2010: Secular Humanism in India as a Tool for Social Change

Humanists in a Holy Land; Indian Secularization as a Tool for Social Change
Marina Keegan
Marina Keegan
Sayrbook 2012

I can’t shake India. I can’t stop thinking about the energy, the energy of humanity displayed in all its filthy splendor. The frying street pakoras and bucket baths and faces that peer and point and take pictures from mosques and malls and trains that trace the country like veins. When I try to write about India without poetry, I sound inauthentic. Adjectives haunt the country from the deserts of Rajasthan to the river ghats of the holy Ganges. This is the third time I’ve tried to write this essay. The first time was aboard a ten-hour plane out of Mumbai International. I stared at my journal, full of adjectives, adjectives and tried futilely to form some kind of reflection. But nothing was holistic. Nothing I wrote could authenticate the weeks I’d spent in rickshaws and overdrive, eating curry for breakfast and sweating through 120 degree Delhi.

If my absurd verbosity hasn’t illustrated this explicitly, my summer was unbelievable. And all that unbelievability is thanks to your believability in me. The truth is, when I applied to study Humanism and Atheism in India, I had no idea what to expect. I had lists of people and books to read, but nothing could have prepared me for what I can honestly call the best summer of my life. Before I even begin to elaborate on my facts and findings, I want to genuinely thank the Fellowship Committee for granting me this phenomenal opportunity. I mean it most sincerely when I say I’ve never been more acutely aware of how lucky I am to be living in this castle.

As I said in my application, India is a country saturated by religions — Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism and Buddhism flood the streets with an almost unparalleled presence. Yet tucked between the turbans and Krishna idols exists one of the largest and most active Humanist movements on Earth. What’s fascinating about this secularized community is its root in seeking positive progress through development projects and social welfare programs. Atheism is traditionally equated with apathy and immorality, but India is trying to vanguard a reverse of this perception. Many of the nation’s fundamental injustices like the caste system and subjugation of women are rooted in religion and the myriad rationalist organizations are attempting to combat such prejudices with non- theism.

In short, I traveled to India to assess the efficacy of such strategies and to analyze whether secularization can really function as a force for progressive change. As young people, we are part of a generation significantly less religious than our parents. Statistics show a rising population of rationalists, skeptics and individuals more prone than ever to question, not accept, the world around them. The most recent American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), released March 9, 2009, reported that in 2008, 34.2 million Americans (15.0%) claim no religion. Furthermore, the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor declared in their “International Religious Freedom Report,” that 2008 saw an increase in atheism in all 50 states. However, compared with global statistics, the U.S. has a relatively low non-theist population. Europe, in particular, is increasingly secular; 44% of the United Kingdom, 54% of France and an astonishing 85% of Sweden identifies as either Atheist or agnostic. And while statistical demographics for non-theists have yet to be compiled in India—the nation is no exception to the global trend; and my research took me all over India — from the secular NGO’s in New Delhi, to a Humanist school on the foot of the Himalayas, to the world famous Atheist Centre near the southern coast.

It started, however, thousands of miles away as I whiled away the weeks before my departure reading An Atheist with Ghandi, Philosophical Humanism and Contemporary India, The Need to Revive Atheism in India, and a new best seller by Harvard’s Humanist chaplain called Good without God. Upon finishing this final book I figured I’d try to get in touch with the author. After sending a few emails I managed to find myself in his office, debating his philosophies and agreeing to write a regular blog on The New Humanists website. Over the next couple of weeks I ran around Boston meeting with Humanists and atheists and getting a sense of the movement in my own city. I met with Mark Lindley and Joe Gerstein, two Harvard affiliated intellectuals who had traveled themselves to study atheism in India. Here I drank tea and removed my shoes and watched as these old men watched me, eager and ecstatic that a young person was fascinated with their fascination.

I wanted to get a sense of the movement all over the country and I planned to visit and interview many different organizations and networks. So when I departed for Delhi in June I brought only a small backpack, filled with four shirts and two pairs on long linen pants. I had scheduled dates for some of my meetings but I also left a lot of space open – enabling myself to travel where my research gave precedent. This proved essential, as so many of my meetings were organized through advice and guidance I could never have gotten from back in the US.

