Freethought Activism Pseudoscience & Religion

Keeping The Spotlight On

Keeping The Spotlight On
-Taking a stand against superstition, within and beyond the Internet-

“Scrutiny advances our Understanding and makes Science stronger while Religion simply wilts to nought under that self same spotlight.”, says thunderf00t in this characteristically pithy and punchy video . However, he adds this sobering reminder, “So is this a reason to do nothing, as smart arguments propagate better than bad ones in an open forum? Absolutely not! The reason Religion fails on the Internet is because people like YOU subject them to scrutiny. If you do not subject them to scrutiny, if it is not put under that spotlight, it will not disintegrate.”

A spotlight turned on by a Youtube video may cause at best a momentary embarrassment for a religious cult figure, which lasts only for the minuscule attention-span of a casual viewer. For this embarrassment to herald the eventual exit and exile of such cult figures from the public sphere, our scrutiny must be more sustained, continuing well beyond the videos into the conversations they start and the arguments they trigger. We need to equip ourselves with a battery of arguments that will help keep the spotlight on, unblinkingly and relentlessly.

Consider for instance this documentary which is now available on demand, despite the best efforts of cult-based lobbyists attempting to enforce their insidious censorship of any coverage which is not fulsomely hagiographic of their revered cult leader. While the spotlight is now flickering on, depriving such cult leaders of the cover they once took for granted, it is hardly helping their spellbound followers who are blinkered by indoctrination to see any better. When presented with such a challenge, responses from the faithful include paroxysmal denial (from the most impulsive among them) , elaborate conspiracy theories (from the more imaginative among them), obfuscating apologetics (from the most intricate among them ), pride in having survived this grievous test of faith (from supposedly the most intrepid among them) and of course gratuitous offers of prayer for those committing what they see as this libelous sacrilege (from perhaps the most incurable among them). To any unprejudiced viewer such a documentary cannot fail to expose the extra-ordinary claims of such a cult as eyewash. But to the faithful, far from being an eye-opener, it fails even in dimming the halo of their leader in their eyes!

If there is something almost as frustrating to a freethought advocate as the intransigence of the faithful, it is the sanctimony of the accommodationists. “Of course we don’t support superstition!”, they preface their complaints by saying, but hasten to add their misgivings that the so-called promoters of scientific temper are overdoing their part, overzealously unsettling an unprepared rural audience and causing public unrest rather than public service. Some of them sneer at freethought activists as publicity hounds who in their opinion demean and vulgarize Science by presenting it almost exclusively in a combative and disruptive setting of ‘debunking’. “Of course you know that I don’t follow any godman”, they will begin, and even concede that the godman being discussed may not always have been above board. But then they will then say that, nevertheless, he is now a ‘helpless, actually wheelchair-bound, elderly gentleman’ against whom unleashing vehement polemics is churlish and distasteful in civil society. Well, speaking of ‘elderly gentlemen’, perhaps we can quickly look up what ‘gentleman’ means in the lexicons of Religion itself, which the accommodationist is so keen to defend and mollycoddle. Cardinal Newman said, “It is almost the definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts pain!”. The man who is the subject of the BBC documentary has evidently caused untold anguish, and this, to those who trusted him most, thus forfeiting the honor of ‘gentleman’ by which an accommodationist may try to claim for him the clemency of a freethinking critic.

It is baffling why accommodationists take upon themselves such obviously flimsy cases which are often indefensible even by religious yardsticks. What follows here is a battery of arguments to expose as indefensible the stance of the sanctimonious accommodationists, and perhaps also shake the intransigence of the faithful. The motivation for this, is a recent conversation where someone repeated the spent old argument that the philanthropic activities of the Baba in the documentary, must be reason enough for critics to look the other way when allegations of other crimes by him surface. I tried reminding my interlocutor of the greater impact of secular philanthropists such as Warren Buffet or Bill Gates. To this, this person came up with the bizarre response: “You say the Baba maybe a child molester? How do you know what Bill Gates maybe doing behind closed doors?” I was incensed enough to respond with the following arguments, which are only the beginning of a growing list.

