Robi Chakravorty


The term ‘‘secular religion’’ was used once by Regis Debray who was an active participant in Marxist revolutionary, Che Guevara’s Guerilla movement in Bolivia. He was arrested, but released later. In an article published in the winter 1988-89 issue of ‘‘New Perspectives Quarterly’’, commenting on the failure of the Communist system in Russia, he labelled Marxist communism as ‘‘secular religion.’’ Failure of communism as secular religion, he argued, created a crisis of ideological faith and put traditional religion in saddle.’’


Years ago, India’s scholar President, Radhakrishnan in a book entitled, ‘‘Religion and Society’’ (1947) used this term to describe totalitarian states and parties in Hitler’s Germany and Soviet Russia. He wrote, ‘‘The States have become Churches with Popes and Inquisitions. We recite the liturgy when we are received into the cult. We send out heretics and deliver them to their scaffold. We employ the energies of religion.’’


The target of this concept in these two illustrations is Marxist ideology and practice. A broad general statement on secular religion was made by Julien Benda in his book, ‘‘The Treason of the Intellectuals’’ (1928). ‘‘The State, Country, Class’’, he wrote, ‘‘are now frankly God’’. From this perspective, the term secular religion can be applied to describe certain features of the ideology of non-communist states as well. The concept of class as a powerful ideology has declined in its political pull, but the ideological pulls of the territorial imperative of nation-state continue to be strong.


Various explanations for the failure of Communism have been offered in a book entitled, ‘‘Marxian and Christian Utopianism’’ by John Marsden (1991) shows Marx’s weakness in presenting a simplistic two-stage process of achieving Communist society. The first stage is where proletariat using its ‘‘political supremacy’’ would ‘‘centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state’’. This will lead to second stage where a kind of direct democracy will be reached, class distinctions disappeared and ‘‘the public power will lose its political character.’’ This kind of simplistic viewpoint was expressed in ‘‘The Communist Manifesto.’’ According to E P Thompson in his ‘‘Poverty of Theory and Other Essays’’ (1978) Marx’s ‘‘cryptic expressions of faith’’ led to a gross oversimplification and under-estimation of the difficulties of socialist institution -making and undue optimism about the revolutionary transformation of human nature.


The idea of secular faith developed with the growth of science and technology. As technology gave people greater control over their environment, the idea of omnipotent God became less plausible. One can describe this development as materialistic determinism setting the dominant tone of secular millenarial prophecy or divinized realism. Liberal, rational intellectual, Bertrand Russell in his book, ‘‘Why I am not a Christian’’ (1957) put this type of argument in simple language : ‘‘Science can teach us and I think our own hearts can teach us,no longer to look aroumd for imaginary support, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make the world fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.''


The rational, humanistic approach to material progress leading inevitably to a glorious future provides the basis of the current rhetoric of globalization. The relationship between ideology and uptopia of progress in contemporary times may be seen as the triumph of one secular ‘‘trinity’’ over another. Trinity is a concept developed in Christian tradition claiming the divine revelation through three godheads Father, Son (Jesus Christ) and Holy Spirit. Since some basic ideas of symbolical nature often serve as foundation of ideology, the leftist ideology can be seen as based on the ''trinity'' of ''Liberty, Equality and Fraternity'', derived from the spirit of the French Revolution. The contemporary Western

ideology dominated by superpower United States can be seen as based on the ''trinity'' of ''Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness''. One of the founding fathers of the United States, Thomas Jefferson included this trinity in the U S Declaration of independence.


Jefferson was influenced by political philosopher Locke who emphasized that man entered political society to protect his property and the supreme function of the state is to protect life, liberty and property. Jefferson used the term ‘‘pursuit of happiness’’ instead of property.


What is interesting is that Marx, too, focussed his attention on ‘‘pursuit of happiness’’. Only the ideology and political strategy of achieving it is different. In ‘‘The German Ideology’’, he wrote that in communist society, one is free to do one thing today, another tomorrow, ‘‘to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind withour ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.’’


While these two types of utopian ‘‘trinity’’ are different, one can argue that both regard the issue of property distribution as supreme. The only difference between communists and capitalists is the question of ownership and distribution, whether through private hands or collective control.


One political philosopher who influenced the ideologies of social change is improtant to remember in analysing ‘‘secular religion’’ — Rousseau. He postulated the theory of ‘‘general will’’ of people to which ‘‘individual will’’ will submit. The concept of the ‘‘general will’’ of people is a kind of secular mystique. An interesting study on the subject, ‘‘The General Will Before Rousseau: The Transformation of the Divine into the Civic’’ by Patric Riley (1986) presents a detailed analysis of this aspect of secular religion. According to this study, the Christian mystique of the general will of God was converted by Rouseau into the general will of the people. The secular mystique of the ‘‘general will’’ of the people is not questioned although in actual practice political leaders use tactics of manipulating public opinion through propaganda and power.


In modern political context, the ideology of secualr religion of nationalism may turn out to be powerful factor seeking a balance between traditional religion and politics. In modern Western societies, this has been acieheved to a considerable degree. In the third world countries, traditional religion and cultural divisions will continue to disturb the nation-state formation, making it difficult to make this balance. The socio-economic changes are unlikely to work out smoothly to create opportunity for majority of people for consumer culture or pursuit of happiness. This may lead to a sense of alienation among various sections of the population. What kinds of political route this sense of alienation will take is an interesting area of  exploratin of nation-state formation. The current history of the Middle East provides classic examples of this type of hyphenation between secular religion and traditional religion. Saudi Arabia is a crude example of nation-state which combines national territorial imperative with feaudalistic monarchy and emphasis on Islamic scipture. Israel bases its territorial claim as a nation-state on the basis of religion in a straightforward manner. One can point out in this context the differnece between Hinduism on one hand and Islam, Christianity and Judaism on the other. Hinduism does not have a history of long-term involvement in international politics which Islam, Christianity, Judaism have. Hinduism as a spiritual discipline has international appeal, but its role in helping form international political alliances, open and covert is weaker than that of Islam and Judaism, for instance. Pakistan has an advantage over India in this respect. This factor should be remembered by votaries of Hindutva in the current political context of India.