Saturday 1 September 2012

Secularisation and belief (2012)

From The Philosopher, Volume 100 No. 1
Centenary Special 1913-2012

A Mexican Perspective
By Pablo Lazo Briones

How shall we build and maintain a tolerant and respectful recognition among social actors, especially when they have different beliefs?

The question becomes complicated by the peculiar situation experienced in our current society: the phenomenon of immigration and other mass mobilisations in the international framework, and the concomitant demands for rights by minority groups, who are becoming aware of the practices and values that define them, and organising themselves to ensure their promotion and protection.

The particular problem that I hope to address here is how to permit not only the free choice of lifestyle of individuals in the community (as seen from a liberal point of view), and also that concerning protection and safeguarding of cultural life forms within a specific inherited framework (as seen from a communitarian point of view). The case of religiosity of the Tseltal indigenous people in Chiapas, México is where I suggest we can start looking for an answer. (The Tseltal community studied belongs to the Mayan group of the municipality of Bachajón, Chiapas and is considered Mexico's largest indigneous community.)

The first thing to recognise is the importance of the religious world-view of the Tseltal and its transformations in face of the demands of secularism of public institutions in México. To do this, we should adopt the perspective of philosophical anthropology in order to emphasise the symbolic structure of this religious world-view, as well as an ethical and political perspective to point up the ways in which this group has adapted its ritual practices in current times.

The immediate issue here is the problematic situation of traditional religious practices, understood as a holistic way of interpreting and interacting with the world, when they are faced with the demands of the Mexican Democratic State.

One such conflict arises over the ability of the Tseltal to openly participate as a member of that group in public affairs. In the liberal western tradition shaping public life today, it is often a formal requirement that spiritual beliefs, cosmological appreciations, ethical commitments, teleological aspirations, and so on be excluded from all issues. Faced with this situation, the Tseltal have adapted their forms of political organisation in creative ways so as to include, yet disguise, its religious world-view: in order to follow the demands of a secular State, they have radically transformed their ritual, artistic and religious practices.

Consider that the Mexican government sets the following rules for its minorities, as it seeks to reflect and guarantee human rights for the general population:
a) The political structures of minority groups must involve a separation between political power and authority associated to world-view concepts existing usually, but not exclusively, in religious communities.

b) Political power, as such, has to be neutral in respect to any conception of ontologies and world-views, and should fairly protect civil pluralism on world-views.

c) The general social aim to protect social pluralism should not translate into discrimination in favour of minorities as such.

d) If some kind of political action is proposed to give some support to these communities, it should be carried out according to parameters of strict fairness and impartiality.

All these principles are justified as part of a general aim to protect the secularity of public institutions. Yet this has important implications for minority communities.
* The minority people's civic identity, which are recognised as members of the self-government community policy, cannot be linked to their world-view options.

* The processes of civic and political decision making must follow a procedure that the secular authority considers democratic.

* Representatives of the minority communities may no longer participate, as such, in these processes.

* The power exercised among those who wish to protect the character of the minority communities should never privilege coercion over individual freedom.
Reviewing these aims, the question arises: What is a world-view? According to the social anthropologist, Charles Taylor, this question refers to a major problem in the current Western vision of the world, whereby an atomistic set of cultural practices pervades within all fields in our lives. In our cultural tradition, with its scientific and liberal inheritance, it is very common to perceive the objects of the world, and even other people, in a detached way, as if these objects and people were altogether separate things. This is a major problem, because it leads us to deal with people merely as instruments, or means to our purposes, in the process losing sight of, or simply ignoring, their intrinsic value.

Taylor studied this problematic feature of our Western global stance in the world and its consequences, seeing it as leading to the loss of a holistic sense of the world and a feeling of alienation within an individualistic and 'rational' lifestyle, whose real results are summed up in the sociological insights of Max Weber, most notably in the genial concept of disenchantment in the world.

