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India's Growing Skeptic Movement

Tracie Harris
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 him personally.

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 circles."

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.

Center 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 "legitimate professionals."

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 <tvmanoj@gmail.com>, or <bskeptic@gmail.com>.

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© 2008 by Tracie Harris.

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