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Secularism without Secularisation

What explains the failure of secularism in the US and India? Why have secular constitutions proved to be incapable of preventing the growing 'religionisation' of the state and the public sphere? This essay argues that secular laws need to be anchored in secular civil societies. Both US and India suffer from an inadequate secularisation of the cultural common sense. Historical reasons for the weakness of secularisation in the two societies have also been explored.

Special articles

Secularism without Secularisation

Reflections on God and Politics in US and India

What explains the failure of secularism in the US and India? Why have secular constitutions proved to be incapable of preventing the growing ‘religionisation’ of the state and the public sphere? This essay argues that secular laws need to be anchored in secular civil societies. Both US and India suffer from an inadequate secularisation of the cultural common sense. Historical reasons for the weakness of secularisation in the two societies have also been explored.


I Introduction

his essay offers a comparative study of secularism, secularisation and Enlightenment in the US and India, the world’s oldest and largest secular democracies respectively. It tries to answer the following kinds of questions: Why is it that secular constitutions in both countries have been unable to prevent overt ‘religionisation’ of the public sphere? Is it even realistic to expect elected representatives to keep religion out of the public sphere where large majorities of citizens profess fairly high levels of conventional, super-naturalistic religiosity? Can secular laws be sustained in un-secular cultures? Why has modernisation failed to produce secular cultures in these societies? What is the cultural role of scientific rationality in secularisation of the hearts and minds?

Comparing India and the US is a bit like comparing apples and oranges: the two societies are at different levels of economic and technological development, and their cultures, religions and histories are entirely different. The US was born new, without any history of feudalism. Respect for individual liberties and civic egalitarianism have deep roots in the religious and cultural heritage of the US, even though ideologies of racism and “manifest destiny” prevented the extension of liberty and equality to black slaves and native Americans. India, on the other hand, has had to contend with a heavy burden of caste, feudal and colonial hierarchies, overlaid on each other. These hierarchies have not gone away: even the most professionalised, contract-based, technologically modern sectors of Indian society continue to exhibit caste-like master-servant relations [Mehta 2003:89]. And then there are the obvious differences in socio-economic development. While India is fast becoming a major player in the global economy, 83 per cent of its people still make a living in the informal sector where work and social relations are largely regulated through customary laws of caste and gender [Harriss-White 2005].

And yet, the rise of Christian theocracy in the US and Hindu nationalism in India justify the need for this comparative study.1 In both countries, there has been a slow but steady merging of the majority religion with the affairs of the state. In both countries, the secular laws on the books have proved to be incapable of stopping this creeping religionisation of the state and the public sphere. Both countries see themselves as “God Lands” – to use the term coined by Conor Cruise O’Brien (1988) – chosen by god to spread liberty (in the US) or spiritual enlightenment (India) around the world. Religious believers in both countries, moreover, tend to see secularism and secularists as their enemies: The religious right in the US wants to “take back” the country for Jesus Christ, while Hindutva forces want to “reclaim” India for ‘Ram Rajya’.

It is these kinds of parallels that have inspired this study. Even though many US presidents have invoked god in the past, the unabashedly partisan electioneering by churches and evangelical organisations for George W Bush in the 2004 elections stunned even the most seasoned observers of politics in the US. Evangelical leaders held weekly meetings with Bush’s re-election committee (which was led by none other than Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition), and thousands of churches encouraged their congregations to “vote their Christian values,” which Bush made a great show of wearing on his sleeve (In all fairness, Bush did not start this trend. He was following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan who actively wooed Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority through his two terms). Bush’s re-election in 2004 was decided by a large turnout of born-again Protestants who joined hands with the most conservative elements of Catholics, Jews and other “people of faith” to wage a war against the Islamic “evil-doers” abroad, and the godless secularist-humanists, feminists and gays at home. Even though Bush has personally refrained from calling the US a Christian nation, he has appointed men and women in key positions who would be only too happy to have the ‘Good Book’ dictate the laws of the land. Recently, he has endorsed the teaching of intelligent design in public schools, adding to the many attempts of his administration to let faith decide matters of science policy.2

Anyone familiar with the political machinations of the Hindu right in India can hardly avoid a strong sense of déjà vu. Bush Jr is the genial face of Christian nationalism, just as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the former Indian prime minister, was the poetic face of Hindu nationalism. The Republican Party is fast becoming a political front of the Christian right, while the BJP has always been the political front of the Hindu right. The Protestant ministers and Catholic priests, who actively engaged in political campaigns form their pulpits, were no different from the “holy” men and women who rallied for Hindutva causes in countless political “pilgrimages.” The Christian right’s enthusiasm for bringing intelligent design into biology courses in public schools is not much different from the Hindu right’s successful bid to introduce Vedic astrology in colleges and universities.

The great “wall of separation” between the church and the state could not keep the two apart in the US. Neither has the great Indian “wheel of law” model of secularism prevented the rise of an intolerant variety of Hindu nationalism. The question is: why is secularism failing?

