Well if we go to the term rationalism in the development of humanity, we would have to go a long way back right to the times of the cavemen, the development of civilizations and the use of fire and tools. Reason has been the main tool for the development of Homo sapiens- what distinguishes this species from the others. While animals may display the quality of reasoning to some extent may be in the use of tools, linking other things to food etc. the reasoning power of our species has been responsible for us to rise to the top of the evolutionary ladder and remain there since millennia! Its the age of reason that started the development of science, the modern life and a more equitable society. Though this is an international conference I shall be concentrating on India where nearly 20% of the number of the species of homo sapiens dwell and upheavals of reason are affecting day to life more than ever.
As Descartes said I think and I am. So, it was reasoning that distinguishes us from the other species and rationalism is the distillation, evolution or may be culmination of that process of thinking and existence. If we go back to the times when reason was being discussed in India we have to go back to Charvaka who questioned everything and ridiculed the irrational practices. The demand for evidence before acceptance goes back to Charvaka six hundred years BCE. Later on the teachings of Gautama Buddha and Mahaveera which placed emphasis on a code of conduct and ethics, philosophers like Ajita Keshkamblin, characters like Jabali in Ramayana are all evidences that rational thinking and questioning existed in India since a long time.
So, it is clear that rational thinking existed in India since long and continues to be so even today. Though according the census around 0.3% of the Indian population claims to be non religious, atheist or not belonging to any of the so called recognized religions it must be more than that because most of the people are very much afraid to admit openly that they are non believers. It is sad that in a world where more than 25% of the population are atheists and constitute the third largest group, one of the oldest civilizations to record atheist schools of thought has such a low representation.
Going back in time we can say all the human rights, workers rights, womens rights and progress of science has been because of rational thought. To the irrational mind, there is no need for any questioning, there is no need for any progress because the reason for each and everything would be that it is some divine will or something which predetermined and cannot be changed. But reason on which science is based does not accept any such limitations and majority of scientists do not believe in any supernatural power to have created the universe or running it on a day to day basis.
The very belief in a religious dogma and a divine power is be default detrimental to progress, equality between genders, races or even human beings believing in other equally irrational things. Every religion or a belief system holds itself to be the ultimate in everything and the best thing that ever happened to the species as a whole. They also strive hard to see that the whole species should be brought under the umbrella of their whole belief system. Without exception every one claims perfection, universal applicability and something beyond just a belief system- they all claim it is the pathway to heaven and way to reach divinity! It is this that kept humanity from progressing for many centuries. The belief in Karma or fate for one kept the Indians under its thumb. The caste system ending in the ultimate of injustice- untouchability is one of the most humiliating religion based practices in the world and it is still going strong in India despite all legal measures taken to stop it. Here again it is an atheist Dr.Ambedkar who advocated the constitution of India which made it a secular democracy rather than one based on a religion. It was the first Prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru who laid the foundation for a strong base of science and technology which has led to what it is today.
If one looks for any solutions to the problems facing humanity today, rational thinking seems to be the only way. A scientific approach is the only solution to the problems facing the world today-be it global warming or the rise of religious extremism. While a rational secular solution is the best way to solve religious conflict because the religions are the main divisionary forces in the world today along with the economic exploitation. Many times they go hand in hand complimenting and supporting each other! The conflicts in the middle-east between adherents of different religions and also between sects of the same have been the chief causes for discord in the world. One of the main reasons behind these is to establish the hold over oil resources. As the world shifts to renewable and greener energy in due course, which of course would be a triumph of reason these conflicts are certain to lose their importance.
The spread of the proselytizing Abrahamaic religions is another cause for unrest. While Judaism is not into it, the other two are falling over each other to bring more people into their fold or rather their web! While Christianity is on the decline in its strongholds in Europe, UK and US, their efforts seem to be directed more at saving souls in the underdeveloped world like Africa and Asia. While this is happening to Christianity which is dominated by the Roman Catholic church with more than a billion followers, the Islamic population seems to be growing through increased fertility as well as proselytization. The fertility rate of an average Muslim woman is 2.9 when compared to Christians (2.6) and others (2.2). The efforts to proselytize are fuelled mainly by the petro dollars of the Saudi Arabs who follow a very fundamentalist form of Islam called as Wahhabism. There are claims that they have spent a sum of 100 billion dollars for the propagation of this form of Islam. Though there is opposition to this by the Sunnis and Sufis there have been conflicts in the Middle East as well as elsewhere about these differences.
While religious right is on the march all over the world using the latest technology which is the result of rational thinking, the same is happening in India too. There are efforts to convert mythology into history, ascribe all sorts of curative powers to excretory products of the cow as well as bring quackery into practice of modern, evidence based medicine. Though these are being resisted the powers that be seem to be supporting such forces. While on one hand we are talking about modern technology and sending a manned mission to the moon on the other there are claims that these had been accomplished much before by now extinct technologies. The constitution of India which stands for secularism and scientific temper seems to be gradually subverted by these means.
While the world is said to be shifting away from secular, liberal values what is the future for rationalism? How would we have relevance in the future is a big question haunting the movement. While there have been swings towards various types of economic policy and political ideology, the values of reason have not been affected. Though Islam is said to be the fastest growing religion in the world, the number of those who have rejected all such superstitious, irrational beliefs is rising faster. Those who have rejected their religious beliefs do not go and enroll in another set of equally irrational tenets but go for a more rational existence.
If we take a look at the income levels, social security and quality of life the nations who have the largest number of non believers are leading. The western European nations, UK, Australia are some of the highest in these aspects and religion has lost its hold in these countries. Even a supposedly religious Christian nation like United states whose dollar bill carries the statement that in God we trust (of course not any god but the Christian one) has about 26% atheists. So, it is an increase from the past where it was 19% in 2012. The millennial (the younger generation) are showing a even higher percentage of 36% in rejecting religion. If the trend continues the non believers are going to be the largest group who cannot be ignored. In god we trust may soon disappear from the dollar bill! The efforts of the atheists to get it removed which have so far not succeeded may find fulfilment at that time.
Though the present may look bleak, the future is definitely ours. The progress of humankind till date has all been due to the forces of reason and not any religious dogma or teaching. No revelations or epiphanies have caused the progress of science or eased the lives of the people in general. These are all due to rationalism and logical thinking.