Cosmopolitan Secular Humanism with an Indian Blend

Dr. Floris van den Berg

Living with Values is the autobiography of Indian humanist philosopher and human rights activist Narisetti Innaiah (b. 1937). Historian of ideas Bill Cooke writes in his book A Wealth of Insights. Humanist thought since the Enlightenment (2011) a long chapter on the rich tradition of humanism and related –isms in India, despite the general impression that in India there is a lack of humanism in society; think of the misogyny, the hideous caste system, forced marriage, social ostracism, superstition and wide spread quackery. Narisetti Innaiah is one of those brave Indian freethinkers who have devoted their life to change India towards a more humane society by using humanism as a moral compass.

Living with values tells the story of Innaiah. Although he has an interesting story to tell, it is a pity that there is not one consistent storyline in the book. The book could have been improved if it was proofread. Also there is a lot of names-dropping, which makes it less interesting for a general audience. The same is true of the appendices, which show letters from (famous) people to Innaiah and a picture section of Innaiah together with celebrities. Although Innaiah touches on many humanist issues, he does not go deep into them. The book is too much a family album and too less an intellectual autobiography. Despite this, the book shows that it is possible to live an autonomous life despite living in a society, which does not cater a free, independent and rational lifestyle and to which it often is hostile. A watershed in his intellectual development is the struggle for the acceptance of his Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy of science, Philosophical Consequences of Modern Science, because his scientific naturalism clashes with the transcendental inclinations of his supervisor. Innaiah is a rationalist, atheist, sceptic, humanist, freethinker, liberal, feminist and scientific naturalist who strives towards a better world by using reason and compassion. Innaiah is deeply influenced by the Indian humanist thinker M.N. Roy (1887-1954) who coined the term ‘radical humanism’.

Innaiah explains what he means by humanist: “By humanist I mean one who values human freedom, equality of human beings, respect for ethical values, and keeping personal beliefs at personal level without bringing them into public. The scientific method follows self-corrections, which take human beings into the right path and take them away from blind faith. I also firmly stand by the human dignity and plea for avoiding child abuse. Parents should not automatically bring their faith, religion, blind beliefs to their children.” (p. 12) This ideal and ideology of humanism leads to many struggles, because Indian society is full of belief, superstition, prejudices, irrational customs and traditions, misogyny et cetera. Innaiah is active in promoting reason and individual liberty by translating humanist works, and organizing and participating in many conferences. Innaiah is a cosmopolite and he spends part of his life in the USA. In the US he became acquainted with humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz and the secular humanist organization Center for Inquiry Transnational. Innaiah established a Center for Inquiry India promoting secular humanism. Prometheus Books, Paul Kurtz’s publishing company, published Forced into Faith. How religion abuses children’s rights (2009). In this succinct but important book Innaiah vehemently argues that the liberty of children entails their freedom from religion. Innaiah argues that children should be free from religion and (religious) indoctrination and that religious education is child abuse. This is a brave statement since the majority of children around the globe are brought up religiously! Indeed, there is a long road to go for the ideals of humanism to be realized and in many aspects the road to individual freedom is a long one in India, and even more for Pakistan.

       Innaiah has been working on translating important humanist texts in Telugu, including Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. Language is a problem for cosmopolitan humanism: people cannot communicate if they do not share a language. And if one (or both) of the communicators is not fluent, then this is an obstacle for both. India has several official languages, but in practice two Indians might not share a common language. In the last decades English has become more and more a lingua franca. But English is also problematic because for many it is not their native language. This brings me to the (humanist) idea of a common language which all people on the planet share and in which no one has an advantage. This is the idea of an artificial language (e.g. Esperanto or Lojban), which every child on the planet learns as a second language. Then all persons on the planet can speak the language they learn at home – no matter how little people speak that language – and still are able to communicate with everybody on the planet.

       Innaiah belongs to a minority of humanists in India who oppose what the majority does and thinks: Innaiah is non-religious, against the caste system, in favour of equality of persons, against misogyny, in favour of liberal education and parenting and against traditional ‘medicine’ and superstition. Innaiah is also frustrated that even among people with higher education there is superstition: “Yet, a growing number of the educated people turned antediluvian in their outlook and behaviour. They seemed to revel in mental slavery outside their spheres of activity.” (p. 131) Reflecting on the topics Innaiah addresses it surprises me that there is not more attention to the pressing problem of Indian population growth.

       Things got dangerous when Innaiah organized a public meeting with Taslima Nasrin, author of the novel Lajja (Shame ) (1993) about the Islamic violence in Bangladesh. Nasrin was forced to live in exile since 1994 due to death threats. At a speaking engagement in Hyderabad in 2007 Nasrin was attacked by Muslims. Innaiah, who was one on the hosts, tried to protect her. Fortunately nobody got injured. But this shows that in the Muslim community there are serious issues concerning the freedom of speech. Humanists like Innaiah take up the important role to stand up for the freedom of speech even when it angers people.

       During his time in the USA Innaiah noticed that Indians in the US tend to take their superstition and customs with them: “Members are divided on religious, caste and regional lines. Instead of confining their religious beliefs to homes and political differences to India, they have carried them as part of their baggage to the U.S. Lot of superstitions, blind beliefs, astrology, palmistry, geomancy (vaastu) and cult worship were imported which are polluting the society. Children born in America are developing differently. Which is a good sign.’ (p. 179)

       Innaiah is open-minded, always on the outlook to meet like-minded people, both in the India and abroad and thus creating a network of humanists, both formal (by organizations) and informal (a network of friends – I feel fortunately to be one). When he was in the USA he met many (famous) freethinking people, including philosopher Paul Kurtz, sceptic James Randi, and atheist Richard Dawkins. Innaiah is a man with a zest for life, or, to use a word from Paul Kurtz: exuberant. Although there is much to complain about India as seen from a humanist perspective, Innaiah keeps his spirit lifted in trying to promote individual liberty, reason and secularism. I hope his message will be heard both in India, and abroad: Children should be educated towards freedom and autonomy.

Living with Values
An autobiography of a humanist,
Narisetti Innaiah,
 Century Publications,  New Delhi, 2013.