Secularism and Absence of Theory

[Published in Economic and Political Theory, 37(51):5142-5142]

A text like my article on the secularism debate (EPW, September 28, 2002), is something more than a sequence of sentences. This is a scientific text, which builds an argument. Therefore, the different sentences have different status according to their function in the argument. Some are premises, and others state the conclusions that follow from these. Some sentences illustrate the point made, yet others provide evidence. To understand such a text, one has to grasp the logical relations between these different sentences.

Throughout his ‘critique’ Kushal Deb (EPW, October 26, 2002) isolates some sentences from my article, and misinterprets them without showing an awareness of their place in the larger argumentative pattern. One example should do. While pointing out a few of my ‘ridiculous’ assertions, he says the following: “… at one point he even claims that policies of the state such as charity, protection of the weak and the poor, levy of taxes to secure distribution of wealth are so deeply influenced by Christianity that no secular state can live up to the demands of secularism.” I make a different point altogether. On the one hand, I say, one could argue that any welfare state which engages in charity is inspired by the religious values of Christianity, and that it fails to live up to the demands of secularism. On the other, one could just as easily propose that such policies are not religious at all but are based on common human values, and that such a state is secular. From these premises, I derive the following conclusion: “Thus, according to one’s personal predilections in attributing the predicate ‘religious’ to certain values, beliefs, and institutions, one can give various interpretations to the idea of the secular state.” Deb seem to miss this point, perhaps because he has read the text as a sequence of isolated sentences.

Deb’s main complaint is that I am obsessed with precise definitions, and that I seem to think that “the religious conflicts” in India would have been solved if only the Indian scholars had provided precise definitions of ‘secularism’ and ‘religion’. The problem I identify goes much deeper than the definitional one. To put it very succinctly, the claim of the secularists is that the separation of politics and religion is indispensable in a country like India, where religious strife between Hindus and Muslims prevails. For such a claim to make sense, we should of course be able to recognise religion, that is, we should know the structure of ‘the religious’ (as in ‘religious’ beliefs, ‘religious’ institutions or ‘religious’ conflicts), which distinguishes it from the non-religious or the secular. The only road that leads to such knowledge is theory formation on the phenomenon of religion. If one assumes that the Hindu traditions and Islam are both religions, one should develop a theory that lays bare the common structure of these cultural traditions, which makes them into religion. In the absence of a consistent and falsifiable theory of religion, the meaning of statements using the word ‘religion’ is dependent on one’s personal preferences in defining the word. That is, one can simply draw the line between the religious and the secular where one wants to. Of course, this problem cannot be solved merely by giving a precise definition of ‘religion’. A definition does not provide us with knowledge of the world. It does not have any empirical consequences, it cannot be tested, and thus it is ‘arbitrary’. Now, since the Indian secularists do not provide any theoretical explanation that tells us what makes the Hindu traditions and Islam into religions or what makes the Hindu-Muslim problem into a religious conflict, their claims about the separation of politics and religion are obscure. Clearly, if this argument reveals an obsession on my part, it is an obsession with theory, which should give us knowledge of the problems of pluralism in contemporary India, and not with some or another definition of ‘religion’, ‘Hinduism’, or ‘secularism’, however precise it may be.

Given the absence of theory, it is incredible that the language of secularism has today become the sole language in which to reflect on the clashes between – and the peaceful coexistence of – different cultural communities in India. Deb’s writing is illustrative in this regard. He makes some matter-of-fact statements about the “complex ground realities” of the Indian situation (“the butchering, raping, and looting of thousands of Muslims in Gujarat;” “the communal holocausts during partition;” “the caste inequalities and violence which were a ubiquitous feature of Hinduism”) and from these he concludes that India needs secularism to survive. When I deny the latter, and point out that the idea of secularism does not even make sense, he concludes that I must be either ignorant of, or denying the existence of, the horrible conflicts that have taken place in India. It is interesting to note what happens here: Deb is in fact conflating a particular description of certain phenomena (the secularism discourse with its notions of ‘the all-encompassing Hindu religion’ and ‘Hindu-Muslim strife’) with these phenomena themselves (the conflicts among different communities in India). That is, he ignores the distinction between a description and the phenomena it describes. Take the example of a stone dropped from a tower. It falls until it hits the ground. Imagine three descriptions of this phenomenon. The first says that the stone falls because it is in love with earth. The second says that the stone falls because objects strive to return to their natural position in the world. The third says that the stone falls because of the gravitational forces acting upon it. In these cases, it is obvious that there is a distinction between the phenomenon of the falling stone, and the descriptions of this phenomenon. The progress in scientific theorising is possible precisely because we are aware of this distinction: if a description does not help us to understand the phenomena in question, we will try to develop a better theoretical description.

Take the issue of the conflicts and injustices in India. Kushal Deb describes these phenomena in terms of ‘the Hindu religion’ and the ‘religious conflicts’, and claims that secularism is the single solution to the problems involved. Because no alternative descriptions are available, Deb speaks as though unaware of the distinction between description and phenomena. It appears to me as though he simply cannot imagine other ways of talking and thinking about the problem of pluralism in India in a language other than that of secularism. The secularism discourse presupposes that the Hindu-Muslim problem is a religious problem and that secularism is the only solution without developing any falsifiable hypothesis on the conflicts in question, which demonstrates that there is a necessary connection between the structure of these conflicts and the conceptual structure of secularism.

Contrary to what he suggests, I am not questioning the ‘moral right’ of the Indian secularists to state that religion ought to be separated from politics. What I am questioning, however, is their belief that such normative statements contribute anything to the pursuit of a solution to the growing animosity between Hindus and Muslims. As the bloodshed turns out to be more horrible with every new outburst of conflict, the problem becomes ever more acute. What worries me is that so many of the Indian scholars are wasting their intellectual energies in pontificating about secularism, instead of theorising the Indian situation so that new insights can be gained and new solutions created. As you say, they may well “be convinced about the genuineness of the issues that they are striving for,” but those personal convictions cannot make good the theoretical poverty and the lack of argument in their stories on secularism. The choice is open. Either you continue to preach in your normative language of secularism – deflecting all challenges as “vacuous attempts at secularism bashing” – and then you confine yourself to the reproduction of empty mantras. Or you start taking my challenges to the secularism discourse seriously – accepting the basic lessons of logic and philosophy of science – and then I invite you to participate in the fascinating enterprise of building alternative theory that will give us knowledge of the current predicaments of Indian society. If there is a real concern about the tragedies that are taking place in


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