The Vacuity of Secularism

[Published in Economic and Political Weekly, 37: 4047-4053]

On the Indian Debate and Its Western Origins

The rise of Hindutva has often been interpreted as a threat to the secular state. Similarly, the recent outbursts of Hindu-Muslim conflict are said to be related to the decay of secularism. The author argues that the concept of secularism is fundamentally obscure, since it is founded upon an arbitrary distinction between the religious and the secular. The belief that religion should be separated from politics is a normative dogma that precedes all theoretical analysis of the Indian situation. Therefore, this concept of secularism prevents us from understanding the problems of pluralism in contemporary India, instead of helping us to solve them.

Since the declaration of Independence in 1947, the issue of secularism has been at the centre of the struggle between the conservative and progressive forces in Indian society. With the rise of the Hindu Right and the growing intensity of Hindu-Muslim conflict in recent decades, the issue has once again become as urgent as it was in the aftermath of Partition. At least, that is what the secularists tell us. Indian society is characterised by its religious pluralism, they say, and therefore the state should absolutely be secular, that is, it should be impartial towards all religions. According to this view, the problem with the Hindu Right is that it strives to make India into a religious state. If this were done, the state would persistently take the side of the Hindu majority in conflicts between Hindus and Muslims, and it would no longer be able to curb the violence as an impartial arbiter. Shortly, the basic fear of the secularists is that India threatens to fall apart if the domain of politics is not separated from that of religion. It is this view that brings them to sweeping statements such as the following: “Secularism, for India, is not simply a point of view, it is a question of survival” [Rushdie 1990:19].

When the Indian intellectuals attach such importance to the idea of secularism, one would expect it to be more or less clear what its content is. However, whenever the participants in the debate attempt to pinpoint what secularism is, they end up in obscurity and confusion. In 1972, Mushir-Ul-Haq made the following remark: “For the last two decades Indians have been talking of secularism, yet the term remains vague and ambiguous. One may, therefore, be justified in asking: what does secularism really mean – especially in the Indian context?”[Mushir-Ul-Haq 1972:6]. Twenty years later, M M Sankhdher came to the same conclusion: “Such a commonplace concept as secularism, with which the man in the street is so familiar and so used to, tends to acquire the character of a riddle, a puzzle, an enigma amongst intelligentsia” [Sankhdher 1992:1-2]. In the last few decades, similar remarks have surfaced again and again. Some point out “the curious absence, the startling and significant vacuity of the notion ‘secularism’ itself,” and go so far as to claim that the notion has become “a sort of mantra, a quasi-religious incantation” [Rai 1989:2770-71]. Others put it mildly and say that there is a tendency among Indian intellectuals to interpret the concept in their own subjective manner [Khan 1994:373], or they use more pointed terms: “Like liberal Hindu gods who can take different forms and give a chance to the devotees to worship in any form they like, in India the concept of secularism has acquired so many interpretations and it now means different things to different groups of people” [Srikanth 1994:39]. Whether Muslim or Hindu, rightist or leftist, sociologist or philosopher, these thinkers all agree on one point: the term ‘secularism’ has so many different meanings in the Indian context that it appears to have lost all meaning.

In this paper, I will argue that the semantic confusion surrounding ‘secularism’ masks a number of deeper problems in the Indian debate. Instead of being embedded in a well-structured theory, the idea of secularism consists of a number of isolated normative propositions regarding the relation of politics and religion, which are proclaimed as though they are self-evidently true. First, I will show that these tenets of secularism do not make much sense, because they are based on an arbitrary and unstable distinction between the religious and the secular. The argument continues by demonstrating that this cannot be a problem particular to the Indian context, but that secularism should be as difficult to grasp elsewhere as it is in India. Finally, I will conclude by formulating a question for future research: Why do so many intellectuals remain under the spell of the principle of the separation of politics and religion, while this principle suffers from a basic lack of intelligibility?


