Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy

Opinion: The Faustian bargain we have struck with ‘godless secularism’

When religion was forcibly ejected from the public sphere, what replaced it was a vacuuma malaise or an ennui

Writing recently in the Financial Times (The Faustian Bargain Of Nationalism, 18 December), Martin Wolf made the astute observation that the rise of humanity has been one built on a series of Faustian bargains, each of which brings rich fruits but exacts a high price in the end. His focus was on nationalism, but one may usefully apply this metaphor to many other facets of the liberal international order.

This is an order that now appears to be crumbling under the onslaught of many “isms"—whether of the malign incarnations of exclusionary nationalism and various species of majoritarianism increasingly on view in most parts of the world, or whether of a rise in fundamentalisms among all major religions. The principles of liberalism have never, it seems, been more under threat since the end of World War II.

On India, I have decried recently, writing in the Nikkei Asian Review (India—Retreat Of Liberal Economics", 12 December), the imminent demise of liberal economics, in light of recent events here, so no rehearsal is warranted. Equally, if not more, worrisome here is the decline of what may be termed a secular, liberal ethos, in which all Indians, regardless of confession, feel secure: an inchoate sense brought to the fore recently by much publicized (and much criticized by Hindu nationalists) remarks by actor and director Naseeruddin Shah, which aptly captured the zeitgeist.

Needless to say, the relentless pushback against liberalism and secularism is not unique to India—one sees this across the Islamic world, in Europe, and even within Anglo-America’s putative liberal bastions in the xenophobia implicit in “Brexit" and aftermath in the UK and Trumpian America. This is yet another of the Faustian bargains of the liberal compact, but not in the way, I would suggest, it is commonly understood.

The conventional narrative holds that it is the return of the religious, willy-nilly entering public life despite the strictures of liberalism, that is responsible for the current crisis in secularism and the rise of fundamentalisms. Yet, it may just be the opposite. As sharply and provocatively argued recently by intellectual historian Faisal Devji, it might be not the return of religion but the vanishing of religion from public life that is at the root of the crisis.

When religion was forcibly ejected from the public sphere what replaced it was a vacuum—a malaise or an ennui—that Devji brilliantly names “godless secularism". That void is now being filled by the opportunistic peddlers of chauvinistic majoritarianisms and fundamentalisms, whether in India or America. Much the same is happening in economics, with assorted nativist quacks peddling cures for the ills of liberal economics.

One philosophical grounding for Devji’s argument may be found in the writings of philosopher Akeel Bilgrami, who has argued, rephrased in terms of our nomenclature, that one of the Faustian bargains of modernity was the jettisoning of value from the natural and social worlds. In pre-modernity, that value was almost universally religiously derived. In modernity, religion having been evacuated, the natural and social worlds are seen purely as sites of instrumental rationality in the classical liberal contractarian tradition, in a strand going from Thomas Hobbes and John Locke to Robert Nozick and John Rawls.

This is what, Bilgrami argues, feeds the sense of disenchantment in the now de-sacralised world, in which value other than that deriving from property and contract has been drained out. The response, he suggests, is not an atavistic return to the religious, but the creation of new value-laden connections with the natural and the social spheres, that create the possibility of living an unalienated life: a situation in which one’s life is re-enchanted in an elemental embrace of possibilities beyond the frigid repertoire of relations made available by classical instrumental rationality.

Is “godless" re-enchantment possible in our fractured society? Nor is retreat into an eroticised aestheticism a satisfactory response, except for a tiny cosseted global elite for whom quasi- or post-religious value lies in the aesthetic realm, or in aesthetic sublimation of the Eros-Thanatos dialectic in other spheres.

Thus, much as I am tempted to say that a profound and value-laden understanding of the human condition, which might allow us to rupture our alienated selves, may be found in contemplating the plays of William Shakespeare, the canvases of Tintoretto, or the operas of Mozart, this could only be correctly derided as an elitist illusion, little better than the courtiers at Versailles playing at being peasants before the guillotine fell in 1789.

Formidable though it is, the crisis in liberalism, including in secularism, cannot be conjured away and the worst response is for the global elite to brush away its existence or to dismiss those who do not share their adventure as rude, unlettered, and uncivilized—all classic responses since the inception of the modernist project.

The immortal final line of Faustus’s final soliloquy, in Christopher Marlowe’s telling of the tale, has the doomed scholar abjure—“I’ll burn my books! O Mephistophilis!"—as he is dragged to the inferno of eternal damnation. Marlowe’s Faustus had 24 years of knowledge and pleasure on earth before the devil collected his due. How much time do we have left in the Faustian bargain that we have struck?

Vivek Dehejia is resident senior fellow at the IDFC Institute, Mumbai. Read Vivek’s ‘Mint’ columns at livemint.com/vivekdehejia.

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