On science, religion, Brahmins and a book

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I’m partway through Renny Thomas’s new book, Science and Religion in India: Beyond Disenchantment. Its description on the Routledge page reads:

This book provides an in-depth ethnographic study of science and religion in the context of South Asia, giving voice to Indian scientists and shedding valuable light on their engagement with religion. Drawing on biographical, autobiographical, historical, and ethnographic material, the volume focuses on scientists’ religious life and practices, and the variety of ways in which they express them. Renny Thomas challenges the idea that science and religion in India are naturally connected and argues that the discussion has to go beyond binary models of ‘conflict’ and ‘complementarity’. By complicating the understanding of science and religion in India, the book engages with new ways of looking at these categories.

To be fair to Renny as well as to prospective readers, I’m hardly familiar with scholarship in this area of study and in no position to be able to confidently critique the book’s arguments. I’m reading it to learn. With this caveat out of the way…

I’ve been somewhat familiar with Renny’s work and my expectation of his new book to be informative and insightful has been more than met. I like two things in particular based on the approximately 40% I’ve read so far (and not necessarily from the beginning). First, Science and Religion quotes scientists with whom Renny spoke to glean insights generously. A very wise man told me recently that in most cases, it’s possible to get the gist of (non-fiction) books written by research scholars and focusing on their areas of work just by reading the introductory chapter. I think this book may be the exception that makes the rule for me. On occasion Renny also quotes from books by other scientists and scholars to make his point, which I say to imply that for readers like me, who are interested in but haven’t had the chance to formally study these topics, Science and Religion can be a sort of introductory text as well.

For example, in one place, Renny quotes some 150 words from Raja Ramanna’s autobiography, where the latter – a distinguished physicist and one of the more prominent endorsers of the famous 1981 ‘statement on scientific temper’ – recalls in spirited fashion his visit to Gangotri. The passage reminded me of an article by American historian of science Daniel Sarewitz published many years ago, in which he described his experience of walking through the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia. I like to credit Sarewitz’s non-academic articles for getting me interested in the sociology of science, especially critiques of science as a “secularising medium”, to use Renny’s words, but I have also been guilty of having entered this space of thought and writing through accounts of spiritual experiences written by scientists from countries other than India. But now, thanks to Science and Religion, I have the beginnings of a resolution.

Second, the book’s language is extremely readable: undergraduate students who are enthusiastic about science should be able to read it for pleasure (and I hope students of science and engineering do). I myself was interested in reading it because I’ve wanted, and still want, to understand what goes on in the minds of people like ISRO chairman K. Sivan when they insist on visiting Tirupati before every major rocket launch. And Renny clarifies his awareness of these basic curiosities early in the book:

… scientists continue to be the ‘special’ folk in India. It is this image of ‘special’ folk and science’s alleged relationship with ‘objectivity’ which makes people uneasy when scientists go to temple, engage in prayer, and openly declare their allegiance to religious beliefs. The dominance and power of science and its status as a superior epistemology is part of the popular imagination. The continuing media discussion on ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) scientists when they offer prayer before any mission is an example.

Renny also clarifies the religious and caste composition of his interlocutors at the outset as well as dedicates a chapter to discussing the ways in which caste and religious identities present themselves in laboratory settings, and the ways in which they’re acknowledged and dismissed – but mostly dismissed. An awareness of caste and religion is also important to understand the Sivan question, according to Science and Religion. Nearly midway through the book, Renny discusses a “strategic adjustment” among scientists that allows them to practice science and believe in gods “without revealing the apparent contradictions between the two”. Here, one scientist identifies one of the origins of religious belief in an individual to be their “cultural upbringing”; but later in the book, in conversations with Brahmin scientists (and partly in the context of an implicit belief that the practice of science is vouchsafed for Brahmins in India), Renny reveals that they don’t distinguish between cultural and religious practices. For example, scientists who claim to be staunch atheists are also strict vegetarians, don the ‘holy thread’ and, most tellingly for me, insist on getting their sons and daughters married off to people belonging to the same caste.

They argued that they visited temples and pilgrimage centres not for worship but out of an architectural and aesthetic interest, to marvel at the architectural beauty. As Indians, they are proud of these historical places and pilgrimage centres. They happily invite their guests from other countries to these places with a sense of pride and historicity. Some of the atheist scientists I spoke to informed me that they would offer puja and seek darshan while visiting the temples and historically relevant pilgrimage places, especially when they go with their family; “to make them happy.” They argued that they wouldn’t question the religious beliefs and practices of others and professed that it was a personal choice to be religious or non-religious. They also felt that religion and belief in God provided psychological succor to believers in their hardships and one should not oppose them. Many of the atheist scientists think that festivals such as Diwali or Ayudha Puja are cultural events.

In their worldview, the distinction between religion and culture has dissolved – and which clearly emphasises the importance of considering the placedness of science just as much as we consider the placedness of religion. By way of example, Science and Religion finds both religion and science at work in laboratories, but en route it also discovers that to do science in certain parts of India – but especially South India, where many of the scientists in his book are located – is to do science in a particular milieu distorted by caste: here, the “lifeworld” is to Brahmins as water is to fish. Perhaps this is how Sivan thinks, too,although he is likely to be performing the subsequent rituals more passively, and deliberately and in self-interest, assuming he seeks his sense of his social standing based on and his deservingness of social support from the wider community of fellow Brahmins: that we must pray and make some offerings to god because that’s how we always did it growing up.

At least, these are my preliminary thoughts. I’m looking forward to finishing Science and Religion this month (I’m a slow reader) and looking forward to learning more in the process.

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