‘The Case for Reason’ review: Religion and rationality

The work of an activist, who was killed for his fight against social evils, is made available to a wider audience

Updated - July 06, 2022 12:27 pm IST

Published - November 10, 2018 07:45 pm IST

The Case for Reason; Narendra Dabholkar, Translated by Suman Oak, Westland, ₹699

The Case for Reason; Narendra Dabholkar, Translated by Suman Oak, Westland, ₹699

Narendra Achyut Dabholkar (1945-2013) is a well-known social activist and writer from Maharashtra who was gunned down on August 20, 2013, during his morning walk in Pune. It is obvious that he was killed because of his incessant efforts at fighting inhuman superstitious practices and spreading a scientific temper among people. His murder was the first in a series of similar killings of three more rationalists and secular activists/ thinkers — Govind Pansare on February 20, 2015; Prof. M.M. Kalburgi, on August 30 the same year and Gauri Lankesh on September 5, 2017. Ironically, it looks like Karnataka is repaying its debt to Dabholkar, for it was his efforts at bringing an Anti-Superstition Bill in Maharashtra that paved for a similar move by the Karnataka government.

Bill against black magic

After much dilly dallying, the Karnataka government finally managed to pass a much watered down version of the draft Bill called ‘Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Bill’ in November 2017, two months after Lankesh was killed.

Fighting inhuman and superstitious practices became Dabholkar’s life’s mission. He formed the ‘Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (The Committee for the Eradication of Superstition, ANiS in short) and established its units at the taluka level to spread awareness among people.

The book under review is to be seen as an extension of his activism. The essays in the volume (originally in Marathi and lucidly translated into English by Suman Oak) are meant to educate ordinary citizens about the importance of developing a scientific spirit and a rational outlook.

The book has two parts. Part One, ‘The Case for Reason’, is about various theoretical aspects of the Anti-Superstition movement and has nine essays dealing with the history and philosophy of science and how a scientific approach should be applied to understand human affairs.

The second part is about ANiS and its activities. It gives an account of various campaigns against specific superstitious practices and irrational beliefs covering a wide range of issues from phoney godmen and their divine claims to belief in astrology and vasthu .

The concepts discussed and developed in the first part are elaborated and examined in the second part, in relation to specific instances exposed by ANiS. Written perhaps for different occasions, there are some repetitions, but a common concern runs throughout the book, linking theory and practice.

Rituals, caste system

Asking why scientific knowledge did not develop in India post 8th century, he outlines five reasons for the non-development of science in India: importance given to rituals and karma, the caste system, improper education, family structure and deification of individuals. Interestingly, it is the same period that Ambedkar terms as the age of ‘counter revolution’ that saw the decline of science and the rise of Manuvadi India. In a way, we can see the same temperament still continuing and even flourishing under the present political dispensation. That explains the growing presence of obscurantism and revivalism, as the recent stage-managed protest against the Supreme Court judgment on the Sabarimala case so clearly exemplifies.

On modern science and its limits, Dabholkar says that “scientific outlook does not aim to conquer nature, it aims to understand nature and its laws, and use them for the benefit of human beings.” Talking about the ‘value’ of science, he says that scientific thinking can generate moral behaviour as causality means “we should not do unto others what we do not want others to do unto us…” His analysis of hypnosis as a pseudo-science is a convincing account of how the use of scientific jargons (like positive and negative energy) does not make it true science. Now a simplistic and uncritical mix of science and spirituality can be seen in the way people, which include teachers, corporate managers and management professionals, get easily fooled by the use of pseudo-scientific jargons by spiritual gurus and personality development experts. Dabholkar’s exposition is a must read for curing these ills of modernity, now playing havoc in the lives of people, aided and abetted by social media.

There is a pattern in Dabholkar’s method of analysis, whether he is writing about a scientific theory or a superstitious practice. He first provides a historical account of the phenomenon, then exposes its methodology and finally provides a rational explanation of how it manifests in local conditions.

Faith and reason

The Hindu right takes pride in attacking those who oppose superstition and calls it anti-Hindu. Obviously, it is a ploy to oppose attempts at spreading scientific temper and rationality which stands opposed to its communal politics. But Dabholkar’s investigation exposes the ‘miracles’ prevalent among Muslim communities too, as the articles on Qamar Ali Darvesh and Sahibjadi show. He writes to the Pope himself when Sainthood is awarded to Mother Teresa on the basis of the alleged miracles associated with her than on the great humanitarian work she has done.

Though the book borrows its intellectual material from history and philosophy of science, it is an easy read. The book is useful for both scholars and lay persons who wish to see a better, humanitarian society. Yet, it leaves one wondering if it is not weighed down by hyper-rationalism as it does not address the deeper causes that constitute human experience shaped by long-held cultural practices which are inseparable from different forms of faith and unreason.

The Case for Reason ; Narendra Dabholkar, Translated by Suman Oak, Westland, ₹699

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.