Faith, History and Science in a Secular Paradigm

Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed

Note: This article is taken from the invited valedictory address given by Professor Ahmed to the Convention of Indian Secular Institute held in Bangalore, India on September 15, 2013. In this thought provoking address, Professor Ahmed has expanded the envelope for secularism and has redefined it in spiritual terms, not as a negation of religion, as was done by nineteenth century European philosophers but as the transcendent shared space of interacting faiths.  In so doing, he has circumscribed secularism within faith space These thought provoking ideas are as applicable to America, Europe and South Africa as they are to India.

The prospects for secularism have never been brighter. At the same time, the threats to secularism have never been greater. In my brief presentation, I will offer some perspectives that may perhaps clarify the state of secularism in the modern world. Is there an existential essence to secularism?  How do faith, history and science fit into a secular paradigm?

In a pluralistic global village, civilizations overlap and individuals have multiple identities. The same person may at once be an Indian, a South Asian, a believer or an atheist, and if dual citizenship is allowed, an American or an Australian, or he may simply consider himself a citizen of the world with no label. Cross-cultural dialogue requires the commitment to seek out and broaden the shared space, the tolerance to accept the validity of the doctrines and the faith of the other, and the openness to participate in and enjoy the holidays and feasts of the other.

In this shrunken globe, as old frameworks crumble and new ones emerge, every faith is engaged in searching for its own soul so that it can define and refine its position with respect to the other faiths. Oftentimes this dialogue is an internal one, within individual souls as they seek to reconcile multiple, overlapping identities and the inevitable tensions inherent therein.

Secularism is no exception to this rule. It must redefine itself so that it remains relevant to the lives of modern men and women. This requires an examination of its origin, its historical context, the terminology used to define it as well as the assumptions that underlie that terminology.

Although secular ideas have existed in every society since ancient times, modern secularism is a product of the perceived conflict between faith and philosophy that emerged during the early years of Christianity and Islam. As the domains of these faiths increased, they came in contact with Greek rational thought. Ideas collided.  One may, for instance, seek the origin of secular thought in the dialectic between Al Ghazzali (d 1111) and Ibn Rushd (d 1198). It is not my intent here to retrace the historical battles that took place between the Mutazalites and the Kalam school in eighth century Islamic history or the dialectic between faith and reason addressed by Thomas Aquinas (d 1274). The response of these two great traditions to the secular-religious dialectic was fundamentally different. The Islamic world rejected rational deductive philosophy and adopted empirical inductive science. The Christian world bifurcated its world view into the sacred and the secular. Matters of faith were confined to the Church while history, sociology and science were opened up to secular inquiry.

Modern secularism was born in the nineteenth century in the heyday of European expansion. Developments in science and technology went hand in hand with industrialization and colonization. The accumulation of enormous wealth, albeit it was concentrated in the hands of only a few bankers, merchants and industrialists, held out the promise of unlimited human development. Secularism, developing on the heels of humanism, saw no need for the Divine in human affairs. Humankind, at any rate the European part of it, seemed to be doing quite well without the burden of religious dogma. This was the heyday for philosophical speculation. The Theory of Evolution was a prime example of such speculation. In its social implications, it supported the dominance of the west over the rest of the world and gained wide acceptance as a “scientific” theory even if key tenets of the theory remained without empirical validation.

In the twenty first century, the widely accepted definition of secularism as a non-religious movement needs to be re-examined.

In the post-industrialized world, there has been increasing disillusionment with material progress and an awareness of the terrible price paid for dissociating oneself from spiritual space. Faith in its many forms is alive and well. Indeed, in the last two decades there is a resurgence of religious fervor the world over. This is as true of India as it is of America and Europe. Some of this fervor is exploited by extremist groups to further their own political agendas. Extremism robs religion of its spirituality and creates a thorny bush out of a flowering plant. As a Muslim with a deep faith, I must point out here that the Qur’an explicitly discourages extremism (“Innallaha la huhibbul mu’tadeen-Verily, Allah does not love the extremists.” The Qur’an). There is no clash of civilizations in the world as Huntington would have us believe. There is a clash of extremisms as Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University has explained.

A consequence of increasing religious fervor is that secularism finds itself increasingly isolated in a world awash with religious extremism.

It should be obvious that secularism has done itself a disservice in accepting the definitions advanced by western man in the 19th century, namely, that it is a movement that is anti-religion. Although its primary application was in the political domain in separating church and state, it was soon applied to social and scientific disciplines as well. There is no reason why we should accept this traditional definition that is couched in negative terms as a movement that is irreligious. Indeed, we have an historic opportunity to expand the horizons of secularism and its global reach by redefining it in spiritual terms. We need to stretch the envelope and think outside the box.

