Secularism the Rejection of Divine
Secularism as growing ‘religion’ in many parts of the world is experiencing increasing acceptance among educated segment of the society, either for its emergence as socio-political anti-religious conceptual apparatus, or people’s general ignorance of religion (Islam’s) comprehensibility and universality. We said secularism is a religion because promoting secularism is no different than promoting any other religion. Atheism or secularism (the differences between the two are inconsequential for this argument) is not the absence of a belief system, rather it is the belief that there is no God and that other belief systems should be rejected or ignored. To an atheist the highest power is humankind or perhaps the environment (or an aspect based on both such as science).
Myriad of authors in recent times focused on secularism’s upsurge in Bangladesh. An intellectual overview is therefore a necessity for increasing people’s knowledge of about the actual project of secularism. The purpose of this article is to give an overview of intellectual history of secularism that does not necessarily focus on its local development in Bangladesh. That intellectual pursuit of secularism will be outlined from Western and South Asian perspective.
Secularism’ Intellectual History
Secularism is the departure of the divine and ascendance of humans in the decision making in this world. Man thought he could decide his fate and alter the things in accord with his will. Scientific discovery, technological advance and rational ideas threw questions to the metaphysical realm that religion represents. From the ontological aspect, scientific discovery and human invention gave humans unprecedented power over his life. Unlike traditional world where mankind used to leave much of their life questions to religious authority and took the things given as it is. Humans thought they found answer to many unresolved questions of life by their own through science and philosophical enquiry; the world of the real started to become possible and the world of the ideal faded away from human minds. People’s beliefs in science and natural order diminished the relevance of supernatural. Science gave the insight that what is visible is real, believable, and anything invisible is unreal, unbelievable; therefore the latter does not exist. Hence religion is detrimental to human progress because it tells us to believe in something unnecessary, unnecessary because it fails to satisfy our minds, or do not pass the rational test. How can we believe in something without evidence? Miracles which believers consider as evidence, science claims them to be mundane coincidences which naturally happen. It does seem to a degree, those secular intellectuals try to outsmart God!
From an epistemological view, rational thoughts encountered by mankind eroded their beliefs around metaphysical worldview. Immediate material pursuit became more rational than abstract divine promises in a world beyond ordinary perception. A material human believed to be more rational than a religious one. Matter overtook belief. Material mind could only choose what is natural-rational- and reject the irrational-supernatural, the immaterial. Material solutions to private and public human realm in this world therefore became a rational choice. In fact the emergence of state system in 1648 was founded upon the secular principle of separation of religion from state. Secularization, separation of religion from politics and relegating religion to private sphere, as a process of secularism since then continues to transform, locate and re-locate the space of religion in modern societies.
It is claimed in secular circle that the secular thought existed in pre-modern time. It would be mistake to think it merely an offspring of modern age. The Greek philosopher Anaxagoras is thought to be founding father of secularism who was born in Clazomenae in Ionia and lived from 462 to 432 BCE. This philosopher was closely associated with scientific and rationalist tradition in the time he lived. In opposed to overarching religious belief and mythological narratives he for the first time utterly proposed the sun was not dependent on Titan God Helios causing daily pilgrimage around it. It was in fact independent red-hot burning stone from which earthly-made moon reflects the light. Such statements would mean irreligious and a clear rejection of otherworldly mythology and supernatural explanation of the sun and moon and replacing them with material and natural cause. Since traditional time, secularism remained a way of thinking about the world without reference to Supernatural and a religious interpretation of life. The question is did religion per see present those unscientific explanation of nature? Throughout history a marked difference existed between what religion has to say and what its representatives interpret. Anaxagoras and after him many like Galileo and Copernicus were persecuted by religious authorities. This persecution and obstruction in scientific thinking antithetical to established religious belief brought science and religion face-to-face and the space of co-existence lessened since then.
