Despite being exiled from his home country of India because of blasphemy charges and the recent murder of one of his fellow skeptical activists, rationalist Sanal Edamaruku remains optimistic about the future of skepticism and rationalism in India.
What do you think is the future of the rationalist movement in India in the wake of the Dabholkar murder and other increasing incidents of threats to rationalists from practitioners of blind faith?
Violence is always frightening. I am writing/ talking to you from Helsinki, where I have been living for more than one year now in self-imposed exile after the Catholic Church in India pressed blasphemy charges against me for exposing the “miracle” of a water-dripping crucifix in Mumbai as a plumber’s problem.
But despite attacks and threats, I see good reason for optimism. Looking back on the last four decades that I spent with rationalist education campaigns and on miracle exposures, I see a dramatic change in climate in favour of reason and science that has accelerated in recent years.
Two years back, I revisited the minutes and documents of the investigation that I and my team had conducted in May 2001, when Delhi was gripped by the monkey man phobia [In 2001, a phantom-like creature, about four feet tall, which apparently attacked people at night was reportedly seen on the outskirts of Delhi on many occasions]. For more than a month, the phantom monster was the centre of all public attention; in the villages and on the outskirts of Delhi, nobody would sleep at night; some people jumped from their roofs to escape the creature; and the government had 3,000 policemen out in arms to catch the beast.
Initially, our voice of reason explaining the mass hysteria did not gain currency. It took us several days to bring the mania down. Ten years after, I went once again to all the haunted places and met many of the people we had questioned about the alleged encounters with the phantom. Most of them were convinced that the horror and vision had been nothing but a product of their overheated imagination, and were rather embarrassed when we confronted them with their old claims. In a survey done among the monkey man’s victims, our rationalist education campaigns were rated both very effective and beneficial for Indian society. Sixty-three per cent of the sample wished to see rationalist education as a subject in Indian school curricula.It may still take more time and rationalist effort. But we see Indian society slowly shedding its medieval baggage and set to overcome superstition, fundamentalism and intolerance. It is not just Asaram Bapu who feels the heat these days. The public tide is turning against the whole massive power complex based on exploiting the gullible.
He also notes how major changes in Indian society may be spurring new superstitions that need to be countered:
How do you read this rise in blind faith at a time when India is rising as an economic power?
Rationalism has gained enormous ground in recent times. But a well-known phenomenon that affects all transforming societies is very much present in India these days, as we are going through a fast-growth track. Dramatic changes in social realities upset many people. They may feel afraid that their beliefs and old value systems are undergoing big change. So, the sense of insecurity may urge some of them to feel good by imagining that they have a safety belt. The New Age faith alternatives offered by a new brand of gurus against their traditional crumbling old faith and tradition are giving them temporary relief. As a result, a very different category of defenders of superstition emerge—the educated, upward-moving, urban middle class. Their lives are transforming at a fast pace, confronting them with new chances, challenges and choices. Sometimes even otherwise, modern and sensible people suddenly feel the need to fasten the imaginary seat belts and re-integrate old rituals with new definitions into their life. Godmen are catering a lot to this situation.
This is true, but economic stability is not a panacea either. America has long had great economic prosperity but that has done little to reduce pervasive superstitious and religious beliefs among the citizenry. My hope comes more from the rise of an atheist and skeptical movement both here and around the world.