Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Ignoring religion in politics is a mistake - I

Millions of people live today without the benefit of faith. One can easily talk to  a large number of people in the colleges, in professions and in the higher echelons of the state who speak the language of secular politics. But although atheists are numerous today, the number of believers far outnumber them. Even where great efforts had been made to stamp out religion, a large number still clung to religious beliefs and practices. In the erstwhile Soviet Union, increase in scientific dissemination of atheistic worldviews through the educational curricula, believers being at a disadvantage in the reward systems of the state etc. still did not prevent about 100 million people from retaining their religious beliefs.

In large parts of the world, which consists of the huge majority of those staying in Latin America, Africa and Asia, people have partial or no access to the language of secularism. Many wrote obituaries of religions but to their surprise it re-emerged from the shadows to become powerful again. Religion is like a language of communication that allows one to converse with some but not others. Thus if a public figure in these regions is ignorant of the language and the cosmology of religion, he or she has little or no access to that world. The person will have problems when trying to influence public life and public policy in this part of the  world.

When the everyday lives of the people are closely intertwined with religion, no speeches about  keeping religion and politics separate will work on them. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa came from a religious and not a secular worldview. President Mandela appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu and not a judge or a politician to head it. It brought about a remarkably peaceful transition in SA when everybody had predicted a bloodbath. Ashis Nandy says about American Blacks in  "The Return of the Sacred: The Language of Religion and The Fear of Democracy in a Post-Secular World" (pdf):
American Blacks, through all their struggles and movements, never seriously yielded ground to the religious fanatics though there were small, identifiable groups within them that moved close to fanaticism. Because the Black leadership never abandoned the domain of religion as untouchable or as irrelevant to the public sphere, some of the most creative inputs into the Black struggle for equality and dignity came from within the Black religious consciousness. Not only that. Those who opposed fanaticism and bigotry among the Blacks could make sense to others in their community because they had access to the language of religion.
I came across a conversation between Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg about religion in this post where Bohr makes some interesting points:
We ought to remember that religion uses language in quite a different way from science. The language of religion is more closely related to the language of poetry than to the language of science. True, we are inclined to think that science deals with information about objective facts, and poetry with subjective feelings. Hence we conclude that if religion does indeed deal with objective truths, it ought to adopt the same criteria of truth as science. But I myself find the division of the world into an objective and a subjective side much too arbitrary. The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.
. . . the language of objectivity doesn’t belong in religious rhetoric — religion and its pluralities are best understood, and best applied to human life as an instrument of moral enrichment rather than one of dogmatic constriction, through the lens of complementarity:
The fact that different religions try to express this content in quite distinct spiritual forms is no real objection. Perhaps we ought to look upon these different forms as complementary descriptions which, though they exclude one another, are needed to convey the rich possibilities flowing from man’s relationship with the central order.
. . . our attitude to religious questions cannot be separated from our attitude to society. . . . even when an individual tries to attain the greatest possible degree of independence, he will still be swayed by the existing spiritual structures — consciously or unconsciously. For he, too, must be able to speak of life and death and the human condition to other members of the society in which he’s chosen to live; he must educate his children according to the norms of that society, fit into its life. Epistemological sophistries cannot possibly help him attain these ends.
Here, too, the relationship between critical thought about the spiritual content of a given religion and action based on the deliberate acceptance of that content is complementary. And such acceptance, if consciously arrived at, fills the individual with strength of purpose, helps him to overcome doubts and, if he has to suffer, provides him with the kind of solace that only a sense of being sheltered under an all-embracing roof can grant. In that sense, religion helps to make social life more harmonious; its most important task is to remind us, in the language of pictures and parables, of the wider framework within which our life is set.

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