An overwhelming majority of the people of India subscribe to one religious identity or the other. Even the most avowed secularist in India does not renounce his religious identify. By defining itself in non-religious terms, secularism isolates itself and reduces its appeal to the masses.

So, allow me to offer a new definition of secularism appropriate for a highly religious, pluralistic society.

Secularism is the existential essence of spirituality. One may also say that secularism ought to be the existential essence of spirituality. A third way to express a similar idea is to say that secularism is the shared spiritual space that emerges when coexistent spiritual groups transcend their individual religious domains and join hands to work for the common good.

This definition may sound new and challenging but it need not be. It is inherent in the teachings of the great spiritual masters of the past.

Let me offer an example. It was the year 1250 CE. The Eurasian continent was reeling under the Mongol onslaught. Much of the landmass from the Indus to the Danube lay in ruins. In the midst of the cacophony of war and the clang of swords and shields rose the melodious voice of a great sage, Mevlana Rumi (d 1273) in far away Anatolia. Arberry referred to him as “the greatest mystical poet in the history of mankind.”  Describing himself in the midst of this mayhem of destruction, the Mevlana wrote:

“What is to be done O men of faith! I do not recognize myself. I am not Christian, or Jew or Muslim, nor Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen; not any religion or cultural system…..This is me: sometimes hidden, sometimes revealed….for me to fit inside everyone’s heart, I put on a new face”.

These mystical passages, profound in their insight on the human condition, have been translated and explained over the years in many different ways. Such passages are not the subject matter for mundane conversations; they are addressed to the spiritual elite. One possible explanation is that Rumi was expressing the state of the soul when it transcends the constraints of ritualistic religion. When the soul transcends the confined bounds of ritual, it ceases to be Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Sikh, Zoroastrian, believer or disbeliever and soars into the unbounded space of  Divine Grace. This is the pristine, primordial state of the soul as was explained by Al Gazzali. Thus secularism is not a negation of religion. It stands on the shoulders of religion. It begins where ritual leaves off.

Ladies and Gentlemen… Distinguished guests… Faith is the moving principle of civilization. Where there is no faith, there is no civilization. This is the Universal Law of Civilization.

In the fascinating panorama of the struggle of man on earth, faith has played a pivotal role. Each of the major religions of man imbues its followers with a particular vision of the transcendent and the relationship of the human to the transcendent. That particular vision governs to a large extent the relationship of each faith with the world at large. As the globe shrinks under the incessant impact of technology, men and women of different faiths need to come together to understand one another and shape a common human destiny.

A civilization is a human system in faith space. Faith is a divine gift to humankind. It brings man in contact with heavenly energy that flows down from divine Grace. Was that energy to disappear for a moment all existence shall cease to be.

The reservoir of faith is infinite. It is inexhaustible as compared with the reservoir of human energy which is limited and exhaustible. A civilization based on faith endures. One that is not anchored in faith may last several generations but does not endure.

A civilization is a living organism. Within this organism, life and death, renewal and decay are coexistent. When the forces of renewal are dominant, a civilization prospers. When the forces of decay take over, a civilization collapses.

Like waves, civilizations collapse with a thunder. But the forces that cause them to collapse are not instantaneous. They build up over time until the civilization becomes unstable. The process is like that of an earthquake. The forces that cause an earthquake build up over years, perhaps centuries. And when they exceed the limits, the pent up energy is released with the suddenness of an earthquake flattening everything that stands in its way.

A dynasty is not a civilization. A civilization may contain within it several dynasties. Each dynasty is like a fresh wave overtaking the one before it. Observe an ocean wave as it overtakes the one before it. The wave in the front disappears and gives way to the one behind it. In the same way, a dynasty gives way to another one. A particle in the ocean moves up and down as a wave traverses it. Similarly, a body politic endures a dynasty as it makes its appearance and disappears. As long as the ocean provides the energy, new waves are formed and the show goes on. Similarly, as long as faith propels a civilization, it renews itself even as it endures the vicissitudes of history.

Civilization is a monarch that rides on a chariot with four wheels: justice, perseverance, mutual support and righteous action. If any of these wheels becomes unhinged, the chariot topples over. Faith is the propulsive power for this chariot. When the reservoir of faith is exhausted, the chariot grinds to a halt.

What does faith mean in a secular paradigm? Each religious tradition in a multi-religious, pluralistic society has its own personal space and its own community space. The personal space defines its doctrines and belief systems. The community space defines its ritual systems, feasts and festivals. But the bulk of societal space is shared space, which is common to all faith groups.

