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 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 Oxford English Dictionary-11th Edition). The reasoning of course is the scientific reasoning, which is, to quote Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont, a respect for the clarity and logical coherence of theories, and for the confrontation of theories with empirical knowledge (Intellectual Imposters).
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 India today.
Is atheism our exclusive concern?
Rationalists in India have 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 (or all) of the rationalists do adopt an atheist metaphysic, promotion of atheism has never been their sole concern. The early proponents of rationalism in South India (of which I am more familiar) 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 educationist.
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 in his forward to Why People Believe Weird Things written by Michael Shermer, skepticism or debunking is like garbage disposal that absolutely must be done for a safe and sane life. 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 we dont know how to breath!) charging a hefty fee and the 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, this is the man 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, 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.
The secularism practiced in India, however, 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 recent 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 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 I 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 scientific, open-minded but not frivolous, and politically progressive but not sectarian.