The Myth of Secularism: A Primer for Pagans 

Divya Jhingran

Apr 25, 2016, 05:51 PM | Updated 05:51 PM IST

Danish Bishop Absalon destroys the idol
of Slavic god Svantevit at Arkona in a painting
by Laurits Tuxen /wikipedia
Danish Bishop Absalon destroys the idol of Slavic god Svantevit at Arkona in a painting by Laurits Tuxen /wikipedia
  • The British ‘secular liberal model’, was deeply embedded in the framework of the Protestant religious worldview  and the the idea of ‘secularism’ became an ineffective tool to deal with contemporary problems.
  • In India, the liberal policies of ‘neutrality’ and ‘tolerance’ with respect to religion actually had the opposite effect and led to the rise of religious fundamentalism. We need to stop treating the impoverished theories of the West as some sort of gospel truth that cannot be challenged.

  • The capacity for imagination is one of the most fascinating features of the human mind. Not only is it useful in problem-solving but it also conjures up all kinds of stories to delight our hearts and minds. Some of these stories are partly true, others are wholly made up. In any case, as far as stories go, truth and falsity is beside the point. Some stories capture our imagination or otherwise resonate so deeply that they acquire epic status. The heroes and heroines of these tales acquire legendary abilities; their beauty has the capacity to “launch a thousand ships”; and their strength the ability to lift mountains. Eventually, some of them are bestowed with divine status. While some people may scoff at the powers we bestow upon our deities, others delight in these tales, and yet others sincerely believe them to be true. Whatever the case may be, both the nay-sayers and the believers come together on important occasions and in times of grand festivities to invoke their deities and to propitiate them for continued happiness. These stories and epics also provide the raw material for deep philosophical discussions and serve as a foundation for ethics or even political theory. In this manner, entire civilizations may coalesce around their epics.

    This attitude changed dramatically with the birth of Christianity. Christianity was born and grew within the mighty Roman Empire. In a period of 400 years it succeeded in entirely changing the way in which we look at the world. It is interesting to trace the history of how this happened because the consequences of the domination of Christianity has a bearing on our intellectual lives. So let’s do an ethnography of the western world to examine the conceptual structures behind some of their ideas. We will begin our journey with the Roman Empire, go on to examine the changes brought about by the Christians, and then take a look at the birth of secularism. It is a long story, but an important one. See for yourself and then decide whether secularism is really a legitimate child of the Enlightenment or whether its parentage lies elsewhere.

    The Romans

    The Romans, as we all know, had gods for every occasion – for love, war, beauty, prowess in battle, fame and glory. They had oracles and augurs, vestal virgins and priests, sacrifices and ceremonies, not to mention magnificent, awe-inspiring temples dedicated to their gods and goddesses.

    For the Romans, religion was a form of tradition and did not have anything to do with doctrines and beliefs. They did not divide their world into separate realms of the religious and the secular. Emperors, senators, judges and magistrates held religious offices simultaneously with their other duties. Nor was their religion merely some form of philosophic speculation confined to temples and academies. Instead, it was woven into almost every occasion of their lives, and all important transactions of peace and war, of business and pleasure were begun and concluded with solemn sacrifices in which everyone participated.

    The Christians

    Far away from Rome, in the land of Judea, lived the Jews, whose kingdom was conquered by the Romans and became a part of the Roman Empire. The Jews were different in that they believed that there was only one God. However, they considered themselves to be God’s chosen people and did not seek to influence others outside their community with respect to their beliefs. All they wanted was the freedom to worship their one God and not be compelled to participate in ceremonies dedicated to the numerous Roman gods that now littered their landscape. Jesus was born among the Jews, and to cut a long story short, became the rallying point around the religion that came to be called Christianity.

    So, what set the Christians apart from the Jews and the Romans? The Christians began with the material they had inherited from the Jews, chiefly, the idea of one God. To this they added the claim that they had found their Savior in the form of Jesus Christ. However, this alone was not enough for them to be taken seriously by their contemporaries. They had no tradition to fall back upon and tradition was very important to the Romans as well as to the Jews. So the Christians came up with the next best thing and laid claim to the Truth. The Truth was revealed to them in the Bible which was the word of God. This Truth consisted in the belief that their God was the only true God while all the other gods were a figment of human imagination. In fact, the other gods were not gods at all but a form of the devil. Worship of false gods was called idolatry, also known as devil worship. Moreover, the Christians felt it was their duty to convert all human beings to their way of thinking so that they could be saved from the clutches of the devil.

    There are three central points of interest here for the purposes of our discussion: first, that Christianity is not man-made but comes from God; second, it is the Truth; and third, it applies to all human beings.

