Friday, March 18, 2016

Christian secularism

Former candidate for the Republican nomination for the US presidency, Ben Carson, is a believing  Christian.   Carson stirred up a bit of a controversy when an old speech of his surfaced, where he said the Old Testament figure Joseph built the Egyptian pyramids in order to store grain.  The Bible merely says that Joseph stored surplus grain against a future famine deduced from the Pharaoh's dream, but not how he stored it.

This controversy merits careful unpacking.

Carson most certainly believes in the resurrection, the water-into-wine miracle, the parting of the Red Sea, and such;  he shares these beliefs with a huge number of voters, and his statement of belief about these things would cause not the least bit of controversy, quite unlike his statement about the pyramids.    The average western liberal or Indian secularist would say that all the former miraculous things that violate the laws of physics are all about Carson's religious belief,  which per the tenets of secularism, are outside the realm of politics; but when he talks about the purpose of the pyramids, he is talking about something that we have archaeological and other evidence, and is therefore within the realm of political criticism.

That is, to be secular, one has to be familiar with the contents of the Bible.  Since the Bible is silent about the pyramids, a candidate's belief about the purpose of the pyramids is within the political arena; but the laws-of-physics busting stuff that the Bible does speak about is beyond political criticism.  In fact, without paying at least lip service to belief in what the Bible says, it is not possible to be a viable Republican candidate for the presidency.  One cannot say that the candidate is a credulous idiot for believing in miracle stories.

Suppose we accept that as a necessary compromise for secularism to work.  The very same culture from which this secularism arose encountered India and constructed religions called Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.    One would expect that secularism then requires extending the same respect to beliefs from these religions as it does for Christianity or Judaism.   One would be bitterly disappointed, however.   Also, unlike with the Bible, one does not have to be familiar with the contents of the Hindu "scriptures" to know the boundary between religious belief and politically attackable ideas.   Anything Hindu is fair game for political criticism.   Which also shows that those who claim "Hinduism is a religion" in practice do not treat it like one.

Further, notice, Carson says that his belief about the pyramids is a religious belief, based on the Bible; but the political class and media reject that.  The limits of religious belief are what are in the Bible, and that is about it.  Islam is struggling to get a foothold in this shielded area, aided by leftists and regressive liberals; and cries of Islamophobia.   Hinduism will forever be outside this area separated from political criticism.

I'm not saying that it is not as it should be - Hinduism is a living tradition - in religious terms it has new "prophets" and "scriptures" constantly being created.  Wendy Doniger (see "Purana Perennius") for one is upset that the Hindu "canon" is not closed, and her pungent remarks about the Skanda Purana stem from that.   I'm just pointing out that "secularism" and the separation of religious belief and politics has a very Christian basis.   The Hindu basis for what is legitimate in politics and what should be left out will be rather different.

PS: June 6, 2016 - Justin E.H. Smith in the New York Times makes the same mistake:
The leader of India, Mr. Modi, for example has brought about, through support of the ideology of Hindutva, a political climate in which Indian nationalist academics can claim that airplanes are described in the millenniums-old Vedas without being ridiculed or marginalized.
I note again that it is next to impossible for a candidate to win the Republican nomination in America without proclaiming his/her belief that a man rose from the dead, turned water into wine, and so on;  and there are plenty of professors in American universities who teach so; if anyone tried to ridicule or marginalize such beliefs, they would face a huge political backlash.   But that is normal and unremarkable.   It is only Hindu belief that is abnormal and that must be held to ridicule and marginalization.