‘Religion is a stumbling block to progress’

Interview with the rationalist Narendra Nayak.

Published : Sep 18, 2013 12:30 IST

Narendra Nayak

Narendra Nayak

NARENDRA NAYAK, the 62-year-old rationalist from Mangalore who calls himself “a humanist”, has been in the forefront of over 2,000 national and international campaigns exposing godmen and their “miracles” and debunking superstition.

The founder of the Dakshina Kannada Rationalist Association and its secretary since 1976, he says he is working towards making India an atheist society. He is also the national president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, which has over 60 atheist, rationalist and humanist groups as members.

Physically attacked on numerous occasions and bombarded by telephonic and mail threats, Nayak had to fight a court case to retain his job. Unperturbed, he has carried on combating superstition and dogma, trying to create awareness among the masses, the majority of whom, according to him, “are literate but not educated”.

Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline :

What do you think of being an atheist in a country like India where spirituality and godmen permeate every aspect of life?

Atheism is a conclusion that there is no supernatural power. So rather than considering myself an atheist, I would describe myself as a humanist. Humanism is more broad-based, it recognises that all human beings are equal and have the right to pursue his or her happiness as long as it doesn’t infringe upon the human rights of others.

India is a land of spirituality…

“Land of spirituality” should be put within quotation marks because all the spirituality that you see has always been in materialistic form. This alleged spirituality is always a vehicle to accumulate material wealth. Take any place where this alleged spirituality is practised, and there will be materialism. Spirituality in this country is always weighed in terms of the material wealth that is being made. The more spiritual the leader, the greater the wealth in terms of land, crores in the bank, other assets, and so forth.

So, would you say that this nexus between spirituality and materialism has been there for centuries?

I have been personally conscious of this nexus for over 50 years. But if one goes by the wealth valued at lakhs of crores of rupees accumulated 300-400 years ago in the [Sree] Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, which is supposed to be a place of spirituality, we can just as well conclude that this nexus was always there.

This materialism that you talk about is a voluntary gesture from believers. Just as it was in the case of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple.

No, I won’t say so. If you give it voluntarily, there should be no force. But here this had to be paid to the king. If you remember your history, there was something called ‘breast tax’. A woman chopped of her breast and threw it in front of the king, saying, ‘Here, keep it. I cannot pay the tax’. Over the centuries, the blood of the poor has been sucked and put into the coffers of the centres of so-called spirituality. For many who have looted or cheated the masses, this materialistic offering to the coffers of one temple or another is a means to ease their guilt and suppress their troubled conscience.

But most major religions of the world talk of charity. So what is wrong with charity?

Yes. But who channels this charity that comes in materialistic form?

But somebody has to channel it.

If you can give this charity directly to the needy, why do you need these middlemen, priests and places of worship? In Islam you have something called zakat . Do you need a church or any other place of worship to channel this charity? These people act as agents of God, and they are more dangerous because while God doesn’t exist, these agents do. The whole Renaissance in Europe was against the authority of the king and the Church; the two were always hand in glove. In India today, all the godmen, the political class and the bureaucracy are hand in glove and it is the common man who is being exploited by these people.

Religion doesn’t encourage people to practise debauchery, cheat, misuse funds or be corrupt. In fact, it implores the faithful and more so its spiritual leaders to be honest.

Honest to whom?

To the religion’s beliefs.

What are the beliefs of the religion that he professes? All these priests are the agents of a non-existent God and they are parasites on our society preying on the gullibility of the people.

So are you saying that people will be better off without spirituality?

Definitely. Countries where the quality of life is at the highest level are the ones where belief in supernatural powers is the least. Countries like Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh or those in sub-Saharan Africa, where spirituality/superstition is at its peak, are the most backward. The reason why countries in Western Europe are most egalitarian is that they are secular. Finland is among countries with the highest quality of life; it is also the country that has the maximum number of atheists. Belief in God is detrimental to people. Religion is one of the stumbling blocks to progress. To believe that prayer will cure your cancer and then, when it is too late, to go to an oncologist is stupid.

But America, which has very influential Christian religious groups, is unarguably the only superpower in the world today.

America is not a civilised nation but a parasite on the world. It supports so-called democracies by first selling them weapons and then by sending them huge bills. But even America has a fair share of atheists.

Spirituality/religion is the glue that keeps India together.

No. Religion and caste divides society. You may have a neighbour who is culturally just like you but the moment his religion or caste is different, there is a division. If at all religion unifies, it is only to promote violence against other groups.

Is there hope that the masses will realise the “truth” behind most godmen?

When you expose the wrongdoings of godmen and their ilk, the state’s investigative machinery gets into action. And then people become aware of the manipulation in the name of spirituality.

Many godmen have a huge following. People could not have been forced to attend their meetings?

People want some superstition or the other to hang on to. The Indian middle classes solved their basic needs —food, clothes and shelter—around 20 years ago. Now the problems of the great, vocal Indian middle class are a balding head, an advancing paunch and lifestyle diseases. Anyone who promises an easy cure for these, without dieting, without exercises, attracts them.

But over the centuries there have been numerous cases of the sick being cured by prayers/miracles.

No, definitely not. In evidence-based medicine we need statistics, evidence, randomised control trials, double-blind studies before any conclusions are made on a cure or remedy. None of these is in existence in so-called miracle cures. There may be a few cases of self-limiting disorders or may be spontaneous remission, which are highlighted as miracle cures. But cases where people sought miracle cures and failed are not highlighted.

Godmen and magic? What is the connection?

A godman wants to show that he is superior to you. He wants to demonstrate something that is against the laws of nature. Matter cannot be created or destroyed, but if a godman waves his hand in the air and produces a gold ring or scared ash, you think that it is a miracle. That is how they build up gullibility among the people. If I can produce ash from thin air, I can also cure cancer or if I can walk on fire, I can cure your aliments. Or if I can keep burning camphor on my tongue, then whatever my tongue says is true. These are the messages that go out to the people. The message is while you are ordinary, the godman is extraordinary and has extraordinary powers. Our flagship programme is to expose this. The older generation of godmen used to walk on fire or produce holy ash. But the younger generation has stopped this because they know that we will expose them in 10 minutes. So, especially in the urban areas, they have taken on new techniques like breathing methods, miracle concoctions, quackery, or just mumbo jumbo using scientific terminology, which on scrutiny makes no scientific sense.

Would you say religion has been used to subjugate the masses?

Yes. It was Voltaire who said that the origin of religion was when the first charlatan met the first fool on earth. The degree of deceit might vary, but they [godmen] are all cheating the masses. And people are willing to be fooled, not wanting to apply their minds rationally.

You can be religious and still not believe in mumbo jumbo.

As a humanist I have no objection to the cultural aspects of your form of religion or even mumbo jumbo as long as it is practised within your private space and doesn’t impinge on the human rights of others.

How do you go about “educating” the masses?

Educating the masses is a continuous process. Miracle demonstrations are the most catchy, so too are lectures. In villages, thousands of people turn up and listen with an open mind.

Today many religious ceremonies that were once the preserve of only the upper castes have trickled down and become very popular.

This is because these practices are seen as a means of climbing the social ladder. People imitate many Brahminical religious practices and say and feel, “We are also like the Brahmins”.

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