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Interview: ‘Today, Science Is a Weapon To Celebrate a Romantic Past’

Interview: ‘Today, Science Is a Weapon To Celebrate a Romantic Past’

File photo of former ISRO chief K. Sivan at Tirupati temple. Photo: PTI

Social anthropologist Renny Thomas’s book Science and Religion in India: Beyond Disenchantment, released in December 2021, received much attention from different parts of the world. The renowned social historian of science and the author of Nucleus and Nation: Scientists, International Networks and Power in India (2010), Robert S. Anderson in his review of Thomas’s book in the journal Tapuya: Latin American Science, Technology and Society (2022), wrote, ‘‘Thomas wisely allows his subjects to speak at length concerning the relation between their cultural belief systems and their own ideas about their role as scientists. The book is rich in detail and stimulates questions… Beyond Disenchantment: Science and Religion in India can also be re-read as an account of how one does ethnography among people who know something esoteric which the anthropologist or sociologist does not. Thomas is remarkably transparent in the book about his methods and admits his approach and methodology were uncommon in India. From that reflexive angle too, this is a conscientious work in its transparency and thus an important contribution in the sociology and anthropology of science and scientists. It could be used as a teaching text with people not particularly interested in the Indian angle of this kind of research.”

In this conversation, we speak to Thomas about his book and the central questions it covers.

Let’s begin by discussing your book, Science and Religion in India: Beyond Disenchantment, which has garnered wide attention. What are the central themes and questions?

Science and religion were historically considered as two contesting categories, at least in Western historiography (not always true there too, as many historians have demonstrated). My book focuses on the relationship between science and religion in everyday life through an ethnographic study of an Indian scientific research institute, where science is practised on an everyday basis. During my research and fieldwork stay, I noticed various practices attached to religious beliefs in the institute where I studied. In a world that distinguishes science as separate from religion, I found this question about their relationship very interesting. That’s how the journey began!

Apart from the close intertwinement between science and religion, my book discusses the various levels of appropriation of science in India. It also discusses how science is used to propagate the idea of cultural nationalism. I address these questions and concerns with the help of theoretical and methodological tools from the history of science and science and technology studies (STS).

Renny Thomas
Science and Religion in India
Routledge (December 2022)

In your book, you discuss in detail the contribution of Jawaharlal Nehru in setting up scientific research in India. Currently, we also see a growing appropriation of science in India by various cultural nationalist groups. How do you view this?

It is important to look at Nehru’s understanding of science by putting it in its historical context. For him, science meant progress, and it was crucial at his time. For that reason, he uncritically accepted science and the scientific method as a universal category. For instance, he felt that Unani and Ayurvedic medical traditions should follow the methods of modern science to receive state patronage.

In the current times, we see all kinds of appropriation of modern science by cultural nationalist groups. If for Nehru, science was a weapon of “progress”, for the cultural nationalist groups, science is a weapon to celebrate a romantic past. For instance, in 2014, Sanskrit acquired a special position in the Indian Science Congress. The cultural underpinnings behind it are very evident. Scholars like Meera Nanda and Banu Subramaniam have discussed this in great detail. 

We can see that religion is being rationalised as part of making it ‘scientific’. You also discuss scientists who give rational arguments about how good and rational it is to be vegetarian. However, there are certain aspects of religion that cannot be rationalised. How do the scientists in India deal with this contradictory nature of rational-irrational?

Yes, “scientification” of religion is a phenomenon in our times. By making vegetarianism a scientific lifestyle, the very act of vegetarianism gains legitimacy. For example, many government scientific and technological educational institutions in India don’t serve non-vegetarian food in student messes or in their guest houses.

However, they do not have strong boundaries of rational-irrational divide when it comes to beliefs and practices. In the book, I discuss scientists who are devotees of various gurus. It is completely fine as a personal choice, but when it comes to shaping the everyday life of public institutions, then it is a problem. 

Also Read: Book Review: Can Scientists Be Religious?

You talk about scientists who do not practice religious rituals, and yet they consider religion as something that informs their morality and ethics. Do you consider religion as a functional category here?

