“Believers without belief”: The curious case of atheist scientists in India

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Representative image [Courtesy: Amazon.com]

The West has always been fascinated with accounts of the East. While there is no unique “Western” or “Eastern” culture, scholars on both ends of the globe have practiced an “exoticisation” of Eastern systems of beliefs and traditions. This may limit the wider engagement with a plurality of ideas prevalent either in the West or the East.

It is this perspective that Renny Thomas brings to the discussion on ideas of rationalism, atheism and unbelief among Indian scientists, in his article Atheism and Unbelief among Indian Scientists: Towards an Anthropology of Atheism(s) published in Society and Culture in South Asia (2016). In this ethnographic account Thomas notes that several Indian scientists referred to themselves as “atheists”. But on closer scrutiny, he reveals that these “atheist” scientists neither subscribe to the “New Age” “scientific atheism” of (say) Richard Dawkins nor have they abandoned the lifestyles and practices associated with the religion of their birth.

Renny Thomas spent nearly a year in the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru, arguably the most prominent, elite institution for scientific research in India. Thomas meets scientists from various disciplines (molecular sciences, evolutionary biology, aerospace, etc.) who call themselves “atheists” of various kinds – “hard-core”, “staunch”, “extreme materialist”. Basically, they did not subscribe to the idea of a “divine superpower” nor could they digest how ordinary men and women could believe in God. Further, they looked up to Darwinism as having resolved all (or most) of the questions arising over the origins of life on earth.

The atheist scientists at IISc generally believed that science and religion could not co-exist. They also strongly disapproved the display of religious symbols and practice of religious rituals in their labs – something very common during the Ayudha Puja (worship of tools related to one’s livelihood) festival in India. One scientist was concerned that religion in India was responsible for extending the evils of society into scientific academies; he opined that the Brahmins (himself being one) were trying to perpetuate the caste system even in IISc.

Many of the interviewed scientists attributed their atheism to their Westernized science education. But Thomas asks: is atheism in India merely a replica of that in the West?

Drawing from other scholars, Thomas explains that it is important to examine the context under which different forms of unbelief emerge. Ideas may “travel” freely between locations, but the way a particular idea is “institutionalized” in one location may be very different from the idea’s place of origin. “Migration” of ideas may not necessarily mean “replication”. He then proceeds to analyze the ideas of unbelief as practiced by atheist Indian scientists.

Thomas argues that many atheist Indian scientists were unaware of Indian traditions of non-belief and atheism. Among the few who knew, one aerospace scientist had also written extensively on Indian philosophical traditions of unbelief (nastika) and materialism (charvaka). This scientist mentions that there were fewer references to God in the works of Indian classical scientists (like Aryabhatta and Caraka) than in the works of Isaac Newton. Unlike the others he did not feel that belief in God is inherently wrong and called himself a “liberal non-theist” as opposed to “atheist”. However, he valued Indic (Hindu, Islam, Buddhist, etc.) traditions of belief and unbelief and very much disapproved their appropriation by the far-right. Thomas submits that it would require a deeper understanding of such Indian ideas of rationalism and atheism to understand unbelief in India today. While he agrees that it was the Western form(s) of atheism that brought Indian atheism to the limelight, we may need to go beyond Western categories to explain Indian atheism.

Interestingly in his study, several Indian scientists who claimed to be atheist did not mind participating in religious festivals. In fact, they even had puja rooms in their homes because their family members offered daily prayers. Going beyond this, several of these atheist scientists also followed religious lifestyles – they named their children after the gods, visited temples/churches (though they claimed that they only accompanied the family members without participating in the rituals), and even arranged marriages for their children based on their religion and caste! When asked how their atheism accounts for this, these scientists claimed that these were “cultural” practices and not religious. One scientist even said that religious festivals should not be seen as non-secular but as cultural festivals.

So in the Indian context, Thomas highlights that while atheist Indian scientists may insist on Darwinian evolution, the “truth” behind empirical evidence, the incompatibility of science and religion, the ignorance of believers in God, etc. they still follow lifestyles associated with their birth religions. These scientists may not “believe” in God but they “belong” to the larger cultural framework of religion. Renny Thomas describes these scientists as “believers without belief”.

For scholars working on the interface between science and religion in India, Thomas’ article comes as an interesting and useful contribution. As Thomas points out, the science-religion “conflict” thesis drawn from the West is inadequate to describe the traditions of belief and unbelief in India – we need to go beyond binary categories to understand that religion and atheism in India is more closely associated with local cultures.

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4 thoughts on ““Believers without belief”: The curious case of atheist scientists in India

  1. I found this fascinating and a rich reminder of the freedom we all have to live free of ‘labels’ that others might give us without taking the time to understand. I’m appreciating how the value of belonging and spirituality can be expressed simultaneously in myriad ways. Thanks for the learning!

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  2. Very interesting Satish, I really enjoyed your article. A couple of points though:

    1) I feel the term “believers without belief” is not entirely accurate. It would be more accurate to say “believers without belief in God” (I know this is implied but for somebody skimming the surface it may come across that these scientists don’t believe in anything)

    2) The East-West dichotomy is somewhat false; there are many atheists in the West that also follow cultural practices that seem to contradict their self-professed atheism. This could be for a number of reasons such as habit, source of comfort, to be involved in family life, avoid conflict etc. etc.

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    1. Thanks! 🙂
      1) I agree with your observation regarding the terminology.

      2) I think the original article by Renny Thomas (and my summary) suggests that it is not academically appropriate to understand unbelief in India through writings of new age atheists in the West. It is not so much about East-West dichotomy itself but that it would be more useful to examine Indian traditions of materialistic philosophy (such as Carvaka) to arrive at the roots of their unbelief. However, I do agree that atheist scientists in the West may also contradict their self-professed atheism, through their cultural practices, lifestyle, etc..

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