Historically, secularism was a much needed tool of rebellion against the stranglehold on power the church exercised over all aspects of life in medieval Europe, and was an inevitable consequence of the Renaissance. The separation of the state and the religion is the foundational premise of secularism which implies that the magisterium of the state is different from that of the religion. Is this a reasonable premise or is it an unreasonable truth claim? Is secularism itself, its historical antecedents notwithstanding, a manifestation of the Christian worldview?
Is secularism, like Christianity, antithetical and even inimical to numerous systems such as Atheism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, etc.? These questions become all the more pertinent since secularism is often projected as the de facto ideal every society should aspire to. The fact that secularism has other ancillary characteristics should not deter us from examining its foundational premise.
One must turn to Martin Luther, whom Nietzsche aptly called an “intellectual epileptic,” to determine whether the foundational premise of secularism is a manifestation of the Christian worldview. Luther wrote a tract “On Secular Authority: How Far Does the Obedience Owed to It Extend?” in which he argued for the compatibility of Christianity and secularism. Luther argued that there are two kinds of authority on earth namely the heavenly variety governed by god’s principles and the earthly variety governed by secular principles.
In Luther’s worldview, which evolved from earlier Christian worldviews, the secular principles serve only one purpose which is to keep the supposedly knave non-Christians in check so that the religious pursuit of the Christians is unhindered. Luther insisted that the secular laws cannot interfere with god’s laws thereby implying that the two governed non-overlapping magisteria.
In that worldview, as evident from the Parable of the Hidden Treasure and the Parable of the Pearl (Matthew 13:44-47) as well from the variant version found in the Gospel of Thomas 76, the ephemeral earthly existence is subservient to the eternal heavenly existence, and as a corollary the heavenly authority on earth – the church – is not to be interfered with by the state. Luther, invoking scripture (Romans 13:3, Matthew 5:39, and 1 Peter 2:14), declared that if the entire world were Christian there would not be a need for secular law because all would then be governed by god’s laws; however, that is not the case and one needs secular laws to keep the non-Christians in check and from interfering with the church.
He fervently argued, invoking Romans 13:7 and Matthew 22:21, against the intervention of the state into the affairs of the church. Even before Luther, Pope Boniface VIII had issued the papal bull “Unam Sanctam” in 1302 CE, sanctifying this notion of dual authority – religious and secular – differing with the subsequent secularism only in his assertion that the state is subservient to the church. Luther and the pope were inspired by the Bible as evident from their own citations.
So, even though secularism emerged as an initiative to limit the power of the church during the Renaissance, in the final reckoning it has sanctified the foundational Christian belief in the non-interference of the state in the conduct of the religion thereby rendering secularism a manifestation of the Christian worldview.
Luther argued that there are two kinds of authority on earth namely the heavenly variety governed by god’s principles and the earthly variety governed by secular principles.
Let us now determine whether secularism is compatible with non-Christian worldviews such as those of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. In these worldviews, every aspect of life, whether it relates to the mundane or to the pursuit of enlightenment, is governed by the paradigm of “dharma,” a Sanskrit term that has no equivalent in English, but which is central to Indian thought. It is derived from the Indo-European linguistic root “dhṛ” or “to uphold or nourish.” Its meaning varies in a nuanced manner across various Indian religious traditions: laws of nature or rules of conduct (Ṛgveda 4:53:3, 5:63:7, 6:70:1, 7:89:5); that from which results happiness (The Vaiśeṣikasūtra); that which is practiced by the learned that lead a moral life, that are free from hatred and partiality, and that which is accepted by their conscience (The Manusmṛti 2:1); or as virtuous conduct that is free from malice, lust, anger, and bitter speech (The Tirukkuraḻ 31, 35).
In Hindu thought dharma is the formulation of human laws that are over all consonant with natural laws, and hence extends to the idea of proper political expression of humans which leads to the inter-connectedness of the state and the religion. As a result, the ruler is “dharmapravartaka” or “the guardian of dharma” (The Arthaśāstra 3.1.38; The Mahābhārata, Śāntiparva 141:9). It is the responsibility of the ruler to ensure that the fabric of dharma is preserved so it can guide all mundane and higher pursuits of the citizenry, while the ruler’s actions themselves were not only guided by the precepts of dharma but also constrained by dharma itself, and the ruler’s powers were restricted by local traditions and the voice of the learned. In other words, both the state and the religion deal with the same phenomena relating to life events and attempt to create societal harmony.
