My father grew up poor in the bylanes of north Calcutta, and did not have the knowledge and sophistication that come so easily to those born into privilege. He lived, instead, by his considerable powers of reasoning and common sense. These, and some measure of luck, led to success late in his life, when he became Mayor of Calcutta. He did not show it, but must have been nervous when, in the early 1960s, he went to Ottawa to represent India at an international conference.
That was the time Barry Goldwater, the controversial right-wing Senator from Arizona, was gearing up to run for the American presidency (he would eventually lose to Lyndon Johnson). On my father’s arrival in Ottawa, he was accosted by an American journalist for an interview, much of which turned out to be on Goldwater. On his return, my father was praised for the interview and his political skill of answering at length without giving out his hand. Later, within the confines of home, he confessed he had had no choice. He had no idea who or what Goldwater was. From the interviewer’s questions, he deduced that Goldwater was either a new scientific discovery or a politician; and had to make up for his lack of knowledge by crafting answers that could fit both. The upshot was his reputation for diplomacy.
This is a frivolous example of the value of both knowledge and reasoning. Not having knowledge is a handicap; the capacity for rational thought is empowering. I begin with this example to argue for something more serious—to alert us to the contagion of unreason unfolding around us, as this eventful year draws to a close.
A lot of the worst atrocities in the world are being perpetrated in the name of religion. This is ironical because religion was meant to be a force for good. The problem stems from the fact that, sadly, religion often becomes a substitute for reason and questioning. This can be seen in the way people so often argue—this happens in almost all religious groups—about what some ancient text really meant, to justify their own current behavior. What they do not say is that it does not matter what this book of antiquity says on each and every matter, because there are some matters on which they disagree with it. Even if there does exist the perfect, unarguable text—and in principle there is no reason why there cannot be—it requires a measure of naivety to believe that the one you have identified is it. A measure of scepticism in all matters is a mark of not just modesty but wisdom.
What these followers do not realise is that, since most religious texts were written by bold, independent thinkers who were ready to think for themselves and break with tradition, not to question such texts is to show disrespect to the founders of the religion.
Often, it is elementary logical mistakes that lead people to bigotry. The hallmark of India has been its openness, the fact that it welcomed diverse peoples and religions arriving at its shores, and it absorbed and enriched different ideas and cultures flowing into the nation. And here, I am almost paraphrasing the famous lines from Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry in the Gitanjali.
Sadly, there is a growing insecurity about this, and there is a concomitant tendency to close our doors to diversity. This is often done in the name of avoiding imitation. Thus we hear statements like, “We shall not imitate the people of nation X, because the people of nation X do not imitate us.” The first problem with this statement is that it entails a basic self-contradiction. In taking such a stand, you are in fact imitating the people of nation X and so violating the very principle you are propagating.
Secondly, to open the doors to diverse ideas and discoveries by other nations and other people is not imitation. It is a sign of one’s own self-confidence that one is willing to take the best of what others have to offer. As Amartya Sen pointed out, one of India’s great strengths is that it is an argumentative nation. It questions, contests, challenges and then, at times, accepts and at times rejects. To engage in this manner is a sign of self-confidence; whereas silencing, banning and closing one’s doors stems from a sense of inferiority. If a nation is to progress in these trying times, it is important for it to remain open even when it hurts, and to be inclusive even if it means we have to move aside a little to make space for others.
Another mistake that is fuelling this crisis of unreason is the widespread propensity to respond to bigotry with bigotry. There is no doubt that there are happenings from around the world which are abhorrent. But it is an unreasoned reaction that would have us respond to groups or practices that we detest most by fashioning ourselves after those very groups. An eye must not be responded to with an eye, to echo Gandhiji’s famous observation, which through repetition may sound trite, but remains as relevant today as it was in the time of the Mahatma.
At this juncture, what is vital is education, to impart to people the ability to think for themselves, to question, examine and cogitate over every received wisdom and keep those that pass one’s own judgement. This does not guarantee success (there is no surefire recipe for that) but it creates minds that aid progress, science, discovery and innovation.
We visit archaeological sites to see the achievements of human civilisation. But we fail to acknowledge that while these achievements may manifest themselves in stone, marble and masonry, they are founded in inquiry, reason and the quest for knowledge. It is these traits of the human mind that drive civilisations. It is true that they are not sufficient to build a good society. For that, one also needs normative qualities such as those of compassion and kindness. But reason and the capacity for cogitation are necessary conditions. To end on a more practical note, India must invest more in education. The questioning, scientific mind is the fodder for development. India owes what success it has had to the large investments in higher education that it made at the time of its founding. It is true that the downside of this was that basic education and literacy, which should also have received attention, were neglected. At this time of global turbulence and challenge, India must invest more heavily in both basic and higher education.
Religion is a private matter. People should be free to choose their religion and to not have a religion if they are so inclined. The mistake that we must not make is to treat religion as a substitute for thought and reason.
(Kaushik Basu is senior vice-president and chief economist at the World Bank and professor of economics and C. Marks professor of international studies at Cornell University. This essay is written in his individual capacity and is independent of his professional affiliations.)