    In making such claims, the Christians shifted the framework of discourse from practices to beliefs. Up until now, traditional practices had not required any justification grounded on beliefs or reasons. The Christians, on the contrary, declared that human practices were an expression of beliefs and pagan practices were wrong because they were based on false beliefs. In this way, right from its inception, Christianity relied on beliefs and the truth of its beliefs. It was important to have true beliefs because the worship of false gods came with a heavy price – you would be consigned to hell forever and subjected to eternal torture. Because the claims of Christianity were presented as the Truth, this message had a strong impact on the people at the time.

    Dividing the World into Separate Realms

    At first the Romans were appalled and irritated by the Christians for not only failing to participate in their time-honored ceremonies and rituals, but also for threatening them with all kinds of dire consequences, on earth and in hell. Many Christians were put to death during this initial period. Nevertheless, this did not do much to deter their relentless zeal.

    However, Christians themselves now confronted a genuine problem. They lived in the midst of a thriving pagan culture and it was difficult to tell whether their own daily routines and habits were pagan practices or whether they were innocent customs merely performed by pagans. Gibbon describes their dilemma most eloquently in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, paraphrased below:

    The innumerable rites of the pagans were so closely interwoven with every circumstance of business or pleasure, in public and in private life, that it seemed impossible to escape them, without, at the same time, renouncing all human commerce and all entertainment. The Christians with pious horror found themselves avoiding the circus and the theatre; they found themselves surrounded with devilish snares each time their friends drank a toast by invoking one of their gods; when a bride was carried over the threshold of her new home with the chanting of incantations, or when a procession of the dead moved slowly towards the funeral pyre. Every art and every trade that was adorned with idols was polluted by the stain of idolatry. Even the arts of music and painting, of eloquence and poetry, flowed from the same impure origin. Dangerous temptations lurked everywhere to ambush the Christian believer when any of the Roman rituals were performed, whether it was to pray for good fortune in daily life, for remembrance of the dead, to hail the return of spring, or to celebrate the foundation of the Republic. On days of general festivity, it was the custom of the Romans to adorn their doors with lamps and with branches of laurel. This innocent practice might perhaps have been tolerated as a mere civil institution. But it happened to be the case that the doors were under the protection of the household gods and the laurel was sacred to the lover of Daphne. The “trembling Christians” labored under the most dreaded fears, from the reproaches of their own conscience, the censures of the church, and the threat of divine vengeance. “Such was the anxious diligence which was required to guard the chastity of the gospel from the infectious breath of idolatry.”

    And so the Christians methodically set to work to begin a demarcation of true religion from devil worship so that they could safely participate in their activities without the risk of contamination. Religious committees consisting of church fathers, bishops and priests were set up that carefully deliberated on which practice was acceptable and which was not. Everything came under strict scrutiny, from the mode of dress to the celebration of the New Year, to what one ate and how one talked. Slowly but surely a clear picture began to emerge of what was true religion, what was false and what was neutral. Some pagan practices such as the theater or the celebration of the New Year, after serious deliberation by the church fathers, were found to be neutral and could safely be pursued by Christians; other practices were shunned. Thus, while the Roman world had been the totality of all Roman practices, the Christian world became divided into three separate realms: true religion, false religion and a neutral civic realm.

    As Christianity grew in power, it continued to assert its zealous opposition to all pagan practices and in a period of 400 years succeeded in exterminating paganism entirely. The Roman Empire was now a land of Christians, a land of true religion. It was no longer necessary to speak of false religion, so the three-fold division of realms eventually gave way to a two-fold one: the religious sphere and the civic sphere.

    By no means did these changes come about in a neat and tidy manner. Rivers of blood flowed for more than a thousand years; there were murders and executions, tortures and forced confessions, burnings at the stake, crucifixions and beheadings. The mayhem continued long after paganism was destroyed because of the various schisms that arose within Christianity itself. There could be only one Truth, and there could only be one way of describing it. Everything else was considered heresy or blasphemy and could not be tolerated. The innumerable Christian sects and schisms that kept sprouting up – the Ebionites, Donatists,  Samosatians, Montanists, Novatians, Marcionites , Valentinians, the various Gnostics of Asia and Egypt, Manicheans, Rogatians, Arians, and many others were gradually snuffed out and everything came under the umbrella of the Catholic Church.

    The Enlightenment

    The 16th century was witness to another major upheaval in the Christian world. The Catholic Church came under attack by the Protestants for not adhering closely enough to the Bible. The Protestants accused the Catholics of being no better than the pagans with all their fuss over icons, rituals, relics and saints.

