Can scientists be religious? – The science of yarn

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‘Praying Hands’, a 30-ton, 60-foot-tall bronze statue at Oral Roberts University, Oklahoma. Photo: C.Jill Reed, CC BY-SA 2.0


  • Science and religion in India is based on an ethnographic study of faith and religious practices of scientists in a laboratory of an institute in Bangalore.
  • The author, Renny Thomas, has been with the lab for much of the year and has interacted formally and informally with scientists in many settings.
  • The trope of a rocket scientist cracking a coconut to please the gods before a launch has been the subject of much public outrage, but the book debunks these notions as shallow.
  • It examines how scientists in India live their ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ lives beyond ‘a life disenchanted with scientific rationality and modernity’.

While religion has had and continues to exert an outsized influence on the trajectory of our politics and society, the role played by science is not readily visible to the common man. Although Jawaharlal Nehru, our first Prime Minister, emphasized the potential of science to solve the myriad problems facing a newly independent and impoverished nation, and followed it up with major expenditures for the construction of a vast network of research laboratories, institutions and governments. agencies, public recognition of the contribution made by Indian science – and scientists – has been somewhat muted.

Only over time, after such historic programs as the “green revolution”, the advent of a national multi-purpose satellite system, the successful development of long-range weapon-launching systems, and the laurels won by some of our eminent scientists, that a measure of respect for our scientific and technological establishment has emerged into the public domain.

At this point in history, when a regime that swears by religious/cultural nationalism tries to steer our scientific research in bizarre and false directions, anything that contributes to a clearer picture of our scientists such that they are, without the distorting lens of politics agendas and power politics, should be more than welcome.

Such a timely effort is Science and religion in India: beyond disenchantment, based on an ethnographic study by Renny Thomas of the faith and religious practices of scientists in a laboratory located at a research institute in Bangalore. Thomas teaches sociology and social anthropology at Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi. For this book, he was part of the lab for much of the year, interacting formally and informally with scientists in a variety of settings. The book is a presentation of his findings, contextualized at every step with blissful references to relevant scientific and religious discourses in India and the West.

Science and Religion in India Renny Thomas Routledge 2022

Any study of science and religion in India must confront the popular notion that they are in irreconcilable conflict with each other. The trope of a rocket scientist cracking a coconut to please the gods before a launch has been the subject of much public outrage. This book demystifies these notions of superficiality and examines how scientists in India live their “religious” and “non-religious” lives beyond a “disenchanted life of scientific rationality and modernity”. In his own words, he seeks to answer the following questions:

“Why does the grand narrative of the conflict between science and religion dominate the popular imagination? Do scientists really see a conflict between their religious and scientific life? How do they interpret their religious opinions and their lives? What does it mean to be a religious scientist?

The answers are never less than fascinating.

We learn that the idea of ​​a constant ideological struggle between science and religion was “manufactured” in Europe in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, specifically to wrest control of all levels of education from theologians in the light of Darwin’s theory of evolution. It was the consequence of a movement to secularize science. The notions of objectivity and rationality associated with science have created the misunderstanding that scientists should be objective, rational and critical of religion. Although this notion persists to this day, it is easy to see that it does not necessarily have to apply to other societies dealing with very different contexts.

In their autobiographies, stalwarts of Indian science like Raja Ramanna and CNR Rao viewed religion as a means for human consciousness to reach a higher reality than the natural world. Faith in God was a help to live a better life, as a better human being. Other scientists believed that science was incapable of explaining all reality and that science was not the only reality in this world. Religion could not be conceptualized from an “objective point of view” since religion and science belonged to different domains. At the same time, they were not opposed to each other because religious beliefs and practices helped them to do better science.

Scientists often distinguish themselves from lay believers by moving away from temple visitation and rituals, material manifestations of religious faith, viewing their faith as spiritual. Compared to other belief systems, spirituality offers scientists “rational” alternatives. Using culture and spirituality interchangeably, they are able to accommodate their faith and exercise their profession without contradiction.

Many of the scientists also identify as atheists, but their atheism is often not the impiety of the West. Some argue that “science is a religion that believes in logic and is open to questioning and criticism. On the contrary, religion is a science that blindly believes what is preached. They cannot mix. It’s silly if we try to mix them up. There are others who invoke the ancient Samkhya tradition, which held that the world arose from primitive matter without the intervention of any effective cause, resulting in a decidedly atheistic following.

Yet another part of atheists claim to follow a flexible, non-institutional religion that allows them to “bring together the two realms of belief and disbelief seamlessly.” By identifying certain religious practices as traditional culture, they are able to participate in religious functions and rituals while “scripting their own understanding of unbelief” and maintaining an identity distinct from believers.

However, I found the last chapter of the book, “Caste, Religion and Laboratory Life”, somewhat disappointing. Thomas is right to point out that there is a preponderance of Brahmins among Indian scientists, and this is not due to a “natural” capacity of people belonging to the community but is the result of its early access to the Western education and the cultural capital that flows from it. .

Former ISRO President K. Sivan in Tirupati before the launch of the PSLV C48 mission on December 11, 2019. Source: YouTube screenshot

His observation that the representation of the OBC, SC and ST communities in these labs is low to non-existent is also very relevant. Diversity is a broader societal issue, which can potentially be addressed by existing and new public policy interventions. Given the lack of diversity, his ethnographic findings on the laboratory community raise many important questions.

In the study, Tamil Brahmins appear as privileged people with enormous cultural capital, but blissfully unaware of both. They exhibit a predilection for Carnatic music and vegetarian food, which serve as caste markers that are again deployed without any trace of self-awareness. Being the majority community of the institute, they also set the standards of institutional culture and scientific practice that non-Brahmins must adhere to if they are to succeed. Even the image they have of themselves, as people who are generally poor to begin with, but who have grown up focusing only on education, is subject to criticism.

I think such talk is avoidable for two reasons. A single laboratory in an institute is not a sufficient basis for the conclusions drawn. Second, if our line of research is the role played by caste in scientific institutions, we need to study a representative sample of institutions in which different (privileged) castes set institutional norms by dint of being in the majority. Such institutions should not be difficult to find. Representation is always a good idea for any setting.

Overall, this is an illuminating study that sheds light on an area that has remained largely unexplored. It shows the notion of an insoluble opposition between religion and science/rationality as a false dogma. The author does an excellent job of bringing together past and present discourses to contextualize his findings and make them more meaningful. Perhaps we should have a softer view in the future of praying scientists.

N. Kalyan Raman is a Chennai-based translator of contemporary Tamil fiction and poetry.


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