Thursday, September 5, 2013

A sociologist on religion and secularism

On 27 August 2013, the Jesuit think-tank UCSIA inside Antwerp University (Universitair Centrum Sint-Ignatius Antwerpen) hosted, as part of its series on “Religion, Culture and Society”, a lecture by the sociologist of religion, José Casanova of Georgetown University. He spoke with a heavy Spanish accent about “Types of Secular States and Regimes of Religious Pluralism: USA, India, China”.

Casanova noted a veritable paradigm shift among his colleagues. We live in an era of globalization of both the religions and secularism, and under an increasing familiarity with an Increasing diversity of religions. The scholars are now admitting that their secularization thesis (that modernization would lead to a decrease in religiosity everywhere) is not correct. Religion has adapted and made many gains even in formerly secularized circles and societies. We live in a postsecular world. He also saw a shift in methodology: religious scholarship is increasingly interdisciplinary and studies religion and the secular in their mutual relation.

There are two types of secular state: assertive or aggressive secularism in order to free politics from religion, as in France and now in China; and secularism as the dis- or non-establishing of a state religion, striving for neutrality between the different denominations, as in the US and to a large extent in India.

In Europe, there were since ca. four centuries mostly confessional states under the principle “Cuius region, illius et religio”, i.e. “to whom the region belongs, his is also the religion”. In a certain  sense, this arrangement has continued after the population has largely secularized. This means that while all West-European countries have a large “unchurching”, no country has crossed the line from having Catholicism as the state religion to being in majority Protestant; or vice versa. Many Europeans associate modernization with secularization. So, there has been an unchurching but no conversion. In America, by contrast, many unchurched people joined a religion (or as they call it in the US, a religious “denomination”) after finding a place in American society, and associated it with the progress that America would bring.

On China and India, he introduced himself as a dilettante, a mere sociologist. Let us reassure him: nothing to worry about, with his sociological glasses on  he would not stand out in a typical South-Asian Studies department. There, Sanskrit and classical studies are neglected and shunned (because deemed fostering “Hindu fundamentalism”) while the focus has shifted to studying social groups oppressing or oppressed by caste and other so-called evils of Hindu society. He proposed to concentrate on religion. 

In mainland China, the official policy has been a rejection of religion (“smash temples  and build schools”). In the Marxist scheme of things, religion is part of the childhood of mankind, which we have outgrown in this age of science. Even before China became Communist, the modernizing processes were deemed to be hampered by traditions and religion. These were considered “feudal” vices. Zongjiao, “religion”, is a 19th-century neologism, and strictly denotes a sectarian group. With the reforms of Deng Xiaoping and since, the toleration of religion has gradually increased. Now religion is used to some extent for harmonious social development. Half the Chinese books on religion are less than ten years old. Chinese folk religion or minxin (short for minjian xinyang) , “people’s faith” is the most popular religion in China, in which most people participate to some extent, e.g. by celebrating Chinese New Year. However, the five religions recognized by the state are Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism; others, including native sects such as the “evil sect” of Falungong, are illegal. However, these five are not really equal, for Daoism and Buddhism have a weaker sense of membership (and hence exclusivity and militancy) than the other three. Only 10% of the population is member of a religion. Members of the ruling Communist Party are required to be atheist.

India, by contrast, chose for a mobilization of the religions, as the annihilation of religion was deemed impossible. Religion permeates the whole society and, like in Northern Ireland, religious identity proves very resilient: even a declared atheist, depending on his provenance, is deemed a “Hindu atheist” or a “Muslim atheist”. According to Rajeev Bhargava, India’s secularism is no copy of Western secularism, based on keeping or creating a distance in the relation between religion and the state. Instead, it embraces religion, but tries to keep neutrality between the different religions. Except that it makes a distinction between the majority and the minorities, which get privileged in the Constitution, the laws and political practice, in order to protect them from the majority. Thus, a parliamentary majority involving non-Hindus imposed reforms on Hinduism but does not touch Muslim law. Even Casanova, unlike most Westerners, was aware that India discriminates against the majority.

