Shrek Comments and I reply. On Religon/Secularism

A reader “Shrek” posted a fantastic comment in response to my last post. It also brings up some things I should elaborate on, so I have quoted parts the comment and added my replies/explanations to it.

In response to  “They know nothing about Muslims”

It is seen (empirical observation- can’t vouch, don’t have data) that most polarized parts are those with significant population from multiple faiths e.g Old city- Hyderabad, parts of Gujarat etc . Part of the reason I reckon, is that, when faced with people from other faiths, each one clings more strongly to his own and then it becomes an “us vs them” situation.

The only way to break this shackle would be to educate- not on faith, but on philosophy of each religion. Unfortunately, all of our schools stay away from such contentious issues. So, there is only imitation and social learning of attitudes- which let’s face it, have been highly bigoted (around the world) in the past.

E.g. When I was ~7 years old, there was only one other family with a kid my age. I got along fairly well with that kid and attended his birthday sermon (they called a pastor/preacher to their house for that). But, the day after that – his mother turned me away from their gate saying “you are hindus, we are christians, don’t try to be friends with my son, we don’t fit.” I was naturally disappointed, but most kids would imitate such behaviour thinking that is the right way.

Hotspots of communal violence in India are indeed places where the  conflicting communities form significant portions of the population. This however, does not automatically mean that the respective cultures know about each other, In fact, distrust, isolation and misinformation is also highly prevalent in these areas. Violence needs ignorance else education (as you suggest) will do nothing, right? look at other places in india where Muslims and Hindus live in peace in spite of large numbers – Kerala, Tamil nadu, Delhi etc.

I am not asserting that all bigotry comes out of ignorance of the other faith, but that ignorance plays a significant role, and that hate-mongering leaders (of all religious bents) would like to perpetuate ignorance.

About the linking of nationalism with anti-secularism.

Linking nationalism to anti-secularism and Hinduism is a much more recent phenomenon caused in part due to the association of those claiming to be secular with demonstrably anti-national voices such as Syed Geelani and in part because anything the conservatives say – irrespective of the merit of the idea by itself, is denounced.

The specific instance of anti-secularism as demonstrated by the derision to the word secular might be a new thing, but anti-secularism is most definitely not. The RSS was formed in 1925, various regional parties, all claiming to be nationalist – Punjabi, Tamil, Assamese- have been around for a long time. It also serves to remember that while Gandhi and his teaching had a strong element of Nationalism, Nehruvian Congress and the party after that has been less and less nationalist. This in some ways created the secular vs nationalist divide. BJP, as long as it takes orders from the RSS and projects itself as nationalistic, will continue to be considered anti-secular. Hinduism teaches pluralism, but secularism as envisioned in the west or as many of us understand it is not something the Sangh stands for.

One also needs to differentiate between understanding and realizing that secularism as perpetuated by the Congress is a joke and the new, systematic effort to malign the very idea of secularism.

Pay close attention to this

That brings us nicely to the final point I’d like to make- I don’t know whether you would endorse adopting the patronizing tone with conservatives if it was effective (and if the ‘problem’ really did go away). But, condescension is an almost certain way to evoke resentment and anger. If you really believe in liberal values and in their superiority over the points conservatives try to make – treat them with respect (the people, not necessarily the ideas). Civility is sometimes overrated, but is necessary most other times. Instead of addressing valid concerns, the reaction to most conservatives has been to reach out for crutches like “bigot, troll, Indian Taliban,” and treating them with general apathy (hoping the problem goes away) etc.

Missing is a sense of perspective and proportion and such crutches point to an intellectual drought. And just because someone otherwise bad supports a morally right act doesn’t make it morally wrong. It still becomes our moral duty to act irrespective of who else supports such an issue.

A counterpoint- is in order perhaps – The Uniform civil code, which implies equal treatment of all people irrespective of faith has been made into a conservative issue whereas it really is a liberal/secular one.

I could not agree more.  The typical reaction to conservatives, whether of the cow protection variety or of high intellectual caliber, has almost always been a one of condescension. As if not conforming to western ideas of liberty, democracy, secularism were a result of brain damage. (not that people with brain damage should be treated that way, but they are)

However, one needs to ask not just why liberals dont want a uniform civil code, but also why the conservatives want it.

