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When Faith Eclipses Reason

by Salil Tripathi, 24 July 2009

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(From, July 22 2009)

It isn’t often that I get an email from one of India’s foremost astrologers. So when he wrote to me earlier this week, marked urgent, I clicked on it promptly. He was warning me, fore-telling major clashes within my family or at workplace this week, unless…and I had to click on a link which would have taken me to a Web page that would have described how I could ward off the evil hurtling towards me.

The reason he was so concerned was because the moon was going to pass between the sun and the earth (that has happened six times this decade, including twice last year) which would, for some time, make the sun disappear. Of course, he did not explain it so simply; he invoked the mythical character, Rahu. And then he added: If I did this and that, some vulnerable house within my horoscope would be protected. Major credit cards accepted.

It is a charming coincidence that the eclipse, an astronomical phenomenon, occurred precisely during the week when the world celebrated the 40th anniversary of the real moonwalk— that small step for man which became a giant leap for mankind. Here, we were celebrating the anniversary of a historic achievement which demystified the universe; there, we were supposed to be worried that a relatively rare phenomenon, perfectly explainable by science, could wreak havoc on our lives. How do these two universes coexist?

Centuries coexist in our minds. A rocket scientist may smear his forehead with Sai Baba’s ash, and an astrologer might send you an email. The profound difference between faith and reason is an argument as old as civilization. Forty years after two astronauts showed that the moon is neither made of cheese, nor can a cow jump over the moon, we are supposed to worry when its shadow falls, temporarily removing it from our line of vision. But the moon is...a piece of rock. If anything, its lifeless surface which is dark and devoid of any luminosity should at least convince poets not to use it as a metaphor to describe the face of the loved one. But poets have the licence to imagine, and good verse never harmed anybody.
Superstition can harm. Judged by the sheer frenzy the eclipse has sparked—people cancel trips, postpone appointments, plan elaborate bathing rituals at precise hours at the ghats in Varanasi, and some pregnant women, anxious about what Rahu could do, may contrive to delay delivering their babies during eclipse, an act which might endanger themselves or their babies, as they pretend they are not in labour—that old argument, between reason and faith, isn’t about to end soon. An event that one should witness—with due precautions to protect the retina—is assumed to control our lives, dictate our choices and determine our outcomes.
Forty years after the lunar landing, superstition continues to influence thinking at the highest levels. In the US, the problem was acute during the Bush administration, when creationists succeeded in some parts of the country in demanding equal time for “intelligent design” as an alternative to the theory of evolution. The Bush administration also blocked stem cell research, which offered the possibility of yielding remedies to fight as-yet incurable diseases.

Europeans feel smug when they hear of this, thinking that they are more rational, and inherently superior. But under the pretext of the so-called precautionary principle, European governments blocked the introduction of new agricultural technologies not only on the continent but also in Africa, raising fears of mutated crops. When he was a minister in the Indian cabinet, Murli Manohar Joshi wanted to redesign the math and science curriculum but, fortunately, elections intervened, killing that faith-based initiative.

This is not to suggest that science has solved everything. But good scientists are humble—they don’t make claims they cannot prove. And in the face of superior evidence, they amend and adapt their theories. They seek certainty, but are far from certain themselves. And when they witness evidence of something they haven’t seen before, they are struck by awe: Recall the face of François Truffaut in Steven Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when he sees aliens step out from the spaceship. That look is not one of fear, but of wonder.

It is that natural curiosity that took American astronauts to the moon. I was a schoolboy when the lunar module landed at the Sea of Tranquillity, and I was among the thousands of people who lined the roads of Bombay, as it was then known, cheering the three men—Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins—as their motorcade drove by. They made the unknown seem less fearsome, they became the icons of imagination. On the moon, they left a gold pin in the shape of an olive branch; they came in peace for all mankind.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.