My on the ground research commenced in New Delhi with the Director of The Social Development Foundation, Mr. Vidya Bhushan Rawat. The foundation is a self- proclaimed Humanist organization working to impart scientific education and eradicate superstition and religious myths regarding women and other vulnerable sections of society. The headquarters were humble to say the least. I managed to navigate the labyrinthine streets and with the help of some locals found myself sipping hot chai in Mr. Rawat’s sweltering basement. Rawat is a Dalit, also known as an “untouchable”, and the work of his foundation focuses heavily on caste-based inequality. But as I soon discovered, Humanism is just as heterogeneous as India itself.

While I spent my first few days with Rawat and staying in an eight dollar hostel in Delhi’s backpackers’ ghetto, I was dining high and dry in the elegant India International Centre by that Wednesday. My patrons were Mr. Vir Narain, president of the Indian Humanist Union (IHU), and his wife, Sheila Narain. The IHU was established in 1960 by Narsingh Narain, the late Mr.Narain’s father. The organization evolved from the 1954 Society for the Promotion of Freedom of Thought and functions with the official object of “diffusing knowledge concerning moral and social problems from the humanist viewpoint” and “social Service.” That same week I attended a conference at the Gandhi Peace Foundation on “Radical Humanism and its Relevance” where I met and interviewed representatives from organizations all over the country. Perhaps most importantly was my meeting with Babu Gogieni, the President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union that resulted in an invitation to spend time at his house in Southern India.

I traveled next to the desert region of Rajasthan where I talked to everyone from rickshaw drivers to camel safari men about religion and atheism in their country. From there I went north to the Himalayas where I stayed for a week at a Humanist School in a town called Kurukshetra. The school, it turned out, wasn’t exactly a school but more of an “after school” program where the guru, an insane man named Swami Manatavadi indoctrinates children with atheistic beliefs. I spent six days sleeping on the floor and eating three two-hour meals a day with someone who I believe was psychopathic. It was actually pretty incredible. At the end of the week he threw a giant function in my name, which was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life. All the town officials were there taking pictures with me because I was white, and attended Yale. Yet there were so many moments during that week – when I was alone in the shack or arguing with this orange robed man about what he was doing – that I asked myself, “How the heck did I get here?” and I always laughed and smiled because, truly, how the heck did I get there. But living at the school nonetheless proved to be highly significant research. Not only was I able to report his activities to the national organizations, I was able to have some of the most surreal debates of my life. (All of which I have secretly recorded on my phone.)

After the craziness of the Humanist School, I traveled to India’s most holy city of Varanasi where I spoke with religious leaders before heading down to Vijayawada on the South East coast to research at the world famous Atheist Centre. I stayed at the Centre for about a week before moving further south to visit a Humanist Teachers college and sit down with an ancient Indian in a small village who has written over 100 books on the advantages of Indian atheism. Sitting outside his small house with villagers crowded around us was one of the most memorable nights of my entire trip. I spent my last two weeks in Hyderabad and Mumbai where I stayed with the President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (as promised) and researched at the Indian Humanist Society and the Secular Society of India.

There’s really no other way to describe my trip other than an unbelievable adventure. Everywhere I went I met wonderful insane people and backpackers and learned more about myself and my interests than I ever had ever imagined. I think one of the most amazing things I’ve gotten out of this summer is a refreshing new perspective on stress and the day to day insanity of classes and grades. Before India, I had never traveled anywhere non-western and my view of the world my role in it is changed forever. I loved traveling and researching and reading so much that I’m even considering traveling around the world for a year after I graduate.

Humanism in India is complicated. There are myriad organizations with different goals and different names trying to do a million things in a million places. And I must admit, it was difficult to get a real sense of the “movement” because I spent most of my time at organizations with leaders and volunteers. But my thoughts and writings about Humanism continue to change and evolve. I’ll be presenting soon to the Student Secular Alliance and continuing to write for the New Humanist website.

My research this summer has expanded and challenged me in so many ways and I really don’t know what else to say other than thank you. Thank you for enabling me to grow, thank you for expanding my vision of the world and thank you for enabling others to do the same. It’s a truly fantastic investment.