It is this shared space that is the domain of secularism. While one respects the doctrines and belief systems of the other, one works together in this common space for the common good.

This shared space need not be anti-religious, certainly not anti-spiritual. It is like an edifice supported by many pillars, each one representing a different religious tradition. This edifice has a vast common space with multiple doors, each one representing a separate tradition of humankind.

It is in this shared space, transcending individual faiths but supported by them, that one finds social and economic justice, rights and responsibilities of men and women, human rights, environmental protection, love of the homeland, common defence, mutual respect, righteous and noble action, individual dignity and societal welfare.

Faith in a secular paradigm embraces not only faith in one’s individual spiritual tradition but faith in the systems that sustain the common good in shared space and a willingness to continuously struggle for them. The two are not exclusive; they complement and reinforce each other. Modern man has concurrent and overlapping identities. Secularism must accept these overlapping identities and redefine itself as the transcendent aspect of individual faith that governs shared space and the common good. The paramount dialectic of modern man is the definition of the interface between the individual space and the shared space in a spiritual matrix.

In India, for instance, one can have an abiding faith in Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Sikkhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, or any other faith system, and be a staunch secularist with an equally abiding faith in the common good based on justice, mutual love, good deeds and a common destiny.

How do history and science fit into this spiritual secular paradigm? The separation of the world view into the secular and the sacred has resulted in the fragmentation and fossilization of knowledge. Truth is one and indivisible. There cannot be one truth for nature and another truth for faith and a third one for history. This self-evident reality is overlooked by modern man who has compartmentalized science, history and faith.

The discipline of each – science, history and faith- is a noble and grand enterprise in its own right.  Each one shows the grandeur and majesty of creation and guides man to his noble destiny. Each one has its own assumptions. A man of wisdom is aware of these assumptions so that when he embarks on his discovery of the Truth, he does not confuse what is apparent with the reality that lies hidden behind the manifest.

History is not merely a compendium of dates and events. History is a study of the laws that govern the formation and dissolution of civilizations. What makes it possible for common people to work together to achieve uncommon results? Similarly, why do civilizations decay and disappear? These questions transcend any specific dogma and therefore belong most appropriately to the shared secular domain.

There are a host of theories about the rise and fall of civilizations with which the reader is no doubt familiar.

Ibn Khaldun (d 1406), the great philosopher of the Maghreb, and the father of historiography, studied the Berber dynasties in North Africa and postulated his theory of the rise and fall of civilizations based on tribal cohesion. Ibn Khaldun found that the desert nomads possessed the qualities of courage, valor, integrity, hard work and mutual support in abundance. He contrasted these qualities with those found in the city dwellers where the ease of city life led to lethargy, mutual rivalry, chicanery, deception, acquisitiveness and a lack of ethics.

Ibn Khaldun observed that as city dwellers succumb to the pleasures of a settled life they are overrun by the desert dwellers. With time the newcomers themselves settle down and develop the flaccid habits of city dwellers only to be overrun by a fresh wave of conquerors from the desert.

Ibn Khaldun’s theory has universal application. Civilizations decay from within. Righteous action fosters mutual support and sustains a civilization. Vices destroy a civilization, and as they decay they are overrun by other civilizations that are more cohesive and virile. And the process repeats.

However, Ibn Khaldun’s path-breaking theory leaves several issues unanswered. Must city life necessarily lead to corruption? Were not some of the great civilizations of the past city based? Secondly, once a civilization begins to decay, must it necessarily fall prey to outside forces? Ibn Khaldun’s theory leaves no room for internal renewal.

There are other theories for the rise and fall of civilizations. Those of Toynbee, Adams, Hegel, Marx, Spengler, Kennedy and Diamond deserve serious study. Toynbee’s challenge and response is a further development of cause and effect. Brooks Adams saw economic centration as the driving force for the formation of civilizations. Hegel’s dialectic found a concrete expression in the material dialectic of Marx and Engel. Kennedy advances his thesis for the decay of empires based on over-stretch in relation to its resources. Diamond takes an ecological view to societal collapse postulating that the capacity of a society to endure is directly connected with its ability to maintain a balance between the availability and exploitation of natural resources at its disposal.

As I was dissatisfied with each of these well known theories, I have advanced my own theory for the rise and fall of civilizations based on a theory of renewal (reference: I have postulated that a great civilization is based on faith. It is faith that provides a reservoir of energy for the civilization to renew itself from within as it faces the vicissitudes of time. Those civilizations endure that have this capacity for renewal. Those that do not, disappear.

