Thoughts on economics and liberty

Religion to be severed from Politics

And now for a guest post by Ujjwal Banerjee, a member of the Freedom Team of India. Ujjwal was a finalist in the 2007 ‘Lead India’ contest and works in the Akanksha Foundation. This write-up by Ujjwal was published in Towards a Great India, January 2009.

FTI has produced a policy on religious freedom, which is worth examining if you haven't seen it yet.

As usual, I invite readers of this blog to consider leading India to freedom. Join FTI.


History feeds the present and the present feeds the future. Unless we consciously try to understand the present in the light of the past and do it without any bias, we may not be able to get a true picture of where we need to correct ourselves.

Considering the fact that the country is as much familiar to riots in the name of religion as much as kids are familiar with the game of cricket, its a matter of serious thought to understand what keeps our society in a perpetual state of war within. These riots are simply external manifestations of deep rooted hatred that lurks in the minds of people. And each riot gives birth to lakhs of minds which decide to take this negative spirit ahead probably in a different context may be in a different time frame. But it surely emerges. 

Riots have happened. Media has covered them enthusiastically with exuberant histrionics and at the end of it all the guilty go scot free. Politicians continue their games. Citizens continue to live with their religious frenzy.

This entire situation throws open two important questions. One, effect of combining religion with politics and second which also is related to the first, the role played by citizens in general in perpetuating this state of affairs.

The communal division in the name of religion has always been soft soil for political groups. As much as it is easy to gain mileage out of this display of a party’s inclination towards a certain religious group, it’s a dirty game which has benefited none.  

One, it draws the attention of people away from things which actually should matter to them in terms of good governance and good services and  second, it keeps the nation divided.

The other important aspect is the role played by citizens as they use discriminatory attitudes in their interactions in the society. Some of the simple examples like hesitating to rent a space to a person from the minority community, discrimination in enrolment of students, looking at a job seeker with skepticism etc lead to a state where an individual feels victimized and to him the State appears to be conspiring to make him stay in that position of powerlessness.

This kind of attitude leads to marginalization and extreme hatred which gets manifested in different forms. At times such frustrated people might become the most eligible candidates for the extremely dangerous religious teachers or else terrorist groups which are hatching the plan of the next attack in the name of religion.

There are no easy answers to changing from this state where we are in today. 

As a society, we should be extremely cautious about the way we understand the differences of birth and how they define our attitudes towards other people. The only understanding which can really help a phenomenally segregated society such as ours is to accept religion as a means to human and societal betterment through pursuit of righteousness.

If we go by that understanding, the politicians would be compelled to explain their policies on core issues of development and we as a society would measure them on the number of children they are able to educate, the jobs they create, the number of hours of electricity they are able to provide etc. Whether they provide party tickets to yoga experts or attend Iftaar parties wearing skull caps, will not be of anyone’s concern.

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2 thoughts on “Religion to be severed from Politics
  1. Sharad Bailur

    An abridged version of this article was published by the Indian Express:
    Towards Assertive Secularism
    Sharad Bailur

    The controversy about Sethusamudram and the BJP's cry of "Blasphemy" brought to the fore a number of issues that need to be seen clearly. First and foremost, all religions are intolerant – some more so; some less; the book religions –Christianity, Islam and Judaism, that encourage proselytisation and conversion – more than others. Unfortunately a majority of the world’s people claim to adhere to the beliefs set out by them. And because we adhere to them we fight over our differing beliefs. We have done so for thousands of years and we have killed millions of our own in the process. No religion is non-violent. Jainism is an exception.

    We in India had better accept this and deal with it in the true spirit of secularism. Or else there could be nemesis waiting. As Jinnah famously asked Mahatma Gandhi,  " Do you want a civil war in India?".

    Second, all these thousands of years we have fought using our hands, fists and later more sophisticated armament. Unfortunately we have reached a stage where it is now possible for us to annihilate mankind itself in the defence of our beliefs. What is more important? Belief – right or wrong, or the survival of mankind? Apparently belief. To quote Sam Harris from his book "The End of Faith – Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason" : “Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one.”

    Third, it does not call for only illiterate and uneducated people to hold strong religious beliefs. Even highly educated Nobel Prize winners in Physics do. When Weinberg and Salaam won the Nobel for Physics some years ago they got hundreds of congratulatory telephone calls. Among them one call to Abdus Salaam asked what his first action was when he had heard about his winning the prize. He replied: “ I went down on my knees to thank Allah”. Intellectual schizophrenia ensures that you can “have your reason and eat it too.” , as Harris says. And it affects the best of us.

