Friday, February 6, 2009

Secular form of Asian political institutions often masks a religious spirit

A Secular Age: Discerning the religious spirit of secular states in Asia posted by Richard Madsen

In his monumental book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor distinguishes three meanings of secularism, as it refers to the “North Atlantic societies” of Western Europe and North America.

  • The first meaning is political. In this sense, secularism refers to political arrangements that make the state neutral with regard to religious belief. The legitimacy of the government is not dependent on religious belief and the government does not privilege any particular religious community (or any community of non-believers).
  • The second meaning of secularism can be termed sociological. It refers to a widespread decline of religious belief and practice among ordinary people.
  • The third meaning is cultural. It refers to a change in the conditions of belief, “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”

In the North Atlantic world, all governments are (for all practical purposes) secular in the first sense, Western Europe, but not the United States, is secular in the second sense, and all societies are secular in the third sense. Taylor tells the story of how the three modes of secularism have developed throughout the course of Western history and of how they have mutually influenced one another. He is especially concerned with the third mode, the development of secular conditions of belief.

Can this analytic framework be applied outside of the North Atlantic world, particularly to Asian societies? Taylor himself would not claim to have created a framework for a universal theory of comparative religion. But this framework, grounded in a particular cultural and historical experience, may nonetheless be useful for cross cultural comparisons. [...] But the secular form of Asian political institutions often masks a religious spirit. Some examples:

  • Japan has a secular constitution, but many of its government leaders have felt compelled to pray for the spirits of the war dead at the Yasakuni shrine. The pressure to visit the shrine comes from nationalistic constituencies within Japan, but it is indeed a pressure to worship at a Shinto shrine, presided over by a priest, which purports not just to memorialize the names of the dead but actually to contain their spirits. (Japan’s Asian neighbors are more upset about this than Americans. Could this be because Asians take more seriously the living presence of spirits of the dead?)
  • Through its “Vigilant Center” at the Ministry of Culture, the government of Thailand is supposed to protect the nation’s culture and values by, among other things, keeping people from using images of the Buddha for profane purposes.
  • The Indonesian government is based on a national ideology of “Pancansila,” which proclaims a national unity based upon mutual tolerance among believers in an “Almighty Divine.”
  • And even the government in China, which is supposedly led by the atheist Communist Party, takes it upon itself to carry out religious functions. It has claimed the right to determine who is the true re-incarnation of the Panchen Lama (and will undoubtedly do the same for the next re-incarnation of the Dalai Lama). It claims to be able to determine the difference between true religion and “evil cults,” and tries to root out even private belief in “evil cults” like Falungong. Moreover, the Chinese government invests enormous amounts of money in spectacular public rituals, like the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, which are redolent with symbols of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. [...]

Political secularization, in Taylor’s sense, therefore is a reasonably accurate way to describe the formal structure of most East and Southeast Asian states. But it doesn’t adequately describe the interior spirit of these states, which must be comprehended through a closer examination of how these states have developed within modern history. Taylor’s account of political secularization does, however, help us pose the questions of how the external forms and interior spirit of modern Asian states have interacted with one another and what have been the practical consequences of this interaction.

It would be beyond the scope of this post to give a full account of the development of Asian states. But as we consider the development of the social and cultural life within some Asian societies, we can get some sense of how these societies and cultures have been influenced by the interplay between secular form and religious substance within their states. In my next two posts, I will explore the extent to which Asian states and societies have followed Taylor’s path to social and cultural secularization.

[Editor's note: This post draws from a draft chapter for the SSRC's forthcoming publication, Rethinking Secularism, co-edited by Mark Juergensmeyer, Craig Calhoun, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen.] Madsen R. Discerning the religious spirit of secular states in Asia. The Immanent Frame. 2009. This entry was posted on Thursday, February 5th, 2009 at 10:40 am and is filed under A Secular Age.

Tusar N. Mohapatra: February 6th, 2009 at 2:29 am
[India is not a secular state. Indian state actually privileges Hinduism over other religionsI demonstrate that in practice, Indian state actually privileges Hinduism over other religions and religious communities. The Indian state is in fact the defender of the dharma for the following five reasons... For all these five reasons, India is not a secular state. It is in fact the defender of Hindu dharma. Hyderabad-born, MIT-based Omar Khalidi is the author of Muslims in Indian Economy and Khaki and Ethnic Violence in India. Why India Is Not A Secular State: Omar Khalidi 8:39 PM]

Mirror of Tomorrow :: Beyond Religion: Perspective of the . However, we shall see that spirituality itself has to evolve and become a higher spiritual adventure and a new discovery ringing in a new era of knowledge without the possibility of error, a creative and supremely effective power and bliss without the shadow of suffering. Religion in the West hardly admits the free seeking of the aspiring human mind.

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