Thursday, May 1, 2014

Inculcation of Scientific Temper in Society, and the Problem of Organized Religions

Jawaharlal Nehru exhorted the nation at the time of independence from British rule that we should head for a society in which scientific temper prevails. That was in 1946. But even today we find that, by and large, we have failed to achieve that goal. Though there are many reasons for this, the influence of organized religions is the most significant one. This is a universal problem, not at all unique to India. To counter this, our hope lies in spreading the message of science and the scientific method.

In science we investigate natural phenomena by rigorously applying the scientific method. Suppose there is a set of related observations which we want to understand. We use a set of axioms, and an agreed set of rules of logic. We also ensure that each word used in the entire scientific process has the same agreed meaning for everybody. Further, it is mandated that only falsifiable statements be made throughout. Armed with this paraphernalia we propose a hypothesis for explaining the set of observations. If, on testing, it is found that the hypothesis is only partially successful, either the hypothesis is rejected and a new one proposed, or efforts are made to improve the hypothesis by introducing modifications in it. In due course, if the hypothesis not only explains the experimental data reproducibly, but can even make predictions that are borne out by evidence, our confidence in it increases. One or more such related hypotheses ultimately acquire the status of a theory.

There is this famous statement by Einstein: 'Many experiments may prove me right, but it takes only one to prove me wrong'. Notice the complete objectivity and the intellectual integrity and humility underlying the entire process of how science is done. Inculcation of scientific temper in society simply amounts to applying the rigours of the scientific method not only for doing science in the laboratory, but also for everything else we do in life. There is no reverence for authority in science; a statement is either correct or incorrect, no matter who is making it. This is where a clash occurs with practically all the organized religions, in which certain statements are not up for questioning or doubting. And religious texts are chockfull of statements which are unverifiable or unfalsifiable.

Many people run to religions because the religions claim to have answers to questions like the following:

How did our universe get created?
How can life emerge out of nonlife?
How can intelligence arise out of nonintelligence?

Modern science can now give credible answers to all such questions, without invoking the God concept. In any case, if you are prepared to accept that God is an uncaused cause, you may as well agree that the universe is an uncaused cause. The God hypothesis is unnecessary and superfluous; it explains away everything, and you end up learning nothing.

A new branch of science, called complexity science, provides credible answers to a variety of 'difficult' questions, including those posed above. For example, the emergence of our universe out of 'nothing' is explained by quantum field theory, and the emergence of life out of nonlife is simply the inevitable outcome of unceasing 'self-organization', so typical of any 'complex adaptive system' existing in a thermodynamically 'open' system.

It may be argued that not everybody is in a position to understand, say, quantum field theory and other advanced concepts of science. True. The solution lies in a proper upbringing of children. Minds of young children are highly impressionable. They are strongly influenced by what they learn from their parents (and teachers). Ideally, enlightened parents should strive to create conditions in the family in which the child can grow to become an independent thinker, unencumbered by the views his/her parents or teachers may hold. Every child should be able to get exposure to all streams of thought before making a choice. Imagine a culture in which a child learns to have full confidence in the scientific method, and therefore in science. Such a person will not waste his energy and time fighting what science has to say. Instead, he will take even the counter-intuitive quantum mechanics for granted, all the time fully conscious of the fact that there is nothing dogmatic about the concepts and theories of science, and that even the most cherished scientific ideas can be abandoned if the new evidence so demands.

Under the Indian Constitution, promotion of scientific temper is only a duty (a fundamental duty), whereas the freedom to carry out (and even promote) religious activities is a matter of right (fundamental right). Clearly, we as a nation have opted for an unequal fight between what is logical and rational and what is illogical and irrational. This situation must change. Irreligion backed by the scientific method and humanism must be given the same rights as the organized religions.

In India, it is blasphemous to criticize any and all religions and the superstitious beliefs they lead to. But elsewhere, in the wake of progress of science, the so-called New Atheism has been promoted by many proponents. It is the name given to a movement among some early-21st-century atheist writers who have advocated the view that 'religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises. The New Atheists argue that recent scientific advancements demand a less accommodating attitude toward religion, superstition, and religious fanaticism than had traditionally been extended by many secularists.

Many books on New Atheism have been published in the last couple of decades. In addition, internet memes have been used for spreading the culture of less tolerance to superstition etc. Here are some examples:

'To put it bluntly but fairly, anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant, inexcusably ignorant, in a world where three out of four people have learned to read and write' (Daniel Dennett).

'There is no polite way to suggest to someone that they have devoted their life to a folly' (Daniel Dennett).

'I am absolutely convinced that religion is the main source of hatred in this world' (C. Hitchens).

'Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let's now stop being so damned respectful' (Richard Dawkins).

Carl Sagan took a more conciliatory view of things, but was, nevertheless, an out and out atheist: 'How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.'


Imagine 6 religions, each with a God of its own, and each insisting that all other Gods except its own are false. A follower of any such religion is a 5/6 atheist, only slightly different from a full 6/6 atheist. Hence the commonly seen billboard put up by the New Atheists in some countries, which says 'We are all atheists about most Gods. Some of us just go one God further'.

As a responsible citizen of my country, I want that the Constitution of India be amended so that the practitioners of irreligion have the same fundamental rights as those of the followers of all the organized religions. That would be the surest way of fostering scientific temper.

As Charles Evans Hughes said, ‘A man has to live with himself, and he should see to it that he always has good company’. Do we really need sermonizing by religions to appreciate this basic fact about ourselves?

[This article is an altered version of the note I prepared for the proceedings of the Conference on Scientific Temper and the Nation, IIT, Delhi, February 21-22, 2014.]