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Indian Rationalist Movement- The Challenges Ahead


As our movement grows in terms of involvement of people as well as increase in the number of organisations, we face new challenges and changes in the older ones. If we are to survive and progress as a movement we have to face up to these and modify our strategies accordingly, failing which we shall be consigned to the dustbins of history. We as a movement have always risen up to these and I am sure that we will too in the future. But, what we have to remember is that we should have a very clear strategy and plan to face these and get over them.

As technologies grow, the purveyors of superstitions resort to new techniques and cook up better ways of fooling the gullible, whether it be drinking cow’s urine, extolling the benefits of the purdah or curing urine disease by praying to Jesus! All religions are a part of this. Atheistic religions like Jainism and Buddhism have also become as superstitious as the others by bringing in new rituals. So, we have to work harder to face these. The new techniques and language they adopt, the newer trends are also tending to call themselves as secular without any religious leanings. They also use words like ‘spiritual’, ‘universal‘ etc to confuse the people by claiming to have no religious affiliations! Superstitions like gemology, aroma therapy, homeopathy come all under these categories. Another problem that we are facing today is that of age. When we look at ourselves we feel that we are a greying lot! The younger generations seem to be too busy and preoccupied with their own careers and acquisition of material wealth to bother about furthering the movement. Many of them claim to be atheists but also add a disclaimer- they are no crusading atheists like us! They would like to keep their convictions to themselves and not proclaim them to the world. They also don’t mind making compromises by taking part in religious ceremonies and such superstitious practices under the pretext of culture and/or that there is no harm in undergoing something once in a while.

Again there is a lacuna in the leadership- none seem to be coming forward to take up these challenges. I am told by many of the younger generation that they would like to support the movement by helping those who want to take it ahead. They don’t say anything about themselves taking it forward. They would like to hand over a bell to some one who is willing to bell the cat! They would not like to do it themselves. One more problem is that of state sponsorship- like state-sponsored terrorism there is the problem of state-sponsoring superstitions. Many of the state and central governments are providing grants to organisations which openly support such superstitions. The persons running these are so close to the seats of power that even the govt. departments which have to regulate them have no say in the utilization of grants or the type of propaganda done by them. We have some of them openly making statements against known proven therapies, misleading people. To add to these confusions we have professional bodies endorsing things without any proof.

We have problems in propagating our views because many times it is a catch-22 situation. If we call ourselves atheists which we all are, many people would not like to listen to us at all! They shut off their minds the moment they hear the word. So, we have to call ourselves some harmless-sounding names so that people would at least listen to us. We have had our own people objecting to this saying that we should call ourselves as atheists. While we have to attract new people to our movement we cannot do it unless we go to those who are not associated with us. This would not be possible unless we have issues that can be taken to people who are with an open mind and willing to listen to us. this would be also applicable to reaching out to the younger generation. Those promoting irrationalism are trying to ‘catch them young’, while we are ‘preaching to the converted’ .

narendranayakOne more problem of our movement is that of finance. We work on shoe-string budgets many a time putting our own slender resources towards meeting expenses. While the other side has many supporters with open purses or make their resources by taking the gullible for a ride, most of the movements are supported by money from outside India starting from the Hindutva to propagating Islam and Christianity. It seems strange that Hindutva should be supported from outside the country, but it is! The promotion of superstition has now become a huge empire covering many aspects including subjects like education and even research. One can imagine the quality of research when it is supported by agencies who have vested interests in promoting various non-scientific and pseudo-scientific subjects as science. Though it looks strange that those who claim to cure diseases by their supernatural powers should run hospitals, they do. The credit for the cure goes to the person who runs the institution and not to medical science. It would be claimed that the main instrument of cure is the blessing and science has a only supportive role, while we know the reality. These are also supported by large photos of the purveyors of superstitions all over the place. The personnel in charge of the treatment also give such impressions by always invoking the names of the person running the institution. People in a bad state of health are particularly impressionable and go away with the idea that the cure was because of the ‘spirituality’ and not the results of science.

‘How should we combat this?’ seems to be the million dollar question. We have been doing it so far by the following methodologies:

  1. Conducting lecture demos about so-called miracles.
  2. Challenging those who claim supernatural powers.
  3. Going to the media with exposures, etc.