II The ‘God Gap’

There is one feature of the polity of both countries that can explain the growing appeal of religious maximalist (also known as “religious fundamentalist”) movements:3 there is a “God gap” between the state and the citizens. In both countries, secular laws are not firmly anchored in secular civil societies. On the contrary, secularism at the state level has encouraged the flourishing of a thriving religious supermarket in the civil society. As long as citizens continue to derive their social and political values from the god-centred, super-naturalistic world views that prevail in their societies, it is difficult to see why they will not want to bring their religious beliefs into the political arena. Secular states and secular laws flourish in secular cultures. Without secularisation of the cultural common sense, secular states are hard to sustain.

All available data clearly show that the citizens in the US and India are literally awash in faith. A recent World Values Survey reported an identical proportion – 94 per cent – of those surveyed in both countries professing belief in god [Norris and Inglehart 2004: 90]. The first thing that strikes visitors to both countries is the large number of places of worship dotting the landscape. The recent census in India reports 2.4 million places of worship, against only 1.5 million schools and half as many hospitals [Varma 2004: 96]. While numerical data are hard to come by, belief in miracles and supernatural powers are rife and India now has a new generation of “tele-yogis” who can more than match American televangelists in their sales pitch for god and country. The data on American religiosity is similarly stupendous, with 55 per cent of all Americans professing the Bible to be literally true and as many as 82 per cent admitting belief in miracles and equally high proportion in the existence of heaven, hell, angels and the devil [2004 data, from Phillips 2006: 102].

But, for all these exceptionally high indicators of popular religiosity, the state is supposed to indifferent to religion altogether, as in the US, or to any one religion over others, as in India. (The Jeffersonian wall of separation promised in the first amendment of the US constitution is well known. However, India provides a competing model of secularism which also promises complete freedom of religion and conscience to all citizens, but does that without erecting a wall of separation between religion and the state. The Indian Constitution allows the state to promote or hinder the secular aspects of religious laws, practices and institutions, as long as it does not play favourites among different religions.)

This well known god-gap between the citizens and the state is largely treated as a non-issue in the social science literature. The conventional wisdom is that secular states can emerge, and even thrive, in deeply religious societies. A secular state, we have been told, should not be confused with secularisation of the civil society and the consciousness of the citizens. According to a much-cited definition by Donald E Smith (1998: 178) a state is considered secular as long as it “guarantees individual and corporate freedoms of religion, deals with the individual as a citizen irrespective of his religion, is not constitutionally connected to a particular religion, nor seeks either to promote or interfere with religion.” In other words, as long as a state is constitutionally committed to these ideals, and has legal and political safeguards to enforce them, it is technically a secular state. Religiosity of the citizens in their private lives is taken to be irrelevant to the functioning of such states.What is more, well known sociologists of religion, from Max Weber, (the early) Peter Berger (1967) to Steve Bruce (2002) more recently, have suggested that once a state in a modern industrial society (capitalist or socialist) adopts a secular constitution, the social significance of religion begins to decline which, in turn, erodes the plausibility of the supernatural in the minds of individuals. As Peter Berger put it in his classic, The Sacred Canopy, the infrastructure of modernity is supposed to create, pretty much by its own accord, “a liberated territory” populated by “an increasing number of individuals who look upon their world and their own lives without the benefit of religious interpretation” [Berger 1967: 129, 108]. Going by the conventional wisdom then, you don’t need secular-minded people to create a secular society; rather it is the secular state and economy that creates secular people.

But the priority given to purely formal-legal secularism as an inevitable by-product of the growth of scientific-industrial infrastructure is deeply problematic. Yes, It is true that a deeply religious people can agree to give themselves godless constitutions for purely strategic-political reasons: indeed, creation of modern democratic nation states which respect the equality of all citizens before the law requires a privatisation of faith. It is also true that societies with deeply religious people need not necessarily become authoritarian theocracies: religious beliefs can help sustain a regard for justice, human rights and democracy. In itself, religiosity is not the enemy of good, peaceable and just societies.

But while religious beliefs do not necessarily breed theocracies, religious maximalist movements do seem to have a better chance of taking root in societies with high levels of popular religiosity. Societies where significant majorities (as in our two cases) claim to derive their sense of rights and wrongs from their conceptions of god can be more easily mobilised to support the religious maximalist agendas of true believers who want to solve the perceived problems of their societies by bringing this higher power to bear on the laws and policies of the land. For example, would such a large proportion of the US public have supported Bush’s “faith-based initiatives” or voted for public referenda barring gay marriages without a faith-based view of society and personal relationships? Would so many middle class Indians have supported state funding for astrology, religious ceremonies in public places, temple building and such if they did not believe in the religious merit, or ‘punya’, of such rituals? As long as divine revelations or spiritual laws continue to be invoked as the basis for morality in the private sphere, it is unreasonable to expect a diminution of god-talk from the public sphere. In other words, the care and maintenance of secular laws requires secularisation of culture. Without deep enough roots in secular civic cultures, secular states will remain at a risk of being hijacked by traditionalist and nationalist forces.

