Uppsala_October (M)ending? 2 years since, still hopeful . . .

The Church of Sweden discussed a rather audacious theme, Mending the World? during October 2015 (13–15), in Uppsala, Sweden. The purpose was to explore “if, and how, and in what ways religion, church, and theology can contribute to the future of a global society in constructive ways.” My paper was titled Anti-Conversion Laws in India: Circumscribing Freedom of Conscience within Dharmic Assumptions and is published as a chapter in this edited volume (OR: Pickwick, 2017).


My paper looks at the freedom of religion bills that have been adopted in various states of India against religious conversion. It also looks at the interpretation of the Article 25 in the context of religious freedom, which I believe, swerves away from the spirit in which it was originally envisaged. Would this be a betrayal of secularism that India is committed to? If it is, what challenges does this pose to its plural fabric?

“Secular”– The Prodigal Child of Christianity

A helpful way to understand secularity is to see it as the prodigal child of Christianity. It helps not only by giving a location to the “secular”, but it also provides a way to make sense of the cultural conflicts that increased secularization brings. In its infancy, the secular was merely an internal categorization that was primarily used to differentiate between the mundane tasks, such as, farming, plumbing, or playing a game from the sacred tasks, such as worship, baptism, or reciting ecclesial liturgy. Irrespective of whether we now think that such a separation is warranted or not, we can understand the rationale for such a categorization within its historical context.

From being an internal ecclesial classification, “secular” has now come to to be understood as “exclusion” of religious belief, especially in the West. Alongside this morphing of the meaning of the term, the secular as a movement has now reached the stage of rebellious adolescence, where it is understood as being against religious belief.

Following the story of the prodigal son, the secular gathers all that “rightfully” belongs to it– the cultural and moral import of the Judeo-Christian worldview: the incontestable value and rights assigned to each individual, the conception of self as a volitional being (this is changing with the increasing influence of naturalistic determinism), and despite how strange it may sound today, conceiving frugal living and humility as virtues etc.– and walks. It embarks on a journey of ideological alienation from the family of Christian orthodoxy.

The Secular Age and the Loss of Transcendence

The fading of childhood and the dawn of adolescence is something to be celebrated. Yet, it would be bizarre to imagine that one always remains an adolescent. The child of orthodoxy, through the denial of the transcendent, moves away from under its authority. To become secular is to become prodigal. The uniqueness of a secular age is its denial of transcendence unlike at any other time in human history.

The secular age is uniquely a prodigal child because of a condition, which Charles Taylor calls, “exclusive humanism.” Exclusive humanism dispenses with the very idea of transcendence and thus with it, dispenses with the idea of God, the miraculous, and a divinely instituted moral order. In short, it redefines all of life purely within the framework of immanence.

One may ask, ‘If we find opposition to orthodoxy in every cultural milieu, why should we isolate contemporary secularity as the prodigal child?’ Contemporary secularity is unique precisely because “unbelief” is naturalized within the contemporary culture as in no other. Even the pagan Greco-Roman culture retained a strong idea of transcendence. As Taylor argues,

For the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true (A Secular Age, 18).

Secularist Nostalgia

The process of prodigalization, first and foremost, pertains to belief itself. Viewed from Orthodoxy, the process involves a choice (of the culture as a whole), to walk away from its home of faith. This creates a condition of brokenness and an unhappy separation, leaving orthodoxy with a sense of loss, even mourning. The secular, on the other hand, celebrates its newfound freedom from the clutches of Judeo-Christian morality.

Unfortunately, the conservative Western culture has often displayed a resentful attitude of the older brother, who is filled not with concern over the loss of a brother but with scorn and hatred toward the prodigal. One is left to think that such hatred combines an explicit self-righteous attitude with an implicit “he’s having all the fun” sort of gripe. This has led to an obsession with the hatred of cultural expressions of the prodigal.

However, there is also the haunting memory in the prodigal of how life used to be within the Father’s household. There is a tacit acknowledgment of the loss of transcendence and what that implies to human significance, purpose, and meaning. We thus have a prodigal who is nostalgic about the past.

The audible secularist voices that express such nostalgia– “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him”, as Julian Barnes puts it, unintentionally announce the advent of the “post-secular”. Voices such as that of Alain De Botton’s, in acknowledging the loss a culture, take upon themselves the task of filling the void left by the absence of transcendence.

