Godless States in God Lands: Dilemmas of Secularism in America and India

God and Politics in America and India

This essay tells the tale of two religious nationalisms: Christian nationalism in America that has found a welcome home in the Republican Party and George W. Bush’s two administrations, and Hindu nationalism in India which always had a welcome home in BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), the party that ruled the country, off and on, through the 1990s until 2004. Christian nationalists declare the United States of America to be a Christian nation, its land God’s New Jerusalem, and its destiny to spread liberty around the world. Hindu nationalists, for their part, proclaim India to be a Hindu nation, its land the body of the mother Goddess, and its destiny to spread spiritual enlightenment around the world.

Despite vast differences – even rivalries – in their theologies and global ambitions, the two seek very similar goals for their own societies: to replace the secular underpinnings of laws with religious values of their “God Lands.”[1]They may or may not have lists of “fundamentals” to defend, but they share the religious maximalist mindset of any card-carrying fundamentalist, that is, they insist that religion ought to permeate all aspects of social and political life, indeed, all of human existence. The religious maximalists are not shy about harnessing the power of modern technologies and global capitalism to revitalize and popularize their religious traditions with an eye on acquiring political power, and in turn, using that political power to further religionize their civil societies. What makes religious nationalists exceptionally powerful – and dangerous – is their ability to transfer people’s unconditional reverence for God to the nation, and to use people’s religiosity to sanctify the nation’s policies, even including those condoning violence against presumed enemies of the nation and God.[2]

As a secular woman of Indian origin who has called America home for many years, I have had the unenviable experience of witnessing the slow drift toward religious nationalism in both of my countries. Just as I was getting ready to celebrate the unexpected defeat of Hindu extremists in my native country in the spring of 2004, I had to contend with election rallies that looked like revival meetings in my adopted country.

God, of course, did not have to wait until 2004 to get a starring role in American politics. American presidents from both parties have routinely invoked God while conducting their official duties. But this election was different. The unabashed electioneering for George W. Bush by churches stunned even the most seasoned observers of American politics. Evangelical leaders held weekly meetings with Bush’s re-election committee (which was led by none other than Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition), and thousands of churches encouraged their congregations to “vote their Christian values,” which Bush made a great show of wearing on his sleeve. (In all fairness, Bush did not start this trend. He was following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan who actively wooed Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority through his two terms). Bush’s re-election in 2004 was decided by a large turn-out of born-again Protestants who joined hands with the most conservative elements of Catholics, Jews and other “people of faith” to wage a war against the Islamic “evil-doers” abroad, and the godless secularist-humanists, feminists and gays at home. Even though Bush has personally refrained from calling America a Christian nation, he has appointed men and women in key positions who would be only too happy to have the Good Book dictate the laws of the land. Recently, he has endorsed the teaching of intelligent design in public schools, adding to the many attempts of his administration to let faith decide matters of science policy.[3]

Having only recently observed the political machinations of the Hindu right in India, I can’t avoid a strong sense of déjà vu. Bush Jr., it seems to me, is the genial face of Christian nationalism, just as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the former Indian prime minister, was the poetic face of Hindu nationalism. The Republican Party is fast becoming a political front of the Christian right, while the BJP has always been the political front of the Hindu right party, RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). The Protestant ministers and Catholic priests who actively engaged in political campaigns form their pulpits, were no different from the “holy” men and women who rallied for Hindutva causes in countless political “pilgrimages.” The Christian right’s enthusiasm for bringing intelligent design into public schools is not much different from the Hindu right’s successful bid to introduce Vedic astrology in colleges and universities. What is more, the slow erosion of America’s Great Wall separating faith and politics is sowing the seeds of same kinds of religious strife that have festered under India’s wall-less model of secularism: India’s dismal record of religious discord is what lies ahead for the America of “faith-based initiatives.” (While free from the overt Hindu nationalism of BJP, at least for now, India is far from free from the faith-inflected politics that even the supposedly “secular” parties routinely indulge in. The Hindu right lost the last election due to shifting political alliances with regional parties, but the cultural wellsprings that feed Hindutva have not ceased to exist and grow.)

Another commonality that troubled me was how easy it was for the religious right to substitute faith for evidence, and to manipulate public discourse in a manner worthy of Orwell’s 1984. In his second inaugural address, for example, George Bush invoked “freedom” 27 times and “liberty” 12 times, all the time turning them into God’s chosen destiny for America and the world.[4] Bush’s paean to Americans’ God-given love for liberty hid the dismal reality of creeping curtailments of civil liberties at home and the shameful abuses of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. The situation reminded me of the flowery rhetoric we heard in India celebrating the “innate tolerance” and “natural secularism” of Hindus, even when Hindu mobs were tearing down the Babri masjid in Ayodhya or killing Muslims in riots in Bombay and Gujarat.

The blatant mixing of god and country in America woke me up from my intellectual slumbers. I had already seen the bankruptcy of the Indian “wheel-of-law” model of secularism. But now I had to accept that the American “wall-of-separation” was not as sturdy as I had once imagined.

Christian and Hindu Nationalism: Differences and Similarities

These concerns led me to undertake this rather unusual comparative study of secularism, secularization and Enlightenment in the United States and India. Why is it, I began to ask, that secular constitutions in both countries have been unable to prevent overt religionization of the public sphere? Why is it that all the forces of modernization, notably the growth of scientific education and research – India, after all, boasts of third largest scientific work force in the world – have not led to a commensurate growth of secular cultures in these societies, as compared to others at similar levels of development? Is it even realistic to expect elected representatives to keep religion out of the public sphere where large majorities of citizens profess fairly high levels of conventional, super-naturalistic religiosity? These are some of the questions I try to answer in this essay.

