(Islam and Modern Age, June 2009)

In seminars abroad, especially in US and Europe when I say in India secularism is equal respect for all religions and harmonious co-existence of all religions, many express pleasant surprise. For them secularism has always meant being either a-religious or anti-religious. Secularism in Indian and western contexts has very different connotations. And there are historical reasons for this.

In the west secularism emerged as a result of struggle against Church and domination of church. The emerging bourgeois class found in church authority, a great obstacle for its unchecked growth. Capitalism cannot thrive under authoritarian set up. It needs greater freedom to flourish. And in Europe, before renaissance and emergence of bourgeoisie as an influential class Church's authority was supreme and unchallenged.

However, its authority came under challenge and there was a period of great struggle and persecution at the hands of the Church and hence religion and religious authority came to be resented and people gradually became either indifferent or turned against religion and for them this worldly affair became central and the other worldly affair lost its significance, whatsoever.

There are differences among scholars as to when the term 'secularism' emerged and who coined it. Some maintain that it was coined in England by George Holyoake in 19th century. But soon it became ideology of the dominant capitalist class and part of western political theory. And in western countries democracy and secularism became integral to each other. Not that religion ceased to have any significance in western life but politically it was marginalized.

However, Indian social and political reality was radically different. Here we never had any church like structure to be challenged and secondly ours was never a mono-religious society. India was multi-religious right from its known history and it became even more multi-religious after the advent of Christianity and Islam. And all religions co-existed harmoniously.

When our struggle for freedom against British colonialism began in 19th century we realized that unity of all religions is extremely important to become an effective challenge to the colonial power and hence, for leaders of freedom struggle it was a political necessity that followers of all religions, especially those of Hinduism and Islam, apart from others like Sikhism, Christianity and Parsis be included and hence to evolve an effective strategy for unity, respect for all religions became necessary.

Thus our concept of secularism emerged not as struggle against Church but as a result of our struggle against a colonial power. Thus our struggle against colonial power far from resulting in opposition to, or indifference for religion, but in an all inclusive approach to all religions. Also, compared to Europe we were far more backward industrially and technologically and hence our people were far more religious and traditional in their approach and hence religion was central to people's life.

In the west civil society became more and more a-religious due to breath taking progress of science and technology and hence people of faith had to struggle against those opposing religion. Even in post-modern and post-industrial society of the west, there has been no effective reconciliation between religion and secularism. The debate between those who believe in secularism, and those who have faith in religion, still rages.

In India too, there are some, though very very few, who too, not only reject religion but also hold it responsible for many of our problems like communalism and communal violence. They think if only we get rid of religion, communalism will disappear. It is far from true. In poor country well-educated middle classes who are otherwise least religious, have been far more communal than illiterate masses who tend to be under the influence of traditional religion.

Thus the question arises to be religious or not to be religious? Should secularism mean being anti-religious or indifference to religion or accepting certain core truth of religion? Of course such debate can never be decisive and different points of view will remain. It seems while west has problems for total lack of religion and we in Afro-Asian countries are suffering from excess of religiosity. As they say the poor die for lack of food and rich for excess of it.

In the west total indifference to religion has created a vacuum and some are now arguing in favour of religion. Recently I came across an interesting book Postsecularism � The Hidden Challenge to Extremism by Mike King. This interesting book throws light on the debate raging in the west between secularists and those who believe. We would like to throw some light on the contents of this book. It is of some relevance to modern India also despite our substantially different orientation.

The title of the book Postsecularism itself is quite interesting. The west has gone through the phase of secularism and like post-modernism some scholars like Mike King, feel need for post-secular social epoch in which religion would not be treated as outcaste or pariah. Thus it appears in the west total vacuum in matters of faith is causing problem. It appears faith and rationalism both are needed to keep life on the even keel.

Mike King talks of postsecular sensibility and poses a question "Does such a sensibility offer a way out from what was a detente but is now rapidly becoming a more polarized impasse; a way out from a futile struggle for dominance between religion and secularism?" The whole book is a powerful argument for such a sensibility.

And what is post-secularism? The author defines it tentatively at the outset of the book. "Postsecularism", the author says, "can be defined as a renewed openness to questions of the spirit, but one that retains the habits of critical thought which partially define secularism. " King however also adds "Questions of the spirit is just one way to put it; one may prefer 'a renewed engagement with religion' or 'questions of faith' or any of a number of such formulations.'"

