Freethought Activism

Campaigning for Secular Humanism : Conversations beyond constituencies

“The 21st century should be an Age of Reason, yet irrational, militant faith is back on the march. Religious extremism is implicated in the world’s most bitter and unending conflicts…Even as we live in the shadow of holy terror, our Government wants to restrict our freedom to criticize religion. Science, we are told should not tread on the toes of theology.”

It is on that ominous note of foreboding that Prof. Richard Dawkins begins his documentary “Root of all Evil”. What will it take to reclaim this century for Reason? Outnumbered by an apathetic majority, outshouted by a violently voluble cohort of bigotry and outlying to the myopic priorities of incumbent governments, do today’s freethinkers even stand a chance in correcting the courses of their regressing nations? Today, they may lack numbers, a ready audience and government backing, but advocates of Reason remain convinced custodians of the hope expressed by American anthrophologist Margaret Mead thus: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

It is an intrepid few who will venture to take the lead and walk the talk, when the ground is yet to be laid and veritable minefields sprawl ahead. Where speech is not genuinely free, even talking the talk comes at a cost, which we must find the resourcefulness to bear. Victory in this campaign is not merely a matter of a popularity vote, but the wages of victory will include both the one vote that we have and all the popularity we can muster for our cause.

Staking our vote

Freethinkers are a minority but not a votebank. A vote is a citizen’s exercise of franchise, but a votebank is an institutionalization of groupthink, which is antithetical to freethought. It is by an aggregation of votes that most policy change is mediated in a democratic society and freethinkers have a compelling reason to use their vote to nudge the polity towards more secular and humanistic policy. But what if the polity is a majoritarian juggernaut heedless to any shoving, or a catatonic puppet oblivious to these nudges? Prof. Dawkins in his TED talk on militant atheism makes an observation which is as true about India as it is about America:

“So, we’ve reached a truly remarkable situation, a grotesque mismatch between the American intelligentsia and the American electorate. A philosophical opinion about the nature of the universe, which is held by the vast majority of top American scientists and probably the majority of the intelligentsia generally, is so abhorrent to the American electorate that no candidate for popular election dare affirm it in public. If I’m right, this means that high office in the greatest country in the world is barred to the very people best qualified to hold it — the intelligentsia — unless they are prepared to lie about their beliefs. To put it bluntly, American political opportunities are heavily loaded against those who are simultaneously intelligent and honest.”

The choice for a conscientious voter in India is often between resigned support for the ‘lesser of two evils’ so that the vote ‘at least counts’, or assisting in the losing battle of a rare candidate who is intelligent, honest…and unelectable. Isn’t throwing away one’s vote on a worthy candidate who is all but guaranteed to lose, a waste?. The answer, according to recent political scholarship is, “Yes and no.” It is indeed a waste, if the motive to vote was ‘instrumental’, that is, with an intent to influence the electoral outcome. It is anything but a waste, if the motive was ‘expressive’, to make a statement of conviction. Quoting from the article “Expressive Political Behavior: Foundations, Scope and Implications” by Alan Hamling from the University of Manchester and Colin Jennings from the University of Strathclyde published in the British Journal of Political Science:

“Any ‘instrumental’ calculus that focuses on the expected benefits associated with the outcome of the election, and admits that voting is at least somewhat costly, is therefore likely to show that voting is irrational. By emphasizing aspects of the act of voting, or of voting for a particular candidate or option, that do not depend on the outcome of the election, voting maybe portrayed as individually rational; and such aspects have been labeled ‘expressive’.

The basic idea here seems clear enough; voting, or voting in a particular way, may ‘express’ some aspect of the voter’s beliefs, values, ideology, identity or personality, regardless of the impact that the vote has on the outcome of the election, and such ‘expression’ maybe valuable to an individual in its own right and so provide sufficient motivation to vote.”

Your vote may not immediately influence government policy to be more secular. However, a conscientious vote for secular values at least reinforces your own secularism even if not the government’s in any discernible way. At first sight, doesn’t this suggestion seem irrationally solipsistic and a resort to self-talk when the public discourse does not go our way? The authors of the article assure us otherwise: Quoting again from the British Journal of Political Science article:

“Expressive motivations open up a new area of study which allow rational choice techniques to be employed in ways that more accurately reflect the meaning and symbolic significance of much political behavior”.

The authors make due note in the article that the ‘endogeneity’ of much political behavior, that is, how a great deal of political deliberation is private to the individual and that even not-so-visible expression by means of an inconsequential conscience vote in a secret ballot has utility in this regard. Widening the discussion beyond simply voting, the authors also consider other examples of expressive behavior in a civic context :

“Consider a situation in which an individual decides to write to a local newspaper to complain about some feature of local life and perhaps to suggest a remedy. How might this behaviour be explained? The standard instrumental line would have to be that the individual sees this as a means of generating a desirable outcome: perhaps the implementation of the suggested remedy. But the expressive line would suggest that the behaviour is best understood simply in terms of venting dissatisfaction, or identifying with the critical position, and that the observed behaviour might be expressively rational even if the individual knew in advance that writing to a newspaper would have absolutely no impact on the situation complained about.”

