Secularism in the Indian Context

Continuing the same thread from my previous blog post, I thought I should do a little bit more research into the concept of secularism. Everyone in India bandies the word about, but nobody (including yours truly) seems to know what it actually means.

“Secularism” as defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary – the belief that religion should not play a role in government, education, or other public parts of society; indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations” – is essentially a Western concept, and I decided to start my reading from Western authors. The first book I selected was The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur.

Paul Cliteur is a Dutch jurist and philosopher known for his liberal atheistic views, and this book enhances that reputation. It is divided into four parts, which the author considers as the pillars of a secular outlook.


According to Cliteur, an atheistic worldview is a prerequisite for a secular frame of mind. He makes it clear that this need not be of the public and militant variety of Dawkins and Hitchens; and he is vehement that it should not be a state philosophy enforced on hapless citizenry like that of China or the former Soviet Union. Cliteur’s atheism is “a-theism” or “non-theism” – the denial of an absolute and personal God, like that of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Atheism does not negate the philosophical concepts of God; neither does it purport to prove the non-existence of God. It is not belief in the non-existence of a concrete God, rather, it is the absence of belief. In this sense, Cliteur ranks it superior to agnosticism, which he considers to be a purposeful decision to politically defer a troublesome question.

Criticism of Religion

Cliteur posits two facets of “freethought” as essential for a secular outlook. The first of this is criticism of religion; not the religious establishment, but the basic tenets themselves. He does not subscribe to the viewpoint that religion “per se” is good, it is only the interpretation that is the problem – you cannot stretch what is written in the holy text to mean what you want it to mean, like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass. If a terrorist reads a passage in a holy book which exhorts the believer to murder the infidel and acts on it, the fault of the person is not for “misinterpreting” the passage: the fault is blind faith, and of the holy book for having the passage there in the first place. The secular person should learn to understand and reject such facets of religion.

Freedom of Expression

The second facet of freethought, Cliteur defines as the freedom of expression. It is not only necessary that one should be able to take a critical look at religion – one should also be willing and able to express that criticism. Cliteur has the same opinion as John Stuart Mill, the apostle of free speech, that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against its will, is to prevent harm to others.” To put it in simple terms, any citizen of a free society should be able to say what he/ she wants to as long as it is not intended to provoke physical harm to other human beings. In this context, Cliteur is severely critical of the contemporary mindset of many of the liberal democracies that religious sentiments should be treated with special respect.

Secularist Ethics

In the final chapter, the author ties together all the discussion into the million-dollar question: can a moral human being exist without religious values: or will we descend into the utter chaos of moral relativity, a world where “anything goes” depending upon the hedonistic impulses of people?

It is no secret on which side of the debate Cliteur stands. He does a fine job of establishing that moral values are inbuilt in human beings, and a mature society will foster those intrinsic values rather than impose them as derived from a heavenly authority – which he considers infantile. In this context, he quotes Lawrence Kohlberg, the famous American psychologist, who had posited the following stages of moral development in children.

  1. Orientation to punishment and reward, and to physical and material power.
  2. Hedonistic orientation with an instrumental view of human relations (“You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”).
  3. “Good Boy” orientations; seeking to maintain expectations and win approval of one’s immediate group.
  4. Orientation to authority, law and duty, to maintaining a fixed order, whether social or religious, assumed as a primary value.
  5. Social-contract orientation, with emphasis on equality and mutual obligation within a democratically established order; for example, the morality of the American Constitution.
  6. Principles of conscience that have logical comprehensiveness and universality. Highest value placed on human life, equality, and dignity.

Cliteur writes:

The first two stages are typical of young children and delinquents. According to Kohlberg they are “pre-moral”. Decisions are made largely on the basis of self-interest. Stages 3 and 4 are “conventional”. They are the ones on the basis of which most of the adult population operate. The final stages are the “principled” stages. Those are characteristic of 20 to 25 percent of the adult population. Perhaps only 5 or 10 percent arrive at the sixth and final stage. Only at stage 6 is each life seen as inherently worthwhile, aside from other considerations.

Religious ethics, or “Divine Command” ethics, is stuck at stage four, according to Cliteur. The believer obeys God without questioning the inherent fairness of His dictum. Here, the author brings up two issues discussed at length in chapters two and three and ties them up with the concept of ethics in general – the question of God’s cruelty towards his creation (the stories of Abraham and Isaac, Phinehas and Jephtha) in the Bible, and the intolerance of contemporary Islam towards its critics, which sanctions murder even transcending national boundaries (the plight of Salman Rushdie and Theo van Gogh). Cliteur’s argument is very explicit: here, the believer is urged to forego all human values and follow the command of God as set down in the Holy Text to the letter. No earthly law or court matters to him or her; judgement is in the court of God.

In this context, Cliteur is scathing in his criticism of religious apologists such as Karen Armstrong, who argue for the inherent goodness of all religions, and point to the interpretation of the text as the problem. According to him, it is an invalid argument: a believer is more likely to interpret what is written down literally than search for esoteric explanations. What the apologists do in trying to make the religious texts acceptable to modernity is reinterpret them in the light of universally acceptable ethics; thus cutting the foot to fit the shoe. In his view, this is dangerous, as it exonerates religion from historical guilt. What is required is the realisation that ethics is secular in nature, and the total rejection of the inhuman aspects of religion. Here, we are back to the “non-theism” of the first chapter.


