Secularism: A Principled Distance?

by | March 24, 2015

Some comments regarding secularism by India’s Vice-President Hamid Ansari were brought to my attention when a member of CFI Canada tweeted an article to me.  Ansari’s comments provide an interesting range of thought and some details worth exploring.  I was particularly interested in a comment that touches on issues that Canadian secularists (and here I am distinguishing between secularists who are interested in separation of religion and state versus atheists who do not believe in god or engage in a religion) will be concerned with.  Specifically, I am interested in the section of the article which says:

Ansari said secularism in some Western countries, which is premised on homogenous, single-religion, are facing challenges from emigrant communities of other faiths, which is resulting into a “new multi-religiosity” that is threatening to “throw western secularism into turmoil”

He opined that in these circumstances, the Indian approach of secularism could be an alternate model, which does not create a barrier of separation of religion and state, but proposes a ‘principled distance’ between them.

Ansari also said  that “It (Indian secularism) does not, must not, give official status to any religion or accept its hegemonic position.”  I agree that governments must not give official status or powers to religions.

I don’t yet know what Ansari implies when he asserts a “principled distance” between religion and state as an alternative to a “barrier”, but I also note that he suggests that he said that people must have the  “freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

I’m not convinced that India has locked down an ideal model of secularism and I am concerned that ideas like these may be packaged in a manner which sounds appealing even beyond India but may in fact be even more problematic than the turmoil that we are told we are in.

Turmoil, I think is a very relative thing.  Is Canada in a turmoil over new cultures entering our secular state?  I don’t think it is. We have a few issues to understand and discuss, but I think turmoil would not be the word I’d use to describe Canada on this issue. There are people, however, that could easily be convinced Canada is in a turmoil….after all, look at all the turmoil over (insert recent incident here).

“Principled distance” and “freedom to manifest” begin to sound rather like pretty descriptions for more religion in government (and, I note the inclusion of teaching and therefore education in Ansari’s comments).

What I also note is that Ansari’s comments do not specifically acknowledge an option to not participate in an organized religion or belief system.

Canadian secularists and atheists should be on the watch for new language that might easily be used to leverage greater access and privilege to religion than is already in existence.

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