Rationalism gives teeth to secularism — Indian progressives must adopt it

The recent anti-CAA protests have made stark the debate around secularism in India, but they follow other incidents where the issue was discussed in the public sphere in distinct ways. In the Sabarimala dispute, for example, one side defended women’s entry into the temple, another side defended the rights of the deity to his brahmacharya, and yet another washed its hands off the matter due to its supposed private nature. The triple talaq bill brought forth a complex interaction of arguments about fundamental rights and criminality from Muslim women’s organisations, other Muslim organisations, liberals, the left, the Hindu right, and the state. Against this backdrop, the anti-CAA protests saw certain progressives argue in favour of religious expression at the protests. They reasoned that if the majority could have religious politics without being smeared, so, and especially so, could the minorities. What is common to all these debates is that the progressive alternative to Hindutva that has been presented is largely that of an empty secularism. This secularism is empty because it is devoid of that which makes secularism radical – rationalism. It questions discrimination and demands rights, but stops short of imagining irreligiosity.

A secularism divorced from rationalism in this manner only opposes majoritarianism and bigotry formally. It leads to nothing but a ceaseless back-and-forth, a trade in accusations of hypocrisy — for instance, progressives are asked if they want women to enter temples, why they do not care about gender segregation in mosques. Empty secularism also allows the cynical co-option by the majority of the problems of those marginalised within minority religions. Notice how the triple talaq bill is called the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, and why arguments around the hijab always reach an impasse. Of course, the insincere concern of the right towards women and other oppressed people does not translate into concern for these groups within their own religions. A significant section of the left, for all its proclamations of intersectionality, hopes to push the questions of marginalisation in minority religions to an unspecified future where equality between religions exists. India needs a better progressive politics of religion.

The opposition to Hindutva must be more substantial than a fight for equal treatment of all religions, and it cannot stop at demanding an Indian version of multiculturalism. It must go, in due course of time, beyond denouncing the privileging of a single religion in public life, to demanding that religion be separate from politics entirely. This notion of secularism is often derided as “foreign”, but it is in reality simply modern. Our separation of religion from political life has to go beyond constitutionalism — we must aim for a country where public servants do not perform religious ceremonies while working; where governments do not promote or subsidise any religious activities; where harmful superstition is punishable under law. This is the only kind of secularism that is not instantly buried under its own contradictions.

While we aspire to such a country, we should keep three important considerations in mind. Firstly, such a country cannot be willed into existence. It can only be built with mass support for these ideas, and mass support can be gained if those in progressive politics, seeking to work with the masses, believe that this is the kind of country to aspire to. Socialists in particular should not get held back by idle debates about whether socialism is a precondition for secularism — we have to work towards both at once. Any degree of rationalism in public life opens the door to questioning the very basis of the existence of class itself.

Secondly, as climate change will soon start casting its shadow over all policy actions, a rationalist country is in fact an urgent necessity, not merely a desirable option. We cannot expect a spirited fight against climate change without mass support for public investment in scientific research and technological development. An informed and politically engaged population is needed for the massive changes in production that the world will have to undertake to grapple with the climate crisis. The question is one of existence: if we want our society to continue being democratic while fighting climate change, we have to start work immediately to build a pro-science public opinion. This will mean advocacy to change education policy, but it will also mean mass work outside schools and colleges. A few organisations already do this kind of work. Some work to popularise science, some to debunk superstition, others to politicise scientists and technologists. We need all such organisations, and more. As a start, the All India People’s Science Network and the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti need a lot more support from all leftists and liberals than they receive now.

Thirdly, a position in favour of rationalism does not mean complete non-engagement with religion. Work must still continue in reforming the worst tendencies of religion, in privileging the egalitarian content of religion over its narrow-minded parts, and in engaging with religious formations for progressive messaging. This is a wide range of activities. It can be something as small as the use of stories from religious mythology to make progressive political points. Or it can be something requiring very careful thought, such as involvement in organising pre-existing religious ceremonies to give them a progressive bent or to prevent their slide into open bigotry. But that is not where we should stop. In different ways and at different paces after complete understanding of the context, we must promote rationalism.

Sections of the academia, while making great strides in questioning rationalism, have sometimes lost sight of the fact that in large parts of the world as it exists today, anti-rationalism and superstition harm workers, people from lower castes, sexual minorities, women and the poor in the worst ways. Women in India are regularly murdered for their land, under cover of an accusation of witchcraft. The poor bear the brunt of health crises when quackery is given free rein: the manner in which the AIDS epidemic in Africa was worsened by unscientific advice is a case in point, as is all the pseudoscience around COVID-19 doing the rounds now. Caste atrocities are all the more legitimised when carried out under superstitious pretexts. More clarity of thought is needed on the trade-offs we make in different contexts between science and harm.

In other words, it is time for progressive politics, defined in the broadest terms, to take up once more the unfinished project of modernity. This would mean not just rejecting religious majoritarianism, but aiming to reject the political expression of any religion; resisting the glorification of unscientific practices performed even by marginalised groups; and protecting those worst affected by irrationality and superstition. It would also mean decrying the travesty of public funding for “alternative medicine”. It is a mammoth project of education and organisation, but it is a worthwhile one.

To begin with, as progressives we need to liberate ourselves from the odd mix of primitivism and relativity that we are mired in now. Today, many on the left do not have the legitimacy to effectively reject majority religious politics and even formally reject minority religious politics. One reason for this is because they have not bothered to clarify and work on a general project of rationalism. The other reason is that they are too quick to defer these decisions to an oppressed group of their liking. Just because the right uses these issues cynically, does not mean the left ought to concede that all engagement with minority religious issues is cynical unless carried out on terms set by arbitrary representatives of the oppressed group in question. The easy path of ambiguity and deference must be resisted.

When we are being assaulted by obscurantism and bigotry on one side, and a global pandemic and climate change on the other, there is an opportunity for the broad Left to be imaginative and forward-looking by pursuing the goal of a rationalist society, for even a marginally more rationalist society is better poised to achieve justice.

Jai Vipra is a public policy professional with an interest in digital technology policy.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.