In their everyday lives, religion is more of a ‘cultural’ category, and it is strongly informed by their caste backgrounds. One can also see that the scientific culture of India is not different from the culture of the scientists, and it has also influenced the culture of laboratories and scientific institutions. Here religion, apart from being functional, is far more strategic in nature. Anthropologist Milton Singer, during his study of small-scale businessmen in Madras, finds a sort of ‘compartmentalisation’ of identities. They choose one identity at home and another at their workplace. My study suggests that scientists do not switch their identities like this; they do not believe in the separation of religion from the self at any moment. We could see religious symbols and images of deities inside their laboratories and institutions; of course, images and symbols of Hinduism. It is not merely an individual act there, but an act of shaping the identity of a place.

There are atheist movements in India that are very active. Recently, esSENSE Global, an atheist organisation based in Kerala, was accused by another group of atheists of having links to right-wing Hindutva groups. These neo-atheist movements are criticised because of their Islamophobia and tendency to align with the dominant cultural forces. In light of these developments, what are your thoughts on the negotiation of science with atheism, culture, etc.?

Recently, I have authored a chapter in an edited book titled Cambridge History of Atheism (2021) edited by the noted philosopher of science, Michael Ruse and the British sociologist of religion Stephen Bullivant, which tries to break down the idea of atheism as a universal and homogenous category. The authors argue that atheism existed in various forms among different cultures, and sometimes it was not just about the existence of God. The idea of projecting atheism as a mere denial of God’s existence is a myth. 

John Gray, in his book Seven Types of Atheism (2018) explores various forms of atheism and the limitation of a dogmatic understanding of atheism. I think dogmatic atheism is very anti-anthropological as well. It does not address the everyday realities of religion and religious life, which can also easily give way to various forms of Islamophobia, for instance, as you were asking.

What are your thoughts on Indian scientific institutions following Hindu practices and rituals? 

Rather than making it ‘religious’, scientists consider them as ‘cultural’. One finds images and symbols of deities in many scientific institutions, which are considered ‘normal’, which means that it is normalised to the extent that everyone can relate to them. They don’t realise that it should not be allowed in a secular institution. However, one should note that there are progressive groups in many scientific and technological institutions that criticise these religious rituals and raise other questions of equality and social justice. The Ambedkar-Periyar Study Groups in various IITs are an example. The point is not about the individual religious practice of a scientist, which is their right. I am talking about the normalisation of the cultural practices of certain groups and communities in secular institutions. 

Renny Thomas

Science is always considered as an objective category and scientific truths are seen as unquestionable. However, religion does not involve ‘finding’ or ‘proving’ the existence of God, rather it is about faith. Did you observe situations where scientists have to give importance to either of them during their work? How do religious beliefs influence their overall study and their research output?

It has been historically accepted that science is about objectivity, and therefore, scientists cannot allow their beliefs to influence their findings. (Of course, we do have important scholarship in STS and the history of science that challenges this claim as well.) Since they also have to compete at an international level, they will never compromise their scientific work with anything. They need to mark their footprint on a global level by doing high-quality research. Remember science and scientific research is very much part of global capital networks. 

They try to inculcate religion in science without compromising their work. For example, they form groups like ‘Sanskrit and Science’ in their institutions. However, religious practice seeps into the everyday lives of scientists. Some of the scientists I interacted with, for instance, don’t submit their research papers to journals on Tuesdays for they believe it is inauspicious to do so. Likewise, they would decorate the labs with religious symbols and seek blessings on special occasions. 

In India, engineering as a profession is respected and for that reason, IITs are of high importance. Places like IITs thrive on illusions of merit and they unabashedly promote the idea of meritocracy. How does casteism function in scientific institutions?

I have a detailed chapter on caste and science in my book, and I had written on caste and science earlier as well. Merit has become a norm in our times, and students are proud of their ‘merit’. They will identify the real problem of the term ‘merit’ only if they look into their own histories of privilege. Merit as a category has been secularised and it is often equated with ‘passion’ and ‘hard work’. Sociologists and anthropologists such as Ajantha Subramanian and Satish Deshpande have discussed extensively the myth of meritocracy in India. Scientific institutions are very vocal about merit, and it is difficult to argue against it. As Subramanian shows in her book, The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India, their history is rooted in meritocracy. 

Sarfras E.P. and Anees Kambalakkad are pursuing their master’s in Society and Culture at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Gandhinagar, Gujarat.

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