But, these do not seem to be enough. So, it is up to us to take aggressive measures to further our movement. People like Ravishankar with his so called Art Of Living employs MBAs paying them thousands. People like Ram Kishan Yadav aka Baba Ramdev gets millions from govt. funds for conducting ‘research’ on yoga and so-called Ayurvedic medicine without having the qualification to be even a compounder. Numerous such examples could be quoted. We too should take up aggressive measures to combat such pseudosciences. We should develop a cadre of committed people with adequate training in science to question these claims. We should develop a corpus of funds which could be used to tackle them. We should conduct training camps for youngsters who want to work for the movement and should be in a position to provide them with support both in terms of finance and ideology. We should also develop institutions which can conduct research and also educate the younger generation. We should also motive the younger generation to come out and express their views openly and not be ashamed to admit that they are non-believers. While the believers express their faith openly, the non-believers do not have the courage to do so. We should also encourage many of the well-known people in other fields who share our ideology to come out into the open and express their views openlyso that the younger generation can know that they are not the only ones.

Only by taking up such a systematic approach can one hope to build up a strong movement to take on anyone and expose them. It is by such means that we can further our at-present not well-organised cause.

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p style=”text-align: center;”>Prof. Narendra Nayak is the president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations

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Narendra Nayak

11 Comments

  • Hi Prof. Nayak:
    As always, you have done a superb job explaining the plight of atheists in India!
    I want to focus on:
    “One more problem of our movement is that of finance. We work on shoe-string budgets many a time putting our own slender resources towards meeting expenses. While the other side has many supporters with open purses or make their resources by taking the gullible for a ride.”
    There is not a single atheist site in India which is seeking funds, to my knowledge. I have never seen any “ad’ on Nirmukta directing one to a site that seeks donation. We need to change this approach.

    • you are right about that. Some how seeking funds looks bad! I know that is wrong and you have offered donations. I want to have set up which can take donations and effectively use them. Many of us want to help with funds and we should think of ways to use them to further our movement.But, there is a small problem here too. When funds are there, there will come some people who want to spend them the way they want!
      The write up was meant to create debate at our next FIRA meet. It was for our souvenir to be release during that. I sent a copy to Ajita who put it up. Now, Somu tells me that some newspapers want to reproduce it.
      Let us all put our heads together and come to some decision about the issues raised.

  • Hello, a reader from the United States here via RichardDawkins.net.

    I just want to say that I found this article to be informative, impassioned, and very well written. Best to my fellow rationalists in India, with much affection from the US — Alan Canon

  • Prof. Narendra Nayak, I’m a Canadian involved in the atheist/rationalist movement in North America and Europe. You bring up very important points, but I think you are selling your young rationalists short. I would make a confident wager that there are more young rationalists in India than you imagine. Having been part of the growing movement of atheists/rationalists from the younger demographic, I’ll explain how you might discover and attract more young people in your country.

    “The younger generations seem to be too busy and preoccupied with their own careers and acquisition of material wealth to bother about furthering the movement. Many of them claim to be atheists but also add a disclaimer- they are no crusading atheists like us! They would like to keep their convictions to themselves and not proclaim them to the world. They also don’t mind making compromises by taking part in religious ceremonies and such superstitious practices under the pretext of culture and/or that there is no harm in undergoing something once in a while.”

    That’s a very broad brush you are using to paint the younger generation. Are you sure they are *all* that way? Perhaps you are overlooking a hidden segment which resides within the younger generation which do not feel that way. They may be keeping quiet because they feel they have no one to talk to. They may feel they are alone in their rational thinking. Or they may have a few friends they talk to, but do not come out in public about it. And so, because they are hidden from you, you don’t see them. But I bet that they are there. When you speak of the younger generation in these broad terms you used, it would only make the rational ones feel more alone. “Maybe he’s right. Maybe all the other people in my generation really are that way, and I’m even more alone than I thought.” You need to reach out to these hidden rationalists within your younger population, instead of alienating them with this kind of remonstration.

    “I am told by many of the younger generation that they would like to support the movement by helping those who want to take it ahead. They don’t say anything about themselves taking it forward.”

