Rational thinkers have been pointing out superstitions and irrational concepts since the beginning of recorded history, but these ideas still abound.
Even as early as 570 BC, Xenophanes rejected the idea that the gods resembled humans in form. Xenophanes argued that if oxen were able to imagine gods, then those gods would be in the image of oxen. Two thousand five hundred years after Xenophanes, irrational thinking still rules the day. Why is humanity not able to get rid of irrational thinking? Why are superstitions and pseudo sciences still thriving, in spite of the boom in access to knowledge and the efforts of free thinkers?
It has been sufficiently demonstrated (with very good evidence) that Religion/Superstition is a natural phenomenon, and can be explained in evolutionary terms. Daniel Dennett’s ‘Breaking the Spell’ is a very good book that deals with the evolutionary aspects of religion. Religion is very good at ‘surviving’ and ‘propagating’ well. Giving up religion and other superstitions is not an easy task. People have talked about ‘God-shaped holes’ in humanity’s psyche; these need to be filled with something else when people relinquish God. Several people I know are “almost atheists”, but are not taking that last step because they feel it will leave a void in their lives.
While rationalists have been very successful at logical arguments, the emotional aspects have not been addressed with the due importance (in my opinion). Most of the rationalists have been men of science and to them it has been sufficient to provide a logical sequence of steps to qualify the degree of truth of any matter.
Also, I feel that rationalists believe in ‘Truth shall prevail’. In the same manner that we have gone from ‘the world is flat’ to ‘the world is spherical’, we might say that someday we will go from a ‘superstitious world’ to a ‘rationalist world’. This belief is dangerous. “Truth” might not prevail, and we might go back to the Dark Ages (or worse).
Another aspect is people’s tendency of resisting change, even when they realize the benefits of changing, for example, smoking. Nobody today denies that smoking is injurious to health. But because of the addictive nature of smoking, it is not easy to give it up. It is all the more difficult with superstition, because the harm caused by superstition is not understood at the same level as the harm caused by smoking. Religion has become such an integral part of people’s lives that they cannot even think of giving it up. People don’t even want to think of a change.
That’s why I think there is a need to sell rational thinking. It is very commonly accepted among salespeople that people buy emotionally, not logically. That’s why we see several good products being unsuccessful in the market and several poor quality products being more successful. Selling is very important for success. And, we all know how much selling is done by religious organizations. And they have very good salespeople too. I met one myself.
I was traveling by train one day from Bangalore to Hyderabad – a journey of over 12 hours. It was around 4:30 in the afternoon and I was waiting at my seat for the train to leave. A volunteer from a very popular religious organization hopped on to my compartment and started selling religious books to my fellow travelers. He was doing a pretty good job – the books were very glossy, with nice pictures and at discounted prices. Some travelers bought it just to while away the time. He came to me and started his sales pitch. I bluntly told him that I was an atheist and was not interested. Without batting an eyelid, he asked me to buy the book and have fun at all the stupid things the book was saying. I did not expect this. I was expecting him to curse me and move on. But he was not dejected – he still tried to sell it to me. That’s a very good salesman – if he can sell the Gita to an atheist, he can sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo. Of course, I didn’t buy anything from him, but I want to highlight the kind of competition we are facing. What better place to look for how to sell ‘rational thinking’ than by looking at the ways of the competition, which have been successful at it for thousands of years.
Here are some initial thoughts on why their ‘selling’ is successful.
When they were originally founded, religions like Christianity and Islam did not say anything bad about the existing religions. On the contrary, they tried to include them in their mythology. For example, Islam gives the same prophet status to all the previous icons – from Abraham, Noah, Moses to Jesus. They claimed that their religion was “newer and better” and used this to attract followers. My insight: it does not pay to find faults with the current state of things. Instead of debunking the current system, we need to demonstrate value in the “newer and better” system. We need to focus on the benefits rather than the ‘truth’.
Missionaries in India are very successful at converting people from the lower castes and those from poor backgrounds. We do not see many conversions in the economically well-to-do or higher classes. Why? The missionaries are able to point to the problems of the poor and relate them to the exploitation by the higher classes and the current system. Missionaries provide monetary support, schools, and hospitals to better the lives of the ‘victims’ of the current society. That’s why they are successful. My insight: we need to educate the ‘victims’ of superstition and focus on improving their lives. Targeting the well-off and those who benefit from the current system (for example, the conmen) might not be as effective as highlighting the sufferings of believers.
In this context, rationalists can focus on the victims of superstitions and educate them. For example, women are treated very badly in most religions. In Hinduism, widows are considered as bad omens for festive occasions and are not allowed to celebrate or enjoy along with the rest of the family. Women are not allowed into temples, during ‘that period of the month’. My guess is that it should be easier to make the women understand the benefits of rationalist thinking than men, because in most cases, men are the exploiters and women are the victims. This is just a hypothesis, but I feel it definitely deserves some thought.
So, what are the benefits of a rationalist way of life over a superstitious one? There are several obvious benefits. But to be effective, these benefits have to appeal to the individual. Collective benefits (such as reduced global terror) do not have the desired effect. A case in point is the use of the public transport system. Even though using the public transport system has global benefits, people still travel by cars and two-wheelers because the individual benefit aspect is not addressed.
Here are some benefits (at the individual level) of rationalist thinking that come to my mind now.
A more positive outlook towards life: You are not sinners and lowly beings. You don’t have to go through life worrying about punishments from God.
The promise of a healthier life: We don’t have to go through the travails of performing elaborate and tiring rituals involving restrictions on food and medicines. My mother-in-law is one example – even when she is ill, she undertakes fasts which can be harmful to her health. As another example, a mosque near my house urges devotees with diabetes to observe the day-long fast in the month of Ramzan, telling them that Allah will take care of them. These devotees clearly will have lesser suffering and a healthier life by letting go of their superstitions.
More free time and money to pursue your interests: Imagine all the time that is freed up when you stop doing everyday pujas, traveling hundreds of kilometers and standing several hours in serpentine queues for just one glimpse of a stone carving. Imagine all the money saved avoiding these time wasters. Think of how you can finally pursue the hobby that you have been postponing for so long with the new found free time.
Ability to experience and appreciate the wonders of nature: With an open mind, we will be able to explore our universe and unravel the mysteries much better than cooking up superstitions. For example, our current understanding that the Sun is a hot ball undergoing constant nuclear fusion reactions is not just more accurate, but more fascinating too, when compared to a demi-god who rides the sky on a seven-horsed chariot. As another example, the fact that life of such complexity and variety has evolved from tiny bacteria over billions of years is more awe-inspiring than the theory that God created everything 6000 years ago in one shot.
I plan to refine these benefits, add new ones, and focus more on selling rational thinking. Stay tuned. Also, I’d love to hear sales techniques that you feel could be effective in selling rational thinking. Please leave a comment and let me know.