I received an objection by email to my post on Meera Nanda's column on the prevalence of superstitions in India and the need to fight them. I earlier argued that superstitions aren't so bad. My respondent argued that, to the contrary, superstitions reflect a fundamentally anti-scientific ethos.
So what are superstitions and how dangerous are they? Are they merely trivial reflections of wooly-mindedness that exist for generally rational people? Just soft edges to sound minds? Or is it a slippery slope -- do superstitions reflect a general anti-modern and anti-rational sensibility? Finally, how should one respond to superstitions, specifically in the context of Hindu nationalism (which is not the same as Hinduism)?
There is a sociological response to these questions: one can look at real instances of Vedic Science documents, and study the politics of their authors. For example, see Rajiv Malhotra's pseudo-scientific Infinity Foundation, and tie that project (which might seem benign) to his execrable campaign against Wendy Doniger (which is most definitely not benign). Thus, 'Indian Science' (meaning Vedic Science) comes out as guilty by association. [As an aside: note how adept Malhotra is at using elements of postcolonial theory in his complaint about the Washington Post article on the Doniger controversy!]
My own response, at least right now, is more philosophical and speculative than sociological. I start from the presumption that, while superstitions have to be understood as objectively 'wrong', there is more than one way of being superstitious. Here, I'll generalize the issue a little from the question of superstitions to one of the epistemological frameworks underpinning Hindutva. What follows is admittedly somewhat speculative, but my aim is not to produce hard classification so much as a heuristic tool -- a mode of studying the problem.
There are two overlapping issues here. One is of characterization (what is Hindutva all about?) and the other is of strategy (how does one respond to it?). The way one characterizes the problem affects how one responds to it. I will suggest a provisional separation, between two types of Hindu nationalist epistemologies.
Type 1. In the first kind of epistemology, a reservoir of primordial racism and religious chauvinism leads average people to political concepts (Hindu India), a version of history (Hindu civilization), as well as pseudo-scientific justifications for their beliefs (Vedic Science; homeopathy). Call this type 1. Here, the turn to pseudo-science, while obviously central to any discussion of the ideology, is not the primary component of Hindutva or its most dangerous attribute. Rather, in this case the most urgent target for secularists is the primordial hatred and mistrust of the other that motivates everything else. This is, needless to say, a difficult and uphill battle: the rhetoric of reason is an asset, but only if the people one is arguing with are themselves willing to engage in rational debate. Otherwise, one is left shouting 'reason! reason!' as if that word will in itself be convincing.
Type 2. Alternatively, Hindu nationalism is a facet of a complete 'hybrid' epistemology -- a world-view where scientific knowledge and religious beliefs and values are fully and meaningfully intertwined into a kind of modern/postmodern stew (call this type 2). Here, science and religion are like the polar ends of the same battery. People who have been largely or entirely educated in secular systems, who are in many cases quite good scientists and critical thinkers in their 'day jobs' (and who are, therefore effectively 'modern'), nevertheless maintain strong attachments to belief systems opposed to the values their professional disciplines are founded on. Instead of primordial hatred, here what one finds is something on the order of a highly personalized instinct or need for order/explanation. Since it is so ingrained, challenging individual components of their beliefs is extremely difficult; it gets personal. The only way there is likely to be a change is if an individual has a crisis of faith, and rejects the system of values as a whole.
My goal is not to characterize all religious believers here; rather, I am trying to describe religious believers who are invested in a degree of religious nationalism, who are nevertheless fully involved with modernity. In fact, most of the people I have personally discussed these issues with are closer to type 2 than to type 1.
Perhaps it might make sense to think of these as two different sorts of people, though there may be individuals who are both. There can be a debate about which are more prevalent or important in the Indian context... I would speculate that there are differences even within the ranks of the movement: higher-ups in the BJP are more likely to be type 2, while the more garden-variety communalist sentiment comes from the primordial hatreds of type 1.
What is the correct response? All of this raises the question of what our (meaning, declared secularists and rationalists) approach should be. With regards to type 1, I am nervous about attempting to produce rational thinkers out of people who cannot or will not go in that direction. Where does rationality come from? Who am I to be its arbiter? Critics of this mentality -- including some of whom have commented on this blog -- find it easy to mock the attitude of self-proclaimed rationality and modernity, even if they cannot disprove the claims. If our goal is to criticize the romantic espousal of religious Nationalism, there is a danger of the other side accusing us of tyrannical Rationalism.
Respecting the other side. The most straightforward way to deal with this threat in my experience is to deemphasize the words 'reason' and 'modernity' and instead invoke protocol. Scientific institutions require a skeptical appraoch to new claims, but they also require engagement with evidence, no matter who presents it. Thus, it might be smart to engage the claims of Vedic science on its merits: 'ok, you say you can prove it. Modern scientific knowledge is based on observation, and especially on double-blind studies. So show me the double-blind study, tell me how another scientist could duplicate your study...' It is much more laborious work, but it shows respect for the other side even in sharp disagreement.