BY DR.MOHAMMAD MAROOF SHAH
From India to Turkey to Egypt religion has helped political parties win power. Religion is one of the key factors influencing outcome of elections in many officially secular states. Religion is driving number of big industries and priests/religious leaders continue to be king makers or influence much of power relations. Despite all this ours is characterized as a secular age and we have no choice of travelling backwards in time or imaging an isolated place in future where secularism hasn’t encroached. Let us note extent of secularization one has to engage with to remain.
Influence of Secular Critiques of Religion
We are all, willy nilly, secular in certain sense, in certain areas. Design of our cities, homes, roads, certain profanation of sacred spaces, worldwide domination of secularism in political constitutions, text books, academia, certain secularization of dress etc. are all with us and hardly irritate us now. Technological culture is inherently secularizing and we have been competing with one another in embracing it.
Religion has come under scanner so much so that religionists are on defensive. Religions are said to alienate men from reality and build a fantasy world, reject this-worldly joys, divide people, foster conflicts, inculcate guilt, obstruct rational enquiry and science and blaspheme against key finer or higher pursuits of life. These critiques have been so influential that millions describe themselves as non-religious. States have been compelled to embrace secular constitutions and religious states are under constant threat to yield to the secular its space. Imagine possibility and costs besides public resistance to imposing any dress code/ban on music/ban on women working in media/serials or cinema/strict ban on coeducation/secularizing educational content such as teaching of evolution etc. in the Muslim world. In Srinagar recently a teen aged boy was beaten by his father for not praying and he rebuked him in turn saying that we are living in a secular state and he will go to police if he beats him again. The dominion of science and scientific attitude in our academics shows how much non-scientific and mythological modes of thought have been strained. If this isn’t the de facto win of secularism against rival forces, what is it?
Marginalization of religious schools, waning of attention in general education to teaching/learning languages of religion, bourgeoning debates on family law, wide ranging critiques of sha’ria/religious law, prestige of modern jobs compared to traditional religion linked ones (such as mosque imams), gradual displacement of prayers for changing weather from mosques by weatherman, shrinking faith healing business, critique of traditionally hallowed image of Guru/Pir/Shrine/niyaz (prayer food) – in short disappearance of much of religion informed medieval culture – all are victories of secular reason. Widespread influence of Marx, Darwin, Freud and many other such secularizing minds in popular consciousness including Muslim consciousness – it has been remarked that rate of turning to atheism in certain educated elite is similar in USA and Saudi Arabia – imply that the world has become largely safe for those who don’t want religion or any role for it in politics. Almost total victory of secular democratic model in politics (noted especially by Amryta Sen, among others), institutionalization of laws for equal treatment of religious and sexual minorities, universal invoking of human rights discourse that has some problematic elements from a strictly anti-secular religious viewpoint mark other signposts of victory of secular politics. Ours is a Europeanized world in a significant sense as Heidegger noted. Religion has been either displaced by secular modes of thinking or such forms of religiosity that are not averse to secular sensibility. Our children, generally speaking, go to secular schools where religion might find some space but in a manner that is, often, either irrelevant to overall curriculum or it is seen as alienating allografting exercise. Such is the lure of secular sensibility that some students from more religiously informed schools may grow to be more strongly antireligious as a reaction to imposition of certain disciplinary regimen. So far religious and secular epistemes have been at loggerheads. Secularizing episteme was at the driving seat. Post-70s this dominance has been dented.
The Religious asserts amidst the Secularizing World
Peter L. Berger stated that “the world, with some notable exceptions [such as Europe] . . . is as religious as it ever has been, and in some places is more religious than ever.” There has never been a man whom one could call non-religious in absolute sense. To be human is to be religious – to crave for the infinite, for nobility, for dignity, for sanctity. One might have had reasons to be alienated from religion. Religion is the very air man breathes though he may call it by other names such as culture. British philosopher Roger Scruton has written that “there should attach to the products of a high culture the same sense of profound mystery and ineffable meaning that is the daily diet of religion” and that after the Enlightenment “art [including the masterpieces of literature and music] became a redeeming enterprise, and the artist stepped into the place vacated by the prophet and the priest.”
Throughout the world where constitutions are secular, public policy has been secular but public has been, in some sense, generally speaking, religious. Various violent conflicts in the world are going on that keep invoking some kind of religious nationalism. The Sacred is being appropriated in political terms by various groups, activists and parties. The secular has been at loggerheads with pathological forms that invoking of the Sacred has led to. The world is today witnessing a clash, not of civilizations but the sacred and the secular. Our secular age is fighting vestiges of the sacred in educational, social and political spheres while resolutely appropriating the same for various ends including overcoming nihilism. Constitutions may have become secular across the world with few exceptions but cultures haven’t. Religion hasn’t disappeared from public sphere but shrunk and again expanded its presence. Richer nations, excepting America and Muslim world, have registered waning religiosity in public domain but to interpret it as gradual and inevitable triumph of secularism has been questioned as the authors of The Sacred and the Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide attempt to document and theorize. The question of sacred asserts itself as Nietzsche long back asserted. Given the fact of globalization and necessity of coexistence of cultures, there is no escape, for secular governments, from exploring religion for peace building, for restoring ecological health, for restoring psycho-spiritual equilibrium, for solving identity based issues etc. Caste system, having some religious connection, has been there though rise of middle class has been denting it significantly. The question is how come a constitution is secular in a land that has masses following religion and different religions seeking power or at least political assertion. For Ananda Coomaraswamy the most significant problem of philosophy is developing the science of comparative religion that identifies common metaphysics or makes dialogue possible between religions and thus cultures. There would have been no Huntington if likes of Coomaraswamy had been heeded or their exposition of perennial philosophy penetrated into mass consciousness or at least in the academic world.
We are living in a post-secular age but we are also, in some important sense, post-theological age. The idiom today is even post-metaphysical in the sense that a certain way of doing metaphysics or engaging with the Supraphenomenal has been almost given up. However, it is also true, that never before has the question of the Sacred been so important for collective and individual destiny of men. Nihilism with all that it implies with regard to care for environment, for the other, for posterity, for our own souls that don’t accept the consolation of this worldly progress or all the substitutes that have cropped up in place of transcendence is here staring at us, in fact consuming us and no idle or complacent posturing with regard to it is tolerable.
One may see the logic of the secular (as distinguished from violent ideology of fundamentalist secularism that is blind to humanizing, sanctifying role of religion) as unwittingly bearing witness to the triumph of the Spirit. What unites all of us is treasuring art and humour which bear witness to our shared religiosity. Craze for sports preserves something if not much of religion’s attitude to life as more aesthetic and playful than too serious and somber. When one reads All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Dreyfus and Kelley, one finds either repackaged or impoverished versions of transcendence religions once made available being presented by so-called pagan secular writers and philosophers to (post)modern man. Laughter as the way to God has been old but forgotten theme of religion and mysticism – few have read full length works on the Prophet’s sense of humour and Rumi’s insistence that laughter accesses the heart of Godhead.
In India the rise of the right roughly corresponds to assertion of religious revivalism or religion inflected politics across the world. Was secularism fake or inadequately theorized or it had misconstrued religious as an Other while being parasitic on it? Isn’t the religious itself now in significant ways appropriating the secular? This calls for more detailed reflections in forthcoming column.
Dr. Mohammad Maroof Shah is an author and Columnist, interested in the the interface of philosophy, literature, religion and mysticism