Sunday 25 March 2012

Being “Religious” about Secularism: A Slippery Slope

Part 5 [March 25, 2012]: Being “Religious” about Secularism: A Slippery Slope

When I started this topic under the banner “Religion, Secularism, Democracy, Humanity and Bangladesh”, I didn’t realize how deeply the elements (religion, secularism, democracy and humanity) are connected or conflicted. For one thing, except during my childhood (my parents loved buying novels etc. for us) and during my DU life (courtesy of dear friend LH,S), I didn’t read much beyond academics. Ironically, my naiveté actually helped my audacity to delve into matters of comprehension by the well-versed and the wise. I would be obliged if the astute readers permit ample allowance for potholes in this layman’s journey.

The Word “Secularism”: What Does it Mean?

This is what says about secularism: (numbering is mine, format edited by me)

a. A system of political or social philosophy that rejects all forms of religious faith and worship.
b. The view that public education and other matters of civil policy should be conducted without the introduction of a religious element.
c. A doctrine that rejects religion, especially in ethics
d. The attitude that religion should have no place in civil affairs.  

Although many different wordings of secularism are available, I doubt that they would differ much in meaning or spirit from the above. Certain things are clear about the dictionary definition of secularism:
A.   Secularism is NOT about relative merits of different religions as belief systems. It is NOT atheism either.
B.   Secularism as a state principle (enshrined in constitution or not) would avoid legislating, implementing or adjudicating state policies that seek rationalization from or promote a specific religion or belief system including atheism.  

Secularism in Practice

Historically as well as in today’s world, secularism is more often than not is used as a political divide between those who are “religious” about religion and those who are “religious” about non-religion. Let us refer to the former group as the religion group (RG) and the latter group as the non-religion group (NG).

RG generally comprises of members of the majority religion in a political state who believes that the laws, policies and practices of their state should be guided first and foremost and principally, if not exclusively, to benefit the majority religion members. NG, on the other hand, wishes to minimize/eliminate any religious bias in state matters even when the principles of majority religion, if applied in state matters, would impose no obvious cost on the members of minority religions or perhaps even improve the lot for all citizens. It is no surprise that the members of minority religion, often only loosely practicing their own faith rituals, tend to politically align with NG. While NG is dominated by members of the majority religion like RG, most of these NG members are loose practitioners of their faith rituals as well. In some extreme cases such as China, NG members are not members of any religion, and do not believe in any Creator or are indifferent in this regard.

It is, however, interesting to note that while RG has a much more significant proportion of strict believers/practitioners of majority religion rituals, there are many instances [US, Canada, many countries in West Europe, .., Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh] where a majority of RG members are far from being devout in terms of practicing faith rituals. In almost all cases though, RG members are “religious” about religion, that is blinded by the supremacy of their own faith, are intolerant of other persuasions and do not hesitate to trample upon the rights of minority religions [despite the fact that most known divine codes preach against such transgression].

In contrast, the NG members appear to be “religious” about non-religion, and are by and large intolerant of the RG members and views and policies that are advocated using the Divine Code of the majority religion they themselves subscribe to. In fact, NG members do not seem to mind cracking down even on the most humane, benign, inclusive and symbolic practices of the majority religion in state arenas. For example, there has been a spate of contentious litigations of Christmas illuminations in North American public venues. Various minority religion communities [Muslims, Sikhs, ..] also often face stiff resistance from public offices in obtaining permits to build places of worship. It is of course well-known that increasingly the NG-supported governments in the West, Turkey included, are enacting regulations barring the wearing of attires [like Head Scarf, Hijab, Niqab, Turban,.. ] that are claimed to be inconsistent with the secularist character of the state. In other cases, the anti-minority stance of NG is openly communal. For example, India is supposedly an advanced democracy and a secular state, but the consumption of beef is illegal since it is deemed grossly inconsistent with the faith of the majority religion there.   

At the other extreme, you could be punished with lashes for attires perceived to be indecent by the RG, in many Mid-East countries. Consumption of alcohol or pork is also illegal. And of course, capital punishments are in order there for “inappropriate” sexual encounters even if it is forced upon such as a case of rape. Different versions of these punitive laws also prevail in Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia.     

At the risk of generalization, it seems that, in practice, Secularism versus Non-Secularism, has transpired in the form of being “religious” about religion or non-religion. Perhaps no less practically important question is the extent to which political parties have exploited, or even may have manufactured, the “religious” sentiments of the RG and the NG. In this layman’s view, the extent is rather ominous to which the RG and the NG masses have fallen unsuspecting victims of the ruthless governance interests of the dictators in the non-democratic states and of the political parties in “democracies”.

As they were meant to be, the known divine codes were intended to free humanity from the shackles of our limited and miniscule “matter” [physique] and launch us into our true and nonperishable existence of boundless compassion. [I am eternally grateful to dear friend LH[S] who very kindly articulated to me the concept of the oneness of a Creator and Compassion, although I must admit that I am still light years away from LH’s conceptualization]. Though not comparable in a spiritual or divine sense, the political concept of secularism is also meant to promote equality, harmony, tolerance and benevolence among the members of a state. In the divine case, the jurisdiction is the universe, in the latter it is the state.

Alas, the ruthless pursuit of governance power by the dictators and political parties, continue to divide and conquer by selective and convenient interpretation and application of the divine codes and the concept of secularism. A true believer is supposed to be a secularist in practice and a secularist by practice is supposed to be a believer in principle!

More to come ..  MC March 25, 2012

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