by Andre Beteille; January 19 , 2011
Many believe that secularism cannot flourish in India because the people of this country, whether Hindus or Muslims, are deeply religious. I maintain, on the other hand, that secular ideas and institutions can find accommodation among people who are steadfast in their religious beliefs and practices. There is really no reason to presume that religious and secular ideas and institutions cannot co-exist in their respective spheres within the same society. I believe that most reasonable people with a genuine religious predisposition will endorse Christ’s injunction to the Pharisees: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
In addition to beliefs and practices, there is a third aspect of religion, which may be called religious identity, on which I wish to focus attention. When philosophers or historians write about religion, they tend to dwell mainly on matters of doctrine and belief, their nature and significance, their unity and coherence, and their validity. They may also write about rites and practices, their complexity, their rigour and their efficacy.
Religion binds together into a single community, actual or potential, all those who identify with it, no matter how lax or negligent they may be in their actual religious observances. This is the social or political aspect of religion as against its spiritual or mystical aspect. It is the capacity of religion to bind people together, to create a sense of unshakeable loyalty among its adherents and to rally them in the face of real or perceived threats to the community that fascinates the social and political theorist. Identification with the religious community has a life of its own and its ebbs and flows are to some extent independent of the growth and decline of strictly religious beliefs and practices. Moreover, it is well known that those who are most successful in rallying their community in the cause of religion are not themselves always strict in their own religious observance.
Religions create communities of birth. A person acquires his religious identity at birth and, generally speaking, retains the same identity until death. His practices may slacken and his beliefs may fade while his identity remains unchanged. In an engaging book, Amartya Sen has pointed out that every individual has a number of different identities. While this is undoubtedly true, some identities are almost inextinguishable while others may be discarded or adopted with relative ease.
What makes a person’s religious identity, unlike his other social identities, inextinguishable? This is a difficult question which cannot be addressed in detail here, but the fact itself has to be noted for it has important social and political consequences. Some religions, such as Islam and Christianity, allow or even encourage conversion to their own faiths while discouraging and opposing conversion of their own members to other faiths. In medieval Christianity, the apostate was regarded as more reprehensible than the infidel and this is to some extent true of Islam in many countries till this day.
To a greater extent than either Islam or Christianity, Hinduism is a true religion of birth. Hindus not only do not like conversion out of Hinduism, they are at best half-hearted about conversion into it. In my experience, most Indians are on the whole sympathetic to the Hindu attitude to conversion, feeling that a person should not try to change his religious identity.
Mahatma Gandhi was a true Hindu in his attitude to religion. Unlike his great adversary, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, whose religion sat lightly on him, Gandhi was a man of deep religious faith who had a natural sympathy and respect for all religions. He believed that each religion had everything that a person might require for his well-being and his salvation, and hence the desire to change one’s religious identity for a new identity could only be due to either ignorance or bad faith. Each person should ask himself what he wanted from religion and, if he looked carefully and sincerely, he was bound to find it in his own religion. If error or superstition had crept into it, there was always room for reforming it from within.
Enlightened Hindus are on the whole tolerant of beliefs and practices other than their own. I have been told by observant Christians that this is because the Hindu does not take his own religious beliefs and practices very seriously: for him what is important is being a Hindu and not adhering to a particular creed or living by it. What perplexes and irritates the tolerant Hindu is the person who denies having any religious identity. I am sometimes asked about my religion. What my interrogators want to know is not what my beliefs and practices are, but what my identity is. When I say that I have no religion, they are not easily convinced. Some go on to say, “But you must be a Christian.” When I say I am not, the more persistent among them ask, “But what about your father, was he not a Christian?” They are willing to go up sufficiently high in my genealogy until they find someone who was indeed a Christian. That reinforces their conviction that I must be one.
Sociologists since the time of Émile Durkheim have pointed to the significant part played by religion in creating and maintaining order and stability in society. That was indeed one of the main virtues that Gandhi found in religion. While it is undoubtedly true that religion can act as a basis for unity and stability within the community, it is equally true that it can act as a source of division and conflict between communities. Sometimes the religious community as a whole is mobilized by its leaders on the basis of the common identity of its members in opposition to another community whose identity is distinct and separate from its own. Religious leaders who are eloquent in the cause of peace and harmony are not always slow in mobilizing their own flock in the cause of their honour, their dignity and their material interests.
A religious community which appears single and undivided from the outside may in fact be divided from within. The division between Shias and Sunnis is well known as a source of conflict in Islamic societies in India and elsewhere. Other examples can easily be found. What makes conflicts within and between religious communities particularly acute is that social divisions are reinforced by doctrinal differences over which strong feelings are aroused, even among people who do not fully understand the nature and significance of those differences.
I do not wish to leave the impression in the end that religion is only a source of social conflict. But religion does provide an important basis for creating and maintaining distinct and separate social identities. People learn to live with differences in religious belief and practice even as they learn to live with other differences in belief and practice. A crucial role is played in the elaboration and reinforcement of those differences by what sociologists call religious specialists. The intentions of such specialists as evangelists, imams or mahants may be peaceful, but their work plays a large part in shaping those identities that are used for mobilizing support in political conflicts.