Paul Cliteur seems to have written this book as a reaction to growing Islamic fundamentalism in Europe. The murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by Mohammed Bouyeri and the violent reactions in the Islamic world to the Danish cartoons mocking Islam is mentioned in many contexts. Obviously, growing fundamentalism and its attendant terrorism among the Muslim fanatics is indeed a cause for concern; however, I seriously doubt whether a total rejection of religion can be the solution. I do not see a move towards Western style atheism in the East in the conceivable future. Maybe, an appreciation of the metaphoric value of myth as opposed to literalism is the real solution.

Secularism and India

A long time ago, at a book exhibition, I happened to wander into the book stall of Indian Atheist Publishers. They are known for their religious and social criticism. Scanning their shelves, I was struck by a curious fact: while there were a lot of books criticising the Hindu scriptures, there were very few on Islam and Christianity. This was made even more interesting by the fact that social criticism of all three religious establishments was available in equal measure. This was during a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party were making their mark for the first time in Indian politics. One of their main arguments – that the secularism practised in India was “Pseudosecularism” and in reality, it only meant appeasement of the minorities – seemed to be borne out by this particular experience.

Looking back now, when the Hindu Right has grown enormously in political clout and become very vociferous, I can see this in a new light. The Indian establishment pussyfoots around religious sentiments – criticism of Hindu tenets are allowed because the religion includes that criticism also within its fold. There is no “religious authority” in Hinduism, so various interpretations are possible: till recently, they were encouraged.

However, Hinduism also seems to be tilting towards the intolerance shown by “religions of the book” to any criticism – the recent decision of Penguin to pull Wendy Doniger’s book from publication seems to be an ominous indication of things to come. In this context, I personally feel that educated Hindus have the responsibility to bring the healthy spirit of criticism back into the religion, and encourage the same in other religions. It is this Indian open-mindedness which gave birth to Kapila, the Buddha, Adi Sankara, Vivekananda et al. That we can do this without forsaking our essential spirituality is our great advantage. It is what makes India different: we do not need “a-theism” as defined by Cliteur to be secular. We are religiously secular!


3 comments on “Secularism in the Indian Context

    Secularism is first and foremost an ‘ism’ – just like Hinduism or Judaism or Communism or any other appeal to a transcendent authority. It extracts the personality from God, leaving only ‘the Good’ to be arrived at through reason alone. But it makes two mistakes. The first is the contention that ‘the Good’ is not transcendent. The second is the belief that reason alone can accomplish the task. In the 18th century, during the ‘Age of Reason’, when secularism emerged as a serious contender, the philosopher David Hume had the insight to realize that in his words, “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
    Here is a quote from American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt:
    “Western Philosophy has been worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years. There’s a direct line running from Plato through Immanuel Kant to Lawrence Kohlberg. I’ll refer to this worshipful attitude throughout this book as the ‘rationalist delusion’. I call it a delusion because when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it. Morality binds and blinds. The true believers produce pious fantasies that don’t match reality, and at some point somebody comes along to knock the idol off its pedestal. That was Hume’s project, with his philosophically sacrilegious claim that reason was nothing but the servant of the passions.”
    – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt, 2012
    Jonathan Haidt describes himself as an atheist Jew. His investigation into morality led him to inquire about the huge gulf of understanding of moral thinking between anthropologists and psychologists. Anthropologists tend to think SOCIO-centrically. Morality, in most cultures past and present, is primarily about the welfare of the society. Psychologists tend to think SELF-centrically; the main concern is for the individual, how he or she negotiates with society decently, without harming anyone, while pursuing his or her own happiness.
    Haidt says that ‘intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second’. He uses a great, though not very original simile. Morality is like an elephant and rider. The elephant is intuition and emotion. The rider is reason. But the mahout in this case has very limited control. One might say, no thotti, valiya kol, or cheru kol. We like to think that our rational mind is in complete control. But more often than not, the elephant of passion leads the charge, or rests apathetically, and the reasonable rider submits, doing his or her best to control, to justify, and to ameliorate the wants of the beast.
    Haidt is describing the individual. But I think it can apply equally well to nations. In America, most – not all but most conscientious citizens don’t want leaders who are completely secular or professed atheists. That would be ignoring the elephant. But leaders who are too religious are shunned as well, those who might let the elephant run loose on a wild rampage.

  2. Sorry for the delayed reply. You raise some valid points: however, I see the concept of morality as essentially secular. One has one’s moral values, whether one believes in God or not. However, I agree that secularism need not be necessarily atheistic.

  3. I would love for you to read the book I cite. The author is named Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist specializing in morality. His revelation came when he went from Chicago to Bhubaneswar on a Fulbright fellowship. As he became ensconced in a religious culture he began to realize that there is more to morality than not harming others. Every culture adopts a hierarchy of acts from the most sacred to the most profane. Many of these acts have nothing to do with harming others. But it is only in what he calls WEIRD cultures (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) that the harm of others is the ONLY consideration. Haidt explains the fallacy of this belief, without dismissing the advantage of the Western way.

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