Basically, its model of toleration forces ethnic and other communities to take the form of secularized Protestant churches, with a set of doctrines and norms that should never be violated. Many Hindu organizations and individuals like Rajiv Malhotra are unwittingly participating in the workings of this legal mechanism of secularization. The way in which they intend to defend and promote the Hindu traditions in the West mould these traditions into variants of Christian churches. In this context, the spread of secularized Christian attitudes through the legal system takes an extremely insidious form.

6. Law compels people to recount their actions as though these form an intentional pattern that embodies some purpose, reason or aim. This is another insidious facet of law as the mechanism of secularization. In judicial cases, one has to present a series of actions and events as though they were intentional: “Person x committed action a, because he wanted to ruin my reputation. And person y joined x and she committed b in order to further hamper the development of my career. Then, I reacted and in order to protect myself I threatened y and told her to convey to x that I would get him if he didn’t back off.” These kinds of intentional accounts do not represent what actually happened. They usually link a series of disparate events and actions in order to reveal a supposed plan or pattern of reasons. Strikingly, whenever one goes to court, one is compelled to present one’s case in the form of such an account. Thus, the legal system forces one to adopt the religious attitude towards actions and events as the embodiments of reasons and purposes. A close friend of mine here at Kuvempu University is involved in a judicial process and he gave an excellent account of what happens in law. He told me that first his lawyers told him to give an account
which related a series of unrelated events to each other as though the persons involved had done everything deliberately. Basically, he says, “my lawyers forced me to tell untruths, because otherwise we would certainly lose the case.” Then, in court, he was first asked by the judge to put his hand on the Gita and solemnly swear that he would tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” He was completely disgusted by this charade. What it illustrates is how the rule of law compels Indians to adopt Christian attitudes towards actions, texts and truth.

7. Law compels people to found their practical decisions and actions in terms of good `scientific’ reasons. This is clear in the many cases all of us have seen on TV or in the newspapers. On the one hand, all decisions in a legal case are supposed to be founded in `scientific truth’ (that is, the hypotheses which are dominant at that particular point of time). Thus, science as the search for Truth becomes the ultimate adjudicator of practical decisions in a society. On the other hand, when a particular practice is challenged in courts, one has to give `good scientific reasons’ in order to defend the practice. In Europe, one only needs to think of the many cases of Muslims being brought to court for their custom to butcher animals at home on certain holy days. Or one can imagine a case where a modern Hindu has to defend the wearing of a kumkum at work in terms of scientific reasons: it stimulates health because it is located on one of the basic nerve points, etc. So, again law spreads a religious attitude towards the world, which strives to found all human practices in `good scientific reasons’.

8. Law’s principles of proof of guilt reproduce Christian notions of morality. Recently, Balu and I read an article by the philosopher of science Larry Laudan who has now turned his research to the epistemology of law. The article in question, “How Reasonable is `Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt’?” (published in the journal Legal Theory), Larry Laudan’s “How Reasonable is ‘Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt’?” (published in the journal Legal Theory), shows how the principle of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is utterly unreasonable when one analyzes it in terms of  epistemological standards. Laudan’s argument is convincing. The problem is it makes all these judges and lawyers look like fools. Balu was not satisfied by Laudan’s pragmatic justification of proof  beyond a reasonable dount (of 10 accused, the principle will lead to 9 being legitimately convicted and 1 innocent fellow going to the gallows). Interestingly, the advocacy of this legal principle often invokes a notion of ‘moral certainty’. It is as though when a group of 12 (?) jury members and a judge unanimously come to the decision that there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, then the individual at the other end must be guilty of whatever he or she is accused of. Now, this attitude, Balu suggests, reflects the notion of conscience in the Christian religion. According to the theology of conscience, God has inscribed His Law for humanity in all human creatures. A few definitions can show what conscience means to Christians: “The conscience of man…Is a man’s judgement of himselfe, according to the judgement of God of him.” Or: “Conscience is that Power, or Faculty of the Mind, which judges of our Actions according to a right Rule, whether they be agreeable to it or not.” This rule is God’s Will. Conscience is called “that universal Monarch, whose Ubiquitary Throne is establish’d in every mortal Breast.” A Quaker writes that conscience is “an Ability in the Understanding of man, by a reflective act to judge of himself in all he does, as to his acceptance or rejection with God” and he adds that “this is the inward Rule he hath to walk by.” Before the fall, Adam had been perfectly good and even after the fall, humankind retained the knowledge of the perfectly good in contrast with evil. This perfect knowledge allowed man to distinguish “between Good and Evil,” and worked as “a constant witness to God in his soul, and by secret reference to what he was at firrst, tells him what he still ought to be.” The left-over of God’s Will in us after the Fall is what we still call conscience. In other words, conscience tells us how we ought to act according to God’s Will and judges every act of ours in relation to this norm. Given the belief that each individual conscience still reflects the Will of God to some extent (unless it is completely corrupted, but this the selection of jury members is supposed to prevent), the origin of the notions of moral certainty and proof beyond a reasonable doubt becomes clear. When so many good Christians agree on the guilt of the accused, it must be God’s Will speaking through their consciences. It is sickening to see how law’s reproduction of secularized Christian attitudes towards morality leads to the upholding of a silly principle in the American courts (and to the conviction of innocents).

9. To conclude a post that has become far too long: there is prima facie evidence for the hypothesis that the rule of law is the mechanism of secularization of the Christian religion. Naturally, this raises more complex questions: How has law compelled both Europeans and Indians to adopt secularized Christian attitudes? It seems the legal system made the adoption of these attitudes into a precondition of survival for individuals and traditions. Since law had the monopoly to settle conflicts, the people involved had two choices: either you accept the legal system’s approach to actions, events, practices and then you embrace secularized religion; or you lose. Why did the mechanism of secularization in Christianity take the form of law? How come post-independence India continues the legal system of the colonial state and therefore further spreads religious attitudes in its society? Etc.