Indian Rationalist Association - Golden Jubilee - A report by Dr. Bill Cooke
Rationalism in the Third Millennium
India Leads the Way
What a way to start the millennium! Attending the conference to mark the golden jubilee of the Indian Rationalist Association, held in Trivandrum, Kerala, between the 17th and 21st of January 2000. The Indian Rationalist Association was founded in December 1949 and has members across the country. Two of its past presidents, Sir Raghunath Paranjpye and Gora visited New Zealand (in 1946 and 1970 respectively) and were guests of the NZARH. The current president is Joseph Edamaruku, and his son, Sanal, is the Secretary General.
More than anything, this conference was a personal triumph for Sanal Edamaruku. It was due to his extraordinary energy that such a distinguished group of Rationalists and Humanists from around the world made the trip to Trivandrum. As well as being Secretary General of the Indian Rationalist Association, Sanal is a journalist, based in New Delhi, and author of several Rationalist works and the excellent web-based magazine, the Rationalist International. He has also, I was delighted to find out, translated several works of Joseph McCabe into Malayalam, the language the people of Kerala speak. McCabe has also been translated into Hindi and Tamil.
The conference programme was so full that it took five days to hear all the addresses. There was also a breathtaking evening of miracle-exposure. The Indian Rationalist Association (IRA) has made its name principally for its programme of exposing miracles, including those claimed by Sai Baba. The IRA trains volunteers to perform these ‘miracles’ around the villages of India in the hope of dissuading people from giving hard-earned money and gifts to fraudulent god-men. This didn’t simply involve harmless tricks. One of these volunteers stuck a silver spike through his tongue and then through both cheeks before our eyes. Godmen do this in temples and ‘prove’ their godly status because no blood comes from the wounds. But it is a simple fact of anatomy that there is very little blood in these parts of the body. The absence of blood has nothing to do with being intimate with the gods. The hall was packed, with standing-room only for this miracle-exposure. There were around 350 to 400 people in the hall to watch.
Not all the tricks were as painful as these. Most involved simple tricks from any school chemistry set: turning wine into water, blood oozing from coconuts, and so on. But it is on the strength of these simple tricks that the claims to divinity from people like Sai Baba to the most modest village god-man rest. They are charlatans and criminals, and the Indian Rationalist Association is doing magnificent work in combating this cynical abuse of people’s credulity.
This is why Rationalism and Humanism in India has so much to teach the west. In India, Rationalists and Humanists actually go out and undertake real tasks of eradicating superstition and ignorance. When they are not doing that, they are directly involved in helping the downtrodden and dispossessed, as the Atheist Centre does in Vijayawada, or as Dr Parikh does with women in Mumbai. In the west, we have become careless of our standards of education, and sit back while postmodernists and others speak up on behalf of superstition and magic, trying to sound profound and modern by saying that these are just as meaningful as way of thinking as those of science and reason. This is nonsense, and dangerous nonsense. The paper I gave to the conference was called ‘What Indian Rationalism Can Teach the West’ and was on this theme. It will appear in a later issue of the NZ Rationalist & Humanist.
Paul Kurtz, the most important individual on the world Humanist scene at present, was clearly the star billing of the conference. In his Inaugural Address to the conference, Kurtz described Rationalism as ‘the single most important contribution to human civilisation’. Without the ability to reason one’s way through a problem to a solution, homo sapiens would never have got to the stage of development they have reached. Kurtz took the basic rationalist principle to be that given by William Kingdon Clifford (1845-79) as ‘It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.’ By exercising this principle as consistently as we can, we have forsaken blind faith and superstition in favour of an informed scepticism and preference for reason.
In alliance with Rationalism is Humanism, which Kurtz saw not as an attack on religion so much as an affirmation of life. Together, Rationalism and Humanism stand for the following things. They stand for planetary humanism. This is outlined well in the Humanist Manifesto 2000. They stand for a commitment of rational thinking to the solution of social problems. Rationalism and Humanism also require a genuine free market of ideas and secular societies in which to provide the maximum number of people equality of opportunity.
Not surprisingly, Paul Kurtz was awarded the International Rationalist Award. The award is a beautiful wheel made of bronze. The wheel symbolises the constant cycle of change and progress. Truly, he does deserve it. Paul Kurtz has travelled more than anyone else to give support to humanist organisations around the world. He is genuinely committed to building a world-wide humanist movement that can, one day, take the churches on. He has written some of the best books in print on all aspects of Humanism, and has sponsored organisations of academics and sceptics to provide some balance to the torrent of religious propaganda that floods the world.