The goals of the state cannot be different from the goals of the religion. In the worldviews of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, the state and the religion must influence, and interfere with, one another since they preside over the same magisterium. These religious systems do not make the artificial distinction between the sacred and the profane and implicitly reject the notion that a false doctrine can be sustained under the secular guise. Hence, secularism is antithetical to the worldviews of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism.
Of course, the mere fact that secularism is a derivative of the Christian worldview, that it protects Christianity by refusing to interfere with it, and that it is incompatible with Buddhist, Hindu, and Jaina worldviews alone cannot lead to the rejection of secularism unless it can be shown that the foundational premise of non-overlapping magisteria is unreasonable and false, and that the Christian worldview is inimical to a civilized society while, on the other hand, Dhārmic (e.g., Buddhist, Hindu, Jaina) worldviews are conducive to societal harmony and wellbeing by comparison. Let us begin our examination with a summary of the Christian worldview followed by alternative worldviews as found in Buddhism and Hinduism.
The goals of the state cannot be different from the goals of the religion.
Nietzsche, in The Antichrist, summarizes the characteristics of the Christian worldview:
- It does not have any point of contact with actuality.
- It offers purely imaginary causes (“god,” “soul,” “ego,” “spirit,” “free will”—or even “unfree”), and purely imaginary effects (“sin,” “salvation,” “grace,” “punishment,” “forgiveness of sins”).
- Intercourse between imaginary beings (“god,” “spirits,” “souls”); an imaginary natural history (anthropocentric; a total denial of the concept of natural causes).
- An imaginary psychology (misunderstandings of self, misinterpretations of agreeable or disagreeable general feelings — “repentance,” “pangs of conscience,” “temptation by the devil,” “the presence of god”).
- An imaginary teleology (the “kingdom of god,” “the last judgment,” “eternal life”).
In other words, the Christian worldview is one without a basis in reality. As Nietzsche correctly concludes, it is nihilistic requiring its followers to live their way out of reality and refuses to explore the real causes of various aspects of human condition and their consequences that shape human existence. As a result, even though the phenomena that Christianity deals with are very natural – human birth, pleasure, suffering, death etc., it steadfastly refuses to explore them honestly using naturalistic principles. In fact, as Nietzsche shows, Christianity regards the acquisition of knowledge as the “original sin” of man (Genesis 2:17, 1 Corinthians 20-21, 26-29) thereby making any reasonable exploration of natural phenomena that characterize human existence impossible.
Christianity’s irrationality, denial of knowledge, and nihilism is best exemplified by the example of the clergyman Tom Honey, who, in an attempt to grapple with the question of how a loving god could have allowed so much suffering during the 2006 tsunami that devastated Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka etc., first dismisses naturalistic causes and knowledge as the means to explain suffering, and then concludes by declaring that one cannot know the answer and one merely has to assume that god’s existence itself is inherent in those sufferings. Having offered this absurd and illogical explanation – Q: “How can a loving god allow sufferings?” A: “Oh, he is inherent in those sufferings.” – he then prescribes contemplation on this incomprehensible god as the way forward.
This is neither a reasonable inquiry into the cause of sufferings nor a method by which those sufferings could be alleviated in the future because a future tsunami would not recognize or spare a baptized Christian that is busy contemplating on an ambivalent ‘loving’ god that is apparently incomprehensible to begin with. This nihilistic tendency it fosters and the delusion it breeds in the minds of the believers is one of the features which makes Christianity dangerous both to Christians and non-Christians.
Even though the phenomena that Christianity deals with are very natural – human birth, pleasure, suffering, death etc., it steadfastly refuses to explore them honestly using naturalistic principles.
How do other religious systems deal with natural phenomena – for example, suffering? Nietzsche draws our attention to how Buddhism deals with it objectively and coolly, relying not upon the imaginary concept of god, but upon long centuries of philosophical speculation that preceded the birth of Buddhism, thus making Buddhism a genuinely positive religion. It does not speak of a “struggle with sin,” but, yielding to reality, of the “struggle with suffering.” It does not justify pain and susceptibility to suffering by interpreting these things in terms of sin as Christianity unrealistically does. It accepts them as the consequences of the pursuits of human desires, and endeavors to seek ways to overcome, and to transcend, suffering.
