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A Report on the 18th Chennai Freethinkers’ Meet

The Chennai Freethinkers’ meets keep morphing over time. What started as a group of mostly lonely atheists who found each other through the world wide web soon moved on to explore areas of common interest. We quickly found  that we shared a passion for Science. The Nirmukta Facebook groups and the Nirmukta blogs gave us a lot of food for thought. We organized seminars on topics relating to Evolution, Alternative Medicine and Humanism. Then we held presentations on Paleontology, Logical Fallacies and a perspective on what freethinkers were leaving behind. Of course, once in a while we dedicated our monthly meets to exclusive interactive sessions. These were important, for it gave us space to open up and vent out in ways we could not do even with family members.

Time and again we realized that we had to educate ourselves on a number of issues like patriarchy, misogyny, casteism, class issues etc.,  We have members like Geeta Charusivam and Udhav Naig who serve as resource persons whenever we need clarifications on discriminations based on caste and on the need for affirmative action. We have quite a few feminists in our group who speak up whenever we come across gender discrimination.  Recognizing that ignorance is not an option, we are open to receiving ideas and willing to introspect. We strive to learn from the experiences of other groups all over the world. Every meet we talked, listened, questioned and came up with a lot of ideas.

‘A journey to the past’

Keen on sharing our love for Science with the general public and more importantly with children, whenever we got a chance, we grabbed it. Dr.Ganesh Veluswami participated in Radio programmes and talked about our rationalistic and humanistic point of view. Venkat Narayana and Soorya Sriram participated in a Television talk show (Neeya Naana) and strived to dispel myths that ‘dreams convey a message about the future.’ It was a brave attempt given the amount of misinformation and pseudoscience that was thrown around by many other participants.

A display of fossils to an eager crowd

Nirmal Rajah made a presentation on 15th August on the topic ‘A journey to the past – a talk on fossils,’ to a group of children at Mythri Art Academy, Chennai. The children were completely bowled over and promptly named him ‘Fossil Anna.’ (Anna – elder brother in Tamil). After the talk some of the children stayed for more than an hour to talk to him and take photographs with him. This was the first attempt by Chennai Freethinkers to talk exclusively on Science topics to children and not mention religion or atheism even once. Dr.Ganesh has offered to make a simple presentation on Evolution. We plan to approach organizations conducting summer/holiday camps and offer to talk to children on scientific topics.

And then there has been a steady trickle of new members to our meets. We were happy that our community is growing – we realize that we have something special and that we should not fritter it away. Recently when a member shared a clip from the documentary ‘Seruppu’ (Footwear) in our Facebook group, we saw an opportunity. The issue of casteism is perceived in varied ways and the topic of affirmative action evokes mixed reactions. Not all of us realize what ‘privilege’ means and what ‘reality’ is for most of our compatriots. So we arranged for the screening of the film and an interaction with the filmmaker Amudhan on 12th August 2012.

A man engaged in making footwear in a dismal environment

The documentary gave us a jolt. It talked about the layers of casteism and the nuances involved; it recorded the lives of a group of people belonging to the Arunthathiyar community who are engaged in making footwear. In a painfully casual manner it showed the sad lives of the children who are denied basic education. It brought the topic of Dalit Christians into our conversation – dalits who had hoped to escape the shackles of caste discrimination found the same sorry state in Christianity too. It shocked us,  angered us and depressed us. Not that we were all in a cocoon and were totally unaware of people struggling with issues of poverty and caste discrimination. But to see it all up close was shocking. Immediately after the screening we were quick to react. Isn’t religion the real culprit we asked. Shouldn’t they be told about rationalism. Has anything been done to these people. Did you go back there after the taking the documentary? The questions flew thick and fast. In our enthusiasm we did not initially realize that the filmmaker had ably recorded the stark lives of a dalit community and it was not his responsibility to reform their lives nor to offer solutions. He had done a wonderful job of documentation and brought to light the plight of people living in unfortunate circumstances. It was to the credit of Director Amudhan that he handled all our questions with grace and composure.

In India everyone is born with a caste and is identified by it whether he or she likes it or not. You can change your religion but you cannot get away from your caste. It is better in urban areas but in rural areas the viciousness is real. He explained in detail how the caste system operates in villages. Geeta Charusivam added to it by sharing her experiences in working with an NGO. Every village has a place called ‘Ooru’ which is the main area of the village and a ‘cheri’ or ‘colony’ where the dalits live. There is an invisible line between these two areas and all the facilities like schools, public health centres and government institutions are located in the ‘Ooru.’ Dalits find it difficult to access these facilities and have to take massive effort to access the basic facilities braving not only the discomfort of distance but the cruel words and looks of those who consider themselves as upper castes.

