WHY RATIONALISM?

By Sanal Edamaruku

Sanal Edamaruku
Sanal Edamaruku

Looking back on the last two centuries, humanity can celebrate the triumph of reason, progress and emancipation. The tyrant gods have been exposed as paperboard monsters. The cruel and violent forces that governed throughout the dark ages in their name have been driven out of a major part of the world and of human minds. The wheels of progress are rolling with enormous speed. Scientific research and technology are improving our lives and extending our horizon and potential. These achievements have been possible under the influence of a strong and irrepressible rationalist movement that braved harassment and backlashes to break one by one the chains of mental slavery and make us the masters of our destiny.

But there is no time to rest on rationalist laurels. The victory lasts only as long as we are watchful and ready to defend and extend the empire of reason.

Religion has a tendency to creep back into liberated territory in ever new shapes and to try and recapture lost bastions. Once cornered and weakened, it can hibernate and return in fundamentalist, sectarian and neo-religious strings. With the Iranian revolution, Islamic fundamentalism went political and tried to recapture parts of the world, provoking and encouraging Christian fundamentalism and Hindu fundamentalism. The weakening traditional Christian churches in secular Europe and America sprouted a multitude of zealous evangelical missionary movements to target the developing world. Revival movements like the hyperactive Pentecostals, born-again Christians, hysteric faith-healers and bizarre cults came up. In India, fading Hinduism reared in a fanatic Hindu nationalist movement besides becoming fertilizer for thousands of colorful and scurrile god-men, who are increasingly drawing rich devotees from the spirituality hungry west.

Despite the multitude and sometimes wildness of religion’s new faces, Rationalism has established itself as the general frame of reference in today’s world. There have been many excellent and courageous individuals and determined and dedicated movements, who contributed significantly to today’s achievements.

Reaching out to the masses

Ingersoll and the RPA: Two outstanding landmarks in the history of modern rationalism are the lectures of Robert Green Ingersoll in the USA and the publications of rationalist books by the Rationalist Press Association (RPA) in Britain. Ingersoll with his great oratory skills and outspoken views about religion romanticized heresy and became an inspiration for thousands of people not only in the USA but all around the world. His direct and trenchant criticism of religion, his great desire for a rational and liberal reformation of the social order, and the charm created by his fine and touching language enlivened with passion and humor were unique and not heard of till then. Ingersoll became so popular that he was considered a suitable candidate for the office of the president of the USA. His example shows that bluntly speaking out against religion and its institutions can meet with overwhelming public response.

In Britain, the RPA started more than one century ago to spread rationalist thoughts in classical and contemporary books of high standard. The "Thinker's Library" and the "Cheap Reprints" reached far off places and opened up new horizons for progressive movements in many parts of the world, making a lasting impact on the history of the rationalism.

Fighting for social and political progress

The Indian example: It was under the direct influence of these two great heritages that the rationalist movement in India, emerging in the beginning of the 20th century out of ongoing social struggles against priesthood and religion based oppression, grew and sharpened its intellectual weapons. Thanks to an uncompromising determination deeply rooted in its fighting origins, it developed over several decades into an influential factor in transforming the mindset of one of the most tradition-bound societies in the world. The Indian rationalist movement is considered one of the most vibrant and most successful movements of its kind and has been in recent years highly appreciated by western observers.

Bill Cooke in his book The Blasphemy Depot admires its "practical rationalism in action" and wonders "what Indian rationalism can teach the West". He feels that "in India the malevolent consequences of irrationality are better understood" than anywhere else. Paul Kurtz, in his speech "The Momentous Significance of Rationalism Today”, during the International Rationalist Conference 2002, expressed the belief that the Indian rationalist movement has a "special and perhaps momentous role" to play in helping "to bring India into the twenty-first century" and congratulates the Indian Rationalist Association "for the leadership role it has played".

These are not only good words. In fact, the Indian rationalist movement has become an inspiring example for many western rationalists to awaken, activate and rejuvenate their own organizations (see also: Caspar Melville: UNMASKED! India's rationalists are on the frontline of the battle between science and superstition. Cover story of 150th year special issue of the New Humanist, the journal of RPA, Nov 09, 2005).


