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 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.
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:
- 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.