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The Secular Delusion

If 19.6 % Americans believe in “nothing in particular”, it in fact draws attention to US politics within the piety framework.

Forget about separation of religion and state. Can religion survive without a state? Would it be orphaned without patriotic fervour?

I come from a country that is secular. Yet, its largest opposition party has dreams of a Hindu Rashtra (state). The government offers sops to every faith. There are regional groups that seek special status for language and ethnicity. Tribes and scheduled castes have their own demands and the nation owes it to them, not because the Constitution has failed them but the faith they were born in has. The Constitution, in effect, is keeping belief systems alive.

The recent Pew Research Centre’s study that reveals 19.6 per cent Americans believe in “nothing in particular” is considered a departure from stratified norms. It draws attention to US politics within the framework of piety. To suggest that one in five adults is not using traditional patterns does not mean much. Even in states with a religious constitution, there are the rebound and rethink dissonances. Pakistan is a prime example. Rather, religion gives the state a long rope to hang itself with.

As the study team said, “Sociologists have shown that Americans are more likely to pick their place of worship by their politics, not vice versa.” How does this bode for the religion of the state when not only is the faith factor divided by race, but political choices made by the ‘nones’?

Dan Barker, Co-President of The Freedom From Religion Foundation, thinks it is a pertinent yardstick: “…when are politicians and candidates going to wake up to the changing demographics and start courting us? Secularists are looking for candidates who share a commitment to America’s foundational principle of separation between religion and government.”

It depends on how deep one excavates to get to the foundation. After the American War, the states expected government office-bearers to express fealty to the Trinity and declare the divine inspiration of the Bible. We may move on, but history is embedded.

In the run-up to the elections, FFRF is putting up billboards showing regular families – the big American fantasy – with catchphrases: “This is what an atheist family looks like”, “I’m secular and I vote”, “We’re too old for imaginary friends”, “Atheists work to make this life heavenly”.

How different are these notional divisions from devotional ones? Who will they vote for? What are the candidates promising besides the usual civic issues? Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have both alluded to religion. ‘Other’ faiths are mentioned either as a species to be protected or as a threat.

Richard Dawkins who wrote The God Delusion partly as a reaction to 9/11 has suggested that whatever may have been the hijackers’ political or social motivations, it was a religious act based on the conviction that they would be rewarded in the afterlife.

The proponents of such theocracy do use this as a cover-up. It might explain the ‘non-state’ nature of these actors too. Their religion gives the attacked country a carte blanche to choose its opponents from the many streams of Islamic thought. Curiously enough, the US did not strike at the fount – Saudi Arabia.

Would the ‘religious act’ argument apply to the violence in Tibet, a Buddhist state? The self-immolation by monks and nuns could also be seen as a violent act, and the ethnicity of the people depends to a great extent on its religion to survive. Devotees are blamed for deifying the founder. The moot question here is: Why then are there Buddhist states? Hypothetically, without a supreme being or an emissary, as much as a political or philosophical leader, is it possible to sustain any creed?

Even in non-religious societies, as in Communist states, there will be fringe pious groups – whether it is the Russian Orthodox Church or minorities in China. The state is expected to uphold their rights, or else deal with ideological skirmishes and bloodshed.

There is a belief that superimposed unity is counterproductive. Douglas Murray, director of the Center for Social Cohesion in London, quite naturally upholds ‘purity’: “State-sponsored multiculturalism treated European countries like hostelries. It judged that the state should not ‘impose’ rules and values on newcomers. The resultant policy was that states treated and judged people by the criteria of whatever ‘community’ they found themselves born into.”

In Britain, where the Church of England is effectively the state religion, what culture could be used as a standard and how would it negotiate nationalism? We do tend to use the word culture to take away the harsh reality that almost all cultures depend on value systems and these, even as heresy, are often imbibed from sacred texts.

Therefore, the non-canonical is perforce born of the consecrated and remains a recusant faith, as it were. To prove otherwise is merely akin to spilling ink over scriptures. Secularism as negation is as hallucinatory as the perennial queries about god. In fact, god is not even germane to a discussion on the role of the state in religion. It must be pointed out that over-the-top nationalism putting country above all else uses a theistic paradigm.

If the nation did not identify me as a Muslim I would have, as when the rare occasion permitted me, filled in the religion column with “Not Applicable”. The onus is on the state to stop acting like a shrine.

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Published in Express tribune


4 Comment count
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The metaphor of "melting pot"

The metaphor of "melting pot" seems to have yielded to that of "salad bowl" in the United States where public education increasingly promotes cultural diversity (but obviously not to the point of undermining nation building.) A clear political divide seems to exist between multiculturalists and the assimilationists regardless of whether they are atheists or religionists. However, I live in a densely populated neighborhood where almost all religions including Islam, Judaism and various Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant, are represented with a place of worship so maybe this is also a reinforcing factor for my world view that "salad bowl" is the mainstream idea in force. Thank you for a well-written article.

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You are, indeed, right about the divide between multiculturalists and assimilationists. However, I do wonder and worry if this political separation manages to seep into the public psyche. After all, laws and social behaviour are often dictated by the government, whether overtly or otherwise.

I am glad you made a differentiation between melting pot and salad bowl. The former idea works to strip identity, and increasingly people wish to have some 'adherence' to their origins. This occasionally causes problems because it is expressed in religious terms. So, many immigrants tend to respond with making safe nationalistic choices and being trapped. There are just too many circles within circles, are there not?

Thanking you for stopping by and making such a lucid comment.


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Farzana,Your articles are


Your articles are educational and enlightening. I found this one particularly interesting.

The thirteenth paragraph begins with "There is a belief that superimposed unity is counterproductive." It ends with the (paraphrased) quote from Douglas Murray, "... The resultant policy was that states treated and judged people by the criteria of whatever ‘community’ they found themselves born into.”

Children live what they learn but many reach a turning point where they break from familial belief patterns. I think the break, if it occurs, is influenced by their societies level of rigidity in cultural and religious beliefs.  For example, the Amish allow their sixteen year-old teenagers a period of freedom in the "real" world. If they don't come back after Rumspringa, they're forbidden to return to their community later.

I live in a country where I can freely choose any religion but I live in an area of the US where the religious diversity consists of: Pentecostals, Baptists, First Baptists, Catholics (considered idol worshippers by some), Lutherans, Mormons, Methodists, Evangelicists and First Christians. (Apparently they won something.)

We don't attend church often but I believe in God. In Southwest Missouri it is common to pray at public meetings, before luncheons and football games. It doesn't occur to most of these nice people that anyone could be Jewish, Buddhist or Islamic. And ninety-five percent (my estimate; probably low) of the Christians in our area are Republicans. Separation of Church and State is non-existent here, but it wasn't in Littleton, Colorado and Southern New Hampshire where I lived for many years.

You said, "In fact, God is not even germane to a discussion on the role of the state in religion." I couldn't agree more. God has nothing to do with religion. Religions are created by men. Men build churches, and men build countries and governments. 

Enough...my bandwagon is coming around the corner.


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Jules: Thank you for sharing


Thank you for sharing from your own environment how religious choices are made and viewed.

I do understand that free choices are made, but most people end up believing what they were brought up believing. The state also plays a role, for we do have Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic, Christian nations. I find this impedes the working of the state and makes it incumbent on it to function 'religiously', at least to an extent.

The tussle is much more in democratic societies with a secular Constitution. Ultimately, it is for people to rise above the pettiness that interpreters force upon them.