Pseudoscience & Religion

Further Thoughts on Why I Criticize Hinduism

This post is inspired by T.V. Manoj’s earlier post “Why I Criticize Hinduism the Most.”

Like Manoj and other Indian rationalists, I have often been chided by fellow Indians – fairly mainstream, middle-class bhadralok, most of them — for picking on Hinduism.  I am asked if I am so concerned about irrationalities and pseudo-sciences, why don’t I take on Islam and Christianity?  Aren’t they full of faith-based nonsense? Hinduism, my critics tell me, is far more rational and “scientific” than these other “Semitic” religions in which you have to take the revelation purely on faith, no questions asked. I am often told rather gleefully that all my labors are wasted because they I am not aiming my rationalism against Christians and Muslims.   Some go even further and assume that because I am critical of Hinduism, I must be a secret Christian, and I must be working for “the proselytizers”! Apparently, no one born a Hindu can legitimately raise questions about the “Eternal Truths” of the faith.

On reading Manoj’s very cogent defense of why he believes that internal criticism of Hinduism is perfectly legitimate and even necessary, I thought it might be worthwhile to share my own take on it.

I’m presently working on a book manuscript in which I defend the old Nehruvian imperative of cultivating “scientific temper.” ( I call this book Tryst with Destiny: Scientific Temper and Secularization of India. The book is very nearly done, and if all goes well, it should appear in print by mid-2009.)

I copy below a section titled “Three Caveats” from the introduction to the book. Here I anticipate the kind of criticism that I know will be heaped upon me, and try to meet the critics head-on. Here is what I say:

Three Caveats

Three caveats must be noticed about the style, intentions and the scope of this book.

The first caveat has to do with the fact that this book deals only with the conflicts between modern science and Hinduism. It does not examine the many flagrant irrationalities and fanaticisms that exist in Islam and Christianity, to say nothing of the many folk expressions of Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism. This exclusive focus on Hinduism is a result of many factors.

First, and most obviously, Hinduism is the religion of the majority; close to 85 percent of Indians describe themselves as Hindus. Secondly, it is a matter of historical fact that the proponents of scientific rationalism in India in the 20th century, whose ideas are explored at length here, came from a Hindu background and were engaged with issues relating to the Hindu metaphysical justifications for caste and gender inequalities. Thirdly, Hinduism has avoided a serious house-cleaning by drawing far-fetched and ad hoc analogies with modern science. It has succeeded in selling itself around the world as the only and the ultimate “religion of reason,” while redefining reason itself to conform to the Hindu ideal of spiritual or Gnostic knowledge. Finally, I must acknowledge my own background. My own atheism emerged out of a critical back-and- forth with Hinduism, the faith I was born into, and the faith I took quite earnestly when I was younger.  Among all the religions of India, it is the popular Hinduism of Ramayana, Bhagvat Gita and the Puranas that I have a fair amount of first-hand experience of.  As an atheist of Hindu origin, and as a secularist concerned with the growth of Hindu nationalist politics, I take a rational critique of Hinduism to be a matter of great urgency.

It is for these reasons that this book is focused on the record of secularization and rationalization – mostly the lack of it – of Hinduism. But this Hindu-centrism should not be read as a back-handed approval of, or partiality for, any other religion. No religious faith is free from highly improbable and objectively false beliefs about matters of empirically verifiable facts. Indian Christians are as fond of their miracles and faith-healing as the devout Hindus who lined up to offer milk to the milk-drinking idols of Ganesha; Indian Muslims can be as literalist in the matter of Koran and Sharia as any Christian fundamentalist anywhere in the world. The principles of scientific rationality cut across all faith traditions and all conceptions of the supernatural, personal or impersonal, one or many, transcendent or immanent. Science is an equal-opportunity debunker, or a broad-spectrum weed-killer, if you will.

But let us weed our own gardens, I say, for those are the gardens and the weeds that we are most familiar with.  Even though I have no desire whatsoever to step back into the Hindu garden of my childhood and youth,  I insist on weeding it nevertheless, so that others who come after me can live in it (if they still choose to) without losing their minds and their consciences.

