What is Rationalism?
In Epistemology (the branch of philosophy studying the nature, sources and limits of knowledge) “Rationalism” is “the theory that reason rather than experience is the foundation of certainty in knowledge”. Those who accept rationalism in this epistemological sense assert that knowledge is gained a priori (prior to experience) and it is often contrasted with Empiricism, which is “the theory that all knowledge is based on experience derived from the senses”.
Regardless of the validity of the epistemological position of rationalism, that is not the sense in which the word rationalism is generally used in the context of a Rationalist Movement that is actively involved in eradicating religious prejudices, fundamentalism, casteism, superstition and blind beliefs, debunking unsubstantiated claims, developing critical thinking, and promoting skepticism and secular humanist ideology. Rationalism in this sense is “the practice or principle of basing opinion and actions on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response” (Concise
This broad definition of rationalism used in the context of a rationalist movement should be kept in mind while we further discuss the relevance of rationalism in
Is atheism our exclusive concern?
often been criticized by some progressive fellow travelers (criticism coming
from religious quarters need not concern us here) for what they call the
exclusive preoccupation of rationalists with promoting atheism, and exposing
godmen and their miracles.
This criticism is not correct - for two reasons. First, though most (if not all) of the rationalists do adopt an atheist metaphysic, promotion of atheism has never been their sole concern. The early proponents of rationalism in
for instance, such as EV Ramaswamy (Tamil Nadu), Gora (Andhra Pradesh) and
Sahodaran Ayyappan (Kerala) were all in the forefront of anti-caste movement.
In fact, the credit for reshaping the socio-political landscape of modern Tamil
Nadu should be given to EVR. Sahodaran Ayyappan, one of the founding fathers of
rationalist movement in Kerala, was closely associated with the social reform
movement spearheaded by Sri Narayana Guru. Atheist Centre founded by Gora, an
uncompromising Gandhian-atheist, played a phenomenal role in eradicating
untouchability in parts of Andhra Pradesh. H Narasimhiah, a nuclear physicist
and the most prominent face of rationalism in Karnataka, was a well-known
Second, the overt association of rationalist movement with miracle exposure has possibly to do with the wide media coverage received by the hugely successful miracle exposure campaign undertaken by Abraham Kovoor in the 1960s and 70s. Miracle exposure or debunking is, however, not something to be scorned at. As Stephen Jay Gould, the well-known evolutionary biologist and Marxist, said skepticism or debunking is “like garbage disposal that absolutely must be done for a safe and sane life” (see his "Forward" to Why People Believe Weird Things, 2002). If this is true of
USA, it is more
so in a society like ours steeped in religious rituals and dogmas. Moreover,
the ‘gurus’ like Swami Chinmayananda, Asharam Bapu, Amrithananda Mayi, not to
say the whole battery of ’sanyasins’ who took part in the ill-conceived Ramajanmabhoomi
agitation, were all hand in glove with the anti-secular Hindu fascists at
critical moments. We, the rationalists, hence need not be apologetic about our
campaign. We should continue to mercilessly expose these godmen who not only
defraud the masses with their ’spiritual’ demagoguery, but frequently encroach
upon politics to the detriment of secular politics in India.
Debunking is also a tool to teach critical thinking. But why critical thinking, one may ask. Are not deliriums more soothing than reason? As an author of a book on Critical Thinking writes, “if we need soothing, then it is reasonable, if they are not harmful, to seek such dreams and deliriums, and to do so efficiently. Logic, reason, and straight thinking are tools, our most important tools, for attaining what we want, and for evaluating what we think we want” (Perry Weddle, Argument: A Guide to Critical Thinking).
