You may have heard that, earlier this week, India launched a spacecraft that will soon be orbiting Mars (for a fraction of the cost it took American scientists, no less).

What you may not have heard is what the Indian Space Research Organization Chairman K Radhakrishnan did before the launch: he took miniature versions of the rocket and spacecraft to a local temple and asked the (idols of) deities for their blessings, saying later that “a little divine intervention” wouldn’t hurt.

ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan holds a model of the Mars orbiter that may or may not have been blessed by the Gods (via Associated Press)

Cultural traditions aside, just imagine what it would look like if the head of NASA decided to go to church in the days before a rocket was set to launch so that he could ask Jesus for a little help.

You know, if you think your rocket — your pinnacle-of-scientific-achievement-rocket! — need supernatural help, maybe it’s time to double-check your calculations instead of speaking to the spirits.

Shrey Goyal is appalled by Radhakrishnan’s behavior:

… such irrational behaviour from the head of the Indian government’s primary space agency is unbelievably senseless… This is not just ignoring the spirit of enquiry, but outright denying and denouncing the scientific method. How does taking on such an ambitious project even make a difference in our technological prowess, if praying to our imaginary friends in space is seen as a reasonable precaution? When the agency which is supposed to be a temple of science and uphold the search for truth and new knowledge, is worshiping a Hindu deity in such a public manner, are we making any progress at all? We should all be thankful that a black cat did not cross the scientist’s path; otherwise the mission could very well have been postponed

Narendra Nayak, President of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA), added another important voice of dissent, referring to Article 51(A)(h) in the Indian Constitution which says it’s a duty of all Indian citizens to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”:

“We strongly condemn the attitude of the Chairman of ISRO K Radhakrishnan who has insulted the Constitution of India by placing the replica of the satellite meant for the Mars mission at the feet of a deity at Tirupati. He is unfit to occupy the position of the head of the space mission and should be immediately sacked.

What may be even more disturbing is how relatively few people seem to care at all that Radhakrishnan asked the gods for help. This is just par for the course in a nation where superstition is so widespread.

This is why the work of Dr. Narendra Dabholkar was so important. This is why the work of Sanal Edamaruku is still so vital.

It’s not just a frivolous pleasant tradition. It gives credit where it simply isn’t due. It shows a lack of confidence in the scientists who made the mission to Mars possible, as if they need some additional help to succeed. And if the head of the ISRO says he wouldn’t mind some “divine intervention,” what hope can we possibly have for those people in India who know far less about science?

Chennai Central, from Wikimedia Commons.

A court in India has reportedly given the OK to an atheist organization to hold a “rationalist festival” in the city of Chennai in September, after being denied permission by local police. The particular organization is unnamed in the media about the event that I’ve seen.

It doesn’t sound like your run-of-the-mill egghead convention that we are familiar with here. As reported by the Times of India, the event would have included “walking on burning coal and piercing sharp objects through cheek and tongue.” I mean, maybe that happens after hours at our conferences, but come on.

Apparently, organizers had to promise that the festival would not be used to change or denigrate anyone’s existing religious beliefs, but rather raise awareness of their own constituency (maybe that’s what the piercings are for).

Opposition to the event, expressed by the state advocate-general A L Somayaji, rings with a recurring theme in all justifications for silencing nonbelief:

Strongly opposing any indulgence for the organization, advocate-general Somayaji said the organizers hurt the religious sentiments and beliefs of believers and it would infringe the fundamental rights of worshippers.

Yeah, I’m not sure how a festival infringes on anyone’s rights, unless of course we now all have the right not to be offended, or the right to not have to think too hard.

Of course, India is home to a great deal of anti-atheist and anti-skeptic sentiment, exemplified by the arrest of novelist Yogesh Master (which I blogged on just yesterday), the persecution of skeptic Sanal Edamaruku, and the recent murder of skeptic activist Narendra Dabholkar. The fact that this festival is apparently allowed to go on (though this report is obviously less than comprehensive) is at least something.

We lost a real hero yesterday in the worst possible way.

Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, a 67-year-old anti-superstition activist and Humanist leader from India, was assassinated on Tuesday morning, presumably because of his skeptical beliefs.

Dabholkar, who was at the forefront of a campaign to persuade [the] Maharashtra government to pass an anti-superstition and black magic bill, was shot dead by two unidentified youths at 7.20 am on Omkarweshwar bridge near Cosmos Bank in Pune on Tuesday morning.

Dabholkar’s murder comes days after the Maharashtra government assured introduction of the anti-superstition bill even as Right Wing groups continued to oppose the bill.