He makes some more important points about the role of history in name calling in his post on CRI: Ideological Lables

If words like “liberal” and “secular” have become curse words for many, it is because, hypocrisy, duality and bias (bigotry in many cases), too obvious to ignore, have become rampant amongst those claiming to be secular or liberal. Intellectual consistency dictates that just as the burden of disowning bigotry was put on Hindutva movement, the same burden also lies with those identifying with liberal movements (or for that matter any such movements).

Or we could just ignore this and go back to calling each other names, using labels as curses, obviating the need for any intellectual effort and critical thought on either side.

Note: When I use the term “Liberal” about political parties, am talking about the left leaning, socialist ideology. I am not a liberal in this sense – as a casual reading of my blog will reveal. However, conservativism in India and abroad is usually associated with religious sentiments and social/moral protectionist beliefs.

12 thoughts on “Shrek Comments and I reply. On Religon/Secularism”

  1. After having twice written a rather longish comment and losing it because I hadn’t provided my name, I have lost the patience too but will try to add a few points 🙂
    I am aware that I am not getting the whole context but I am taking @shreck’s advice of throwing out perspective bullshit 😉 After all, in this case there seems to be an earlier post and a comment, scriptures usually try to convey a lot more.

    It is in human nature to form groups and fight with other groups,even primates exhibit this behavior. Almost always (philosopher is the exception) the primary loyalty is commanded by clan,tribe,race and nation. All of these institutions are both inclusive and exclusive depending upon the people constituting it.As a species, humans surviving alone was/is impossible,so forming groups is a necessity but groups develop tendency to compete with other groups unless there is a common ground. Religions in this context provide a trans-national identity, the largest common ground for people to unite on. What was the basis or collateral in the early social contract (from Hobbes “state of nature”) ? From law courts to swearing in to offices (eg both US President as well as citizens) scriptures and invoking God continue to be integral part in trust-building.

    But then it is so unfashionable to discuss constructive contribution of religions rather than negative ones. For instance Christianization of Europe often reminds of the bloodshed during the time. The number of people killed during the period can be estimated but what about the number of deaths during the lawless pre-Christian era ? Is it accounted for ? Europe going Christian may have increased the magnitude but decreased the scope of conflicts. We fail to appreciate the fact that it also united not so civilized European tribes into nations and set it on a path that later helped them emerge as the most civilized, developed society.

    >> “Hotspots of communal violence in India”<<

    Beg to differ again, if you observe current demographic data more deeply as well as the of previous centuries you would find that regions that invaders settled down in, are more volatile communally. The North Indian culture exhibits aggression and intolerance that reflects the warrior class mentality.

    However this is not the case with population (Hindu,Muslim and Christian ) of South Indian states who are mostly descendent of earliest inhabitants, farmers,traders, artisans,fishermen etc.

    Bottom line is,conflicts based on ethnicity,language, political ideology, nationalism etc cause far more destruction and loss of lives but are often clothed in religious identity as a tactic.

    On nationalism – any organization that does not seek to represent all Indians of all communities, classes and ethnicity and does not embrace the best part of India- its pluralism, cannot be called a nationalist party. At best it can be called a sub-nationalist party.

    Guess I am going off tangent, so I'll conclude 😛

    Btw, I recently posted on something related to Quran. Check it out if you please and do comment 🙂

    1. Thanks for persisting in commenting Danish. If i get you right, what you are saying is
      1. religion is a great unifying force
      2. communal violence in india has more to do with history/race than religion
      3. God is timeless. (from your post on Quran)

      1. I agree that for most of history religion has played an important role in unifying people, winning wars, creating nations and more. This however, does not change the fact that right now, religion is doing little of that. instead of being used as a unifying force, leaders of most religions are trying to vie for more power, more authority and pursuing any means for this goal.
      more over, its not the growth of religion in itself that is worrying, but its involvement in politics. I think there is enough evidence from history to show that the involvement of the state in religion, be it Christianity or hinduism, is eventually going to hurt the state. look at the greatest nations of today, while they have a religious majoriy, they succeed in keeping religion out of the public sphere, and this is their succcess. Am not talking about the US, of course, they are in deep shit.