The rest of this essay will defend the priority of secularisation of the civil society over secularism as the operating principle of the state. The first section will examine how secularism and science were co-opted into the dominant religious common sense in both the US and India. The next section will look at how high levels of popular religiosity provide a fertile soil for religionisation of politics and politicisation of religions. In the final section, I will argue for a new enlightenment that respects the legitimate rights of conscience and freedom of religion, acknowledges the place of religion in the public sphere, but denies it any special claim on morality, knowledge and public policy: Religion can enter the public sphere provided it answers to the same rules of publicly accessible evidence and reason that apply to all other participants in the public sphere.

III Co-option of the Enlightenment

The creation of secular states marked a break from the state control of churches in the US and from the institution of caste in India. But in both cases, this revolutionary innovation in politics was not accompanied by a corresponding revolution in beliefs in the wider society. Rather, both witnessed a “village enlightenment” in which enlightenment ideals of antisupernaturalism, empiricism and religious toleration were used to validate, rather than to challenge, the traditional religious belief.4 In both countries, moreover, the votaries of a sceptical, rationalist tradition who believed that the affairs of human beings should be governed by a reliance on reason and evidence adduced from the natural world – the “freethinkers,” to use Susan Jacoby’s felicitous term (2004) – have remained in a minority. The quiet assimilation of rationalist/secularist impulse into religious metaphysics is important for understanding the paradoxical phenomenon of secularism without secularisation.

Many misconceptions abound regarding the origin of the secular state in the US. Liberal origin-stories [Kramnick and Moore 1997] describe the US constitution as the fulfilment of the enlightenment, while conservatives [Himmelfarb 2005] see its lack of reference to god as proof that religious faith was so “self-evident” and so firmly entrenched in the American society to require any imprimatur of government. Indians have their own misconceptions about the American-style secularism. There are well known Indian social scientists who believe that the American model of separation of state and society is a “gift of Christianity” and therefore unsuited for a Hindu India [Madan 1998]. And then there are notable Hindu ideologues who argue that only intolerant, superstitious “creeds” like Christianity and Islam need to be kept out of the affairs of the state, but not the “innately” tolerant and rational Hinduism [Rajaram 1995].

Far from it being a straightforward “gift” or a “curse” of Christianity, there were equally devout Christians on both sides of the debate over church-state separation in the US. A careful reading of the US history reveals a complex, largely political, alliance of the more numerous devout evangelical Christians (Baptists and Methodists, mostly) with the handful of freethinkers (deists and Unitarians, mostly). The evangelicals detested the rationalist and deist Christianity of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and condemned Thomas Paine as an atheist. Yet, they joined hands with the arch-rationalist-humanists like Jefferson to ratify the constitution which barred a religious test for office holders (Article 6 of the US constitution) and prohibited the state from any direct interference with and/or promotion of religion (the first amendment of the Bill of Rights). They favoured disestablishment in part out of their theological belief that it was blasphemous for the state to do god’s work, and partly out of a fear of persecution from a church backed by state power (Baptists had good reason to champion the separation of church and state for they had been persecuted by the Anglican Church back in England and were not much liked by the Puritans who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony). Whereas Jefferson, Madison, Paine and other more secularist founders were more concerned with the corrupting influences of faith on politics, their evangelical supporters were more worried about the power of the state to regulate their religion. While Baptists, Methodists and other evangelicals championed the cause of the American revolution against the British, and worked hard to ratify the constitution, they understood the Jeffersonian wall of separation as a one-way wall, meant to keep out the “wilderness of the state from the garden of religion”.5 To sum up, the popular support for a secular constitution was not motivated by secular (i e, thisworldly) beliefs, but by a desire to protect religious beliefs and liberties from a state allied with an official church (as it was in England and in most of Europe at that time).

The irony is that the same groups of evangelical “awakeners” who paved the way for secular laws, turned out to be one of the most influential and lasting sources of anti-intellectualism in the American republic. In his 1962 classic, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter has given a vivid description of how the two ‘Great Awakenings’ led by Baptists and Methodists led to an “uprising” against the tradition of science and learning that existed in the mainline Protestant churches (which were at that time, the patrons science at Harvard and Yale). The evangelicals taught a simple religion of the heart: all you needed to be saved was to be “born again” and to read the Bible. Anyone could do that without getting bogged down in learned disputations in theology or metaphysics.

This form of Christianity spread widely because it was more conducive to the anti-authoritarian and anti-aristocratic sensibilities of the farmers and craftsmen settling the westward frontier. The slave population in the south responded especially well to the Baptist revivals as they gave them an opportunity to establish their own churches, led by their own preachers. The revivals changed the religious geography of the country: by the end of the 18th century, Baptists and Methodists far outnumbered the Puritans and the Anglicans. The trend has continued into the present era: evangelical churches are growing more rapidly than the more liberal, mainline denominations.