I admit that comparing India and America is a bit like comparing apples and oranges: the two societies are at different levels of economic and technological development, and their cultures, religions and histories are entirely different. America was born new, without any history of feudalism: respect for individual liberties and civic egalitarianism have deep roots in the religious and cultural heritage of American society, even though ideologies of racism and “manifest destiny” prevented the extension of liberty and equality to Black slaves and Native Americans. India, on the other hand, has had to contend with a heavy burden of caste, feudal and colonial hierarchies, overlaid on each other: even the most professionalized, contract-based, technologically modern sectors of Indian society continue to exhibit caste-like master-servant relations.[5] And then there are the obvious differences in socio-economic development. While India is fast becoming a major player in the global economy, 83 percent of its people still make a living in the informal sector, where work and social relations are largely regulated through customary laws of caste and gender.[6]

But, despite these very substantial differences, religious nationalism has come to play a significant role in the politics of both the countries. American nationalism can be, and often is, incredibly ugly in its self-righteous belief in its own innocence and nobility in serving the cause of “freedom.” But it is also incredibly attractive in its ability to assimilate people from all over the world into an American creed of individual liberties, democracy, rule of law and cultural-political (but not economic) egalitarianism. Christian Coalition and other like-minded groups do not reject the American creed but attribute its greatness and exceptionalism to Judeo-Christian values. Unlike the old racist, anti-catholic WASP American nationalists like the Ku Klux Klan, today’s Christian nationalists welcome Black, Hispanic and Asian Christians, Catholics, Jews and even people of other faiths who are willing to stand with them against modern, secular and humanistic ideals. What is more, they attribute the cultural malaise in America to the godless-secularist cabal of Darwinists and multiculturalists who have imposed their supposedly hedonistic and immoral values on the rest of the society. They want to “take back” America for Christianity in order to restore its greatness.[7]

In comparison to the universalistic, melting-pot image of the American creed, Hindu nationalism may appear as too parochial and too driven by ancient ethnic and religious rivalries. But under the surface of religious hatreds – which are real– there is another dimension of the cultural war in India which is not very different from the Christian undercurrents in America. Hindu nationalists want to defend the invented myth of India as the cradle of democracy, tolerance, science and spiritualism, and they are committed to the view that this “Indian exceptionalism” is due to Vedic-“Aryan” Hindu culture and values. Conversely, they ascribe all the many problems of backwardness of Indian society to the non-Vedic, “Semitic monotheistic” religions (Islam and Christianity) which came to India from outside. To that end, they stridently declare that “the Hindu society is the national society of India… Any culture that is not prepared to come to terms with Hindu culture has to go… There is no place for Islam or Christianity… Indian Muslims and Christians will have to be rescued from the prison-house of Islam and Christianity, form the dark dungeons of deadening fanaticism ….and brought back into the Hindu fold.”[8] The monotheistic “outsiders” can live in India if they accept Hindu culture as their own: thus, Hindu fanatics are willing to accept those Muslims and Christians who adopt upper-caste Hindu cultural tastes in vegetarianism, yoga, classical music and such. Like their Christian counterparts in America, moreover, Hindu nationalists want to “take back” India for Hinduism from a cabal of “colonized minds” of secularists, liberals and Marxists who they see as traitors to the Hindu nation.

Sources of Religious Nationalism: The God Gap between States and Citizens

There is one feature of the polity of both countries that can explain the emergence and the appeal of religious nationalism: both are deeply religious societies with secular constitutions that forbid the state from adopting any official religion. If America is “India governed by Sweden,”[9] well, then, so is India! How the “god-gap” between the political doctrine and the worldview, the constitutional laws and the cultural mores, has allowed religious nationalism to flourish is what I have tried to explain in this essay.

All available data clearly show that the citizens in both countries remain literally awash in faith. A recent World Values Survey reported an identical proportion – 94 percent – of those surveyed in both countries professing belief in God.[10] As countless travelers will attest, the first thing that strikes visitors to both countries is the large number of places of worship dotting the landscape. The recent census in India reports 2.4 million places of worship, against only 1.5 million schools and half as many hospitals.[11] Thanks to constitutional freedoms, moreover, both countries have thriving spiritual marketplaces, where all kinds of new religious movements continue to blossom. India now has a new generation of “tele-yogis” who can more than match American televangelists in their sales pitch for god and country.

But, for all these exceptionally high indicators of popular religiosity, the state is supposed to indifferent to religion altogether (as in the US) or to any one religion over others (as in India). The Jeffersonian wall of separation promised in the First Amendment of the American Constitution is well known. But what is less well known is that India provides a competing model of secularism which also promises complete freedom of religion and conscience to all citizens, but does that without erecting a wall of separation between religion and the state. Indian Constitution allows the state to promote and interfere with the secular aspects of religious laws, practices and institutions, as long as it does not play favorites among different religious faiths. (More on the Indian model in the next section).

This well-known god-gap between the citizens and the state is largely treated as a non-issue in the social science literature. The conventional wisdom is that secular states can emerge, and even thrive, in deeply religious societies. A secular state, we have been told, should not be confused with secularization of the civil society and the consciousness of the citizens. According to a much-cited definition by Donald E. Smith, state is considered secular as long as it “guarantees individual and corporate freedoms of religion, deals with the individual as a citizen irrespective of his religion, is not constitutionally connected to a particular religion, nor seeks either to promote or interfere with religion.”[12] As long as a state is constitutionally committed to these ideals, and has legal and political safeguards to enforce them, it is technically a secular state. Religiosity of the citizens in their private lives is taken to be irrelevant to the functioning of such states. What is more, classical sociologists of religion, from Max Weber, (the early) Peter Berger to Steve Bruce more recently, have suggested that once a state in a modern industrial society (capitalist or socialist) adopts a secular constitution, the social significance of religion begins to decline which, in turn, erodes the plausibility of the supernatural in the minds of individuals. The infrastructure of modernity is supposed to create, pretty much by its own accord, as Peter Berger put it in his classic, the Sacred Canopy, “a liberated territory” populated by “an increasing number of individuals who look upon their world and their own lives without the benefit of religious interpretation.”[13]

I find this neat and tidy distinction between secularism as a constitutional principle and secularization of the worldview not very satisfying. Yes, I can see that deeply religious people can agree to give themselves Godless constitutions for purely strategic-political reasons: indeed, creation of modern democratic nation-states which respect the equality of all citizens before the law requires a privatization of faith. I can also agree that societies with deeply religious people need not necessarily become authoritarian theocracies: religious beliefs can help sustain a regard for justice, human rights and democracy. In itself, religiosity is not the enemy of good, peaceable and just societies.