    They called for a more austere form of religion and freedom from the tyranny of the priesthood. Each individual should have the liberty to practice their faith without interference from the “popery”. Eventually, the Protestants succeeded in breaking off from the Catholic Church. Needless to say, rivers of blood flowed in this process as well.

    By the 17th century, Europeans had had enough of all this bloodshed in the name of religion. It was the age of Enlightenment and a scientific revolution was in full swing. To combat the eternal religious strife, intellectuals of the time came up with the idea of ‘secularism’. This was a way of organizing relations between the Church and the State so that each had jurisdiction over their own realms. Protestant ideas of individual liberty were now dominant so the rationale was that no individual could impose their understanding of God’s will on to others. Therefore, the State had to remain neutral about religious matters which fell under the private sphere where God alone had authority. For all other matters there was the public sphere where the State had jurisdiction.

    Notice carefully that even though it was an age of scientific inquiry, it was never up for debate whether the world is actually divided into two realms. It was not questioned whether it was mere convention to think of the world this way or whether it was really so. After 1700 years of indoctrination, this was simply taken as a matter of fact. The deep-seated cognitive constraints of the people of this culture did not allow them to conceive of the world in any other way.

    The Chinese

    Let’s examine the intellectual response produced by other cultures to extreme political and social turmoil. Confucius was born in the 6th century BC at a time referred to as the ‘Warring States’ period. A prolonged period of war between rival Chinese states had led to a time of political confusion, social unrest and moral decline. In his Analects, Confucius undertakes to find a solution to these problems. How to restore the peace and stability that his country had enjoyed for so long before descending into such chaos? Confucius argued that it is not through political machinations or military might that the prosperity of a nation can be ensured. Instead, it is by developing an appreciation for the arts and by cultivating a genuine appreciation for and adherence to the formal rules of ceremonies, rituals and etiquette.

    For Confucius, nothing was outside the domain of proper aesthetic order and ritual propriety. From little things come big things, so values cannot come into play only when the stakes are high. Whether you should attack a neighboring country is no more of a moral problem than what your posture should be when you sit with your teacher, or what your facial expression should be when you receive a gift.

    Confucius’ ideas did not depend upon dividing the world into a realm of God and a realm of humans. Instead, his approach relied upon uniting aesthetic ideas of harmony with values to cultivate individual capacities. This, in turn, would lead to a well-ordered family and a well-functioning state.

    Another school of thought in China that initially emerged as a political philosophy was Daoism. The Daoists had little patience with the rule-bound Confucian thought. Instead, their main focus centered on a skill in action so perfect and so complete that it could be characterized as no-action. There is a sense of agency in action that gets in the way of perfection. When there is no volition or intention in our actions, when we perform our tasks without imposing our own consciousness we work in accordance with the Dao (the “Way”). The Dao is not a transcendent notion sitting in some supernatural divine realm but an overarching concept that covers all aspects of life and nature. It involves the idea of mutual inclusion in the sense that one aspect necessarily implicates the other. It was conceived to be the natural order of things and was used by the Daoists as a paradigm with which to think of all things, including war, politics, strategy, ethics, martial arts, trade, agriculture or medicine.

    In neither of these Chinese schools of thought was there an emphasis on beliefs much less the truth of these beliefs. In fact, there was a sort of disdain for beliefs because language gets in the way of true understanding.

    The Hindus

    The kernel of Hindu discoveries can be captured in the concept of satchidananda. Sat refers to that which is real, Chit is an awareness of this reality, and Ananda describes the nature of this awareness, which is bliss. The idea is for each individual to discover this for themselves as the means to lasting happiness. To aid in this discovery, the Hindus developed a culture rich in rituals, practices, stories and traditions.

    Like the pagans of ancient Rome, and like other eastern traditions, the Hindus did not think there is a transcendental divine world that is not a part of the natural world. Everything, from Brahma to a blade of grass, is a part of nature. Even though they produced numerous intellectual tracts, there was no particular emphasis on beliefs because, in the final analysis, they too reached the verdict that words cannot convey the nature of reality. Their real concern was not with God and the Devil, but rather in being able to tell the difference between knowledge and ignorance. In any case, they did not need to rely upon books because they had a steady stream of gurus who were the equivalent of their ‘primary sources’.

    When the British consolidated their power in India and set about governing the country, Protestant ideas were the dominant ones. Because of their deeply-entrenched conceptual limitations, the British naturally thought that the Indian traditions were the structural equivalents of their own religion. They were convinced that Indian ‘religion’ must have something to do with laws and doctrines based on scriptures. They began a feverish hunt for Indian ‘scriptures’ and books of laws so that they could use these as a basis for governance. Their newly-fashioned notions about individual freedom and toleration with respect to religion required them to be neutral and to allow the natives to live according to the plans of their own gods.

