Saturday, March 15, 2008

Science vs Religion

In Focus: Hindutva on the Attack

Optimists like to think, and say, that religion and secularism can co-exist peacefully. That each has its own realm - its Nonoverlapping Magisterium, as Stephen Jay Gould so mistakenly called it - and there is no need for rivalry or conflict. That ‘science’ (which is never defined when such assertions are being made) can answer the questions in its realm, and religion can answer the questions in its. Of course, that raises the obvious question, can it really? Can religion really answer the questions that ‘science’ (i.e. rational inquiry) cannot? ‘Answer’ in what sense? In the sense of saying something? No doubt it can do that, but then so can anyone else. In the sense of saying something true? But how do we know the ‘answer’ is true? Because religion says so? But that just goes around in a circle. Because it’s written in a book? But there are other books that give different answers. Because we evaluate the answers in a rational manner as we do with any other form of rational inquiry? But then we’re in that other realm. Is there a fourth possibility? Because - what? Religious people have some special wisdom or insight? If so, where does it come from? And so on. The questions are endless, and the claim for religion’s jurisdiction over the questions that science and rational inquiry cannot answer rests on very shaky premises.

Perhaps that is why pessimists disagree with optimists about the possibilities for peaceful co-existence. Perhaps it is because we are reluctant to accept claims that are based on mere assertion and authority and tradition, and we know from experience that that reluctance makes many religious people very angry. Perhaps it is because we know that claims that rest on shaky premises are just the ones that people tend to enforce with violence.

Ill-founded claims are the ones that get backed up with sticks, car antennas, guns, threats, petitions, calls for silencing, fatwas. There is a lot of that sort of thing around. The anger at the American scholar of mythology James Laine and his book about the Hindu king Shivaji is one example. A mob attacked and vandalized the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in January, destroying books and irreplaceable manuscripts. Scholars sat in tears among the wreckage afterward. In March the state of Maharashtra where the BORI is located sought the help of Interpol in arresting and extraditing James Laine. Other scholars of mythology such as Wendy Doniger and Paul Courtright are the object of threats and worse. ‘Vedic’ science and mathematics are introduced into the public school curriculum and history textbooks are altered without the consent of their authors, as the articles by Meera Nanda and Latha Menon for Butterflies and Wheels tell us. The war against research, inquiry, secularism, independent thought, scholarship and rationality goes on and indeed intensifies. It is a trend that needs watching.

Apposite Quotations

The fury with which untenable beliefs are defended is inversely proportional to their defensibility.

Richard Dawkins: The Annual Edge Question 2004

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