The second caveat has to do with the place of religion in social life. This book’s plea for combating superstitions and pseudoscience should not be read as a militant rejection of religion per se, even though all religions, without exception, have served as incubators of irrational beliefs. The idea is rather to set limits on what functions religions can legitimately perform in the 21st century. Applying critical inquiry to religious doctrines means only this:  Insofar as religions invoke supernatural forces (whether a personal God or the impersonal but conscious shakti, or spiritual energy) in order to make factual claims about the natural world, they have an obligation to meet the same standards of evidence that apply to scientific explanations in the relevant domain of the natural world.  In other words, if religions want to assert factual truths about the universe, or if they want to convince us of the actual existence of the beings and powers they claim exist in the universe, they cannot fall back upon the authority of ancient books or mystical “seers” gifted with divine powers to see what is not perceptible to ordinary mortals. If and when religions step into the turf of natural science and social sciences (including of course, history and archeology) which deal with empirically testable matters, they have to play by the rules of accepted science and adjust their picture of the world accordingly.

But as long as religions refrain from stepping into the turf of science, and learn to interpret the supernatural powers and phenomena as myths, allegories and poetic metaphors, they need not worry about scientific demonstrability, for scientific validity is not the correct criterion for measuring the value of poetry. Religion as hope-renewing poetry, myth or parable has — and perhaps will always have – an important place in the modern world. But religion will have to cede the function of explaining the natural and social world to science.

For many reasons having to do with Hindu theology and India’s entanglement in European romantic counter-Enlightenment, this separation between expressive and explanatory functions of religion has been particularly slow in coming in India. Contemporary Hinduism makes a number of factual claims about the cosmological order. A brief list of such claims will include the following: that the entire universe is filled with conscious spiritual energy that animates everything; that a soul capable of conscious awareness and memories can exist apart from the brain and the body; that this soul enters the embryo of a species chosen as a result of the souls’ karmic account from the previous birth; that different species of living beings represent different stages of the evolution of the soul;  that morally good or bad deeds (punya or papa) from past births influence the innate qualities, gunas or “substance code” of different species, castes and genders that the soul is born into; the macrocosm (planets and stars) corresponds to and influences the microcosm (human affairs) and so on. Whatever else they are, all of them are simultaneously claims about the nature of the material world of particles, bodies, birth and evolution. Because these claims involve the material world, they are open to serious empirical inquiry using the standard methods of modern biology, physics, cosmology and neurobiology of consciousness.  All of these claims need to be critically assessed based upon advances in scientific knowledge in these domains.

Avatars of Vishnu

But rather than open its cosmological claims to critical scrutiny – and reject the many falsified elements — modern Hinduism has adopted the strategy of co-opting the vocabulary of modern science to legitimize its spirit-centered worldview. To take just one example, important Hindu philosophers, from Keshub Chandra, Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo have interpreted Vishnu’s ten avatars as foreshadowing the Darwinian theory of evolution and have interpreted the Hindu idea of the presence of consciousness in nature as an actual component (called “involution”) of the process of biological evolution. Rather than provide metaphorical interpretation of the spiritual teachings,  neo-Hindu “reformists” have gone out of their way to defend them as if they are condoned by modern science. It is this abuse of modern science to prop up the outdated and objectively false assumptions about this world that is the target of this book.

The final caveat has to do with the use of the word “superstition.”  This book will use the label “superstition,” when warranted, to describe irrational practices that have doctrinal support from religious texts. This term has fallen out of academic favor because it has come to reek of totalitarian persecution of religious believers, Soviet or Chinese style.  Calling someone’s belief or practice “superstitious” is seen as tantamount to labeling that group deficient in the ability to reason and imposing your own standards of rationality on them: I have personally encountered many otherwise liberal and progressive intellectuals who take umbrage at me referring to elements of popular Hinduism as superstitions. Critics also point to the utter futility of it all. Don’t modern societies create their own superstitions?  Isn’t it true that societies at the pinnacle of enlightened modernity – not just the US but the more secularized Western Europe as well – remain rife with old and New Age superstitions?

