Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What is Wrong with Secularism?

Secularism is one of the major topics dealt with by Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios. He was never tired of explaining how harmful secularism is in a number of his books and in numerous research papers. Here I am making an attempt to introduce in a few words what Mar Gregorios was trying to tell us through these books and papers.

Enlightenment East and West, A Light Too Bright, and The Secular Ideology are the three major works that deal with this topic. About the first two books, he says in his autobiography:
More recently I have done some significant non-theological writing. The Indian Institute of Advanced Study gave me a study fellowship which enabled me to write my Enlightenment: East and West, published by that Institute and favorably reviewed in India. The State University of New York Press wanted to publish it jointly with the Institute, but the latter was not willing for some reason. In any case, the Shimla book had been written with an Indian readership in mind, pointing out that the great Founding Father of our nation, Jawaharlal Nehru, was primarily a child of the European Enlightenment, and not a promoter of the Indian heritage. For SUNY Press, I decided to write another book on the same theme, this time with the western readership in mind. That came out in 1992 under the title A Light Too Bright: The Enlightenment Today. Reviews so far have been favorable, though not raving.
The Secular Ideology is a collection of essays which were put together by Mar Gregorios toward the eve of his life. However, it could be published only in 1998, two years after his passing. This book deals with secularism in the specific context of India.
Also he dealt with this theme in the Dudley Lectures at Harvard. He says:
I gave the Dudley Lecture at Harvard University in 1979, questioning the then prevailing thesis that secularization was an irreversible process. I saw then that religion had to come back into public life in some new form, and would do so fairly soon. That was an unfashionable view for the establishment, and Harvard Theological Review, which had agreed in advance to publish my lecture, regretted their inability to abide by the agreement.
Although his lecture was not published as such, a report of his lecture appeared in the Divinity Bulletin of the Harvard Divinity School.4 