The Religious and the Secular

Not all participants in the secularism debate experience difficulties in making sense of the concept around which the debate revolves. Those who intend to protect the secular character of the Indian state from the onslaught of the Hindu Right often provide definitions that appear to leave no doubt as to the meaning of the term. Secularism, they say, requires the separation of the state from religion in general, from all faiths, or from any particular religious order, or it stands for the separation of religious and non-religious institutions [Smith 1963; Gopal 1993:13; Sen 1996:13; Bhargava 1998:488]. Obviously, when the secularists argue that this kind of secularism is indispensable in India, it is their burden to produce a theoretical description of the Indian situation which demonstrates that the separation of politics and religion is its only conceptual solution.

At the very least, any such description has to answer two basic questions. Firstly, it should be able to tell us what the properties of religion are. If there is no theoretical clarity on what makes some phenomena of Indian culture into religious phenomena or some institutions of Indian society into religious institutions, then there is simply no point in stating that the religious ought to be separated from the political. Secondly, the belief that the secular state offers the political answer to the Hindu-Muslim strife in India derives from the underlying belief that it is the one viable solution to the predicament of religious pluralism. For this inference to hold, the description should identify the general properties of religious pluralism, and show that these properties can also be discerned in the Hindu-Muslim problem. In other words, it should describe the structure that distinguishes the predicament of religious pluralism or religious strife from other problems of human co-existence. As the cogency of the secularism discourse is fully dependent on these two issues, I will examine the extent to which they are satisfactorily addressed by some of the prominent advocates of secularism.

Religion of Secularism

When India became independent, it was obvious to most leaders of the Indian National Congress that it had to become a secular state, because they considered this to be the only form of government that would secure the peaceful co-existence of Hindus and Muslims. This view found one of its strongest proponents in Jawaharlal Nehru, who went so far as to assert that “no state can be civilised except a secular state” [cited in Chandra 1994:79]. According to Bipan Chandra, Nehru’s definition of secularism was four-pronged:

Secularism meant first, separation of religion from political, economic, social and cultural aspects of life, religion being treated as a purely personal matter; second, dissociation of the state from religion; third, full freedom to all religions and tolerance of all religions; and four, equal opportunities for followers of all religions, and no discrimination and partiality on grounds of religion [Chandra 1994:63].

Prima facie, this may appear to be a precise definition. However, when one is aware of the confusion surrounding the concept of religion, its obscurity becomes baffling. For instance, it is often said that religion in India is simply a way of life; and Durkheim’s approach defines religion as a unified system of beliefs and practices which unite into a single moral community all those who adhere to them. If secularism means the separation of religion from all social aspects of life, and religion is a way of life or a system of social unification, then the former necessarily implies the complete annihilation of religion. At the same time, secularism is supposed to stand for full freedom and tolerance of all religions. Unless one thinks it is possible to reconcile annihilation and tolerance, this shows that Nehruvian secularism becomes inconsistent when it is interpreted in the terms of some common definitions of religion. It turns out to be a scarcely intelligible idea once one tries to give content to loose talk on the separation of religion from the different domains of public life.

At times, Nehru seems conscious of the lack of clarity in the concept of religion. Consider the following statement: “If religion, or rather what is called religion, in India continues to interfere with everything, then it will not be a mere question of divorcing it from politics, but of divorcing it from life itself” [Nehru 1972:233]. This statement has a rather peculiar form. First, Nehru admits that it is not clear to him what religion is, since he is not sure whether what is called religion in India really is religion. But then he suggests that religion interferes with everything and that it has to be divorced from life itself, as though it is obvious how to recognise religion and distinguish it from other social phenomena. The ambiguity is even more confusing in one of B R Ambedkar’s interventions in the Constituent Assembly Debates:

The religious conceptions in this country are so vast that they cover every aspect of life from birth to death. There is nothing which is not religion and if personal law is to be saved I am sure about it that in social matters we will come to a standstill…There is nothing extraordinary in saying that we ought to strive hereafter to limit the definition of religion in such a manner that we shall not extend it beyond beliefs and such rituals as may be connected with ceremonials which are essentially religious [cited in Chatterjee 1998:356].