A vote may not win us a seat, but it can definitely help us take a stand. While your vote may have little impact on the immediate election, it is not to these elections alone that a vote’s impact is limited. While lamenting the lack of options for an Indian voter that are neither radical, sectarian nor dynastic, historian Ramachandra Guha hopes for ‘a new party altogether’:

“Based on the aspirations of the expanding middle class, this party could throw away the baggage of the past by constructing an agenda suited to the circumstances of the present. As a modern, or even post-modern, party, it should be open to all, regardless of caste or religion, and promote policies that are likewise not oriented to a particular sect or ethnic group. Anticipations of such a formation are already available, in the activities of such groups as Loksatta and the Professionals Party of India, both of whom shall put up candidates in the forthcoming elections.

These candidates will lose, but a decade or two on, some of their successors may actually win.”

If and when they eventually win, the victory will be owed in part to the votes cast for them conscientiously in every losing battle earlier. There is no telling when a merely ‘expressive’ vote will turn ‘instrumental’, but so that there is a chance at all of this happening, we must continue to express, conscientiously and consistently.

Illustration by Bala Bhaskar

Illustration: Bala Bhaskar

Staking our popularity

So is casting a vote with a half-chance of change a generation from now, all we can do to push for secular policy? Is there no hope for change unless we take the plunge and form our own political party? There is at least one historical case study which shows how a campaign can produce change well within a generation, across the board and more widespread than any partisan mobilization. Sam Harris describes the decline of racism in America thus, in his talk at AAI 2007:

“Racism was about as intractable a social problem as we have ever had in this country. Now, I am talking about deeply held convictions. I am sure many of you, or all of you, have seen photographs of lynchings in the first half of the 20th century, where seeming a whole town in the South, thousands of men, women, and children; lawyers, doctors, newspaper editors, church elders, even the occasional Congressman and Senator, would turn out, as though for a carnival, simply to watch some young man or woman be tortured to death and strung up on a tree or a lamp-post for all to see. And even if you have seen these pictures, realize that the pictures themselves are a poor indication of the horror of these episodes. Realize that these genteel people, otherwise quite normal, we must presume they were unfailingly religious, often took souvenirs of the bodies home to show their friends and family….teeth, ears, fingers, toes, and often displayed them in their places of business.

Now of course, I am not saying racism is no longer a problem in this country; but anyone who thinks that the problem is undiminished, has forgotten or never learnt how bad a problem it was. Now, my question to you is…’So we’ve done something to racism. The KKK was battered to the fringes of society; we’ve had the Civil Rights movement; we changed our discourse about race; our major newspapers no longer write flagrantly racist editorials and articles as they did less than a century ago. But how many people have had to identify themselves as ‘Non-racists’ to participate in the process? Is there a Non-racist Alliance somewhere for me to join?”

Americans did not vote to end racism. They began to choose, first individually, then collectively, to judge themselves by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin. They did not need to attach a badge of ‘non-racist’ to themselves to proclaim their commitment. They did not view their mission as simply legislative and did not simply call the political classes into account, but viewed it as transformative and began first of all with self-examination. Their successes which are in evidence today, are owed not just to political campaigners, but in great measure also to every lawyer who volunteered expertise in the service of justice rather than simply the letter of the prevailing law, and to every journalist who chose to voice conscientious objection rather than echoing the conventional folly of the times. The conversations they began, are in a deep sense still unfinished and still ongoing, and  continue to serve us a reminder of the persistence and sensitivity that is demanded of any advocate of lasting change.

The lasting social change we struggle for today, is less about the ballot or badges, and more about our conduct and the conversations that we must begin by staking our popularity. We cannot afford to forget that the first individuals who spoke out against racism got not a hero’s welcome but a heretic’s censure, or even more often, the silent treatment. Reason is too important to be left to just the rationalists, and human rights too important to be left to simply the humanitarians, for us to think that the conversation with those who do not yet share our convictions can wait. Some of these conversations will be confrontational, but this is a necessary ‘exposure therapy’ we must undergo as a society so that we do not respond in panic in the manner of phobics when political upheavals bring our differences to the fore. Much as we disagree with our ideological opponents, we agree with the Hindutva-leaning historian Koenraad Elst that ceasing conversation is not an option, when he says “Ideological confrontation is the best and ultimately the only way to prevent physical confrontation.” In our commitment to fight ideas rather than people, we can even agree with BJP leader Sushma Swaraj, who, quoting Urdu poet Basheer Badr in a Lok Sabha debate said “dushmani jamkar karo lekin yah gunjaaish rahe; jab kabhi ham dost ban jaayen to sharmindaa na hon” (Fight me like a worthy foe, but let us not the chance throw;That if we become friends some day, shame does not come in the way!)

