The concept of Secularism and its relevance in Society
The concept of Secularism and its relevance in Society
The word secular is derived from the Latin word saeculum which means century or age. Saeculum was the profane time and the time of ordinary historical succession, as opposed to sacred time. Time was interwoven with higher times variously called ‘eternity’, the time of the Ideas, or the time of the Origin, or the time of God. Human beings were living in all these times but only some acts, institutions, lives and social forms were more thoroughly directed towards temporal and non-spiritual goals. The term secularism was coined in 1851 by George Jacob Holyoake, a socialist.
The first people-centric definition emphasises the idea of separating religion from politics, economy, education, social life and culture. The purpose of this separation is not to stamp religion out from life but to contain it to the private lives of individuals. A secular state is not supposed to discourage the practice of religion but neither can it base its policies on religion. The ultimate goal is to make religion a personal affair.
Most societies have followers of different faiths and this puts a great responsibility on the state to be neutral. The state-centric definition of secularism emphasises the need to keep the state neutral to all religions. Religious people would like to see the state to show equal regard to all faiths but others may demand the same respect for atheism. The demand normally is that the state must treat all its citizens equally. This means that the state must neither favour nor discriminate against citizens on grounds of their religion.
Secularism, as an ideology, consists of the following five ideas.
- Firstly, it stresses the role of human autonomy. This means that secularism recognises the right of an individual to order her life independent of authority. The Secular Humanist Declaration declares, ‘Secular humanism places trust in human intelligence, rather than divine guidance. Sceptical of theories of theories of redemption, damnation and reincarnation, secular humanist attempts to approach the human situation in realistic terms; human beings are responsible for their own destinies.’
- Secondly, secularism asserts that not only state and laws but family relations, education, morality, knowledge and values are also completely free from the dominance of religion. The specific point in India, according to Marc Gallanter, is not to keep religion out of politics but to keep it out of social relations (Gallanter 1998).
- Thirdly, secularism seeks not just the autonomy of the individual but also the autonomy of reason. Reason is made the sole criteria of truth and this undermines the faith in religion and the authority of the church.
- Fourthly, secularism makes room for the values of pluralism and religious toleration because it does not make any religion final, infallible and beyond rational scrutiny. A plurality of religious world-views is therefore considered natural by secularists and tolerance is an attitude they value towards other religions and value systems.
- Fifthly, secularism is not anti-religion. Instead, it is concerned with the affairs of this world and considers that secular life and knowledge is autonomous (Jhingran 1995: 46-9) People’s Republic of China officially has a policy opposed to religion and going strictly by the definition of secularism, it is not a secular state.
Its relevance in society
Secularism is ‘not an optional extra for a modern democracy,’ it is a necessity. There are several religious and caste groups whose members wish to relate with each other on a pluralist but egalitarian basis. Pluralism existed in India during the medieval times as well but the challenge to pluralism in our times is different. In medieval times hierarchy, and not equality, was the norm. Hence, the diverse religions and cultures had to find their place in the social hierarchy. On the one hand, even a non- Hindu religious group like the Syrian Christians had to be fitted in the caste system as one more jati (Bayly 1989 Ch. 7). On the other hand, the prime source of legitimacy was the force of arms but the conquering groups (like Mughals, Marathas and Sikhs) also tried to exercise cultural hegemony. The ruling, dominant groups would tolerate, even subsidize, different faiths provided the others publicly accepted their power. Bayly found that, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the dominant cultural groups of UP (whether the Muslim gentry in small towns or the Hindu merchants in Benaras) set the limits within which other cultural groups found their rights (Bayly 1983: 335-8). In modern times, all seek equal rights and no one would like to exercise them as a courtesy showered on them after bowing to the power of some dominant cultural group. Hence, there is a demand that the rights of people be equal and that they be engraved in law formulated by popular vote.
Secularisation causes a decline in the social importance of religion and secularism minimises the role of religion in the social and political affairs of society. The important processes of change triggered by secularisation, which comes in tow with modernity, are:
1) withdrawal of religion from such social spheres as education and marriage following a differentiation in institutions, structures and functions;
2) the development of pluralisms at the level of social groups (including religion) and world views;
3) rationalisation as described by Max Weber which refers to the emergence of a scientific, rational world view which ‘disenchants’ society from myths, mysteries, miracle and magic; and
4) the development of critical consciousness that reveals the ideologies hidden in the institutional and belief structures of religion (Alam 2002:106).
It is thought that Gandhi would have wanted the sacred to pervade the secular sphere and Nehru would have nothing to do with it. Facts are very different from this impression. Gandhi was a deeply religious man but he did not want Hinduism to interfere with secular political matters, especially those of State policy. In his My Experiments with Truth he wrote, ‘My devotion to Truth has drawn me into the field of politics… those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics, do not know what religion means.’ (Gandhi, 1929: 591). Gandhi even called his Non-Cooperation Movement, in 1920-21, ‘a religious, purifying movement’ and as a ‘religious effort’ (Young India, 1929: 14). He believed that politics cannot be divorced from politics because he wanted religion to pervade every action of human beings. But, in 1940, Gandhi declared, ‘…Here religion does not mean sectarianism. It means a belief in ordered moral government of the universe…This religion transcends Hinduism, Islam, Christianity etc.’(Harijan, 1940: 177-8).