    Those who have religious predilections point out that "Science" does not have answers to everything. Quite. The first man who understood science in the spirit in which it was meant to be understood was Socrates who insisted: "I do not know". He was probably one of the first known intellectual agnostics, along with Gautam Buddha. Not only does Science not have answers to everything, it does not claim any such ability. It is merely the halting, tentative, some times mistaken, attempt at finding answers many of which are probably provisional. Science often stumbles and just as often takes a long time correcting itself. It never claimed it would do it any other way. The methods employed by Science are neither esoteric nor mysterious. They do not even claim to have the genius of inspiration, God given or otherwise, behind them. But the answers that they lead to are sustainable in a consistent manner, verifiable and can be experienced by everybody. If, as Sir Karl Popper says, they are subsequently "falsified", they fall down and another explanation becomes necessary. It is a painful process, because it calls for mental effort.

    In saying that Science does not have answers to everything what my friend was implying was that something obviously non-scientific like religion, does. Religion revolves around myth, legend and scripture, all without exception, expounded thousands of years ago, when our ability to understand the world around us was almost non-existent. Accepting a set of beliefs without testing them or verifying them does not call for mental effort. Religion is universally popular because it encourages this mental laziness. As Bertrand Russell said, it is little more than the suppression of the "Will to Doubt". In fact religion has been singularly unsuccessful in explaining, in testable terms, any phenomena that one can think of.

    Does this mean that because of Science, we understand our world better today? Perhaps not as well as we should like to. But we do understand it better than we did thousands of years ago – and the credit for this goes to Science and scientific thinking – not to religion.


    Personal moderation:

    Harris is particularly harsh on religious moderates in his book. He says: “The only reason anyone is “moderate” in matters of faith these days is that he has assimilated some of the fruits of the last two thousand years of human thought (democratic politics, scientific advancement on every front, concern for human rights, an end to cultural and geographical isolation, etc). The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside. The moderation that we see among non-fundamentalists is not some sign that faith itself has evolved; it is rather the product of the many hammer blows of modernity that have exposed certain tenets of faith to doubt. Not the least among these developments has been the emergence of our tendency to value evidence and to be convinced by a proposition to the degree that there is evidence for it…Religious moderation springs from the fact that even the least educated person among us simply knows more about certain matters than anyone did thousands of years ago – and much of this knowledge is incompatible with scripture…Concessions to modernity do not in the least suggest that faith is compatible with reason or that religious traditions are in principle open to new learning: it is just that the utility of ignoring (or “reinterpreting”) certain articles of faith is now overwhelming.”

    Then again, he adds, "the moderate, from the point of view of the literalist, is little more than a failed fundamentalist…The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism.” This was the point that I have also repeatedly made. Why were no fatwas enacted by moderate Muslims anywhere in the world against those who perpetrated 9/11?

    He goes on: “We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivalled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us…it is simply a form of capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing to do with God…. By failing to live by the letter of the texts, and tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally…. Religious moderation represents a failure to criticize the unreasonable and dangerous certainty of others." He goes on: “We must begin speaking freely about what is really in these holy books of ours… A close study of these books and of history, demonstrates that there is no act of cruelty so appalling that it cannot be justified, or even mandated by recourse to their pages. It is only by the most acrobatic avoidance of passages whose canonicity has never been in doubt that we can escape murdering one another outright for the glory of God.”

    Public Moderation:

    This brings me to religious moderation in public life or Secularism as it is drummed up to be in India. It is necessary to remove the cobwebs and the heat and dust around this term. Everybody in India who is not a child below the age of three, or incarcerated in a lunatic asylum, knows that, "Equal Respect for all Religions", is a blatantly hypocritical proposition. It is little more than an attempt to run away from the problem, to push it under the carpet. If you respect one religion, you cannot respect any other. It is that simple. Secularism does NOT mean equal respect to all religions.

    The modern version of the concept of Secularism stems from the separation of the Church and the State: Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's. It also goes back into ancient Hindu belief in which the Brahmin priest and rishi did not rule the country. He merely led the people in their spiritual needs.

    When our leaders talk of "Equal Respect to All Religions", what in reality is being asked is this: "Irrespective of your beliefs – however immoderate they might be, you should, at least in public, pretend to “show respect“ for the other person’s religion. You are free to hold immoderate beliefs. But please be a little hypocritical and pretend that the other fellow’s beliefs make sense." This is the personal part. What people say in private about religions other than their own or the people who follow them, however, is strong enough to burn your ears off.  How long before this private conviction becomes public action?