However, even as they encouraged religious enthusiasms, often aided by faith-healing and miracles, evangelical preachers proclaimed a great love for science of their times (that is, the period between the American Revolution and the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859). As long as the mechanical philosophy that informed Newtonian science was not used to propagate scepticism and secularism, the American churches remained enthusiastic in its support. Here they were following in the long tradition of Protestant scientists (including Newton and Boyle), who believed that by studying nature they were revealing god’s laws. What is more, their Protestant belief in omnipotence of god led them to oppose the Aristotelian scholasticism which assigned quasi-divine intelligence to matter. This helped them to accept a purely naturalistic, mechanical understanding of matter and forces on religious grounds. (In this sense, as Max Weber, Peter Berger and others have argued, Christianity, especially its Protestant version, helped to disenchant nature). Through most of the 18th and 19th centuries, leading Christian scientists and ministers in the US were able to accept perfectly secular, naturalistic explanations of disease (smallpox), natural disasters (earthquakes), and creation of the solar system and geology of the earth, while interpreting the natural laws as creation of god. A two-tiered world view remained the norm, with laws of nature below, supporting super-natural beliefs above: god became the creator not of individual objects found in nature, but of the laws which nature followed on its own. Thus even when a ‘Creator God’ became irrelevant to the actual practice of science, He was retained as the ultimate source of nature’s laws.6

This apologetic natural theology suffered serious setbacks through the so-called “golden age” of secular thought (roughly the period after the US civil war to the end of the first world war). This was the gilded age when the US underwent largescale industrialisation and urbanisation. And it was also when Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859. Most mainline churches fitted Darwin into their two-storeyed theology: they accepted natural selection as the mechanism that god chose to create the living world. But Darwin had created serious doubts in the minds of leading intellectuals and scientists about the need for god as the ultimate creator of natural laws. Highly regarded public intellectuals like John Dewey, George Santayna, John Herman Randall and Robert Ingersoll tried to popularise a new conception of knowledge that substituted the metaphysical absolutes of received traditions with an empirically adequate, albeit uncertain and forever changing conception of truth [Shea 1984].

The current upswing of intelligent design and theistic science is a reaction against the thinning of the supernatural and the fraying of the two-storeyed model of accommodating naturalistic science with god. It is a throwback to the old habit of using science in an apologetic mode. In the present context, when the religious conservatives are aggressively seeking political power to enforce their theological views on public policy, there is a great danger of god entering science classrooms where god does not belong. The point to note, however, is that in the US, the recent growth of fundamentalist, literalist Christianity is a reaction to the inroads made by secular, naturalistic ideas in academia and mainline, liberal churches. To some extent, the religious resurgence is an indication of the success of secular ideas, at least among the educated and liberal strata.

Indian secularism, too, bears the marks of strategic alliances between secular-humanists and those who derive their interpretation of an ideal society from Hinduism. What makes the Indian case interesting is how the so-called neo-Hindu reformers have borrowed modern ideals of democracy, secularism and modern science, but claimed – against all known historical facts – that far superior, “holistic” versions of these modern values had always existed in the “golden age” of Vedic Hinduism, dating back to the beginning of time itself. For example, the historical fact that the original Vedic Hinduism was a religion of caste hierarchy – the very obverse of what we today understand by democracy – is countered by neo-Hindus who insist that the “integral humanism” of the institutions of Varnadharma is a “deeper” form of democracy that avoids the class warfare and alienation of the west. The objection that Vedic Hinduism, in fact, valued mystical intuition over sensory knowledge – the very obverse of empiricism that is the hallmark of modern science

– is denied by claiming mysticism to be a “higher” more “holistic” form of empiricism. Thus, while neo-Hindu nationalists have happily borrowed liberal-secular ideas from the west, they have knitted them into the traditional weltanschauung to create a potent myth of Hinduism’s “innate” democratic and pluralistic spirit, and its “inherent” rationality. This cultural habit of strategically laying a priority-claim for “the Vedas” on whatever is considered prestigious in the west is the key to understanding both the success of India’s brand of secularism, and the Hindu chauvinism that it perpetuates.

If a “wall of separation” is the metaphor for the US model of negative secularism, the “wheel of law,” is the metaphor for India’s positive secularism. The Indian model allows the state to both censor and promote the many religions of the land, as long as it does not play favourites. It is neutrality and evenhandedness – ‘dharma nirpekshta’ – and not indifference to religion that makes India secular. This principle is literally embossed on the Indian flag in the form of ‘dharma chakra’, or the wheel of law, which was inspired by the Buddhist emperor Ashoka’s Sarnath pillar, and which symbolises the idea of ‘sarva dharma sambhava’, or “equal respect for all religions”. The idea is that just as a wheel moves because all the spokes are of equal length, the Indian state will be even-handed and impartial toward different religious faiths [Jacobsohn 2003]. Within this requirement of impartiality, the Indian state is free to rewrite religious laws of all faiths if their social consequences contradict the principles of democracy: the institution of caste, which has religious sanction, for example, was declared unconstitutional at the founding of the republic. On the “positive” side, the Indian government is allowed to provide funds, in the name of promotion of “Indian culture,” for schools run by religious organisation, maintenance of places of worship, pilgrimages and social-service agencies operated by “faith-based” organisations.

