Thursday, May 12, 2005

Facing backwards

One of the most provocative books I've read in recent years on the cultural conflicts of our time is Meera Nanda's Prophets Facing Backwards: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India. Nanda argues that radical critiques of modern science are enabling Hindu reactionary ideologues to propagate religious myths in the guise of science and secularism.

Her shrewd analysis does not apply only to India. Virtually everything she says has direct application to America.

Perhaps surprisingly for an Easterner, Nanda champions the European Enlightenment, with its secular-scientific challenge to all inherited dogmas backed by political power. The ideals of the Enlightenment undermine all legitimations of monarchy, class supremacy, slavery, women's subordination, and church authority, she says, replacing them with reliable transcultural knowledge, universal equality, and a sense of the sacred that does not offend reason.

The distinguishing feature of modern science is that it has learned to take refutations seriously, she says. Paradigms change and old theories are abandoned, however reluctantly, when confronted with new evidence or more consilient explanations.

At a time when the world is violently beset by religious triumphalism, Nanda's concluding words are more pertinent than ever: "Modern science combines in it the power of disenchantment and universalism. It is time it was recognized, once again, as an ally of social justice, peace, and advancement all around the world."