What is Secular?
Mar Gregorios traces the meaning of this word from the beginning of the Christian era. The Latin word Saeculum meant world. When a lot of people renounced the world (saeculum) and adopted a life of monastic rule (regula), a distinction developed as religious (monastic) and secular (non-monastic). During the French revolution, a property under the control of a monastery was taken away from its control and brought under public ownership. This process was called secularization.
A few centuries ago Christianity was the state religion in Europe. In those days an organized church controlled the state as well as all the political, economic, academic and cultural institutions of society. It took a very long process, both revolutionary and evolutionary, to liberate the state and the institutions of society from the control of the church. This process was called secularization.
What do we mean today when we say that India is a secular state? It means India is not like its neighboring state, Pakistan, which has adapted a particular religion as its state religion. Non-Muslims are second class citizens in Pakistan. For example, a non-Muslim cannot witness against a Muslim.  In India, all people are given equal rights regardless of their religious affiliation, resisting the very strong pressure from the majority religious community belonging to Hinduism to make it the state religion. 
What is Secularism?
Although the word secularism sounds related to secular, it has a very different meaning. Mar Gregorios asserts that secularism belongs to the category of religions. It is an ideological system of concepts and values. Here is a definition of secularism from a 19th century American orator.
“Secularism is a religion, a religion that is understood. It has no mysteries, no mumblings, no priests, no ceremonies, no falsehoods, no miracles, and no persecutions. Secularism is the religion of humanity; it embraces the affairs of this world; it is interested in everything that touches the welfare of a sentient being; it advocates attention to the particular planet in which we happen to live; it means that each individual counts for something; it is a declaration of intellectual independence; it means that the pew is superior to the pulpit, that those who bear the burdens shall have the profits and that they who fill the purse shall hold the strings.” Robert Green Ingersoll, (1833-1899) 5 
Secularism seems to be a full-fledged ideological system developed in revolt against the domination of Christian church in Europe. It is very important to distinguish between secular and secularism because they are not the same. India is a secular state, but not a state of secularism. If India adopts secularism as its state religion, it will be another nation like Pakistan, and it won’t be secular any more.  
It seems that the religion of secularism is slowly bringing the entire world under its control.
In Saving Leonardo, Nancy Pearcey makes a compelling case that secularism is destructive and dehumanizing.   Pearcey reveals the goal of the book at the outset: "to equip you to detect, decipher, and defeat the monolithic secularism that is spreading rapidly and imposing its values on your family and hometown."6   Like Europe was controlled by the church in the Middle Ages, this new religion has already taken control of the whole world. It looks like the world is in need of another secularization to get out of the control of secularism.
Secularism is fine as long as it stays as one of the religions, but we don’t want it to become the state religion or ideology. What we want is a secular state like the one we have in India, not a state controlled by secularism.
The Context in India
The unity of the nation is in danger due to communal conflicts. The solution being suggested by so many intellectuals is the adoption of secularism. They seem to make such a suggestion primarily because they do not distinguish between secular and secularism. Mar Gregorios suggests that secularism is a religion, and it can coexist with other religions in India, but it should not become the state religion. Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarveppalli Radhakrishman represent two different approaches to secularism.
Nehru, as the first prime minister of the free India, had a very difficult task, and he suggested a secular and scientific approach for India’s development. In Discovery of India he wrote:
“The modern mind ….. is practical and pragmatic, ethical and social, altruistic and humanitarian. … It has discarded the philosophical approach of the ancients; their search for ultimate reality, as well as the devotionalism and mysticism of the medieval period. Humanity is its God, and social science it religion.”7
This is the view followed by a lot of intellectuals in India today. Although Nehru had a vision of India, the truth is that he did not lay down any proper intellectual foundations for his secular scientific approach. If we are faithful to his vision, we have to honestly question some of his assumptions. We will be dishonoring his vision if we take his assumptions as dogmatic truth.
We don’t need to go very far for a correction to Nehru’s view. S. Radhakrishnan, the Rashtrapathi of India and a close friend to Nehru, had a very different view from Nehru. Although western-educated like Nehru, his vision was not grounded on the western secularism or a scientific view; his was firmly grounded on the traditional Upanishadic view of life. He believed in the unity of all that exists. He recognized as early as 1940s that a purely secular materialist Marxist movement, however revolutionary and creative it may at first appear to be, could not but come to grief.
How do we face the threat of Secularism?
The best way to deal with secularism might be to find the roots of secularism and try to eliminate them. The primary root of secularism seems to lie in the false dichotomous worldview that divides the world into natural and supernatural. Such a worldview existed in the western Latin branch of Christianity since fourth century.  Nature according to this false view is what we can experience and understand without revelation. It is a self-contained realm operating by its own principles different from the realm of revelation, grace, and super-nature. God can occasionally intervene in the realm of nature causing supernatural events of grace, revelation and miracles.
Nature, according to this view, is far away from the supernatural and from God, which makes it evil. Salvation is for man to escape from this realm and enter the supernatural realm. Christ came down from the supernatural realm to the natural realm to save the human beings who were to be saved. Church is the group of the saved people eagerly waiting to get out of this miserable place and get transported to the realm above. Church members are definitely superior to the nonmembers. This view made the Christians look down upon others and rule over them.
People started revolting against this dichotomous worldview by denying the existence of a supernatural realm. If there is no supernatural, all that is left is our natural realm that we see around us.  There is nothing beyond what we can perceive with our five senses, and whatever exists can be studied by our science. This is the creed of secularism, and it empowered the philosophical movement called European Enlightenment.
Secularism has been successful in helping people break free from the dichotomic worldview. However, it has not been successful in providing a functional meaningful alternative. It saved us heroically from the false dichotomic view, but it failed in providing us a view on which we can build up our life. It fails to answer so many of our basic questions about our life. Our questions such as what we are, why we live, and how we are related to each other have no answers from secularism.
If secularism cannot be an alternative to the dichotomic worldview, what else can be the alternative? The dichotomic worldview is the product of the western Latin branch of the Christian church with its primary theologian, St. Augustine of fourth century. The eastern Greek branch of the Christian church did not share this worldview. The Cappadocian fathers such as St. Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus were the primary Greek theologians in fourth century.
The thought of Gregory of Nyssa has been studied in depth by the scholarly world in our time, and the results have been exciting. Gregory calls all that exists Ta Panta in Greek. Gregory does not divide Ta Panta into natural and supernatural. But he divides Ta Panta into created and uncreated. The uncreated existence is infinite (beyond the limits of time-space) but the created existence is finite. Such a division exists when viewed from the perspective of the created existence; but viewed from the side of the uncreated existence, even such a division disappears. If the uncreated existence (God) is infinite, the created existence (world), which is finite, cannot stay apart from it. This idea goes along with what St. Paul said to his audience in Athens, “In Him we live and move and have our being”.
Traditionally all that exists was denoted by the expression “heaven and earth”. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Gen. 1:1. The Nicene Creed also uses the same expression. “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” Made during the time of Gregory of Nyssa, this statement reveals an important division within the created world—visible and invisible. It is true that the Eastern Greek Christianity made such a distinction of visible and invisible, but it is not the same as the division into natural and supernatural.  
Salvation for the eastern Greek Church was theosis, which is for the whole creation growing to the likeness of God; not some people escaping from this world and going to the supernatural world. Church was seen as the visible body of the invisible Christ, and its role was to serve and not to be served. The church members did not see themselves superior to nonmembers. The church assembled on Sundays to intercede on behalf the whole world because the church saw itself as a part of the humanity.  
Paulos Mar Gregorios did an excellent study of the thought of Gregory of Nyssa in his doctoral dissertation, which was later published as Cosmic Man.8 He says about this book in his auto biography:
My doctoral dissertation submitted to Serampore University was published in 1980 by Sophia Publications, New Delhi, under the title Cosmic Man. It dealt with the relation between God, Humanity and World in the 4th century Eastern Christian Father St. Gregory of Nyssa. It was later republished under the same title in 1988 by Paragon, New York. It is a work that I had expected to be well received, but that has not been the case. I hope it will be studied more seriously by people in the future, for it deals with one of the fundamental problems of Christian Theism. People who believe in God often simply take it for granted that God, Humanity and World are three entities, while Gregory of Nyssa had already seen the philosophical problem of seeing the Creator and the Creation as two entities distinct from each other. The Hindu Advaita Vedantin’s point was recognized as basically sound and legitimate, though formulated and explained differently, by this ancient Asian writer from Cappadocia in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). Gregory of Nyssa lived and wrote three or four centuries before Sankara in India.
Secularism is a new religion which is only about four centuries old. It did a great service to humanity by saving it from the domination of western Christian church. It made sense to a lot of educated people throughout the world, who have renounced their original religions and embraced this new religion. As long as it stays as one of the religions, it is not a threat to humanity. We don’t want to question the freedom of people to get converted from one religion to another one. But it becomes a great threat if it takes control of the governments and institutions of education as the western Christian church did in the medieval Europe. It does this under the guise of something other than a religion.
This reminds me of the old story of a fox becoming a king of animals. Once a fox fell in a bucket of white paint, and he looked very different. All the animals accepted him as their king and began to respect him and obey his orders. One day the fox instinctively howled when he heard a fox howling at a distance, and immediately the other animals realized his real identity and jumped on him. Today secularism is able to gain control of governments and institutions of educations because it doesn’t appear a religion outwardly. The truth is that it is a religion, and nothing more than a religion. Once people all over the world realize the true identity of secularism, it can’t retain its power. What we need is a secular world; not a world dominated by secularism.
  1. Gregorios, Paulos. (1989). Enlightenment East and West: Pointers in the Quest for India's Secular Identity. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study/NewDelhi: B. R. Publishing Corporation.
  2. Gregorios, Paulos. (1992). A Light Too Bright. Albany, New York: State University of NewYork Press.
  3. Gregorios, Paulos. (1998). The Secular Ideology: An Impotent Remedy for India's Communal Problem. Kottaym: MGF/NewDelhi: ISPCK.
  7. Nehru, J. (1946). Discovery of India, Calcutta: Signet Press. P.680
  8. Gregorios, Paulos. (1982). Cosmic Man. The Divine Presence: NewDelhi/Kottayam: Sophia Publications
For Further Reading
  1.  Sacred roots of secularism
  2. Who are we in Bharatvarsha today?
  3. Communal Conflicts in India
  4. Nature, man, and God
  5. Dudley Lecture
  6. Communal Harmony