Religion seems easily identifiable to Ambedkar since he perceives that it covers every aspect of life from birth to death. Naturally, he should be aware that when there is nothing which is not religion, the term loses all meaning. Next, he proposes that political expediency obliges us to limit the definition of religion. Now, how will we find out what is really religion and what not? The extraordinary answer is that we shall define it in terms of beliefs and rituals connected with ceremonials which are essentially religious. When we are still striving to define what religion is, how can we possibly know which things are religious? In this quote, it is painfully clear how arbitrary the statements about Indian religion are. One can feel that ‘religion’ covers every aspect of life in India, and one can at the same time propose that ‘religion’ ought to be limited to those things which one feels are ‘essentially religious’. In the absence of a consistent theory of religion, there is no firm cognitive ground for any of these feelings, and one can perpetually continue to invent stipulative definitions according to one’s personal intuitions or one’s political preferences.

The theoretical problems in the secularism discourse will not disappear when the term ‘religion’ is replaced by ‘Hinduism’, because that strategy confronts us with similar questions as to what Hinduism is, whether it is religion or not, or even whether it exists or not. Nehru himself would certainly admit that these are thorny issues:

Hinduism, as a faith, is vague, amorphous, many-sided, all things to all men. It is hardly possible to define it, or indeed to say whether it is a religion or not in the usual sense of the word. In its present form, and even in the past, it embraces many beliefs and practices, from the highest to the lowest, often opposed to or contradicting each other. Its essential spirit seems to be live and let live [Nehru 1946:75].

It should be quite impossible to unambiguously identify something which cannot be defined, which is vague, amorphous, many-sided, and all things to all men. And when one does not succeed in identifying the Hindu religion, how can one even dream of separating it from the state or from the public sphere? Surely a serious problem is involved here. As R N Dandekar points out, the social scientific study of Hinduism has long accepted that this religion defies all attempts at definition:

…Hinduism does not insist on any particular religious practice as being obligatory, nor does it accept any doctrine as its dogma. Hinduism can also not be identified with a specific moral code. Hinduism, as a religion, does not convey any definite or unitary idea. There is no dogma or practice which can be said to be either universal or essential to Hinduism as a whole [Dandekar 1971:237].

Basically, the conclusion is that the Hindu religion does not have any properties – i e, any common beliefs or practices – that allow us to recognise it. This being the case, how shall we determine when an intrusion takes place of this religion into the political domain? When does a state become a Hindu state, as opposed to a secular state? When the government publicly cites Rama as the prototype of the ethical king? Or when it consults an astrologist before making an important political decision? When a puja is done in parliament? Any answer to these and similar questions will be derived from the standard that distinguishes the class of things Hindu from that of things secular. Since there is not the least consensus on such a standard, one can fix it as one chooses, and accordingly one can give one’s own interpretation as to what it means for India to be a secular state.

Besides, if the essential spirit of the Hindu traditions seems to be live and let live, what then is the point of arguing for secularism in India? In the west, such great import was assigned to the separation of church and state because the Christian theocracies had been persecuting states that imposed one specific form of doctrine and worship upon the subjects. Considering that the Hindu traditions do not regard any practice or doctrine as obligatory, it is impossible that contemporary India is confronted with the same threat of a persecuting religious state, and that it is in need of the same safeguard of the secular state. Here, the objection may arise that although it is quite true that Hinduism generally has no difficulty with accommodating all kinds of practices and beliefs, the more dogmatic and intolerant form of Hindutva also exists, and that therefore the Hindu religion should be separated from the state in India. For such an objection to be meaningful, one will have to show what makes the various Hindu traditions into one ‘Hindu religion’ (or several Hindu religions for that matter), how the religious elements of this religion are present in an excessive form in the discourses and practices of the Hindu Right, and what it would mean to separate these elements from politics. These questions have not even been addressed by the secularists. Thus, one cannot but conclude that they simply presuppose that the present difficulties in Indian politics should be understood in terms of the relation between ‘the religious’ and ‘the political’, while they have no clue as to where to draw the line between these two domains.

