Postmodernism, Science and Religious Fundamentalism:
Religious Fundamentalisms, Modernist and Postmodernist
Recently I was invited to a conference of scholars of science-studies at the beautiful, lake-side campus of Cornell University. The agenda of this conference was to examine the influence of science studies on the wider “polity and the world” outside confines of the Ivory Tower. The conferees considered the influence of their discipline on just about every social movement that dealt with such things as biotech and computers to music (or rather, sound, as in “sound studies”). Completely missing from the agenda, even in this post-9/11 world that we live in, was any reference to the family of reactionary social movements that is making full use of the core ideas of science studies. I refer here to religious fundamentalist movements that are growing in all major faiths all around the world. I ended up having to remind the gathering that the key idea of their discipline may have some rather unanticipated and serious consequences outside the Ivory Tower.
Now, this academic discipline called “science studies” is not your average academic discipline. It is a discipline that evokes great passion, for and against it. It is a discipline that was parodied by Alan Sokal in his famous hoax in 1996, the hoax that sparked the “science wars” that rocked the American academia. For the sake of full disclosure, let me admit that I was a party to the science wars, from the side of Sokal and other scientists and philosophers of science who find science studies to be both wrong and politically dangerous. What I find deeply misguided and politically dangerous about science studies and postmodernism in general is the subject of my forthcoming book, Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India. To understand the significance of science studies to the issue of religious fundamentalism more broadly, and Vedic science in particular, an explanation of what science studies teach is in order.
Science studies, as I said, is not an ordinary academic discipline. It constitutes the beating heart of postmodernism, for it aims to “deconstruct” natural science, the very core of a secular and modern worldview. Since its inception in the 1970s, the discipline has produced a sizeable body of work that purports to show that not just the agenda, but even the content of theories of natural sciences is “socially constructed.” All knowledge, in different cultures, or different historical times – regardless of whether it is true or false, rational or irrational, successful or not in producing reliable knowledge – is to be explained by the same causes. This demand for “symmetry” between modern science and other local knowledges constitutes the central demand of the “strong programme,” the central dogma of science studies. One cannot assume that only false beliefs or failed sciences (e.g., astrology) are caused by a lack of systematic empirical testing, or by faulty reasoning, or by class interests, religious indoctrination or other forms of social conditioning. A truly “scientific” approach to science requires that we suspend our preconceived faith that what is scientific by the standards of modern science of our times brings us any closer to truth. In the spirit of true scientific impartiality and objectivity, science studies demand that modern science be treated “symmetrically,” as being “at par” with any other local knowledge.
In principle, there is nothing whatsoever wrong in the agenda of science studies: modern science is not a sacred form of knowledge that cannot be examined skeptically. Science and scientists must welcome a skeptical look at their enterprise from social critics. The problem with science studies comes in their refusal to grant that modern science has evolved certain distinctive methods (e.g., controlled experiments and double-blind studies) and distinctive social practices (e.g., peer review, reward structures that favor honesty and innovation) which promote a higher degree of self-correction of evidence, and ensure that methodological assumptions that scientists make themselves have independent scientific support. Science studies start with the un-objectionable truism that modern science is as much a social process as any other local knowledge. But using radically relativist interpretations of Thomas Kuhn’s work of science as a paradigm-bound activity, science studies scholars invariably end up taking a relativist position. They argue, in essence, that what constitutes relevant evidence for a community of scientists will vary with their material/social and professional interests, their social values including gender ideologies, religious faith, and with their culturally grounded standards of rationality and success. Thus, scientists with different social backgrounds, from different cultures and from different historical periods, literally live in different worlds: the sciences of modern western societies are not any more “true” or “rational” than the sciences of other cultures. If modern science claims to be universal, that is because Western culture has tried to impose itself on the rest of the world through imperialism.
This, in a nut-shell, is the state of scholarship in science studies. It carries a reasonable idea too far. Its skepticism regarding science is so radical that it does not allow any distinctions between science and superstition. No wonder it excites great passion among supporters and detractors. While science studies practitioners see themselves as brave iconoclasts, those of us who have criticized the field see it as promoting an ‘anything goes’ kind of relativism which helps no one.
This, then, is the contentious history behind the conference that I was invited to. This conference was a kind of stock-taking of the influence of science studies on the larger society. In keeping with its tradition of extreme charity toward all sciences, this gathering came up with a generous and inclusive definition of who belongs to science studies. Sheila Jasanoff, doyenne of science studies, formerly from Cornell and now at Harvard, told the gathering that whoever sees the world through the conceptual framework of science studies, is a part of the science studies community, and has a claim on the discipline. All those, in other words, who see the content of science as a “co-construct” of the dominant interests and values of their respective cultures, are part of this movement of science studies, regardless of whether they are located in the academy or in the world and the polity outside.
