Response to “Superstition and the inherent cruelty of rationalists” by Devdutt Pattanaik

On the heels of my review of two of his books, I thought it was a good time to post my response to one of Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik’s articles in Scroll.

In his article Superstition and the inherent cruelty of rationalists, Dr. Pattanaik does the same disservice to the rationalists that he accuses the rationalists of doing to the superstitious and the religious. He creates a straw man out of the rationalist, makes a category for him, and attacks him ruthlessly. It isn’t clear what his definition of a rationalist exactly is (philosophical definition, for example, can be quite different from what people infer just from the English word). I assume he uses the word in a colloquial way.

So rationalist is the average person who doesn’t believe that a cat crossing the road before you is a bad omen and doesn’t keep a fast on Mondays to get a good husband. Rationalists prefer not to be bothered by other people’s religious, and what they consider irrational, beliefs, but believe it or not, most of them don’t drag you out of your house and demand you to be hanged if you keep your Thursday fasts. They aren’t the people to deny human emotions either. They don’t behave like robots themselves, nor do they expect others to behave so. They don’t do a cost-benefit analysis before talking to their spouses, visiting their relatives or buying a gift for a friend. Yes, they exist on the same continuum that the author seems to present as some ultimate weapon against them.

“Would rationalists support my “choice” of not mourning for their murder?”  Dr. Pattanaik asks triumphantly. I wonder why he thinks the answer would be no.  Unless it is a school and he expects to be reprimanded by the headmaster!

But even more than that, he conflates rituals with superstition and seems to claim that if we don’t mind one, we should not mind the other too. Not all rituals are equivalent to superstition. Ritual can be a shared symbol. A two-minute silence is just a way of expressing respect for the dead, a practice everyone has adopted and hence is universally understood. It will be called superstition if one starts to believe that it will help the dead pass on to the next world. And it will become harmful if people start being harassed or killed for not observing it, or if they have to forego a month’s hard-earned money to conduct some aggrandized version of a ceremony to avoid being made outcaste.

But by itself the two-minute silence mourning ritual is just like saying ‘hello’ when you meet someone. It is a shared symbol, a way of acknowledging another person’s presence with or without further conversation. A rationalist will question whether the law should demand that a person must stand when the national anthem is played or sung, although as a shared social understanding, he will for the most part follow the practice.

Further by relegating everything to a point in a continuum, one can’t turn his back on the fact that some rituals are harmful, while others don’t put society in danger. The definition of harmful can change with time. It can even be subjective, but that discussion can’t be avoided. On a less populated planet, cremation of the dead on wood fire will not be considered harmful. So whether a rationalist believes in it or not, she can just let it be. But in an already over-polluted, over-populated city, that ritual will have to be questioned. So will murdering people because they deny your beliefs as superstitious. Actually go right ahead and deny the rationalists’ beliefs as dry and ‘cruel’–  a rationalist will not call for your murder for that. He will question you  though. Questioning the ideas by themselves, whether of the superstitious or of the rationalist, can’t be a crime to be killed for. Not in a rationalist’s world, assuming his definition of rationalist includes the scientifically minded people who understand that as our understanding of the world changes, the ideas of harmful and harmless, of correct and incorrect also change.

There is an important place for mythology in society. That place does not need to be secured by attacking or ridiculing rationality.

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