Confusions galore: science and superstition? Part 1 of 2

Angela Saini, a well-known London-based science journalist and author, has written a book titled Geek Nation in which she makes a case for the rise of India as a scientific superpower despite the overwhelming influence of religion in the Indian society. I’d love to read the book. It will be published tomorrow, on March 3, 2011 in the UK; I don’t know when it’d be available in the US, but soon, I hope.

The topic of the close juxtaposition of science and religion, and of technology and superstitions, in India – a country of highly religious and tradition-following people – has always been close to my heart. This post is, of course, inspired by Angela’s writing on this topic, both in her blog and in an article in the New Humanist magazine. While plugging her book in her blog post, she indicated that [she was…]

…quite sympathetic to the emotional reasons behind religious belief. The ideas we’re instilled with as kids are far more difficult to abandon when we grow older than some rationalists would like to think they are. And of course I know lots of intelligent, rational people who cling to faith (and many more who read their horoscopes)… for many, it’s comforting and reassuring.

I have dealt with Angela’s article more in detail in the second part of this two-part post. Let me begin by putting down my observations gathered and refined over many, many years.

The reason why science and religion seem to coexist apparently peacefully on India is not that difficult to comprehend. In the Indian education system, critical thinking and rationality are not traits that are emphasized. A questioning attitude, so essential to the study and understanding of science, is largely frowned upon. This is emphasized and reinforced by an environment that, driven by pervasive religious faith, marks everything as ‘sacred’ and, therefore, inviolable by questioning. This deeply entrenched sentiment encompasses a wide arena – drenching everything therein in religious overtones – including education, which is considered a sacred duty and even has an assigned deity; school and classrooms, which are designated as temples of learning; and teachers, who demand unquestioning respect and obedience.

Learning for the sake of learning, for gathering knowledge, and for understanding our surroundings, is not a concept many in India are familiar with. There is no dearth of philosophizing about education though; any school-going child would be able to quote ancient and modern philosophers on this topic: “Education is the manifestation of the perfection already in man” (Swami Vivekananda, 1863-1902, a Hindu monk and philosopher often credited with revival of Hinduism in modern India) is a perennial favorite. But that is as far as it goes. Very few, including the so-called educated, actually understand what those all mean.

Let’s take the example of science education. Scientific facts are presented as mere facts, to be absorbed and regurgitated. The intellectual connexion – that these facts represent important tools in our understanding of Nature and the natural processes – is hardly ever made, if at all. As a consequence, the void that is left in that understanding is oftentimes filled with – what else! – religious belief, myth and superstitions.

Like most everything else, this practice has more than one aspects. This is why evolution is taught as fact in biology classes, even in schools run by Christian missionaries. This is why, for the average Indian student, religion doesn’t impinge on science education. This is also why scientific research and science education progresses in India without clashing with the overwhelming presence of religious belief.

But there is a significant downside to this non-interference; because of this, there is no dialog, or, indeed, a need perceived thereof, towards an honest appraisal of the intersection of science and religion in the society. This makes up for a massive cognitive dissonance, which almost all educated Indians – especially scientists – carry deep in their psyche, so that the disconnect in a situation, where the scientist asks for an astrologer’s advice before submitting a grant, completely escapes them. That is one hell of a run-on sentence, but you get the irony.

And that is also why bogus disciplines such as astrology or homeopathy are given equal importance to the natural sciences, and universities even have courses teaching these pseudoscientific, faith-driven modalities. And that is why, despite platitudes being offered about India becoming a ‘scientific superpower’ (more on this epithet in part 2 of 2), general outlook of Indians towards science, the quality and depth of scientific research in India, and lax societal attitude towards the harm wrought by the over-whelming reliance on myths and superstitions, aren’t going to change anytime soon. The quest for answers, for the true understanding of Nature and our place in it, using the tools of science and applying the scientific method, must be rooted in reason and rationality; there must be questions, critiques, dialogs, frank and open exchanges, testing of boundaries. Unfortunately, this is not a concept easily appreciated in the Indian educational system.


  1. Madhurima

    Just finished reading Geek Nation. Saini’s focus is impressively wide, she covers the Luddites, the rote learners, the true geeks, the mega-geeks, the fakers and everyone else. Her style is pleasant and apparently uncritical but remains expressive. The part about Vandana Shiva was especially entertaining. Thanks for letting everyone know about this. Will follow her blog and watch out for her future books.

    • Kausik Datta

      Thank you for letting me know. Somehow I missed your comment. Sorry about that. I am glad you liked the book. Angela does write clearly and in a flowing manner.

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