But when I pointed out to the gathering that by this definition, the growing movements of religious fundamentalisms in all major faiths also deserve to be admitted to the guild of science studies, the suggestion was not well received. After all, I argued, the contemporary religious political movements use social constructivist arguments when they put aside whatever scientific theory conflicts with their religious faith, as a social construct of godless, Western secular-humanist atheists who have been ruling world since the Enlightenment. Moreover, I argued, if all sciences alike are social constructs, then why shouldn’t the “sacred sciences” propagated by religious fundamentalist movements be admitted as bona fide “local knowledges” or “standpoint epistemologies” of the community of believers?
I was not being facetious, nor was I stoking the “science wars” when I suggested that there was a dangerous convergence – unintended, surely, but not entirely coincidental – between the social constructivist views of science routinely taught in science studies, women’s studies, postcolonial studies and allied disciplines, and the views of those who defend creation science, Islamic sciences, or, as in the case of India, Vedic sciences. The point I was making was not that the foot-soldiers of religious fundamentalist movements are sitting and poring over the works of David Bloor, Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway or even of that great simplifier, Sandra Harding. They are not – although the more sophisticated among them do cite the classic works of (a hugely misinterpreted) Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and those of local post-colonial and feminist scholars who have popularized the social constructivist critiques of objective knowledge and reason at home. I wanted to show how the promotion of an anti-secularist, anti-Enlightenment view of the world by well-meaning and largely left-wing scholars in world-renowned centers of learning has ended up affirming a view of the world which constitutes the common sense of the rather malign, authoritarian and largely right-wing fundamentalist movements. I wanted to show that that having invested so deeply in anti-modernist and anti-rationalist philosophies, the academic left has no intellectual resources left with which to engage the religious right.
Nowhere is the influence of social constructivist and postcolonial critiques of science more evident than in India, where these ideas have become indistinguishable from the Hindu nationalist promotion of assorted “Vedic sciences.” As anyone familiar with global academic trends can attest, ostensibly secular, left-wing intellectuals from India have played a leading role in debates about the nature of knowledge that have raged during the last two decades in American and other Western universities in science studies, feminist epistemology, eco-feminism, postcolonial studies and allied disciplines. Ashis Nandy, Vandana Shiva, Claude Alvares, Gayatri Spivak, Partha Chatterjee, Homi Bhabha, Dipesh Chakravarty, Gyan Prakash, Veena Das, Chandra Tolpady Mohanty and many others have been guiding lights of university humanities departments in America. Not surprisingly, the global prominence of Indian scholars in the assorted postmodernist debates brought them enormous prestige back home. Their critique of “mental colonialism” and their promotion of local knowledges found a strong echo in literally thousands of “alternative development” NGOs and social movements.
The anti-Enlightenment seeds they sowed are now ready for harvest: the cultural authenticity of the non-Western “other” that our radical intellectuals were looking for, has become the official ideology of the Hindu nationalists that have ruled India for a decade. The postcolonial theorists looked to women, working classes, and other marginalized groups to provide more adequate alternatives to Western knowledge. The Hindu nationalists use the same postcolonial arguments against “mental colonization” to find a more adequate alternative epistemology in the most orthodox and mystical core of Hinduism, namely the Vedas and the Upanishads. These nearly three-millennium old Sanskrit texts are being introduced in schools and colleges as “just another name” for modern scientific knowledge including 20th century physics, biology, medicine and even engineering. Conversely, modern sciences are being peddled as “just another name” of the perennial wisdom of the Vedas and the Upanishads. Notwithstanding the deep hold of all kinds of dangerous superstitions in India, Hinduism is being portrayed as the most hospitable of all religions to the spirit of scientific inquiry. All in all, the idealistic view of nature and the mystical mode of knowing taught by the Brahminical texts of India are being whitewashed into a valid – nay, preferred – way of learning and doing science, not just for “Hindu India” but for the whole world.. Two unequal and very unlike methods and view-points are being declared to be equal and alike to the point of being interchangeable.
One could say that this is simply the Indian way of embracing the new by first turning it into an aspect of its own tradition – “traditionalizing the innovation,” as it is referred to in the Indological literature. Others like Nandy and his followers who see themselves as the defenders of a popular, folk Hinduism scoff at the Vedic science project as another example of “hyper-modernity” of Hindu nationalists who are accused of “distorting” the living religion and local knowledges of the masses. For my part, I believe that both of these “explanations” of Hindu nationalist eagerness to appropriate modern science for Vedic Hinduism miss the point entirely. Because Vedic Hinduism has perpetuated itself for centuries by claiming its teachings are in accord with “laws of nature,” modern scientific understanding of how nature actually works poses the greatest challenge to its credibility. Developments in natural science have finally made it possible for the suppressed native materialistic and rational traditions – from those of the ancient Charvakas, the original Buddha to the Deweyan, secular-humanist interpretation of Buddhism by Ambedkar – to finally come into their own against the mystical, elitist and superstitious worldview of Vedic Brahmanism. If the defenders of the faith are allowed to “traditionalize” this one innovation — namely, the modern science of nature — that will amount to yet another defeat of those who have stood for reason and social justice in India. Hinduism, it is true, has always perpetuated itself not by suppressing the innovations by force of arms, but by traditionalizing what is innovative. What the Hindu nationalists are doing to science, is what Hinduism has always done to all that is new, foreign and threatening, i.e., pretended that it has always been a part of the tradition. But this kind of self-perpetuation ends up perpetuating the worst elements of the tradition. This kind of “traditionalization” of science will disarm the one innovation that has the potential to challenge the core beliefs of the faith, insofar as they gain their credibility as being consonant with the laws of nature. That is why any philosophy of science that denies the clear cognitive progress modern science has made in demystifying the workings of nature, or any philosophy of science that denies the distinctiveness of the scientific method in comparison with other ways of knowing, ends up aiding and abetting the forces of religious conservatism in India. And that is why the romance of Indian intellectuals with social constructivism and postmodernism has been so harmful to the fight for the development of a secular worldview in India.