This one assumption is constitutive of the entire debate. For instance, Amartya Sen (1996: 13-14) argues that the principle of secularism does not require that the state must steer clear of any association with any religious matter whatsoever: “Rather, what is needed is to ensure that in so far as the state has to deal with different religions and members of different religious communities, there must be a basic symmetry of treatment.” The virtue of this approach, he emphasises, is that the requirement of symmetric treatment leaves open the question as to what form that symmetry should take. Two imaginary examples are sufficient to assess the consequences of Sen’s liberality. The first is that of some predominantly Muslim state, which allows freedom of religion to the minorities, but also proclaims that all women should wear full burqa. The second example asks us to imagine a time in the future at which the Indian state enacts a law that forbids the consumption of meat to all citizens. Both states are still politically secular according to Sen’s principle, since they treat the members of different religious communities in a symmetric manner. Of course, he may object to these counter-intuitive examples of secularism by pointing out that these states do not really respect the principle of symmetry because they impose the religious values or beliefs of the majority on the other communities. To make the latter point convincing, however, Sen should show that matters of dress and diet are part of the religion of the respective majorities. The validity of such an argument is dependent on including these domains of life in some definition of religion, and therefore the states in question could argue as convincingly that their measures are not related to religion in any way – provided they have another definition of religion.

Thus, Sen’s formula of “basic symmetry of treatment” once again illustrates that the theoretical inadequacy of the secularism discourse is largely due to the lack of stability in the essential conceptual distinction between the religious and the secular. The resulting equivocation is not limited to the academic debates. Perhaps, its consequences are best illustrated when the Indian judiciary arbitrarily invokes a number of differing definitions of Hinduism and religion to decide whether a certain community belongs to the religion of Hinduism [Galanter 1971], or whether Hindutva is a religion or a non-religious way of life [Cossman and Kapur 1996]. As I said earlier, the principle of the separation of politics and religion is intelligible only if one provides a consistent theoretical description that clarifies what religion is and what makes the various traditions of the subcontinent into religion. These issues being as opaque as they are, the idea of secularism was bound to become an empty mantra, and such a mantra will certainly fail to counter the dynamics that are currently disrupting Indian society.

Predicament of Religious Strife

It is not that no attempts at all have been undertaken to theorise the conflicts among the cultural communities in India. In fact, a specific terminology has been coined to study these conflicts, namely, that of ‘communalism’ and its cognates such as ‘communal violence’ and ‘communal riots’. What is this phenomenon of communalism? Nehru defined it as “a narrow group mentality basing itself on religious community but in reality concerned with political power and patronage for the group concerned,” or, more bitterly, as “politics under some religious garb, one religious group being incited to hate another religious group” [cited in Chandra 1994:62]. In a series of essays, Bipan Chandra has argued that communalism should be understood as an ideology which connects religious identities with secular interests, and which suggests that the secular interests of the followers of different religions are opposed to one another (e g, Cahndra 1994:148-49]. Both Nehru and Chandra argue that the problem is not so much religion itself or even the existence of various religious communities, but that it lies in the fact that the religion of these communities is being used to pursue secular interests in the political domain.

Let us try to illustrate this account of communalism with an example. Imagine a leader of the Jain community who encourages his followers to offer non-violent resistance to British rule in the colonial era, or one who does the same towards the campaigns of the Hindu Right today. Arguably, both leaders use religion (Jain ahimsa) to pursue political interests, and their position implies that these political interests are opposed either to those of the Christian colonials, or to those of the Hindu rightists. Thus the position fulfils the conditions to be called communalism. However, I think Nehru, Chandra, and most other secularists would not like to condemn these acts as instances of communalism in the same way they would condemn the case of Hindutva leaders who incite their followers to destroy a mosque. One can think of many other examples which throw doubt on the above explanation of communalism. The explanation is not useful because it is based on the invalid assumption that one knows what constitutes secular as against religious interests. Does Gandhian non-violence imply the pursuit of a secular interest, a religious interest, or that of a secular interest tied to a religious identity? The communalism account should allow us to answer such questions. Since it does not, it has its own conceptual foundation collapse, and it loses all credibility as an explanation of the negative role of community in Indian politics. Rather than being the conclusion of a careful analysis of this issue, the normative view that religion ought not to be used to pursue secular interests is the pre-theoretical assumption the account starts from.