But while religious beliefs do not necessarily breed theocracies, religious maximalist movements do seem to have a better chance of taking root in societies with high levels of popular religiosity. Societies where significant majorities (as in our two cases) claim to derive their sense of rights and wrongs from their conceptions of God can be more easily mobilized to support the religious maximalist agendas of true believers who want to solve the perceived problems of their societies by bringing this higher power to bear on the laws and policies of the land. For example, would such a large proportion of American public have supported Bush’s “faith-based initiatives” or voted for public referenda barring gay marriages without a faith-based view of society and personal relationships? Would so many middle-class Indians have supported state funding for astrology, religious ceremonies in public places, temple building and such if they did not believe in the religious merit of such rituals? As long as divine revelations or spiritual laws continue to be invoked as the basis for morality in the private sphere, it is unreasonable to expect a diminution of God-talk from the public sphere. In other words, the care and maintenance of secular states requires secularization of culture. Without deep enough roots in secular civic cultures, secular states will remain at a risk of being hijacked by traditionalist and nationalist forces.

In the rest of this essay, I will defend the priority of secularization of the civil society over secularism as the operating principle of the state. The first section will examine how secularism and science were co-opted into the dominant religious commonsense. The next section will look at how high levels of popular religiosity provide a fertile soil for religionization of politics and politicization of religions. In the final section, I will argue for a new Enlightenment that respects the legitimate rights of conscience and freedom of religion, acknowledges the place of religion in the public sphere, but denies it any special claim on morality, knowledge and public policy: Religion can enter the public sphere provided it answers to the same rules of publicly accessible evidence and reason that apply to all other participants in the public sphere.

Secular States, Religious Citizens: The Co-option of the Enlightenment

The creation of secular states marked a break from the state control of churches in America and from the institution of caste in India. But in both cases, this revolutionary innovation in politics was not accompanied by a corresponding revolution in beliefs. Rather, both witnessed a “village enlightenment” in which Enlightenment ideals of anti-supernaturalism, empiricism and religious toleration were used to validate, rather than challenge, the traditional religious beliefs in the existence of supra-sensory power that lies beyond this world but yet intervenes in it.[14] In both countries, moreover, the votaries of a skeptical, rationalist tradition who believed that the affairs of human beings should be governed by a reliance on reason and evidence adduced from the natural world – the “freethinkers,” to use Susan Jacoby’s felicitous name for them[15] – have remained in a minority. The quiet assimilation of rationalist/secularist impulse into religious metaphysics is the key for understanding the paradoxical phenomenon of secularism without secularization of beliefs.

Many misconceptions abound regarding the origin of the secular state in America. Liberal origin-stories describe the American Constitution as the fulfillment of the Enlightenment, while conservatives see its lack of reference to God as proof that religious faith was so “self-evident” and so firmly entrenched in the American society to require any imprimatur of government.[16] Indians have their own misconceptions about American-style secularism. There are well-known Indian social scientists who believe that the American model of separation of state and society is a “gift of Christianity” and therefore unsuited for a Hindu India. And then there are notable Hindu ideologues who argue that only intolerant, superstitious “creeds” like Christianity and Islam need to be kept out of the affairs of the state, but not the “innately” tolerant and rational Hinduism.[17]

Far from being a straightforward “gift” or a “curse” of Christianity, there were equally devout Christians on both sides of the debate over church-state separation in America. A careful reading of the US history reveals a complex alliance of the more numerous devout evangelical Christians (Baptists and Methodists, mostly) with the handful of freethinkers (deists and Unitarians, mostly). While the evangelicals detested the rationalist and deist Christianity of Thomas Jefferson and condemned Thomas Paine as an atheist, they nevertheless helped to ratify the Constitution which barred a religious test for office holders (Article 6 of the US Constitution) and prohibited the state from any direct interference and/or promotion of religion (the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights). They favored disestablishment in part out of their theological belief that it was blasphemous for the state to do God’s work, and partly out of a fear of persecution from a church backed by state power. (Baptists had good reason to champion the separation of church and state for they had been persecuted by the Anglican Church back in England and were not much liked by the Puritans who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony). Whereas Jefferson, Madison, Paine and other more secularist founders were more concerned with the corrupting influences of faith on politics, their evangelical supporters were more worried about the power of the state to regulate their religion. While Baptists, Methodists and other evangelicals championed the cause of the American Revolution against the British, and worked hard to ratify the Constitution, they understood the Jeffersonian wall of separation as a one-way wall, meant to keep out the “wilderness of the state from the garden of religion.”[18]

The irony is that the same groups of evangelical “awakeners” who helped to ratify the secular constitution also turned out to be one of the most influential and lasting sources of anti-intellectualism in the new republic. In his 1962 classic, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter has given a vivid description of how the two Great Awakenings led by Baptists and Methodists led to an “uprising” against the designated freethinkers and the tradition of science and learning that existed in the mainline Protestant churches (which were at that time, the patrons science at Harvard and Yale). The evangelicals taught a simple religion of the heart: all you needed to be saved was to be “born again” and to read the Bible. Anyone could do that without getting bogged down in learned disputations in theology or metaphysics.

