Secularism, colonialism and the Enlightenment. European toleration and the rise of fundamentalism in South Asia

Start - End 
2009 - 2012 (completed)
Department of Comparative sciences of culture



This project built on three hypotheses that resulted from earlier research on the development of the liberal model of secularism and toleration:

(1) The basic structure of this model fails to be neutral with regard to all religions, because it is conceptually dependent upon a Protestant framework, namely, the theology of Christian liberty and its ‘two kingdoms’. This framework divides society into two domains: a temporal political domain, where citizens must always obey the laws of the state, and a private religious domain, where each soul ought always to be free to pursue its own salvation and live according to its own religious laws and beliefs. The model of liberal secularism emerged from a secularization of this theological structure, but is constrained by the latter’s conceptual limitations.

(2) The policy of religious toleration and neutrality of the British colonial state in India developed within this basic theological structure. The state assumed that its policy allowed the different groups of the Indian population to live according to their own religion, customs and laws. In reality, the colonial model of liberal toleration began to transform the Hindu traditions into a (negative) variant of Christianity. It construed these traditions in terms of doctrines to be found in sacred scriptures, laws of which the Hindus believed that they were the commandments of God, and priests who should interpret these ‘sacred laws’.

(3) Hence, in colonial India, this model of secularism and toleration lies at the origin of the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. The colonial state demanded that, if traditional practices were to be tolerated in the name of religion, they ought to be sanctioned by the doctrines and laws from ‘the Hindu scriptures’. In response, several Hindu movements began to defend their traditions in terms of such ‘Hindu doctrines and principles’, while this strategy had been non-existent before the late 18th century. In postcolonial India, the secularism of the liberal state also reinforced Hindu fundamentalism and Hindu-Muslim strife: it transformed the relations among these communities into a conflict of competing doctrines and represented the secular state as a neutral power standing above the conflict of religious truth claims.

Research questions: two new problems emerge from this set of hypotheses:

(1) The British colonial policy hinged upon the conviction that its model of toleration was secular, neutral and universally human. As a consequence, it unknowingly introduced a Protestant-Christian structure into the Indian society. This experience of neutrality has its origin in the 18th-century Enlightenment. In the late 17th century, John Locke still self-evidently viewed the model that divided society into a sphere of coercive political law and a sphere of religious and moral freedom as a theological model (Marshall 2006). But certain 18th-century thinkers, 19th-century colonials and our contemporary liberals see this same political model as independent of all religions (Israel 2001, 2006). We cannot deny or ignore the experience of generations of modern thinkers and policy makers; we must explain it. If the modern model of toleration and secularism indeed reproduces the structure of a Christian theological model of society, how could one experience it as purely secular, neutral and universal from the Enlightenment onwards?

Did this period really succeed in giving a secular foundation to this Christian model and its principles? Or does itconcern an illusion of neutrality and universality, which masks the cultural constraints of western political thought? How then did this experience come into being and whence the apparent blindness to the underlying theological schemes of thought?

Importance of the problem: if it turns out that we are wrong in supposing that the contemporary model of toleration is neutral, secular and universal, then the following consequence arises: everywhere, a particular form of Christianity is introduced under the guise of state neutrality. In that case, chances are that the model also fails to provide a solution to the problems related to religion in Europe. For instance, liberal secularism appears to be the cause of contemporary issues such as the headscarf affair and the radicalization of European Muslims. If this is true, we should start searching for an alternative model of pluralism in Europe.

To solve this problem of the neutrality of liberal secularism, a closer analysis of the dynamic of secularization that is intrinsic to Christian thought is necessary. Earlier research showed that this dynamic strips Christian schemes of thought from their specific theological content and thus allows them to structure the “secular” political thought of western societies. This happened throughout the history of western political thought, but the difference between earlier periods and the Enlightenment is the following: for the first time, the impression arises that the secular world is located outside of the Christian religious world, whereas before it was clear that the Christian religious world contained the world of its “secular” political thought. This inversion calls for an explanation.

(2) The thesis that the British colonial policy of toleration and secularism in India emerged within a Protestant theological framework and thus initiated the growth of Hindu fundamentalism gives raise to another question. Does it concern a contingent development, related to the specific circumstances in India, or does a general causal link exist between liberal secularism and religious fundamentalism?

Importance of the question: the secular state and religious fundamentalism are generally viewed as each other’s opposites. Secularism is taken to be the solution to the problems of fundamentalism and religious conflict. If it transpires that secularism is really the cause of fundamentalism and religious conflict in a series of different situations, then it is high time to reconsider our political ideals. We need to raise the question as to whether the disappearance of religion from the public sphere is a positive development, if it leads to the expansion of 'fanatical' forms of religion.