Paul Kurtz describes rationalism as ‘the single most important contribution to human civilization’. Rationalism strives to influence society towards secularism and to liberate individuals from the influence of religion, superstition, dogma and priesthood. It promotes liberty of the individual and human dignity, fights for the fulfillment of human rights, for freedom of expression, the right to criticize traditional religious dogma and all arbitrary assumptions of authority. Above all, it raises powerfully the voice of reason to expose all pseudo-science and baseless fantasies imposed upon people.

The salient point of any rationalist movement is its fighting spirit and its determination to defend what it stands for against all odds. Rationalism commits the liberated individual to reason even if it is uncomfortable. Every step towards progress, freedom and equality has been influenced by the voice of reason, resisting efforts to silence and strangulate it.

The fruits of modern civilization did not just fall from trees; they are the achievements of courageous people defying the established order and the parasites protecting it.

Resisting "humanist" missionaries

History twist: In the middle of the last century, a dangerous trend emerged in several pockets of Europe. It threatened to steam-roll the progressive movements joining in the broader rationalist stream - predominantly the rationalist, freethought and atheist groups - by a soft and system-friendly "humanism". Humanism is a historic forerunner of rationalism that dethroned all gods and declared human the centre of the universe before enlightenment dawned. Preparing the ground for rationalism and anticipating many of its later achievements and aims within the limits of its historic position, humanism was always considered a precious and honored heritage of the rationalist movement that appeared to have melted into its own identity.

Adopting the old term from the period of Renaissance, however, the post-enlightenment "humanism" of the 20th century played host to a dangerous cancer that aimed at turning the course of the rationalist movement from within. Not all the humanist groups were equally affected, but some became instruments of an attempt to pervert and damage the movement. The new ambiguity of the term "humanism" created much confusion.

Quite against the grain of history, the new reactionary "humanist" movement answered the quest of some non-believers for a new "religion without god and revelation" and got instant support by some European establishments. This looks like a simple under-cover operation, misusing a trusted label to try and guide the anti-religious movement back to religion.

The leaders sought and received state sanction, often even a share of the tax money for their activities, putting them at par with established churches. The Norwegian organization was presented as the crown jewel and celebrated for its fantastic success. It had specialized on the performance of "alternative rituals", blissfully unperturbed about the fact that Norway was governed (till recently) by a priestly prime minister under the auspices of a powerful Evangelical state church that stands accused of violating its subjects' human rights. This is exactly the crux that makes these "humanists" so useful and supportable for governments and Christian churches. They paralyze the fight for transformation of society as a whole and rest, instead, content with serving those who have already come out of religion, herding them together in communities that share much of the features of religious associations, except belief in the supernatural. Celebrants conduct the "rites of passage" in name giving, marriage and funeral functions and confirmation celebrations for the youth. Even songs and dress are proposed. Some groups call themselves straightly "humanist churches" and ordain "humanist pastors".

There have been systematic efforts to woe and win rationalists, freethinkers and atheists to this line of building up a new religion without god. The Indian organizations have been over years the special target of "humanist" missionaries. Their efforts are still on. Only some months back, they sponsored a small conference with the name "From Rationalism to Humanism" to cast out their nets.

Former Pentecostal leaders came to the leadership of the "humanist" movement and argued for the use of a uniform symbol corresponding with the Christian cross or the Jewish star and for a special uniform usage of the term "humanism" as if it was patented. Proposed in the name of greater strength and efficacy in a united worldwide fight for "common goals", this was an attempt to streamline autonomous and heterogeneous organizations, freely assembled under a wide umbrella, and to transform them step by step into branches of a multinational "humanist" company. In fact, one observed a few cases of “rebirth" of traditional groups under new names and new leaderships and engaged in some sponsored new projects. But finally, the policy of "humanist" colonization has not been very successful.

Rationalist agenda for the 21st century

Beyond equality: The rationalist movement has not only survived the attempt to pervert it, it has even gained new strength and extended its influence far into "humanist" territory. The challenge gave opportunity to reconsider and refocus positions and policies and to consolidate rationalist work. In fact, the repulsive and unenthusiastic example of dull and meaningless club culture revived the inspiring vision of rationalism breaking open all prison doors of ignorance, superstition, exploitation and oppression. Rationalists of all names insisted that rationalism, atheism, freethought and even humanism is not just another way of life or one among other religions. It does not accept to be reduced to the level of playing its part in the symphony of a religion oriented / dominated society – it wants to transform this society and free it from religion. It does not fight for equality in conformity – it aims at a radical change of the status quo.

