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Indian Scientists, firmly Secular but no conflict with God

9 Jun

For Immediate Release

For immediate release
June 9, 2008

The largest-ever nationwide survey of Indian scientists shows that many are as comfortable with seeking the blessings of the resident Hindu God at Tirupati before a space rocket launch as they are with embracing stem cell research and the theory of evolution.

The study, "Worldviews and Opinions of Scientists in India," which was released at the United Nations in New York on June 5, was conducted by Professors Ariela Keysar and Barry A. Kosmin of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, U.S., with assistance from the Centre for Inquiry India. It sampled 1,100 participants from 130 universities and research institutes in India between July 2007 and January 2008. It is believed to be the first major study of the beliefs of scientists from outside the Judeo-Christian Western tradition.

The respondents, all of whom hold doctorates, are representative of the burgeoning elite among India's more than 4 million science, medical and technology professionals. Professor Kosmin explained that "India was chosen because of its increasing scientific and economic importance on the global scene. How Indian scientists view the world and the values they hold are of increasing significance given the current prominence of Indian-trained science professionals in so many countries."

Only 8% of the scientists said they would refuse to work on stem cell research because of moral or religious beliefs, yet, 41% approved "strongly" or "somewhat" seeking the blessing of Lord Venkateswara at Tirupati before launching a rocket and satellite in 2005.

The survey found that many Indian scientists appear to compartmentalize their views on science and religion-refusing, for example, to subject religious ideas to a scientific test. Some 23% of the Indian scientists who were surveyed said they would not criticize and confront religious practices if they contradicted accepted scientific theories. In contrast, 44% of the scientists in the sample were willing to criticize and confront religious practices, and 33% said they would do so on occasion.

Likewise, although most of the Indian scientists in the survey described themselves as "secular," few understood the term to mean irreligious. Some 83 % of respondents interpreted secularism as "separation of religion from state and government" and 93% regarded it as "tolerance for religions and philosophies." (They were allowed to give multiple answers.) Only 20% considered that secularism means atheism. Professor Keysar said, "Secularism has a special meaning in India and this approach is also reflected in their approach to scientific issues."

At the launch in New York, Dr. Meera Nanda, a leading public intellectual and author of Prophets Facing Backwards, explained the historical significance in India of secularism and "scientific temper," which is the spirit of rationality and free inquiry. Both concepts are mentioned in the Constitution which proclaims India a "sovereign socialist secular democratic republic" and calls on every citizen to "develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform."

However, Dr. Nanda and Dr. Pushpa M. Bhargava, CFI-India's chief advisor and retired founder-director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, said they were concerned that many scientists did not seem fully committed to the scientific temper, complaining of what they called a national predilection for "compartmentalism and compromise." Bhargava, also former vice-chairman of the National Knowledge Commission said, "In India, scientists who track evolution actually believe in creation." Bhargava thinks sociological studies such as the ISSSC report can shed light on why this disparity exists.

The ISSSC survey also covered Reasons for Becoming a Scientist, Status of Women, Scientific Literacy in India, Ethical Constraints on Science, Belief in God, Belief in Miracles, and Spirituality. Kosmin and Keysar said they hope that it will serve as a benchmark for future studies in India and also as a basis of comparison for studies of scientists that ISSSC intends to carry out in other countries. A copy of the full report may be downloaded from http://www.trincoll.edu/secularisminstitute/

Contact: Barry Kosmin
860-297-2388
Barry.Kosmin@trincoll.edu

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