We need to be ready to confront Hinduism. And here’s why: India is on track to become a significant world power within thirty years, and Hindu nationalism is on the rise there, not in decline. There are even well-funded efforts now to spread Hinduism into other countries. Hindu nationalism, Hindu supremacism, Hindu fundamentalism, Hindu terrorism, and Hindu evangelism are terms once thought to be oxymoronic but now are a reality. It’s not an urgent threat in America, to be sure (Hinduism’s numbers and influence are microscopic compared to the more pressing problems created by conservative and mainstream Christianity; and, among external threats, Islam), but the power and influence of India, economically and politically, is of growing significance, and its policies are increasingly influenced by Hinduism. We’d do well to keep our eye on it.
There is another reason to pay attention. The secularization thesis is in trouble lately. It turns out, the idea that modernization inevitably increases secularization (and a corresponding decline of religion) is false. It has been based on the rather exceptional examples of Europe, Japan, Canada, and Australia (and now, only very recently, the U.S., which for the first time is showing the start of similar demographic trends). The rest of the world is going the other direction, with increasing (albeit changing) religiosity, hand-in-hand with increased modernization and industrialization. This is the danger of focusing only on the first world as if it were normative. When we look at India, for example, we see many very important parallels with the path of religion in the U.S. (up until now), but also many important differences. Any theory of secularization (how inevitable it is, or how to advance it) must be based on the evidence available from other religious and cultural contexts. India is an ideal example of that.
I would not have said or thought any of the above had I not been lucky enough to be asked to read and blurb the American edition of Meera Nanda’s book The God Market: How Globalization Is Making India More Hindu (2011, revised edition with a new introduction; originally published in India in 2009). Meera Nanda is a noted philosopher of science in India who (ironically, given that she’s an atheist) was a recipient of a John Templeton Foundation Fellowship to research and write on secularization in India (or more precisely, on the reception of scientific thinking in India, what Indians call “scientific temper,” set forth as a national goal in India’s constitution). Her main project (which will be published as Tryst with Destiny: Scientific Temper and Secularization in India) is near completion. But she realized she could not develop that without first publishing her preliminary findings on the state of secularism in India, as her findings were overturning the apple cart of traditional secularization theories, and as a patriotic Indian and champion of science and reason she is greatly concerned about this.
I provided the publisher with this official reaction to her book, which you will now find gracing its back cover:
Nanda reveals that rising secularization is not quite triumphant, but in fact matched by a rising tide of religiosity. India is one of the largest and most productive countries in the world, it’s high time we paid attention to the religious trends that are consuming it. [The God Market provides] an excellent tour of just what is going on, and how it resembles (and differs from) the American and European experience with religious nationalism and fundamentalism. She explains what this means for the contemporary secularization thesis, but also what it means for India and the world. Hinduism is on the rise. And we will have to confront it. And for that, we have to understand it. Nanda provides the ideal guide.
Among the things she discovers (and documents) is that Hinduism is on the rise (not decline) among the large and successful middle class in India, and among the rich, reversing the predictions of the standard secularization thesis that greater security removes the need for religion. Reduced existential anxiety (reduced fears of starvation, injury, disease, bankruptcy, loss of employment, terrorist attacks, industrial accidents, crime, poverty), produced by secular governments replacing religion in meeting these needs (from improved legal systems to public sanitation and safety and national security, and such things as unemployment and medical insurance) is supposed to reduce religiosity. But that isn’t always so. Nor is it ever the whole story.
Although it is true that (in many documented cases) decreased existential anxiety often reduces the proportion of religiosity in a society, religiosity is not thereby eliminated but remains rather abundant. For example, even 1 in 3 Norwegians believes in God, and depending on how one defines terms, the real number is closer to 2 in 3; only 1 in 6 Norwegians identifies as what we would call an atheist (only 17% “do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force”), and we can dink this up to only 1 in 5 if you include agnostics (by adding in the 4% who “don’t know”). Moreover, even this modest reduction does not always occur in every society. Because religion itself can create existential anxieties that it then exploits. This is a notable feature of religion also explored by Hector Avalos in his new and intriguing book Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence, which challenges the claim that violence “actually” has other causes such as resource disparities, by showing that those disparities are often created by religion (in fact sometimes are the wholly fictional creations of religion).