This form of Christianity spread widely because it was more conducive to the anti-authoritarian and anti-aristocratic sensibilities of the farmers and craftsmen settling the Westward frontier. The slave population in the south responded especially well to the Baptist revivals as they gave them an opportunity to establish their own churches, led by their own preachers. The revivals changed the religious geography of the country: by the end of the eighteenth century, Baptists and Methodists far outnumbered the Puritans and the Anglicans. The trend has continued into the present era: evangelical churches are growing more rapidly than the more liberal, mainline denominations.

However, even as they encouraged religious enthusiasms, often aided by faith-healing and miracles, evangelical preachers proclaimed a great love for science of their times (that is, the period between the American Revolution and the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859). As long as the mechanical philosophy that informed Newtonian science was not used to propagate skepticism and secularism, American churches remained enthusiastic in its support. Here they were following in the long tradition of Protestant scientists (including Newton and Boyle), who believed that by studying nature they were revealing God’s laws. What is more, their Protestant belief in omnipotence of God led them to oppose the Aristotelian scholasticism which assigned quasi-divine intelligence to matter. This helped to them to accept a purely naturalistic, mechanical understanding of matter and forces on religious grounds. Through most of the 18th and 19th centuries, leading Christian scientists and ministers in America were able to accept perfectly secular, naturalistic explanations of disease (small pox), natural disasters (earthquakes), and creation of the solar system and geology of the earth, while interpreting the natural laws as creation of God. A two tiered worldview remained the norm, with laws of nature below, supporting super-natural beliefs above: God became the creator not of individual objects found in nature, but of the laws which nature followed on its own. Thus even when a Creator God became irrelevant to the actual practice of science, He was retained as the ultimate source of nature’s laws.[19]

This apologetic natural theology suffered serious setbacks through the so called “golden age” of secular thought (roughly the period after the Civil War to the end of the First World War). This was the Gilded Age when America underwent large scale industrialization and urbanization. And it was also when Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species (1859). Most mainline churches fitted Darwin into their two-storied theology: they accepted natural selection as the mechanism that God chose to create the living world. But Darwin had created serious doubts in the minds of leading intellectuals and scientists about the need for God as the ultimate creator of natural laws. Highly regarded public intellectuals like John Dewey, George Santayna, John Herman Randall and Robert Ingersoll tried to popularize a new conception of knowledge that substituted the metaphysical absolutes of received traditions with an empirically adequate, albeit uncertain and forever changing conception of truth.[20]

The current upswing of intelligent design and theistic science is a reaction against the thinning of the supernatural and the fraying of the two-storied model of accommodating naturalistic science with God. It is a throwback to the old habit of using science in an apologetic mode. In the present context, when the religious conservatives are aggressively seeking political power to enforce their theological views on public policy, there is a great danger of God entering science classrooms where He does not belong.

Indian secularism, too, bears the marks of strategic alliances between secular humanists, and those who derive their view of secularism and democracy from neo-Hinduism. What makes the Indian case interesting is how neo-Hindu reformers have borrowed modern ideals of democracy, secularism and modern science, but claimed – against all known historical facts – that far superior, “holistic” versions of these modern values had always existed in the “Golden Age” of Vedic Hinduism, dating back to the beginning of time itself. For example, the historical fact that the original Vedic Hinduism was a religion of caste hierarchy – the very obverse of what we today understand by democracy – is countered by neo-Hindus who insist that the “integral humanism” of the institutions of Varna or caste is a “deeper” form of democracy that avoids the class warfare and alienation of the West. The objection that Vedic Hinduism, in fact, valued mystical intuition over sensory knowledge – the very obverse of empiricism that is the hall mark of modern science – is denied by claiming mysticism to be a “higher” more “holistic” form of empiricism. Thus, while neo-Hindu nationalists have happily borrowed liberal-secular ideas from the West, they have knitted them into the traditional weltanschauung to create a potent myth of Hinduism’s “innate” democratic and pluralistic spirit, and its “inherent” rationality. This cultural habit of strategically laying a priority-claim for “the Vedas” on whatever is considered prestigious in the West is the key to understanding both the success of India’s brand of secularism, and the Hindu chauvinism that it perpetuates.

If a “wall of separation” is the metaphor for the American model of negative secularism, the “wheel of law,” is the metaphor for India’s positive secularism. The Indian model allows the state to both censor and promote the many religions of the land, as long as it does not play favorites. It is neutrality and even-handedness – dharma nirpekshta – and not indifference to religion that makes India secular. This principle is literally embossed on the Indian flag in the form of Dharma Chakra, or the wheel of law, which symbolizes the idea of sarva dharma sambhava, or “equal respect for all religions.” The idea is that just as a wheel moves because all the spokes are of equal length, the Indian state will be even-handed and impartial toward different religious faiths.[21] Within this requirement of impartiality, the Indian state is free to rewrite religious laws of all faiths if their social consequences contradict the principles of democracy: the institution of caste, which has religious sanction, for example, was declared unconstitutional at the founding of the republic. On the “positive” side, the Indian government is allowed to provide funds – equally, for all religions– for pilgrimages, maintaining places of worship and running schools and other social-service agencies operated by “faith-based” organizations.

The Indian model was a hybrid product of secular humanism and neo-Hindu revivalism. On the secularist side were democratic socialists like Jawaharlal Nehru and B. R. Ambedkar and radical humanists like M.N. Roy who believed that a rational reform of Hindu worldview as a prerequisite for social progress. The revivalists were inspired by neo-Hindu ideas of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi and others, who believed that a regeneration of the supposedly tolerant and benevolent Vedic “Golden Age” was a prerequisite for social progress.