It is important to note here that secularists who reject matters of faith are no less dogmatic than those who profess faith in religion. Therefore King makes it a point to use the words 'openness of mind' in such an engagement. Dogmatism is generally associated with religion. However, dogmatism is not a religious but psychological category. An atheist, or a political ideologue or a theorist of social sciences could also be equally dogmatic.

Thus openness of mind and critical stance are sterling qualities of mind and it should also be acknowledged that these qualities of mind were displayed by secularists in their struggle against domination of church. Unfortunately those who believed, for reasons of maintaining their superiority over others, became too dogmatic to admit any criticism and persecuted those who rejected their dogmas.

Any religion which becomes part of ruling establishment or any political ideology which becomes basis of political authority, tend to become dogmatic as any change in it threatens their authority and those who challenge the ruling establishment (including religio-cultural establishments) feel loss of power and hence begin to not only dogmatically assert their ideology or religion, but also persecute the critics.

It is well known in Islamic history that Abbasids, who adopted Mu'tazila theory of 'createdness of Qur'an, severely persecuted those theologians who refused to accept this theory and instead asserted that Qur'an is co-eternal with Allah. Lot of blood was shed on this question and it became means of asserting authority of Mu'tazila theology. Thus dogmatism is not the innate religious quality but human psychological, on one hand, and, flourishes for political and authoritarian reasons also.

Here it will be important to ask one question: What does religion essentially stand for? Here I am using the word 'religion' in a definite sense not with its cultural and traditional moorings but in a sense what can be called Deen in Islamic terms. Thus in this sense we have to understand what is religion? In all major religious traditions one of the most significant names of God is 'Truth'. In Islamic tradition Allah's name is Haq or in Hindu tradition Satya and so on.

If God or Allah is 'Truth' then one of the most important functions of religion has to be truth. Any search for truth in all earnestness is essentially a religious activity. In this sense both a religious person (say a mystic or a theologian in some sense) as well as a scientist both are engaged in search for truth. Thus a scientist engaged in search for truth is also, in this sense, performing an essentially a religious duty.

Now the question may arise what is truth? Can one equate a scientific truth with religious truth? Can we call say Einstein who engages in knowing the truth about our universe, its origin and growth and its fundamental laws like a prophet or a seer who discovers certain spiritual truths? It can be a matter of great debate but one cannot deny certain similarities. Scientific truth has its own specificities and religious truth its own. What is common between them, however, is truthhood.

Scientific truth is concerned basically with perceptible facts and depends on observations through sense organs. Thus in science truth is essentially defined as conformity with facts, observable facts. Religious truth, on the other hand, is, what is often beyond observable truth. It is transcendental in nature and does not depend on sense perceptions. It is Prophetic, intuitive and has ethical dimension dealing with realm of values.

While science deals with these worldly things and devises technological contrivances to add sense perceptions, religious truth resorts to deep contemplation, meditation and even state of ecstasy. While science uses plain language and mathematical notations, religious experience cannot be always communicable through such plain human language and has to resort to symbols and allegories and sometimes religious experiences cannot be communicated to others at all.

However, one thing is clear. Neither science nor religious experience can be based on falsehood be it verifiable or non-verifiable. Both science and religion need rigorous discipline to practice. Also, there can be different levels of doing science or religious experiences. Both need natural gift and talent. Neither every scientist can become scientist like say Einstein or anyone with religious experience cannot become prophet. Highest levels be it in science or religious experience, can be achieved only be a few.

However, scientific truth is universally verifiable as it is based on observable empirical facts through sense organs or through technological contrivances to add sense perceptions. But, it is argued, it is not so in the case of religious experience. It varies from one person to another person and hence finds different religious traditions based on these experiences.

These differences in religious experiences, to a keen observer of religious experience, is more apparent than real. What is different is not religious experience but its socio-cultural and linguistic experience as amply demonstrated by mystics in most of the religious traditions. Religious experience can be had only in a given culture and historical conditions and cultures and historical conditions in which a religious experience occurs differ and hence they are expressed differently.

The core of religious truth cannot vary. Theologians of religions often are conditioned by socio-cultural expression than the core of religious truth but mystics try to reach this core and hence they do not give much importance to these differences in socio-cultural expressions. Thus Mike King also points out "..the mystics are assumed here to provide crucial insights into the search for what lies at the core of religion and its fate in the West."

The author also points out, "These insights will rely to some extent on the assumption of the proposed hierarchy with religion: the specialists of religion are the mystics, the functionaries of religion are the priests, and the scholars of religion are the theologians. A further category is provided in the philosophers of religion, who may approach the subject on a non-confessional basis, or are professional philosophers with a personal adherence to a major faith tradition. Theologians and philosophers of religion are divided as to the importance they attribute to the mystic: some ignore them altogether."

