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Book Review: Can Scientists Be Religious?

Book Review: Can Scientists Be Religious?

‘Praying Hands’, a 30-tonne and 60-ft 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 on the religious faith and practices of scientists in a laboratory at an institute in Bengaluru.
  • The author, Renny Thomas, was part of the laboratory for the better part of a year and interacted formally and informally with the scientists many settings.
  • The trope of a rocket scientist breaking a coconut to please the gods before a launch was the subject of much public outrage, but the book debunks such notions as shallow.
  • It looks at how scientists in India live their ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ lives beyond “a disenchanted life of rationality and scientific modernity”.

While religion has had, and continues to exert, an outsize influence in shaping the trajectory of our polity and society, the role played by science is not readily visible to the common man. Though Jawaharlal Nehru, our first prime minister, laid enormous emphasis on the potential of science to solve the countless problems faced by a newly independent, impoverished nation, and followed it up with significant outlays towards building a vast network of research laboratories, institutions and government agencies, public recognition of the contribution made by Indian science – and scientists – has been somewhat muted.

It is only with time, after landmark programmes like the ‘Green Revolution’, the advent of a multi-purpose domestic satellite system, the successful development of long-range weapons-delivery systems and the laurels won by some of our outstanding scientists, that a measure of respect for our science and technology establishment has emerged in the public domain.

At this moment in history, when a regime that swears by religious/cultural nationalism is attempting to take our scientific pursuits in bizarre, faux scientific directions, anything that contributes to a clearer picture of our scientists as they are, without the distorting lens of political agendas and power politics, should be more than welcome.

One such timely effort is Science and Religion in India: Beyond Disenchantment, based on an ethnographic study by Renny Thomas on the religious faith and practices of scientists in a laboratory situated in a research institute in Bangalore. Thomas teaches sociology and social anthropology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Bhopal. For this book, he was part of the laboratory for the better part of a year, interacting formally and informally with the scientists in a variety of settings. The book is a presentation of his findings, contextualised at every stage with felicitous references to relevant science-and-religion discourses in India and the west.

Science and Religion in India Renny Thomas Routledge 2022

Any study of science and religion in India must come to grips with the popular notion that they are in irreconcilable conflict with each other. The trope of a rocket scientist breaking a coconut to please the Gods before a launch was the subject of much public outrage. This book debunks such notions as shallow and looks at how scientists in India live their ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ life beyond ‘a disenchanted life of rationality and scientific modernity’. In its own words, it seeks to answer the following questions:

‘Why is it that the grand narrative of the conflict between science and religion dominates the popular imagination? Do scientists really see conflict between their religious and scientific life? How do they interpret their religious views and life? 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 19th century, specifically to wrest control over all levels of education from theologians in the light of Darwin’s theory of evolution. It was the consequence of a move to secularise science. The notions of objectivity and rationality associated with science created the misunderstanding that scientists should be objective, rational and critical of religion. Though this notion persists to this day, it is easy to see that it need not necessarily apply to other societies dealing with very different contexts.

Also read: The Scientific Temper and Irrational Beliefs Often Live Together

In their autobiographies, stalwarts of Indian science like Raja Ramanna and C.N.R. Rao held religion to be a way for human consciousness to attain a higher reality than the natural world. Faith in god was an aid to living a better life, as a better human being. Other scientists thought that science was incapable of explaining all reality and science was not the only reality in this world. Religion could not be conceptualised from “an objective point of view” since religion and science belonged to different realms.  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 distancing themselves from temple visits and rituals, the material manifestations of religious faith, considering their faith to be spiritual. In comparison to other belief systems, spirituality provides scientists with ‘rational’ alternatives. Using culture interchangeably with spirituality, they are able to accommodate their faith and practice their profession without contradiction.

Many among the scientists also identify as atheists, but their atheism is often not the godlessness of the west. Some hold that “science is a religion that believes in logic and is open to questions and criticism. On the contrary, religion is a science which blindly believes what is preached. They can’t blend. It’s foolish if one tries to blend them.” There are others who invoke the ancient Samkhya tradition, which postulated that the world came into being from primeval matter without the agency of any efficient cause altogether, resulting in a resolutely atheist following.

Yet another section of atheists claim to follow a flexible  and non-institutional religion which enables them to “dovetail both realms of belief and unbelief 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.

I found the final chapter of the book, ‘Caste, religion and the laboratory life’, somewhat disappointing, however. Thomas is right to point out that there is a preponderance of Brahmins among Indian scientists, and it is not because of a “natural” ability of people belonging to the community but is the outcome of its early access to western education and the attendant cultural capital.

Former ISRO chairman K. Sivan at Tirupati ahead of the launch of the PSLV C48 mission on December 11, 2019. Source: YouTube screenshot

His observation that the representation of OBC, SC and ST communities in such laboratories is meagre to non-existent is also highly pertinent. Diversity is a wider problem of society, which can potentially be handled through existing and new public policy interventions. Given the lack of diversity, his ethnographic findings on the community in the laboratory setting raise many important questions.

Also read: Dalit Scientists Face Barriers in India’s Top Science Institutes

In the study, Tamil Brahmins emerge as people who are privileged and possess enormous cultural capital, but are blissfully unaware of both. They exhibit a predilection for Carnatic music and vegetarian food, which serve as caste markers that are again deployed without a trace of self-consciousness. Being the majority community in the institute, they also set the norms for institutional culture and science practice to which the non-Brahmins must conform if they want to succeed. Even their self-image, as people who were generally poor starting out but came up through a single-minded focus on education, comes in for criticism.

I think such a discourse is avoidable for two reasons. A single laboratory in an institute is not a sufficient basis for the inferences drawn. Second, if our line of inquiry is the role played by caste in science institutions, we need to study a representative sample of institutions in which different (privileged) castes set the institutional norms by dint of being in the majority. Such institutions shouldn’t be hard to find. Representation is always a good idea for all contexts.

Overall, this is an illuminating study that throws light on an area that has remained largely unexplored. It shows up the notion of an intractable opposition between religion and science/rationality as false dogma. The author does an excellent job of marshalling past and present discourses to contextualise his findings and make them more meaningful. We should perhaps take a kinder view in future of scientists who pray.

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

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