The Indian version of secularism satisfied the need for social reform, without distancing the state from it and without encouraging a rational critique of religion through public schools and other cultural agencies. The Indian constitution gives the state the right to censor those secular aspects of religious practices that interfered with the fundamental right of equality of all citizens (especially caste, which stood in the way of creating a democratic nation state), while continuing with the old Hindu tradition of state acting as the protector and promoter of faith. Any remaining doubts about the essential Hindu-ness of the new constitution were assuaged by presenting the principle of “equal respect” as a modern version of ancient Hindu tolerance for, and belief in, the equal worth of all religions.[22]

The Indian model of secularism has worked, after a fashion. Probably because secularism was presented as a part of Hindu heritage, Hindu religious leaders (to their credit) did not resist the constitution’s disestablishment of the Hindu institution of caste. But the price has been enormous: the Indian state has happily played vote-bank politics with religion. For all the pious professions of neutrality, Hinduism has served as the de facto civil religion of the state, including the well known cases of Indira Gandhi, Jayalalitha and other political figures routinely worshipping in temples in their official capacity, and in turn, getting ritually worshipped in temples as divine incarnations. Politicians continue to indulge in conspicuous acts of ritualistic religiosity, and yet retain their “secular” credentials by indulging the religious rituals and superstitions of all faiths. On the other hand, it is an undeniable and shameful fact that the state has given in to conservative Muslim opinion and refrained from intervening in the retrograde elements of the Islamic personal law. This has given a good excuse to the Hindu right to rage against “pseudo secularism” and to demand the creation of a Hindu state which will withdraw all constitutionally granted freedoms for Islam and Christianity by declaring them “alien political ideologies.”[23]

The problem with equating secularism with “innate” Hindu “tolerance” is that in reality Hindus have never treated other religions to be as true as Hinduism. Instead predominant Hindu creed has been, to quote Achin Vanaik, an astute critic of Hindutva, “you have your truth, and I have mine, but mine is the deepest truth.”[24] While Hinduism allows different levels and approaches to truth, it places the pantheistic God of Vedanta at the top. While Hindu nationalists continue to make much of Hindu pluralism, they have lately begun to openly assert the doctrinal superiority of Hinduism over “Semitic” monotheistic faiths. They want the Indian state to openly embrace the traditional role of “dharma rakshak ” (protector of dharma), to promote Hinduism at home and around the world so that India can fulfill its destiny as the “jagat guru” (guru to the world).[25]

If secularism has been subsumed into a romanticized version of Hinduism’s hierarchical pluralism, modern science – one of the most important forces for secularization – has been subsumed into the spiritual metaphysics of the Vedas and Vedanta. It has become an article of faith among modern Hindu intellectuals that Hinduism is the “universal religion of the future” because it is “not in conflict with modern science,” or better still, is “just another name” for modern science. Indeed, this myth has become one more reason to condemn Islam and Christianity as faith-based and irrational “creeds” as compared to the reasoned, evidence-based, “scientific” truths of Hinduism. Whereas the assimilation of science into a natural theology in America was primarily motivated by a concern to fight disbelief and skepticism, the assimilation of science into Hinduism has always had a strong nationalistic impulse to establish the superiority of Hinduism.

The problem is that the picture of the world that the Hindu apologists defend as having anticipated and/or being affirmed by modern science has nothing that any respectable, mainstream scientist would recognize as scientific at all. What is being affirmed is the idealistic metaphysics of Vedanta which views the objective world of matter as a by-product, or an epiphenomenon, of disembodied, immaterial consciousness that Hindus call “Brahman.” This is a world where natural objects have a quasi-divine intelligence and purpose embodied in them, and where, in the words of Deepak Chopra, “human desire or intention is a force in nature, just as gravity is a force in nature, or electromagnetism is a force in nature”[26] (Deepak Chopra has amassed a fortune by teaching that we can literally will our bodies to stay ageless and healthy). Finding parallels between this supra-natural or paranormal worldview and quasi-mystical interpretations of modern quantum physics, neo-vitalistic biology of mavericks like Rupert Sheldrake, holistic theories of Gaia and other New Age fantasies has become an abiding preoccupation of Hindu apologists. Unfortunately, the postmodernist vogue of alternative sciences, the feminist and deep ecologist championing of re-enchantment of science have played a negative role by giving legitimacy to the worldview of Vedic sciences.[27]

To conclude this section, disestablishment in India and the US was not accompanied with disenchantment thanks, in part, to the assimilation of science into the religious commonsense of both societies. The assimilative, “village enlightenments” in both societies have contributed to the persistence of super-naturalistic worldview, even while allowing advanced scientific research to go on unhindered by the religious establishment. God has been kept in play by turning science into a prop for Him or It (Vedantic Brahman being an impersonal force). Because the religious establishment presented itself as the guardian and champion of science, educated middle classes in America and India, including scientists, engineers and other professionals, did not develop a vested interest in combating the super/supra-naturalistic worldview that science was being absorbed into. The result has been a compartmentalization between high science and technology in the labs, without any significant displacement of unscientific beliefs and practices in the rest of the society.

Popular religiosity and religionization of politics

Having established that secularism without secularization is possible, I now want to demonstrate that it is not sustainable. Contrary to social theorists who support secularism as a sound constitutional principle but who are suspicious of any critique of religion as disrespectful of the common people’s faith, reason and courage,[28] I believe that a critical engagement with the content and logic of religious metaphysics is a necessary condition for the long-term survival of secular states. As the experience of the world’s largest and the world’s oldest democracies shows, democratic elections alone, without a concomitant decline in religiosity, can deliver power to conservative and nationalistic religious movements. In societies like India and America where capitalist technological modernization has not brought about a corresponding decline of the level and intensity of religiosity, secular public intellectuals and scientists may have a special responsibility to argue on behalf of a secular worldview.

