Gurcharan Das The Times of India Sunday, January 15, 2006
Last month, I visited the 'post-secular world'. I found myself sitting next to a group of white Americans on a train from Washington to New York, who told me blandly that I would go to hell because I believed in abortion and evolution. I had heard that Bush's America had turned religious, but I could not imagine how much till that morning. I was their captive for three hours, and they decided to do their good deed and try to convert me to their faith. Jurgen Habermas, one of the most influential thinkers in the West, explains religion's return, especially in America, in Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity. He says that people have traditionally found solace in religion when threatened and the emergence of 'post-secular societies' is a reaction to terrorism after 9/11. The religious values of love, community, and godliness also help to offset the global dominance of an ethic of competitiveness and acquisitiveness in the capitalist In post-reform India too, I have noticed that the young are increasingly overwhelmed by the demands of work and material success, and have begun to seek refuge in various sects of bhakti. This fundamentalist post-secular America is so different from the one in which I grew up. During my college days in the sixties, I read the great modern thinkers and I learned that reason was superior to belief (Hegel); that God diminished man's sublimity (Feuerbach); that religion was an 'opiate of the masses' (Marx); and there was no 'future of an illusion' (Freud) because 'God was dead' (Nietzsche). I returned to India expecting the world to gradually turn secular with the spread of modernity. But the India that I came back to was, arguably, the world's most religious place. I worried that religion made Indians passive and accepting, and turned them away from the pressing problems of society when we needed an active and engaged citizenry in democracy to fight society's injustices. So, I turned for inspiration to the third goal of classical Indian life, to dharma or right conduct, rather than the transcendent goal of moksha. Dharma was secular while moksha was religious.
Over time I have discovered, however, that a secular life based on the noble end of dharma cannot substitute the mesmerising power of moksha. Secularism is a noble but limited ethic — I don't think it can replace religion. In a similar vein, Habermas explains that many of our modern ideals, such as the intrinsic worth of all human beings that underlies human rights, stem from the religious idea of the equality of all men in the eyes of God. Religious idealism and biblical justice, he reminds us, also infused the civil rights movement in America in the 1960s. Were these invaluable religious sources of morality and justice to atrophy, he is doubtful whether modern societies would be able to sustain these ideals on their own.
Religion's return, however, does present an undeniable danger and risk in a post-secular world. Hence, in a recent lecture, 'Religion in the Public Sphere', Habermas spoke about the commendable idea of toleration, which is the foundation of modern democratic culture. He called it a two-way street. Not only must believers tolerate each others' beliefs, but also the atheism of non-believers. Disbelieving secularists, similarly, must value the convictions of religious citizens. Only those religions who can suspend the temptation of theological narcissism — the conviction that my religion alone provides the path to salvation — are welcome in our rapidly changing, post-secular world. email@example.com