There are good reasons why pseudoscience and superstitions will always be with us for, to quote Carl Sagan:

[Superstitions] speak to powerful emotional needs that science often leaves unfulfilled. it caters to fantasies about personal powers we lack. it  offers satisfaction of spiritual hungers, cures for disease, promises that death is not the end. It assures us that ..we are hooked up and tied to the Universe (Sagan, 1995: 14).

But persistence of superstition should be no reason to throw in the towel. On the contrary, persistent fallacies demand equally persistent critique. Indeed, those who rightly object to political persecution of groups marked “superstitious” (the persecution of Falun Gong in China, for example) should welcome open debate and demand for evidence, because debate is the best guarantor of an open society.

What is not acceptable is to sweep superstitions under the rug out of political correctness, for these will come back to haunt us. After all, what is a superstition? In the immortal words of Robert Ingersoll, one of America’s best known agnostics:

Superstition is:

  • To believe in spite of evidence or without evidence.
  • To account for one mystery by another.
  • To believe that the world is governed by chance or caprice.
  • To disregard the true relation between cause and effect.
  • To put thought, intention and design back of nature.
  • To believe that mind created and controls matter.
  • To believe in force apart from substance, or in substance apart from force.
  • To believe in miracles, spells and charms, in dreams and prophecies.
  • To believe in the supernatural.

The foundation of superstition is ignorance, the superstructure is faith and the dome is a vain hope. Superstition is the child of ignorance and the mother of misery. (Ingersoll, 1898, emphasis added).

Regardless of the content of the superstition (whether it has to do with astrology and crystals or “higher” more “subtle” readings of quantum physics), what is troubling about superstitions is how these beliefs are arrived at. What is troubling is the tendency to “believe in spite of [falsifying] evidence or without [affirming or positive] evidence,” to “disregard the true relationship between cause and effect,” and to “put thought intention and design back in nature.

These styles of thinking are always unwholesome and sometimes downright dangerous. Individually and by themselves, they appear to cause no long-lasting harm, apart from the fact that they most often lead to false conclusions. After all, how does it matter if people read their horoscopes, if it brings them some hope in this chaotic and unpredictable world? The same logic applies to belief in miracles and the power of prayers to bring them about: people need consolation and hope.

Ridding the world completely of all irrationalities is a quixotic task, indeed. As long as long as they cause no real harm, one can learn to live with irrationalities of one’s fellow citizens. But more often than not, superstitions do real harm. To begin with, they exact a cost from the poorest and the most helpless members of the society who end up wasting scarce resources on charlatans and holy frauds. But what makes superstitious thinking dangerous for the society in the long term is that it cultivates a habit of believing without adequate evidence, of accepting ideas on faith alone. This paves the way for false prophets and dictators.

It is for this reason that secular democracies must learn to balance the freedom of belief with an obligation to constantly push against irrationally held beliefs with demands for evidence that can be systematically tested.  There is simply no other option.

***

Meera Nanda is the author of several books including Breaking the Spell of Dharma and Other Essaysand Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India. The above article is an excerpt from her upcoming bookTryst with Destiny: Scientific Temper and Secularization of India.

About the author

Meera Nanda

30 Comments

  • An excellent read! Between you and Manoj, you’ve made it easy for us to simply send our questioners a couple of links when we get asked the endless, “…but other religions are even worse, why do you keep picking on scientific Hinduism?” question.

    Looking forward to your book with great expectation. Are your other books available in India?