In fact, India is not a secular state at all. Casanova is a well-meaning but unforewarned Westerner swallowing and reproducing what he is spoon-fed by Bhargava. The latter is a cunning representative of India’s rulers, who has an interest in pretending that India practices “secularism”, and that anything that might seem unsecular to Westerners is due not to a defect in India’s secularism but to the observers being Westerners who don’t understand India’s unique approach to secularism. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

India does not satisfy a minimum definition of a secular state (which means Bhargava and all the other self-described secularists are wrong). This does not follow from Indian secularism being Indian as against Western, but from it being secularism. First of all, a minimum condition of a secular state is that all citizens have to abide by the same laws. In India, by contrast, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Parsis have separate law  codes, at least for marriage, family matters and inheritance. Most parties allow this constitutional non-secularism. The only major party that promises real secularism, i.e. a Common Civil Code, is the Hindu nationalist BJP, which is (paradoxically and counterfactually) accused of being “a threat to Indian secularism”. Secondly, the anti-majority discrimination is not “secular”, and by definition it is not secular in the sense of “neutral” between different worldviews. It is inconceivable that the American Constitution would prohibit a Protestant citizen from becoming President, or any other office. To apply an example really on the statute books in India, it is inconceivable that the American Constitution would allow the religious minorities to set up state-subsidized faith schools but withhold this right from Protestants, forcing Protestants to redefine themselves as a non-Protestant religious minority, the way the Arya Samaj and the Ramakrishna Mission have gone to court to get themselves recognized as non-Hindu minorities.

It may also interest some people that Casanova reaffirmed the observation that conversion is the most revolutionary event, and not only demographic. Among those who are left behind as loyal members of their parental religion, it triggers a crisis as if their central beliefs were overturned. Well, Mahatma Gandhi would have approved, for in Indian society such as it is, conversion cuts families or communities down the middle. For this reason, he was dead against conversion. His opinion that it should be outlawed, however, was overruled by the secularists who took power upon decolonization, for in the Constitution they gave a guarantee of “freedom of religion”, including “propagation” (i.e. missionary activity). This too was a serious discrimination, for implying “propagation” in the free practice of religion accords with the historical experience of Christians and Muslims but not of Hindus or Parsis. Eventhough in Western circles some travelling Gurus have advertised their “path”, Hindus traditionally don’t really propagate, and many communities don’t accept converts. For Parsis, any form of conversion into their religion is excluded. So the freedom to propagate does not count for them. It was only given a place in the Constitution to satisfy Christians and Muslims, the groups served by the secularists.


American said...
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American said...
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American said...

1. India is not a secular state at all. KE, you are spot on. Nor is India a laïcité state.

The word 'secular' is used as a palliative in Indian intellectual discourse, it comforts the Western and domestic listener while ignoring the underlying reality.

The Muslim strategists in India, I am told, seek to enact law that would reserve govt jobs and education opportunities simply because an applicant's religion is Muslim. That such a proposal is even floated speaks how corrupted the concept of 'secularism' has become in India. Why is a poor Muslim more important than an equally poor Christian or poor Hindu or poor Parsi or poor Buddhist or a poor whatever? If such a law is ever enacted, it would be an extreme form of discrimination against Hindus, Christians, etc in India; it will extend India's abuse of all norms of secularism as understood in the West. It will also be the modern equivalent of Jizya - the discriminatory tax laws, humiliation and persecution based on religion that traumatized Indian Hindus from about 12th century until the British Raj replaced Muslim rulers in India. Jizya encouraged and economically forced religious conversion, so would any Muslim-only jobs reservations.

Instead of anti-others and pro-Muslim reservations, India needs to reform its governance, it needs to free its people towards a competitive, merit-empowered, market-driven economy from the corrupt bureaucracy that started in Moghul era, ripened during the British Raj, continued with Fabian Socialists after 1947.

American said...

2. Not only is the word 'secular' misunderstood in India, the word 'caste' too. What is caste? It is a poorly defined, disputed social stratification concept. There is the orientalist definition, the administrative definition, the missionary definition, and so on - pick one based on one's bias and agenda. Some claim caste is segregation where people don't touch or eat or drink with others of a different ritually impure caste; but look at the trains and buses and streets in urban and rural parts of India, they are packed - everyone touching and eating with each other; reality says that stereotype is wrong. Some claim caste is endogamy; but look at the options before the poor; do the boys and girls have the means or opportunity to meet and date and make their own choices? perhaps poverty limits the alternatives and drives the choices on marriages (and arranged marriages are very common far from India, in non-Hindu cultures, e.g. Morocco / sub-Saharan Africa, etc). Some claim caste is a way to inherit occupation; again if schools are few, where and what will a curious, young child learn and become competent in? perhaps poverty limits the alternatives and drives a kid's choices on education and profession. And so on. Perhaps, the force of poverty and necessity not stereotypical precepts of Hinduism are driving the talented people of India.

