We Chennai Freethinkers, a Regional group of Nirmukta, are a restless lot. Once a month, a few of us get together to discuss topics related to atheism, skepticism and humanism. But then soon we get discontented and plan for something bigger. We organized a meeting last July when a few of us spoke on some topics. Then we organized a 2-day event Thinkfest wherein we brought professors like Dayanandan, Narendra Nayak and the IHEU Director Babu Gogineni to speak on various topics. The meet on 20th May 2012 was the result of a similar urge to do something bigger. We planned a presentation and a short talk followed by a discussion.
The meeting started with a short introduction. Barathi shared her concern about some of her family members being enamored by the latest Touch therapy. This was akin to Reiki, a member said. Arvind demonstrated this therapy on Bala S and caused much laughter by explaining that the key feature of the ‘touch’ therapy is that the patient is not touched. This was followed by the ice-breaking session (also called the ragging session!) when the new comers are asked to introduce themselves and share what made them atheists. This is usually a fun time when new comers open up. One de-conversion story which has been consistently heard and which is cause for much mirth is “I read the Bible/Quran/Gita/whatever. I became an atheist.” Simple. What can beat this! Once a member, SS, had an even more special story – he was sent for a veda training in the kanchi mutt and he came back an atheist!
This time too we had people sharing their stories. Keen observation, Skepticism and an utter sense of fairness seemed to have contributed in arriving at their conclusions for most of the members. Twenty nine people attended the meet. JV from the Bangalore Freethinkers group had joined us. The stars of the evening were the trio from Tirunelveli, now settled in Chennai. They rendered an admirable freshness and their genuine outpourings straight from the heart captivated the audience. It was a sheer delight to hear them talk. It appeared that one of them RS was conducting a mini CF meet in his room every night!
Bala Bhaskar made a neat presentation on the topic of Logical Fallacies. His presentation was interspersed with quotes and videos and the exercise was to identify the fallacies committed by the speakers. Hasty generalization, Slippery Slope, False Dichotomy, Argument from ignorance, Argument form irrelevant authority are all now part of our vocabulary! The video clippings were a hit and evoked much laughter. A sample of the video clips shown were 1) Cho Ramaswamy’s talks in Engey brahmanan 2) Mamata B’s walking during an interview on the CNN-IBN 3) Richard Dawkins’ (oh,yeah!) ‘what if you are wrong’ video clip and so on. All of us were engrossed in the presentation before we realized more than an hour had passed and it was time to move to the next point in the Agenda. Fortunately Bala S suggested that Bala B need not rush to complete the presentation but instead continue in the next month’s meet as the topic was a very important one and none of us wanted to miss the video clips.
The tea break gave an opportunity for some light-hearted conversation and ragging of the late-comers (no one is spared – Equality, you see!) To the question, why at all should we learn the concepts of logic and why should we be familiar with the logical fallacies, it was explained that it would come in handy when debating or discussing with theists. Bala S added the important point that it would ensure that we remain aware ourselves and not commit the logical fallacies while talking.
The next programme was a short talk by Arvind Iyer. The topic was ‘Adjusting the rear view mirror – What freethinkers are leaving behind.’ Arvind a doctoral student who is on a visit to India is known to many of us as the meticulous commenter (complete with footnotes!) in the Nirmukta groups and an author of several interesting articles in Nirmukta and Indian Atheists. He addressed the following points:
– How coming out as an atheist is never complete and there is always a “blur”
– Confronting superstitions from non-religious sources in order to establish ourselves.
– How we need to excel in our respective fields and merely having a title as “atheist” is never enough.
– Reason based alternatives to religious celebrations, by not necessarily discarding religious festivals, but eliminating superstitious aspects from them.
Arvind’s talk was followed by a wide ranging discussion on all sorts of topics. Bala S took the role of co-ordinator of this discussion (and was promptly given the title ‘Arattai Arangam Visu’ by Vaishnavi). An elaborate discussion on prejudices based on complexion, caste, knowledge of English language followed. JV explained in detail how the Brahmins enjoyed a lot of unseen privileges and support from the society. When a couple of members shared that they too faced a lot of unfair expectations because they were ‘considered’ by others as Brahmins, they were told that it was not the same and not as bad as real prejudice.
RS explained how he overcame his complex and developed self confidence. His spontaneous delivery endeared him to all and particularly his youthful lingo ‘Gethu’ and ‘Gandu’ were much appreciated by the youth in the group. He also told how he talks about the universe, big bang and evolution to the youngsters in his village and how they seem to ‘get it’ immediately. He shared about how he became gender sensitized and how the discussions in the CF group helped him to realize the importance of reservations and a lot more. He talked about the importance of having the posters and videos in Tamil to reach to a wider audience. Bala B explained his attempts at translating the Khan videos and Arvind talked about how the TED videos are available for translation and that it does not require much effort. R’s story was touching. He explained how he realized the importance of studies and how his father’s simple question ‘Have you tried it? Why don’t you give it a sincere try?’ motivated him to study hard. A reminder to all of us as to how words can impact a life. Ganesh and Manikandan, the doctor brothers shared their stories about how they dealt with the superstitions of their patients.
It was 7.30 by the time we reluctantly wound up the meeting – a good four and a half hours had already passed. What struck me was that the CF meets are not just about atheism – it was a shared love for science; a feeling of empathy for the less fortunate; a stark awareness about privileges; an honest recognition of the prejudices and finally an over riding feeling of humanism informed by gender sensitivity and a quiet shunning of class / caste inequalities.
We propose to follow this meet’s format in our future meets too. Intro/Presentation/Short talk/Discussion. Members are requested to come forward to make presentations and give talks. None of us are experts and we need not be the best of speakers. We particularly look forward to talks and presentations in Tamil. We realize that we can treat our monthly meets as a platform to hone our skills and as a sounding board for our ideas. Suggestions for topics for presentations /talks / discussions are most welcome.
One can’t help but feel hopeful about the future, seeing such a group of people – all strangers, yet connected by a bond of secular humanism. People who felt comfortable enough to share what they felt when they were discriminated and who were confident that their thoughts and feelings would be understood without them having to justify it or explain it. Isn’t this what community building is all about. To think that all this was made possible because one person dreamt of building such a community of Freethinkers! Thank you Ajita Kamal – we strive to carry it forward.