We can think of this detachment as the root, the basis, of our cultural practice of secularism and the way in which we insist on defending secular political institutions and the entire secular State. Disenchantment in the world can be thought of as a demand for neutrality in face of all sorts of cultural beliefs or of different cultural lifestyles that could be dangerous to legitimate institutions. As Richard Rorty has also argued, a secular State, and our idea of democracy requires us to set aside all issues of 'ultimate importance', namely, all those related to a cultural point of view, including, necessarily, religious beliefs and mythical conceptions of the world. The reason for this need is the homogeneity required by the procedures and overall order of a secular, rational State.

This conception of an instrumental and atomistic set of cultural practices rooted in a disenchanted world, our secular world was inherited centuries ago by all of Latin America and, of course, by the Mexican liberal State with its efforts to homogenise the large differences existing in cultural groups of all kinds, including traditional indigenous groups such as the Tseltal people of Bachajón, Chiapas.

But before talking about the confrontation of the liberal secular structure of the Mexican State with the Tseltal people and their world-view, and the resources utilised by them to continue giving meaning to their religious practices, let us say a bit more about what we mean by a 'world-view'.

Against the inheritance of secular modernism, that is, as I have mentioned before, an atomistic, individualistic and instrumental perspective of the world, a world-view is characterised by its capability to unite the cultural practices that form the social network and govern interactions with the objects of the world.

Thus, when we have properly understood a world-view, we become part of a core of its intertwined significant threads, each of which can be considered as a cultural practice, be it an artistic work or a political demand; or whether it is a ritual of fertility; or health in general, or a traditional account concerning the origins of the world or our final destiny after death, and so on.

In the conception that I am offering, each one of these significant threads is thus essentially connected to the rest, shaping a dynamic network in which the whole and the parts belong to each other, so that whenever even one of this threads is cut, it must have an impact on the entire social network and on the cultural community.

Alongside this essential intertwining of cultural practices, a world-view is characterised by its extension over a defined time and over a certain space: it is not expressed merely in one occasional event or chain of events, through fancy costumes, in innovative and yet fleeting ways of talking, or any things like that. On the contrary, a world-view endures over time and space due to its permanent capability to express people's inner beliefs and behaviour, all of which in turn express the cultural network in an holistic manner. In short, a world-view expresses the collective permanent bond or background meaning that unites us under a particular identity as members of a cultural community. It is this identity that we share over time and space until other historic events come to interrupt or transform that kind of bond. Religious practices, are a paradigm example of these kinds of practices, of elements essential to a world-view.

It follows that we can only really talk about a certain world-view if we have identified the cultural practices of a social network which find themselves represented in the social imagery and its symbolic products embodied in language, the latter seen in from wide perspective, whether spoken, written, even pictographically or artistically portrayed, and actually used within social institutions, including political ones. Thus, a world-view is the most practical and current activity of social imagery, present or disseminated in all of our essential everyday collective practices.

One example of how some elements of the religious world-view of Tseltal can conflict with a secular generalised world view, concerns different understandings of medicine. From the Tseltal point of view, the practice of healing has one principal goal, the recovery and enhancement of the physical and moral stability of the family, of nature, and of deities and ancestors. In this way, the shaman healer is the one who re-links patients with the other world and situates them in their corresponding place in the cosmos.

By contrast, the practice of medicine in the secular world tends to move away and even rule out these kinds of all-encompassing links and holistic philosophy, and tends to see as separate and different matters the proper regulation of families, nature, beliefs and ancestry cults. The same can be said of many other elements of the two world-views, Tseltal and secular. In matters relating to art; practices and rituals referring to sexual life; political institutions, and many other areas that together make up social life, we always will find conflicts and contrasts in world-views.

Taking these ideas into account, let us return to our main question: In which way have the Tseltal preserved and transformed their religious world-view in face of the demands of the secular liberalism, and have they accomplished a sort of recognition? Or have they suffered overtime a more-or-less total suppression - or acculturation - of their most significant bonds, as a unified, cultural community? The answer appears to be the latter if we think of the power of the liberal Mexican state as a totally homogenising force, reaching out and deactivating all possible reactions which could counter it. However, I would like to argue for a more optimistic position. It seems to me that the Tseltal indigenous groups, despite their precarious economic and social situation, have developed a characteristic way of adapting themselves to the secular demands of our State and modern society without loosing their essential world-view, and that this has been achieved not only through a set of religious practices adapted to secular demands but also vice versa, through public demands that have been adjusted to religious practices.

