I visited a cousin whom I respect much. He’s a level headed, intelligent, generous, soft spoken and honest person - you know the type of person who never intrudes into your space but who’s always around when you are in need.
We were talking in the family room on the first floor when I noticed a beautiful rare picture of Christ. Seeing me looking at it, he gave me its history, and added without my asking. ‘I didn’t put it in the drawing room, though it is worth displaying there. I decided to be secular’.
Well, that was a strange statement to make, for implicit in it was the notion that secularism signified absence of affiliation to any religion.
My cousin – let’s call him Suresh, is a believer. At least he is not a non-believer. He was always wary of questioning the existence of God. He’d rather play it safe. He did all the right things like going to church on Sundays and putting his children through catechism classes and ensuring they received the sacraments at the proper time as prescribed by the Church and society.
Yet he was reluctant to declare to the world that he was a Christian.
I thought hard on that issue.
If he does not want to flaunt his religion, it’s good. But the reluctance to admit that he is a believer for fear it’d would invest him with a non-secular image is, I think, a misreading of the concept of secularism.
Secularism does not demand disaffiliation from religion. Nor does it demand affiliation to any religion. It imperatively demands respect for religions other than yours, and respect for religions even though you do not believe in any.
Elementary, my dear Watson, you might say, but believe me, I find a lot of people who share Suresh’s anxiety about jeopardising their secular image if the world comes to know that they are believers.
An ardent Buddhist/Christian/Jain/Hindu/Muslim is secular if she/he respects other religions and the right of others to follow religions of their choice.
A committed atheist is secular if he respects the right of others to believe in God and recognizes their right to follow the religion of their choice. I think it is more difficult for an atheist to be secular than it is for a believer.
In my foolish younger days, I had a heated discussion with a rationalist cousin who was ridiculing me ‘cos I was a believer.
‘To agree with you that there is a god is like agreeing that the earth is flat and not round’, he roared.
‘It’s proved that the earth is round’, I retorted, equally loud, ‘ but is it proved there is no God?”
“Is it proved there is one?’ he yelled thrusting his forefinger intimidatingly into my face.
‘Is it proved there isn’t one?’ I too yelled, thrusting my forefinger towards the ceiling. His mother who is my aunt was watching this exchange with considerable interest and disapproval.
Ideologically, she was on my side but blood is thicker, and so she wanted to see her college going son outsmart me who had just joined as a lecturer in the local college. Besides, I was a woman who shouldn’t be arguing loudly and gesticulating in an unladylike manner.
IT IS NOT PROVED THERE IS A GOD, he thundered. My aunt quickly stepped in.
‘Both of you have proved your points’, she said. Probably, she realized that I was in no mood to relent and she didn’t want to see her niece disgrace herself with rising decibel levels and body language that is not conventionally associated with a ‘woman’.
I do not know how valid my argument was, but I do know his argument did not convince me. Probably because even as a toddler I had taken that leap of faith which made me so dependent on the God concept for my existence.
But I am a secular person, cos I respect a person’s right to question the existence of God – as long as he doesn’t thrust his convictions on me (like my cousin did) aggressively.
I got very unpopular with close relatives and friends sometime back when I argued that the there could be truth in the story of Ganapathy statues drinking milk. I don’t normally believe such impossible stories unless I see these things happening. But my journalist niece – a hardcore rationalist – told me she saw it happen. She couldn’t offer any explanation for the way milk disappeared from the bowl when it was held to the trunk of the Ganapathy figure. She was an eyewitness to this.
Till someone offers a scientific explanation for that strange phenomenon, I’ll believe that was a supernatural phenomenon – a miracle just as I believe in the miracles claimed by the Christian religion.
I believe God manifests himself in many forms. I believe every religion is a search for God. I am content being a Christian. This religion that I was born into gives me answers to the existential questions. But I don’t claim that this is the only religion that shows the way in the human quest for God.
And I do not believe in judging other religions.
Believe (or don’t believe) and let believe (or let not believe). That’s my idea of being secular.
This live and let live policy is the basis – the only basis – for secularism.