For 30 years, Dabholkar worked to eradicate the scourge of superstition from a country known for embracing it. The anti-superstition bill that he fought for — but which has not yet passed — was one that went after the real criminals, the ones who used pseudoscience and myth to separate you from your hard-earned money. It was not, as some may think, a way to criminalize religion:

In the whole of the bill, there’s not a single word about God or religion. Nothing like that. The Indian constitution allows freedom of worship and nobody can take that away,” he said.

Still, Dabholkar never sat by silently when religious “godmen” claimed to perform miracles or unnecessarily sacrificed animals for the sake of religious ritual.

His resume is about as impressive as one can get:

In 1989, along with other like-minded people, he founded the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti [Committee for eradication of blind faith].

In the past 20 years he confronted many babas, buas, tantriks, etc. and led many agitations against several forms of superstitions, water pollution and animal sacrifices.

He was also the founder member of a de-addiction Centre, Parivartan in Satara.

Yesterday, luminaries who knew Dabholkar well issued statements of disbelief and sadness.

Here’s the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s director in India, Babu Gogineni:

“Narendra was a person of great charm and commitment to the cause. He declined to spread his activism outside Maharashtra because he was keen on first developing a branch of his organisation in each village of the state. Organisational work of this kind made the movement a force to reckon with in Maharashtra state where he was spearheading the movement for a Bill against Witchcraft.”

“Dr. Dabholkar’s work in the past 30 years has been the stuff that legends are made of. He remains a beacon of reason, rationalism and science in India.”

And International Humanist and Ethical Union’s President Sonja Eggerickx:

“Our thoughts are with his family and the many rationalist and Humanist colleagues with whom he worked so closely and so tirelessly over the years. Dr Dabholkar’s campaigns brought him onto political territory, but he was always a social reformer motivated by truth and a desire to fight injustice. We urge the authorities to investigate this vile murder and to explore without fear all the possible links to his work.”

And pseudo-science debunker Sanal Edamaruku (whose decision to leave India is even more sensible now):

I remember a discussion that we had not long ago. He urged me to come back to India and fight my harassers in a court of law. Considering the danger, he advised me, one should always ready to die a martyr for the cause. Martyrs are good for the movement. I did not agree myself with allowing my enemies to have such an easy triumph. But I knew he was very serious about it.

Dabholkar was hated by fundamentalists. But, being the peaceful, open-hearted and kind man he was, he was adored and loved by the people. Over the years, his popularity in Maharashtra grew and grew — together with public understanding of the importance of the rationalist fight.

Narendra Dabholkar has died a martyr – now we have to ensure that his brutal murder does not turn a triumph for the enemies of reason. It is the best tribute that we can pay to him, to take up his mantle and go forward. That is what we owe him – and it is what we owe India.

One of the right-wing Hindu groups that opposed Dabholkar’s views has denounced the cowardly actions of the killers, speaking only in respectful terms of the man they frequently sparred with:

The [Sanatan] Sanstha spokesperson Abhay Vartak said that even though they had filed more than 20 cases against Dabholkar, they had nothing personal against him and had regarded his as a “representative of atheists”.

He said that their opposition to Dabholkar was limited in his capacity as atheist and not at personal level.

“We had filed cases in court for false allegations made by him against the Sanstha. The murder of Dabholkar is shocking. We hope that the guilty will be arrested and brought to justice soon,” Vartak said in a statement.

Remember: We’re talking about a country where superstition runs amok and where someone has to run for his life just for debunking a supposed “miracle.” We’re talking about a place where Dabholkar was told, “Remember Gandhi. Remember what we did to him,” in response to his anti-superstition fight.

It saddens me to no end that a skeptic was killed, it seems, for challenging people’s most-cherished beliefs. (It’s a suspicion we’ve seen before.) But if his death can inspire others to tip over even more sacred cows, it won’t be completely in vain.

There is a 1,000,000 Indian Rupee reward (just under $16,000 USD) for anyone with knowledge about the killers. They’ve released this sketch of one of the suspects:


***Update***: In the wake of his death, Government officials in Maharashtra have announced they will approve the anti-black-magic law Dabholkar championed for so long.

After Penn Jillette’s amazing doughnut and bacon party last night (Yes, I did eat two Krispy Kremes and about three pounds of bacon, thanks for asking) and some technical issues this morning, we’re back on track!