In fact when it comes to religion it is priests and theologians who dominate, define and practice it and hence wield disproportionate influence on the faithful. This way they acquire vested interest in their 'profession'. This leads to their emphasizing differences than commonality between religions and establishing superiority of their own tradition over that of other.

This leads to rationalists and secularists attacking religion as a source of conflict and tension in the society. Also, another level of attack is rigidity, dogmatism and lack of freedom of thought as far as religion is concerned as opposed to secularism which promotes openness and freedom of thought. Another level on which attack is mounted by secularists and rationalists is that religion, as opposed to science, promotes superstition.

Thus King also observes, "Many new atheists draw on science, including Darwinism, as an argument against religion on the basis that science provides better explanations of our experience, of life and how it got here, and of our place in universe." All these attacks on religion by rationalists and atheists have their own validity but in a limited sense. Their criticism is valid as far as popular religious practices and role of priesthood is concerned.

However, this criticism is not valid, if we look at religion at a higher level, not at a popular level. As to rigidity, dogmatism, superstitious practices etc. do not apply to higher religious practices and what constitutes the core of religion. Masses, as shown by Erich Fromm in his book on Flight from Freedom, do not, in fact, want freedom as genuine freedom also requires responsibility. By accepting someone as our leader or religious guru we transfer our responsibility to the leader or guru.

To be free to think would also mean to be responsible for our thought and its implications. Except a few with high intellectual caliber, no one is ready to own up such a responsibility. Hence we tend to follow our leader or guru who takes this responsibility on our part. Thus it is human psychological, not religious or moral problem. In fact a religious person would consider it his moral duty to own up his/her responsibility.

In fact faith ceases to be faith if there is no genuine freedom. If we consider true religious experience faith and freedom are integral to each other. Blind faith is not genuine faith. It is mere dogma rigidly held. A person of genuine faith is a free agent, not bound by any rigidly held dogma. In fact faith is deeply spiritual experience and no such experience is possible without freedom. One who undergoes such an experience will genuinely hold its responsibility.

Also, criticism that religion promotes conflict is also quite superficial. Religion per se is not responsible for any conflict. Religion is often used by variety of interests which are more secular than religious in nature. The communal conflict in India is due more to political and economic interests than religious or theological differences. This is often not understood. Even conflict in Europe between Christians and Muslims is not religious (as most Christians in Europe and United States are indifferent to religion anyway). It is result of security concerns as a tiny minority of Muslims reacts violently to certain policies pursued by western powers in Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan etc. This will change if western powers change their policies towards Israel and Middle Eastern countries. Anyway use of violence is being resorted to not by religious personalities but by modern educated youth.

A genuinely religious person will not resort to violence but peaceful method of dialogue and debate. Use of violence and to kill is itself an irreligious activity. Religion is based on moral and ethical values as its core. All major religions traditions, without any exception exhort their followers to control desire, anger, greed and feeling of revenge. To forgive is a higher moral quality in all religions.

Dawkins, one of the neo-atheists, attacks religion, as quoted by King, in the following words, "The metaphorical or pantheist God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion,, an act of intellectual high treason..."

It is this kind of criticism against religion which is mounted even by otherwise intellectuals of high caliber like Dawkins. Such concept of God as Dawkin has attacked is undoubtedly there at popular level. But religion is not about such concept of God. Such concept may be necessary at lower levels of religious practices but certainly not at higher levels of religious experience as we have shown above.

At higher levels of religious experience God experience is just not describable. For mystics who engage with God at a much deeper spiritual level simply become silent about nature of God. Sufis often referred to God as huwa (that) and there is silence beyond that. But at popular level God has to be prayer-answering, sin-punishing and virtue-rewarding or even miracle-wreaking as Dawkin says.

There is nothing to be angry about it. Rather one has to understand reasons for this difference at deeper mystical and popular level rather than condemn such a concept of God in harsh language. Different intellectual and spiritual levels would necessitate existence of two different concepts of God. Scriptures also contain statements about God at different level to cater to different intellectual needs at deeper and popular levels. It is for us, like mystics and people of deeper spiritual levels to distinguish between the two.

I would still insist that there is no clash between scientific and religious truth. Both are complementary to each other. Without scientific truth religion will become mere bundle of superstitions and without deeper religious and spiritual truth science would be limited to only empirical observable sense data which would certainly limit human freedom and explorations of mysteries of inner human world.

*Mike King Postsecularism - The Hidden Challenge to Extremism (James Clark & Co.(Cambridge, 2009)


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