It is often asserted that the most distinctive property of Indian secularism is its firm opposition to communalism. Secularism then is explicitly presented as the ultimate ideological answer to the communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims. Now, as I said, any description of the Hindu-Muslim conflict which is to prove that secularism is necessary in India, should discern the structure of the class of conflicts that can be resolved through secularism, and show the necessary connection between this structure and that of the latter concept. The account of communalism does certainly not offer such a description. When we remove its untenable distinction between secular and religious interests, all it says is that there are different communities which come into conflict because they have (or believe they have) differing interests. Of course, this is a description that can be applied to any and every conflict between two groups of people. Adding the terminology of religion gives us the impression that we are describing a specific kind of conflict; that we are referring to a specific category of conflicts that should be analysed and solved in the same manner. This would be the case if we demonstrated that the conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in contemporary India, those between Protestants and Catholics in early modern Europe, and all the other conflicts we care to designate as religious conflicts share a common structure that makes them into religious conflicts. But the predicate ‘religious’ does not refer to such a common structure in the phenomena it intends to describe; rather it appears to be a self-explanatory tag which generates the illusion that we have a deeper understanding of these phenomena. So even if Nehru wrote in 1936 that “the communal problem is not a religious problem, it has almost nothing to do with religion,” and even if some contemporary thinkers agree that the communal riots do not revolve around religion, such claims do not explain anything about the conflicts among the various communities in Indian society as long as one does not provide theoretical criteria to distinguish religious problems from those that have nothing to do with religion [cited in Chandra 1994:71].

If one does not possess such criteria, any argument one constructs in order to demonstrate that secularism is the sole answer to India’s predicament of ‘religious strife’ is bound to end up in a conceptual muddle. This is well illustrated by the work of the political theorist Rajeev Bhargava. The case for secularism is ‘overdetermined’, Bhargava believes, since the reasons in favour of the idea are ‘overwhelming’ [Bhargava 1998:488]. Of these reasons, he considers “the argument from ordinary life” to be the most convincing. This argument begins with the assertion that religious world-views are constituted by ultimate ideals. When the believers of different religions and non-believers have to live together, a clash of their ultimate ideals is always imminent. A clash of such ideals could deprive people of leading an ordinary life. Since it is the state’s task to secure a minimally decent existence for its citizens, all ultimate ideals must be expunged from the affairs of the state. Therefore, politics and religion have to be separated, the two domains have to keep a principled distance and respect each other’s boundaries. ‘To sum up’, Bhargava says, “ordinary life requires that an acceptable minimum standard exists and that it is barbaric to fall below it,” and political secularism is the only way to secure this minimum standard and to avoid barbarism [Bhargava 1998:491].

Underlying this argument from ordinary life is a view of the common predicament with which human societies are generally confronted. Both in the west and in India, Bhargava suggests, secularism was consolidated in the face of irresolvable religious conflicts and in the aftermath of sectarian violence. More generally, he concludes that “whenever conflicts became uncontainable and insufferable, something resembling a politically secular state simply had to emerge” [Bhargava 1998:497]. This simply had to happen because of the following reason:

At no point in the history of humankind has any society existed with one and only one set of ultimate ideals. Moreover, many of these ultimate ideals or particular formulations of these have conflicted with one another. In such times, humanity has either got caught in an escalating spiral of violence and cruelty or come to the realisation that even ultimate ideals need to be delimited. In short, it has recurrently stumbled upon something resembling political secularism. Political secularism must then be seen as a part of the family of views which arises in response to a fundamental human predicament. It is neither purely Christian nor peculiarly Western. It grows wherever there is a persistent clash of ultimate ideals perceived to be incompatible [Bhargava 1998:497-98; my italics].

Although there is some ambiguity in this passage (societies have to develop political secularism itself or ‘something similar’ that belongs to the same ‘family of views’), Bhargava does not really waver from his main point: all cultures and societies are confronted with one and the same fundamental human predicament and secularism is the answer to this predicament.

When Bhargava claims that the secular state has to emerge whenever conflicts become uncontainable and insufferable, he cannot possibly mean all conflicts since this would imply that even fights between family members, lovers, or neighbours have secularism as their solution. He is referring to conflicts between groups holding divergent religions, and he defines these conflicts in terms of the distinctive property of “a persistent clash of ultimate ideals.” This, of course, is a rather vague notion and the author never comes to explaining what makes an ideal into an ultimate ideal. Personally, I do not see why a gang-war between Latinos and Blacks somewhere in LA, a battle between the hooligans of two rival soccer teams somewhere in Europe, a separatist struggle of an ethnic minority anywhere in the world, and literally thousands of other conflicts should not fall under this heading of a clash of ultimate ideals. It sounds slightly absurd if one claims that the secular state is the solution to all of these conflicts. Still, in Bhargava’s account, whenever some kind of a compromise emerges between the conflicting parties, this would have to be understood as an instance of humanity solving “the fundamental human predicament” by stumbling upon “something resembling political secularism”.

