Does Religious Pluralism Require Secularism?   /   Fall 2010   /    Does Religious Pluralism Require Secularism?

States, Religious Diversity, and the Crisis of Secularism

How western concepts of secularism break down.

Rajeev Bhargava

A devout Indian Muslim offers namaz-holy prayers on Eid al Fitr on a skywalk outside a busy railway station in Mumbai on September 11, 2010; © Indranil Mukherjee/AFP?Getty Images.

Over the last three decades, secular states, virtually everywhere, have come under strain. It is hardly surprising then that political secularism, the doctrine that defends them, has also been subjected to severe criticism. Some scholars have concluded that this critique is ethically and morally so profound and justified that it is time to abandon political secularism. I reject this conclusion. I argue that the criticism of secularism looks indefeasible only because critics have focused on mainstream conceptions developed in largely religiously homogenous societies. It is time we shifted focus away from doctrines underpinning some western secular states and towards the normative practices of a wide variety of states, including the best practices of nonwestern states such as India. Once we do this, we will begin to see secularism differently, as a critical ethical and moral perspective not against religion but against religious homogenization and institutionalized (inter- and intrareligious) domination. Of all available alternatives, secularism remains our best bet to help us deal with ever deepening religious diversity and the problems endemic to it.

I begin with the assumption that ethical reasoning must be both contextual and comparative. Given this, if we value freedom and equality and are sensitive to religion-related domination, then we must find theocratic states and states with established religions, which privilege one or some religions, to be morally and ethically defective. Such states perpetuate interreligious and intrareligious domination.

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