By Valson Thampu
Religious fundamentalism is a throwback to the pre-rational phase of religion. It has a genius for misrepresenting regression as progress.
Civilizations, we are told, start as theocracies and end up as democracies. This is a historical fact, and it needs to be heeded, even if the mouthpieces of theocracy clamor, “faith is above facts”.
For a democracy to regress to theocracy is thus disastrous, like progressing from determining truth through an examination of evidence to divining it by the entrails of birds, as in ancient Athens.
The seductiveness of the past lies sleeping within us, ever ready to wake up. Its allurement increases with the bewilderment we experience in the face of emerging challenges. Religious fundamentalism is a throw-back, liveried in the idioms and jargons of modernity, to the pre-rational phase in the practice of religion. It has an uncanny genius for misrepresenting regression as progress. So it is particularly important in times like ours, to see through such confusions.
The theocratic scheme of things is distinguished from its democratic counterpart by the marginalization of the people and their degradation into tools to be used at will. In such a context, the invocation of demographic-dividend entails no commitment to empowering citizens. It scorns the respect that democracy ascribes to the worth of all human beings.
Theocracy marginalizes and uses people callously because God himself is misused by it. Recall, for an illustration, the euphoric assertion of a protagonist of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the wake of the destruction of the ‘disputed structure’ in 1992. Even if Lord Ram were to come in person and ask us to give up, he declaimed, the mandir will be built. That’s to say, Lord Ram is incidental to Ram Mandir, as Jesus is to Christendom.
The pantheon of theocracy is presided over by Pontiffs. Since by itself the priestly oligarchy does not command material power and resources, theocracy deploys a priest-politician collaboration. The power struggle in religious history has been between God and priests. Priests killed Jesus. In religion, God’s plight is hopeless. In the Middle Ages, when God was superseded by Papacy. Allah lost the battle to violence-spewing, reason-hating mullahs. Roughly the same pattern peeks at us from Ayodhya.
Priests as a class express themselves best in stone. “In the Hindu, Egyptian, or Romanesque architecture,” wrote Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831), “one feels the priest, nothing but the priest, whether he calls himself Brahmin, Magian or Pope.”
No spiritual tradition in the world knows God as dwelling in any man-made structure, whether of stone, wood, or gold. Yet, building impressive cathedrals, temples and mosques has been the hallmark expression of priestly pride and grandeur. This anomaly goes unnoticed only because the common man is too brainwashed to see the obvious fact that God, the creator of the Universe, does not need to be a tenant of Pontiffs and Patriarchs.
What happens when a class of people get used to embodying their power in stone? They become insensitive like stone. Let us take Henri Bergson’s help to understand this somewhat. In Creative Evolution (1905), he argues that human nature has an instinctive preference for the solid, as against the liquid and the aery, which are more akin to the life principle. That is because the solid is susceptible to human control. Rock is harder in comparison to water or air; but it is a lot easier to embody man’s will and pride in stone than it is in water or air. Stone is death; soul is life.
Theocracy, being a scheme of things centered on priestly hegemony, has a natural preference for stone over soul, worldly power over humane ideals. In a theocracy, a place of worship is at once a palace and a prison for God.
What undermined theocracy all over the world was the rise of freedom of thought and the broad-basing of knowledge; in one word, Enlightenment. Nothing rattles priestly hegemony more decisively than the enlightenment of the people. Small wonder, theocracies suppress free-thinking as heresy, and align themselves with agents of regression. What should concern us as citizens of a democratic Republic is the devastation that our intellectual culture is bound to suffer, if the charioteers of theocracy are allowed to have their way.
Consider the ‘development’ being commended to us and ask, isn’t it illogical that this fanfare co-exists with unprecedented hostility to liberal intellectual culture, marked by freedom of choice and expression? We have never before been as intolerant of free-thinking as we are today. All over the world, nations progressed only through free thinking and an unregimented flow of knowledge. Theocracy and development are mutually exclusive.
It is inevitable, therefore, that the popularization of modern education is strongly distrusted in a theocratic state, of which Malala of Pakistan is a familiar illustration. Centers of liberal education are bound to come under disfavor. The tower of development under construction today is a materialistic project, to which the resources of the heart and soul are deemed superfluous.
The history of the economic progress of the West tells a different story, though. Printing, not extravagant enterprises in steel and stone, says Alvin Toffler in Future Shock (1970), has been its driving force. Prior to 1500 AD, Europe was producing 1000 books per year. By 1950, it shot up to 120,000 titles a year. The output of scientific and technical literature in the US alone touched, by mid-1960s, 60,000,000 pages a year. Small wonder, America rules the world.
All that we do, to cover up our intellectual poverty, is to tom-tom ‘make in India’ which, de-constructed aright, means that we have little of our own to bank on. We want wealth without the intellectual under-pinning it demands. Regression to theocracy may camouflage this bankruptcy; but it will degrade us into a colony for the enterprises and interests of the purveyors of technical and scientific development.
(Reverend Valson Thampu is the former principal of St Stephen’s College, Delhi. This article first appeared in The Indian Express on May 7, 2018)