Bhargava is so keen on proving the universal scope of the idea of secularism, that he presents it as the indispensable solution to the human predicament of religious strife. Since he begins with the assumption that this predicament is a universal phenomenon of human societies, he does never really pose the question as to what properties make a conflict into a religious conflict. The consequence is that he takes recourse to some all-encompassing category – ‘clash of ultimate ideals’ – which cannot possibly refer to a well-defined set of conflicts with significant structural similarities. The same is true for the resulting notion of political secularism: if all non-violent compromises that prevent barbarism between groups holding different ‘ultimate ideals’ are termed ‘secularism’, the term becomes so all-encompassing that it loses its meaning. Thus, Bhargava’s argument from ordinary life is no more than a tautology: he wants to give secularism its due simply by stating that all peaceful and civilised pluralism in human societies is due to secularism.

At this point, we can come back to the confusion surrounding the idea of secularism among the Indian intellectuals. Fundamentally, this confusion is caused by the utter lack of theoretical clarity in the religious-secular distinction. On top of that, the vacuous term of ‘secularism’ has grown to be the keyword in Indian political discourse to refer to any kind of situation in which different groups of people live together: if they get along well, this is because of secularism; if they fight and kill each other, they are in need of the antidote of secularism. Anything that allows different kinds of people to live together can be called secularism, and thus the notion has become as vague as it possibly could: it is defined as “a state of mind, almost and instinctive feeling, such as existed, by and large, for many centuries in India, when Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsis and followers of other faiths lived side by side in general harmony” [Gopal 1993: 19-20], or as “a respect for differences cutting across class, caste, community, and gender, in which religion is a component in the shaping of identity but not the determining criterion” [Bharucha 1998:6]. Instead of examining and theorising the ways in which the different cultural groups have succeeded or failed to live together peacefully, we automatically take recourse to this obscure concept of secularism to discuss these matters. Consequently, the secularism discourse prevents us from understanding the problems of pluralism in India, instead of helping us to solve them. The urgency of these problems today makes it all the more painful that the idea prevails that they can be dealt with by endlessly repeating that the religious should be separated from the political.


The Misfortune of Separation

The tenets of secularism have their origins in the liberal-democratic principle of the separation of church and state. Although this principle originally referred to the specifically Christian conception of the church, liberal theorists today use it to designate the separation of the state and religious institutions of any character, and thereby they aspire to give the principle a universal scope, since the assumption is that religious institutions are present in any society [Audi 2000:32]. Thus, in the contemporary western debate, ‘the separation of church and state’ amounts to a general political principle, which prescribes that the state should not interfere in religious institutions, and that religious institutions should not interfere in state policy. In this section, I will argue that such normative tenets should be as difficult to grasp in the West as they are in India, since the ambiguity is not confined to ‘the Hindu religion’, but it has its roots in the concept of religion itself.

Anyone slightly familiar with the domain will know that a multitude of definitions awaits the one who tries to find out what religion is. However, let us ignore this lack of consensus for the time being, and consider two definitions of religion that at least possess a prima facie plausibility. In his famous article on the subject, Melford Spiro (1966: 91) writes that any definition of ‘religion’ should include, as a key variable, “the belief in superhuman …beings who have power to help or harm men.” The second definition of the religious we will consider is that of the anthropologist J Van Baal (1971:3): “[A]ll explicit and implicit notions and ideas, accepted as true, which relate to a reality which cannot be verified empirically.” First of all, we should note that we end up with extremely puzzling propositions when we explain the separation of state and religion in terms of these definitions. What could it possibly mean to say that the state should be separated from the belief in superhuman beings who can help or harm men, or from all notions and ideas that cannot be verified empirically?