  • […] Meera Nanda tells you why she criticizes Hinduism: Like Manoj and other Indian rationalists, I have often been chided by fellow Indians – fairly mainstream, middle-class bhadralok, most of them — for picking on Hinduism.  I am asked if I am so concerned about irrationalities and pseudo-sciences, why don’t I take on Islam and Christianity?  Aren’t they full of faith-based nonsense? Hinduism, my critics tell me, is far more rational and “scientific” than these other “Semitic” religions in which you have to take the revelation purely on faith, no questions asked. I am often told rather gleefully that all my labors are wasted because they I am not aiming my rationalism against Christians and Muslims.   Some go even further and assume that because I am critical of Hinduism, I must be a secret Christian, and I must be working for “the proselytizers”! Apparently, no one born a Hindu can legitimately raise questions about the “Eternal Truths” of the faith. Linked by kuffir. Join Blogbharti facebook group. […]

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  • Nirmukta,

    I must advice you to get out of western mindframe of undersatnding Hinduism as religion. All your logics relating superstition to hinduism will be
    redundant if there is nothing called hinduism.

    The Biggest mistake we have done is, we have invented a religion called hinduism and started to put all traditional practices under hinduism. You may want to understand the defination of religion before you go and claim the evils of nonexistant religion called hinduism.

    May I advice you to go through below video’s
    http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=CD50FC7A276689BB

  • Science is universal, without religion, founded on ‘Truth’; Why not make it a basis to know the truth???
    ‘Spirituality’ is of course outside the horizon of science. But still we can measure the truthfulness of our religion on the basis of the sceintific truth.
    To name a few,
    -Solar/Lunar eclips.
    -The sky is supported by pillars.
    -A lamp kept in windless place (vaccuum) does not shake.

  • Most religions overstep their bounds by making claims about the nature of the world and how it came to exist (a matter better left to scientists), as well as about how to organize society.
    Hinduism is especially perfidious in the latter matter. Religiously sanctioned inequality by birth (which is espoused in the caste system) is nothing short of pure evil, and must be fought at all costs.
    Caste is why Hinduism is the worst religion in the world, and why Hinduism is the greatest existing threat to the secular state of India and to the Indic civilization.

    • Castism is the reason why Hinduism will never amount to anything more than a quirky passing fad for the rest of the World. I am talking about the reality of castism which is what matters not the philosophical, historical, sociological or utilitarian aspects of it. This is the Achilles heal of Hinduism. It has always been that and always will be (unless seriously reformed). Hindus simply cannot justify Hindu caste practices in the 21st century, any more than Islam can justify its fundamental misogyny. No one will buy this crap. All this delusion of co-opting the “white” neo-pagans of West will be just a short wet dream. Buddhism is way more popular in the West with much less marketing. In my opinion Buddhism is one of India’s most successful exports ever. It is eminently in Hindu self-interest to reform this abomination.

  • Hi,

    I think there are two separate aspects of Hinduism, Socio-spiritual and Socio-political. I have used “Socio” prefix to indicate that I am concerned about only social aspect and not the private or personal aspects.

    It is necessary to deconstruct and understand established belief system of the society for improvement and refinement, which is essential for survival and growth. However care needs to be taken to ensure that Socio-political aspect of the religion is not harmed in a way that society is weakened. This is necessary in India as the society is facing never before challenges ..

    Hope you understand !!

    • Maybe I will understand if you explain what is this socio-political aspect of Hinduism that should not be harmed in such a way that society is weakened?
      “socio-political aspect of Hinduism” precisely sounds like the aspect we are fighting against.

      • For any society, sense of belongingness and sense of ownership are two important factors. When these senses are strong individuals are ready to sacrifice self interests for the larger interests of the society. Society with more such individuals grow and progress. Starting point for creating strong sense of belongingness and strong sense of ownership is first creating social identity which its members are proud of. Destruction of sense of identity of a society or destruction of sense of identity of part of the society weakens the society.. and harms the weaker sections.

  • “To believe that the world is governed by chance or caprice”

    Why is this a superstition? Is randomness not pervasive throughout the world?
    Take the example of two parents giving birth to a child. Each of the chromosomes of the parents gets shuffled and and gets mixed up the corresponding one from the other parent. These shuffling and mixing are random processes and they determine the genes that make up the child. Thus, which genes the child gets is governed by chance and genes determine many important aspects, including health of a person.
    So if we look at this and look at other major phenomena, like investing in stock market and then conclude that world is full of processes that are governed by chance and phenomena that are governed by discernible patterns like planets’ revolutions are exception, why is that a superstition?