    Although the British thought they were being tolerant and liberal, their policies ended up having a negative effect on Indian culture. They acted as a mechanism that forced the Indians to adapt their way of thinking to the British model. Now the Hindus too began a feverish hunt within their texts each time they wanted some practice to be allowed. Only if they could prove that it was ‘scripturally sanctioned’ would the British allow them to carry on with their ancestral traditions. In this way, the idea of finding scriptural authority for ancestral practices turned into a systematic strategy to defend the validity of the Hindu traditions.

    The Myth of Secularism

    The colonial state in India approached all traditions as variations of the Biblical model of religion. Although they called it a secular liberal model, it was deeply embedded in the framework of the Protestant religious worldview. This, then, is the biggest myth about secularism. It pretends to be neutral, but is in fact a religious model masquerading in secular garb. Secularism itself is not secular. It is based on Protestant ideas that take for granted that the world is divided into two realms. It is the Church fathers who determined which practices belong in which realm and it is on the basis of Protestant ideas that we are required to believe that the two realms ought to stay separate.

    The point of concern is not that the source of knowledge is Protestant, but whether it counts as knowledge at all. The liberal idea of the separation of Church and State did have some value in cultures that were otherwise hell-bent on destroying each other on the basis of their beliefs. Others have claimed that this change has less to do with liberal values and more to do with the fact that people have simply stopped believing. Among the believers, secularism has had little to no effect in bringing about tolerance.

    As for cultures that fall outside the Biblical model, it has actually had a negative impact. This brings us to the second biggest myth about secularism – the idea that it is an effective tool to deal with contemporary problems.

    The Dark Side of Secularism

    In India, the liberal policy of ‘neutrality’ and ‘tolerance’ with respect to religion actually had the opposite effect and led to the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. It changed the self-understanding of Hindus and began to distort their experience. Where textual authority had mattered little, it now assumed central importance. The early British colonials were astounded to find that most Hindus had never heard of the Vedas or the Shastras, books that the British had identified as forming the doctrinal basis for Hinduism. In fact, during the first British census in India, people did not even understand the question when asked about their religion. They mostly wrote down the name of their jati (birth group). All this began to change now. A clear picture of the religion called Hinduism began to emerge and it was patterned exactly on Protestant Christianity.

    With the so-called Hindu Renaissance of the 19th century things became even worse. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, for example, spoke of the Vedas, which so far had been of interest only among marginal groups of people, as if they embodied the “true beliefs” of the Hindus. He supported the view that traditional practices ought to be founded on Holy Scriptures. Swami Dayanand Saraswati condemned the superstition in the temples “full of idols and priests”, promoted the idea of one Supreme Being and spoke of the truth of the Vedas as the infallible “supreme authority”. He went one step further and replicated the Protestant hatred of priests in his characterization of Brahmins as selfish “popes,” who fabricated false teachings. The Arya Samaj launched a missionary movement to preach the Vedic religion to save people from the dark abyss of ignorance reflected in their obsession with gods and rituals. The newly converted threw their idols into the river or publicly smashed them in local markets.

    The ideas of the Hindu intellectuals of the 19th century slowly trickled down among the masses, and Hindu foolishness came into its own. The Vedas, they asserted, came straight from God and were not man-made. Our epics were the Truth, they insisted. The British, aghast as they must have been with the rampant devil worship they saw all around them, nevertheless were bound by their commitment to a liberal policy of toleration. Toleration became the buzzword now and the Hindus were not to be outdone. They rummaged among their ‘scriptures’, produced some disjointed quotes to the effect that the ‘whole world is family’ and ‘all Truth is one’ and used such quotes as evidence that Hindus were more tolerant than anyone else. Out went the primary values of careful discernment between knowledge and ignorance to be replaced with the values of tolerance and intolerance. The Hindu sages of yore had never been shy about expressing their intolerance for ‘deluded fools’ and ‘dull-heads’. Instead, without any critical examination, Hindus now began to treat the idea of tolerance as some sort of criteria of being enlightened.

    Next came the assertion of rights in the name of religion. The British policies of religious tolerance were based upon their peculiar relationship between ‘religious truth’ and state authority. These colonial policies inspired the various religious groups in India to also start regarding their traditional practices as belonging in an untouchable sacrosanct sphere. While policies based on common-sense might keep human misbehavior and criminal activity in check, policies based upon the inviolable ‘truth’ and ‘absolute freedom’ of religion gave rise to all kinds of new problems.