The role of religiosity in religious political movements has been highlighted by Nikki Keddie, the well-known historian of Islam. Why is it, Keddie asks, that Canada, so close to its southern neighbor culturally and economically, is relatively free from an aggressive Christian fundamentalism? And why is China, a non-Christian emerging economy, not very different from India, relatively free from strong religio-political movements? She believes that the difference lies in the levels of popular religiosity:

Significant religious political movements …tend to occur only where in recent decades (whatever the distant past) religions with supernatural and theistic contents are believed in, or strongly identified with, by a large proportion of the population…Either … a high percentage of the population identifies with the basic tenets of its religious tradition regarding its god or gods, its scriptural texts and so forth.. or/and there is a widespread quasi-nationalistic identification with one’s religious community as against other communities.” (emphases in the original)[29]

The 2004 presidential elections in the US provide strong support for Keddie’s hypothesis that religiosity, or faith, can act as a political force in its own right. According to the influential Pew Center’s Trends 2005, neither class, nor ethnicity or denominational affiliation, but the degree of religiosity decided the voting pattern:

the political fault-lines in the American religious landscape do not run along denominational lines, but cut across them. That is, they are defined by religious outlook rather than denominational labels…. Traditionalists, whether evangelicals, mainline or Catholic, are more likely to be Republicans, while those who are eager to adapt their faith to modern beliefs or who are secular are more likely to be democratic ” (Emphasis added).[30]

All available data shows that traditionalist trends have been gaining ground in American Christianity in recent decades. The more conservative evangelical churches have been growing at the expense of more liberal denominations. A higher proportion of believers are beginning to profess faith in the afterlife, divine judgment, possibility of miracles and the efficacy of prayer. Not only have traditional religious beliefs grown in intensity through the 1990s, the faithful also seem to have lost their earlier inhibitions about keeping faith out of the public sphere. In 1996, a significant majority (54 percent over 43 percent) believed that churches should take a stand on political issues, a complete reversal of the response for the same question in 1968. The new alignment in religious landscape of America is that of the religious intense in all traditional faiths against the secular culture. In that fight, the more traditionalist believers are only too keen on allowing the churches to get involved in the affairs of the state.[31]

The growth in the intensity of traditional beliefs obviously does not automatically mean a growth in the fundamentalist style of religiosity. Indeed, more in-depth interviews with believers of varying religiosity show that most American still prefer a “quiet faith,” which shies away from religious extremism and values toleration and individual freedom in matters of conscience: even the most devout are not about to establish a state-supported church that enforces Christian piety on all.[32] But the growing intensity of traditional religiosity does suggest a greater sympathy for conservative social values, including a faith in America’s Manifest Destiny. The Pew Foundation’s Trends 2005 clearly shows that those who attend church more frequently are significantly more opposed to gay marriages and stem cells research, two of the hot-button social issues that George Bush pushed with great deftness in the 2004 presidential campaign.

Observers from Alexis de Tocqueville to Samuel Huntington in our own times have noted, to quote Huntington, “countries and individuals who are more religious tend to be more nationalistic.”[33] The polling data reported by Trends 2005 confirm a far greater level for support for the Iraq war and the “war on terror” among the more devout, as compared to the less committed and liberal Christians. There is a long history of Americans seeing their country in messianic terms with a sacred mission to save the world. It is for this reason Americans have by and large bought into George Bush’s equation of 9/11 terrorists as enemies of civilization itself. This self-image of their nation as a redeemer nation, as literally doing God’s work of spreading the light of liberty around the world constitutes the one of the deepest irony of American history in which the impulse for the good turns into a force for imperialism and militarism.

India is another country where popular religiosity tends to merge seamlessly into national pride, both of which are crassly exploited by the Hindu right to stoke the flames of a blood-and-soil variety of nationalism. Hindu nationalists literally deify the landmass of “Greater India” (which includes all of South Asia and parts of South-East Asia as well) as the homeland “Vedic Aryans,” to whom the universal and eternal laws of the cosmos were revealed. This hardcore “Hindu nation” ideology has appropriated and encouraged public worship of the idols and images of Bharat Mata (Mother India) in which the geographical contours of India merge into the body of a traditional Hindu goddess. It is commonplace in “secular” India – even under the “secular” Congress – to see such starkly Hindu nationalist imagery openly and proudly displayed in government offices, police stations and even on university campuses. In public spaces so over-charged with Hindu symbols, the promise of equal citizenship without regard to creed becomes meaningless.[34]

Hinduization of the public sphere is the “Operation Slow Poison,” an every-day “indoctrination amidst bhajans (hymns), seduction in the midst of festive processions” to use Meena Kandasamy’s very apt description.[35] Bharat Mata is only a recent goddess, whose invention dates back to the early 20th century anti-colonial nationalism. Hindutva forces have systematically targeted popular religious festivals celebrating old and beloved gods like Ganesh, and Ram and goddess Durga for political purposes. The agitation that led to the demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 was given the trappings of a religious pilgrimage. The festival celebrating Ganesh, which used to be a popular but private affair in Tamil Nadu, for example, has become a massive public spectacle. The castes and tribes long considered “unclean” and “uncivilized” are being inducted into public worship of Ganesh, Ram and other deities and then deployed as foot-soldiers in the periodic riots that break out against Muslims and Christians.[36]

The link between religiosity and Hindutva is not limited to idol-worship and popular festivals. The more elite, “intellectual” Hindus who prefer gurus with more eclectic mix of old and new Hindu doctrines were no less supportive of Hindutva’s cultural agenda, or immune from its chauvinism. Charismatic gurus including Sat Sai Baba, Amritanandmayi (Amma), Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, to say nothing of numerous tele-yogis, all lent their full support to the Hindu nationalist agenda when they were in power.[37]

It is an article of faith among progressive intellectuals in India to defend the religious beliefs of ordinary people (good) while condemning the religious nationalist expressions of the faith (bad). To question the content of the myths and the metaphysics that underpin popular religiosity is considered to be in bad taste, a sign of the “colonial mind” of the critic. Rationalists are exhorted to counter “bad Hindutva” with “good Hinduism,” as if popular Hindu beliefs and practices have nothing to do with Hindu nationalism.