Driven by nostalgia, the secular philosopher is tempted to claim the position of the chief priest, called to his spiritual service as the culture suddenly senses that with the dismantling of God, it has also obliterated the framework for moral reasoning. Botton’s Religion for Atheists is an effort to redeem the virtuous aspects of religion– the sense of community, respect for the other, kindness and love, etc., but entirely from within the logic of immanence without the “baggage” of those strange religious doctrines about the supernatural and the transcendent God.

The Moulding Power of Liturgies

There are pivotal issues beyond direct acknowledgment of the absence of transcendence. To understand this, James K A Smith summons us to look beyond religion. He asks us to look at anthropology and acknowledge how we are inescapably “liturgical animals.” Looking at “secular liturgies” not only helps us recognize that we shall never get rid of liturgies and a heart of devotion but also helps us understand how we take the shape of the object of our worship!

The reasoning is this: If humans are structured in such a way that we are essentially lovers and worshippers, the dismantling of the transcendent God merely replaces God with something else; only that what we replace it with is from within immanence. It is a way of making idols. But to have idols, we need myths. A Secular Age creates its idols and weaves its myths, and those myths, in turn, make us more secular, for they are mutually interdependent.

The wisdom of the Psalmist recognized the essential connection between the worshipper and the object of his worship thousands of years ago. The words of the Psalmist in Ps 115, “those who make them (idols) are like them; so are all who trust in them” (v.8), essentially mean that one’s object of worship has the power to shape the worshipper in its image.

If “at core”, as Thom Wolf argues, “every worldview is a worshipview. Also, every worldview or worshipview creates . . . a worldvenue: core ways of conceiving the world result in regularized ways of conduct in the world” (Wolf, “Progress-Prone and Progress-Resistant Cultures”, 40), then nothing has the power to shape our lives and societies as gods do, as the object of human worship. Likewise, Moltmann argues that our imaginations of earthly kingdoms / governments are not too far off the mark from our imaginations of the kingdom of God (See The Trinity and the Kingdom). In short, we are inescapably lovers and worshippers and the object that evokes our greatest admiration has the power to shape us. But that is both wonderful and tragic at once!


While secularity may have dispensed with belief in a transcendent God, it hasn’t dispensed with the liturgical human nature. This calls us to examine not whether we have an object of worship or not, we all do. Rather, it calls us to examine the shape and character of the object of our worship and whether it deserves our devotion. The replacement of the transcendent God with something far too inferior might just be the greatest tragedy of the secular age.

The Curious Case of Plurality within Secularity

I was pleased to read this well-argued piece: Women’s-Only Swimming Hours: Accommodation is Not Discrimination, co-authored by an orthodox Jew and a Muslim. It is a critique of the secular liberal vision that tends to “level” the public spaces rather indiscriminately. For the risk of offending someone, the public spaces in the West seem to be increasingly becoming unlivable unless one is willing to sacrifice one’s beliefs and what one holds as sacred.

An obvious blind spot that rationalizes the undermining of religious belief is an underlying erroneous presupposition that religious beliefs and practices are detrimental and certainly not necessary for human flourishing. Hence, if at all allowed, it ought to be relegated to one’s private life. As James Smith elaborates,

The standard picture, we might say, sees religion as a sort of addendum to being human: all humans eat, sleep, breathe, have sex, wear clothes, are citizens of some nation, and engage in play. Then, in addition to that, some (perhaps even many) homo sapiens are ‘religious’: they are ‘believers’ who participate in religious rituals and practices, identify with religious communities, and hold religious beliefs. These beliefs and practices are generally taken to be tied to certain established traditions and institutions (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, etc.). Those who study ‘believers’ are often those without this extra-human supplement: they are ‘just’ human, that is, ‘secular.’ ‘Believers,’ to them, are kind of exotic; they have conspicuous growths, like two heads. From the perspective of the secular scientist, who lacks such growths (who has been healed of such lesions, as it were), this religious addendum is a curious supplement to being human—a kind of deformation. (See, James K A Smith, Secular Liturgies and the Prospects for a ‘Post-Secular’ Sociology of Religion).

The secularist therefore zealously commits himself to the task of exorcising religious belief from the public spaces and discourses. By paying his homage to modernistic beliefs and commitment to enlightenment doctrine’s use of “pure reason”, this exorcist commissions himself as the apostle to (to use Taylor’s imagery) disenchant the world.

Central to this problem is how “secular” is defined as “exclusion” of religious belief. As Smith argues, what the secularists fail to recognize are the faith-like epistemic framework and the secular liturgies that operate  within their anti-religion calculus. Worldviews that are presupposed are nothing short of beliefs, which are religious in its form. And with increased secularization, Christian beliefs, for historical reasons, have come straight in the line of fire of the liberal exorcists.

