India's Growing Skeptic Movement
Posted: November 30, 2008
Bangalore Skeptic is a free
e-zine dedicated to skepticism--with particular focus on India. This new
publication is in its first volume year and is produced in English. The
magazine addresses the silly, strange and even dangerous sides of religion.
Only 10 issues have been produced so far since its inception this year.
In the U.S., where skepticism most often only
comes into conflict with Christian ideology, skeptics and freethinkers may be
interested to see a copy of Bangalore
Skeptic to gain an understanding of the sorts of religious ideologies their
counterparts are responding to in other parts of the world.
The publication's editor/publisher, who goes by
"Manoj," contributes to his own e-zine, but includes articles and contributions
from many other sources as well. According to Manoj, the publication only goes
out to "a few dozen rationalists and atheists in Bangalore as well as other
parts of India." Manoj himself is "associated with Bangalore Rationalist
Association which was formed about one and
a half years back. We generally meet twice in a month to discuss various
topics. We have about 60+ members in our association at present."
While skeptics in the West are used to the
question, "Why do you criticize Christians so much more than other religions?,"
the October 2008 issue of Bangalore
Skeptic contains an article by Manoj that explores, "Why I Criticize
Hinduism the Most." His reasons, not surprisingly, mirror those of Western
skeptics who focus on Christianity and include that (1) it is the most common
religion in his area of the world, and (2) it is the religion most familiar to
The publication exposes and criticizes cruel and
brutal acts perpetrated by religious adherents acting on their religious
beliefs. Some stories detail children being killed in religious rituals and
women raped or murdered for violations of religious traditions--such as seeking
legal counsel to obtain a divorce, or being seen in public with unrelated men. Situations
such as these are generally provided as the main reasons for skeptic activism
and the promotion of rationalism in many areas of the world. Even within the
U.S., cases are brought before the courts and the religious rights of parents
are sometimes upheld over the rights of their children to receive immediate,
life-saving medical care. Cases such as those of Kara Neumann of Weston,
Wisconsin, Amy Hermanson of Sarasota, Florida, and Ian Lundman of Independence,
Minnesota, make headlines far too often for, and are not overlooked by skeptics
in the U.S.
The publication also exposes tension and
violence between different religious groups. October's issue included an
article that detailed 28 violent incidents, between August and September,
against Christian churches in Karnataka that included damage to property as
well as injuries to people.
Manoj is one person putting out a publication
that represents a small part of a much larger, and well organized skeptic
movement in India. Manoj points out that how well the rational community is
represented depends on where you
are on the subcontinent. "The rationalists
have a significant presence in
a few states. In the state of Kerala, Kerala
Yukthivadi Sangham (Kerala
Rationalist Association), for instance, has thousands
of members, with units in every village." Kerala
also has a few other rationalist groups such as Indian Rationalist Association
and Bharathiya Yukthivadi Sangham, with active units throughout the state.
Kerala also has an interesting
history with regard to religious skepticism that involves Sanal Edamaruku,
founder-president of Rationalist International, and secretary general of the
Indian Rationalist Association.
The Rationalist International Web site provides
a transcript of a speech Edamaruku delivered at the Centenary Conference of
Rationalist Press Association (London) at the West Hill College, Birmingham, UK
on June 26, 1999. The event celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the
organization, which was a founding member of the International Humanist and
Ethical Union, which bills itself at its Web site as "the sole world umbrella
organisation embracing Humanist, atheist, rationalist, secularist, skeptic,
laique, ethical cultural, freethought and similar organisations world-wide."
Edamaruku's speech detailed the story of an
interfaith marriage with a Christian husband and Hindu wife. The pair were
abandoned and later mistreated by both their families. But their child, born
outside in the rain, became the first "student in the history of Kerala, who joined
school without any religion in his records."
The significance of that event, according to
Sanal, was that "today, nearly 40 years later, the situation in Kerala has
drastically changed. No such thing can happen any more. Kerala's rationalist
movement has grown very strong and influential. One of its major tasks is to
encourage and protect inter-caste and inter-religious marriages. A special wing
was set up--Intermarriage Bureaus--to look after the legal and practical
requirements of couples who decide to marry against the traditional rules. And
today there are thousands of school children who refuse to have any religious
entry in their records. Kerala has become a successful model of a society,
which transformed from its rigid traditions."
The caste system in India is a complex and
multi-tiered social structure that serves to promote endogamy and limit social
advancement. This system has broken down in larger cities in India, but
persists in rural areas.