Not much has changed for those people, Amudhan said. But then he was happy that there is a move to recognize the term Dalit Christians and the recognition that reservation needs to be given to them too is slowly dawning. Discrimination inside churches is also being recognized and some efforts are being taken by a few church personnel to counter them.

Dharmanathapuram in Trichy

Maybe we were too quick to point out that religion was the offender and offered rationalism as a solution. And we were probably naïve to believe that the lives of those documented would be somewhat better now. It took some time for us to realize that dramatic changes do not happen and that there are layers and layers of issues involved. For a woman who complains of discrimination inside a church (such as not being given the opportunity to read the bible during a prayer as one women said in the documentary), atheism might be a liberation. But offering that as a solution might alienate them. We first need to ensure equality for her – or at the very least we should support those who fight to end such discrimination. This is one precompetitive issue we need to address standing shoulder to shoulder with theists.

The interaction with Filmmaker Amudhan continued and the conversation covered a lot of ground. A couple of members said that they avoided speaking in Tamil Brahmin lingo. One member said this was because he feared ridicule and another said it was because he did not want to be identified as a brahmin though people invariably asked him if he was one and he felt violated. Amudhan responded by saying that the Brahmin lingo was associated with power/prestige and ridiculing it was an attempt at subversion by those outside the circle. Later on reflecting, I realized that, even in casual conversations it is effortless for Brahmins or other so called upper caste people to identify the caste label of their parents even if they rejected the caste identity. Even class inequalities are comparatively easily addressed. There have been atleast two instances of members talking about that part of Chennai they hailed from which was not considered ‘so upper class.’ But identifying as from the oppressed caste? Never! I don’t remember a single instance in a meeting when a member identified himself / herself as a dalit and it is definitely not for lack of dalit members in the group, speaking from my knowledge. What is it that makes them demur, we need to introspect. Of course, it is absolutely not necessary that a member needed to reveal if he was a dalit. What got me thinking was that frequently we have had members who confessed that they belonged to the communities that oppressed others and that they felt ashamed of it. They shared experiences about how when they were young they would address the elderly people from the so called ‘low caste’ who worked in their farms/houses by name and without respect. They felt sad about it and said they have changed those habits now. I hope for a day when members from the oppressed communities come out openly and talk about their experiences. For it is these shared experiences and shared learning that would goad us to grow and provide a safe space for all the minorities, be it caste, class or gender.

When the topic turned towards who were the most oppressed of all, Dilip shared his experiences during  a Documentary shoot with Transgendered people and said that they are one of the most oppressed and discriminated lot.  A lot of issues were thrashed in the open that day. Sometimes the arguments looked like it would turn heated. There was a rush of questions and not everyone got the chance to air their views because of lack of time.  We plan to watch the other two documentaries Shit and Notes from the Crematorium by Amudhan and he has promised to attend our future meets and interact with us after screening his films. He said that he enjoyed the open minded interaction with our group and was happy to consider himself a part of our group.

The film, the interaction and the conversation that followed left us cold. There was no sense of completion that day. In a way we had challenged ourselves to question our privileges, explore reality and inform ourselves about the sad state of affairs all around us which we had learnt to ignore for the sake of our convenience. And we emerged a little more informed and empathetic about the lives of people who are no different from us and deserved our consideration. Each one of us carried home a message that day: equality and opportunity should never be denied to any human being and that it is criminal to be selfish and oblivious to the privileges enjoyed by each one of us. We hope that this message would manifest in our thoughts and actions and we would have the courage to speak up when a friend or colleague or family member makes ill-informed comments about the oppression and discrimination in society. It is hopes and experiences such as these that make us cherish our community and bring us back to the CFT meets month after month.

(The interaction with Filmmaker Amudhan is available with English subtitles here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_omPflw2BI )

About the author

Geetha T.G.

10 Comments

  • Fantastic work CFT. One thing you could look into for future meets is introducing the children to “values” stuff (like caste and gender), in additions to the “facts” stuff. I think it’s important to teach this early.

    “In India everyone is born with a caste” – reminded me that the diversity wheels that one sees in first world discussions around social oppression need one more element called “Caste” in the inner circle.

