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Devangshu Datta: The triumph of the irrational

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In April, there were violent incidents in Hyderabad when some Dalit students held a “beef festival”. Activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) attacked the Dalits. Also in April, Sanal Edamaruku faced charges under section 295(a) of the after he demonstrated that capillary actions from a blocked drain were responsible for water dripping from a “weeping” statue of Jesus in a Mumbai church. In June, a two-member bench of the ruled that the marriage of a 15-year-old Muslim girl was legal since she had attained puberty.

These three unrelated incidents had one thing in common: religious sentiment trumped rationality. In Hyderabad, the activists were demanding that the Dalits tailor their diets to suit upper-caste sensibilities. In Mumbai, members of a Catholic congregation were upset that a purported miracle had been debunked and wanted to punish the man who did the debunking. In Delhi, Quranic provision was allowed to supersede laws about the age of consent, and the court allowed the elopement of a minor against her parent’s express wishes.

What is truly amazing is that in each of these cases, “religious sentiment”, whatever that is, was considered sufficient cause to chuck common sense out of the window. Take the cases one by one, and consider the inherent absurdities.  

In the first case, somebody wanted to eat something that is part of his or her normal diet, and part of the staple diet of billions. He or she isn’t force-feeding anybody else. If you complained to the police about your neighbour eating say, hing (asafoetida), would the complaint be taken seriously? Why should anybody want to interfere with anybody else’s diet, or be allowed to interfere?

In the second case, any middle-school student should be aware of capillary action. It wasn’t considered a miracle even two millennia ago. If there’s water dripping off a wall, capillary action is among the first things a plumber checks for. Anyone who assumes this is a miracle should be asked to take a refresher course in class-six physics.

In the third case, try a thought experiment, ignoring gender and religion. A 15-year-old runs away with somebody, or is kidnapped by somebody, and ends up living with that somebody. The teenager would, in the normal course of things, be restored to his or her parents, and the somebody he or she was living with would have been tried for statutory rape and kidnapping.

Incidents like these occur all the time. The damage caused to society by pandering to religious sentiment adds up and is quantifiable. On a regular basis, road alignments are redrawn to bypass supposedly holy structures — each realignment can cost crores. An entire sea-canal project – the – was held up due to hysteria over a natural geological formation. Multitudes of religious holidays lead to lower national productivity. The popularity of charlatan faith healers impedes the healthcare system. Worst of all, when two systems of faith come into conflict, the state is paralysed for fear of causing offence to either faith and often ends up enabling communal riots as a result.

It’s a pity that India possesses such a large population of people willing to throw sense out of the window every time faith enters the door. It’s a farce that politicians will pander to absurdity in the name of religion to garner what votes they can. It’s an absolute tragedy that the legal system empowers religious sentiment at the expense of rationality.

I’ve highlighted three recent examples of absurd outcomes drawn from three mainstream Indian religions. One can easily find examples of absurdities committed in the name of other faiths as well. The problem does not lie with any given faith or its tenets. The problem is that faith is given far too much importance in our supposedly secular society.

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