    Now the public face: "Or at least please don’t do anything that will provoke him." Apparently religious people have a divine right to get provoked more easily than those who follow no faith.   In effect, they have an implied right to foment and cause riots. This is at the individual level. At a group level it encourages bad blood between competing forms of obscurantism and is therefore responsible for actually causing religious riots. Apparently, "Equal Respect to all Religions", also protects religionists from getting provoked, so that they don't give in to the temptation to kill their neighbour who happens to subscribe to a different religion!

    In discussions about religion all Secularists in India sedulously skirt around the problem to avoid “giving offence” to religionists. This is little other than pusillanimity or worse, outright poltroonism. Everybody respects the religionist's right to give offence in “defence” of his faith. You have a right to get angry in defence of unreason. But I do not have a corresponding right to defend reason. By implication unreason is respectable, and should be respected and reason is not and should not be respected. Unfortunately this is what "Equal Respect to All Religions" means.

    Has anyone seen the call to Jehad by the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba the moment the month of Ramzan started? What is the common illiterate Muslim to make of it? Since it comes from his religion's leaders he will follow the call blindly. How can he be blamed? How many people are aware that since Pakistan is a proud member of the Muslim Ummah, or the world Muslim community, the apology tendered by the captain of the Pakistan cricket team on television to the Muslims of the world for losing the Twenty20 final against India was perfectly justified according to the Quran and the Hadith? He was not being offensive, either to the Muslims of India, whom he probably regards with religious contempt for not being a part of the Muslim Ummah, or to those who did not subscribe to his faith. One noticed  a number of "outraged" letters to the editor in various newspapers on the matter from Indian Muslims. Their authors have either not read their Quran or they have not understood it. Or, like the BJP, they were merely trying to be "super-patriotic".

    Unfortunately the word “Secular” is enshrined in our Constitution, in the Preamble, no less, which gives it rather more than recommendatory status. Unfortunately also it is not clearly defined. This has been further vitiated by people in high office publicly endorsing their own religions. When a President or a Prime Minister attends a public religious ceremony of a particular religion it is not just the person who does so but the office that he occupies that does so. He then has to, for the peace of mind of those who do not follow his religious convictions, say that he respects their religious convictions just as much as he does his own. If only a law could be brought in, that said that once a person occupies a high office he should not attend a public religious ceremony so long as he is in office, it might solve this problem. He should, of course, be free, as a citizen of this country, to pray to his various gods in the privacy of a room, preferably behind closed doors, in the Rashtrapati Bhavan or the residence of whichever august office that his position entitles him to. His Fundamental Right of the freedom to practice any religion would be respected. It is this absence of definition that has led to politically correct expressions like "Equal Respect to all Religions".

    Besides, "Equal Respect to all Religions", can be deliberately misunderstood to mean that all religions are encouraged –  “respect” being the operative word. And this is precisely what has happened. We therefore have temple bells clanging away, to the cacophony of which is added the call to prayer over a loudspeaker and church bells sounding louder still because their sounds are amplified by loudspeakers.  This, in effect, is competitive obscurantism.

    Another aspect: Atheists and agnostics must somehow, one way or another, don the colours of one religion or another to secure the protection of the Constitution since the equal respect is for religions, not for opinions that tell you that all religions are rubbish.

    Religionists of all colours hate secular people and agnostics,  more than they hate people of other religions. The real reason for Pakistan's rulers insisting that they can do business with the BJP, not with the Congress, stems from this hatred of secular ideas. The reason: When two sets of people believe in two different kinds of rubbish, each can point out to the rubbish the other believes in. When one set goes by reason the other has no argument to fall back on, save foaming at the mouth, or worse indulging in violence. It is this fear of physical violence, in other words it is plain cowardice, that makes Secularists push this genie of obscurantism under the carpet.

    As Bertrand Russell says in his famous "Sceptical Essays": “The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good grounds exist; indeed the passion is a measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction.” Reason is never passionate. Unreason and faith always are.

    The secular person can only be heard above the din of unreason if he maintains a sustained campaign in favour of reason and secularism. We need a more assertive Secularism in India in favour of liberal values and against religious obscurantism of any colour.   It is time secular people stood up and told the rest that what they are doing goes against their freedom to live in peace. And it is time the Constitution openly stood by the Secularist, and the agnostic  in view of what its own Preamble states.

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