Friday, October 21, 2011

Political ideals vs. religious practices

Secularism: Its content and context - The Immanent Frame by Akeel Bilgrami on Oct 20, 2011 8:29 PM

It should be possible to think that a devout Muslim or Christian or Hindu can be committed to keeping some aspects of the reach of his religion out of the polity, without altogether giving up on being a Muslim, Christian, or Hindu. And it seems natural today to express that thought by saying that such a person, for all his devoutness, is committed to secularism. And one can say this while noticing and saying something that it is also natural to think and say: such a devout person, in being devout, is holding out against the tendencies unleashed by the long social and ideational processes of secularization. And we can appreciate the naturalness of this restriction of the term ‘secularism’ to the polity when we observe that the slogan ‘separation of church and state’ (which, whatever we think of it, is part of what is conveyed to many by the ordinary usage of the term ‘secularism’) allows one the church, even as it separates it from the state, or, more generally, from the polity. If we did not believe that the term was to be restricted in this way, we would either have to collapse secularism with secularization or—if we insisted on some more subtle difference between those two terms—we would have to invent another term altogether (a term that has no cognate relation to this family of terms—secular, secularization, secularism) to capture the aspiration of a polity to seek relative independence from a society’s religiosity. ...
Secularism as a political doctrine arose to repair what were perceived as damages that flowed from historical harms that were, in turn, perceived as owing, in some broad sense, to religion. Thus, for instance, when it is said that secularism had as its vast cradle the prolonged and internecine religious conflicts in Europe of some centuries ago, something like this normative force of serving goods and correcting harms is detectably implied. But if all this is right, then it follows that one would have to equally grant that, should there be contexts in which those goods were not seen necessarily to be goods, or to the extent that those goods were being well served by political arrangements that were not secularist, or to the extent that there were no existing harms, actual or potential, that secularism would be correcting, then one could take the opposing normative stance and fail to see the point and rationale for secularism. ...
Charles Taylor has convincingly argued that in a religiously plural society, secularism should be adopted on the basis of what Rawls called an ‘overlapping consensus.’ An overlapping consensus, in Rawls’s understanding of that term, is a consensus on some policy that is arrived at by people with very different moral and religious and political commitments, who sign on to the policy from within their differing points of view, and therefore on possibly very different grounds from each other. It contrasts with the idea that when one converges on a policy one must all do so for the same reason. ...

In a very interesting recent paper, Charles Taylor, has argued that we need to redefine ‘secularism.’ ... In modern societies, we seek various goods and the three in particular (echoing the trio of goods expressed in a familiar slogan) that remain relevant to secular aspirations are, the liberty of worship, the equality of different faiths, and finally, more than just equality, we need to give each faith a voice in determining the shape of the society, so there must be fraternal relations within which negotiations, with each voice being equally heard, is crucial. What is more, because the first aspect’s stress on separation of church and state was too focused on religion, the second aspect’s stress on religious diversity should be modified and expanded to include the fact that in late modernity, the diversity of pluralist societies contains not just a variety of religious people, but non-religious people as well. Their point of view must also be included in the mix. All this is now included in the idea and ideal of a redefined secularism. ...

I propose, then, something like the following non-arbitrary stipulation as a characterization of secularism that contains all of the three features I had mentioned at the outset.

(S): Should we be living in a religiously plural society, secularism requires that all religions should have the privilege of free exercise and be evenhandedly treated except when a religion’s practices are inconsistent with the ideals that a polity seeks to achieve (ideals, often, though not always, enshrined in stated fundamental rights and other constitutional commitments) in which case there is a lexical ordering in which the political ideals are placed first. Much commentary is needed on this minimal and basic characterization.

Redefining the Secular in Indian Society from SAHMAT NEWS 

Sukumar Muralidharan

IT is a word that has been tossed around in political contests and minutely dissected in scholarly circles. But “secularism” still remains an elusive concept. And in practice, “secular” politics is besieged at a number of levels, unable at any time to rise above particular, sectional interests.
An event on December 7, organised by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) and Social Scientist, was the occasion for a scholarly inquiry into the deeper meanings and definitions of the “secular” in Indian society. There are numerous --- and mostly irreconcilable --- definitions already in circulation. December 7 became, for this reason, an exercise in redefinition and rediscovery, in retrieving a principle from depths of conceptual confusion.
The event had to be organised on December 7 as it was the Muharram on December 6, the anniversary of Babri Masjid demolition. [...]

Secularism accorded priority to the political values of liberty and equality, over the codes of duty and obedience ordained by religion. Concluding the discussion, Prabhat Patnaik argued that what is often taken to be the purely ethical impulse towards freedom has a basis in reason. Every individual has a rational cause to struggle for freedom as part of a human collective, since nobody can call himself free while there are many who are unfree.
This collective endeavour for freedom fosters the domain of the “secular.” It creates the community that strives for a transcendence of narrower values imposed by religion. But it is threatened by the forces of reaction which seek to impose an order based on religious values. More subtly, the bourgeois order which retains a formal commitment to secularism, may seek to engineer schisms in the collective struggle for freedom, reducing each individual to an atomised existence, impelling him in turn to seek an anchorage in an older, familiar network of religious community.
The denial of human freedom then is the logical course of a bourgeois political order which exalts an individual’s seeming gain at the expense of society, as the ultimate benchmark of achievement. With the untold riches foretold on that pathway now proving illusory and the world order built on the unfettered and unaccountable rampage of finance capital in palpable crisis, the forces of reaction seem poised to resume their push towards absolute political power. A redefinition of the secular in Indian society is clearly a political programme of surpassing urgency.