Thursday, 28 March 2013

Sanal Edamaruku in Oxford this week

Sanal Edamaruku, President of the Indian Rationalist Association, was in Oxford this week, and he took the opportunity to speak to an audience of about 50 at Oxford Skeptics in the Pub.

This was not the usual 45 minute talk that we are accustomed to.  I thought I saw an interesting twinkle in his eye when he was introduced with the statement that he would talk for about that long.  In fact he treated us to and hour and three quarters of interesting anecdotes about the role of superstition in otherwise progressive India.

For example, Indian technology has enabled the country to launch satellites, but astrologers are still consulted when deciding the best time to launch them.  We were treated to a long list of more and less shocking anecdotes on similar topics included fire-walking, 'The Milk Miracle' (where statues appeared to drink milk from a spoon), the Prahlad Jani hoax (where he pretended to have fasted for 70 years) and tales of the famous Sai Baba who has been debunked many times by Sanal and his crew.  You can see more of the tales on  this video from Vimeo (which I shared with you a few days ago).

He described how his organisation runs 'Inspire Camps' in schools all over India, teaching the children how to do the tricks that a lot of gurus and holy men use to fleece their customers.  They then give the kids a kit of the ingredients that they need so they can go and show their parents and friends how it is done.

A few other interesting facts:
  • The average age of an Indian is currently 22.  Within 10 years the average will be 18.  By comparison in most EU countries the average is over 40 and sometimes over 45, and increasing.
  • The terms Humanist and Skeptic are used little in India.  Generally the two groups are combined and referred to as Rationalists.
  • You will see people in India rubbing their hands in a particular way because they believe it will stop them going grey.
  • There is still a culture of child marriage in India, even though it is illegal.
  • Until the 1930s, people suspected of theft could be tried by fire - fire-walking that is!  If they were not burnt then they were considered innocent.
  • I was a bit surprised to hear him invoke ball-lightning as an explanation for some events in Utna Pradesh.  Still - even 'Rationalists' can have areas of non-skepticism.

All-in-all he did not disappoint.  He concluded with the story of the recent event that resulted in him having to leave the country.  You can read more about that in a previous post on Something Surprising, here.

I was most surprised by events the next day when I was telling a Christian about him.  She dismissed him out-of-hand and said she thought people shouldn't go round debunking other people's beliefs like that, whether or not they happen to be harmful beliefs.

I disagree. 

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