  • Taking a view that ‘ends justify the means’ and therefore some highly visible acts of social service must endow legal immunity is a dangerous idea. Bill Gates’ highly publicized charity or even the fact that so many offices and homes find his operating system indispensable, do not immunize his company from litigation against anti-trust violation. Founding a hospital does not make the Indian Penal Code inapplicable to anybody.
  • Also, taking a view that all that matters is ‘the greatest good to the greatest number’ and that we can ignore harm caused to a negligible minority in the process is equally dangerous if not more. The Father of the Nation, who called off the nation-wide Non Co-operation Movement recognizing the suffering of 22 policemen in Chauri Chaura, would certainly find such arithmetic repugnant. By the same standard arguing that the suffering of any abuse victim may be ignored so long as the perpetrator is otherwise a philanthropist, and that trauma for a few is an acceptable price to pay for solace for the many, is unChristian, unIslamic, unHindu, unGandhian and irreligious from any standpoint. It is baffling indeed that so many supposed pious folks resort to such an argument.
  • Thanks to accomodationists’ anxious attempts to sanitize public discourse of even any remotely critical appraisal of religious institutions, the few progressive voices within religious establishments who are willing to acknowledge the need for reform are also being unwittingly blacked out. Granting effective legal immunity to Babas of all hues and also demanding immunity from criticism and diverting attention with questions like ‘How do we know what other celebrities like say, Bill Gates, does behind closed doors’, stands in the way of much-needed reform of religious institutions along the lines of what the likes of the Nidumamidi Math pontiff suggest here. Of course there’s no closed circuit cam following Bill Gates all day, but we know that he has less reason to resort to such exploitation as it is well known that he is happily married and a happy parent as well. Concerns such as those raised by the Nidumamidi Math pontiff will never be discussed in the mainstream as long as a bulk of the population unquestioningly believes “Oh but after all our Baba is incorruptible though others may have strayed.”.
  • Let us come now to the allegation that scientists who go on debunking tours are wasting their time and others’ when actually they ought to be conducting more open-air Science lessons without an obsessive pre-occupation with miracle-busting. Picture an Indian village, with a throng of children and their parents surrounding a banyan tree. Under the banyan tree is a Professor of Physics, an apple in her hand, narrating to a rapt audience the story of Newton’s discovery. Wait a minute…this picture seems too good to be true and we must be missing something. If this is a realistic picture, then there is another banyan tree close by under which there is a Baba levitating and swallowing fire, attracting a much greater throng, relegating our apple-wielding Physics evangelist to the shadows. Who out there is naïve enough to think that an army of apple-droppers can bring about a scientific revolution in rural India, without first clearing the classroom space of loitering charlatans and without first clearing the villagers’ minds of the fear that enslaves them to these charlatans? The first 15 minutes of the classic Guru Busters documentary features a damning example of not an unlettered villager but a Constitutional office-bearer, a Chief Election Commissioner no less, who goes as far as attesting the miracles of a Baba, poo-pooing any scientific objection by brandishing his Physics Masters degree! When charlatanry is this widespread and has such influential backers, which right-thinking science-lover can argue against deploying squads of myth-busters?

Videos such as Guru Busters and this one should suffice to convince any reasonable viewer that these myth-busters aren’t doing their village demonstrations just out of elitist contempt or for their own amusement, but are actually putting their life in the line at times, and taking a stand for Science in the most threatening frontlines. They are powering with their own incandescent conviction the floodlights of Reason in the most benighted nooks of the subcontinent. Is it too much to ask the accommodationists to stop fidgeting with the light switch?

About the author

Arvind Iyer

7 Comments

  • Another point to be noted is that we should also lead lives free of superstitions to the extent possible thereby setting an example to those who claim that it is not possible to do that. Again, let it be clear to those who criticise us that we set our own agenda and we don’t want them to set it for us. We are forced to do things like miracle busting demos because the lack of know how among the less informed people. For the common man the manifestation of the supernatural is not the non existent mythical god but the friendly guru round the corner who can produce something from thin air or walk on fire or dip his hands into ‘boiling’ oil!
    We could also advise the followers of the godmen to give up their rituals and concentrate only on things which can be more useful for people. Many of these miracle mongers have also the support of the political parties who take their help for nurturing their their vote banks and storing their ill gotten gains.