Vast majority of Indians in 1947 were illiterate. Few could afford food and basic necessities. To assume this poor to have a copy of or have read Manusmriti or the rest, may be assuming too much. Further, Indian Hindus who settled in the numerous Caribbean region nations, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Fiji, Mauritius and so on do not show any of the stereotypical caste aspects, even in state/regions where they are the majority.

This focus on caste has distorted scholars who study India. The effort to study the fog of caste is greater than the effort to study the clarity of Hinduism, sanskrit, Hindu values and ethos. Rare too is the effort to discover and understand how Hindus were affected by the initial violence of Islam from 10th to 14th century, the effect of imposition of slavery on Hindus and destruction of their kingdoms and plunder of their temples in 11th and 12th century, of Jizya, of sharia, of other cultural enforcements by Islamic rulers where 80%+ of officials of government were Muslims, where 95%+ of karja + jizya + ushr + etc taxes collected from Hindus were spent on Muslims and private treasuries of the Islamic rulers. How unproductive is this fog of caste to understanding Hinduism, Hindus and India?

Beyond scholars, the post-independence political focus on caste, through jobs and education reservation plus government economic activity monopoly through socialism, seems to have divided and stratified the people of India, where people form into groups that fight for a piece of a shrinking per capita pie, rather than unite and grow the per capita pie of prosperity.

Gururaj B N said...

Indian secularism is same as minority communalism. Separatism is encouraged in the name of maintaining plurality. No religion can be more pluralist than Hinduism, whereas Abrahamic religions fervently try to impose uniform belief system on all. The Indian Constitution itself itself is disadvantageous to the Hindus, in a country where the Hindus form majority. Government can take over Hindu religious, social and educational institution or interfere with them. But, the Constitution protects minority religious institutions from such State intervention (Articles 25 and 30 of the Constitution). This is the plight of Hindu culture in its country of birth.

Shankar Sharan said...

The comments of American are as educative, and powerful, as the article of Dr Elst. Salute to both of you!

Vraja said...
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Vraja said...
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Vraja said...

Since you talk about conversion, I thought to leave you this link to download my new free ebook on Hindu converts and conversions (to some degree) Monster Hotel: Krishna Consciousness*
*or how I learned to stop worrying and love the new world order

American said...

Those interested in one of several recent scholarly discussion of India and why India is not secular, may want to see this article:

D.D. Acevedo, "Secularism in the Indian Context"
Law & Social Inquiry
Volume 38, Issue 1, pages 138–167, Winter 2013

Unknown said...
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Vraja said...

Koenraad, or others: what do you think was behind the imposition of the current Indian "secular" system? Was it politicians being paid off? Was it people who thought they were doing good for minorities, like the law in America (and other countries - India with scheduled castes) called "affirmative action"?

You said that the current laws were created "to satisfy" the Muslim and Christian communities, what do you mean by that? All Muslims and Christians were trying to be satisfied, or are you implying corrupt submission to powerful interests, e.g. Catholic Church; wealthy Muslims (or gangsters)?

Discrimination against Hindus in comparison to non-Hindus should be foreseen to potentially create conflict of the majority against minorities (which came to pass and is always a powderkeg ready to go off), why would they ignore that? Were they simply under the control of shortsighted non-Hindus, or were they just being foolish with good intentions?

Gururaj B N said...

Reply to Vraj Dev: Main cause of the perverse secularism in India is Pandit Nehru, who was a Hindu and a Brahman by birth only. Culturally he was a muslim, and intellectually a Britisher. He was ashamed of and an antagonist of Hindu heritage. Under his influence, the minorities were given full protection, with no protection whatsoever to majority Hindus from state intervention in their religion and culture. He was also responsible for choosing Buddhist symbols and country's logos rather than Hindu symbols. He equated secularim of India to minority communalism, with no safeguards for Hindu interests.

American said...

Vraja - The hypothesis that makes more sense to me is one that does not involve Nehru, rather goes a few decades back.

The British colonial rulers, not Nehru, gave most of India's current laws. Most civil and criminal laws of India are distortions of British colonial era laws. On religion as source of personal laws, British gave most of its colonies, including India, the book. Indian politicians - like the pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm - copied the book and resembled in action and abuse of India those same British rulers.

There are many laws one can quote. The most relevant here is the 1937 law, which British passed, the so called the Indian Muslim Personal Law (Sharia) Application Act - a law that is, for all practical purposes, still in force in India.

You find similar laws in other British colonies, such as Nigeria. Sharia is the personal law there too for Muslims, while Christians of Nigeria have different personal laws like Hindus of India do.

