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Fatal Dualism

The fate of religion between fundamentalism and secularism decides the shape of democracy

Fatal Dualism
Imagine William Blake’s line engraving on paper, Job’s Evil Dreams (1825)
Photograph by Alamy
Fatal Dualism

Sometimes as the evening turns grey in winter, I reach out to read a newspaper­—in fact, a stack of them—hoping for some nugget of hope to clutch onto. There is a mediocrity about information that is stunning, almost as if storytelling is taboo. One dips into a collage about a leadership summit to find a distressing banality. It makes no difference where the leader is from—be it Obama or Ambani, the assessment is trivial, tepid; it touches no moral nerve, it only adds to the stupor of indifference. Be it Modi or Rahul, one realises it is a battle about inanity, where even tea is forced into tepidity by the stupidity of politics. In all these, two men stood out—one a global figure, one a local one. The first is the Pope and the second, Thomas Macwan, both religious personae, incidentally Christian. Neither talks about spirituality, neither waxes hypocritical like a Sri Sri Ravi Shankar on the environment. Both are tough-minded and economical, neither is pompous about religion, but takes the respon­sibility, the ethical challenge of religion seriously.

The first is the only world leader speaking out openly about the plight of Syrians, Yemenese or the Rohingya. The story of the good Samaritan becomes for the Pope a UNI­versal fable for citizenship, a way of responding to the str­anger’s plight. The Pope visits Bangladesh and Myanmar to talk of the plight of the Rohingya. He does what Modi should have done, instead of cavorting with Ivanka Trump or questioning Rahul Gandhi’s Hindu credentials.

Papal Hope

The Pope speaks openly about Syria, Yemen and the Rohingya

Photograph by Getty Images

The Pope isn’t catering to his Christian flock. He is owning up to humanity, saying he is responsible for suffering all over.

The Pope is not catering to his Christian flock. He is owning up to humanity, saying he is responsible for suffering all over. He does not mince words or dilute their meaning. He tells Europe to stop measuring mor­ality with clogged pipettes. He reminds Aung San Suu Kyi of the woman she was and can be. He talks of power’s indifference and the stinginess of affluent economies, spelling it all out in the simple parables of religion. He makes Modi, Merkel or Trump look puny. One does not read to write a commentary about the power and meaning of religion after that. As an exemplar, his message is embodied in his act.

Juxtaposed to him, as a side show, a smaller variation of the act is Archbishop Macwan’s letter to his community. Here again a Bishop performs his pastoral duties by addressing the nation while writing to his flock. Macwan makes a subtle and nuanced point, a political critique with an almost theological subtlety. He says democracy is led astray when majoritarianism is taken to be nationalism, when an ugly demographic part attempts to subsume the whole.

Subtly Political

Thomas Macwan says ­democracy is led astray when a ­majoritarian ideology is seen as nationalism

Macwan is suggesting that democracy is not about numbers alone, but about the arithmetic of plurality, the aesthetics of proportion, arguing that a majority which threatens minorities, margins and dissenters has lost out on the nationalist project. Such a majoritarian view is not just unaesthetic, but also threatens the dream of the Constitution. Macwan shows that religion does not empty out the Constitution. It substantiates it, thickens it. Not for him the emptiness of ideological secularism—what he follows is a creativity of balance between his belief in religion and his faith in the Constitution. It is a moral balancing of books where the Bible and the Constitution balance each other, each understanding the difference in the other’s creative power. The encounter empowers both and does not seek an emptying of religion. A democracy of multiple beliefs, a plurality of faiths, is what genuine religion seeks.

Two examples, two stories, two illustrations that  challenge the current emptiness of ideology and secular philosophy. In fact, what one confronts here is an emasculating philosophy replete with dualisms, in which the problematic’s very nature disempowers one further. On one side is a fundamentalism, a poverty of religious thought which believes the monolithic, the monotheistic, the majori­tarian and the excessive are solutions with meaning. As fundamentalism destroys the world of faith, it invents terror as an ersatz ideology. It can be Trump, Khomeini, the Bajrang Dal and the VHP. One realises fundamentalism as a puri­tanical exercise with no place for the playfulness of religions, as cosmologies or as theories of community.