Faith is not only the cement, the glue that holds a civilization together but is also the reservoir that a great civilization dives into for its renewal. Faith fosters righteous action which alone propels a civilization forward. Take the faith away, a civilization degenerates like a brick that has not been fired. It collapses into dust. Such a civilization does not endure. It is overwhelmed and is swallowed up by the turbulence of time.

Secular India must cultivate and foster an unshakeable faith in the shared space of its people who enter this domain from multiple spiritual platforms. Only such faith can provide a reservoir of energy as India seeks to build a great civilization that draws upon the energies of multiple faiths but in its functionality transcends them all.

The function of science is to find the truth. In this grand enterprise, the mind, the body, the heart, the soul and the spirit work together. Man is both spirit and body. It is not the body that contains the spirit. It is the spirit that surrounds the body many times over. The secular cannot comprehend the spiritual. It is the spiritual, supported and confirmed by the empirical and the rational that leads to the truth.

It is a tragedy that modern man accepts the compartmentalized assumptions of science that the body and soul are separate and distinct. He relegates the soul to “the other world”, while assuming that the body belongs to “this world”. In such a soulless world, he cannot find joy, happiness, justice, feeling and compassion. What he does feel is der angst. He is lonely, lost.

Science, history and faith are interrelated in their origin as well as their functionality.  The origin of all knowledge is the search for the Truth.

Knowledge is a treasure. It is gifted through the Spirit which is the source of life.  Whether one is a saint or a scientist one must concede that with birth come life, knowledge and power. A dead man has no life, no power and no knowledge.  It stands to reason that knowledge is a gift that accompanies the Spirit which is infused into a person between conception and birth. It is the Spirit that is the life source. Without the Spirit, there is no life and no knowledge.

Science, or at least science as we know it today, grew up in the cradle of secularism.  While science has bestowed unprecedented riches on humankind, it has also extracted an enormous price in the bargain. While we know the objective characteristics of nature and have used them to our advantage, we have lost touch with a sense of beauty and feeling. Let me illustrate this with an example from physics .

The senses act as windows to the physical in time-space and facilitate the construction of an empirical worldview which forms the basis of science.  This worldview, based on the assumptions of before and after, subject and object, is flawed, deceptive and imperfect. Consider a rainbow. A physical description of the rainbow would take us in the direction of wavelengths, dispersion, wave propagation, optic nerves, and neurons in the brain. Consider this worldview of wavelengths, dispersion and neurons. Where is the enchanting beauty of the rainbow as it vaults the sky from horizon to horizon? It is not there. Yet, even the most unlettered human can relate to the beauty of the rainbow and be awed by it. The beauty of the rainbow is not in the physical description because beauty is not in wavelengths, cells and atoms. It is in the soul which is hidden from the physical, but makes its presence felt through interaction with it.

Secular man is constantly at war with himself. He cannot circumscribe the heart with his logic. Traditional secular thought would have us believe that there is nothing more to the cosmos than the physical. The materialists go even one step further; they reduce all experience to the physical. In the process they negate the essence of being human which lies in the perceptions of the heart and the soul. In their world there are new tears, only chemical changes in the body, no smile of a baby, no beauty, no joy and no sorrow.

Despite Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, modern man clings to the belief that the incomplete picture provided by science reveals the whole truth. Indeed, science has become the new religion of man.

The dichotomy between the physical and the soul is removed when the physical is presented within a spiritual paradigm. Such a perspective does not negate the scientific approach which demands its validation in observation and measurement. It merely imparts a transcendent vision to the physical so that the scientist can use the experience of the senses, not as an end in itself but as an occasion for the spirit to witness the grand panorama of creation from a platform of faith.  Such a view does not negate the processes of science. But it changes the perspective in a profound way.

Every moment Divine grace displays itself in nature, and it does so with majesty. In it there are Signs for perceptive minds. The study of nature thus becomes mandatory for humankind so that it becomes witness to these Signs, uses them as occasions to celebrate Divine grace and create Divine patterns in the world

In summary, the predicament of modern man and his dissociation from the self offers an opportunity for the secular domain to extend its reach, not as anti-religion but as the transcendent aspect of overlapping and intersecting spiritual traditions. Secularism need not negate religion. On the contrary, it must elevate and propel religion to transcendental heights, into the shared space of all humankind, which is the essence of true religion. In this transcendental dimension there is universal justice, righteous action, love, mutual support, rights and responsibilities of men and women,  and the vision of a shared destiny for a nation and for humankind. Would it not be a beautiful world if a Muslim becomes the keeper of a Hindu, a Hindu the keeper of a Christian, a Christian of a Jew and a Jew of a Muslim?