The Indian model is a hybrid product of secular humanism and neo-Hindu revivalism. On the secularist side were democratic socialists like Jawaharlal Nehru and B R Ambedkar, radical humanists like M N Roy who believed that a rational reform of the Hindu world view and customs was a prerequisite for political progress. The revivalists were inspired by neo-Hindu ideas of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi and others, who believed that a regeneration of the supposedly tolerant and benevolent Vedic “golden age” was a prerequisite for social progress.

The Indian version of secularism satisfied the need for political and social reform, without distancing the state from Hinduism, and without encouraging a rationalisation and cultural critique of religious modes of thinking. The Indian Constitution gives the state the right to censor those secular aspects of religious practices that interfered with the fundamental right of equality of all citizens (especially caste, which stood in the way of creating a democratic nation state), while continuing with the old Hindu tradition of state acting as the protector and promoter of faith. Any remaining doubts about the essential Hindu-ness of the new constitution were assuaged by presenting the principle of “equal respect” as a modern version of ancient Hindu tolerance for, and belief in, the equal worth of all religions.7

The Indian model of secularism has worked, after a fashion. Probably because secularism was presented as a part of Hindu heritage, Hindu religious leaders (to their credit) did not resist the Constitution’s disestablishment of the Hindu institution of caste. But the price has been enormous: the Indian state has happily played vote-bank politics with religion. For all the pious professions of neutrality, Hinduism has served as the de facto civil religion of the state, including the well known cases of Indira Gandhi, Jayalalithaa and other political figures routinely worshipping in temples in their official capacity, and in turn, getting ritually worshipped as divine incarnations. Politicians continue to indulge in conspicuous acts of ritualistic religiosity, and yet retain their “secular” credentials by indulging the religious rituals and superstitions of all faiths. On the other hand, it is an undeniable and shameful fact that the state has given in to conservative Muslim opinion and refrained from intervening in the retrograde elements of the Islamic personal law. This has given a good excuse to the Hindu right to rage against “pseudo secularism” and to demand the creation of a Hindu state which will withdraw all constitutionally granted freedoms for Islam and Christianity by declaring them “alien political ideologies” [Goel 1999, Gurumurthy 2005].

The problem with equating secularism with “innate” Hindu “tolerance” is that in reality Hindus have never treated other religions to be as true as Hinduism. Instead predominant Hindu creed has been, to quote Achin Vanaik (1997:149), “you have your truth, and I have mine, but mine is the deepest truth.” While Hinduism allows different levels and approaches to truth, it places the pantheistic god of Vedanta at the top. While Hindu nationalists continue to make much of Hindu pluralism, they have lately begun to openly assert the doctrinal superiority of Hinduism over “Semitic” monotheistic faiths. They want the Indian state to openly embrace the traditional role of ‘dharma rakshak’ (protector of dharma) in order to promote Hinduism at home and around the world so that India can fulfil its destiny as the “guru of the world” [Morales 2005].

If secularism has been subsumed into a romanticised version of Hinduism’s hierarchical pluralism, modern science – one of the most important forces for secularisation – has been subsumed into the spiritual metaphysics of the Vedas and Vedanta. It has become an article of faith among modern Hindu intellectuals that Hinduism is the “universal religion of the future” because it is “not in conflict with modern science,” or better still, is “just another name” for modern science. Indeed, this myth has become one more reason to condemn Islam and Christianity as faith-based and irrational “creeds” as compared to the reasoned, evidence-based, “scientific” truths of Hinduism. Whereas the assimilation of science into a natural theology in the US was primarily motivated by a concern to fight disbelief and scepticism, the assimilation of science into Hinduism has always had a strong nationalistic impulse to establish the superiority of Hinduism.

The problem is that the picture of the world that the Hindu apologists defend as having anticipated and/or being affirmed by modern science has nothing that any respectable, mainstream scientist would recognise as scientific at all. What is being affirmed is the idealistic metaphysics of Vedanta which views the objective world of matter as a by-product, or an epiphenomenon, of disembodied, immaterial consciousness or brahman. Finding parallels between this supra-natural or paranormal world view and quasi-mystical interpretations of modern quantum physics, neo-vitalistic biology of mavericks like Rupert Sheldrake, holistic theories of Gaia and other “new age” fantasies has become an abiding preoccupation of Hindu apologists. Unfortunately, the postmodernist vogue of alternative epistemologies, feminist and eco-feminist championing of “re-enchantment of nature” have played a negative role by giving legitimacy to the world view of Vedic sciences [Nanda 2004].