In fact, one senses this as terrorist acts of majoritarian rel­igion find its target in Sufi centres in Kashmir. One also faces the irony that Hinduism, which was so essentially syncretic now plays Hindutva, abandoning its own civilisational tradition. In their obsession with decadent modernity, Hindutva’s ideological touts forget that India is a confluence of religions. We inv­ented Sikhism as an encounter between Hinduism and Islam. We gave the world Buddhism. We hold that Christianity is not a missionising transplant, but a religion older in India than in the West, and are proud that India is demographically the second largest Islamic nation.

The encounter of our religions is also the encounter of our medical systems. Dialogue has been a way of life in India. The richness of religion in a civilisational sense haunts India as we confront the impoverishment of fundamentalism, the authoritarian incarnation of belief.

Two Detectives

Father Brown’s (right) greater sense of evil, compared to Sherlock Holmes (far right), comes from a religious sense of ­empathy for the other

If on one side we have the terroristic, authoritarian epidemic we call fund­amentalism, on the other we have its double, sickly in its emptiness as it confronts the fundamentalist hysteria it substitutes for faith. Secularism was an illiterate transplant in India, which substituted a false history of science and a provincial history of Christian religious conflict. It created an opposition between science and religion, a figment of the clerical imagination that existed in a small period of history.

Secularism was a local solution to a parochial conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism, generalised into a universal modern history. Secularists forget that all science emerges from religious cosmology. Apart from Christianity, no religion has had a battle with evolutionism.

In fact, what one calls the scientific temper is only a weak version of fundamentalism, an inquisitorial imitation of the Savonarolas of theology. Science today, in confronting the moral challenge of the Bomb or of biotechnology, realises it is impotent in an ethical sense without religion. Secular answers to nucleardom, genocide seem effete without the rejuvenating power of religion. The secular expert stands bereft without the company of the shaman, the trickster and the magician.

Today, an arid secularism, which has almost become a form of empty table manners, confronts a sickly or pathological fundamentalism. As conceptual categories, both have become panopticons of the mind, policing the pluralism of thought. Both are pathologies of religion, of arid intolerance. Both need the fecundity of a pluralistic, dialogic religion to create the middle ground of hope, love and democracy. One saw the power of such a creativity, the power of translation, in the dialogues in the South African Truth Commission. It was an ethical experiment full of fundamental misreadings, symptomatic of the way the word today, caught in genocidal dualisms, reads, or rather misreads, its own dualisms.

The first reading was by secularist law, which saw in the Truth Commission the ideology of forgiveness, arg­uing that only formal justice, rational compensation and the idiom of rights could create a new South Africa. For the secular West, to posit a society based on the everyday alchemy of forgiveness was utopian, defying the logic and rationality of enlightenment, which had no place for sickly sentimentality, the theology of forgiveness.

Playing the critical double was Christian theology. Christianity could not go bey­ond its univocality to accept that a South African society could go beyond the logic of the confessional and create not a private act of catharsis, but a public act of ethical repair. The Truth Commission was thus dismissed as an illiterate act of a newly legal nation that did not understand the secular foundations of modern law or it was dubbed a third-world act of idiot Christianity led by an Anglican Bishop who got his theology wrong.

Two Worlds

Gandhi and Tagore disagreed over ­responses to the Bihar quake

Gandhi ­argued, after the relief ­operations, that the Bihar quake was punishment for crimes against Harijans.

Bishop Tutu, who headed the Truth Commission based the logic of the Truth Commission of African folk ontology, a cosmological idea of Ubuntu, a sense of connectivity, and an idea of the whole different from Christian faith or secular practice. His was a dialogicity that went beyond empty or misleading dualisms. He created in the Truth Commission a syncretic act where forgiveness allowed for ethical repair, for a return to community. He was also tough-minded enough to realise that the Truth Commission was an initial act that needed further ethical experiments, including dialogues of difference.

It was the same point theologian Raimundo Panikkar made when he reminded Christianity that it had become too parochial, that it needed an encounter with Hinduism or Buddhism to revive its creative self. The critical word is not secularism or fundamentalism or the emptiness of dualism, but the creative power of dialogue, the conversation of difference that seeks cognitive empowerment without seeking to vitiate the identity or content of the other. Panikkar, along with Pope Francis and Tutu, is one of the heroes of the new possibilities of pluralism one is talking about.