In this essay, I will be examining at length the arguments Hindu nationalists mobilize to justify the Hindu high-holy books as scientific treatises. How these arguments mirror, and often directly borrow from, the postmodernist attacks on the universality and rationality of modern science will become obvious as we go along.
Postmodernist religious fundamentalism
But before I explore the Indian material, I want to briefly examine the emergence of a postmodern or post-foundational apologetics that is emerging in all major religious- political movements. Hindutva is a prime example of a fundamentalist movement that indulges in this kind of postmodernist apologetics. Hindutva is postmodernist both in the kind of perspectival epistemology and the in the kind of enchanted, holistic understanding of nature it promotes. (To a large extent, the perspctivalism and holism are a part of the teachings of high-Hindu Sanskritic sacred texts. To use them to justify the religious core of Hinduism as “scientific” is the achievement of Hindu nationalists.)
What do I mean by a postmodern style of religious fundamentalism? I mean simply those elements of religio-political movements that deploy the logic of postmodernist deconstruction of natural science in order to defend their use of God, Spirit and other supernatural forces as legitimate sources of scientific explanation. To use Karen Armstrong’s vocabulary from her popular The Battle for God, postmodernist fundamentalists insist upon defending their right to employ the mythos of their faith (i.e., all that was meant to be a source of intuitive meaning and experiential insights) to redefine the logos (all that is rational, empirical) of natural science.
Postmodernist defenders of the faith demand the right, to quote Alvin Plantinga, a well-known philosopher of religion, “to pursue science.. as Christians, starting from and taking for granted what we know as Christians.” Structurally similar arguments appear again and again in other faiths, defending their right to pursue “Vedic science” or “Islamic sciences,” complete with miracles and other manifestations of the supernatural. Indeed, among Hindu and Islamic faithful, the right to their “own” science is asserted with a special vehemence, because it is mixed up with anti-colonial and anti-Western rhetoric.
All of these militant demands for “equal rights” to pursue their own version of theistic or sacred science take it for granted that it is no longer necessary to grant science the status of objective and universal knowledge. Science, it is assumed in true postmodernist fashion, no longer poses a challenge to the metaphysical assumptions of their own faiths, because scientific knowledge is itself is a construct of a wide variety of contested terms, held together, ultimately, by cultural power and social interests which define a given paradigm or an episteme. Take away the godless, materialist assumptions of modern scientists (who happen to be overwhelmingly male, white, imperialists Westerns anyway), and the given scientific evidence can actually serve as evidence for other kinds of theories about nature which do not exclude God as acting in nature or do not deny the existence of consciousness in matter. Different social values and cultural meanings can produce equally convincing maps of the world of nature. This has been the central dogma of science studies and has found numerous formulations in all kinds of “radical” defenses of alternative sciences. Religious fundamentalists are simply taking a page out of the social constructivist book.
More specifically, these movements are opposed to a naturalistic worldview which happens to be fundamental and necessary for science-as-we-know-it. They are keen on asserting their right to their own sacred sciences because they want to bring in the supernatural as an explanation of natural phenomena. All religious fundamentalists want a full-blooded version of their faith, which is there not just for spiritual solace (which would make faith not different from poetry), but which can make propositional claims about the world. They want to believe in a God that actually does some work in this world, both at the level of nature and at the level of social life of men and women. Naturalism as a worldview, and as a method, makes God, or Spirit, irrelevant and unnecessary to explaining the workings of nature, human beings and society. Religious fundamentalists correctly sense that naturalism is the biggest threat there is to a strong version of their faith.
What do we mean by naturalism? Basically, naturalism is the antonym of super-naturalism. Naturalism denies supernaturalism in all its forms, whether the supernatural is seen as a transcendent God over and above this world who can abrogate natural laws, as in Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions; or as a spiritual force or energy that resides in nature, but is able to exist separately from it as well, as in the case of Hinduism and Taoism. There are at least three senses of naturalism all of which are vehemently opposed by religious fundamentalists:
First, methodological naturalism is committed to a methodological principle within the context of scientific inquiry; i.e., all hypotheses and events are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events which can be apprehended by sense experiences. (In contrast, theistic or idealistic philosophies hold that there are more valuable avenues of knowledge than “mere” sense experiences.)