To conclude this section, disestablishment of religion in India and the US was not accompanied with disenchantment of the mental pictures of the world, in part because of the assimilation of science into the religious common sense of both societies. The assimilative, “village enlightenments” in both societies have contributed to the persistence of super-naturalistic world view, even while allowing advanced scientific research to go on unhindered by the religious establishment. God has been kept in play in the popular understanding of the world by using science to affirm, rather than challenge, supernatural elements of religions. Because the religious establishment presented itself as the guardian and champion of science, even while abusing it to justify literal interpretations of sacred books, the educated middle classes, including scientists, engineers and other professionals, did not develop a vested interest in combating the super/ supra-naturalistic world view that science was being absorbed into. The result has been a compartmentalisation between high science and technology in the labs, without any significant displacement of unscientific beliefs and practices in the rest of the society.

IV Popular Religiosity and Religionisation of Politics

Having established that secularism without secularisation of the popular imagination is possible, we now examine why it is unsustainable. Contrary to social theorists who support secularism as a sound constitutional principle but who are suspicious of any critique of religion as disrespectful of the common people’s faith, reason and courage [Bhargava 1998 and Carter 2000], it will be argued here that a critical engagement with the content and logic of religious metaphysics is a necessary condition for the long-term survival of secular states. As the experience of the US and India clearly show, democratic elections alone, without a concomitant decline in religiosity, can deliver political power to conservative and nationalistic religious movements. Under these circumstances, secular intellectuals and scientists have a special responsibility to argue on behalf of a secular world view.

The role of religiosity in religious political movements has been highlighted by Nikki Keddie, the well known historian of Islam. Why is it, Keddie asks, that Canada, so close to its southern neighbour culturally and economically, is relatively free from an aggressive Christian fundamentalism? And why is China, a non-Christian emerging economy, not very different from India, relatively free from strong religio-political movements? She believes that the difference lies in the levels of popular religiosity:

Significant religious political movements…tend to occur only

where in recent decades (whatever the distant past) religions with supernatural and theistic contents are believed in, or strongly identified with, by a large proportion of the population…Either …a high percentage of the population identifies with the basic tenets of its religious tradition regarding its god or gods, its scriptural texts and so forth.. or/and there is a widespread quasi-nationalistic identification with one’s religious community as against other communities (emphasis in the original) [Keddie 1998].

The 2004 presidential elections in the US provide strong support for Keddie’s hypothesis that religiosity, or faith, can act as a political force in its own right. According to the influential Pew Centre’s Trends 2005, neither class, nor ethnicity or denominational affiliation, but the degree of religiosity decided the voting pattern:

the political fault-lines in the American religious landscape do not run along denominational lines, but cut across them. That is, they are defined by religious outlook rather than denominational labels… Traditionalists, whether evangelicals, mainline or Catholic, are more likely to be Republicans, while those who are eager to adapt their faith to modern beliefs or who are secular are more likely to be democratic” (emphasis added).

All available data shows that traditionalist trends have been gaining ground in the American Christianity in recent decades. The more conservative evangelical churches have been growing at the expense of more liberal denominations. A higher proportion of believers are beginning to profess faith in the afterlife, divine judgment, possibility of miracles and the efficacy of prayer. Not only have traditional religious beliefs grown in intensity through the 1990s, the faithful also seem to have lost their earlier inhibitions about keeping faith out of the public sphere. In 1996, a significant majority (54 per cent over 43 per cent) believed that churches should take a stand on political issues, a complete reversal of the response for the same question in 1968. The new alignment in religious landscape of the US is that of the religious intense in all traditional faiths against the secular culture. In that fight, the more traditionalist believers are only too keen on allowing the churches to get involved in the affairs of the state [Kohut et al 2000; Rosen 2000].

The growth in the intensity of traditional beliefs obviously does not automatically mean a growth in the fundamentalist style of religiosity. Indeed, more in-depth interviews with believers of varying religiosity show that most the US still prefer a “quiet faith”, which shies away from religious extremism and values toleration and individual freedom in matters of conscience: even the most devout are not about to establish a state-supported chruch that enforces Christian piety on all [Wolfe 1998]. But the growing intensity of traditional religiosity does suggest a greater sympathy for conservative social values, including a faith in the US “manifest destiny”. The Pew Foundation’s Trends 2005 clearly shows that those who attend church more frequently are significantly more opposed to gay marriages and stem cells research, two of the hot-button social issues that George Bush pushed with great deftness in the 2004 presidential campaign.

Observers from Alexis de Tocqueville to Samuel Huntington in our own times have noted, to quote Huntington (2004), “countries and individuals who are more religious tend to be more nationalistic.” The polling data reported by Trends 2005 confirm a far greater level for support for the Iraq war and the “war on terror” among the more devout, as compared to the less committed and liberal Christians. There is a long history of the US seeing their country in messianic terms with a sacred mission to save the world. It is for this reason the Americans have by and large bought into George Bush’s equation of the terrorists of September 11, 2001 as enemies of civilisation itself. This self-image of their nation as a redeemer nation, as literally doing god’s work of spreading the light of liberty around the world constitutes the one of the deepest ironies of American history in which the impulse for the good turns into a force for imperialism and militarism.

