Secularism, Enlightenment and India

A colleague sent me this link to an article in The Hindu and asked for my thoughts. From the article

For a long time it was held that a close link existed between the modernisation of society and the secularisation of the population. Consequently, it was argued that the influence of religion declined in post-enlightenment society. This assumption, Professor Habermas suggests, was based on three considerations. First, the progress in science and technology made causal explanation possible and more importantly, for a scientifically enlightened mind it was difficult to reconcile with theocentric and metaphysical worldviews. Secondly, the churches and other religious organisations lost their control over law, politics, public welfare, education and science. Finally, the economic transformation led to higher levels of welfare and greater social security. The impact of these developments, it is argued, has led to the decline of the relevance and influence of religion.
…the view that “the secularist certainty that religion will disappear worldwide in the course of modernisation is losing ground.” It is not only that this expectation has not been realised, religion has emerged as a powerful influence in the public sphere all over the world. This is particularly so in India.

The existence of the public sphere [in Europe] was contingent upon the access of all citizens to, and protection of individual rights by, the rule of law. In essence, the character of the public sphere as it evolved in Europe in the 18th century was secular and democratic.

Unlike in Europe the public sphere in India was not the product of a free bourgeois society; it took shape within the political, social and economic parameters set by the colonial government.
(Emphasis mine)

The article concludes with

Retrieving the secular character of the public sphere is therefore imperative; otherwise its religious character is likely to impinge upon the functions of the state.

The article with its implied positive evaluation of enlightenment ideas and recognition of their relevance to the issue of secularism is very much welcome in an age where enlightenment ideas have almost been forgotten. But it itself suffers from an incomplete understanding of all the implications of these ideas. Protection of individual rights by the rule of law is not compatible with democracy (atleast as we might understand it from concrete examples today). Democracy is about placing the control of human affairs in the public sphere. Individual rights are about limiting the control of human affairs to the actual individuals involved, primarily by the recognition of private property. (This might seem unrelated to the issue of secularism and the influence of religion, but bear with me for a while.) This uneasy relationship between democracy and individual rights (note the difference in character between the French revolution which was essentially democratic and the American revolution which instituted a government for the purpose of protecting individual rights) persists to this day and has been the apparant cause of the failure of enlightenment ideas to have as large and lasting an influence as might have been expected. But that is not all. It is worth noting that pre-enlightenment Europe was neither democratic nor did it have any conception of individual rights. How did both ideas emerge out of the same intellectual change?

I am no historian – or even a good student of history – but it seems to me that the enlightenment thinkers never really rejected religion in all its implications. Religion offers more than an explanation of the world. It offers moral principles. The progress in science that made causal explanations possible led people to abandon the role of religion in understanding the world. Note that this progress has been lasting. Even the church today accepts that religion is not a guide to understanding the world. But there was no equivalent progress in moral theory that would lead people to abandon the role of religion in evaluating the world and guiding human action. The enlightenment brought about political, scientific and industrial revolutions. It did not result in any moral revolution. The moral base of religion – altruism – was not challenged at all. On the contrary, it led some intellectuals to believe that morality is mostly irrelevant to progress. For example, the character of Enjolras in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – the leader of an uprising, and in my reading, a mirror to Hugo’s own ideas – believed (if memory serves me right) that progress would be automatic and inevitable provided that people had access to (scientific) education. This was naive. Morality is indispensable to human existence.

It seems to me that enlightenment ideas split into two distinct streams. One stream could be characterized by the French revolution, militantly anti-religious and with an emphasis on democracy, equality and social justice. This stream secularized altruism without changing any of its fundamentals. It substituted God by society and the church and the king by the state. The other stream could be characterized by the American revolution, ambivalent to religion and with an emphasis on liberty and self-evident inalienable individual rights endowed by a creator. But a complex concept like individual rights cannot be self-evident. By not grounding individual rights in reason, this stream was left without a moral foundation independent of religion. The overtly-secular, altruist, democratic stream failed. It took Europe through several dictatorships, wars and misery. The liberal, pro individual rights but more religious stream succeeded. It allowed America to enjoy more than a century of uinterrupted peace and prosperity (except for the civil war that abolished slavery). But, over time, through lack of an explicit moral foundation, the American stream itself split into the modern secular Europe inspired liberals (an insult to the original classical sense of the term) and the religious conservatives seeking to conserve the political system of liberty with an incompatible base of altruist Christianity.

Note that no stream ever rejected altruism and it was the secular democratic, left-leaning intellectuals who upheld it most consistently. Now the case of India. Indian political leaders educated in Europe brought back the European ideas and attempted to foist them upon a servile, religious people. Worse, in attempting to fight colonialism, they absorbed Marxist ideas from Russia. Needless to say, they failed miserably, discrediting secularism in the process. As Gurcharan Das’s wrote in the article that I criticized in my last post, “Part of the reason that the sensible idea of secularism is having so much difficulty finding a home in India is that the most vocal and intellectual advocates of secularism were once Marxists”. Marxism – the most consistent political implication of altruism, is only for educated idiots. The uneducated “masses” – that Marx had such a disdain for – never have and never will accept it. But the association of secularism with Marxism does indeed make the spread of secularism difficult.

Anyone concerned with the increasing role of religion in public affairs in general and political affairs in particular should be looking to discover/establish a morality based on reason. Until such a morality becomes culturally dominant, it will be impossible to eliminate the role of religion. But that is not something the secularists in India understand. For a concrete example, consider the expose of the Khap Panchayat system in Today’s Times. Read it here, here, here and here. From the last link,

Daryal Singh, one of Tikait’s retainers, adds that “shameless people (lovers) deserve to die.’’ He gives graphic accounts of lovers being “hanged, tortured or nailed to death”. But Singh stands alone in providing the only real explanation for what sustains this medieval system: bad governance. “The government has failed to provide basic necessities. It’s impossible for people to survive without the samaj. They can’t challenge it,’’ he says.

It would be difficult to mis-diagnose the problem worse. Even the villagers are more intelligent than that. They know that they are following a moral code. Providing basic necessities is not going to change their moral code. And what basic necessities anyway? From another article in the links

There are pucca houses, cobbled streets, wellfed cattle, neat schools and sprawling green fields. It’s easy to be impressed by the colleges and professional institutes that dot the area. But Sanghi, like most villages in this prosperous belt, has dark secrets to keep. Here, rape is casual, murder-by-pesticide of teenage daughters acceptable and it is routine to dispose of their bodies by burning them in cattlecarts.

Defeat the morality and religion – with all its mindless rituals and superstitions – will go away. But without challenging the morality and in the lack of any alternative (socialist ideology is not an alternative), religion will continue to grow in influence.

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One Response

  1. true… not sure who said this, but it still rings true: It has often been said that power corrupts. But it is perhaps equally important to realize that weakness, too, corrupts. Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many. Hatred, malice, rudeness, intolerance, and suspicion are the faults of weakness. The resentment of the weak does not spring from any injustice done to them but from their sense of inadequacy and impotence. We cannot win the weak by sharing our wealth with them. They feel our generosity as oppression.

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