The Kerala model
Among the many Indian speakers, one of the most interesting was Professor M A Ooman, an economist from the Centre for Social Studies. Professor Ooman outlined the salient features of what is known as the ‘Kerala model’ for development. Kerala is the stand-out state of India. Its male literacy rate is near-universal and its female literacy rate is 87%, as compared with 68% in China. The leaders of Kerala have appreciated, in a way rare in Asia, the importance of educating women to any sustainable model of development. The single most important statistic about Kerala is its fertility rate. At 1.6%, Kerala’s rate of population growth is less that the United Kingdom or France (at 1.7%) and China (with its one-child policy, still at 1.9%). This low rate of growth gives hope to Kerala’s future. Furthermore, it has been achieved without the drastic and punitive measures China has had to undertake simply because Kerala has taken care to ensuring women have the intellectual ability and social scope to make important decisions about the number of children they are going to have. If that is not Humanism in action, I don’t know what is.
From this foundational fact, other features of Kerala’s development follow. Infant mortality in Kerala is comparable to western nations. Life expectancy is 76, also comparable to western nations, and significantly higher than countries like Russia, where the life expectancy of men has dropped from an average of 64 to 57. The key features of Kerala’s model of development, Professor Ooman said, have been based on solidly Humanist principles of education, public co-operation with responsible non-government organisations (NGOs) and the empowerment of women. Another speaker, Dr K N Raj, former Professor at the Delhi School of Economics and Vice Chancellor of Delhi University, gave a similar analysis. He ascribed Kerala’s development to universal primary education and especially the education of women. He also emphasised the importance of rural health centres. It will surprise few people that Kerala has had a succession of left-wing governments since the state was created in 1957.
Another interesting feature of Kerala is the religious harmony the region enjoys. As well as its Hindu majority, Kerala has significant Christian and Muslim minorities. There is even a tiny but ancient Jewish community in Kerala. And, let us not forget, there is also a significant number of non-believers. The Indian Rationalist Association is well represented in Kerala. Most of the Indians attending the conference were highly trained people, lawyers, teachers, child psychologists, journalists and students. The reason behind the communal harmony in Kerala is the overtly secularist nature of the state government. It has become fashionable in the west to bemoan secularism as a dominant ideology and a deadening influence. But if such doomsayers chose to look further afield, they would see that secularism is at the core of the Indian constitution, and can take the credit for the communal peace that exists there. When religious riots and deaths occur in India, it is usually at the hands of extremists who have specifically repudiated secularism.
The conference was addressed by Mr Neelalohithadasan Nadar, the Minister of Transport in the Kerala state government. Mr Neelalohithadasan’s support for secularism was unequivocal. Secularism does not mean denigrating religion, he said, but it does mean that the state should actively discourage religion. This received respectful attention in the New Indian Express the following day. Press coverage of the conference was very good – far better than such a conference would get in most western countries. It was gratifying to see that secularism was still valued by the younger generation of Indians. The Times of India conducted a poll of students from eight large cities and found overwhelming support for the secular clauses in the Indian constitution. Secularism was held, correctly, to be the basis of social harmony in India, and an antidote to ‘majority communalism and thoughtless minorityism’. (Times of India, 26.1.2000, special report, p 1) A popular response was that, without secularism, Indian society would crumble. Would that westerners be so far-sighted.
Secularism remains in danger in India, as the BJP government, which has core values of Hindu nationalism (known as Hindutva), is seeking to reshape the constitution. So far it is saying that the basic character of the constitution will be untouched. But they have been coy as to what parts are up for change. The secular clause could well be in their sights. The BJP government is under pressure from its own militants to return to the stronger, more bigoted Hindutva nationalism it originally made its name for. This pressure has risen in the wake of the hijacking of an Indian Airline plane by Muslim militants recently. The hijacking was widely seen as an embarrassment for India at the hands of an old foe – Pakistan.
Irrationalisms: theirs and ours
The range of speakers at the conference was remarkable – too remarkable to report fully in one article. Sanal Edamaruku is going to put together a publication arising from the conference, which hopefully will be available in a few months. But a few deserve mention here. Levi Fragell, the President of the IHEU, gave a powerful speech outlining the Humanist position. We are not against fables and tales, he said. There are good stories and some wisdom in the Mahabharata and the Bible. We are not against religious art, nor do we necessarily oppose church charities, or even people coming together in temples and churches to worship.
What Humanists are opposed to is the irrationality in religions. We are opposed to irrationalism for four reasons:
irrationalism is dysfunctional. It hinders personal and worldwide development and perpetuates ignorance and superstition.
irrationalism is harmful. Chanting over impure water or opposition to blood transfusions causes more harm than good.
irrationalism is evil. Where harmful irrationalism is unintentional, some irrationalism, like religious bigotry is positively designed to foment hatred and violence, and as such is evil.
irrationalism is ridiculous. Cults follow behaviours and require beliefs that are plain stupid and diminish those who practice them. Irrational beliefs are so obviously untrue that they distort truth on a wider scale.