In every British colony, where this religion-driven unequal laws have continued, the social problems have multiplied. For example, Islamic groups in each of these ex-British Empire countries, even now demand the right to marry a girl 12 year old, even 9 year old. In each of these regions, child marriage rates are highest among the Muslims, year after year.

Of course, Hindu and Christian and others have different personal law, and accept the law about letting the girl grow into an adult woman. But Sharia says pre-pub girls are okay to marry, because Muhammed married his 4th wife A'isha when she was 6, and consummated it when she was 9. The Muslim social activists lecture that any attempts to set 18 as marriage age for brides is un-Islamic. They want the right to marry 13, 12, 9 year olds.

To verify:
1. In India:
2. In Nigeria:
3. etc.

In other words, Nehru and other Indian politicians did not impose pseudo-secularism on India. They merely copied it, without understanding Sharia and other religious laws, without thinking what is the right thing to do to create a just, secular, freedom inspired, open, prosperous nation.

Gururaj B N said...

Reply to post by American dt 16.9.2013, 6.06 am.

I am substantially in agreement with the views expressed in the post. But, that is history which lead to installation of the perverse secularism found nowhere but in India.Insertion of Articles 25 and 30 in the constitution of India, without corresponding protection to Hindu religion and culture, tampering with traditional Hindu law through four major Hindu Law enactments, with no move towards drafting uniform civil code, though enjoined in the Constitution, selection of Buddhist, rather than Hindu images as logos of India, Rejection of Vande Mataram in favour of dubious "Jana gana mana..." as national anthem were all part of Nehru's anti-Hindu ethos. He did these things with the suport of communists, Muslim league, and socialists in the constituent assembly, and subsequently in the elected parliament. Nehru has to take blame for many of the ills now faced by India, especially the Kashmir problem and border dispute with China. He was a person with head in the cloud and his feet nowhere.

American said...

B.N.Gururaj claims, "But, that is history which lead to installation of the perverse secularism found nowhere but in India."

Are you sure it is found nowhere but in India? Indian style pseudo-secularism is found in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania for example - all former British Empire colonies. Can you explain the difference between secularism in India and Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, etc?

FWIW, I am no fan of Nehru. His prime ministership was a tragedy for India. But that is no license to form opinions about "found nowhere but in India".

Gururaj B N said...

This exchange is becoming somewhat unsavory. But, I have no wish to reinvent the wheel by undertaking study of secularism in the countries named by you. At least my statement is true of the mainstream countries. Would be grateful for any enlightenment from you about how the countries named in your comment practice speudo secularism. Bye.

American said...

B.N. Gururaj - My intent wasn't an unsavory twist, but to encourage a more scholarly review of history. Pseudo-secularism is simply not unique to India.

On Nigeria's messed up secularism and the role of British Empire, there is a ton of literature out there. One of the key laws passed by the British, that gave special rights to Muslims in Nigeria was the 1956 Domestic Ordinance. That 1956 ordinance, as with India's 1937 shariat law, corrupted the meaning of secularism in Nigeria. 1960 is when Nigeria gained independence from the British.

See these for reflection and study,
1. Badamasiuy and Okene, Shariah Implementation in Democratic Nigeria: Historical Background & The Quest for Developmental Legality, Journal of Politics and Law Vol. 4, No. 2; September 2011.

2. Sharīa and Christianity in Nigeria: Islam and a 'Secular' State, Joseph Kenny, Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 26, 4 (Nov 1996), pp 338-364

3. See page 21 of the following: The Talibanization of Nigeria : sharia law and religious freedom, Paul Marshall. Link:

Same is true for Kenya, etc.

Steve Finnell said...


Did you ever notice that secularists accept historical writings as fact, unless they are about God the Father, God the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Have you ever heard a secularist proclaim that the following men did not live and that they were not who historians said they were?
Confucius 551-479 B.C.
Plato 427-347 B.C.
Alexander the Great 356-323 B.C.
Julius Caesar 100-44 B.C.
Socrates 469-399 B.C.
Buddha 563-483 B.C.
Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827
Homer 700-800 B.C.
Isaac Newton 1642-1727
Galileo Galilei 1564-1642
Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519
Marco Polo 1254-1324
John Locke 1632-1704
George Washington 1732-1799
Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865

Secularists do not question the historical fact, that these men lived and died. They do not deny the role these men played in history. They believe this, by faith, that the historical accounts are accurate.

Secularists do deny the historical accuracy of the Bible and all other accounts that proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. They deny the historical accounts of God the Father resurrecting Jesus from the grave.

THE RESULTS OF A SELECTIVE VIEW OF HISTORICAL FACTS.(2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.)




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