India is another country where popular religiosity tends to merge seamlessly into nationalism, both of which are crassly exploited by the Hindu right to stoke the flames of a blood-andsoil variety of nationalism. Hindu nationalists literally deify the landmass of “Greater India” (which includes all of south Asia and parts of south-east Asia as well) as the homeland “Vedic Aryans”, to whom the universal and eternal laws of the cosmos were revealed [Kaiwar 2005]. This hardcore “Hindu nation” ideology has appropriated and encouraged public worship of the idols and images of ‘Bharat Mata’ (Mother India) in which the geographical contours of India merge into the body of a traditional Hindu goddess [McKean 1996]. It is commonplace in “secular” India – even under the “secular” Congress – to see such starkly Hindu imagery openly and proudly displayed in government offices, police stations and even on university campuses. In public spaces so over-charged with Hindu symbols, the promise of equal citizenship without regard to creed becomes meaningless.

Hinduisation of the public sphere is the “Operation Slow Poison”, an everyday “indoctrination amidst bhajans (hymns), seduction in the midst of festive processions” to use Meena Kandasamy’s (2004) very apt description. Bharat Mata is only a recent goddess, whose invention dates back to the early 20th century anti-colonial nationalism. Hindutva forces have systematically targeted popular religious festivals celebrating old and popular gods like Ganesh, and Ram and the goddess Durga for political purposes. The agitation that led to the demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 was given the trappings of a religious pilgrimage. The festival celebrating Ganesh, which used to be a popular but private affair in Tamil Nadu, for example, has become a massive public spectacle . The castes and tribes long considered “unclean” and “uncivilised” are being inducted into public worship of Ganesh, Ram and other deities and then deployed as foot-soldiers in the periodic riots that break out against Muslims and Christians [Fuller 2003; Teltumbde 2005].

The link between religiosity and Hindutva is not limited to idolworship and popular festivals. The more elite, “intellectual” Hindus who prefer gurus with more eclectic mix of old and new Hindu doctrines were no less supportive of Hindutva’s cultural agenda, or immune from its chauvinism. As the recent study by John Harriss (2003: 334) of 40 Chennai industrialists shows, “interest in temple-going…following god-men and gurus, and in the miraculous and ecstatic religion, as well as in the philosophical principles of what is called “Vedic Heritage” (though more properly called “neo-Vedanta”),” remains strong among this class which is at the cutting edge of hi-tech led globalisation. For many of them – almost all of them with advanced degrees in sciences, engineering and management from western universities – the miraculous powers of gods, godmen, planets and stars, pilgrimages and trances are real. Even the more “philosophically inclined” followers of “Vedic Heritage,” as interpreted by Swami Dayananda Saraswati, who seems to be in great demand among Chennai’s business leaders, seem to easily mix the abstractions of Upanishads, Brahma Sutra and Bhagvat Gita with a down-to-earth management ethics, a militant celebration of the superiority of Hindu ideas of karma, ecological pantheism and goddess “feminism,” topped with a strident opposition to religious conversion. The continuities of this “philosophical” crowd with the discourse of Hindu nationalism are unmistakable.

It is an article of faith among progressive intellectuals in India to defend the religious beliefs of ordinary people (good) while condemning the religious nationalist expressions of the faith (bad). To question the content of the myths and the metaphysics that underpin popular religiosity is considered to be in bad taste, a sign of the “colonial mind” of the critic. Rationalists are exhorted to counter “bad Hindutva” with “good Hinduism,” as if popular Hindu beliefs and practices have nothing to do with Hindu nationalism.

But it is not so clear at all that popular religiosity itself is so politically innocent. For all their differences, the psychological and behavioural manifestations of Hinduism and Hindutva are nearly identical. It is true that Hindutva is not a religious movement, for it is not in the business of salvation of souls, or in the business of spreading god-awareness. It is in the business of acquiring power in order to bring its version of militant Hinduism as a blue-print for state policies. But to an average Hindu, the religious iconography, allegories and millenarianism (Ram Rajya) that Hindu nationalists use in their political mobilisations appear indistinguishable from the real thing. Conversely, the scriptural beliefs and myths of popular Hinduism make the Hindutva ideology to appear plausible, noble and worthy of defence to a vast majority of Hindus. This does not mean that ordinary believers are full of nationalistic passions, or that they can only be aroused to political action on religious grounds. All it means is that traditional religiosity of the voters remains a potential resource that political parties can freely mobilise for electoral gains.

