God save Indian science

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  • Published 9.06.08

New Delhi, June 9: Indian scientists are split down the middle over their belief in the existence of God, the first nation-wide investigation into their deepest personal thoughts has revealed.

One fourth of scientists took an atheist or agnostic position, another fourth were firm believers, according to the findings of a survey by the US-based Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture.

The rest said they were unsure, or didn’t respond to the question on God, which was included in a Web-based survey that covered 1,100 scientists from 130 research or educational institutions and universities scattered across India.

But one in three scientists surveyed believe in sins and deeds of a past life, and in life after death, and one in four scientists believe that “holy people” can perform miracles. And 40 per cent of the scientists approve of the ritual of seeking a religious endorsement of a space launch.

“Our scientists aren’t applying the scientific temper in all fields of life,” said Narisetti Innaiah, the chairman of the Centre for Inquiry in Hyderabad, a non-government organisation with branches in several countries that says it is seeking “to provide an ethical alternative to religious and paranormal worldviews”.

The Centre for Inquiry had helped design the questionnaire sent to the scientists, all of whom had a doctorate or equivalent degree. “Our space scientists take replicas of launch vehicles to temples before a launch,” Innaiah said. “This reflects a belief in supernatural powers,” he said.

The investigators said the Indian study is expected to be a benchmark for future surveys to be conducted in other countries. “Something like this has never been done before,” said Ariela Keysar, a demographer and assistant research professor in public policy at the ISSSC, at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut.

“We began with India because India produces a large number of scientists working world-wide. The impact of Indian science (education) goes far beyond India,” Keysar told The Telegraph over the phone.

The Indian survey has shown that 49 per cent of the scientists believe prayer can deliver results and at least 7 per cent believe in ghosts, spirits and the caste system.

One top Indian biologist said the findings did not surprise him. “This is why there’s so little scientific temper,” said Pushpa Bhargava, the former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad.

“When the government had wanted to introduce astrology in universities a few years ago, none of the three scientific academies challenged it,” said Bhargava, who had resigned from all three science academies in January 1994, and challenged the proposal to introduce astrology through a court petition.

But a senior scientist and member of the council of the Indian Academy of Sciences said that individuals, even scientists, need to be given space for personal beliefs.

If it doesn’t impact society in any way, a scientist with faith need not be condemned, said C.C. Kartha, a medical researcher in Thiruvananthapuram and a council member. “It’s unfair to impose either faith or lack of faith on anyone,” he said.