      2. The idea of warrior vs farmer indian sounds neat, but i cant find any consensus among historians that this indeed is the case. remember that the sough might not have religious strife, but it is no stranger to violence, The south gave the world both naxals and the LTTE. Communism in kerala has always been violent. There can be little disagreement that ideas have consequences, and lets face it, deeply religious political forces in india have ideas that almost always use violence.

      3. God is also un-knowable, so we cant really be sure if he is eternal, right? because we dont know what eternal means. And am not sure i understand what this has to do with your comment 🙂

      1. Yes, I am merely trying to point out that when blaming religion for being the cause of most
        discords, most of us forget that it is also cohesive force that continues to hold individuals as well as groups togather. The example of swearing in ceremony of the US President as well as new citizens was to emphasize on how crucial a role faith plays in trust-building even in a mostly secular society.

        IMHO it is not religion but religious identity that continues to be exploited leaders. The more popular word for this is “communalism” where religious community identity becomes yet another label for groupism. The basic difference between religion and communalism is that while religion is between the devotee and God, communalism doesn’t require faith or belief, it only requires the other” group who can be blamed for every wrong done to them, real or imaginary, in the near or distant past.

        There is nothing wrong with this when you look at communities like the Parsis, Khojas etc they don’t bother about other communities,their sense of communalism is helping their poorer brethren and making the community prosperous. Communalism becomes a menace when the sentiment is not that of welfare of the community but hatred of the “other” community. I have for years observed that a lot of religious people seldom participate in
        communal politics or support communal forces, while those on the streets are hardly aware of religious doctrine they claim to follow.

        I can’t remember the last time I heard a communalist leader talk on religion or scriptures. The current Hindutva poster boy’s mantra is not satya and ahimsa but economic development (on the lines of totalitarian China) and whose idol is Hitler. As a matter of fact, senior BJP leaders insist that Hindutva is not about religion but about culture.
        And we are proud of India because of its multicultural ethos !

        Let me sum it up by borrowing Voltaire’s words (not verbatim)

        The religious says “follow as I do or God will condemn you”
        While the communalist says “follow as I do or I will assasinate you”

        Further, conflicts that have a racial, ethnic, or even individual base are also labeled communal purely out of laziness and/or political motives.

        Farmer vs warrior — I wasn’t making a sweeping generalization,merely the underlying ethos, the temperament. Naxals,LTTE are ideology driven however misguided they may be, the warrior gene I was referring to is testosterone-driven 😛
        What makes Delhi in particular and North in general unsafe for women ? Why do most communal riots, usually over small issues take place in this region (btw,I recognize myself with North India)

        Finally, there is not much correlation between this conversation and my Tumblr post except the importance of “context” in scriptures. And also because this is the first post I have made on this topic 🙂

        “3. God is also un-knowable, so we cant really be sure if he is eternal, right?”

        That’s a matter of individual perspective and faith, right ? I believe in God as the Only Reality. Alpha, Omega, Brahman,the concept of eternity is a human construct (since time too is). God is beyond time, what the Sikhs call Sri Akaal 🙂

  2. You are absolutely right, in saying that it needs good amount of study to critique it and that as long as it does not affect the public sphere, you don’t have to bother critiquing it. But, it is precisely because Hinduism, Christianity and Islam do affect the public opinion, that they need to be examined.

    I reiterate, I am not asking for a critique or a thorough examination, but merely, suggesting that it is better to question and debate with some knowledge of the scripture, rather than making arguments from complete ignorance. When we read, it is for private study, not for a public critique. The difference is thus:
    If you want to preach from the pulpits, the good and bad of one particular religion, you need to critique it. If you are going to ask questions to those on the pulpits, you need to study it. Hence, my call for study (atleast cursory glance of) religious scriptures.

