Saturday, September 02, 2006

Facing backwards

Perhaps the greatest problem facing the world today is the disparity of power between rich and poor. Technology (satellite television, the internet, easy international travel) keeps the disparity at front of mind for the oppressed. They turn first of all to religion as an anodyne. After all, what is more empowering than to have God on one's side, and what is more consoling than the promise of paradise while the oppressor burns in hell. There is no shortage of mullahs, preachers, and gurus with agendas of their own ready to whip believers into a frenzy of self-righteousness and violence.

I have written here before about Meera Nanda's book Prophets Facing Backwards: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India. A demanding, but richly rewarding read. It is addressed primarily to the clash between secularism and traditional religion in India, but has relevance to the world at large, including America.

Nanda does not dismiss the need for the sacred in everyday life, but she makes a compelling case for the universality of the Enlightenment project. Her last paragraph: "One can safely conclude that the only option for the friends of the oppressed in the postcolonial world is for them to recognize that the interest of the oppressed in secularism and demystification of traditional ideologies is best served by the naturalism and skepticism of modern science. It would be fair to say that modern science is the standpoint of the oppressed."

Which is almost certainly true. But when the choice for a powerless, poorly-educated, impoverished and resentful person is science or the promise of everlasting bliss (perhaps with seventy virgins to boot), there's not much chance the choice will be science. Which is why the hundreds of billions of dollars we are spending on a foreign policy of militaristically imposed values would be better spent on a quiet amelioration of the sources of resentment.