Upon visiting the splendidly preserved, snowy-white, five-hundred-years-old cathedral in a corner of Chennai that is said to be the final resting place of Saint Thomas, the less devout mind may not be faulted for returning to the tale of the Doubting Thomas. The Biblical account goes something along the following lines. Upon Jesus’s visitation to his disciples after his crucifixion, only Thomas, among his disciples, demanded evidence — the wounds from the cross — from the resurrected Christ. The Bible says that in this battle, faith triumphed over doubt and Thomas, the believer insists, was saved.
But Thomas could also be seen as a hero to the sceptic — the believer’s great rival. By demanding empirical proof from the risen Christ, he set a precedent that may have interested Pyrrho, the founding father of the school of scepticism in ancient Greece.
Doubt — the kernel of scepticism manifest in the willingness to question doctrinaire thought — has often led to the downfall of the Doubting Thomases even in supposedly progressive polities. Consider Pyrrho’s fellow Grecian, Socrates. “Socrates is remembered as a great philosopher,” writes Eric Weiner in The Geography of Genius, “but he was first and foremost a conversationalist. Before Socrates, people talked, but they didn’t have conversations. They had alternating monologues, especially if one person was of higher status than the other. Socrates pioneered conversation as a means of intellectual exploration, of questioning assumptions…” (columnist’s italics.)
And Socrates paid for his sceptical disposition, the luminescence of his questioning mind obliterated by a cup of hemlock. The list of Sceptic Martyrs — philosophers, clergymen, scientists — is both long and fascinating. The birth of modern scepticism, Richard Popkin argues in The History of Scepticism, can be traced to the decision by the Italian friar, Girolamo Savonarola, to have a text by Sextus, a chronicler of Pyrrho’s sceptic tradition, translated from Greek to Latin. Savonarola was hanged as a heretic in Renaissance Florence. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake, as was Michael Servetus — he discovered pulmonary circulation — for their theological beliefs that contradicted those of the Church. Galileo Galilei may have escaped the fire but he, nonetheless, was made to confront the incineratory eye of the Inquisition. The orthodox Christian order was not alone in this purge of the enquirer. Muhammad ibn Zakariya Razi, who introduced the Arab world to Hippocrates, had fallen foul of a mullah in the Baghdad of yore.
Some would argue, not without reason, that the list of martyred sceptics continues to lengthen in the modern era with one difference: the State, as opposed to the Church, is, these days, the principal persecutor. Each of the 66 journalists and media workers who were killed in 2022, according to the International Press Institute, as well as the murder of others — activists, dissenters, or India’s Right to Information workers — could be seen as an act of retribution by the State against dissenters with the courage to challenge, and demand evidence from, those who weaponise dogma.
Interestingly, despite the history of their brutalisation and notwithstanding the pioneering role that sceptical enquiry has played in the evolution of epistemology, the sceptic is not universally feted. The loathing of sceptics by institutions — political, legal or cultural — is not difficult to understand. Those who wield power are known for their allergy to being held accountable by their subjects. But even the sceptre-less — the aam aadmi — may not be favourably disposed towards those who prefer to receive claims with a pinch of salt. This is because the sceptic, through an intelligent interrogation of prevailing — received — wisdom may unveil glimpses of a frightening world that is unfamiliar, unmapped and even unresponsive to — and dismissive of — canons deemed necessary for order.
The resultant willingness to identify the sceptic as an agent of chaos even in the liberal discourse was manifest, most recently, during two pivotal moments of crisis in two different democracies. The men and women who lay siege to Capitol Hill in the United States of America in January 2022 and the far-Right Brazilians who attempted an insurrection in January 2023 are often portrayed as citizens sceptical of the sacred, foundational compact between the State and the people that makes democracy possible. An editorial in The New York Times christened the mob — Donald Trump’s stormtroopers — “election sceptics”. This inference is erroneous; the sceptic is not a demagogue that is the presiding deity of the far-Right. Neither is the sceptic an anarchist or, for that matter, a cynic who, a research project at the London School of Economics had once found, is a potent threat to democracy. Yet, as democracies erode around the world, the finger of suspicion is increasingly being pointed in the direction of constructive scepticism.
Ilona Lodewijckx has presented a compelling counter-argument in an illuminating piece examining democracy’s relationship with the Doubting Thomas. She writes that The Economist’s Democracy Index had revealed an inverse relationship between civic trust and the quality of democracy. In other words, when citizens are too trusting of elected governments, the quality of democracy falls because of the weakening of participatory initiatives and citizens’ movements. The antidote, Lodewijckx argues, is a measured dose of scepticism.
Lodewijckx is not an outlier in taking this scholarly proposition. In Democracy and the Culture of Skepticism, Matthew Cleary and Susan Stokes interrogate the ties between trust and governance to reveal that vigilance and scepticism, as opposed to trust, can provide a lasting foundation to erect the edifice of vibrant democracies.
Today, as the Union finance minister of the ‘Mother of Democracy’ presents yet another budget, it would make sense for citizens to invoke Thomas. Not the saint, but his Doubting avatar. By demanding proof — just as Thomas had done, albeit for a different purpose — of the economic well-being of the nation, we — the people — will be doing democratic India a service it deserves.