The Economic Times recently reported on a Supreme Court consideration concerning the role of secularism in India. There is an ongoing, heated debate about the role of religion in attempts to garner votes by politicians. Is it good or bad? Could religion (and caste) in India be used to instill “hatred during elections?” It’s an important question. The Supreme Court decision read thus, “Secularism does not mean aloofness to religion but [giving]equal treatment to every religion. Religion and caste are vital aspects of our public life. Can it be possible to completely separate religion and caste from politics?” It is a point for further reflection on the international state of secularism, especially coming from the world’s largest democracy. There’s over a billion people in India.
It is important to note that secularism is, by definition, the provision of equal opportunity for all religious and nonreligious citizens within secular states, which tends to mean secular democracies. Societies dominated by religion are normally little more than theocracies; one need only look at Iran and Saudi Arabia for current, living examples. Secularism seems to us a prerequisite for democratic ideals, such as egalitarianism, self-determination, and freedom of conscience, to proliferate and flourish.
In a similar manner to the fundamental democratic ideal of ‘one person, one vote’ as well, the enshrinement of secularism in the constitution, in law, and in larger society mean the flattening of the landscape of privileges and rights enjoyed by one belief system over another. Secularism is the freedom to dissent from the majority viewpoint, to stand up for the ideals in which you believe as an individual, and see them given equal merit, regardless of your identity.
No belief system, religious or irreligious, should be above any other by democratic standards. Secularism ensures it, too. In contradistinction to the opposing instantiation of all religion over nonreligion, or one religion over other religions (and irreligion), secularism does not permit the generalised bias, prejudice against, or tacit preference of one belief system over another. It makes for a fairer, more just, society. A society conducive to the implementation of human rights, which are universal values.
This is not something that we are merely saying for the sake of it. Rather, we are recalling the first line in the Preamble of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:
“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,”
The “equal” status of everyone, whatever group they might, more or less, belong to, and the “freedom” and “justice” in the globe can be further assured with the introduction of secularism into democratic societies. Indeed, it might not be the key to democratic ideals, but, certainly, it is deeply tied to the greater opening angle of the door once unlocked. “Inalienable” is not something to be taken lightly. It is of tremendous import in secular, democratic, pluralistic societies because, no matter the individual citizen’s status, they have been promised, in the highest international document on human rights that they deserve those rights.
We find statements reflecting the kind of egalitarianism that should inevitably come with secularism throughout the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, if you will indulge us while we list a few examples: in the Preamble, we see “highest aspiration of the common people…human rights should be protected by the rule of law…equal rights of men and women…”; in Article 1, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”; in Article 2, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”; in Article 6, “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law”; in Article 7, “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”; and ‘punched’ home in Article 28, “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realised.” The coda to all of that: equality for all, before the law.
Not a bad starting point, is it? And it is one that can come exclusively through secular values. And as, quite succinctly, described at the outset, secular values ensure the freedom to and from the belief systems of individuals in any society; whereas, the lack of secularism can prevent, and quite likely eventually destroy, that freedom and its basis for pluralism in a society devoid of ideological conflict between individuals holding one belief system or another.
Secularism and freedom of religion enshrined in the very constitutions and legal systems are the most reasonable route that we see towards a fairer, more equal society. Any country or indeed legal district that privileges one religion over another, or one system of beliefs over another in law is inherently discriminatory from its very inception. How can we fight for greater rights for minorities and those discriminated against when a significant portion of the population would already face biases and roadblocks from the birth of a country’s legal system? The answer is, of course, that it is impossible, and that is why secularism should be, and indeed is, the only way.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.