    The idea that only God has authority over the religious realm began to take deep hold among the Hindus. The resulting fundamentalism was by no means confined to the right wing and has found its way into the 21st century left wing as well. Feminists and other social justice warriors have jumped into the fray and insist, for example, that women be granted entry into the handful of temples where they are not allowed. They show little regard for the fact that Hindu temples are run by ‘family groups’ in accordance with the rites specific to each deity. God from his heaven does not lay down the rules; instead the rules have been formulated by the custodians of the temple, based on their own aesthetic and their own ancestral traditions. Some of the gods are celibate and have strict rituals and rules associated with them where women may not be allowed to participate. The feminists, however, treat these matters from within the Protestant colonial framework based on the presumption of God-given rights that are universally applicable in all situations and where human beings must not be allowed to interfere.

    Thus, the colonial policy of liberal toleration succeeded in making the situation in India much worse than it had ever been. In this sense, liberal secularism and religious fundamentalism in India are two faces of the same coin. They are two mutually reinforcing aspects of a mechanism that has resulted in the transformation of the native traditions of India into variants of the religions of the Book. And yet we are given no choice but to believe that it is only through a liberal secular approach that fundamentalism can be restrained!


    How can we get out of this mess? One way might be to examine the domains of knowledge that each culture has produced. When Hindus assert that the way to lasting happiness is by breaking free of our cognitive constraints, can we say that they have produced knowledge? If yes, what is the domain of this knowledge? This point becomes clearer if we look at the way this matter is treated in the West, in domains such as psychology or the philosophy of mind, or the study of consciousness. They treat these subjects as some sort of science, describe their theories and ideas, and then add, “by the way, the eastern religions also speak of such and such thing”. This is condescending to say the least. By straitjacketing our traditions to fit into the mold of religion we diminish their validity as proper contenders in the marketplace of ideas when it comes to producing knowledge about human beings and society. Considering that Hindus do not have a word for either ‘religion’ or ‘spirituality’ it is odd that these should be characterized as religious ideas.

    Quite the opposite happens when it comes to looking at political science theories in the west. Let’s grant that many people believe that there is a God and that the world is governed according to his will. This brings comfort and solace to many lives and religious believers might even be happier than non-believers. But what happens when ideas from the religious domain seep into the domain of the social sciences? Can we say that they have produced knowledge? What criteria are we using in our political theories to determine that there is a private, divine realm, and what is the validity of this criteria? Can we derive scientific principles from theological premises? Considering how little understanding the West has shown of other cultures, and how unsuccessful it has been in resolving religious tensions, it appears more likely that they have not produced knowledge. What looks like success among some portions of the population is based less on their theories and more on the fact that religion has lost the iron grip it once had.

    Nevertheless, the iron grip of religion expresses itself in secularized language now. The cognitive structure set in place by religion has not been dislodged. Instead of a ‘divine realm’ and a ‘material realm’, we now speak of a ‘private sphere’ and a ‘public sphere’. This is a superficial change in vocabulary, nothing more. Deeply-entrenched religious ideas have set limits on western imagination so that it has become impossible to conceive of the world in any other way. The rest of the world, including Indians, have now been fettered with the same cognitive constraints. Our imagination too has become limited. We too are unable to see the world in any other way. The idea that the world is divided into two realms and that our only choices are between liberal secularism and religious fundamentalism now seems like the most matter-of-fact observation. Instead of freeing ourselves from cognitive constraints, we have added one more layer of maya onto our cognitive structures.

    When Jewish and Syrian Christian settlers came to India early in the first millennium, they were free to practice their religion without interference from the native inhabitants of India. The concept of secularism did not exist at the time and yet there was no religious strife among the various religious groups. Therefore, there are no grounds for the claim that the only solution to the problem of religious fundamentalism is a policy of secularism. We need to identify the mechanisms behind social relations that enabled such rich plurality in India. We need to develop our own unique and distinct theoretical frameworks to determine how people can live peacefully in society. We need to stop treating the impoverished theories of the west as some sort of gospel truth that cannot be challenged.

    There are many different ways to conceptualize the world, and people from different cultures can offer their own distinctive perspectives. Unfortunately, as things stand now we have only one way to look at the world. We are not allowed to question the secular model. We are forced to believe and forced to confess. Either you are secular or you are a psychopath. This is nothing but a collective failure of imagination on a massive scale.


    1. Edward Gibbon - The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

    2. S.N. Balagangadhara -Dark Hour of Secularism: Hindu Fundamentalism and Colonial Liberalism in India.

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.