Second, ontological naturalism is a generalized description of the universe. According to the naturalists, nature is best accounted for by reference to material principles, i.e., by mass, energy and physical-chemical properties which have been described by sciences employing naturalistic methodology. Naturalists deny the existence of soul and the belief that it can survive death.
This belief that there is nothing but nature – matter and energy – developed as a metaphysical belief and can be found as a minority position among all philosophical and religious thought (e.g. among the Charvakas in India, or among the pre-Socratic philosophers among the Greeks). But today, it is possible to defend this view on solid empirical grounds. There is no defensible evidence for the existence of supernatural forces anywhere in nature. Naturalism is the only possible inference from all the scientific evidence available to us, up to this moment.
Third, naturalism is humanistic in its ethical dimension. It simply rejects the idea that you have to believe in God in order to live an ethical life.
All major religious fundamentalist movements decry all these three senses of naturalism. The mostly Christian “intelligent design” movements decry naturalism of modern science as a “religion” of secular humanists that have, apparently, ruled the Western world since the Enlightenment. Islamic fundamentalists have their own grievance against naturalism, for it tears apart the unity or tawhid between the divine, the affairs of men, and the realm of nature. The assorted Hindu swamis, gurus and their political acolytes who champion “Vedic sciences” decry the idea of nature without Atman, matter without spirit, as a product of Semitic “dualism” between a transcendent God and dead matter. They promise to heal the wounds caused by Semitic dualism by unifying spirit and matter, as taught in the Vedas. On matters of methodological naturalism, Hindu apologists take a very curious stand, which is quite fundamental to their claims of Vedas being “books of science.” Because in Hinduism the spiritual element is immanent in the world, i.e., resides in natural entities, living or non-living alike, many Vedic science proponents claim that they are not invoking anything supernatural: references to gods are actually references only to forces of nature. (This kind of defense of the inherent scientific of Hinduism was first made by Swami Vivekananda and has become an integral part of the neo-Hindu tradition.) But this is really hair-splitting, for the fact is that Vedic Hinduism is a spiritual monism: it sees objects of nature as secondary manifestations of Atman. Thus to say that Vedas are “naturalistic” is simply not tenable, for in fact the Vedic teachings make no room for an autonomous, independent, un-designed, unsupervised and un-enchanted existence of matter which naturalism demands.
In the militantly conservative movements in all major world religions, then, the secularization of science — the hard-won freedom of science from the churches, the Brahmins and the mullahs – is seen as a modernist error that needs to be corrected. These calls for various sacred sciences are religious versions of the postmodern arguments against the “logocentrism” of modern knowledge which strips objects of their subjectivity, turning them into mere objects of domination and even rape. To see further parallels with postmodernism, let us follow the modernist and postmodernist impulses in the “Vedic science” movement in India.
Modernist Apologetics: Hindu Examples
In India, knowledge of modern scientific developments in the West led to similar splits, but with one crucial difference: the conservative apologist camp won hands down and has been ascendant right through India’s modern history to the present date. While in the US, mainline Protestant churches themselves and some of the most influential public intellectuals of the era took up the cause of naturalism and secularism, in India only the marginalized and powerless dalit and non-Brahman intellectuals took on the cause of secular reform of religion. The Indian response to science was predominantly conservative and like their Christian counterparts in the creationist movement, neo-Hindu apologists also tried to fit science into the Vedic view of the world.
The Vedic science movement began in 1893 when Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902 ) a Bengali Vedantist and an ardent, reform-minded nationalist, addressed the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. His address sought to present Hinduism not just as a fulfillment of all other religions but also as a fulfillment of all of science. In the spiritual monism of the Vedas which teaches that the spirit, Atman, that animates man also animates all the rest of the creation, Vivekananda claimed to find the ultimate unity, the ultimate source of all energy, which creates the universe and keeps it going, without a beginning or an end.
Vivekananda was followed by another Bengali nationalist turned spiritualist, Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950). Aurobindo proposed a divine theory of evolution, an alternative to Darwinism, which treats evolution as the adventures of the World-Spirit finding its own fulfillment through progressively higher levels of consciousness, from matter to man to the yet-to-come harmonious “supermind” of a socialistic collective. Indian intellectuals thus have had “their own” theory of evolution for a very long time. Newer theories of Vedic creationism, which propose a “devolution” from the original one-ness with Brahman are now gaining popularity.