But secularism with a strong conceptual foundation and increasing dominance began on the onset of the end of middle ages. Christianity started to become intellectually challenged during this period. The reason is the rise of liberal philosophy and modern scientific progress ushered by renaissance and enlightenment. The renaissance and enlightenment are two consecutive intellectual and worldly developments that laid out the marble stone for secular age. The idea of humanism dominated the renaissance time from 1400 to 1650. Humanist wave derived from idea of individual freedom and expression and belief in man-made order opposed to the one ordained by divine. Humans came to the center of power and became the measure of all things. It was thought human beings with the help of natural world can determine their destiny. They no longer need the dictates from church. It says that the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is possible without reference to divine. The accumulation of knowledge throughout ages, especially the emerging possibilities in the field of commerce, science and technology gave them the belief that human beings themselves can unlock their potentials and design a more human and livable world by themselves. Worldly pleasures and luxury became valuable as belief in a life after the present one was disregarded or devalued or even undermined. When human could do whatever he fashions, why is there need for a metaphysical entity Who keep everything in promises?
The age of enlightenment from the 18th century onward laid an intellectual and institutional identity for secularism. Enlightenment was a philosophical and social project emerged in Europe in the course of time which aims to make the world livable for human beings. For Immanuel Kant enlightenment is the path to maturity for human society. It is empowering the individuals to seek to discover the world by themselves without guidance from others. In other words, human being can achieve progress through the use of reason. In that sense enlightenment is a departure from traditional social set up which limited human ability to overcome all hindrances on the way to freedom. It underlies the notion that human beings using own reason could make this world more hospitable by reducing its danger and bring out the best potential for human progress. This progress requires the use of reason in education, science, and call for freedom excluding all traditional religious nonsense that is for them obstructing the human potential. Voltaire utterly declared injunction to “ecrasez l'infame” which means squash out infamy, get rid of all nonsense in the way of progress.
In the façade of enlightenment emerged the influential thoughts like empiricism, rationalism and utilitarianism. In his discourse on the method French philosopher Rene Descartes did the most critical help for the progress of secularism though he did not necessarily mean it. He declared “I think therefore I am”. With skepticism in mind he suggested all to doubt everything around him as a way to reach to certain knowledge. English philosopher John Locke came an empiricist idea to acquire real knowledge. He said we get knowledge through experience, by more sensation, by more experiments. So everything that we do not see or not sense cannot pass the test to qualify knowledge. Faith that we do not see but believe got a tremor by this empiricist idea of knowledge. In Christian society, it gives the impression that religion exist beyond the world of experimentation, and how an idea can be intellectually credible if not tested and proved? How human life can be submitted to mere metaphysical belief which we cannot be certain of? David Hume hammered a strong nail in the coffin of faith. He even cast skeptical eye on the question of existence of God. Darwin’s theory of evolutionism gave the impression that in biological creation God has nothing to do. Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham gave mankind new criteria to measure the human progress; his so-called “felicific calculus” constituted a view of life in which maximization of pleasure and minimization of pain became the aim of all kinds of human pursuit. This intellectual thought bit by bit accumulated into deism, skepticism and finally into atheism. It created space for rejection of unquestioned status of religion and created circle of anti-faith communities. Any intellectual developments and ideas reach the dominant elements of the society in whose hands the control of power lies. It gradually kept religion away from public domain so as to limit what it has to say in state and worldly affairs. A life system founded upon the principle of pleasure could minimize the affection of faith which is rationally uncomforting. These all anti-faith intellectual impressions helped secularism win the battle against religion in the society.