There is however a lesson to be learned from the criticism. It is that we the rationalists should not confine ourselves to exposing astrologers and traditional godmen like Puttaparthy Sai Baba (though we should continue to do this as we have an unending stream of this species trying to occupy the uncertain minds of the religious people), but widen our area of interest. This is because the godmen of today, such as Baba Ramdev or Sri Sri Ravishankar, masquerading themselves as medical men or wellness experts, have been making astounding claims about their ‘ancient wisdom’ or breathing techniques. They conduct satsangs and regularly appear on TV channels peddling their wares and deliriums. In the process they play havoc with the lives of the people who search for a cure for a chronic illness, a new epidemic, or even extreme anxiety. We have witnessed this recently when Ramdev claimed to have a cure for AIDS and when he recommended Amrithaballi for swine flu. Some of them conduct training courses in various ‘levels’ of breathing techniques (’basic’, ‘advanced’, more advanced - as if we don’t know how to breath!) charging a hefty fee and people throng to them year after year, course after course, even if they fail to gain any tangible benefits out of it.
Another category is the ‘new-age’ spiritualists a la Deepak Chopra (incidentally, he is the gentleman who wrote a forward to a book authored by the American trickster, Uri Geller) who makes unsubstantiated claims about spiritualism, yoga or ayurveda. We should enlist the services of scientists and medical professionals (including competent ayurvedic physicians) to expose their wild and unproven claims.
What rationalists in
India value the
most, above all else, is perhaps secularism; debunking godmen, miracles,
fraudsters, quacks and pseudoscience comes only next. Secularism forms part of
the very preamble of the Indian constitution. Though the word ’secularism’ was
inserted into the preamble only in 1976 by an amendment (the Constitution
(Forty-second Amendment) Act, 1976), our constitution has been illuminated with
the spirit of secularism from the very beginning. As the Supreme Court of India asserted
in the Keshavanada Bharati case (Kesavananda Bharati v. The State of Kerala), secularism
is an un-amendable part of the Indian constitution. The court said in the Bommai
case (SR Bommai vs Union of India) that
the concept of the secular state is essential for the successful working of the
democratic form of government. It is also relevant in
this context to point out that the major electoral plank of Indian
National Congress led by Jawaharlal Nehru during the first General Election to
the Indian Parliament (held between 25 October 1951 and 21 February 1952) was a
"stable, secular, progressive state"
The secularism practiced in
suffers from certain infirmities. Though the concept of secularism demands an
absolute separation of the state subjects and religion, this has often been not
the case in the Indian context. The right granted to the religious minorities
to run their own educational institutions, unhindered by any state
interventions, is a case in point. The subsidy granted to Haj pilgrims is
another. This infirmity was compounded by certain rulings of the highest court
of the land - for instance, the verdict on Hindutwa holding that resorting to
the electoral platform of Hindutva in and off itself could not be a corrupt
practice. The dismissal of a petition seeking a ban on immersion of idols
during festivals (the serious ecological damage to the water-bodies caused by
paints used in the idols have been noted by various studies) saying it concerns
the right to religious practice (The
Hindu, 21 November 2009) is another example of certain retrogressive
rulings by our court.
All these point to the absence of a secular culture among the people of
India. Secular politics in its true
spirit is possible only if the people themselves are imbued with the spirit of
secularism. A secular state with a religious citizenry is a contradiction. All
the ailments that mar secularism in our country are due to this glaring
contradiction. Only a secular state with secular citizenry will continue to
guarantee us the invaluable gains we have made over the years - democracy and
human rights. Hence, a primal component of the rationalist movement in India should be
the unrelenting propagation of secular values among the people.
So, what kind of future are we envisaging at? Here we would better quote, once again, Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont: “the emergence of an intellectual culture that would be rationalist but not dogmatic, scientifically minded but not scientistic, open-minded but not frivolous, and politically progressive but not sectarian”.
Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont, 2004. Intellectual Imposters, Profile Books,
Michael Shermer, 2002. Why People Believe Weird Things, Henry Holt & Company,
Perry Weddle, 1978. Argument: A Guide to Critical Thinking, McGraw-Hill Book Company,
Mathew John, 2005. “Decoding Secularism - Comparative Study of Legal Decisions in
India and US”, Economic and Political Weekly, 30 April 2005
"Petition against idol-immersion dismissed" - The Hindu, November 21, 2009