Saturday, March 5, 2011

Confusions galore: science and superstition

Modern India presents a paradox to the broader world without. While churning out copious science, technology and engineering graduates from prestigious institutions every year, this country of highly religious and tradition-following people evinces a close juxtaposition of science and religion, and of technology and superstitions. This highly apparent contradiction has always been a topic close to my heart; Angela Saini, a well-known London-based science journalist and author, had bravely taken it up for her project, which culminated in a book entitled "Geek Nation"; in this book, 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 has been already released in the UK, and is scheduled to be published in India later this month; I don't know when it'd be available in the US, but soon, I hope.

While anxiously waiting for the book, I decided to look up Angela's other writings on this topic, both at 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.

Angela strikes an emotional note (more about that later). Me, I am more prosaic. Here are a few of 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.

I should put in a disclaimer here that I am, of course, making broad generalizations in an introspective manner, discounting those gifted individuals that have managed to cultivate the faculties of rational and critical thinking despite the environment, thereby proving themselves exceptions to this rule.

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 studied 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 platitudinous epithets being offered about India becoming a 'scientific superpower', 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.

From the decidedly meager teasers and previews of Angela's forthcoming book that I have seen, I have tried to gather a general outlook of what is to come. In her blog post, titled "The god confusion", she considers the impact that the rise of science and technology is having on superstition and faith in India. But instead of regarding this phenomenon critically, she seems content to offer 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:

  • 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;
  • 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;
  • 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.

Angela's column for the New Humanist, titled the same as her blog post, "The god confusion", is well-written and insightful, in a conversational style that 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; 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.

Trust me, Angela, it may be difficult, but it is not impossible. I have done it and freed myself from the shackles of religion, and I have known plenty others who have done so. 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 in his book 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).

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