Humanity: Today & Tomorrow|Sep 27, 2004 12:42 PM| by:

Religion, Humanism and Secularism

In Europe, the philosophy of secularism brought the ideal of freedom not only to the economic, social and political life but also to the religious and cultural life.  Before the advent of the secular ideal, there was no religious or cultural liberty in Europe.  There was only the imposition of a single religion and its beliefs on the whole society by the Church.

The secular thought brought the idea of religious freedom which means the freedom for each individual to practise the religion of his choice.  Here we have to understand clearly the meaning of the word “secularism” as it is understood and practiced with potent creative force in the West in contrast to the totally uncreative way in which it is misunderstood and misapplied by the modern politicians in contemporary India.  Secularism, as it is understood by early European thinkers who conceived the idea, is not atheism or anti-religion but neutrality of the State to the religious beliefs of the people, freedom for each individual to pursue the religion of his choice and equal respect for all religions.  As the Belgian scholar Koenraad Elst explains the meaning and history of secularism in Europe:

“To start with the beginning, Indian secularism was borrowed from Europe.  There, secularism meant that society took the freedom to organize itself without caring about the dogmas of the Churches.  At the intellectual level, it meant that thinkers took the freedom to independently formulate insights regardless of their conformity with Church teachings.  This included the freedom to frontally criticize these Church teachings.

In the modern times when it became a political term, secularism meant basically freedom from religion.  But then it did not mean a state-enforced “freedom” from religion.  It was not totalitarianism, the freedom of the authorities to meddle in people’s intimate beliefs or commitments.  Freedom means having the options to take something or to leave it.  The communist effort to weed out religion has never gone by the name of secularism, it was called totalitarianism.

So, secularism rather means freedom regarding religion: the freedom to take it or to leave it (freedom without a choice between alternatives is hardly freedom).  By guaranteeing freedom, secularism subjects the adherence or submission to the tenets of religion to individual choice.  Secularism recognizes the logical priority of the individual’s choice to follow a religion, to this religion’s actual claim on the individual’s adherence.

By placing the free choice of the individual above the duties or dogmas imposed by religion, secularism has done enough to emancipate man from religion.  Man can choose a religious view or commitment rather than having it imposed on him.  In that sense, secularism does not mean anti-religious activism.  It only means subjecting religion to human choice, which was revolutionary enough in the European context on Church power trying to impose itself.

Since the individual’s freedom of choice regarding religion or Weltanschauung was made the norm, the State authority was bound to neutrality in these matters.  Imposing any view of the ultimate, including atheism, was precisely what the State was prevented from doing by secularism.  Yet, some Marxists in India have called this simple concept of state neutrality regarding religion a “non-modern” concept of secularism.  They think the State should actively campaign against religion.”(1)

This original idea of secularism includes the freedom of expression not only to propagate any religious idea or belief but also to criticize others’ ideas and beliefs.  In a truly secular culture each idea, religious or non-religious has to compete with other ideas on its own worth and strength to gain the acceptance of the people.  The State or Government is not supposed to interfere in the ideological battles in the realm of culture.  It should neither patronize nor suppress any religious belief or idea, it should not try to shield or protect any particular religious idea or belief from the criticism of others in the name of “not hurting the religious sentiment of others” nor should it suppress or persecute in any way a particular religious group in the name of “communal harmony”.  It is interesting to note that this “secular” freedom is an integral part of the religious culture of ancient India.  The multitude of religious philosophies and ideas freely and intensely criticized each other and the State never intervened in their debates in the name of “not hurting the religious sentiment of others”.  It was so in the beginning of the secular revolution in modern Europe where Christianity was intensely criticized by humanistic and scientific thinkers and nobody raised any cry against offending the religious sentiment of people.  Only in modern India secularism has become a cloak for all sorts of worn-out and retrograde dogmas and ideas and used by politicians to protect these dogmas for their own political self-interests.  But the most tragic part of it is that this pseudo-secularism has become a weapon against the majority religious community and its religion which is the foundation of Indian civilization.  As Ram Swarup, one of the few and early crusaders against such a phony secularism, writes in one of his articles in a popular English Daily:

“Though borrowed from the West, secularism in India served a different end.  In the West, secularism was creative; in India, it was imitative.  In the West, it was directed against the clergy, tyrannical rulers, and had therefore a liberating role; in India, it was designed and actually used by Macaulayites to keep down the Hindus, the victims of two successive imperialisms extending over a thousand years.  In the West, it opposed the Church which claimed to be the sole custodian of truth, which took upon itself the responsibility of dictating science and ordering thought, which decided when the world was created, whether the earth is flat or round, whether the sun or the earth moves round the other, which gave definitive conclusions on all matters and punished any dissent.  But in India, secularism was directed against Hinduism which made no such claims, which laid down no dogmas and punished no dissent, which fully accepted the role of reason and unhampered inquiry in all matters, spiritual and secular; which encouraged viewing things from multiple angles – Syadvada (for which there is no true English word) was only a part of this larger speculative and venturesome approach.

There is yet another difference.  In the West, the struggle for secularism called for sacrifice and suffering – remember the imprisonments, the stakes, the Index; remember the condemnation of Galileo; remember how Bruno, Lucilio Vanini, Francis Kett, Bartholomew Legate, Wightman and others were burnt at the stake.  But in India secularism has been a part of the establishment, first of the British and then of our own self-alienated rulers.  It has been used against Hinduism which nourished a great spirit and culture of tolerance, free inquiry and intellectual and spiritual integrity.  Such a culture deserves to be honoured and owned and cherished by its inheritors, but unfortunately under a great misconception it is held in odium and it is being denied and disowned by a self-forgetful nation.  Secularism has become a name for showing one’s distance from this great religion and culture.  Macaulayites and Marxists also use it for Hindu baiting.

Now turning away from this larger aspect and looking at it in its present context, we find that secularism is quite a profitable business.  Even more than patriotism, it has become a refuge of many shady characters of various descriptions.  Ambitious politicians resort to it for vote-catching; intellectuals, many of them not too intellectual, use it for giving themselves a progressive look; aggressive minorities use it for self-aggrandisement.

But the slogan has been so often used that it has become hackneyed; and considering the contexts in which it is used, it also sounds hypocritical; by a too reckless use, it has even lost its abusive power.”(2)

So coming back to the central theme of our discussion the time has come for the spiritual and secular endeavour of humanity to lose their mutual antagonism and work together in harmonious collaboration to fulfil consciously the deeper evolutionary purpose behind them.

Religion and spirituality of the past are right in giving the highest importance to the spiritual dimension in man and the “salvation of the soul” as the highest aim in life.  For this spiritual self or the fourth dimension in man beyond his body, life and mind is the true self in him and as long as this higher and inner self in him remains unfulfilled no amount of “secular” effort for the development and well-being of the body, life and mind of man in the individual and collectivity through government machinery and systems can bring any lasting fulfilment for mankind.  For, as Sri Aurobindo points out:

“This erring race of human beings dreams always of perfecting their environment by the machinery of government and society; but it is only by perfecting the soul within that the outer environment can be perfected.  What thou art within, that outside thee thou shall enjoy; no machinery can rescue thee from the law of thy being.”(3)

And therefore,

“The greatest service to humanity, the surest foundation for its true progress, happiness and perfection is to prepare or find the way by which the individual and the collective man can transcend the ego and live in its true self, no longer bound to ignorance, incapacity, disharmony and sorrow.  It is by the pursuit of the eternal and not by living bound in the slow collective evolution of Nature that we can best assure even that evolutionary, collective, altruistic aim our modern thought and idealism have set before us.”(4)

M.S. Srinivasan and G.P. Gupta

References :
1.Koenraad Elst, Ayodya and After-issues before Hindu Society: Voice of India,
New Delhi, pp. 128-29.
2. Ibid., p. 389.
3. SABCL, Vol. 17, p. 120.
4. SABCL, Vol. 20, p. 344.