Legal responses to religious diversity (or to cultural diversity?)

Authored by: Prakash Shah

Routledge Handbook of Law and Religion

Print publication date:  March  2015
Online publication date:  March  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415836425
eBook ISBN: 9780203694268
Adobe ISBN: 9781135045555


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Today, we are in a position to tackle in much more interesting ways the question of religious diversity and how that relates to law. If we ‘naively’ formulate the title of the present chapter into a problem about how state laws and international laws approach and deal with the fact of religious diversity we would have to decide first what religious diversity is. Therefore we would have to deal with what precisely the ‘fact’ of religious diversity entails. This allows us to discuss the problem in at least two ways. The first way is the predominant and generally taken for granted idea that all cultures have religion. This is widely accepted at least within Western culture and among the Westernized intellectuals in non-Western cultures. This can be seen easily, for example, from anthropological reports, proclamations by states about the religious diversity within their jurisdictions, or by international actors such as the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. A long or short list of such religions existing across the world may be given. Official discussion tends to remain at the level of ‘world religions’ but more ‘refined’ accounts can be found in anthropological work. Then there is another less popular and more challenging account, provided by Balagangadhara, which problematizes the proposition that religion is a cultural universal, and which holds that some cultures have religion and others do not. 1 1

The key work is Balagangadhara 1994. More detail on the research programme developed by Balagangadhara can be found in Bloch, Keppens and Hegde 2010, Balagangadhara 2012, and in the videos on YouTube of the conferences on Rethinking Religion in India and on Dharma and Ethics.

This latter account also explains how the dominant position of religion as a cultural universal has come to be so widely accepted. In this chapter, I briefly explore the implications of this second account, by Balagangadhara, for the first, which is no longer tenable scientifically, even though it is widely subscribed to. Balagangadhara’s account allows us to think about cultural diversity, and the problem of religion within that diversity, in a more interesting way than the dominant account does. I then briefly deal with its implications for the study of cultural diversity and law through some case studies, which allow us to consider what happens when a religious culture like the West meets a pagan culture, such as the Indian culture. This can help us build a hypothesis of how Western law takes part in and promotes, in secularized form, the idea of Indian traditions as ‘false religions’.

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