Imagine a small "equalist" group in South Africa holding the view that people with black and white skin are equal. In order to be ‘positive’ and to avoid the idea of fighting apartheid, they limit their aims to seeking acceptance for their own view as another way of life, equally justified as that of the racists! Or a group of “white jackets", uncorrupt government employees, who come out and claim their right to refuse to take any bribe. They would not like to be accused of "corruption-bashing", and only insist that their way of life is just as respectable as that of the corruption Mafia! Surely both these groups would be as happily welcomed by racist or corrupt regimes as the “humanists” by church loyal governments and state churches. Such self-centered movements have the potential to bind and chanalise all possible resistance against the oppressors. Despite their seemingly progressive positions they are therefore in effect reactionary.

Rationalist International: In the USA there has been resistance against the perversion of humanism. The new term "secular-humanism" was created to mark the difference between the progressive humanist tradition and its namesake. Promptly, the leaders of the "humanist" mission, who started behaving like the rightful owners, banned the use of any adjective in connection with "humanism". But secular-humanism firmly established itself and represents since then the progressive humanist tradition. Secular-humanism is rationalism with a slightly different focus.

Even within the contemporary humanist movement, the perverted string took slowly the back seat. Today, more than half of the groups identified as "humanists" are clearly rationalist, freethought, atheist or secular-humanist groups. The criterion is not only the name. Even among the "humanist" groups there are several, who share all rationalist positions and are equally committed to social and political change as many rationalists.

In the 90’s, for example, the Canadian Humanist Association has been vehemently attacked for its "abolitionism" (read: for actually fighting for a society without religion) and scolded as "unsuccessful" humanists. Under the leadership of its former president Dr. Henry Morgentaler, however, they had managed to establish the human right of reproductive freedom firmly in the Canadian society as well as in the law of the state. A country, where abortion had been completely banned, turned under their determined and dedicated influence into one of the most liberal in this matter - a respectable and admirable success indeed!

Rationalism started historically as criticism of religious texts and challenge against religious establishments and their influence on society and individual. During the last centuries, it underwent an evolution. “The great challenge today is to resist lethargy and hidebound traditions and extend the methods of reason and critical thinking to all areas of human interest,” writes Paul Kurtz.

Modern rationalism strives for a post-religious society. It investigates and exposes traditional and new (age) paranormal and other claims of supernatural and miracles. It asks for a secular society where state and religion are absolutely separated and religions are not promoted or supported. It condemns fundamentalism and acts of violence and intolerance, and tries to help preventing them. It encourages free thinking and free inquiry and self-determination, and helps individuals to break the chains of mental slavery. It promotes fulfillment of human capacities and wishes and encourages imagination and fantasy and strong emotions guided by reason. In its broad stream, it includes and accommodates all movements that focus single or special aspects of rationalism, contributing to the common line of emancipation of human mind - atheist groups, denying the existence of divine powers and empowering human instead, freethought and secular-humanist groups focusing social and political issues, skeptic groups dedicated mainly to the exposure of paranormal claims - and any other movement in this frame that may eventually emerge in future responding to new challenges and problems. The Rationalist International, founded in 1995 during the first International Rationalist Conference at New Delhi as a forum for rationalist ideas and positions with world-wide concern, could become a vanguard of the movement, giving inspiration, clarity, strength, courage and solidarity to many rationalists in different parts of the world. Responding to new challenges of irrationalism and intolerance and identifying and encouraging the use of new ways and methods of influencing change, including Internet, television and any other new achievement of information technology, rationalist movements in all parts of the world have to grow and grow together into a force capable, courageous and determined to influence the course of human history.


Sanal Edamaruku is the President of Rationalist International and Indian Rationalist Association. He is the founder of Indian Atheist publishers, Asia's largest freethought book house, and the editor-in-chief of journals Modern Freethinker (English) and Therali (Malayalam). He is Honoray Associate of Rationalist Press Association (UK) and New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists.