The future of religion in a post-secular world

World religions are still treated as a divisive force rather than as a resource for ensuring greater harmony.

Dalai Lama pointing
The Dalai Lama along with other notables gathered in New Delhi earlier this month to discuss the future of global religious diversity [GALLO/GETTY]

About three decades ago in a conference held in Scandinavia, I heard a speaker passionately voicing a forecast made by some futurists.

These futurists, he said, were pretty much convinced that with the spread of secular political ideology and the increasing sharing of scientific technology, the influence and impact of the religions of the world will gradually subside and even that it is likely that these are to vanish from the face of this earth in due course of time. 

I remembered that prophecy and how it has proven to be wrong with almost a sense of amusement, while providing a concept note for a significant international conference that was recently organised in order to celebrate 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda. This conference ‘On World Religions: Diversity, Not Dissension’ that has been hosted by the Indian Council of Cultural Relations in New Delhi (7-9 March, 2013), brought a number of speakers from various parts of the globe. Apart from running the event, it also gave me the possibility of spending a whole session conversing with HH Dalai Lama, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, Dr. Karan Singh and Reverend Mpho Tutu. 

The fact is that a common sharing of advanced technology by facilitating travel and communication in an unprecedented manner has not only affected possibilities for cross cultural exchanges and interactions in a profound way, it has also in the process made our multi-religious situation more glaringly visible than ever. Thus, despite all on-going – undoubtedly pertinent – interpretations of the notion of secularism and secularisation in political and legal discourses, some social scientists have in the mean time begun to describe our time as a post-secular era.

By all counts, our world religions surely seem to be very much with us and continue to remain the principal and primary sources from which the largest aggregates of humanity receive guidance, draw their norms and values and derive a sense of collective identity. Thus, religious identity – as it is used in common parlance – is still the single most dominant criterion with the help of which we demarcate the largest human aggregates one from the other. This is why various issues and concerns associated with the presence of the plurality of world religions need to be prioritised today in an open public discourse in which academicians – the principal theory-makers – need to interact with practitioners and with people of various walks of life to avoid short-sightedness.   

It is also now time to emphasise that when we study this religious dimension of our contemporary ‘interdependent’ world, we must be prepared to consider religious issues not only in terms of theology, liturgy, metaphysics, ethics, psychology or aesthetics – important as these are for understanding the distinctness of various traditions – but also to read their implications in socio-economic and political terms that reflect concerns various forms of social injustice including eradication of poverty, malnutrition etc.    

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) was fully aware of this network of social realities while he observed: “Of all the forces that have worked and are still working to mould the destinies of the human race, none, certainly, is more potent than that, the manifestation of which we call religion.”   

Recall that the question of religion has been perpetually present not only within the conceptual frames of a global history of ideas, it has also run throughout the history of human civilisation having extraordinarily great impact. These historical developments can be studied and explored both conceptually as well as empirically, especially with reference to various scenarios entailing peace and violence, protest and transformation and in diverse formations of social groupings marking segments of population as majority and minority in various national contexts.

In any case, if we agree that we are not living in a post-religious era, we simply cannot underplay the importance of a meta-philosophy that can help emerge a multi-religious global community that flatly refuses to perceive the phenomenon of diversity of traditions as an inevitable cause for dissension. An authentic effort to understand the contemporary multi-religious situation in our time remains crucial also because it is with reference to these religions – rightly or wrongly – that we have to a large extent shaped our attitudes toward the ‘otherness’ of those who derive their sense of identity from sources other than our own.  Today, unquestionably no less than before, the world religions are still treated as a divisive force rather than as a resource for ensuring greater harmony. We need to alter this scenario. This is what I describe as the unfinished project of Swami Vivekananda.

An open cross cultural conversation is needed in order to explore how the intricacies of geopolitics play havoc in the global scene, be that where one nation is composed of members of diverse religious identities (including denominations of the same tradition), or where diverse nations partake of the same religious identity. How do socio-political forces exploit these situations? We need to understand the mechanisms by means of which these identities are sustained, when and how these are endangered, what local and global institutional infrastructures are available to resist interventions of various sorts.  

Today when secular world-views and ideologies seek to address anew the presence of diversity in the form of multiculturalism, globalisation, cosmopolitanism etc., the crucial question that repeatedly comes to the forefront is how do we construe a sense of a larger identity that does not demand homogenisation or does not lend support to dissension but can celebrate diversity? More importantly, can religions of the world help us to obtain this desired sense of a larger identity by annulling the ways we have understood and construed our differences so far?  While meticulously taking note of differences as well as overlaps that are there among the religions of the world, is it still possible to re-assess the import of the universal awareness with regard to the religious dimension of our existence differently than we have done so far? 

Anindita N. Balslev is a philosopher based in India and Denmark. She obtained her Ph.D in Philosophy from the University of Paris. Her educational and professional experience in India, France, USA and Denmark inspired her to create a forum for ‘Cross-cultural Conversation’ (CCC). She is the author of several books. To mention a few: A Study of Time in Indian Philosophy (MLBD, Delhi, 3rd edition, 2009), Cultural Otherness: Correspondence with Richard Rorty, (OUP, USA, 2nd ed. 2000), Indian Conceptual World (Aditya Prakashan, Delhi 2012), The Enigma of I-consciousness (OUP, Delhi, 2013).