Vivekananda and Aurobindo lit the spark that has continued to fire the nationalist imagination, right to the present time. Even ostensibly secular and modernist intellectuals like Jawaharlal Nehru paid homage to the “scientific spirit” of Vedic Hinduism. Countless gurus and swamis took Vivekananda’s lead and began to teach that the Vedas are simply “another name for science” and that all of science only affirms what the Vedas have taught. Quite like the American Institute for Creation Research, the religious order started by Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Mission, has been producing booklets, and arranging lectures propagating Vivekananda’s “synthesis” of reason and faith. This scientistic version of Hinduism, also called neo-Hinduism or neo-Vedânta, has found its way to the West through the numerous ashrams and yoga retreats set up, most prominently, by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his clones. Neo-Vedantist defense of Hinduism mostly invokes extremely speculative, largely unproven theories from modern cosmology, idealistic interpretations of quantum mechanics, completely discredited theories of vitalism and parapsychology, and other such fringe science to prove that the mythos of Hinduism is verified and affirmed by the methods of modern science.
In standard books on the history of the Bengal Renaissance or Indian independence movement, it is quite often made to appear that that is all there was, that Indian intellectuals found “no contradiction,” “no conflict” between Hinduism and science, and welcomed science with “open arms.” In the Hindutva literature, the neo-Hindu distortion of science to make it fit into the Vedântic world view is celebrated as “evidence” of the rational spirit of Hinduism. Unlike “those” bigoted Christians who oppose science, “we” enlightened Hindus embrace it as our own.
What is carefully hidden from such readings of history is that there were many who challenged this ideologically motivated and false “harmony” between science and Hinduism. Like the liberal, secular humanists trends in the US, in India too there were intellectuals who took the revolution in thought that science represented extremely seriously. The most sustained attempts at a liberal, secular use of the modern science of Newton and Darwin came from intellectuals and leaders of the non-Brahman and “untouchable” castes. The most important among these liberal modernists, Bhim Rao Ambedkar (1891-1956), turned to the historical Buddha to defend a naturalist and skeptical worldview that denies the presence of Atman or consciousness in matter, and consequently, demolished the cosmology which supported karma, rebirth and caste distinctions. Not coincidently, Ambedkar was a student of John Dewey, the best known philosopher of a naturalistic, liberal Christianity. ( I offer a detailed account of Ambedkar’s secular thought in my previous book, Breaking the Spell of Dharma and Other Essays, 2002. A very thorough and critical review of this book by S. Anand is included in this book.)
Coming as they did from the oppressed and powerless sections of Indian society, these non-Brahman and dalit rebels against Brahminical Hinduism were no match for the neo-Hindu apologists that swelled the ranks of the Indian nationalist movement led by Gandhi and Nehru, which sheltered all varieties of Hindu chauvinism. They found sporadic and half-hearted support from humanists and socialist writers, artists and activists, but by and large, Indian intellectuals (including most Marxists) did not actively take up the battle for secularization. Most of them considered fighting the scourge of colonialism and capitalism their chief priority. The non-Marxist intellectuals, mostly of Gandhian persuasion, remained committed to an essentially anti-modernist, Hindu view of “harmony” and “community” which they preferred to the spread of industry and capital. In the main, it is these Gandhian anti-modernists who took to postmodernism like fish to water, and became the conduits of this reactionary academic fashion in India. Overall, the spell of dharma over the hearts and the minds of the Indian people was never challenged. Science was instead turned into an affirmation of the Vedas.
The contemporary Vedic science movement, led by militant Hindu chauvinists, carries on this task of modernist apologetics. Under the BJP’s dispensation, this neo-Vedantist project is enjoying a revival. With full blessings of the state, new foundations and “research institutes” have sprung up defending every miracle and every superstition as “science.” Even dangerous frauds like “cow urine therapies” and faith healing are being sponsored by government funded groups. Hindu customs, from the four-fold Varna hierarchy and patriarchy, are still being justified as being in accord with “laws of nature” which were known to the Vedic sages and were now confirmed by modern physics. This scientific gloss has always been most appealing to the English-educated, upwardly mobile middle-class Indians, including those living in the West, who wanted modern reasons to be proud of their heritage.
The project of yoking modern science to conserve and propagate Hindu metaphysics shares the spirit and the tactics of the creation science movement. Since this scientific defense of the Vedas is enmeshed not just with defense of the metaphysics of Hinduism, but also with a very militant, chauvinistic variety of nationalism, Vedic sciences are potentially more dangerous than their Christian counterpart. And given that the Indian Constitution does not prohibit religious education in public schools, Hindu nationalists have had not any problems propagating age-old superstitions in the guise of science, and conversely, science in the vocabulary of vitalism and other varieties of supernaturalism.
All this may sound rather alarming – and it is. But this is not the last of it. Indeed, this kind of modernist apologetics is quite old-fashioned and passé. Both Christian and Hindu apologists are adding a far more radical weapon in their arsenal, a weapon which launches a frontal attack on the universality and objectivity of science. For this radical attack on science, they have found unlikely allies among the academic postmodernist critics of science and modernity. To understand the radical threat of postmodernist apologetics, it is important to understand what the modernist apologists are up to.
