The debates about secularism we’ve had over the months I’ve been on Sepia Mutiny have sometimes gotten stuck due to differences in terminology. People have different ideas of what “secularism” means, and not simply because one party is “right” and the others are “wrong.”
In fact, there is some slipperiness in the way many people use the term on a day-to-day basis. Some people think of secularism as a cultural attribute, indicating the opposite of religiosity. A society where people are not very religious might be termed secular, and under this terminology, Europe would be very “secular,” while the U.S. would be less so, even if (and Razib has often pointed this out) there is actually more religion taught in public schools in most northern European countries than is allowed in the U.S. system. India is a society that is also very non-secular by this definition, partly because the overwhelming majority of its citizens would identify themselves as belonging to one or another religious community. Moroever, one of the unique features of life in the Indian subcontinent is the fact that a person’s religious identity is often publicly visible to others –- it’s built into one’s name, as well as various kinds of bodily markings and religiously-coded attire. A Bindi might mark a woman as a Hindu; a turban and beard might mark a man as a Sikh; and any number of identifying marks are possible for Muslims. (Christians and Buddhists, interestingly, are less visibly marked.)
The problem with the cultural definition of secularism is that it seems very difficult to think of changing anything. If the people in a given society are seen as religious, one could claim that there’s no need for a legal or political system that requires separation of church and state. Nor need there be any particular incentive to reform aspects of a traditional culture that are incompatible with the idea of civil rights. Also out the window are specific protections for religious minorities, as well as vigilance about protecting individuals (as in, women) from religious coercion. If a woman (or even, as is often the case, a girl) is being pressured by her family to accept a marriage she doesn’t want, under the culturalist definition of secularism there isn’t really justification to help her: that’s simply the culture, one could say.
A better way of defining secularism is more strictly political: for me, "secularist" refers to a political system where the government derives its authority without reference to any religious institutions (as a shorthand, we can call this "separation of church and state"). Under this definition, you can disentangle ideas of "modernity" and "democracy" from "secularity" -– very modernized and even democratic nations might choose not to follow the path of secularism, and very secular nations might end up as non-democracies. As many people have pointed out over the years, Iran has elements of a democratic system of government, but that government has to be legitimated by the "Supreme Leader" who is always a religious cleric. It is procedurally "democratic" (there are regular elections) without being "secular."
Similarly, it’s equally possible to have coercive state secularism where democracy and civil rights are absent. Turkey is certainly more free now than it was, say, 30 years ago -– when the automatic imprisonment of both Communists and Islamists was a regular fact of life. But even now -– with a nominally Islamist party running the government -– there are questions about how democratic the country is, as writers continue to get in hot water with the government over things they write.
In the political definition, some of the positive value of secularism is lost, and the concept becomes a bit more technical. And admittedly, secularism is not always used in the most intelligent way even by secularists. It can also be pushed too far -– and actually work against the interest of individual rights. Turkey has sometimes gone in this direction, as has (arguably) France, with the recent Hijab ban.
But such excessive applications are relatively rare. On balance, political secularism in most nations seems to be a good thing –- especially when those nations are pluri-religious (most are, these days), have serious internal sectarian divides (Iraq, Afghanistan), or other major cultural differences (as in, between urban and culturally secular people and rural societies that are more religious). Secularism as a political term, in short, need not be understood as "opposed" to religion.
And political secularism can be a good thing even if the term ("secularism") itself may be foreign to a given society, and even though the term has a "Christian" genealogy (in the sense that the word "secular" comes from the Latin "saeculum," and came into European languages through Christian theology). But the idea that "secularism" is an extension of colonialism -– an imposition of the west -– doesn’t really hold water, and I disagree with people who have used that argument (such as Ashis Nandy; see this post from the early days of my blog).
Secularism is a legible concept pretty much everywhere -– it’s been successfully translated to multiple cultural frameworks, and most societies are capable of adapting and incorporating political ideas like this one without any trouble. (Another term that has high translatability might be "democracy.") Secularism can be "reverse engineered" to be compatible with, say, predominantly Hindu societies like India and Nepal, or predominantly Muslim societies in the Middle East, North Africa, or Southeast Asia. Even if there aren’t strong philosophical or historical justifications for doing this, there are, in nearly every case, very good pragmatic ones. That is to say, it is quite clear that many countries would fall into civil war if political secularism were abandoned. And secondly, the civil rights of dissenters, atheists, and members of small religious minorities would likely be trampled without some protection from the state.
In an essay called “Modes of Secularism” (in Rajeev Bhargava’s collection, Secularism and its Critics), the philosopher Charles Taylor has worked out a way of thinking about how what I am calling the reverse engineering of secularism might work. Taylor uses the term “overlapping consensus,” coined by John Rawls, to describe how different groups can agree upon a common political framework (secularism) even if they might do so from dramatically different points of view:
I want to use this term [overlapping consensus], even while I have some difficulties with its detailed working out in Rawls' theory. I will come to these below. For the moment, I just want to describe this approach in general terms. The problem with the historical common ground approach is that it assumes that everyone shares some religious grounds for the norms regulating the public sphere, even if these are rather general: non-denominational Christianity, or only Biblical theism, or perhaps only some mode of post-Enlightenment Deism. But even this latter is asking too much of today's diversified societies. The only thing we can hope to share is a purely political ethic, not its embedding in some religious view. But its problem is that it too demands not only the sharing of the ethic but also of its foundation--in this case, one supposedly independent of religion.
The property of the overlapping consensus view is just that it lifts the requirement of a commonly held foundation. It aims only at universal acceptance of certain political principles (this is hard enough to attain). But it recognizes from the outset that there cannot be a universally agreed basis for these, independent or religious. (Charles Taylor)
In the U.S. context, overlapping consensus is what allowed dissenting Protestants (who were extremely religious, but also extremely individualistic) and Deist/humanist types like Thomas Jefferson to agree on a governing framework. The Protestant dissenters of Virginia didn’t want to have to say an oath or pay a tax that would benefit an established (Anglican) church, and Jefferson had the strong conviction that religion and politics should be kept separate. The two parties agreed on a system of government (in Virginia) that incorporated their quite different beliefs, even if they came to that agreement for different reasons.
With large numbers of immigrants who adhere to non-western faiths now in the U.S., it’s also become acutely clear that overlapping consensus can allow, say, a conservative Muslim immigrant (someone who trusts the Quran more than Thomas Jefferson or John Locke) to agree on a common governing principle with a secularist like Andrew Sullivan, even if they disagree on how to adjudicate specific issues, and even if they don’t even base their understanding of secularism on the same philosophical principles. Secularism, according to people like Taylor, is a political system that can work just fine without its philosophical foundation.
(A bit more on the idea of overlapping consensus can be found here)
In India, the story is a bit different. But it’s undeniably the case that the Indian constitution was written with a clear awareness that a country with significant populations of people belonging to eight different religions (Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism), as well as serious caste issues, had to have an expedient way of keeping the society together. The principle of secularism wasn’t named originally, though it was clearly indicated in Articles 15-18 of the Indian constitution (in a subsequent emendation of the preamble to the constitution, the word "secular" was in fact added). There are other unique features of the Indian system (and yes, flaws), and I’ve addressed some of them here.