As always, thanks to Michael Greiff for all of the great photos! You can follow him at Instagram at mr_mikeyg. While we’re at it, you can follow me on twitter @blueburie

Sanal Edamaruku

I’m just catching the tail-end of his talk, but I made it in time to hear him talk about busting a so-called miracle, and being forced into hiding.  When the Catholic Church asked for an apology for hurting their religious sentiments, here was his response:

And, cue the standing O:

It was really very moving- emcee George Hrab fittingly reminded us to not take our ability to be skeptics without being in danger for granted.

Next up, another panel!

Skepticism and Philosophy 

Panelists: Russell Blackford, Peter Boghossian, Massimo Pigliucci and Susan Hack

Moderator: D.J Grothe

Okay, so philosophy is not in my wheelhouse, so I’ll do my best to get through this one for you fine folks.

Hack made an interesting point regarding using the term “scientific” as a catch all for solid critical thinking and good science- there’s bad science out there that we need to watch out for.

Pigliucci railed against Lawrence Krauss for saying that philosophy is dumb (obviously that’s paraphrased…) for a few minutes.

So, does philosophy give skepticism anything? Frankly, I have no clue. Sorry, guys, but a lot of it kind of went over my head.

But here’s a cool picture that Mikey took!

If you look closely, you can see me sitting on the floor typing away. On the floor.

Michael Mann

The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

Just finished up a faaaaacinating interview with Karen Stollznow, so I am dropping into Mann’s talk a little late. Slightly disappointed to find that it is not about the temperature of the arena when the Blackhawks play. (It’s a sports joke, guys!)

So, we’re talking about ClimateGate, when the emails of climate change scientists were made public.

I missed most of the science part, but did hear about the political resistance that climate change scientists are facing. Okay, he wrapped up and the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe are coming up.

Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe

Panelists: Steven Novella, Jay Novella, Bob Novella and Evan Bernstein.

I’m pretty excited about this one– I am a fan of the Skeptic’s Guide podcast. A handful of them went to the Grand Canyon before the conference, so they’re going into the science behind it.

And now onto what will happen to the world in a few billion years when the sun becomes a supernova. I’m glad they’re essentially just doing a live podcast- they’ve got the banter thing down pat.

On to sailing stones. I wasn’t familiar with them, but they are massive 700 pound rocks that have been moving through the desert over many many many years, and they leave a trail like this:

Apparently, the mystery has finally been solved. Essentially, the desert can freeze and as the ice thaws, the rocks can be moved by nothing more than a light breeze. Evidently, there is a similar phenomenon in the arctic.

The sailing stones, naturally, led to scrotums  and testicles. Surprisingly, my knowledge of the evolutionary theories that led to mammals possessing scrotums is lacking, but I really am enjoying the talk about the theories behind it.

Science or Fiction! If you’ve never listened to the podcasts, Steven gives three science-related news items, two of which are real and one is fake. The other hosts have to figure out which is the false one.

Here are the choices:

Jay picked #3 as the false one, everyone else went with #1 as the fiction.

And the fiction is…#3!

I will not attempt to explain them, because I will inevitably butcher it. I believe they will release this as a podcast, so I highly recommend checking it out.

We’re off to lunch now. This afternoon is packed with interviews for us, so I’m not sure how many talks I’ll be able to cover, but I’ll do my best!


Sanal Edamaruku is nicknamed “the Indian James Randi” for a good reason: He debunks ridiculous claims with perfectly reasonable explanations.

More than a year ago, Edamaruku was charged with “hurting the religious sentiments of a particular community” after he explained how a statue of Christ could be dripping water seemingly on its own (spoiler: It involves science). The “crime” was punishable with up to three years in prison in addition to a fine.

So, since that time, Edamaruku has been on the run. Lhendup G. Bhutia at Open magazine has the unbelievable story of what he’s had to go through:

… Edamaruku went into hiding.

He spent the next month and a half living in student hostels and various friends’ homes. He stopped driving his car. While he was hiding in a post-graduate hostel, he would live in a room with the door latched from outside. When it became likely that he would soon be arrested, he flew to Helsinki in Finland.

Edamaruku has now spent over a year in Finland. “I have travelled to some of the most backward and rural areas of India to expose myths and superstitions. But I have never faced a situation like this. One would assume that people in Mumbai would be more sensible and tolerant,” he says on the phone from Helsinki. He says he wants to return to India but as the situation stands, he will get arrested without bail here.

All for pointing out the truth and unweaving the rainbow.

Edamaruku is a true hero. He’ll be speaking at The Amazing Meeting next week in Las Vegas. If you’re there, make sure you check him out and give him your support in any way possible.

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