At the end of his moving speech, Edamaruku
revealed that he was that child born in the rain.
To balance Edamaruku's tale, Manoj points out that "with a significant presence of Christians (and Muslims) in
the state, inter-religious marriages between Hindus and Christians have been
quite common and do not raise any eyebrows, except in fundamentalist
While most Western atheists will recognize names
like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett, India has it's own set of homegrown
movers and shakers in addition to Edamaruku. In a region known as Tamil Nadu,
a coastal region and one of the 28 states
of India, a movement known as "Dravida Kazhagam" has arisen. The ideology is
based on the philosophy of Indian atheist leader, Periyar EV
Ramaswamy. The Dravidian Movement in India began in the early 1920s, and was
also known, not surprisingly, as the "Self-Respect Movement." Its fundamental
aim was to achieve equal human rights for members of all castes. The movement
spread to other countries with significant Tamil populations, and was
influential and, ultimately, successful.
for Inquiry founder, Paul Kurtz, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New
York at Buffalo and a prominent name among Western skeptics, attended this
group's September 2008 Annual Conference, and presented a Periyar Award to Tamil Nadu's
Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi. The Dravida Kazhagam group also
publishes a rationalist monthly in English, The Modern Rationalist.
But Tamil Nadu is just one area where the
skeptic movement is growing. According to Manoj, "In the state of Punjab too,
the rationalists have a well organized unit and have published a number of
books in Punjabi, the local language. They also put out a rationalist monthly in Punjabi."
Manoj goes on to say that "another
state where rationalists have a wide network is Maharashtra, where the
activists of Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (Superstition
Eradication Committee) undertake tours regularly throughout the state exposing
superstition and imparting scientific outlook. They bring out ‘Vartapatra,'
a popular monthly in Marathi, the
local language. They also put out an English e-zine,
Thought & Action."
Rationalists also have been organized since 1985 in West
Bengal, an East Indian state, as the Science and
Rationalists' Association of India. They have no expressed political agenda,
and list their "aim" at their Web site as "to eradicate superstition and blind
faith, which includes religious fanaticism, astrology, [the] caste-system,
spiritualism, and numerous other obscurantist beliefs." They also list their
"view" as being "that rational way of thinking shall be spread among the people
as against spiritual or religious teachings, and that alone can bring about
social change." The group's activities include holding regular classes,
organizing seminars, and publishing literature to promote their cause. They
also send teams to investigate "any so called supernatural phenomena," and
publicly report on their findings.
The West Bengal group also boasts that among
their achievements they have successfully established Humanism as a religion
for the first time in India and stripped astrologers of their status as
Manoj adds that "in the state of Andhra Pradesh, the Atheist
Centre founded by Gora, an atheist and a staunch follower of Mahatma Gandhi,
the father of the nation, has been active for over seven decades. The Centre
regularly hosts World Atheist Conference at Vijayawada, in Andhra Pradesh. The
Seventh World Atheist Conference will be held on January 5th, 2009."
On the national scene, the Federation of Indian
Rationalist Associations (FIRA) has existed since 1997 as a link between more
than 50 other rationalist, atheist, skeptic, secularist, and science
organizations. Manoj adds that "B. Premanand,
the founder-convener of FIRA, has been the most prominent face of rationalist
movement in India for the last three decades. A septuagenarian, Premanand has
been a scourge of Indian godmen such as Puttaparthy Sathya Said Baba. The
current president of FIRA, Narendra Nayak, a Professor of Biochemistry, is the
counterpart of James Randi and he travels extensively throughout India exposing
superstitions and ‘miracle' peddlers."
The Indian Skeptic Web site, the official Web
site of the Indian Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
(Indian CSICOP), lists FIRA's "minimum statement" as follows:
"Humanism is a democratic and ethical life
stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to
give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more
humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the
spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not
theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality."
The Indian skeptic and rationalist movement is
alive, well, and growing. Its members are observing the same problems in India
that skeptics in other parts of the globe are also trying to address and
resolve. The Indian skeptical community is striving to use education and reason
to combat superstitious beliefs and supernatural claims that cause demonstrable
harm to others by promoting violence and prejudice in communities that would be
better served through unity and equity.
Bangalore Skeptic is not
currently available online, but it can be delivered to you free via e-mail by
requesting a subscription from Manoj at <firstname.lastname@example.org>, or
Related Web Sites:
© 2008 by Tracie Harris.
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