Thursday, November 24, 2005

Politically rationalist

/ enlightened / ideals /
India's rationalists are very active among people of all classes and castes, busy in their efforts to stamp out superstition. While the effort might seem quixotic there is a lot to be learned, I suggest, from the political and social aspects of defending rationality, in a country that is plagued by all sorts of mythical nationalist, religious and sectarian nonsense. This is especially interesting over here in the West, where mythologized Indian esotericism is one of the defining components of new-age and post-new age quackery. It is illuminating indeed to discover the original ideological uses of crass superstition, wherever it might originate from.

"Despite a tenacious western orientalism which overemphasises and overvalues Indian religiosity, reinforced by the homegrown ‘Hindutva’ movement propagated by the BJP (anatomised by Meera Nanda in New Humanist Jan/Feb 2005), India has a long and distinguished rationalist tradition which is considerably older than that of the west. According to Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, the seeds of rationalism were planted many thousands of years before the Enlightenment, and centuries before Jesus Christ. Buddha himself, or at least Siddharta (who may or may not have been the first Buddha), could lay claim to being the first rationalist, and even the Hindu sacred text the Ramayana contains the character of Javali who advises the god-king Ram that “there is no after-world, nor any religious practice for attaining that…[religious] injunction have been laid down in the [scriptures] by clever people just to rule over [other] people.” This tradition also includes practical political rationalism such as that of Buddhist Emporer Ashoka (273 – 232 BC) who declared religious tolerance and equal human rights with the aim of unifying all India..."

[But see here for a critical appraisal of Sen's views]

... While the political aspects of the rationalists' campaigns are obvious:

Each case [of debunking miracles] reveals the deep connection between India’s structural inequality – the caste system, gender subordination – and the lure of supernaturalism, the desire to be heard, to escape or to grasp some approximation of meaning apparently offered by the holy-rollers. The crucial skill of the Indian rationalist tacticians is to be able to combine a sense of theatre comparable to that of the most extravagant sadhu, with a recognition of the link between India’s social inequalities and superstition. Desire for social transformation, in the west more associated with radical progressive politics, goes hand in hand with the desire to expose fraud. Tactically astute, organisations like the SSS know that miracle exposures, successful as they are, will not of themselves transform Indian social inequality, but they form the conspicuous surface of an underlying strategy: “We are wedded to social change, but to create acceptability we need to make inroads in the thinking of the people. Exposures achieve this, as does our voluntary work of all kinds. We have exposed over 50 frauds, and many mid-level gurus have left the state, but our focus is on the people. First and last we want people to think rationally. Once that happens the gurus will not remain anywhere."

Living in a country where nationalism, mystical or not, a return to a most benighted version of Greek Orthodoxy, "traditional values" (of the reactionary variety) and racism - along with metaphysical mumbo-jumbo and other manifestations of the "sleep of reason" - enjoy a poisonous upsurge in popularity, I only wish we had a group as well organized, popular and effective as the Indian Rationalists.


Renegade Eye said...

In the USA we have people on television who claim to speak to the dead, and every other nonsense. Fighting this here are the skeptics, led by James Randi. See:

I have a link to your site at my blog at:

My blog is a socialist, secular blog influenced by Trotsky and Hitchens.

I enjoy your writing. I learn about your part of the world. I was involved in the movement against the junta in your country. I worked with Greek exiles.


Anonymous said...

No kidding.

There are such groups in the US, but they're mostly pretty feeble. There is a strong rationalist thread in US society and politics, but it's rarely organized beyond informal groups of like-minded individuals.

European observers often miss this, because (1) it doesn't fit the paradigm of the US as a sort of Europe,but stupid, violent,and afflicted by religious mania; (2) the religious and irrationalist folks tend to be louder and easier to see; and (3) American rationalists often use theist or deist language as a smokescreen... a trick going back to Franklin and Jefferson, but alive and well today.

BTW, the Indian rationalists appear in the novels of SF writer Greg Egan -- who is himself an atheist rationalist of a fairly aggressive sort.

Doug M.