An example of a fabricated existential anxiety is fear of one’s fate in the afterlife. But one can also gin up anxiety over the trivia of human life, too, from romantic success to job promotions to income security, which religion can then step in and offer solutions to, literally “marketing” its product using the same techniques employed by commercial industry to sell secular goods and services. Key to this tactic being successful is suppression of skeptical and scientific thinking (by, for example, controlling or watering down the education system). Religion can even be used for alleviating the worries of the successful by providing them a way to feel okay about the enormous income disparities in India, using religious narratives about how everyone is getting what they deserve.
Does that sound familiar to you? I had not thought of the connection before, but Christianity has indeed been retooled to serve this same opiate function on the successful in the U.S. (I do make a point of noting this in The End of Christianity, pp. 338-39), and this may be one of the factors sustaining high religiosity among the successful members of the middle and upper classes in America. It’s thus not all just about fear of death, or loss of meaning, or loss of control over society or one’s neighbors or children, or the need to justify one’s prejudices (all of which are obvious functions of American religion; we can all point to examples, no matter how much believers deny any of it). It’s also about resolving the cognitive dissonance over wanting to be selfish and pampered and privileged without feeling that oh-so-terrible guilt (which results whenever anyone realizes they have become the very villains they otherwise once despised). It seems implausible that a religion originally invented to emphasize that guilt and its alleviation through abandoning one’s wealth and privilege and sharing it with the disadvantaged, has become a religion emphasizing exactly the opposite. And yet, as implausible as it is, this has undeniably happened. Christians now worship the antichrist. And apparently their God “has sent upon them a powerful delusion” so that they don’t even realize it.
Nanda documents much the same is occurring in India. She also shows how Indian secularism in practice has not adopted our idea of a separation between church and state (or “temple and state” as Indians would call it) but instead only prohibits the state requiring adherence to any particular religion. This is essentially what the religious right in America wants for us; it’s how they “interpret” the establishment clause of the Constitution. So if you want to see what American government would look like if they got their way, you need to read this book. Because it’s happened in India. This is important, because I have encountered atheists who take a black-or-white view of this, that the religious right wants a “theocracy” here (some do, but most actually do not) and the only alternative is total separation between church and state. But in fact, what most American Christians want is what India has: massive state funding of religious schools and churches and faith-based organizations (without regard for denomination), religion-saturated government and businesses, and a privileged position for the majority religion without explicitly “outlawing” other faiths.
These aren’t the only points to be made. I found The God Market vital reading for a number of reasons (and that’s my favorite kind of book: one that has multiple uses and educates me on several subjects at once). You will get a quick primer on the history of Indian government and foreign and domestic policy from 1947 to the present (you certainly won’t have been taught any of that in high school). You will get an excellent summary of what “globalization” actually means in practice and how it is affecting and changing religion and ideology the world over, with India as a star example (take note of how the rise of “libertarian” style political theory there is paralleling its rise here, and how globalization is the driving force behind this). You will see how a rising nation with a radically different religion and culture than our own looks as it is transformed by modern science, technology, economics, and ideology (want to know what our country would look like if a woo religion took over?). You will see ominous examples of what could happen here if the wall of separation between state and church crumbles (it is thus a perfect test case to use in arguments, since this is not a hypothetical scenario but really happening). You will also have in this study an important “control group” for testing and evaluating different secularization theories, since this is not a Western or European society, yet is in every relevant respect a modern one.