Many Latin American indigenous communities perceive the Western liberal model of government as completely foreign to their experience of collective identity, and even as harmful, and seek instead ways of organisation that arise from within their own community. In the case of the Tseltales, the strategy to meet the demands of the Mexican liberal state has focused on claims and adjustments, or cultural reinterpretations, particularly related to the field of religion. It must be understood from the outset that the Tseltal culture is theocentric, and that 'it is possible to cover virtually all its aspects taking religion as its axis', as one observer, Eugenio Maurer, puts it. In the religious practices of Tseltales there are intersected meaningful lines of the political, economic, artistic, mythical, and family life, the traditional recovery of their own history and, in general, what we call their collective identity.

The element allowing cohesion between these cultural practices, which allows us to speak of an integral world-view, is precisely religion. Its concepts of good and evil, the initiation rituals in the life of the community (baptism and marriage) and their funeral rites, and the exercise of authority in community decisions, and also in witchcraft, all find in religious practices their legitimation.

And so, if we observe these religious practices as they carried out today, we cannot speak of a phenomenon of syncretism or mixing of the indigenous with Western world without harmony, or between the religious content of Catholicism with those taken as a heritage of Tseltal 'pure' religion from the Maya world; rather, we must speak of a harmonious synthesis of the two elements, Western Catholicism and Tseltal. Here, there is no chaotic integration in practices themselves. Not, for example, in popular holiday rituals and in live traditions. Nor can we speak, from a historical perspective, of a total indigenous acculturation by the actions of the Spanish, as if the indigenous had completely disappeared or been absorbed by the dominant culture. In the case of the Tseltales, we can best talk about a slow process of synthesis or fusion of cultural elements, which has suffered for centuries a preparatory process of syncretism as a condition of the current synthesis. Following Eugenio Maurer again, therefore (in his study, Los Tseltales, México: Centro de Estudios Educativos, 1984), we can talk of a Catholic-Maya religion (or a Maya-Christian religion).

The cultural assimilation of Catholic beliefs and their amalgamation with Tseltal ones is tested in the practical application of legal issues in disputes between members of the community, or in jurisdiction of the land (a cross to mark the property is still used), and in procedures of legitimating of the authorities of the community internally, independently of the authorities of Ladinos (white or mixed class men).

An example of this practical application concerns the political organisation and the concept of authority in the process known as 'structure of duties/functions' in Tseltal communities. In the Tseltal world one can speak of authority as the one who provides a service, which makes a community work:

However, a person only becomes the supreme authority once he or she has climbed up the structure of duties as practical tasks, and has proved themselves to be able to provide something to the community: the one who knows to command is the one who has had to obey. The council of supreme authorities is called Trensipaletik, the Principals, and it is responsible both for political and legal decisions as well as civil matters. For example, the Trensipaletik decides the construction of a new road or a school within the community, but also has religious functions, the most important duty being that of ensuring community harmony, the harmony of the community with nature, and to ask the patron saints for help to make it all happen. Thus, the foundation of civilian authority is in the divine world, a belief that is not acceptable to today's secular Mexican government. The allocation of these civic duties bears a central feature in various religious festivals in honor of the patron saints (Virgin Mary, Saint John, Santa Ana).

The process that has been called the tseltalization of Western Catholic culture can be considered as a matter of balance with the demands of the secular state, in that within the scope of liberal 'tolerance' for the beliefs of citizens allows for creative reinterpretations. Reinterpretations in which the cultural world-view of communities is strengthened.

In conclusion, the case of intercultural religious practices of the Tseltales provides us with a particular perspective on the general problem of the confrontation between the multiple religious beliefs that exist in our actual world and the theory of secularisation as the politically affirmed stance of non-belief. My suggestion simply consists in saying that the way of integrating religious beliefs with political actions, as found by the Tsetal people of Mexico, could be taken more widely as a model in similar cases of confrontation between secular and religious world-views elsewhere.

Address for correspondence:
Pablo Lazo Briones, Department of Philosophy, Universidad Iberoamericna,  Mexico.

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