To Christianity, however, suffering in itself is scarcely understandable. It either instinctively denies suffering altogether – as evident from its justification of the meekly existence (Matthew 5:5), or exhorts one to endure it in silence or even voluntarily embrace it – as evident from the irrational urgings of Jesus (Luke 9:23). It invents an imaginary “devil,” the omnipotent and terrible enemy of man, and all suffering is attributed to the deeds of such an enemy. Nietzsche contrasts the two religions by stating that “Buddhism promises nothing, but actually fulfils; Christianity promises everything, but fulfils nothing.”
Nietzsche evidently has the Buddhist “Sūtra of the Four Noble Truths” in mind while making these observations. The Buddha teaches one to understand one’s sufferings and to prepare to overcome those sufferings to enjoy bliss in this life and all future lives until one attains enlightenment, or to be precise as the Zen teacher and poet Tai Sheridan elucidates in his exposition of the Lotus Sūtra, until one loses all conceptualizations of identity. The Buddha advocates the six perfections such as the practices of giving, moral discipline, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom, to attain “bodhichitta” or “the mind in pursuit of enlightenment” as the means to transcend suffering.
Sāṅkhya is a highly renowned Hindu non-theistic doctrinal system that was propounded by the sage Kapila a few centuries before the Buddha. Its core formulations, in the form of 73 “sūtra” or “aphoristic statements,” have come down to us through the text The Sāṅkhya Kārika of Īśvara Kṛṣṇa. It identifies three types of sufferings that characterize human existence, and says that even if perceptible means of removal of such sufferings exist, if they are not definitive, one must continue to seek other means of removal. It also considers scriptural prescriptions for the removal of suffering to be ineffective, and postulates that discriminative knowledge of the “manifest,” the “unmanifest,” and an understanding of the “knower” or the “self” alone can help one overcome suffering.
So, it is evident that Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity all address the same phenomena related to human existence – for example, suffering – and attempt to establish the cause of such phenomena and the means to deal with those, except that whereas the doctrinal schools of Buddhism and Hinduism explore those phenomena honestly by relying upon naturalistic principles and knowledge thereby rendering them favorable to society, Christianity resorts to a denial of knowledge and reality thereby rendering it inimical to society.
The state too deals with these very same phenomena and attempts to establish the cause of various events connected with the birth, pleasure, suffering, death, etc., of the members of society, and attempts to establish the means to deal with those. Hence it is unreasonable and false to claim that the magisterium of the state is different from that of the religion. If the magisterium of the state and the religion is the same, then it is only reasonable to postulate that the state and the religion can, and should, influence, and interfere with, one another. Hence the foundational premise – the separation of the state and the religion – upon which secularism stands, is arbitrary and unreasonable.
The separation of the state and the religion is the foundational premise of secularism which implies that the magisterium of the state is different from that of the religion.
One might counter this inference with the argument that the secular state merely guarantees and protects a citizen’s right to pursue happiness whereas the religion actively guides one to happiness. But, such an assumption is unwarranted. The Buddhist state of Bhutan has a constitutional goal: to increase the gross domestic happiness of its citizens. Here, one finds recognition that the magisterium of happiness is something over which both the state and the religion preside.
Scientific researches in neuroscience focusing on meditative practices across religions confirm that happiness is an outcome of neurological processes such as those that enhance the activity in the anterior cingulate as a result of meditation and is not an outcome of adherence to religious beliefs. If anything, scientific data is damning to Christianity since neuroscience confirms that focusing on a wrathful and totalitarian god, which the biblical god surely is, actually results in rumination, whose effects are the very opposite of meditation since rumination increases the activity in the amygdala thus triggers a fight-or-flight response.
This does not mean that Christians do not attain positive results when they meditate; they do. But to attain those results they have to meditate on a ‘loving god’ and in doing so have to invent a god who is the very opposite of the vengeful and jealous god of the Bible. In other words, Christians have to allow societal memes, including those from other religions, which possess the notion of loving gods, to interfere with, and even replace, the biblical portrayal of an authoritarian and wrathful god to attain happiness.
Thus, a Christian would find it extremely hard to substantiate the claim that Christianity offers a means to happiness which the state cannot. On the other hand, systems such as Atheism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism do not unrealistically argue that the state cannot guide one’s pursuit of happiness; in fact, as seen earlier, they very much insist that the state can, or even should, actively participate in such a pursuit.
Kalavai Venkat is a Silicon Valley-based writer, an atheist, a practicing orthodox Hindu, and author of the book “What Every Hindu should know about Christianity.”