Secondly, as S N Balagangadhara (1994:276f) has argued, disputes about the definition of religion are as endless and meaningless as disputes about taste, since one cannot provide counter-examples to a definition. Let us say that I defend the principles of the secular state in terms of Van Baal’s definition, and that you want to demonstrate that I am mistaken. ‘Well’, you might point, “in the contemporary research of theoretical physics many notions and ideas relate to a reality that cannot be verified empirically at present, while they are certainly accepted as true, so do you mean to say that the state should not interfere in any institution that engages in such research?” I might reply that, according to my definition, such research is a kind of religion, and that therefore the secular state should indeed have nothing to do with it. Even if you insist that theoretical physics cannot possibly be a brand of religion, I can always reply that it all depends on one’s definition of religion. Now, there are hundreds of such definitions of religion. Each of these will fill in the idea of the secular state in a different manner, and each interpretation will seem as (im)plausible as all the others. Therefore, the debates on the notion of the secular state will necessarily be as endless and arbitrary as the disputes on the definition of religion.

Naturally, religion may also be a concept embedded in a larger theoretical framework that could enable us to spell out more or less clearly what it means to separate religion from the state. Even if there were different hypotheses on the structure of religion, all of these could be tested empirically and compared in terms of their cognitive productivity. Unlike the barren clash of stipulative definitions, this theoretical competition could result in a fertile confrontation of the notions of secularism that derive from the competing theories of religion. Regrettably, such a theoretical framework is not available, since theory formation on religion has taken the form of ad hoc speculation regarding its origin in human beings or societies. Balagangadhara (1994: ch 5) has shown that all the explanations of religion have the same deficient structure: first they presuppose the truth of the pre-theoretical claim that religion is a cultural universal, and consequently they produce an arbitrary account that speculates as to why this universal phenomenon of religion has come into being. A well known example is Hume’s fear-theory of religion: religion arises because man strives to reduce his fear of the natural chaos by ordering and explaining the facts of nature through the postulation of divine beings. It is clear that such an account cannot help us in understanding secularism; it does not make sense to argue for the separation of the state from some fear-reducing mechanism which all human cultures are supposed to share. More generally, the ad hoc explanations regarding the origin of religion do not enable us to distinguish the structure of religion from that of other phenomena, and therefore they cannot solve our problem.

When there is no agreement on the concept of religion, there will also be divergent opinions when it comes to the identification of religious institutions, practices, or beliefs. This consequence can be illustrated by the example of policies of ‘charity’ or ‘protection of the weak and the poor’. One could easily argue that any state which engages in such policies is inspired by the religious values of the Christian church. Or one could go even further and claim that a state which levies taxes to secure a redistribution of wealth is so deeply influenced by Christianity that it imposes this religion’s doctrines upon its citizens. In fact, why could it not be true that the welfare state which embodies these policies is itself a religious institution based on Christian beliefs and values? The conclusion of this argument would be that any welfare state could not live up to the demands of secularism. Naturally, one could just as well propose that the underlying values are not religiously inspired since they are propounded by many different ethical systems and even by atheists. Thus, according to one’s predilections in attributing the predicate ‘religious’ to certain values, beliefs, and institutions, one can give various interpretations to the idea of the secular state. To sum up, as a general principle of political theory, the separation of politics and religion prescribes the impossible, since there is no theoretical consensus on what religion is and how to distinguish it from other phenomena.

Nevertheless, the nation-states of Europe and North America appear to have been quite successful at solving the problem of the peaceful accommodation of different Christian groups in one political community, and this success is often linked to the belief that they are secular states. When we have a look at the history of this issue, it becomes clear that the accommodation between the majority and the minority communities in the different European countries has come into being through a series of specific treaties and acts. That is, the dominant Christian confession and the minorities have reached a consensus with regards to the freedom of the latter to engage in a specific set of practices without risking persecution by the state. Similarly, in the US, a number of Protestant churches have at some point agreed not to let the differences among their beliefs and practices lead to political persecution or discrimination by creating a state which is constitutionally neutral with regards to these specific confessional differences. Three points have to be emphasised. First, both in Europe and the US, the consensus has never been about the meaning of terms such as ‘religion’ or ‘religious institution’, rather it merely implies that members of some (majority) community have agreed not to persecute a number of other communities because they have certain practices or beliefs. Second, when these states are confronted with new groups, which were not part of the original consensus, this often leads to severe difficulties in accommodating their practices (e g, the ‘headscarf’ issue in several European countries). And third, in most European countries, the Christian church that has been historically dominant still has a privileged political status; and in the US, the same is true for the original blend of Protestant churches. Therefore, the particular developments in the western nation-states should not be thought of as the rise of an all-encompassing principle of the separation of politics and religion. In fact, the ‘secularism’ which is attributed to these states is to be understood in the specific terms of the historical consensus that has made the peaceful co-existence of a limited number of communities possible, and not in the general terms of some universal political tenet.