    • You have to consider who said the statement instead of taking it out of context. It was said by Ingersoll who lived in the 19th century. So in that context, what he meant was that the world was governed by some laws (like Newton’s laws) and not on the whims and fancies of some supernatural entity.

      • Satish,

        The article says “After all, what is a superstition? In the immortal words of Robert Ingersoll..”

        The context I assumed is this: This is an attempt by Ingersoll to come up with rules that separate beliefs into the ones that are superstitions and the ones that are not. If these rules can be applied only to a certain class of beliefs, that is not clear from the essay.

        “There is zero evidence that black magic works. So why didn’t you use that example and instead used an example where the outcome is not known before playing the game?”

        So is it fair to say “These rules can be applied only for beliefs about phenomena where everything can be known from past experience and no assumptions about future are involved”?

        • Stick to the definition, and you’ll see why the small business owner is not superstitious.

          It’s really frustrating that many people who use the word superstition do so without knowing what it means. Nanda actually assumed the reader knew the meaning, and that was poor on her part.

  • From the list of superstitions mentioned in this article:
    “To believe in spite of evidence or without evidence”

    Statistics show that a majority of small businesses fail and a minority succeed.
    Given this, is any entrepreneur plotting a strategy to start a small business and believing that he/she will succeed not superstitious?
    To base the belief about success of the (future) business on past data “would be believing in spite of evidence”. If we don’t consider past data, then it would be believing “without evidence”.

    • Again, you are nitpicking just for the sake of doing so. There is zero evidence that black magic works. So why didn’t you use that example and instead used an example where the outcome is not known before playing the game?

    • **Statistics show that a majority of small businesses fail and a minority succeed.
      Given this, is any entrepreneur plotting a strategy to start a small business and believing that he/she will succeed not superstitious?**

      It just means that he is starting the small business understanding the risk that a large percentage of small businesses fail. One of the scenarios in which the entrepreneur will be wrong in his investment in the small business is when there is another investment opportunity available to him with an expected return similar to that of the small business but with a lower risk.

      You need to read a little bit about risk and reward.

      Your post is truly laughable. I am not sure what is your motivation here. Is it in defense of superstition?

    • I don’t think it’s necessary to assume that Ramana has an agenda of any sort– I feel that he/she just has an eye for detail, that’s all.

      Ramana, such a belief is not superstition because the definition of superstition is a mistaken belief in cause and effect that involves a supernatural identity. The small business owner may be called “delusional” in a vague sense– and in life, it is often necessary to “delude” ourselves so– but not superstitious.

      That is why your example is different from black magic.

      • Ashwin,

        Disagree. You can not conclude that there is something wrong with the approach of the small business owner based on incomplete (some attention to detail, huh) information in Ramana’s post. His post says nothing about the expected return from the investment. May be small businesses fail often (ie more risk) but the expected returns (ie reward) are high enough to make an investment if your risk tolerance level is high.

      • Hmm well having a high risk tolerance means accepting lower probabilities of success. So even if the return is high, the expectation value would still be low.

        I would equate a higher risk tolerance to the “delusion” I posted above. Would you agree?

        At any rate, my point was to show it’s not superstition.

        • ** Hmm well having a high risk tolerance means accepting lower probabilities of success. So even if the return is high, the expectation value would still be low.**

          Nope. Depends on the number future scenarios, probability of each of those scenarios and the return on all those scenarios. That is what will tell you what the expected return is.

          That is why I said the entrepreneur’s decision to invest in the small business can be considered wrong (more precisely irrational) if there is an alternative investment opportunity that is available to him with similar risk but higher expected return (or similar expected return at a lower risk). Otherwise we can not say that he is wrong/irrational.

    • Again, you’ve taken the sentence so far out of its context that you’ve managed to use the worst possible example to counter it (that too in a very wrong manner. More on that below). The right example to use would have been something like “nature gives us rains when we offer sacrifices to it”. It is the thought, intention and design of this kind that the sentence is talking about.