However, belief is not bigotry and accommodation is not discrimination.

What causes disgust to a community need not be shared. Yet there needs to be a way in which a society understands that there is something innately right about not expecting a Muslim to sell pork at his meat shop or stipulating women’s only swimming hours at public pools! Civility ought to recognize that discrimination could go both ways and seek to allow people to hold views that they feel persuaded to hold. A secularity that shuts differing beliefs, religious or otherwise, is marked by a medieval calculus of coercion rather than a calculus of engagement.

Thankfully, the West with its newly imposed condition of religious plurality, is forced to reevaluate the idea of the “secular”– the survival of which, could depend on how it works through some tough readjustments. In this sense, the new wave of immigration may just about help open its eyes in more ways than one.

Can we ban Religious Conversions? A Response to Jaideep Prabhu

I couldn’t help but notice the irony in Jaideep A Prabhu’s strong critique of Nehru’s political imagination when my quick search informs me that he is the Jawaharlal Nehru Professor of Business and Enterprise at the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge. His article, Is religious conversion really a fundamental right, or can we ban it? is undoubtedly argued with a certain flair. And given that its primary appeal is the political incorrectness of the Abrahamic religious nuances, his argument would appear quite persuasive to many. However, his assumptions and rationale beg several questions.

Prabhu’s principal argument is that religious liberty as imagined within the Nehruvian secular framework of the Indian Constitution a) neither originates from the Dharmic faiths nor is compatible with it, and b) does not provide a level playing ground for Dharmic systems vis-à-vis Abrahamic faiths. Given these, Prabhu argues for “a complete ban on proselytism and religious conversion in India . . . ,” which “is only a ban on religious thought of an exclusivist and binary nature . . .” Now, even a cursory look at his argument would immediately accentuate the ignorance of an inherent “binary” and “exclusivism” that is presupposed in his very suggestion.

Let us leave aside his use of a Western construct of a unified Hinduism to delineate the character of Hinduism as essentially plural. More seriously, the author is blissfully unaware of the totalizing nature of his prognosis that imagines individuals bereft of freedom of belief. What sort of human nature does such a view presuppose? At a personal level, it presupposes that individuals have no freedom of belief and concurrently denies its causal prerequisite—the freedom of conscience. The argument is perhaps that one ought to just take whatever life offers, as one’s karma. While this line of thinking is fine for someone in Cambridge, it doesn’t exactly bargain a rosy picture for a Dalit who is inescapably caught in the viciousness of his karmic thinking.

It was for this reason that Ambedkar argued that change of belief was the only vehicle to escape from awful life conditions. Ambedkar’s thinking affirmed that religious beliefs have socio-ethical implications. At a systemic level, curtailing of religious liberty and controlling of one’s beliefs are best seen as instruments to subjugate an already oppressed people.

A closer look at the question of religious liberty informs us that our view about it stems essentially from how we construe our nature as human beings. The secular system, which Prabhu rightly credits as being rooted in the Judeo-Christian theology, defines humans as possessing essential freedoms. The reason why religious liberty is central to the freedom of conscience is precisely because, religious beliefs, more often than not, function as core beliefs that define who we are, in terms of our origin, purpose, morality, and destiny. If there is such a thing as ‘freedom of conscience’ that is worth its salt, it has to include religious liberty.

Any form of control over beliefs would amount to repression of the freedom of conscience. In fact, the freedom a) to speech and expression, b) to assemble peaceably that are guaranteed in Article 19, presupposes freedom of conscience and freedom to believe. That is, freedom of speech & expression and freedom to assemble have no meaning unless there is freedom to hold beliefs that one is persuaded to believe in.

Further, the Ambedkar/Nehruvian construct of the secular state is not a result of the “disdain for Hindu traditions” as Prabhu claims; rather, it is a pragmatic proposal of what they believed as the best possible vehicle for justice and fairness to all, especially for the lower castes and the Dalits. In their opinion, true equality was not conceivable generically from within our soil. (I presume that Prabhu would not throw out the notion of equitability itself as a secular imposition upon the Dharmic faiths.) How else would Nehru and Ambedkar ensure any sense of equality to the 60% of the population comprising 40% OBCs and 20% Dalits, except through a liberal understanding of justice?

To be fair to the Nehruvian blueprint for the nation, one could ask what other systems could have worked equitably to the whole population of a newly founded nation whose diversity is unmatched anywhere else in the world. Regardless of the moral order presupposed in a secular constitution, our quest ought to be moderated by the question, “what is the right thing to do?” In short, a moral order is not to be pronounced wrong, merely because it has Semitic origins. It would be wrong only to those who would otherwise benefit by power and caste equations and thus hesitate to imagine about equality outside their thinking boxes.

