The Audacity of My Secularism


At a dinner recently, the conversation drifted to the politics of religion in India. A friend, who relocated to India about a decade ago, scoffed at the idea of secularism. He called it “appeasement politics,” a political creed that has resulted in the marginalization of the majority in India.

Furthermore, as a personal belief system, he implied that secularism had an intellectual stranglehold on faith. Secular people, he opined, often seem embarrassed by their own religious roots, and were given to critically examining their own religion, but unwilling to consider other religions in a similar manner.

For most of my life, I’ve believed that secularism means respect and tolerance for all faiths and people of all faiths. My friend’s version of secularism seemed to be a subversion of my beliefs. So I began to think about what secularism means to me.

My father was a secular atheist and my mother is a practicing Hindu. I grew up in Christian boarding schools from the age of four and was taught catechism as part of the school curriculum.

Despite my formal religious instruction, I clung to my father’s secular atheism as the answer to religious and social intolerance. But it also came with a certain lack of belonging—a passport to a citizenship of non-participation.

Barack Obama, in his book, The Audacity of Hope, talks about growing up secular, much like I did. His mother was a secular humanist. “In her mind, a working knowledge of the world’s greatest religions was a necessary part of any well-rounded education. In our household the Bible, the Koran, and theBhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology.”

Obama’s father was a Muslim who became an atheist. His stepfather was a Muslim, who became a skeptic. While growing up in Indonesia, Obama studied in a Catholic school as well as a Muslim school, where the “meaning of the muezzin’s call to evening prayer” was part of the curriculum. Later as a young man he embraced Christianity because, as he puts it, he wanted to belong to a particular community of faith that had a mandate for social change. In spite of his religious affiliation, Obama has frequently spoken in favor of secularism, “[In America] we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”

In my case, Christianity was what I was formally taught, Hinduism was what I culturally and socially assimilated, and secularism is what became my moral guiding light.

When my children were young, I realized that I had an obligation to show them the value of community faith participation. I had to offer my children the choice to believe. So I recruited my mother to help us understand and perform the practice of Hinduism. And I, too, put the Gita and the Koran on the same shelf for easy access.

Most importantly, I wanted to teach my children that belonging to a minority religion carries particular responsibilities as well as particular inconveniences.

Here in America, the exoticism of Hinduism will always be disconcerting. As immigrants from India, whether we accept Hinduism or not, we are likely to be called upon to explain its practice and philosophy, even as members of other faiths from India.

I believe that it’s important to engage with religion in real and academic ways before choosing to attach or detach from it.

The important distinction to keep in mind is that to be non-Hindu is not to be against Hindus. And to be Hindu does not carry any disrespect to other religions. Likewise, to be a non-Christian is not “unchristian.”

This is my version of secularism.

Indeed, it is easier to be an atheist and secular than to be Hindu and secular. But secularism is not a religious agent. Just as morality is not the birthright of any religion.

Secularism is about equal consideration. And, secularism has helped define the moral moments of my life with and without religion.

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