Friday, November 28, 2008

Is present concept of secular state flawed?

Is present concept of secular state flawed?

-Biplab Pal
California 1/8/07

Idea of secularism in 19th and 20th century

In the simplest and precise form, by secularism we mean separation of the church and the state-that religion has no business in the matter politics, governance and law. Holyoake, Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill are undoubtedly the greatest philosophical motivation behind the concept of secular state as one may find in Holyoake’s treatise on secularism: (English secularism, 1896)

Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life, founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable. Its essential principles are three: (1) The improvement of this life by material means. (2) That science is the available Providence of man. (3) That it is good to do good. Whether there be other good or not, the good of the present life is good, and it is good to seek that good.

Despite the existence of International humanist and ethical union (IHEU) and the secular humanism it is professing, it is more than clear that a lot more number of people are finding their meaning of life in religion than that of secular humanism. Also, religious leaders are becoming more and more vocal against the concept of secularism except with a few notable exceptions like Dalai Lama who adhered to secularism by stating "We need these human values. I call these secular ethics, secular beliefs. There’s no relationship with any particular religion. Even without religion, even as nonbelievers, we have the capacity to promote these things”.

I have been thinking deeply on this serious issue-why secular ethics is only welcome to a few limited literate elites and not as welcome as religious ethics to the most of the young generation? And also why the concept of secular state is getting cornered as a result of denial of ‘man-made’ secular ethics and laws? We might talk about American influence, capitalist conspiracy etc. but in my view that will be dilution of an extremely serious issue which will determine the future of secularism.

Is secular state compatible with existentialism?

What do I mean when I utter the word ‘I’? Does it mean a mind and a flesh ?

Not really- the existence of ‘I’ is broken into multitude of sub-existence as father, son, husband, friend, employee, engineer, citizen etc. etc. I am all of the above packed together. Then what does it mean when I say I am a Hindu or a Muslim?

If I pray five times, go to the Mosque, perform Hajj and do all the rituals, can I be a Muslim? Which part of my existence needs these rituals?


I go to Durgapuja, offer the sacrifice to Kali and take bath in Proyag. Does that make me a Hindu?


Then what is it that makes me a Muslim or a Hindu? How is this religious identity born?

Clearly not the rituals that have no link with my existence as social being-a son, a father, a husband, a friend. Rituals only render a mask of identity as Hindu or Muslim and do not get deeper into our existence because it’s not linked with it!

But think of these-a Muslim any where in the world has a feeling for a suffering Muslim in Iraq –he does not have any for the Tamils in Shrilanka. In the case of a Hindu it is reversed but the matter remains the same- we strongly feel for the group that forms our supporting system. Of course a supporting system can be a city, can be a state but for believer of Hinduism or Islam, feeling of sympathy arose from the primary cause of religion -- to self-organize our society by forming a supporting system.

Yes, now you must get the point. One becomes a Muslim only when he/she tries to perfect his behavior as a father, as a son, as a husband/wife and as a friend according to his religion or its interpretation he/she believes in. Following rituals does not make him/her a Muslim. In a secular state, the laws of divorce, the laws of treating a woman are governed by secular ethics and not by religious verdicts. So one can not be a true Muslim or a true Christian unless laws of the land are derived in accordance with their religion. That is why Muslims in a dar-ul-haram demand for a separate Muslim personal law as we have seen in the recent events of Canada, UK and Denmark. Or for that matter, the reason is the same as to why the Christian religious leaders are bitching against the secular state as a destabilizing factor for Christian way of life in America, UK, France and Italy.

Therefore, the concept of secular state and religious way of living can not survive side by side and the clash is imminent and inherent in a system.

But what is the common ground? A way out?

Option one: Have red revolution and wipe the religion out for ever and for good! But the concept of communism turned out to be such a draconian experience, this one is already a forgone conclusion-neither feasible not advisable.

Optione two: Censor the religion and transform it into a dynamic process of self-quest like a sufi or saint. Of course someone can be adhyatamik ( I can not use the word spiritual-because I want to mean study of self and its objective) and yet be a secular person but a person believing in Islam or Hinduism or in any other religion can not be a truly secular person for the said reason of existentialism problem.

It is not possible to censor Koran or Gita in a democracy-one will not find a single believer who wants to dilute Koran even if it tells you to beat your wife-they would rather find logics and reasons to either follow so no matter how idiotic that can be or decent people would find an interpretation that would rationalize the Ayat as obsolete from historical perspective when humanism was not so much of a prevailing idea. Irrespective of religious background, no religious person would support any less of their religious texts because their rational sense is already curtailed and lost in their crisis of theist existentialism. That’s why you will find so many devout Muslims with PhD degree would still believe in Koran rather than in secular humanism.

Only an autocratic government can force it through state education system and machinary-but this is neither a feasible option in democracy not it is advisable to institute an autocracy to implement a change.