    Here’s a poser (inspired from Epicurus):
    1) A book A is claimed to be transcendent and timeless. By the very definition, A, should be intelligible and approachable for all people across ages.
    2) If it needs interpretation – it is not transcendent
    3) If it needs contextual study – it is not timeless.
    You cannot claim it is applicable to all people and times if it does not stand up to this test.
    So, philosophically the claims {1,2,3} form an inconsistent set.
    And it follows logically, that as soon as we need the context to interpret bits which we find illogical (it is ok to possess slave girls and use them as you see fit, marrying under 10 girls and having sex with them as soon as they hit puberty etc), we have to also agree that similarly we need to either revamp or discard some other bits.

    Of course, I believe as do many others, that these scriptures might (or might not) have been guidelines for the times in which they were written, but that we have need to discard significant parts of these scriptures as they are inconsistent with our 1) knowledge based on science and
    2) our morality based on civil liberties and equality.

    TL;DR: As long as you don’t push your opinion of ‘what the books say’ on others, it is better to read, even without background training.

  3. I forgot to address the faith part- of course you do- When I read about Trojan war, magic was real for me. But ironically, reading it was when I ready Homer’s Odyssey, that I started doubting religions. But, my not having faith in historical accuracy of that story does not in anyway reduce my admiration for 1) the storyteller 2) the characters and 3) the story itself, and it remains one of my most favourite books. And moral values are taught to us in parables from childhood- about crying wolf, about lying, stealing etc. I doubt there are any who believe that these tales truly happened!

  4. Seems like we agree on most things now. I was a little lazy in describing the ignorance of other cultures, so your response is apt. However, I meant something slightly different:

    If you notice some of the biggest proponents of Hindutva, you would be surprised to note that they are not ignorant, but are actually well versed in theology having studied Quran, Bible, etc. Arun Shourie comes to mind immediately.

    The problem is that all religious literature is at least 1500 years old, during which we have evolved so much that it is no longer considered acceptable to pillage your next village & rape their women just because they didn’t agree with you. And we now know that eating crackers, drinking urine or praying doesn’t heal illness automatically.

    Which means that any religion that does not evolve and go past their scriptures is bound to be full of errors, superstitions and at times downright barbaric. (I urge you to at least take a cursory glance at the Skepticsannotated Bible/Quran and perhaps my points will make more sense then )

    Unfortunately, such idiocies are far more apparent from the outside than the inside and therefore, the divide grows greater. I forget who said this, but it goes something like “The obvious irrationality of other religions gives me pause on my own (religion)”

    1. Thanks Shrek!
      I am very familiar with skeptics annotated bible, havent dwelt on the quran because i feel that unless i have a religious background in islam, i am not too qualified to comment on it.

      Literature, holy or not, requires background and faith to be enjoyed.



      1. I’m surprised you fall for that strawman about right interpretation and perspective.

        If you are reading Tolkein, would you not embark on reading LOTR just because you haven’t read Silmarillon (which precedes it chronologically?) , Or does even the mind-boggling complexity of characters and tales stop Tolkein from telling us an intelligible story? If you need a supplementary guide along with the original text, speaks so much worse of the author who wrote it in the first place.

        If we are talking about philosophy, anywhere is good enough to begin- Perhaps we will be mistaken by a false proposition we carry, but at least we have a starting point from which to debate instead of complete ignorance! The idea of any philosophical argument (from what little I’ve studied in my formal coursework) is that, any philosophical argument is valid. It is not important to start off with all the right propositions (premises/beliefs) as much as it is to throw out any propositions and or conclusions that do not follow logically from the evidence we have.

        I’m surprised why more people don’t call out that perspective bullshit. We should invite those who feel that our interpretation is wrong to prove why it is so and we will gladly discard that conclusion.

        1. Tolkein did not claim to be god, god-inspired, or propagate a life style. and once the claims are meta physical, background, context, technique all matters.

          For that, perhaps i enjoy tolkien a lot (have read everything he wrote that has been published) but i would not embark on writing a critique, deriving a without some training and background in the arts

          When the religious the ephemeral claims to affect the visible, the secular, it is then that the logic can be examined, questioned, challenged. belief is never entirely rational, but that does not make the object of belief insubstantial or irrational.

    2. we agree too much. 🙂 i’ve read the quran, of course, as i have any religious text that is freely available, what i dont do, is comment too much on other religious texts.

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