    Perhaps the more accurate view is that they don’t know *how* to take the lead, rather than that they don’t want to? They may not have the experience or confidence yet. If your rationalist organizations opened up some programs specifically for younger people and recruited some younger people to run those programs, then they could gain a bit of experience and start to take on bigger roles of leadership. For example, you might start a Young Rationalists Day project, where you invite younger people to give talks or demonstrations of their own devising, and get young people to organize the event.

    “If we call ourselves atheists which we all are, many people would not like to listen to us at all! They shut off their minds the moment they hear the word. So, we have to call ourselves some harmless-sounding names so that people would at least listen to us. We have had our own people objecting to this saying that we should call ourselves as atheists. While we have to attract new people to our movement we cannot do it unless we go to those who are not associated with us. This would not be possible unless we have issues that can be taken to people who are with an open mind and willing to listen to us. this would be also applicable to reaching out to the younger generation.”

    The approach that has worked so well for us in NA and Europe has been what I call the ‘unapologetic atheism’ approach (see http://www.rationalresponders.com/forum/18586 ). This means being completely unashamed of calling yourself an atheist. After all, you’ve done nothing wrong! What do you have to apologize or feel shameful for? This is the approach that has worked so well starting with Sam Harris and continuing with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens (including many more people than just these four famous ones).

    I suggest an overall strategy of ethical, honest, and forthright confrontation of important issues. As long as you remain ethical, you can remain confidently unapologetic. This will attract far more people, especially young people, than the friendlier ‘accommodationist’ approach. Not that the friendly approach is bad. No. It too is needed. But to gain attention, you need some controversy, and simply being unapologetic about atheism/rationalism will be enough to gain plenty of controversy.

    Which brings me to another point. One of the key things that sparked the recent media attention to atheism has been the publication of unapologetic books about atheism. I think you may want to find your Indian Sam Harris. A young, fresh, honest, but unapologetic book will do wonders for your whole movement.

    “One more problem of our movement is that of finance. We work on shoe-string budgets many a time putting our own slender resources towards meeting expenses.”

    From what I can tell, the most successful fund-raising activities for the atheist movement have been the various bus and billboard ads featuring innocuous messages such as “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.” I’m sure you could devise a similar message that fits your culture. These fund-raisers have been very successful, and they gain a lot of media attention.

    Another successful method is to put on an international convention, such as the upcoming atheist convention in Australia. They’ve been very successful. But perhaps this might require a bigger community to get it going than you have. I don’t know.

    I would strongly suggest utilizing the internet to put on effective but inexpensive events. Consider the Blasphemy Challenge (http://www.blasphemychallenge.com/ ), which was very inexpensive to run, and yet drew massive attention on the internet, as well as on mainstream media (several television news stories and a television debate). I’m sure you could devise a similar light-hearted and unapologetic challenge to young rationalists to proclaim their disbelief in some taboo subject relevant to Indians. This would be a very effective way to help young Indian rationalists to ‘come out of the closet’ and post their responses on YouTube, or some similar website.

    Also, the Center For Inquiry (CFI) has been very successful at organizing student groups on university campuses across North America. I would highly recommend initiating some project like this for schools and universities in India. It is inexpensive, mostly just requiring finding some place for students to meet, and the students themselves can run the groups, with a little organizational guidance from your rationalist groups. This will also give the younger generation more experience at leading and organizing themselves. The key here is that young people have a different emphasis on their organizations. Not to be insulting, but many of the ‘older atheist’ groups I know tend to focus on negative criticism which can be seen by younger people as ‘old guys complaining’. Younger groups will want to put a fun spin on their activities, and so it is important that they run their groups themselves, so they have freedom to try out different fun ideas for activities.

    Again, I would like to emphasize the internet. One of the strongest factors in the rise of atheism has been the use of the internet as a way of meeting like-minded people and communicating and collaborating with them. See the recent article and comments on this http://unreasonablefaith.com/2009/12/04/did-the-internet-cause-the-new-atheists/

    Younger people use the internet more than older people, in general. Find ways to connect your younger generation together, and you will see the rationalists start to come out on their own. Use forums, blogs, community sites (such as http://www.atheistnexus.org/ ), videos, etc. Create a portal website which brings all of these together for Indians to deal with Indian issues regarding rationality.