But what I found most useful of all is the picture I saw throughout of what actual, contemporary Hinduism is and is like (and how it has changed, and is changing). This is not the distilled and “romanticized” Hinduism you read about or get taught even in college world religions courses. Imagine you were a foreigner who knew nothing about Christianity and so read up on it or took a class that covered it. You would get all the theological basics of what most Christians believe and some idea of the diversity among their theologies and dogmas. But you would probably learn little to none of what Christianity actually is in practice, what ordinary American Christians actually believe and do and think and practice. You would not know what Christians actually pray for and what they actually expect from prayer. You would not know what they really think about demons and angels and their role in the world order. You would not know about megachurches and their culture, or the rise of Christian churches using rock bands to lead prayer service, the teens and youth filling the pews standing and waving their hands in spiritual reverie. You wouldn’t know about the Armageddon Lobby or the particularly vehement hostility to homosexuality in black churches and how it is even beginning to eclipse their once-notable interest in issues of social justice (and how this is creating a rising rift between church leadership and churchgoers). You would not know about the renewed rise of prosperity gospel; or of “spiritual” Christianity, in which Christians (especially the young) abandon all association with churches and institutions and sects but remain “devoted to Christ,” often with more liberal moralities and a renewed emphasis on soteriological universalism, pacifism, and social justice. What book would you read to learn about all this?
Nanda’s book does that for Hinduism. It fills us in on all the realities of contemporary Hindu practice and thought, and thus instead of having some academic notion of what Hinduism is (which is largely outdated and, as with Christianity, was never really an accurate picture of the “religion on the ground” anyway), you will have a better idea of what most Hindus now actually think, believe, and do; how Hinduism actually impacts the lives of its adherents and how they make use of Hindu ideas and institutions in their daily lives. You will thus have a much better understanding of what Hinduism now actually is, and what sorts of beliefs and nonsense we may find ourselves confronting one day, and of course what we are already indirectly confronting, in the way we as a nation cooperate and trade with India (oblivious to the role Hinduism is actually playing in that).
I also found the book illuminating not just in showing how Indian society and religion and culture differs from ours, but even more importantly how certain stark parallels remain despite these differences, revealing something more universal at the heart of them. Most notable among these is the use the Hindu establishment has made of arguments to turn the poor against their own interests and rally them around conservative economic policies that benefit the rich and successful at the expense of the poor. That sounds familiar, too, right? But it is particularly interesting to see how universal this tactic is, and how it plays out using Hindu ideology, only without the antiquated (and largely now despised) Hindu concept of caste and destiny (something that is a notable change that won’t be expected by anyone who has only read up on Hinduism academically).
Another curious parallel is how privileged and widespread Hinduism happens to be in India, receiving almost exclusive public and government support, and yet Hindus are presently enthralled by a “war on Hinduism” narrative, a widespread belief in “reverse discrimination” against Hindus and of Hinduism being “in danger” and in need of urgent action to rescue it, even a perception that Hindus are an oppressed minority–all while state financing and privileging and facilitating of Hinduism is on a stark rise, and the vast majority of the population is staunchly Hindu. Does that sound familiar to you? Nanda likewise documents the same “compartmentalism” among the scientific elite in India as is often encountered in America, where we find skeptical scientists in the lab who remain gullible believers outside of it, not allowing scientific methods and reason to cross domains, and comfortably “living” the contradiction (even when it detrimentally affects public policy).
You may have to supplement reading her book with some quick google searches (though she defines terms and acronyms, it’s easy to lose track of them, and there is no glossary for American readers), but I had no difficulty doing this. And more typos have survived the editing process than Americans normally expect for a professionally published book, but I had no difficulty looking past that, either. The clarity, documentation, and value of the book far outweighed these problems for me. I recommend we all read this and make use of its information in our future thought and deliberation about religion and politics generally. If you want to read more about it first, there is a really good review (also addressing the book’s critics) by Ajita Kamal for the Indian secularist website Nirmukta that’s well worth reading.