Background Culture and Democratic Ideals

The belief that humans are free and equal, having intrinsic worth is taken for granted today—be it our socio-political theories, or democratic imaginations, or our constitutional laws! However, in reality, this is not a belief shared by all, nor is it innate to human imagination. Aristotle intuitively reasoned as follows: “But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? — There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and other be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” Consequently, he argued that it is natural that Hellenes should rule over barbarians and men over women.

Yet, today, thanks to the demands of political correctness, even those who don’t believe it pretend to believe it just the same! While reason may function as a vehicle to make sense of egalitarianism, it is not a belief derivable via rational or logical deduction. What then should we make of the American Declaration of Independence which holds that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” as being “self-evident”?

Historically, the belief that every individual, irrespective of race, gender, ethnicity or nationality, shares an intrinsic value as a human being has been seriously questioned. Hitler’s genocide of the physically and mentally disabled and his ethnic cleansing of the Jews are not the only times in history where the intrinsic worth of humans has been defied. The myriad other cases of mass murders and ethnic cleansing of tribes and religious minorities, in the past and today, are often advanced by the underlying belief that one race or group is superior to the other.

Given this propensity to view races and groups hierarchically, any democracy, worth its salt, will necessarily have to enforce a view of the human that affirms intrinsic worth to each individual irrespective of race, religion, caste, or economic background. It undoubtedly is to the advantage of the state to have its background cultural and predominant religious doctrine eschew egalitarianism, making it “self-evident.” This allows the democratic machinery of the state to harness it towards a healthy expression of a plurality of views (including of those that oppose egalitarianism) and representations within the state.

However, for those cultures where the predominant background culture conflicts with egalitarian ethos, it makes the democratic functioning all the more challenging. Understandably, where the popular religious and cultural doctrines promote inequality and disparity, the state’s task becomes an arduous one, in that it has to uphold ideals against the popular beliefs of its population. Given this reality, the case of Indian democracy, which for practical reasons has adopted a democratic structure, needs a sympathetic evaluation. The law cannot deliver beyond what it can! It is pointless to demand of a people a behavior fitting to the spirit of the constitution, without changing what Alexis de Tocqueville calls, “the habits of the heart.” As Dr. Ambedkar astutely observed: “Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.”

When we Become Slaves to an Idea of Freedom

There is a subtle difference between decriminalization of a moral behavior that is socially contested and the legalization of it. Earlier I had argued that the Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code should not criminalize homosexual behavior as it was a question pertaining to freedom of conscience that did not significantly affect public order among the citizens. (a case to the converse may be legitimately made about health and morality). However, it would be shortsighted to conclude that our personal freedom always overrides all other social compulsions.

An inevitable part of the social evolution in democratic contexts is the demand for greater personal freedoms– demand for legalization of prostitution or homosexual marriages or legal access to mind altering drugs, abortion rights, etc. The push seems to be towards greater personal freedoms– to do whatever one wishes with oneself so long as it does not affect other individuals. Such a push is loaded with problematic anthropological assumptions, that needs to be historically situated. It instances human social propensity to run into larger subsequent problems in the effort to escape a visible problem. Undoubtedly, a democratic society would have to uphold individual freedoms simply because the very idea of democracy is undergirded by a strong notion of individual freedom. That is, if there is no personal freedom, there is no democracy.

However, there is another side to this story: recognition of an equally important polarity on the other side of the spectrum that people in a society should honor—the question of corporate responsibility. It may be unfashionable to say anything that even remotely competes with the notion of individual freedom and the assumption that personal autonomy overrides all other compulsions. However, as “autonomy/autos-nomos” indicates self-governance; when applied to individuals, it has the potential to degenerate to where one becomes a law unto oneself.

Our notion of personal freedom is often derived from within a framework of a) defining who we are as humans and b) what it means to be individuals in the world. These are two equally important factors: 1. Individuality— which emphasizes personal freedoms, allow us to believe, say, and do what we want. 2. Being in the world emphasizes the reality that we share the world with others and are, therefore, accountable to communities. Every society (not just the land of the free and home of the brave!), is moving from being communities to being autonomous individuals—thanks to the ever-dominant influence of modernity! But when a culture is obsessed with personal freedom where each and every question is raised, argued and defended from a certain notion of freedom, that notion of freedom may have very well enslaved the culture. It has become common to demand personal freedom at any cost, often forgetting that each individual also carries a corporal responsibility.