But it is not so clear at all that popular religiosity itself is so politically innocent. For all their differences, the psychological and behavioral manifestations of Hinduism and Hindutva are nearly identical. Yes, of course, Hindutva is not a religious movement, for it is not in the business of salvation of souls, or in the business of spreading god-awareness. It is in the business of acquiring power in order to bring its version of militant Hinduism as a blue-print for state policies. But to an average Hindu, the religious iconography, allegories and millenarianism (Ram Rajya) that Hindu nationalists use in their political mobilizations appear indistinguishable from the real thing. Conversely, the scriptural beliefs and myths of popular Hinduism make the Hindutva ideology to appear plausible, noble and worthy of defense to a vast majority of Hindus. This does not mean that ordinary believers are full of nationalistic passions, or that they can only be aroused to political action on religious grounds. All it means is that traditional religiosity of the voters remains a potential resource that political parties can freely mobilize for electoral gains.

Secular culture for secular democracies

What is to be done? It is easy for secularists to despair, as in America these days, or to celebrate too soon, as in India where the Hindu right lost the last election. There is also the temptation to mobilize a “religious left” that can invoke sacred books for social justice, peace and the environment. The idea is to use “good’ religion to wean people away from “bad” religion, invoke the “real” faith to challenge those who would turn it into an “ideology” for war and hatred.

There is no doubt at all that the secularists need to get religion right, but that does not mean that they must get religion. It is time for all thinking people to take religion seriously, not as false consciousness, not as a left-over superstition from the past, but as a necessary dimension of human life which answers a nearly universal need for finding transcendent purpose in life and death. This need for meaning that can dignify existential struggles of everyday life, and overcome the fear of death, is integral to human existence. Secularists must learn to respect this need for sacred meaning, and not rush to condemn every expression of religiosity as a sign of backwardness or superstition.

But while it is important to give faith its due, faith, too, must give reason its due. A secular society must respect religion, but only within the limits of reason. The reach of reason must extend to all empirical claims that derive from faith in the super-natural/spiritual entities and the sacred teachings derived from them, everywhere, whether in the public or in the private sphere, in the labs but also in the temples and churches. A wall of separation between reason and faith must go up in the minds of citizens first, in order for the wall of separation to work in society.

In practical terms, this means a revival of the forgotten rationalist-skeptical elements of the secularist project represented by Jefferson, Paine and the later pragmatist-secularists in America and by Nehru, Ambedkar and Roy in India. Their secularist project was not just a matter of laws and rules, but a matter of intellectual conviction. It was born of an inquiring attitude toward religion, aware of the great harm dogmatism in the name of God or the “eternal truths” of dharma has caused through history through the wars of conquest and colonialism or through the passive-aggressive violence aggression of caste institutions.

Secularism as a worldview does not mean rejecting all sense of the sacred that transcends the profane world of here-and-now. But it does mean divesting the sacred of the right to make existence claims about entities which supposedly act in nature – soul, spiritual “energy,” reincarnation, miracles, to name a few. Or to put it more precisely, secularism means reserving the right to demand the same level of evidentiary support we demand for other empirical beliefs for religious propositions which claim to represent some actual entities or processes in the actual world. As long as the God of religions is supposed to be present in the world of space and time accessible to ordinary human senses, He/She/It has to be able to stand up to the same level of scrutiny as any other claim about empirical phenomena like chairs, or DNA or atoms.

The defense of secularism in our times must start with a defense of scientific reason itself. In recent times, modern science has come in for harsh and unwarranted criticism from the postmodern left for serving the ends of colonial and patriarchal powers that oppress the marginalized social groups. Modern science, according to its “radical” critics, is a social construct that makes the dominant interpretations of nature appear as if they were facts of nature. This radical skepticism toward the content of modern science has resulted in calls for “alternative sciences” which will produce benign and socially progressive picture of nature form the standpoint of the non-dominant social groups. This enterprise of social construction of alternative accounts of nature has been a terrible diversion from the task of confronting the growing forces of reactionary religiosity. What is worse, this postmodernist deconstruction of science is very hospitable to the defenders of intelligent design in America who have been using very similar arguments to condemn naturalism of Darwinian evolution as a social construct of secular elites. And as I have been arguing, the spread of postmodernist, anti-Enlightenment ideas in India have left Indian critics of Hindu nationalists with no tools to counter the Hindu nationalist propaganda for “Vedic sciences.”[38]

In conclusion, the future of secular societies depends upon the cultivation of secular culture. Scientists and freethinkers have no choice but to get more deeply engaged with the religious commonsense of our times.

This article was first published by the Swedish magazine Axess in an issue on Enlightenment and is republished here by permission. Meera Nanda is a biologist and philosopher of science; she has written many articles for Butterflies and Wheels. She is the author of Prophets Facing Backward.

1. Conor Cruise O’Brien, God Land: Reflections on Religion and Nationalism. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1988).

2. For fundamentalism as religious maximalism, see Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion after September 11 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). For fundamentalism as strong religion, see Gabriel Almond, R. Scott Appleby and Emmanuel Sivan, Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalism around the World. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). For religionization of politics, see Mark Jurgensmeyer, The New Cold War?: Religious Nationalism confronts the Secular State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

3. On the 2004 US elections, see Barna Organization, “Born-again Christians were a significant factor in President Bush’s re-election” http://www.brana.org. See also, “Evangelicals say they led charge for the GOP,” Washington Post, Nov. 8, 2004. Deborah Cladwell, “Did God intervene?: Evangelicals are crediting God with securing the re-election of George W. Bush,” http:///www.Beliefnet.com. On the influence of religious right on the Bush administration, Chris Mooney, “W.’s Christian Nation,” The American Prospect, Vol. 14, no. 6, June 1, 2003; Karen Tumulty and Matthew Copper, “What does Bush owe the Religious Right? Time, Feb 7, 2005. On the influence of religious right on Bush’s science policy, see Esther Kaplan, With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy and Democracy in George Bush’s White House. (New York, Free Press, 2004).