Joseph E. Thomas, Ph.D. said...

Mr. Kunnathu has done a great job of articulating the thoughts of Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios. I remember Dr. Gregorios discussing these books with me and left his personal copies of those books for me. Mr. John Kunnathu has done justice to the essence of these books.
Joseph E. Thomas, Ph.D.

C. Alex Alexander said...

Here below is a quote that is most often understood as "secularism" in democratic societies. Google, "secularism" and you will see the one cited below:

"Most major religions accept the primacy of the rules of secular, democratic society but may still seek to influence political decisions or achieve specific privileges or influence through church-state agreements such as a concordat. Many Christians support a secular state, and may acknowledge that the conception has support in Biblical teachings, particularly Jesus' statement, "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." However, some Christian fundamentalists (notably in the United States) oppose secularism, often claiming that there is a "radical secularist" ideology being adopted in current days and see secularism as a threat to "Christian rights" and national security. The most significant forces of religious fundamentalism in the contemporary world are Fundamentalist Christianity and Fundamentalist Islam. At the same time, one significant stream of secularism has come from religious minorities who see governmental and political secularism as integral to preserving equal rights."

I fully agree with the concluding statement. In my humble opinion, secularism is not a religion. There are no "laws" or "edicts" of secularism which are enforced externally by secularists! In all religions, its tenets are interpreted and enforced by the "keepers of the faith".

C. Alex Alexander