Even though vastly different in the content of their “sciences,” creation science and Vedic science have one thing in common: Both movements take modern science seriously enough to try to claim the rigor, objectivity and universality of science for their own tradition- sanctioned metaphysics and methodology. The far-fetched claims of finding their own gods through the evidence of fossils (as in Christian and Vedic creationism) , or through the developments in quantum mechanics (wildly popular among the defenders of the God of the Vedanta), are nothing more than a pathetic attempt to borrow the authority and prestige of science for their own outdated metaphysics.
Moreover, for all the difference in their conception of God and nature, the Christian and Hindu apologists share a thoroughly modernist epistemology: that is, they see the enterprise of modern science as resting on firm and universally shared foundations of logic and empirical observation. They see scientific knowledge as advancing an objective knowledge of the actual entities in nature. That is why they are keen on showing that the facts about nature contained in the Bible or in the Vedas converge with the facts revealed by the application of scientific method. By this reasoning, they are “merely” translating the ancient texts into a modern vocabulary that can be easily understood by modern men and women who are more used to thinking in scientific terms.
Modernist apologetics, then, in both the Christian and Hindu guises, are back-handed compliments to the universal power of conviction of the enterprise of science. But in their great “love” for science, religious fundamentalists of all stripes are subverting the very ideals of a scientific method which abjures making untested connections between evidence and hypotheses purely by analogy. As we have seen above, creationists and Hindu fundamentalists defend their respective “sciences” by arbitrarily extracting the existing body of scientific evidence, which supports Darwinism, quantum mechanics and other such well-established sciences, and cite it as evidence for their own “theory” about the world. Moreover, in their great stampede to get certified as “modern,” the fundamentalists are subverting the very ideas that make the modern epoch distinct: namely, the freedom to refuse God.
Just because fundamentalists use modern sounding vocabulary, that does not make them scientific or modern in any meaningful way. It is not enough, therefore, to scoff at them as “another manifestation of the modern mindset,” and move on. (This is the strategy of those like Ashis Nandy and other professed Gandhian anti-secularists who are now scrambling to establish anti-Hindutva credentials. After years of haranguing the secularist currents in the India society, Nandy and other nativists now have this impossible task of distinguishing their own calls for “alternative modernity” from a full-blooded “Hindu modernity” favored by Hindutva). Hindutva is only camouflaging itself in modern colors, while actively subverting the spirit of modernity. Real opposition to the fundamentalists in our midst will come by actively drawing distinctions between what is science and what is pseudo-science, between what is modern and what is modern only in name. Intellectuals will have to show their colors, stand up and defend the spirit of scientific inquiry and modernity against the many pretenders.
Postmodernist Apologetics: Christian and Hindu examples
But theologians and other defenders of the faith are waking up to postmodernism. Postmodernism, as the name suggests, refers to an era beyond modernism, an overcoming of the modern mind-set which was dominated by a search for objective and universal knowledge claims of science. Conservative religious movements fear it – for its threat of relativism. But they also love it – for it promises to demolish the secular Enlightenment, the Enemy Number One of all religious conservatives everywhere.
Christian believers in the West are realizing that, as Stanley Grenz, an evangelical theologian puts it, “the rules of the game have changed.” Grenz and other conservative evangelists exult over two main changes that they see as giving Christian faith a new lease on life in the culture of the West. One, they claim that the secularized, disenchanted view of nature popularized by the Enlightenment has been discredited by developments in modern science itself, and in the postmodernist theory emerging from within secular academia itself. Two, they see that modern science, the Chief Accomplice of secularization, has been severely “chastened”: its realist view of truth having given way to a constructivist view, the ideal of the dispassionate individual knower has given way to a community of knowers. Social constructivist theories have demolished modern science’s claims to provide an objective and true “God’s-eye view” of the real world, opening the way to bringing back the real God’s eye view, revealed by God himself in the Bible. This, in short, is the source of cautious optimism that many conservative evangelical Christians derive from postmodernist fashions in the academy, even as they fear that carried too far, postmodernism can encourage nihilism and total relativism.
Similar sentiments that the “old” mechanistic science of Newton has been “overcome,” that the secular worldview is being rejected “even in the West,” that “Western science is the source of all the world’s problems” abound in the Hindutva discourse as well. Like the Christian conservatives, Hindu apologists also make use of this “end” of Newtonian science to build a case for a specifically Hindu science that can accommodate such unorthodox sciences as astrology, yoga, reincarnation and many such phenomena which are declared to be beyond the realm of possibility in the kind of natural world we live in, but phenomena which have to be true, if the Vedic view of God and nature is true.
The idea of science as a social construct made popular by science studies provides the philosophical argument for “chastening” the claims of science, cutting them down to size and making room for other ways of looking at the world that may not meet the standards of modern science but are scientific nevertheless — in their own social context, that is. This is just the opening postmodernist apologists need for asserting the reasonableness of “theisitic science” or “sacred science” which allows for supernatural forces to enter scientific explanations.