V Secular Culture for Secular Democracies

What is to be done? It is easy for secularists to despair, as in the US these days, or to celebrate too soon, as in India where the Hindu right lost the last election. There is also the temptation to mobilise a “religious left” that can invoke sacred books for social justice, peace and the environment. The idea is to use “good” religion to wean people away from “bad” religion, invoke the “real” faith to challenge those who would turn it into an “ideology” for war and hatred.

There is no doubt at all that the secularists need to get religion right, but that does not mean that they must get religion. It is time for all thinking people to take religion seriously, not as false consciousness, not as a left-over superstition from the past, but as a necessary dimension of human life which answers a nearly universal need for finding transcendent purpose in life and death. This need for meaning that can dignify existential struggles of everyday life, and overcome the fear of death, is integral to human existence. Secularists must learn to respect this need for sacred meaning, and not rush to condemn every expression of religiosity as a sign of backwardness or superstition.

But while it is important to give faith its due, faith, too, must give reason its due. A secular society must respect religion, but only within the limits of reason. The reach of reason must extend to all empirical claims that derive from faith in the super-natural/ spiritual entities and the sacred teachings derived from them, everywhere, whether in the public or in the private sphere, in the labs but also in the temples and churches. A wall of separation between reason and faith must go up in the minds of citizens first, in order for the wall of separation to work in society.

In practical terms, this means a revival of the forgotten rationalist-sceptical elements of the secularist project represented by Jefferson, Paine and the later pragmatist-secularists in the US and by Nehru, Ambedkar and Roy in India. Their secularist project was not just a matter of laws and rules, but a matter of intellectual conviction. It was born of an inquiring attitude toward religion, aware of the great harm dogmatism in the name of god or the “eternal truths” of dharma has caused through history through the wars of conquest and colonialism or through the passive-aggressive violence aggression of caste institutions.

Secularism as a world view does not mean rejecting all sense of the sacred that transcends the profane world of here-and-now. But it does mean divesting the sacred of the right to make existence claims about entities which supposedly act in nature

– soul, spiritual “energy,” reincarnation, miracles, to name a few. Or to put it more precisely, secularism means reserving the right to demand the same level of evidentiary support we demand for other empirical beliefs for religious propositions which claim to represent some actual entities or processes in the actual world. As long as the god of religions is supposed to be present in the world of space and time accessible to ordinary human senses, he/she/it has to be able to stand up to the same level of scrutiny as any other claim about empirical phenomena like chairs, or DNA or atoms.

The defence of secularism in our times must start with a defence of scientific reason itself. In recent times, modern science has come in for harsh and unwarranted criticism from the postmodern left for serving the ends of colonial and patriarchal pwers that oppress the marginalised social groups. Modern science, according to its “radical” critics, is a social construct that makes the dominant interpretations of nature appear as if they were facts of nature. This radical scepticism toward the content of modern science has resulted in calls for “alternative sciences” which will produce benign and socially progressive picture of nature form the standpoint of the nondominant social groups. This enterprise of social construction of alternative accounts of nature has been a terrible diversion from the task of confronting the growing forces of reactionary religiosity. What is worse, this postmodernist deconstruction of science is very hospitable to the defenders of intelligent design in the US who have been using very similar arguments to condemn naturalism of Darwinian evolution as a social construct of secular elites. And as I have been arguing, the spread of postmodernist, anti-enlightenment ideas in India have left Indian critics of Hindu nationalists with no tools to counter the Hindu nationalist propaganda for “Vedic sciences.” Others [Pennock 2000 and Sokal 2006] have also shown how postmodern scepticism against modern science ends up aiding the claims of theistic sciences.

In conclusion, the future of secular societies depends upon the cultivation of secular culture. Scientists and freethinkers have no choice but to get more deeply engaged with the religious commonsense of our times.




1 Kevin Philips (2006), a prominent Republican analyst, has recently described the US under George W Bush as “American theocracy”. He justifies this rather alarming description on these grounds: The US has an elected leader who believes that he speaks for god, a ruling political party that seeks to mobilise the churches and a plurality of voters who believe that government should be guided by religion.

2 There is an enormous literature on the influence of religious right on the Bush administration. Some key essays include Chris Mooney (2003), Karen Tumulty and Matthew Copper (2005). On the influence of Christian right on Bush’s science policy, see Esther Kaplan (2004). For more details, see Nanda 2005.

3 Religious maximalism is Bruce Lincoln’s preferred word for religious fundamentalism. All religious maximalists, whether or not they defend the “fundamentals” laid out in holy books, believe that “religion ought to permeate all aspects of the social, indeed, the human existence…they are intent on breaking the boundaries that modern societies have tried to place between the religious and the secular aspects of society” [Lincoln 2003:5].

4 This idea of “village enlightenment” is from Hazen (2000).

5 For a comprehensive account of the religious history of early America, see George Marsden 1990.

6 For the relationship between science and evangelical Christianity in US, see Ronald Numbers (2003) and George Marsden (1991).

7 A more detailed treatment is available in Nanda (2005).


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