    • Thank you Prof. Nayak for ever giving us all the reminder to ‘walk the talk’ through your trips, videos and now this comment.
      One keyword in the comment is ‘friendly guru’, opposing whom brings with it the risk of making enemies of the very people a debunker is out to help. However, I am sure that at least some of the former-guru-followers would have later begun to view the debunker as their best friend. The Richard Dawkins Foundation maintains a ‘Converts Corner’ ( http://richarddawkins.net/letters/converts ) and perhaps within your wide experience in the field, there are enough instances for your own ‘convert’s corner’, about which we are eager to hear. A recent example of correspondence from a convert appeared in Prof. Jerry Coyne’s blog here ( http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/10/23/i-get-nice-letters-too/ ). An article about success stories of conversion from your trips in the field, may serve as an answer to doubts about whether debunking is making a dent in the faith of the faithful at all.

  • Sathya Sai Baba represents one of the most insidiously clever deceptions, despite his many errors, exhibitions of sheer ignorance and many fraudulent manipulations. I can say this since I led a branch of his organization myself for up to 18 years, and I was already very well versed in the philosophy of science, and critique the history and practice of ideologies, including the religions. Very many other academics, scientists, social activists and professors of almost every field of inquiry are devotees even now, not to mention almost all the top India politicians for decades (including many PMs and Presidents). How this came to be in my case I have described at length on my website where I show the entire extent of Sathya Sai Baba’s deceptive activities in great depth, based not least on personal experience. Since I left (in 2000) I have seen it my duty – as one who has been there, seen and done in depth, and who published a pro-Sai Baba book once – to expose this, the greatest pseudo-religious con in modern Indian history to the full extent of my abilities. I also run a blogsite, regularly up-dated – on all matters relating to Sai Baba at http://robertpriddy.wordpress.com

    • A question, Prof. Priddy, which the article implicitly raises is “How best do we start a conversation about these fraud allegations with a current devotee without causing the classic ‘fight-or-flight’ response from them?” Many of us can count current devotees among our acquaintances and are eager to benefit from your experience and suggestions on how our arguments can be presented to them with the desired impact, rather than with the exasperation they seem to end up in so often.

      • My experience in this respect is extremely depressing. Of those devotees who knew me well while I was a leader in the Sathya Sai Organization in Norway, and a few I knew very well from other countries,were open to discussion and most of them have since left Sathya Sai Baba. Apart from that, dozens I knew well – including a handful here in Norway – have not shown the slightest willingness to discuss the allegations. They have all cut off contact with my wife and I almost immediately. The fact is that the subtlety and depth of the indoctrination whereby devotees perceived themselves virtually as a (blessed) race apart from the ‘less fortunate’ non-believers is often almost unbreakable. Those who criticize Sathya Sai Baba are regarded by him as ‘demons’ and those who leave him and speak out he had branded as ‘Judases’! He has made this crystal clear in his lectern-beating discourse on Christmas Day (of all forgiving days) in year 2000, which was clearly intended to stop all discussion about the sex abuse allegations and to make all followers toe the line. His word is taken as gospel by devotees, however fantastic and removed from reality his statements often are. That makes dialogue of any kind impossible with a “true devotee”. I know this answer is not helpful, other than pointing out the task one faces when trying to relate to people who, thought they cannot see it themselves, are involved in a mind-controlling cult.

  • It is not the question of who knows what Bill Gates is doing behind the doors,the question is will Bill Gates become a proven convict or paedophile if X and Y is propagating venom against him in media without even a legal case being filed?If not,you are using different standards for Sai Baba,Because it happens that an allegation someone has started, suits your view of the person(Sai Baba)that u also join the chorus leaving aside the ‘rational?’ scrutiny whether there are any evidence or not or at least if there is a proceeding against him.

    • Everyone knows that Sathya Sai Baba is protected from prosecution at the very highest levels in India. The petition to the Supreme Court was rejected by Sai devotee judges on a technicality and they proceeded to try to cover-up the evidence that such a petition ever was brought before the Supreme Court by destroying the records. However, a an attested copy of the proceeding was preserved by the defendants’ lawyers (see http://saibaba-invigilator.blogspot.com/2006/12/sai-baba-protected-by-supreme-court-of.html), which included famous Kamini Jaiswal. The allegations were made by over 30 persons who signed statements to that effect, and we are in possession of affidavits to that effect. However it is impossible to indict Sathya Sai Baba as this must be done in India, where the President and the Prime Minister have both invested their prestige in endorsing him for years!
      Besides this, the written evidence of his sexual abuses is overwhelming and his involvement in the murders in his bedroom was covered up by Home Minister S.B. Chavan and PM Narasimha Rao by seriously undermining and then quashing the CBI investigation that was underway against him before it could deliver its conclusions.

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