Postmodernist apologetics, to go back to our definition, are simply those by religious fundamentalists who accept the chastened, socially constructed view of modern science, seeing it as just one way, among many equally valid ones, to interpret the book of nature. (Modernist apologetics in contrast do not question the legitimacy of science, nor plead for special sciences of their own. They “only” claim the existing scientific evidence is compatible with their view of god and nature. ) Postmodernist apologetics in both Christian and Hindu fundamentalism take aim at the naturalist methodology and worldview of science. Their aim seems to be to make room for a “theistic science” or a “sacred science” that openly brings in their conception of the divine as a cause of natural phenomena.
How is the case for “theistic science” or “sacred science” argued? The following is a succinct summary of the argument for a specifically and self-consciously Christian scholarship that is emerging from the school of “reformed epistemology” that includes such prominent philosophers of religion as Alvin Plantinga, Nancey Murphy, and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Under the new norms of chastened rationality, science stands on no more universally convincing foundations than any other knowledge system, including theology. There is nothing but a place-, time- and language-specific tradition that constructs what we take as “facts.” Empirical evidence itself can easily be fitted into a variety of theories. What makes one theory more probable and more plausible than another is the set of contextual assumptions provided by the rest of the culture, including, above all, the culture’s views of god and nature.
Once you accept this picture of science, the reformed epistemologists argue, there is no rational compulsion for the believers to change their understanding of the world in the light of scientific findings. It makes as much rational sense for believers to actively bring in their own contextual values – all that they know as believers – into their scholarship. Indeed, mainstream naturalistic science is at a huge disadvantage, for it “artificially,” “ideologically,” “by fiat,” closes off the possibility of divine action. Those scientists who are also Christians, on the other hand, are more “open minded” and therefore more scientific as they don’t restrict themselves to purely naturalistic hypotheses and explanations. Christian scholars let their Christian faith shape their scholarship: it is good for them, and good for science, too.
Anyone familiar with the writings of feminist epistemologists, especially Helen Longino’s much acclaimed “contextual empiricism,” and Sandra Harding’s “stronger objectivity” cannot but be struck by the close parallels. That is not surprising, for the reformed epistemologists derive their logic from the same postmodernist sources, chief among them a radically relativist reading of Quine, Kuhn and Wittgenstein. Indeed, they have one distinct advantage over their secular colleagues: by bringing in God in scientific explanation, theistic science is not afraid of relativism, for God provides the ultimate assurance of the truth of their science. They literally claim to offer a God’s eye view of the world!
This brings me back to the argument I made at the beginning of this essay: theistic science is no different in its logic from feminist science, or ethno-mathematics or any of the multitude of alternative sciences that have flourished in the academy. If the academic left can condone feminist science, it has no choice but to accept theistic science as well. Yet, there is a great reluctance among social constructivist theorists to admit that theistic science is a variety of local knowledge. There is much concern among social constructivists to be even-handed and “symmetrical” with local knowledge systems of particular groups and cultures, especially if these groups belong to non-Western cultures. But what is not realized adequately is that many of the unorthodox and minority ways of knowing are part and parcel of the dominant ideologies and religious teachings of that culture. While it may look as if the academic critics are supporting the marginalized minority’s right to know, their even-handedness ends up, indirectly, supporting the dominant ideology and religious worldview of that culture. Many of the women’s ways of knowing that feminist critics of science support, for example, include elements of nature worship, goddess worship and even magic. Likewise, the constructivist thesis that science does – and should – reflect cultural preferences and interests of scientists, opens the door to religious preferences and values of the scientists.
The problem with doing science as a Christian believer or a Vedantist is not just that it is based upon a wrong understanding of the distinctive self-correcting social dynamic of modern science. The problem is that this whole idea of theistic science is wrong in a politically dangerous way. Postmodernist arguments for faith-based science are being used both by the Christian creationists and Hindu apologists to attack the assumption of naturalism in modern science. The alternative to naturalism is supernaturalism, which means the re-introduction of revelation, miracles and rituals as legitimate sources of empirical knowledge.
The sharpest attack on naturalism comes from the intelligent design (ID) movement, the postmodern incarnation of the creation science movement. Well known ID philosophers, Philip Johnson and Wlliam Dembski have argued that the acceptance of Darwinian evolution rests not on adequate evidence, but on scientists’ ideological preference for naturalism. In other word, because most modern biologists tend to be atheists or at least agnostics, and because in the secular culture in the West, scientists occupy positions of power, they deny the existence of the supernatural by fiat. Naturalism wins for the reasons of dogma, not for reasons of evidence. Darwinism, in other words, is a social construct of powerful scientists, who are suppressing the alternative view points of a marginalized, powerless group of Bible-believers.