Option three:
Clue to the failure of two is theist existentialism-which prompts to provide a stronger alternative to theism that would meet the needs that theism provides to the common people. On my quest to science and religion, I found science can answer all the philosophical questions of religion more satisfactorily than God oriented religious scriptures. The idea that religion and science have different realm is flawed and Richard Dawkins was very right to point out S J Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) between science and religion is nothing but a sweet political move to balm the theists. Indeed science can be a complete alternative to religion if it is expanded and promoted in that fashion. I am convinced we will achieve nothing by proving religion is wrong or opposed to science unless we provide an effective alternative to emotional need and quests of human beings- answering and defining their spiritual quests through science or proven empirical method.

So looking at all the possibilities, I found third one is the only feasible way out to secularism. It is not enough to prove a religious belief is rotten , inhuman or unscientific. It won’t help because religion is about interpretation and apologetics will always bring about the best of humanism from religion to prove that other interpretation exists and that the problem in religion has to do with its wrong interpretation. And we will lose the game because trusting in ‘right’ interpretation in religion would serve more purpose in common people.

I am citing an example from Imrana case. When the case exposed the ugly face of Sharia and Indian media was all over for imposing uniform civil codes on the Muslims, comes the balming face of All Indian Muslim Ulema who started a propaganda stating that Deoband Ulemnas erred in this case failing to understand Koran!
In the Imrana case the father in law forced himself onto his daughter in law. She screamed and shouted for help. Clearly it was not with consent. The father in law is obviously guilty, while the daughter in law is the victim. The above injunction applies only when consent is involved. The Imrana angle has to be viewed from the viewpoint of a number of other injunctions in the Koran that demands compassion and kindness to the victim. I am surprised the Deoband ulemas failed to apply these Koranic commands. Certainly Imrana, her husband and her five children deserve these considerations. By declaring this marriage to be null and void, the final price for this dastardly act will be paid by the victims. That violates the spirit and the letter of the Koran. The Deoband ulemas have erred badly.

Prof J. S. Bandukwala
Vadodara, Gujarat

The issue abated since then. Note that this professor –while advocating Sharia based on correct and diverse interpretation, has no concern over the fact that the right interpretation of religion needs a strong secular background. If the people like Deoband ulameas who belong to the most prestigious school of Islam in whole Indian subcontinent can issue a fatewa like this, what will be the condition of thousands of rural muslims women living in obscured part of the subcontinent? Can he ensure right interpretation of Koran by the illerate Mullahs when the most literate like Deobands are issuing a fatewa like this?

Therefore, we are left with no alternative but to provide a scientific alternative to religion. Because science is objective truth that does not change with interpretation. We need to provide more satisfactory answer from science meeting the emotional need-specially on the purpose of life. One can not continue to live without knowing what is the purpose of his/her birth into this world.. We don’t do that and let religion takes the precedent in this important philosophical question, secularism is already out the door. Please do understand that we can not rely on Awami League or CPM for implementing secularism on our behalf- I bait we would achieve nothing for secularism and instead of cornering fundamentalists we would get thrown out from state system as it has already happened in Bangladesh.

Some people also reverie in utopian idea that humanism can replace religion. No it can not. When you are attacked by an enemy humanism does not and can not tell you what to do but religion does. That is the whole concept of Jihad or crusade. We may hate this religious product but what else other than a call to arms would have liberated Bangladesh against the oppressors? Both Koran and Gita advocate armed uprising against oppressors and consider that as an essential part of religion. On paper, Jihad is a perfect concept but on history, both the Hindu and Muslim rioters in great Calcutta killing were motivated by the same Jihad or DharmaYudha. Hence again we are back to the vicious circle of interpretation, interpretation and interpretation! And that is the reason why we do need science to replace the religion-so that we do not chase the ghost of interpretation anymore and the social laws be firmed on an objective and empirical method.

However humanism can replace one strong aspect of religion- a support system of life but unfortunately I am yet to see secular humanists are sacrificing their career in numbers to support poor kids in Africa or Asia which we find in God inspired Christian missionaries.

Therefore, I am of the strong opinian that in order to set up a true secular state, one can not ignore the demand-supply aspect of religion in the emotional journey and realization of human being and the support system it forms around its follower. If science can not be a part of that realization and support system, it does not serve any significant purpose just by proving God does not exist or religion is vile. There will not be mass taker of rationalism except a few intelligent beings-not enough to form a political force. And unless we are a part of a strong political force, concept of secularism will be out from the self-organization of human society.

In the last century, communism was replacing religion and gaining political power because it was addressing those basic questions that otherwise religion is left to handle. And in the history of mankind, nothing could raise a stronger idea of a true secular state than communism. But it failed because, it misconceived the the question on purpose of life and deviated from the basic method of science that demands that there is no better alternative to democratic system. It is only with the opposing voice, opposing force can be developed which is the most important aspect of dialectic materialism-without it, there can not be any evolution of the society. Also, you can easily see either in communist North Koria or in Cuba, political power is inherited by a family and not the people as promised. You may ask why? Simple, because the purpose of human life is to continue its genetic code and definitely this drive is stronger than the idea of establishing socialism as supreme objective of life! Hence denying this basic purpose of life, we can not build a movement or a political philosophy that would aim to set up a secular state.

We can not expect the people to derive their objective of life from religion and the same person would support man made laws-that is an inherent contradiction of secularism we are trying to promote. And as a result, secularists are losing all over. Hence we have to provide some alternative to religion or else the idea of secularism is destined to lose its political weight.