In fact, the secular idea of scientific temper, the idea of rational societies, which in deb­unking superstition pretend to debunk religion, is one of the great superstitions of science as an ideology. Scientific ideologists were all too often more intolerant of religion than practising scientists.

My two favourite examples come from science. The Danish physicist Neils Bohr had a horse shoe stuck on the door to his laboratory. People often wondered how a great scientist could stoop to such a superstition. Bohr’s act was, in a sense, a Pascalian wager. Asked once about his belief in God, the philosopher said if God existed that was fine, if he did not, belief in him did little that was destructive.

One sees a different answer in the logic of two detective novels, both classics, one by Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Sherlock Holmes, and the other by G.K. Chesterton, who created Father Brown. Perusing the logic of detective novels as models of science, one sees that the scientist as an isolate, as a mere professional, is never complete. He needs a double, someone more commonsensical and humane. Sherlock cannot be Sherlock without Watson; Poirot is Poirot only with Hastings.

Secondly, the mere rationality of Holmes does not create a complete science. In making Holmes a complete scientific ideologue, it is Conan Doyle who becomes a split personality, creating the Holmes of ­science while personally believing in magic and entertaining a faith in fairies.

At that level, Chester­ton’s Father Brown is more convincing bec­ause of his mix of rationality and religion. Chesterton’s Father Brown has a greater sense of evil than Holmes and this comes from an almost religious sense of empathy for the other. In fact, in one of his stories, he confesses he was the murderer, till one realises he can take on the role of the other to understand murder. Oddly, it is Father Brown who is more critical of religious hypocrisy, the phony sense of belief, than Holmes. Father Brown survives as a more ­convincing critique of the limits of rationality and the power of superstition.

Sherlock Holmes’ ­knowledge of many obscure subjects was in sharp contrast with his ­ignorance of some well-known facts such as the solar system’s ­existence. “It is of the highest ­importance...not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones,” he said.

Science, in fact, magnifies his sense of faith and wonder. One wishes our ideologues of scientific temper would read Father Brown to follow a more tolerant science, to understand that fetishising any method itself is an act of superstition.

In fact, one must admit in a discussion on pluralism, there is a place for fundamentalism. One was reminded of an essay on survival and behaviour in concentration camps. The author argued that three sets of people manage to survive and even master the everyday logic of the camp. Each was a devotee of an extreme kind of belief. The first were fundamentalists, especially Seventh Day Adventists, who see in the camps a challenge to their faith. The second were hardcore Communists. who bel­ieved they would find justice in a future society. The third were the Theosophists, who had their own occult interpretation of the events. What one was confronting was the creative power of three kinds of fundamentalism to survive total situations.

I think this brings me back to another Indian story, our own example of a dualism between science and religion. One of the most fascinating debates in the Indian national movement was the quarrel between Gandhi and Tagore. After the Bihar earthquake, Gandhi dispatched a team of volunteers under Rajendra Prasad to handle the ­ques­tions of relief and ­rehabilitation. The ­earthquake was a rare example of voluntary groups coming out with an account listing almost every paisa spent.

Gandhi argued later, after the relief operations, that the Bihar earthquake was punishment for the crime of untouchability. Tagore argued that Gandhi was conflating the moral and the geological, while Nehru condemned it as one of the most unscientific statements he had heard. Gandhi argued that a secular analysis of the earthquake was not ethically constructive. A secular account would lead to some relief work, but rarely moral rethinking of paradigms.

Unfortunately, this story is cited without any real ­follow-up. The narratives are bald without a sense that this was an ethical experiment, which needed a creative ­response. A mere separation of science and religion was dull. What Gandhi hoped is that the ashram and the laboratory would meet on a creative act of social reconstruction and it is precisely this we need to do today as we are caught between a listless secularism almost empty in confidence and a hysterical fundamentalism surviving on paranoia.

We need new ethical exp­eriments for democracy to survive, new ideas of dialogue and hybridities so we do not stand helpless between arid dualisms. Democracy needs to invent new ethical experiments to connect religion and science, to create new possibilities of experimentation. Otherwise we will remain stuck between vacuous rationalism and paranoid fundamentalism, neither of which adds to the playfulness or creativity of the democratic act or the meanings religion can provide.

Shiv Visvanathan is a sociologist and member of the Compost Heap, a group exploring alternatives to the current imagination

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