4. For an annotated transcript of Bush’s inaugural speech, see Deborah Caldwell, “Decoding Bush’s God-Talk” on Beliefnet.com.

5. To quote Pratap Bhanu Mehta: “Master-servant relationship, rather than being superceded, is the paradigm of most social relations in India.” See his The Burden of Democracy (New Delhi: Penguin India, 2003), p. 89.

6. Barbara Harriss-White, India’s Market Society: Three Essays in Political Economy (New Delhi: Three Essays Collective, 2005).

7. For the many contradictions of American nationalism, Anatol Lieven, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (New York, Oxford University Press, 2004).

8. Sita Ram Goel, India’s Secularism: New Name for National Subversion (New Delhi: Voice of India, 1999)pp. 64, 67.

9. Quoted here from Gregory Treverton et al, “Exploring Religious Conflict” (The Rand Corporation: National Security Research Foundation, 2005) available at http://www.rand.org.

10. Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). p. 90. The World Values Survey (1981-2001) asked the question “Do you believe in God?”

11. Data quoted here from Pavan Varma, Being Indian (Delhi: Penguin India), p.96.

12. Donald Eugene Smith, “India as a Secular State,” in Secularism and Its Critics, Rajeev Bhargava, ed. (Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 178.

13. Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy (New York: Doubleday, 1967). Pp. 129, 108. Steve Bruce, God is Dead: Secularization in the West (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002).

14. Craig James Hazen, Village Enlightenment in America: Popular Religion and Science in the 19th Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000).

15. Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (New York: Henry Holt, 2004).

16. For two competing accounts, see Issac Kramnick and R. L. Moore, The Godless Constitution: The Case against Religious Correctness (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997) and Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads of Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments (New York: Knopf, 2005).

17. T.N. Madan, “Secularism in its place,” in Secularism and its Critics, ed. Rajeev Bhargava (New Delih: Oxford University Press, 1998), See also, N.S. Rajaram, Secularism: The New Mask of Fundamentalism (New Dehli: Voice of India, 1995).

18. For a comprehensive account of the religious history of early America, see George Marsden, Religion and American Culture (New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1990).

19. See Ronald Numbers, “Science without God: Natural Laws and Christian Beliefs” in When Science and Christianity Meet, eds., David Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), George Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William Eerdmans Co., 1991).

20. For a critical appreciation of the influence of naturalism on American religion, see William Shea’s The Naturalists and the Supernatural (Mercer University Press, 1984).

21. Gary Jeffrey Jacobsohn, The Wheel of Law: India’s Secularism in Comparative Constitutional Context. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003). Jacobsohn points out that the Dharma Chakra was modeled after the Emperor Ashoka’s (b. 256 BCE) use of the charka on his famous pillar at Sarnath.

22. A more detailed treatment is available in my book, The Wrongs of the Religious Right: Reflections on Science, Secularism and Hindutva (New Delhi: Three Essays Collective, 2005).

23. Sita Ram Goel, India’s Secularism: New Name for National Subversion (New Delhi: Voice of India. 1999), S. Gurumurthy, Eternal India and the Constitution (New Delhi: India First Foundation, 2005).

24. Achin Vanaik, Communalism Contested: Religion, Modernity and Secularization (New Delhi: Vistaar), p. 149.

25. Frank Morales, “Does Hinduism Teach that All Religions Are the Same?: A Philosophical Critique of Radical Universalism,” at the www.dharmacentral.com.

26. Interview with Deepak Chopra in John David Ebert, Twilight of the Clockwork God (Tulsa: Council Oak Books, 1999), p. 135.

27. This is a very large subject. I have examined some aspects of Vedic science in my previous work, especially the Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodernism, Science and Hindu Nationalism (New Bruswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003).

28. Rajeev Bhargava, “What is secularism for?” in Secularism and its Critics, ed. Rajeev Bhargava (New Delhi: Oxford University Press,1998), pp.486-543. See also Stephen Carter’s God’s Name in Vain. (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

29. Nikki Keddie, The New Religious Politics: Where, When and Why do “Fundamentalisms” Appear? Comparative Study of Society and History, 40(1998): 696-723.

30. Pew Center for Religion and Public Life, 2005. Religion and Public life: A Faith-based partisan divide, Trends 2005. Available at http://www.pewforum.org.

31. Andrew Kohut et al. The Diminishing Divide: Religion’s Changing Role in American Politics. (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2000). See also, see Jeffery Rosen, “Is Nothing Secular?” New York Times Magazine, January 30, 2000.

32. See Alan Wolfe’s One Nation After All (New York: Penguin Books, 1998).

33. Samuel Huntington, “Dead Souls: the Denationalization of American Elite.” The National Interest, March 22, 2004.

34. For India as the cradle and/or nursery of the “Aryans,” see Vasant Kaiwar, “The Aryan Model of History and the Oriental Renaissance” in Antinomies of Modernity, eds. Vasant Kaiwar and Sucheta Mazumdar, (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2005). For the cult of Bharat Mata in contemporary India, see Lise McKean, Divine Enterprise: Gurus and the Hindu Nationalist Movement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

35. Meena Kandasamy, “Dangerous Cacophony,” Communalism Combat, Nov.-Dec. 2004, Vol. 11, No.103, pp. 22-34.

36. Chris Fuller, The Renewal of the Priesthood (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003). See also Kandsamy for a vivid description of many newly minted “timeless traditions,” note 35.

37. See John Harriss, “When a Great Tradition Globalizes: Reflections on two studies of the “Industrial leaders” of Madras, Modern Asian Studies, 37 (2003): 327-362.

38. For how postmodernism aids theistic science, see Robert Pennock, The Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against New Creationism (Boston: MIT Press, 2000. For a demystification of social constructivist relativization of natural science, see Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense, Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (New York: Picador USA, 1998).

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