Count Leo Tolstoy, had he lived to see the change in America, would have witnessed an illustration of the following lines from his book ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’:

“…how are we to suppress by force acts committed in the midst of our society which are regarded as crimes by the government and as daring exploits by the people?
To exterminate such nations and such criminals by violence is possible, and indeed is done, but to subdue them is impossible.
The sole guide which directs men and nations has always been and is the unseen, intangible, underlying force, the resultant of all the spiritual forces of a certain people, or of all humanity, which finds its outward expression in public opinion.”

Tolstoy’s book, notwithstanding its name, is an important and instructive historical document for freethinkers too, especially since it has in nascent but already recognizable forms the concepts of ‘community organization’ and ‘consciousness raising’ as means of social change, not to mention its acknowledged influence on Satyagraha. While Tolstoy may indeed have drawn his inspiration and his vocabulary from religion, the high regard he places on human life, his rejection of violence as a means to social change and his recognition that lasting social change is brought about only by changing minds and deeds as a society, remain things which citizens of today would do well to remember. The title of Chapter X of the book reads: “Evil cannot be suppressed by the physical force of the Government. The moral progress of humanity is brought about not only by individual recognition of truth, but also through the establishment of a public opinion.”

A means to ‘establishment of public opinion’ as a motivation of ‘expressive behavior’ could be one reason for its appeal to a rational agent. The authors of the British Journal of Political Science article make the point that it is by no means irrational to treat ourselves as our own audience of our advocacy to start with. However, our ideas will become harder and harder to ignore when we continue to express them with conviction and without compromise. The ballot may well be secret, but our participation in civic discourse outside of the polling booth need not be. We may not yet win votes for freethought, but we seek to win voters for freethought. We seek to win over a group of thoughtful citizens, however small, who are committed to the moral progress of humanity and being the change they wish to see.

Laying the ground and clearing the way

It is on each one of us that this moral progress depends, and on every conversation where we will break conspiracies of silence and every conscientious objection we will raise against arguments from tradition. To begin with, we must at least talk the talk at every opportunity, at home, in travel and in the workplace, braving the raised eyebrows and bracing for the verbal brickbats. We do not yet have a bully pulpit to make our call from, but we can continue to speak up at the coffee-machine, in ticket-queues and in drawing rooms. We cannot continue indefinitely to be deterred to walk the talk simply because the ground isn’t laid yet or is strewn with mines. We must continue to lay the ground, inch by inch, through every attempt to help freethinkers organize in local communities and build mechanisms to collaborate and campaign. We must continue to be minesweepers of discrimination in any form, detecting and destroying prejudice when it is still subterranean and subliminal, so that what was once hostile territory for some, becomes common ground for us all, where we can take a stand, together, for Reason and Compassion.

About the author

Arvind Iyer


  • Great article, Arvind. I, for one, have been doing what you have suggested in the concluding para. We should also pay attention to the psychology part of the whole thing. When you take God away from people’s lives, you create a major vacuum. What should that vacuum be filled with? That is a question to which freethinkers should pay serious attention, and come up with practical ideas which will work even in the case of the average, not-very-well-informed, person.

    My brother, a scientist but also a believer, tells me that no matter how brilliant my arguments, he still feels that there is some ‘higher power’ up there.

    Another stock reply you get is: ‘I am a spiritual person. Any problem with that?’. Personally, I never understood what this ‘spiritual’ argument is all about. Freethinkers need to go gunning after this line of reasoning also.

  • The more egregious aspects of religion keep making themselves felt at regular intervals in almost all parts of Indian society.
    Just a day or two back the Ram bhakhts in our neighbourhood showed their bhakthi by setting of firecrackers at 2 am in the morning, with the festivities going on for nearly an hour.Some months before that, during the ganesh festival, cars were stopped and “chanda” demanded of the owners. In each case the bhakti of the believers was strong enough argument to even keep the law at bay.Had someone told me that the law enforcement people were sharing in the fruits of the bhakti, i wouldn’t have disbelieved that either.

  • To begin with, we must at least talk the talk at every opportunity, at home, in travel and in the workplace, braving the raised eyebrows and bracing for the verbal brickbats. We do not yet have a bully pulpit to make our call from, but we can continue to speak up at the coffee-machine, in ticket-queues and in drawing rooms.

    Beautifully put. I’ve made it a point to speak up against caste prejudices amongst my friends and colleagues. Now they think twice about perpetuating caste stereotypes and cached thoughts about rerservations.

