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Secularism - American style
By M V Kamath 
Free Press Journal
February 15, 2001 


India is about the only country in the world where secularism is a problem. This is precisely because it is a multi-religious country with substantial segments of he population professing various religions like Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Buddhism. This is not to say that other countries do not have their own religious minorities.

There are Muslims and Christians in China, not to speak of Buddhists, but the prevalent philosophy of state is Communism that doesn't take religion at all into consideration. Indonesia has a substantial percentage of Christians, not o speak of Hindus and Christians of late in Indonesia have been under pressure from Islamic fundamentalists. But most European countries don't need to worry about minorities.

Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries are all Christian though there may be varied proportions of Roman Catholics and Protestants among them. The United Kingdom is Christian with the Church of England being supreme. The head of the Royal Family is crowned according to Christian rites by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the oath is taken on the Bible but nobody dismisses the country or the people as communal. Secularism in those countries has a separate connotation. In Germany a party can call itself the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) or the Christian Socialist Union (CSU) but it does not invite opprobrium from secularists. A citizen may refuse to pay a small tax for the upkeep of churches but that is left to the good sense of the tax-payer whether to pay or not. When President de Gaulle of France and Chancellor Adenauer of then West Germany prayed together at Koln Cathedral in a gesture of reconciliation, no one suggested that they were 'communal'. Both France and Germany were Christian countries and praying in a cathedral seemed the most natural thing to do. It is only in India that singing Saraswati vandana at an official function comes under severe damnation by our 'secularists'.

The general belief is that the United States of America is 'secular', even if the President-elect of the country may take his oath of office on the Bible and attend Church. Is the United States truly 'secular'? The question has been raised - and sought to be answered-interestingly enough, in the current issue of Span (January/February 2001) by one Wilfred M. McClay. He speaks of two concepts of secularism. He says that despite "impressive victories in the courts and in the halls of government and academe, prayers (in the US) are still uttered at the commencement of Congressional sessions. God's name appears in our currency and in the oaths we take in court, chaplains are still employed by Congress and the armed services (and) the tax-exempt status of religious institutions remains intact". "The fact is" avers McClay, "America is still not an entirely secular country, one sanitized of any form of public sanction for religion".

The pressure of religion on the individual could be very heavy as Yellapragada Subba Row, a great scientist working at Lederle Laboratories in the United States found, being alone in a Christian community in the thirties. To escape his uniqueness Row who was born Hindu first turned to atheism only to accept Christianity later to get a feeling of belonging. In the United States, McClay insists, one "comes face to face with a crowd of paradoxes" And he adds: "And none is greater than this: that the vanguard nation of technological and social innovation is also the developed world's principal bastion of religious faith and practice. The United States has managed to sustain remarkably high levels of traditional religious beliefs and affiliation, even as it careens merrily down the white water rapids of modernity".

Sociologists from Max Weber to Peter Berger have insisted that secularisation is one facet of the powerful monolith called "modernisation", trusting that secularisation would come along bundled with a comprehensive package of modernising forces such as urbanisation, rationalisation, professionalisation, functional differentiations and bureaucratisation. The more the modernisation that society underwent, the presumption was that secularity, in all its fullness would arrive "as naturally as adulthood". Apparently this has not yet happened in the United States. McClay argues that perhaps the religious efflorescence that one sees in America today is merely defensive and fleeting. Indeed, he remarks, it could be argued persuasively that the United States has never been more thoroughly under the command of secular ideas than it is today" and that "the nation's elite culture, as it is mirrored in mass media and academe, is committed to a standard of antiseptically secular discourse, in which the ostensibly value-neutral languages of science and therapy have displaced the value-laden language of faith and morals". As he further notes, a steady stream of court decisions since the 1940s has severely circumscribed the public manifestation of traditional religious symbols and sentiments, helping to create what has been called 'the naked public square.

For all that there is the view that "secularism, rather than religion" is the power that is ebbing away. Noting that, McClay feels that it is "small wonder, then, that religion has responded to the challenge of secularism with a vigorous defence of its role in public life - a role that, whatever one thinks of it, shows no sign of going away quietly". Indeed, he adds, and this is very significant, "there is a growing sense that religion may be an indispensable force for the upholding of human dignity and moral order in a world dominated by voracious state bureaucracies and sprawling trans-national corporations that are neither effectively accountable to national law nor effectively answerable to well-established codes of behaviour".

If this is said of the United States where the majority of Christianity-professing people have never felt the suffocating power of an elite professing a minority religion, should it be surprising that Hindus in India should hark back to their own centuries old faith to find an anchor for their lives?

McClay speaks of two kinds of secularism: a negative one and a positive one. When, under the guise of separating church and state, secularism seeks to exclude religious belief and practice, as much as possible, to the realm of private predilection and individual taste, it is negative. Positive secularism has aims that are higher and nibbled, seeking, as it does, to free human beings to fulfill the most exalted elements of their nature. This understanding of two secularims, McClay suggests, may help explain the paradoxical situation in which secularism seems at one and the same time both victor and vanquished. As he sees it, Americans have by and large accepted negative secularism as an essential basis for peaceful co-existence in a religiously pluralistic society. Furthermore, he adds: "Religious activity and expression (in the United States) will likely continue to grow, further eroding the rule of positive secularism - but it will do so largely within the container of a negative - secularist understanding of the world. The return of religious faith is not likely to be a fearsome 'return of the repressed' at least not in the United States".

If religious faith can return to the United States without a fearsome "return of the repressed", why should it not return similarly to India in the same manner? Whatever the shortcomings of the majority faith-Hinduism - in India (and, alas, it has several), attacks on the minority faith is not one of them. McClay makes an interesting point. He says: "It follows, however, that religious faiths must undergo some degree of adaptation in accommodating themselves to negative secularism. To begin with, they must, as it were, learn how to behave around strangers. But there is more to it than that. The key question adherents must ask is whether such an adaptation represents compromise of their faith or a deepening and clarifying of it". What does adaptation mean in the Indian context? In India the majority faith is Hinduism. For centuries it has been the target of first Islam and later evangelical Christianity both of which were resented. Living under Islamic rule, Hindus in past centuries hardly could resist conversion. Who, in the circumstances, should adopt to whom? Can Christianity, under the presumed right to propagation, give offence to Hinduism by indulging in conversions, howsoever sophisticatedly described? These are points to ponder over.

Secularism, in essence, means respect for all religions. Respect involves not giving offence to another religion or faith in any way whatsoever. The line dividing propagation and conversion is very thin and in India, at least, it can give rise to a lot of epistomological confusion, which is best avoided in the larger interests of communal peace. To insist that propagation is of the very essence of Christianity which has to be conceded under the articles of the Constitution is to demand allegiance not to the spirit but the letter of the law. A wise minority will have to learn to adapt to the society in which it functions in order to live in peace and harmony. The Sanskrit concept of sarva dharma samabhava must be upheld in all its nuances if secularism has to be truly meaningful in India. That, truly, would be positive secularism worthy of applause. 


Copyright 2001 - All Rights Reserved.

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