Robert Pennock, one of the most astute critics of ID creationists, describes the features they share with postmodernist thought in the following words, cited here from his 2000 book, Tower of Babel:
The intelligent design creationists are in lockstep with postmodernism’s skeptical contention that human truths, including scientific truths, are merely subjective narratives. Both hold that what passes for objective knowledge depends simply on which narrative is in political power, and both think that science has been in power long enough and seek to overthrow its epistemic privilege. Both hold that human knowledge is relativistic…. But while postmodernist accept relativism and seem happy to dispense with notions of objective truth, embracing instead the rich plurality of subjective human viewpoints. Creationists, however, believe that though human reason itself is impotent, there remains one way to get a “God’s-eye view” of the world, namely, from God himself. God’s divine revelation saves us from relativism, by providing us with absolute truth in Scripture.
How do these postmodern arguments play in the construction of Hindu sciences? Both the elements of a distinctively sacred science discussed above – the “epistemic rights” of believers, and the rejection of naturalism- play a dominant role in Hindutva discourse as well.
First, the more sophisticated, Western educated ideologues among Hindu nationalists (notably, Subhash Kak, David Frawley, N.S. Raja Ram, K. Elst, Rajiv Malhotra and his circle of intellectuals associated with the Infinity Foundation), have begun to argue, using arguments very similar to those of the conservative Christian reformed epistemologists and the left-wing postcolonialists, that modern science, as we know it, is only one possible universal science, and that other sciences, based upon non-Western, non-materialist assumptions are not just possible, but are equally capable of being universalized. It is only the imperial, colonial power of the West that has made Western science look like it is the only and universally true knowledge. Hindutva ideologues see their role as creating alternative sciences, grounded in the Vedic assumptions, which is able to convince all people, in all cultures, universally, of the correctness of its findings.
This alternative science, Hindu apologists argue, must start from the Vedântic assumption of non-dualism of matter and spirit. While the Christian theists want scientists to consider the will of the creator God as a reasonable explanation of natural phenomena, Vedic scientists want scientists to consider the presence of the spark of divine consciousness in the entire universe as a reasonable explanation of phenomena that “Western” science cannot explain.
From within a Vedanti paradigm, all the phenomena which modern science discards as “paranormal” are fully explicable as normal, and amenable to “scientific” demonstration, explanation and control. Indians need not reject the paranormal. Instead, they need to “decolonize their minds” so that they can understand nature through “Hindu categories.”
This is the philosophical basis on which the Indian government recently introduced the study of astrology as an academic discipline at post-secondary level in state-funded colleges and universities. This is the philosophy that underlies the defense of countless miracles (idols “drinking” milk, for example) and supernatural powers of countless “god men” from levitation to the memories of previous births. This is the philosophy that is used to declare the very first, and the most ancient Veda, the Rig Veda to be a “book of physics” and Vedic fire rituals to be shorthand for cosmology.
On the matter of asserting their “epistemic right” to their own science, Hindu nationalists have a distinct advantage over the Christian fundamentalists in the West. They can count upon the anti-colonial and anti-Western biases of Indian people, including Indian intellectuals. Once they can establish that different cultures allow different facts to be accepted as true, using the standard Kuhn-Feyerabend-social constructivism arguments, it becomes easy to ascribe those aspects of science which contradict the orthodox Hindu worldview as “Western” and therefore, colonial. Hindu nationalists mix up their defense of Vedic sciences with invocations of national pride and the need to “decolonize the imagination.” While Christian fundamentalists have only their own evil secular-humanists to rail against, Hindu fundamentalists can in fact use the anti-Western writings of their supposedly progressive intellectuals to make a case for bringing religion into science.
On the second count of anti-naturalism, Hindutva stands with its Christian counterparts to decry naturalism and materialism of scientific knowledge. (Of course, Hindutva also decries the transcendent Creator God of the Christian and Islamic theists. But for all their deep disagreements, fundamentalists of all stripes agree that treating nature as just matter and energy without a directing hand of God is heretical.) On Hindutva’s account of the history of science, the age of naturalism is long dead. Depending on purely speculative, idealistic interpretations of the developments in quantum physics, and invoking fringe new-age and paranormal sciences popular in the West (e.g., the neo-vitalistic theories of Rupert Sheldrake), Hindutva intellectuals claim that the idea of consciousness-free, inanimate matter is a Western fallacy, a fallout of the mindset of the Semitic races to divide the world in dualistic categories in which mind and matter, subject and object are separate. On Hindutva’s account, Vedântic conception of monism or non-dualism of nature and divine consciousness contains the post-modern, post-materialistic philosophy of nature.
Right from its beginnings with Vivekananda’s boastful and deeply distorted picture of Hinduism, Hindu nationalists have always presented Vedic Hinduism as the religion and science of the future. With the growth of postmodernism, Hindutva has finally found an intellectual environment where its own views of what constitutes nature and knowledge are finding acceptance among the mainstream intellectuals who have taken the postmodern turn. The fact that postmodernism can shelter and nurture the worldview of Hindu and other fundamentalists is what makes it so dangerous.
Meera Nanda’s book, Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India, has just been published.