Levi Fragell confessed to feeling some warmth of resentment against these irrationalisms. He had come to Humanism from a narrow evangelicalism, and well remembered these forms of belief from his earlier days. Even more angry was another Norwegian, Dr Tove Beate Pedersen, a psychologist and former Director of the Norwegian Gender Equality Council. Dr Pedersen gave an address entitled ‘No Humanism without Feminism’. The speech was basically a long list of the gender grievances of Norwegian women, which seemed to involve little more than inequity of housework undertaken by men and women. While Dr Pedersen’s points were doubtless valid, I couldn’t help feeling that these complaints seemed trivial and in bad taste, given that they were aired in India, where gender issues are a little more pressing than that.
Dr Pedersen also supported discrimination against men in the name of gender equality. When asked about the totalitarian implications of this policy, she agreed that there was that risk, but that the end justified the means. The fundamentalist implications of this line of thinking were not lost on the audience. Despite these problems, Dr Pedersen was an asset to the conference because she acted, quite consciously, as an irritant to majority opinion, and thus got people thinking. She criticised the organisers of the conference for having far more male speakers than female. Only one Indian woman addressed the conference in a prepared paper. In the wake of Dr Pedersen’s criticisms two more women were given opportunities to speak.
Among other speakers, Lavanam, Director of the Atheist Centre and Honorary Associate of the NZARH, warned us against domination by institutions and praised the IHEU for its role in making Humanism a truly international movement. The future of Rationalism and Humanism, Lavanam declared, lies in recognising the centrality of freedom and equality among humans. Jim Herrick, editor of the New Humanist, made a plea for emotions within Rationalism, and Jane Wynne-Willson, vice-president of the IHEU, spoke about a rational view of death. Another very significant speaker was Jean-Claude Pecker, Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics, and President of the Association Francaise pour I’ Scientifique, Union Rationaliste. Professor Pecker is among the very top of the intellectual elite in France. He agreed with me about the menace of postmodernism, but reassured me that Derrida is a prophet without honour in his own land. While Professor Pecker agreed Derrida’s influence was pernicious, he admitted that Derrida is very agreeable company as a person. Jan Loeb Eisler, from the United States outlined her efforts to provide Humanist support networks, particularly for women. This is an area the Christians have presumed to be their preserve. Eisler produces a periodical called Family Matters. Roy W Brown, a board member of the World Population Foundation, sounded a note of warning. It is not, he said, the population increase, per se, that is the issue: it is the energy use that attends population growth that is the central cause for concern. Unless the United States is able to reduce its energy consumption in the next fifty years, and unless India and China reduce their plans for increasing their energy consumption over the same period, the future of the planet will be very bleak indeed.
Almost as depressing was the evidence of postmodernism in India. One speaker, Professor Sudheesh, Professor of English Language at Kerala University, seemed totally enmeshed in postmodernist jargon in his address. Most people agreed with my claim of the dangers of postmodernism, but thought that postmodernism has passed its peak and no longer poses a serious problem. I remain unconvinced.
There were many other capable speakers I have not mentioned, but perhaps the flavour of this wonderful event has been given. The important point is that Rationalists and Humanists can take heart. We are part of an international movement that attracts capable, passionate and intelligent people. Even more important is the action that accompanies the talk. Here, more than in any other field, India leads the way for other Humanists to follow. Over and above the differences of emphasis and outlook, there is a fundamental agreement on the care values of Humanism and the centrality of Rationalism to the propagation and realisation of those values.
This common ground was reflected in the final session, when the speakers returned to the stage and gave short overviews of what they thought the immediate priorities for the movement are. I worked mine out with Aby Abraham Valliazhuthu, an IRA member who works in the medical college in Trivandrum. Our priorities were:
Take on a specific programme of public support or charity, so that the Association becomes known for that type of work.
Consciously inculcate an awareness of the principles of Rationalism and Humanism in our children.
Work for influence in governments and government agencies.
Give due priority to the scientific method and raising appreciation of what science has provided humanity in our publications.
Consciously foster relationships with other Rationalist and Humanist organisations.
Try and avoid personality disputes within the movement.
Recognise the value of a central building to act as focal point for the organisation.
Defend secularism at all times.
Our priorities were worded slightly differently than the other speakers and had a more practical focus, but basically all speakers had similar priorities. This was a fitting and suitably chastening way to end the conference. It was a privilege to represent the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists at this conference.
(Courtesy: New Zealand Rationalist & Humanist)