Ram, science and religious belief

published on September 24, 2007

By P V INDIRESAN (former director of IIT, Chennai)

A week is a long time in politics and the Ram Setu controversy may soon die down. But even as it fades away politically, it may linger intellectually.

Everyone is agreed that the battle is between scientific attitude and faith. As Francis Bacon argued nearly 500 years ago, the scientific spirit requires that we accept nothing as true unless it can be verified by experiment. Karl Popper goes on to say that the purpose of scientific enquiry is to disprove a hypothesis, not buttress it. As Thomas Kuhn has explained, science re-writes its textbooks all the time.

In stark contrast, religious texts are sacred; they are unalterable. Science holds a hypothesis untrue if it does not satisfy even one out a hundred conditions. For the faithful, belief is sanctified even if it comes true only once in a thousand times.

In modern times, the proposition that science will replace faith has become an attractive one. Much that was a mystery earlier has now been rationalised through scientific discoveries. Inevitably, many more mysteries of the present will also get explained in years to come. But science has its limitations. For example, it can theorise how the universe began with a Big Bang, but not explain what agency caused it. Scientific theories are also fickle. Five years ago, hormone replacement therapy was the cure-all idea for older women. Now, it is anathema. Science propagates knowledge; it does not necessarily confirm wisdom. That is why stories about mad scientists remain a recurrent theme in cinema!

There is no scientific proof that God exists; neither is there any proof that God does not exist. The same holds good in the case of Ram too; there is no proof that he existed; neither is there any scientific proof that he did not exist. That is where ¡¥rational¡¦ scientists drift outside the scientific path. They make assertions about matters of faith, forgetting their own principles. They can say, at the most, there is no proof that Ram was a real person. They cannot proceed further and assert that Ram was not a real person.

The reality is that many people believe in God. The reality is ideas of God are many and lead to fierce fights, including mass murder. Admittedly, there is, at any one time, far greater unanimity about scientific ¡¥truths¡¦, but all those truths are merely hypotheses liable to be superseded in the future. Rationalists are right in condemning superstition as dangerous and harmful. They overstep when they assert science has all the answers. As of today it does not. Nothing becomes a scientist more than humility.

But why not tolerate the dogma of scientists when no objections are raised about religious dogma? In the Indian context, rationalists become dangerous, because they attack selectively. All religions survive on myths. Rationalists would have been on more solid ground if they had attacked myths of all religions. Unfortunately, Indian rationalists attack only Hindu myths. This is politically dangerous. This has, in turn, led to a worrisome development. The attacks have only induced orthodox Hindus to become more irrational, rather than more rational. Tolerance of diversity has been the hallmark of Hindu culture. What rationalists are doing is to take advantage of that tolerance of diversity to destroy the base of that tolerance.

Hindu myths are liable to suffer more than those of other religions because there are so many more of them. Nevertheless, isolating Hindu myths alone is not rational. One suspects that Indian rationalists have confined themselves to attacks on Hindu myths because Hindus are soft targets; others are not. If that is true, rationalists are cowards. A cowardly soldier is a danger to the army; he can lose battles. Cowardly intellectuals are even more dangerous; they can destroy an entire society.

Since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, there has been no respite from the attacks on Hindu beliefs. That itself would not have mattered if Hinduism alone had not been isolated for such treatment. As a result of this bias, orthodox Hindus feel more and more threatened. In their fear, they are becoming less logical; they are giving up their culture of tolerance. The long-term risk of all this is not being adequately understood even by well-meaning intellectuals and media persons. The real issue is not Ram vs rationality; it is rationality vs selective rationality

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