Is Secularism Good or Bad?
Hindus in India are currently celebrating a weeklong festival that occurs during mid January each year; one that bears social and religious significance and goes by different names depending on the region of the country. These festival days are considered exceptionally auspicious, that people throng to popular pilgrim locations, ancient temples and ‘holy’ rivers for a darshan (glimpse) of their favorite dieties. VIPs such as political leaders, movie stars, business magnates and people who can afford offerings of significant financial proportions receive preferential treatment in these ‘holy’ places. Today’s front page headlines carried the news that a person with underworld connections found in the company of two political leaders, was treated ‘royally’ and instead of just one, was able to have two darshans. Religious Mafia; that’s hard to even imagine. The second page of the newspaper had a picture and a half-page article of the Governor of a State being allowed the privilege of performing a puja (ritual) in the same renowned temple in South India; a deeply religious politician.
To a foreigner these practices that are part and parcel of Indian daily life may seem peculiar while I am looking at these seemingly weird happenings in the light of my current reading of A Secular Age by Charles Taylor; seeking meaning and understanding of the concept in my context of life and ministry. Spiritual roots go deep in the Indian culture and remains entwined in every part of daily life; from that vantage point, it may be said that India is still at the point which Taylor describes as “virtually impossible not to believe in God” (Taylor 2007); a culture that is still religiously ‘embedded’ and ‘enchanted’. Unfortunately, this condition poses a complex set of problems for the political structure of the nation, dividing it on religious and communal lines.
Taylor writes from a Western and Christian standpoint tracing the history and evolution of secularity to its present state in the Western world. The main question he poses at the very outset, “What is it that has taken the Western society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others,” provides a substantial summary of his central thesis. He goes on further with this theme, “There are many now for whom belief in God is no longer axiomatic. They have alternatives. And this will also likely mean that at least in certain miliewx it may be hard to sustain one’s faith (Taylor 2007).” How does this translate in the Indian context?
India is constitutionally declared a secular democracy; however, secularism as defined in this context is slightly different from that which Charles Taylor discusses in his book The Secular Age. In the Indian context secularism implies tolerance and acceptance of all religions and the provision of equal space to every faith in the social and political sphere. Both, the meaning and the sentiment behind the use of the term in India is conveyed well in Mahatma Gandhi’s words: “I do not expect India of my dreams to develop one religion, i.e., to be wholly Hindu or wholly Christian or wholly Mussalman (sic), but I want it to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side with one another. (Secularism in India n.d.).”
During the time of the struggle for national freedom from colonialism, ‘secularism’ emerged as a dominant theme and a principle underpinning the cause. History reveals that along with the struggle for freedom there was an equally if not greater struggle to build and maintain such secularism. However, in the pluralistic context in which India finds herself in, it has been a difficult, complex and arduous task of social leaders then and now. For secularism in the spirit of India’s constitution to be restored is a dire need and that is the heartcry of the Indian Church. Having said all this, I must add in closing, the Church has a great responsibility to live out its faith in real life. While the West mourns the birth of secularism, the East mourns its death; what a paradox. In Rudyard Kipling’s classic words: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgement Seat.
Bateman, Chris. 2008. http://onlyagame.typepad.com/only a game/2008/09/a-secular-age/ (accessed January 14, 20014).
Morgan, Michael. http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/23696-a-secular-age/2008 (accessed Jan 14, 2014).
Secularism in India.
Taylor, Charles. A secular age. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press, 2007.
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