While the earlier emphasis on communal life often constricted individuals into social conformity, modern autonomy frees us to the opposite extreme—self-obsessed, cloisters with no social connections or obligations. Both are problematic! Likewise, an emphasis on freedom at the expense of communal accountability and the emphasis on communality at the expense of personal freedom—both enslave us and the society will pay for it sooner or later. It is crucial therefore to keep the balance. Let our idea of freedom then be tempered by the idea of communal accountability.

Article 377 and Public Reason

The recent debates on the Article 377 is perhaps a foretaste to the nature of debates we as a nation will see in the coming days. The Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code that defines homosexual behavior as “against the order of nature” dates back to 1861 of the British India. It states: “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.”

Beliefs and Public Reason

Any mature democracy that affirms plurality will need a discursive space and a ‘public reason’ that allows competing voices to robustly contest with each other. This democratic plurality is by its very definition a comprehensive one in that the beliefs and justifications behind those voices seek to share the same public space while conflicting with each other.

The pluralistic character of the Indian context would rightly anticipate conflicting opinions that could often be an irritant to the parties involved. Central to defining the shape of public reason would be the recognition that people function from beliefs that are fundamental to them — be it, religious, non-religious or cultural. That is, even the liberal secularists who may not appeal to any specific religious doctrine retain a religious form of justification for their beliefs. In this sense, atheistic naturalists would be just as religious as theistic supernaturalists or Advaitic monists, in that their fundamental beliefs function as presuppositions—a position argued from rather than a position argued to.

Given that an individual’s fundamental beliefs from where moral doctrines are derived are not shared, it is natural to expect conflicting answers to the question that the Article 377 begs: “what is the order of nature?” Whether it is an appeal to a transcendental law, or to evolutionary biology that prioritizes self-preservation or a procreative ‘order of nature’ against homosexual behavior, there is a moral doctrine that is used to justify it as moral or immoral. Even where there is no overt appeal to a moral doctrine, there still is an appeal to a predefined human nature (however it may be imagined!), that informs how one answers the question. However, given that moral doctrines held function through the agency of individual conscience that is often shared within ideological or religious cohorts, the State does best to remain neutral, lest it supports one group over another.

Criminalization of Homosexual Behaviour
The oft-used reasoning against Article 377—that something is archaic and therefore wrong—is simply erroneous. It is chronological snobbery. After all, that something is old does not necessarily mean that it is false or unreasonable or irrelevant. What sort of public reason can mediate between traditionalists and liberals to vouchsafe the pluralistic character of our society—where plurality itself is not undermined but affirmed along with individual freedom?

While affirming that most behaviors envisaged as criminal in the Article 377, one ought to see what is at stake in the criminalization of homosexual relation between consensual adults for a secular state? For one, it conflicts with a more fundamental right that affirms equal entitlement to freedom of conscience. While the constitution does not prioritize various freedoms, by default, the freedom of conscience and (religious) beliefs (article 25) functions as first among the rest—freedoms of speech, assembly, movement etc (article 19). In fact, freedoms of speech, assembly, movement etc., presuppose the freedom of conscience. If one could not freely believe according to his/her conscience, there would be nothing to speak or assemble about!

Despite how immoral it may seem to another, the moral reasoning pertaining to homosexual behavior (despite being contestable within the arguments about public order, morality, and health) comes within the purview of individual conscience within contemporary secular reasoning. Freedom of conscience and individual liberty, therefore, is a bulwark against criminalizing homosexual behavior between consenting adults.

Preserving Freedom of Conscience
Expectedly, following decriminalization of homosexual behavior the courts and the civil society will face the question of legalizing homosexual marriages. The real challenge in the near future would be to on the one hand, preserve individual liberties over laws such as Article 377, and yet on the other, to prevent the scope of such liberties from attaining a monstrous force, which in turn could deny those very liberties to others to disagree or to call it immoral. For it is the same right—the right to the freedom of conscience—which one appeals to in defense of the practice of homosexual behavior, that  allows another to call it immoral.

In short, we do well to adopt a public reason that privileges the freedom of conscience by decriminalizing an issue pertaining to individual conscience and uphold the same spirit when those seeking liberation become oppressors tomorrow impinging upon religious and cultural beliefs of people. As Rawls in his, Idea of Public Reason Revisited argues, “Central to the idea of public reason is that it neither criticizes nor attacks any comprehensive doctrine, religious or nonreligious, except insofar as that doctrine is incompatible with the essentials of public reason and democratic polity.”