    • Thanks Satish. In the subcontinental context, speaking up against prejudice is especially urgent, with respect to religious minorities in India’s eastern and western neighbours and linguistic minorities in India’s southern neighbour, along with such prejudice in India itself as you have mentioned. The decline of racism in America ought to be viewed not simply as a distant case study, but as a mirror and a guide for citizens to examine their attitudes towards their Qadiyani/Ahmadi, Dalit-Bahujan or Tamil-speaking fellow-citizens depending on which country they live.

    • I really liked that part too. Reminded me of the mantra “Think Global, Act Local”.

      Something else I think we can all do as secular humanists is: try to be good at whatever it is we do in life. It has repercussions beyond what we can see or measure. I just watched this fantastic story from an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, where he talks about the time when he used to worry about whether being an astrophysicist was the right choice for him, or whether he should work more directly in helping the black community in the US. It’s must-watch:

      A Story About Race – Neil deGrasse Tyson

      • Something else I think we can all do as secular humanists is: try to be good at whatever it is we do in life.

        Thank you for emphasizing the quest for excellence as part of the agenda, alongside the currently understandable emphasis on criticism and protest. For freethinkers to really make a point about the merits of their worldview, they should make their rationality count in tangible and demonstrable ways including professional success. Winning ‘converts’, allies and sympathizers is so often not simply a matter of ideological convictions but due to ‘force of personality’ which we can strive to build by becoming better professionals and better persons in general (for which a sound beginning seems to be, becoming persons less prone to prejudice).

      • What Neil deGrasse Tyson says about the wider implications of someone from a historically marginalized community rising to the top of their profession, is illustrated compellingly in this interview with Dr. Louis Sullivan at the New York Public Library on his memoirs Breaking Ground.
        Book Discussion on Breaking Ground (March 30, 2016) Video via CSPAN Book TV
        The interview makes instructive viewing on the topics of diversity in different professions, and on more productive ways to have difficult conversations across social and political divides.

  • A few individuals may write articles with high intellectual contents,but may not make an impact on the intelligentia. It is the Media & the State that can change the minds of the youth in particular.Media is cynical. They only sensationalise the ‘Follies of the times’One finds that the minds of the youth is filled with what the parents have filled.Only a bold Media and the State can remove the rubbish and fill the vaccum with Sceince and Rationalism.
    For sake of Votes the state ,out of fear,spends a billion Rs. on a myth called “Kumbhamela” Our so called intellectuals should make it a persistant campaign to De-bunk all such myths.

    • Only a bold Media and the State can remove the rubbish and fill the vaccum with Sceince and Rationalism.

      State-sponsored and media-led rationalism have been tried in India and of late seem to have run out of steam. Quoting from this article by Sugata Srinivasaraju,

      As I indicated earlier, the phrase ‘scientific temper’ that represented a Nehruvian dream and an Enlightenment ideal has now been extinguished from public discourse. As young adults in the 80s we were asked to write essays and illustrate ‘scientific temper.’ It was a cherished value of our curricula. As a result, we ended up reading and reproducing well-argued pieces by Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Oppenheimer, Haldane, J W N Sullivan, Homi Bhaba, Richard Feynman and others who were propagating the values of science.

      So what went wrong since then? It turns out it remained as a matter of ‘a few individuals writing articles with high intellectual content’ whose impact was limited to the ‘intelligentsia’. Since the 1980s, both the nature of the media has changed beyond recognition (with a plethora of private TV stations and of course, social networking)and so have the expectations of citizens from the State (from a paternalistic to a facilitatory role). Given this scenario, a more participative conversational approach to freethought seems called for rather than a more passive approach of groups of people crowding around radio-sets to be injected with some scientific temper.

      The point about a ‘persistent campaign to debunk myths’ is well-taken, but imagination regarding how these campaigns must be designed, need not be limited to the state-sponsored television ads of the 1980s and before. We see for ourselves how the bombardment of ads left hardly a dent in conformist orthodox psyches and there seems no harm at all, and in fact very good reason, to complement those ‘clarion call’ approaches with conversations that challenge orthodoxy in the here and now, at the coffee machine, in ticket queues, in drawing rooms, in highfalutin’ clubs and in marriage halls.

    • Thanks Captain. I wouldn’t call it ‘advice’ though, as it was written more as a note-to-self shared as an appeal to readers. Why we need not be daunted by comparisons with daredevil activists and how a start can indeed be made by harnessing our estimable cognitive surplus, is the topic of this thread.

  • //Cette histoire de médecin des stars pourri jusqu’à la moelle à quelque chose de prf©mndÃooent pathétique. //Ou vouliez vous dire pourries? Ma seule question dans tout cela, c’est si l’Etat va récuperer les impôts non perçus, s’il meurt?

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