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Relating to a new morality

Publication Date : 25-10-2012


It is laughable that Asif Ali Zardari should take the militant Muslim protest over Nakoula Basseley’s film to the United Nations with the intention of promoting some sort of a UN Convention on blasphemy that would ostensibly protect all major world religions from blasphemous utterances and deeds, but is actually designed to extend the punitive reach of the militant Muslim street to the whole of the non-Muslim world.

Whereby he indicates that free speech is not one of the core concerns for the kind of Islam he will venture to represent. The reason given is even more laughable. Since Jewish sentiments are protected by anti-Holocaust denial laws, why can’t one have some kind of global framework to protect Muslim sentiment.

Seriously, can the two propositions be equated?

Fortunately, for some of us who value the freedom of our speech, the West can be counted upon to defend one of its core values. We now know how Britain under Maggie Thatcher rose magnificently to the occasion in protecting Salman Rushdie from Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa.

The truth is that art and philosophy are, today, superior to religion in the sophisticated book-loving West. The artistic and philosophical understanding of the world is deeper, richer and more complex than the religious understanding of the world. I will give one example.

In the middle of the 19th century a man called Gustave Flaubert wrote a novel called Madame Bovary, in which a woman tries to break through the confines of her petit bourgeois world and embrace the great wide world, beyond the dullness and pettiness of her marriage with the mediocre country doctor of modest means, Charles Bovary.

In religion, a woman who commits adultery is looked upon with horror, as a sinner whose sin is born out of some inner diabolical dimension that excites her senses beyond all decent limits. But the adulteress we see in Flaubert’s novel is far from being diabolical. She comes across as a pathetic victim of small town suffocation, desperately looking for a love that would lift her out of her misery and give her the exciting life of the capital, Paris. Madame Bovary is a masterpiece of realism and one of the most influential novels written anywhere by any individual.

In other words, the morality of art is more just, more human, more compassionate, more complex and more inclusive than the morality of religion.

Religion closes the mind in finalities, whereas art opens the world to the infinite, to the immeasurable and, therefore, relativises all our moral judgments, pending the discovery of the real nature of the universe.

But art is restricted to a minority. How do ordinary people relate to this new, non-religious morality? This is where secularism comes in. The separation of the church and state means that the law will no longer be shaped by religious truths. It will derive its substance, like art, from a dynamically evolving human reality that is divested of non-rational  religious taboos and injunctions and is, instead, guided by the Declaration of the Rights of Man announced by the revolutionaries in France.

For instance, many nations have banned capital punishment; also many of these nations have allowed euthanasia. Both these reforms have been statutorised against the teeth of religious opposition. Even today, after the whole world has acknowledged its usefulness, not just in family planning but also in terminating unwanted pregnancies, there is a movement, largely inspired by ultra right-wing ideas, against abortion.

All this to say that religion is an obstacle to progress. In fact, if you ask a fundamentalist Muslim or Christian or Hindu what he wants — religion or progress — the answer will be in favour of the former. They want a moral universe full of certitudes and simple value judgments.

The world of religion is a world of black and white: you are either good or evil, a believer or an infidel or, worse, an atheist. The world of art, on the other hand, is a world of shades and nuances, like reality itself, a world full of colour. It has beauty, intelligence and truth, things worth living for.

The writer is a freelance contributor


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