  • i think Amudhan’s commentary that to reach a level where one takes a rational approach itself is some kinda privilege considering that many oppressed people are denied basic rights to the extent they do not realize the oppression they face and to take actions against it was something that made me think…a glaring example to support this would be that patriarchy is gender neutral…also “caste is the most sophisticated oppressive system in the whole world” was the quote of the interaction

  • You say

    “For a woman who complains of discrimination inside a church (such as not being given the opportunity to read the bible during a prayer as one women said in the documentary), atheism might be a liberation.” – Author

    WHY IS THIS SO???? I guess the most rational solution for the problem of discrimination (be it class/ gender/ race/ caste)should be to reform religion to engineer a change from inside. How can a philosophical position of Atheism be the one stop all solution for the problems of Humanity.

    Specifically the issue of caste based discrimination is a social problem, Your article by itself highlights casteism in christianity, so it obviously cuts across religion and engrained in the minds of indians. How can a philosophical position of Atheism be a “liberation” for the oppressed. I guess the right approach is to promote rationalism and Education on one hand and at the same time take efforts to reform religion.

    Could you plz provide reasons for your fundamentalist beliefs that Atheism being the saviour, that can liberate the world from social evils.

    • There is a great deal of evidence that religion is an abysmal failure when it comes to social reform. In fact, it actively opposes reform. On the other hand, humanistic values, which are non-religious in nature, have proven to bring about reform. It is this evidence based stance that gives atheism a liberating capability.

      Note that it is possible to be atheistic without subscribing to humanism, but it should be quite obvious that atheism as used in the article includes humanistic values in it.

      And saying “Atheism be the one stop all solution for the problems of Humanity.” is a strawman argument. The article doesn’t say it. You just jumped to that conclusion on your own.

    • *Specifically the issue of caste based discrimination is a social problem, Your article by itself highlights casteism in christianity*

      Though you may not be attempting to do it, it sounds like you are trying to pawn off casteism as a non-Hindu problem. Just to clarify, if not for its codification in Hinduism it would not exist in the Indian Christian society.

  • @Satish chandra

    Of course the article doesn’t overtly present solution to all human problems, but implies Atheism to be a liberation for women discriminated in churches on grounds of caste and gender, which I find to be a far fetched conclusion. There are other intermediate options such as reformed religion,Theism,deism, Agnosticism.

    “There is a great deal of evidence that religion is an abysmal failure when it comes to social reform.

    It is this evidence based stance that gives atheism a liberating capability.” – satish chandra

    I think you are confusing between religion and Theism.Theism is a belief in God and of course religion includes theism but in addition also proposes a set of rules and dogmas specific to the sect. Theism differentiates itself from deism in its belief in a God that intervenes in the universe and can listen to one’s prayers and answer them.

    I don’t agree that religion cannot be reformed, The last century has witnessed a whole lot of reforms in organised religion. As long as there is a clear cut separation between church and the state, democracy, individual rights and liberties and an informed and educated citizenry any religious fanaticism will have to buckle down.

    But even if I can concede religion is beyond reform, What about Theism?? Why is it wrong for an individual to believe in loving God who keenly listens to his prayers and communicates and guides him in a moral path through inner voice of conscience.

    Why not deism?? A God who designed this vast universe and set the laws of physics in Motion, yet wouldn’t directly intervene in its proceedings. I don’t see any “social evil” creeping into such a belief!!.. If everything is “bad” for the society why not simply be an Agnostic. What’s so special about Atheism??

    Now if you believe Atheism is more logically sound than any of these other positions..Agreed, I’m perfectly fine with that. You are free to have that belief which can be sorted out in a philosophical debate. Let the side which has better arguments win. But that’s not the issue here. You people are proposing Atheism as an alternative to escape social evils, comfortably bypassing other more rational options.

    So now the ball is on your court to prove us why (given religion is beyond reform)

    1) Theism sans religion
    2) Deism
    3) Agnosticism

    are not good options for these oppressed “dalit” women in Chennai to resort to, even before considering Atheism in the picture. Otherwise you can be honest and admit that you are one among those Atheist missionaries who is more interested in recruiting members to another faith based belief system called Atheism.

    Then you say

    “Note that it is possible to be atheistic without subscribing to humanism, but it should be quite obvious that atheism as used in the article includes humanistic values in it.” – Satish chandra

    Of course agreed, who is arguing that Atheism cannot harbour humanistic values. The point here is such humanistic values are not a monopoly of Atheism. Obviously the above three options I gave are perfectly compatible with humanism. Even the mainstream religions that you claim to be beyond reform have such humanistic values.