Despite this heretic trend among intellectuals and dominant waves of rationalist and empiricist thoughts, voices like Immanuel Kant sought to steer a middle course between the domain of faith and domain of reason. Kant looked for a society which would enjoy progress in education, politics, economics, knowledge and unparallel improvement in the pattern of human thinking. A belief that religion may stand opponent to this new advancement might have influenced Kant to think to create a room for both science and faith in the age of enlightenment. For him, both faith and science could co-exist in this new development. Enlightenment can accommodate phenomenal word (which we can sense), with nuomenal world (which we believe in). In other words, he made attempts to harmonize ideal with real. Kant’s notion of symbiosis between religion and science reflected pragmatism to unite Church, state and influential state institutions in the pursuit of enlightenment. He thus saw enlightenment as both philosophical and social phenomena emerging to unfold human immaturity on the way to freedom.
Kant’s attempt to steer middle course remained a tiny wave among the powerful swelling waves in the realm of thoughts; developments in social domain supported by revolutionary upheavals in Europe and the corresponding doctrines opened the door for intensified presence of secularism. French revolutions and its protest against clergy dominated elites and obsession of human freedom shrunk the space for religious authorizes. Romanticism taught not having faith is luxury sometimes because it keeps you away from having intense feelings of worldly pleasure and enjoying the life. While capitalist societies had been deeply affected by what utilitarian ideals offered them, communist societies had been indoctrinated by what Marx himself thought about religion. They have been overwhelmed by Marx notorious remarks on religion saying, religion is friend of the oppressor and sigh of the oppressed and even religion is the opiate of the people. For him religion was a response to material alienation; once this material deprivation is emancipated, religion will wither away. The undermined approach to religion that Marx showed guides much of Marxist groups’ attitude towards religion and its proponents in today’s world.
However, is religion really antithetical to reasons and human imagination? Well, thought not religion, its religious knowledge represented by religious authorities overwhelmed by self-declared divine power created a wrong perception that religion obstructs human reason and intellectual and scientific pursuit. Christian Church was always vigilant in acting against any scientific enquiry and purely rational investigation of truth. It always preached a closed metaphysical world view which prevented other possibilities of progress in the realm of human thoughts. Efforts were minimum to reconcile between science and religion. This denial of science in the realm of religion blurred the difference what religion essentially foster and what its followers understand about it. It is generally thought religion is what its followers do. Ironically, a big difference exists between religion and our understanding of it. While religion has objective truth to offer, our understanding and interpretation of it often subjective may remain far from actual truth.
Secularism from Colonial Experience in South Asia
Western European societies with their dominant presence across the Muslim world from 16th century onward influenced much of the direction and perception of religion. Considering the world as a whole it can be argued that no ideas remain confined to a single territorial core or its periphery, it rather spreads across the infinite space and time. Like physical colonialism, knowledge has an invading character too. It means secular thoughts penetrated from the west into Islamic world; but such claim does not necessarily displace the truth that anti-religious forces always existed in Muslim society. Western penetration of secular thoughts in Muslim world occurred in two mutually constitutive phenomena:
The first one should be understood in the context of century-long subjugation of Muslim societies by the western societies and subsequent supplanting of secular political, social and economic institutions in those societies. Much of the Middle Eastern, South and South-east Asian Muslim-populated countries were ruled by Britain, French and Dutch colonial administrations. Their rule not only concentrated around the orbit of power distributed in the societies; a divide and rule policies had been in action to create distance between people in Islam so that an integrated campaign against colonialism could not grow. It needed for them to orient those Muslim societies to such an education system that could intervene in the domain of people’s traditional thoughts and cohesiveness with religion. In South Asia, Muslim societies experienced two-century long rule by Britain after the decline of the powerful Mughal Empire. Britain not only came with them the scientific technologies ushered by commercial and industrial revolution, they carried with the utilitarian ideas of enlightenment and a mission to spread Christian values. A Muslim society with unique religiosity created frequent disturbances in the British Empire. In 1820 British thought that to reconcile between cultures of Muslims and colonial ideals they needed to generate a group of people free from traditional (religious) sensibilities. They believed that European arts and sciences should be gradually “engrafted” into the education system of India that would create a class of learned elite subjects who would then act as cultural intermediaries for the British.
