It all started with a silly article that had landed in my inbox on Friday morning via the platform called ‘Medium’. The lede of the article in the Pacific Standard magazine by Elena Gooray asked: How do you beat a curse? It caught my eye even in the middle of an eye-roll. I wish it hadn’t. Because inevitably I caught the sub-lede: A practiced Santa Barbara psychic weighs in on Lil B’s so far effective curse against basketball superstar Kevin Durant. And my hackles were raised.
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.
In the first part of this two part post inspired by science-journalist and author Angela Saini’s write-ups on the topic of science and superstition in India, I explained my views on the real problem plaguing science education in India. In this second part, I look more closely at Angela’s writings.
One of the more controversial themes in Geek Nation is the impact that the rise of science and technology is having on superstition and faith in India (which is, after all, said to be the most religious place in the world).
This happens to be an issue that has, frankly, troubled me for a long time. Angela offered a sorta-kinda justification in her post:
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.
This immediately dredged up memories of my having grown up in India, images of people I have been around and situations I have been in: (a) the frequent practice of choosing an ‘auspicious’ time and place of a scientific convention (meeting, congress, conference) based on astrology or some other personally favorite superstition; (b) the invoking of gods and goddesses for blessings prior to the commencement of scientific symposia; © working scientists, biologists, chemists, physicists, sporting on ten fingers ten rings set with precious or semi-precious stones, all designed either to curry favor with some astrological planet or star, or to ward off the evil influences thereof; (d) biochemists and molecular biologists devoutly praying for a favorable outcome of their PCR runs; … the list can go on and on. This regrettable behavior on part of scientists is the sign of a greater malaise: Irrationality of any kind leaves our minds open for further irrationality. For that very reason, merely because a superstition appears ‘comforting and reassuring’, that cannot/shouldn’t be reason enough for embracing it wholeheartedly.
I have listed my views on the topic. I am, unfortunately, not aware if Angela is a scientist by training or not (Her Blogger profile mentions her industry as ‘Communications or Media’). If she is not, it’d certainly be refreshing to get a perspective from a non-scientist on the strange, and strangely easy, coexistence of science and superstitions in India – all the more reason to wait eagerly for the book.
Pending the arrival of the book, I turned to the column that Angela has written for the New Humanist, titled the same as her blog post, “The god confusion”, in order to get a feel of what was to come in the book. It is well-written and insightful. Angela’s conversational style is a pleasure to read. She has explored the situation from a personal as well as historical perspective, noting past efforts at injecting rationality into the Indian societal mores. She has examined a couple of the reasons why the juxtaposition of science and superstition seems to have endured in the Indian psyche, such as high levels of adult illiteracy and the apparent fluidity of Hinduism (which is the predominant religion in India). She has questioned the foundations of a so-called spiritual resurgence among India’s urban or semi-urban, educated youth.
But there is also something oddly wrong and out of sync in her piece. It is almost as if the confusion she underscores in her article is not the confusion that the Indian people appear to face in having to choose between science and irrationality; it is rather a confusion that is her own, as if reflecting her own ambivalence about the relative place of science and religion in her life – perhaps borne out of the confusion of ideas from her childhood, the invisible-yet-present struggle between her unashamedly geeky, rational and skeptical father and horoscope-wielding mother (judging from her own words).
In odd places in Angela’s otherwise interesting account, a strange credulity, a desire to look at the Indian science situation through rose-tinted glasses, has shone through – evident in the facile ease with which she refuses to acknowledge what her inner rationalist says. When she passed by the Swaminarayan Akshardham temple in New Delhi, a sprawling religious edifice purportedly for showcasing “the essence of India’s ancient architecture, traditions and timeless spiritual messages”, the rationalist in Angela did note that “In a poor country, it’s a sumptuous and expensive testament to faith”, and yet she is “impressed” by the motivations of the people who built the place. Is it really that hard to imagine how many poor, hungry people could have been fed and clothed, how many little girls given the light of education, how many endeavors – towards empowerment of women, the disadvantaged, and the marginalized – financed through the amount of money and/or effort spent on building an edifice that does nothing but look pretty and rehash some perennially ineffectual words?
Towards the end of the article, Angela also whimpers about how difficult it is to let go of religion in India. Don’t get me wrong. Her observation is astute when she notes:
In India that struggle is multiplied because the culture is so dominated by it. Beliefs are burned into the minds of children – Hindus often keep shrines at home, pray daily and have their fates decided by their horoscopes at birth. It’s common to appeal to the gods to guide you in your choices and to give you luck. Not only this, superstition and religion are big business: astrologers have their own television programmes (sic); homeopathic drugs and traditional medicines are sold in the millions; and fashionable gurus attract stadia full of fat-walleted worshippers. Ditching god isn’t easy when you’re surrounded by an infrastructure built on belief.
(It may be difficult, Angela, but it is not impossible. I have done it and freed myself from the shackles of religion. It is an unbelievably liberating feeling.)
However, it is important to understand that unless Indians grow up as a nation, unless the unholy reliance on faith and superstitions is burnt at the altar of reason and sanity (the religious imagery of this allegory seems oddly appropriate here!!), unless rationality and skepticism is made the mainstay of the basic education, including science education, the nation can never grow, prosper and thrive intellectually – no matter how ‘desperately religious’ modern, so-called educated Indians try to rationalize their transcendental bond with faith and superstitions, no matter how much they attempt to reconcile scientific facts with fundamentally incompatible religious stories.
But perhaps Angela’s problem – despite her obvious understanding of the crux of the situation – has a different root. She epitomizes it when she engages in a rather disappointing, spacious, strawman-beating statement in her blog post, where she says:
“Unlike some scientists and radical atheists like Richard Dawkins, I’m actually quite sympathetic to the emotional reasons behind religious belief.”
Yes, the sympathy. Angela’s article’s title The god confusion may possibly be a play on Dawkins’ The god delusion, but the former ain’t nothing like the latter. Nowhere has Richard indicated that he is not sympathetic to the emotions associated with religious belief in people; in fact, in The God Delusion, he has dedicated chapter after chapter towards understanding the basis of religious belief, of faith.
But Angela’s ‘sympathy’ towards the faithful – likely stemming from her own internal confusion – seems to have effectively blinded her towards the fact that rational atheists object to the religious beliefs, myths and superstitions per se, and not to the individuals holding those beliefs – until and unless those beliefs lead to harm and injury to others (and they do; there is enough evidence of that in the real world – but that’s a topic for another day).