      Now coming to evolution, it has neither thought nor intention. It is not a design as we understand it as in making something with an end goal in sight. So even if we consider the out-of-context meaning you’ve pulled out of the sentence, evolution is a bad example to choose to illustrate it.

  • It is interesting that all the vitriol is directed at Hinduism. Nanda’s explanation that everything she says is equally applicable to other religions is a vacuous argument because she takes to extreme lengths to go after Hinduism. I abhor the idea of casteism and the associated stigma of casteism that plagues India however I consider it a societal development and not inherent in the religion. Those who disagree please first answer two questions. The first being please state one instance where the Hindu scripture mentions castes. Second if this was so much associated with Hinduism the religion, why do the Christians and Muslims in India still maintain the so called based caste hierarchy even after they convert ? In Michael Palin’s documentary he talks about two churches in Kerala where one is for the ‘upper caste’ christians and the other for the lower caste. Go figure.!!

    • It is interesting that all the vitriol is directed at Hinduism.

      It is interesting the way you implied that only Hinduism is targeted. Meet what-aboutery.

      Nanda’s explanation that everything she says is equally applicable to other religions is a vacuous argument because she takes to extreme lengths to go after Hinduism.

      Looks like you just skimmed the article without understanding what it’s saying, but decided to comment anyway. Nanda says that there are irrationalities in Hinduism and why they need to be pointed out (with the caveat that it should not be read as a militant rejection of religion per se). But you managed to imagine an entirely different meaning into it. Insecure much?

      The first being please state one instance where the Hindu scripture mentions castes.

      The article mentions caste in passing, but talks more about science, pseudoscience and superstitions. But you picked caste anyway because you thought you had some ground breaking insight that caste cannot be found in Hindu scriptures. You probably thought you can dance around with jati, varna and how anyone can switch varnas and yadda yadda and that’s why Hinduism has no caste. The comment sections of this site are littered with Hindu apologists who claim Hinduism is way of life and yet hypocritically imply that caste is not part of that way of life. That should settle the question of whether caste is part of Hinduism or not.

  • I feel misinformation is spread while (or to criticize) criticizing Hinduism. Whereas if you tell true facts about islam and Christianity it will amount criticism

    For example, karna is argued as better warrior than Arjuna, but whoever read Mahabharat can understand this is a bogus claim. See comments made in this site http://karna-the-great.blogspot.in/p/misconceptions-about-drupad-war.html to the last

    Same applies to Mahabali’s story and many other. May be some tribals near mysore worship Mahishasura ?? because Mysore was his kingdom. But some Dalit organisations say that to demonize the god of a tribe of 1000 or may be 5000 , one billion Hindus created story of Godess Durga slaying mahishasura an arrogant demon king. The list is endless and goes. See my comments as user answering Ravi on Hinduism in “Fraud of nadi jothidam” article in nirmukta.

  • Wow… 5000 words! Such an effort towards discarding a subject you think is a bluff! You hate it you hate it. You don’t write a thesis over it. If you work that hard to make believe someone something is false, you know somewhere in your heart that it is actually true!

  • Let me deliberate on some of your thoughts. Some well made points, some opinions which don’t stand criticism

    “Superstition is: To believe that mind created and controls matter.”

    There is no evidence to prove mind creates matter, there is also no evidence to disprove it, you can call it a not-proven theory, but to call it superstition without evidence is same as calling it scientific.

    “To believe in force apart from substance, or in substance apart from force.”

    This too assumes that it is well established that everything in existence is measurable. (not talking about qualities, values, emotions at all)

    “To believe in miracles, spells and charms, in dreams and prophecies.”
    It is illogical to say anything not proven doesn’t exist. It would be logical to say it doesn’t make sense.

    “To believe in the supernatural.”
    Time & space being not constant was a crazy thought some years ago, there will be things included in science which are supernatural today. instead of blanket rejection it would help if we could counter with valid point to point argument.

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