Those learned Muslim elites in Indian subcontinent imagined their societies in the image of the west. European secular thoughts as inseparable part entered into Muslim culture. It is not that those elites who had control over power disregarded the interest of Muslim society. But an already secular mindset convinced them to think of progress of Muslims in light of so-called superior western ideals. Thus the partition of India in 1947 and creation of Pakistani state (including present Bangladesh) was not based on an Islamic value system, it was rather a response to a historic necessity to create a modern nation-state for Muslims for social and economic freedom.
Post-colonial continuity of secular world view among South Asian Muslims has to be understood in the context of intellectual foundation of colonialism, namely modernity, derivative of rationality. Postcolonial nationalism might be based in opposition to colonial suppression of national identities, and it also may appear post-secular as deemed by Chatterjee who think “The nationalist project of putting an end to colonial rule and inaugurating an independent nation-state became implicated, from its very birth, in a contradictory movement with regard to the modernist mission of secularism”. He underscores the notion that nationalism made attempt to free newly born nations from western influences from which secularism is indistinguishable, and a move was clear to rationalize the domain of religious discourses. A number of propositions may logically flow in response to Chatterjee’s post-secular nature of nationalism in South Asia. One, a national (Muslim) consciousness in the leadership of newly built Pakistan did not necessarily reflect their commitment to harmonizing the state and religion. It was “Muslim” not “Islamic” consciousness. The perception of Muslimhood represents Islam as an identity as Muhammad Ali Jinnah in his 1940 presidential address at the all-India Muslim league maintained, ‘‘….Mussalmans are a nation according to any definition of a nation”. “Islamic” on the other hand, offer us an understanding of Islam as the image of truth, the essence of which can be reflected in both public and private sphere of society. Second, in disguise of inimical position to colonialism, a sub-conscious temper to modern way of leading the nation was developed when Jinnah said “they (Muslim) must have their homeland, their territory and their state’’. The idea of nation and nation-state is the essence of modern organization of human society. So, it can be argued that post-colonial nationalism was more of intellectual surrender to modernity than a coherent national consciousness against colonialism. Nationalism among South Asian Muslims did not disembody secularism because “nationalism is essentially secular in the sense that it is rooted in human history and society”. “Secularism in post-colonial Muslim Societies thus experienced change of subjects who fall in the category of secularizer and continuity of objects who are within the category of secularized.
As argued earlier, Muslim nationalism in South Asia emerged out of a social and economic emancipation of Muslims under the subjugation of British and their subsidiaries, Hindus. It grew from a conservative paranoia which rooted in the fear of power vacuum in the hands of people with Muslim identity. The elites in Muslims society failed to imagine a distinct world view for Muslims separate from colonial experiences. As colonial legacy rather than a fulfillment of history they reproduced those experiences and preferred to live within the confines of modernity and its modernization projects. The Modernity-driven rationalization radically transformed the intellectual and cultural priorities of South Asian Muslims as if they existed but in the form of the west. As Ashish Nandy in his the Intimate Enemy, expressed eloquently that: ‘’It is now time to turn to the second form of colonization, the one which at least six generations of the Third World have learnt to view as a prerequisite for their liberation. This colonialism colonizes minds in addition to bodies and it releases forces within the colonized societies to alter their cultural priorities once for all. In the process, it helps generalize the concept of the modern west from a geographical and temporal entity to a psychological category: The west is now everywhere, within the west and outside; in structures and in minds’’
So, modernization of societies, which is organizing journey of progress for population by removing traditional realities and recognizing new realities endorsed by modernity, became the priorities for Muslim elites in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Majority of them were socialized in western education system, the rest remained committed to building the nation with education system in post-colonial society in a way that could meet the need of the age. Modernization program backed by western countries prescribed material progress for people and gradual removal of traditional belief, religion as such, and developing secular institutional base was seen as tangible progress towards that end.
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