End of Secularism?

Again and again, the argument has brought us to the following conclusion: the secularism discourse is condemned to obscurity, because no conceptual tools are available that allow us to distinguish the religious from the non-religious. It does not come as a surprise then that “some have begun to believe that we should, in the interest of intellectual clarity, stop using the term altogether” [Beteille 1994:559]. Naturally, our predicament is not confined to one term, but it pertains to the entire language of secularism and its normative propositions concerning the relation of politics and religion. Still, so many intellectuals are deeply convinced that any civilised state ought to be a secular state in which the religious and the political are separated. Therefore, my argument generates the following puzzle: How to explain the persistence of the idea of secularism, while this idea is not intelligible in the first place? Where does this normative dogma of separation come from? As yet, I cannot provide a full-fledged answer to this question, but I will end this paper by pointing out a direction for future research.

In the Indian debate, some of the anti-secularists have claimed that secularism is “a gift of Christianity,” which should not be imposed upon Indian society [Madan 1987:754; see also Nandy 1998]. The idea, they point out, derives from Protestant doctrine, and therefore it is absurd to prescribe its transfer to non-western societies. I think we should take this insight seriously. In Reformation theology, the old Christian distinction between the spiritual and the temporal became of supreme import. The Reformers claimed that the Christian was not subject to human authority in matters of faith, since no man could mediate in the relation between god and the individual believer. The freedom of the Christian was limited to the spiritual sphere, however, and he still was to obey all laws of the temporal authorities as long as they did not infringe upon his faith. This conception of Christian liberty was dependent on the belief that there is a twofold government over man, which corresponds to his twofold nature of flesh and spirit. As Calvin put it in his Institutes (1559): “There are in man, so to speak, two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority” [McNeill Ed, I:847]. The two worlds were conceived of as two kingdoms: the temporal or political kingdom is concerned with the present life of the body, and it is constituted by human laws that regulate the outward behaviour of man; the spiritual kingdom pertains to the life of the soul or the faith of the inner man, and here god is the only king or judge.

The distinction between the temporal (or the secular) and the spiritual (or the religious) was made within the Christian tradition, and it was essential to the Protestant understanding of human life. The conceptual frame of Christian doctrine allowed one to identify the boundaries of these two domains. To put it in very simple terms: the sphere of the religious consists of all matters related to the soul and the pursuit of eternal salvation, while the sphere of the secular consists of all matters related to the bodily life in this world. Such an internal distinction makes sense only within a Christian society, where it has reference to a specific set of beliefs regarding the nature and goal of human existence, and to the institutions and practices of everyday life. The same is true for the normative conceptions regarding the separation of the temporal and the religious. Against the background of Protestant thought, the significance of such conceptions was self-evident: since god alone has authority in the religious sphere, the human laws of the secular authorities should never touch this sphere.

In the secularism discourse, these conceptions have been severed from the theological frame that gave them significance, and transformed into universal precepts for the government of human societies. The belief that the religious ought always to be separated from the political has not come into being through a theoretical analysis of the predicaments of plural societies; it appears to have been derived from the foundations of Protestant doctrine. We will have to further examine this connection to find out why the notion of secularism has acquired the character of a pre-theoretical normative dogma in the Indian debate. Of course, this proposal for future research generates more questions than it answers. How come Protestant beliefs have been transformed into the tenets of western political theory? Why have the Indian intellectuals adopted these tenets so easily? What has been the role of the British colonials in this process? Even more important than these questions, however, will be that of developing alternative theory on the pluralism of Indian society and the way it can be managed. I hope to have shown that any such endeavour should dispose of the vacuous concept of secularism rather than accept it as a starting point.


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