The Secular Delusion

Forget about separation of religion and state. Can religion survive without a state? Would it be orphaned without patriotic fervour?

I come from a country that is secular. Yet, its largest opposition party has dreams of a Hindu Rashtra. The government offers sops to every faith. There are regional groups that seek special status for language and ethnicity. Tribes and scheduled castes have their own demands and the nation owes it to them, not because the Constitution has failed them but the faith they were born in has. The Constitution, in effect, is keeping belief systems alive.

Does India have a right to be called a secular republic? Is this not merely about multiculturalism, the subsuming into an Axe effect that starts wearing off once the pores start emitting sweat again? ‘Iftaar’ and ‘pandal’ politics are now so well-entrenched that it would be unthinkable for any political party to upset this neo-status quo, which is quite precious for a status quo is usually an established model. There appears to be only a re-packaging of tradition.

The recent Pew Research Centre’s study that reveals 19.6 per cent Americans believe in “nothing in particular” is considered a departure from stratified norms. It draws attention to US politics within the framework of piety. To suggest that one in five adults is not using traditional patterns does not mean much. Even in states with a religious constitution, there are the rebound and rethink dissonances. Pakistan is a prime example. Rather, religion gives the state a long rope to hang itself with.

As the study team said, “Sociologists have shown that Americans are more likely to pick their place of worship by their politics, not vice versa.” How does this bode for the religion of the state when not only is the faith factor divided by race, but political choices made by the ‘nones’?

Dan Barker, Co-President of The Freedom From Religion Foundation, thinks it is a pertinent yardstick: “…when are politicians and candidates going to wake up to the changing demographics and start courting us? Secularists are looking for candidates who share a commitment to America’s foundational principle of separation between religion and government.”

It depends on how deep one excavates to get to the foundation. After the American War, the states expected government office-bearers to express fealty to the Trinity and declare the divine inspiration of the Bible. We may move on, but history is embedded.

In the run-up to the elections, FFRF is putting up billboards showing regular families – the big American fantasy – with catchphrases: “This is what an atheist family looks like”, “I’m secular and I vote”, “We’re too old for imaginary friends”, “Atheists work to make this life heavenly”.

How different are these notional divisions from devotional ones? Who will they vote for? What are the candidates promising besides the usual civic issues? Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have both alluded to religion. ‘Other’ faiths are mentioned either as a species to be protected or as a threat.

Richard Dawkins who wrote The God Delusion partly as a reaction to 9/11 has suggested that whatever may have been the hijackers’ political or social motivations, it was a religious act based on the conviction that they would be rewarded in the afterlife.

The proponents of such theocracy do use this as a cover-up. It might explain the ‘non-state’ nature of these actors too. Their religion gives the attacked country a carte blanche to choose its opponents from the many streams of Islamic thought. Curiously enough, the US did not strike at the fount – Saudi Arabia.

Would the ‘religious act’ argument apply to the violence in Tibet, a Buddhist state? The self-immolation by monks and nuns could also be seen as a violent act, and the ethnicity of the people depends to a great extent on its religion to survive. Devotees are blamed for deifying the founder. The moot question here is: Why then are there Buddhist states? Hypothetically, without a supreme being or an emissary, as much as a political or philosophical leader, is it possible to sustain any creed?

Even in non-religious societies, as in Communist states, there will be fringe pious groups – whether it is the Russian Orthodox Church or minorities in China. The state is expected to uphold their rights, or else deal with ideological skirmishes and bloodshed.

There is a belief that superimposed unity is counterproductive. Douglas Murray, director of the Center for Social Cohesion in London, quite naturally upholds ‘purity’: “State-sponsored multiculturalism treated European countries like hostelries. It judged that the state should not ‘impose’ rules and values on newcomers. The resultant policy was that states treated and judged people by the criteria of whatever ‘community’ they found themselves born into.”

In Britain, where the Church of England is effectively the state religion, what culture could be used as a standard and how would it negotiate nationalism? We do tend to use the word culture to take away the harsh reality that almost all cultures depend on value systems and these, even as heresy, are often imbibed from sacred texts.

Therefore, the non-canonical is perforce born of the consecrated and remains a recusant faith, as it were. To prove otherwise is merely akin to spilling ink over scriptures. Secularism as negation is as hallucinatory as the perennial queries about god. In fact, god is not even germane to a discussion on the role of the state in religion. It must be pointed out that over-the-top nationalism putting country above all else uses a theistic paradigm.

If the nation did not identify me as a Muslim I would have, as when the rare occasion permitted me, filled in the religion column with “Not Applicable”. The onus is on the state to stop acting like a shrine.

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Published in The Express Tribune


  1. FV,

    Waited for this article with anticipation, after you made that 'coming soon' type of announcement in reply to one of my previous comments. Disappointingly, what I find myself reading is far from a blockbuster! The formula rules here too!

    The votebank-fed government here offers sops to religious groups alright, but it reserves the biggest chunk of the pie for its largest, edgiest and most violent minority. The Islamic identity is considered to be more valid than any other. The government is amply aided in its low cunning by the pack of rabid, fanged sekulaars lurking in universities, media houses and NGOs, bred on an intrinsic hate of anything remotely Hindu and conditioned to lick the feet - and more - of anyone threatening Jihad.

    Under such conditions, the hollowed, Islam-battered sekulaarism can only induce mirthless laughter among the masses. It is also no surprise at all that the undefined notion of Hindu Rashtra becomes a viable peg on which to pitch the opposition politics.

    The inherited (though unacknowledged) memory of relentless Islamic atrocities on the Hindu population - inflicted solely on account of their being non-Muslims and the living memory of the macabre dance of Islam-inspired terror, now spreading beyond the borders of J&K serve to reiterate that this mortal danger to Hinduism necessitates sacrifices to be made, starting with the slow-poison called sekulaarism itself!

    Nice "script" for disaster, no?

    1. F&F:

      I never promised you a rose garden...as the song goes. Anyhow, I don't see any departure from formula in your comment, too. It's the same 'sekulaar' baton.

      Although I alluded to Hindu Rashtra, I mentioned sops by other parties. Besides, the piece was a bit more than that. Never mind.

      Secularism is about the state and atheism a personal choice. And the state uses the former for its benefit.

  2. Farzana ji,

    Your Tribune article, although muddled, does offer some interesting snippets. Anyway, I am writing to you for another reason. I often ask Muslims who stayed behind in India: What made your ancestors not buy into the two nation theory and board a train to the Paki-land? I put to you the same question.


    An 'un-Pakistani' Pakistani

  3. An 'un-Pakistani' Pakistani:

    I hope you managed to find some things in the muddle.

    Re. your query, I don't know what you mean by using a nick such as this. What does it denote?

    As for why we did not move, I am still trying to figure out. You might get to read about it.

    I am completely happy with the choice they made. I wish some others here were happy about it too.


    General note:

    In the ET piece, they added a hyperlink (as is the practice) that was about Pakistanis adding religion to their passports. I had no idea about it. I provided links to the quotes only. I assume some readers started baiting me about the Indian passport NOT having a religion column. I've got the link removed, with a comment.

    Besides that, I am not in the business of pleasing people.


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