    Finally, I will recommend how to find the most motivated and dedicated young people who will take up all these activities. They are what we atheists call the ‘deconverted’. Whether they were previously religious, or just superstitious, those who have recently freed themselves from their own mental shackles are the ones who see clearly the dangers of such thinking. A very good way to find these kinds of people is to gather and collect ‘deconversion stories’. This is simply a person’s own story of how they came to become rational/atheist, what obstacles they faced, what personal relationships were tested and perhaps broken, what suffering they went through, and how they discovered things like logic, reason, philosophy, science, evidence, rationality. If you were to start a website dedicated to gathering young Indian rationalists together, and give them a place to tell their personal stories, and meet others like them who have similar stories, you will quickly grow a community of highly motivated and dedicated young Indian rationalists. I guarantee it.

    So, while the most vocal young people you meet may be of the apathetic or accommodationist variety, there are bound to be many who are more motivated and willing to stand up unapologetically in favour of rational thinking. They are simply disorganized and disconnected, and therefore silent. Find them and connect them, and they will begin to speak out on their own.

  • Wonderist,
    Thank you very much for your very kind suggestions. I am sorry if I have painted a whole younger generation with the same brush. But, it is my experience from nearly three decades of work. It is not that there are no people from the younger generation who are atheists. The problem is some who are very enthusiastic have no means of supporting themselves if they are to work for the movement. Those who are well off would not like to give up their careers or furtherance of their careers for the cause.
    I would not like to make the younger generation pessimistic by my observations! Rather, I would like some of them to take it up as a challenge and be the next generation who will take the movement to a higher level than what we have been able to. That would be the best thing to happen for the movement. Let me come back to the personal. When I joined the movement in 1976 I had the ambition of one day quitting my job and devoting all my time to travel all over to build up the movement and even when I was employed this ultimate aim was the uppermost in my mind. That is when I met Premanand and got involved gradually building up contacts and conducting programs till a stage came when I quit my job in 2006 and am into the movement full time.
    It would be a great pleasure if some could emerge from the younger generation and take over.The use of internet is a good idea and we have been doing that for quite some time now. But, in a country like India where the work is to be done among the masses, we have to go to the rural and semi urban areas. In the urban areas, where the internet savvy younger generation are, the distances are too long and the people too self centered to involve themselves to a significant extent. I have seen that in places like Mumbai, Delhi where I am sure that there are a large number of atheists who are unorganised and unidentified too. How do we go about building a movement in these places? In Bangalore where there was no rationalist organisation which was devoted for the movement, we managed to set up one. But, if one looks at its membership, we have very few from the younger generation. I am sure that in a place like Bangalore there should be thousands of atheists. In this place promoters of superstitions like Ravi Shankar are doing roaring business. What is the reason for this? On one hand we could say that the leadership is to blame and we have failed to attract the younger generation- if so where have we failed? How do we change the state of affairs?
    In a country like India with a huge population and a large area how do we organise ourselves effectively? Through my tours I have managed to meet a large number of people and have succeeded in creating some enthusiasm in some of them. But, the question still remains as to how to build up a younger generation of activists who can take the movement forward. In my case, no one handed over the ‘leadership'(if can call it that) on a platter. It was due to initiatives that I took, the work that was done and as Premanand said, I did not give him anything, he took it away from me! It was not that he was unwilling he was only too happy to do that. I am nearly 60 and am looking forward to some one coming forward and telling me that I am old and should take rest. He or she or they should build up a movement of greater strength in a very organised manner so that we can effectively take on all the newer superstition mongers. We should grow into a group which should be a strong lobby and have voice in the setting up of policy for the nation.

  • respected narendra sir i am a young rationalist from bangalore. i want to join your organisation and work with all of you. how can i do so. whom should i contact. are there any members of your organisation in bangalore whom i can contact and make a friend.

    • Hi Venkatesh,
      Have you been able to get in touch with Prof. Nayak yet? If not, please sent us a message through the contact page and I will send you his contact info along with other useful information for you to get involved. Prof. Nayak is always looking for people with enthusiasm to promote freethinking!
      Ajita

  • Sir, i can see you a paranormal incident. Two wood will joint without touch, by super natural power. That sucked me, there was no trick and when i believed in rationalism there is no super power. After this miracle i want to accept paranormal challenge of rastanalism. Sir please contact me 08260960034, email-pranayanaik88@gmail.com.

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