Wednesday, 21 August 2013

A Clear-Eyed Approach To Tackling Blind Faith

The recent murder of the well-known anti-superstition activist Dr Narendra Dabholkar, was, to my cynical mind, only to be expected. One makes too many enemies when one goes up against superstition, and the mindset of the other side is something I myself carry painful memories of.

The good doctor certainly had a who's-who of enemies.

Over the years, Dr Narendra Dabholkar had campaigned not only for a law against superstition and black magic but also against the practices he wanted it to eradicate, besides challenging astrologers to a rationality test and taking on the BJP and the Shiv Sena over women's right to enter temples.

As Socrates said,

I certainly have many enemies, and this is what will be my destruction if I am destroyed; of that I am certain; - not Meletus, nor yet Anytus [Socrates's accusers in court], but the envy and detraction of the world, which has been the death of many good men, and will probably be the death of many more; there is no danger of my being the last of them.

But Socrates also said,

If you kill such a one as I am, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me.

How true! Society has lost immeasurably by silencing yet another voice of reason.

One of the aspects of Dr Dabholkar's work that gained publicity with his killing was the "anti-superstition bill" that was his brainchild (officially, "The Maharashtra Eradication of Blind Faith Bill"). The bill was introduced into the Maharashtra state assembly in 1995, but lapsed in 2009. It was debated many times and ran into hair-splitting arguments that stymied it. Some of those arguments are quite amusing, such as concern over the "thin line between faith and blind faith". [Hint to the purely rational: one is good; the other is bad.]

Legislators have debated if this would mean stopping Muharram rituals involving self-inflicted injuries, or a special ritual in Nashik temples where childless couples pray for children.

Although my initial reaction on hearing about the failure of Dr Dabholkar's anti-superstition bill was dismay, I realise with a clearer head that this was probably not a well thought out piece of legislation anyway.

With all due respect to Dr Dabholkar, I think the law is the wrong instrument with which to attack superstition and blind faith. The education system is the right one for that (although, as I wrote earlier, teachers with backward views can subvert the most progressive textbooks). The law is to be reserved to prevent harm and ensure fairness, and that should be that.

Let me explain my thinking with a somewhat lengthy aside on morality.

My favourite guide to morality is not some religious or "spiritual" book but the work of psychologist Steven Pinker, who captures the core of the idea in this unputdownable article.

According to Dr Pinker's analysis, there is no such thing as a universal morality, as might be expected, but the reasons for this are more subtle than most people would think. It's because "morality" consists of 5 different strands, and different cultures place varying degrees of emphasis on some of these strands versus others. The five strands are harm, fairness, community, authority and purity. At the risk of reducing your incentive to read the article itself (which is excellent), here are examples that illustrate what each means in practical terms.

[H]ow much money [would] someone [...] have to pay us to do hypothetical acts like the following:

- Stick a pin into your palm.
- Stick a pin into the palm of a child you don’t know. (Harm.)
(I think sticking a pin into the palm of a child is bad enough, and the question of whether the child is known to you or not is entirely irrelevant!)

- Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it at no charge because of a computer error.
- Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it from a thief who had stolen it from a wealthy family. (Fairness.)

- Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in your nation.
- Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in a foreign nation. (Community.)

- Slap a friend in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit.
- Slap your minister in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit. (Authority.)

- Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like idiots for 30 minutes, including flubbing simple problems and falling down on stage.
- Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like animals for 30 minutes, including crawling around naked and urinating on stage. (Purity.)

We see these concerns in all cultures, manifested in different forms.

Think of the Japanese fear of nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in business and government, fairness should trump community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism. In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible — what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger over his own brother?

A lot of the polarising debate in the political sphere could be avoided if we only knew where the other person was coming from. To take a US example,

In a large Web survey, [...] liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.

I think I'm somewhere between the liberals and the conservatives (perhaps more liberal than conservative) because I would emphasise harm and fairness above the other three (joint number 1), would not consider authority a strand of morality at all (number 5, if at all), and place community and purity at a low-to-medium number 3 and number 4 (provided the term "community" itself is not defined too parochially - parochial definitions deserve the same lack of respect as authority).

Apologies for that lengthy diversion from the main topic.

To my mind, the points debated by the legislators when considering Dr Dabholkar's anti-superstition bill could be readily resolved if the focus was turned onto harm and fairness.

Should the bill stop Muharram rituals involving self-inflicted injuries? No, an adult human being is free to engage in such activity, so long as it does not harm or disadvantage others. (I'm libertarian.) Of course, this would also mean that Indian law has to be dragged into the 21st century by having attempted suicide declassified as a crime.

Should the bill stop a special ritual in Nashik temples where childless couples pray for children? No, it's entirely their business. It may be irrational, but no other party is being harmed or disadvantaged by this.

What about frauds perpetrated by godmen? What about human sacrifice? These are already covered under Indian law, under sections pertaining to fraud and murder. There is no need to specifically target such acts that are born out of superstitious beliefs.

To sum up, I don't believe legislation is the right tool to use to tackle superstition and blind faith. The law already recognises harm and unfairness, and has tools for their redressal. The only thing that could perhaps be done in the legislative sphere is de-recognise faith-based authority, so that concepts such as blasphemy or the "hurting of religious sentiments" become legally meaningless and cannot form the basis for litigation.

[Update 21/08/2013: In a knee-jerk reaction to his murder, the Maharashtra state government has bypassed the legislative process and promulgated Dr Dabholkar's anti-superstition bill as an ordinance. It is said that hard cases make bad law. We will now see bad law making hard cases. I will not be surprised if the Supreme Court overturns some of the cases brought under this ordinance, and the state government's hasty reaction will do more harm than good to the cause of rationalism.]

Ultimately, the only real weapon to tackle superstition and blind faith is education, education, education.
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