Science events for adults to substitute "satsangas"
This post concerns the recent growth in the popularity of "spiritual gurus" such as Ramdev, Ravi Shankar, Jaggi Vasudev, Sukhbodhananda, etc. I've seen far too many "satsangas" involving these people, drawing thousands of attendees. They are conducted with much pomp and made to appear as spectacles. Lately, with a growing economy and an injection of capital from "devotees", the "spiritual" movement in India is becoming similar to the massive church gatherings in the US. To quote Brad Pitt's eloquent character Lt. Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds, "Business is a-boomin'."

With the urbanization of India, people are losing some of the traditional identities such as those defined by their castes, region, language, etc. In my opinion, with this loss and assimilation into urban India, they seek to define new identities for themselves. This is one of the explanations given by Richard Dawkins for the growth of churches in modern US- a nation of immigrants, where old affiliations dissolve into a cosmopolitan society, and people seek to identify themselves with various sects of their religion, giving rise to a church or two for each city block or village.

Another reason I can think of is that "satsangas" are a substitute for real recreation like sports, outdoor activities, etc. The "satsangas", as I see them, are akin to country clubs. Given that the urban sprawls of modern India- Bangalore, Noida-Gurgaon, Mumbai, etc. give few options for people to pursue recreation, the best most urban professionals can do for relieving stress caused at work is resorting to "spirituality".

I wish there was a "science guru" to whose "ashram" (aka lab) modern professionals would find it cool to belong to. A great stress buster would be a weekend activity like, say, replicating famous experiments, e.g. Young's double slit experiment, and "realizing" (learning) and "reliving" the Age of Enlightenment, birth of modern physics and so on. Are there any such initiatives anywhere in the world? I know of one from Dawkins' book, , which is for children.

A few questions to discuss:

1. Why don't people find science to be as "fulfilling" as religion? Why are people given to enjoying religious woo more than science? For instance, why do local planetariums and museums languish, while a "satsanga" of Kalki flourishes, as in my own neighborhood? Perhaps 1 in 1000 adults in any society have a decent knowledge of the basics of physical, engineering, and life sciences with few opportunities to learn after the last day of their life in a classroom, while (random estimate) 900 of them are willingly, and with great pleasure subjecting themselves to some form of religious indoctrination.

2. Do you think that there is a perception in the society that planetariums, museums, and math camps are only for kids? Why is it considered embarrassing for an adult to attend weekend classes to learn the basics of say, evolutionary biology, while it is perfectly normal to attend this:

How do we counter this perception?

Personal experience: As a kid, I remember a few rationalist groups visiting our school to promote science. But in the few years I spent in India as an adult, I found almost no such events were targeted towards adults, while we were constantly bombarded with mails and posters from a zillion "spiritual movements".

This observation may be limited to me, but I am still disturbed by the fact that most people I know, including those in universities, are hardly exposed to basic science after a certain age.

[A disclaimer: I do not live in India currently, and am only aware of Nirmukta's (and other legacy rationalist associations of India) activities from friends and Nirmukta's presence on the web. If this topic is common, please ignore it or link to a relevant earlier discussion. I also see a similar problem in the country I currently am living in.]

I know this sounds like aspiring for a society envisioned in Star Trek, but meh.
[+] 1 user Likes karatalaamalaka's post
As you said, one pitch for spiritual activities is that they reduce stress. And that pitch is made with such confidence and assurance, and with beautifully decorated personal anecdotes, that people find it easy to believe them. I doubt if even the world's best psychologist would make such confident claims. Us people of science tend to shirk away from making such claims. At least I do. If somebody comes to me saying that they are stressed out, I will suggest that they try a few things, but will not say "Do this! It is guaranteed to work!".

This phenomenon isn't specific to religion/spirituality. It can be seen in the self-help industry also. There is plenty of confident advice available there to become rich, great or successful. I guess people in general need to believe that there are quick fixes for their problems and whoever has less ethical qualms and couldn't care less about factual accuracies of their claims would find more success in marketing such things than people who do care.

So one reason for science not being as appealing as spirituality maybe that science gives advice with caveats, whereas spirituality gives advice that isn't constrained by anything and people find the latter more easy to believe. Of course, this is ultimately due to lack of awareness of science and critical thinking.
When I was in India, I took part in "hike with a naturalist" kind of events organized by a group in which a cousin was very active. Some people in the group used to do a lot of homework about the geography, flora/fauna of the place we were going to visit and would lead the group hike and point out the interesting plants, wildlife etc. In the night, we would camp outside a temple or school and some people who were interested in astronomy would create an impromptu star party. In general everyone who participated in such trips was in some way interested in learning about our world and so there would be great exchange of ideas and information. These trips are some of my best memories, we went to see migrating pink flamingos, we did a night hike to see fluorescent fungi in the Sahyadri, we did a trip on identifying mushrooms, we did a party to watch a meteor shower.

For me personally, these were great stress busters. Also if you want awe and wonder, there are a great many things to awe and wonder at in nature than in all the satsangs in the world. I think we need to promote more activities like this.
There are 10 kinds of people in the world. People who know binary numbers and people who don't.
[+] 1 user Likes transmogrifier's post
(10-Aug-2011, 03:02 PM)Lije Wrote: So one reason for science not being as appealing as spirituality maybe that science gives advice with caveats, whereas spirituality gives advice that isn't constrained by anything and people find the latter more easy to believe. Of course, this is ultimately due to lack of awareness of science and critical thinking.

Agreed. Is there stuff that the scientific community can do better, say by learning from the techniques of "spiritual" gurus? By analyzing the root cause of why people go to these gurus, and taking the place of the 'satsangs'? Especially in the Indian context...

An obvious fact, but an important question follows: Some people love science, stick with it forever, and seek rational explanations. Most, however, forget the basics of science that they learned in high school, and start believing in woo. I think it is necessary that people remember the basics of science, throughout their lives, and are constantly reminded of it. Religious nutters tell people from the pulpit "god created humans, and made us special" again and again. But really, most people don't get as much exposure to, "you are the result of years of evolution, just as the bacteria in your belly button. here, take this swab and get me some samples, I will show you." Though the latter is an extremely interesting fact to anyone who cares to listen. I feel that even shows like Cosmos, or Hawking's and Dawkins's books are read mostly seen/read by rationalists seeking to learn more.

Is this one of the reasons: religious and "spiritual" folks do more and better propaganda than rationalists and scientists? Or is there something inherent to how our brains are wired that we like believing in religion than science. e.g.

To ask via an example, why is it that folks on this forum are more likely to feel extremely excited on successfully accomplishing, Young's double slit experiment, and realizing its implications? While others outside will experience exhilaration in the conviction that a cheap parlor trick done by a dude in saffron is a miracle? Is it because those finding solace in religion are not exposed to the significance of Young's double slit experiment, something that can be remedied by aggressive promotion of free thinking. Or is it a lost cause?
There is one more reason. Science requires effort. Religion and spiritual stuff are comparatively easy. You don't have to think too hard. All you require is faith.
But I hope it is not a lost cause. Inculcating interest in children and sustaining it through the adult years would be a solution. Creating interest in adults by performing science experiments would be little difficult - they would view it as a baba performing a miracle or feel far removed from the experimenter and would be content to watch from the sidelines. They may feel a spiritual connection with the baba but not with the scientist.
Of course it would be fantastic if we have science satsangs where people throng to share the grandeur of science and end up feeling exhilarated.

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