    Ever read the “sermon on the mount” of Jesus Christ?? Many christian missionaries in the past have left their comfortable homes in the west and served the sick and down trodden in Africa and Asia spending the prime of their lives in tents and make shift housings. of course they shared gospel and Jesus along with health, education and clothes but that’s no way different from your “liberation through Atheism” agenda where you care for the socially discriminated and “sincerely” believe they will do much better in Atheism. So neither can the Christian missionaries be blamed for their agenda to share Christ to the world.

    How about Dharmic teachings in Hindu scriptures and the ISKCON group that run multiple orphanages and old age homes. And why not consider the moral commandments of Quran, that urges its followers to follow the five pillars which includes giving alms and supporting the orphans, widows and needy. Obviously there are some uncomfortable passages in their scriptures, but the religious clergy have themselves come against violence or discrimination in the name of religion.

    The Churches in the Christian west have taken a firm stand against Homophobia. Though most of them still emphasize Bible based morality and are against Premarital or extramarital sexual relationships, they are following an open door policy for Homosexuals and now believe change cannot be enforced but need to be internal and voluntary,which can be gradually achieved with the power of God.

    Many Hindu groups are waging war against caste and gender based discrimination. For eg Agniveer and few other Arya samajis have rejected caste system as later day addition to Hindu scriptures and have instead presented Vedas as rational alternative to anyone who is willing to worship a God (not necessarily in Idols) and follow the path of self betterment through good deeds and gain knowledge from Vedic samhitas.

    Islamic moderates have strongly come against any form of radicalism and have disowned the terrorist outfits. They have reinterpreted their texts. Some of them have even rejected hadiths and become Quran only muslims. They interpret “Jihad” to mean not as a holy war against unbelievers, but as a method to purify oneself by fighting against bad thoughts and deeds.

    If you would still argue that religion cannot be reformed and hence be rejected in totality, then there is another side of Atheism that you should be familiar with. Some of the ardent proponents of atheism are Nihilists. These gentlemen believe that morality and ethics are subjective and matters of preference like how we choose between flavours of Icecream.

    One individual said that there is nothing objective wrong in raping and mutilating an 18 month old infant. He felt no remorse in such a statement and felt it’s the society that’s making a big deal about ethics and morals. He also had multiple arguments to support his view. Even Quoted Darwin about how humans if reared in the same socio-cultural context as honey bees, then the human females will consider it their moral duty to murder their brothers and mothers will avenge their fertile daughters.

    All this to emphasize that we believe that raping/murdering infants is wrong only because we are culturally conditioned to believe so !!.So I think this Atheism that shows disregard to objective moral values is a greater danger to society than any other organised religions can be.

    So to conclude,by claiming Atheism to be the alternative for social evils you are simply over looking the other possible intermediate alternatives. Moreover even organised religion has many positives to its side and is fast shedding its medieval dogmas and superstitions and
    finally all is not well with Atheism either, and if applied the same criteria both Atheism and religion should be rejected.

    • I haven’t seen that many densely packed strawman arguments in a while. This article was not written so that you can dump a wall of text. Have the intellectual decency to look at the about section of this site before you write irrelevant stuff. Rhetoric of your kind depends on harping on semantics. We’ve got better stuff to do than that. Please bait elsewhere.

    • Check out the About section of Nirmukta to know about our Objectives that includes advocating Naturalism as our philosophy.
      You said:If you would still argue that religion cannot be reformed and hence be rejected in totality, then there is another side of Atheism that you should be familiar with.
      Well, we would be happy to do away with religion as reforming it would be nothing but cosmetic change. We don’t believe in the existence of a supernatural being called god and so we are basically atheists. But that is just the beginning, as we are a lot more.
      Agniveer rejecting caste system and presenting vedas as rational alternative means nothing.Reinterpreting the texts is not reformation.
      As for that anecdote about one individual’s views on rape, how is it relevant here? We are Humanists and we are good without fear of god. Educate yourself on the philosophy of naturalism and ethics before making baseless allegations.
      Your comment is riddled with logical fallacies. Stop posting irrelevant comments on random articles.

  • Vicjags,

    Theism is a belief in God and of course religion includes theism but in addition also proposes a set of rules and dogmas specific to the sect.

    Theism is a lie and that is reason enough to dump it. Since religion includes theism dump religion as well.

    I don’t agree that religion cannot be reformed, The last century has witnessed a whole lot of reforms in organised religion.*

    Sure religion can be reformed. But who gives a damn?

    As to the supposed benefits of reformed religion, all those benefits and more can be achieved a lot faster in a society free of religion.

    IMO, strike religion down, misogyny, homophobia, and a bunch of social problems dies with it. The whole point of reforming religion to achieve these goals seems a round about and time consuming way of doing things.

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