Rationalism (there is no equivalent word in English for ‘Vivekvad’)
Rationalism is a moral philosophy of human well-being in all respects.
Rationalism propagates secular ethics that has human happiness and dignity at its core. Individual freedom and individual responsibility from which emanates individual freedom is the foundation of this ethics. Rationalist philosophy is distinct from religion and unlike religion, is concerned with the perceptible world only but it does not oppose religion.
Secular Ethics is founded on the cause-effect relation revealed in the adage, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. Rationalism proposes to examine all systems and thoughts that hinder worldly well-being of the society. The rational decision taken by the individual on his own is more praiseworthy than the decision taken because of the fear of god or lure of emancipation.
Society plays a big role in building moral values.
Older organized religions have emanated from the atmosphere of oppression, exploitation and immorality; new religions that emerged out of such chaos gave the society an alternative moral and orderly arrangement. People were expected to remain moral due to faith in the religion, fear or love of god and lure of emancipation. But again in practice religion became oppressive and exploitative. Society is dynamic; whereas religion being static, the traditional religious values become obsolete. But the custodian of religion warned people that, ‘society cannot be sustained without morality and morality without religion. And rational examination of religion will uproot morality altogether. As opposed to this, rationalism advocated a morality of ‘greatest good of the largest numbers and fulfilment of natural human urge’. Every individual has the right to take his own decisions but the same right compels him to respect similar right enjoyed by others. A human being has to live and grow in society and finally quit it when his time comes. He knows that he has to accept human values of love, friendship, affection and co-operation that are also for his good and the good of the society. These moral values are evolved from biological instincts during the course of evolution. Moral individuals make a moral society and a moral society alone can nourish individuals’ morality. This cause-effect relation is very easy to understand and does not need the support of any spiritual principle. However without a conducive atmosphere it is difficult to build and sustain a moral society. When individuals of 50 families living in a slum, have to fetch water from a single tap, quarrels are inevitable. What is required in such circumstances is not sermons on morality but making enough water and taps available.
Values that help decide whether a given social behaviour is right or wrong are normative values or Norms.
Habituation to normative values leads to slavery; so much so that, no one dares change them even when they put the whole society in danger.
Those in power have vested interest in upholding normative values. Changing normative values, therefore, leads to far-reaching social reconstruction.
Although such broad social reconstruction cannot normally happen, an individual can sharpen his common sense and morals and create new values.
To initiate the process of change, even pointing out defects in the norms and canvassing opposition to them is important. ‘No talk without action’ should not be a precondition for attempting to bring about any change.
Rationalism and social change:
All of us feel the need for changes in the social structure and norms. And many of us also feel helpless and incapable of doing anything in bringing about the necessary changes. The danger in this thought is that it discourages individuals and institutions that strive to cause changes with whatever resources and abilities they possess. Moreover some pessimists even go a step further and argue ‘if the society is not going to change, whatever efforts you put in, then why shouldn’t I help myself a little bit from the chaos?’
Rationalists believe that the thoughts become a physical force when they catch the imagination of a large number of people simultaneously. What happens when such a thought is constructive and has the force of conviction of all the people, united as one man, is seen in the villages that have received the “Gram Swachhata Award” (Award for the cleanest village). But when such a thought happens to be destructive- e.g. convincing people that bringing down a Masjid and building a temple there, or vice versa, is a problem of utmost priority over all other development problems – it causes communal riots. This means that building a positive social psyche is very important. Even if you are unable to change the polity and economics of the country, you can still lend our hand to building up a positive social psyche.
Every individual possesses reason – the ability to discern what is good and what is bad; and therefore can, not only avoid succumbing slavishly to normative values but also fight against exploitation, political deception and high handedness, economic swindling and mental slavery, all caused by outdated normative values. A class of such rationalist intellectuals, who may not be in power, can yet create awareness among people. Our constitution has mentioned the responsibilities of individuals. It says every individual will adopt Scientific Temper, Humanism and the Spirit of Reform. Striving to change the outdated normative values is fulfilling this responsibility.
E.g. the norm regarding women at present is that ‘a woman is inferior to man’. When you try to inculcate the new norm of equality of gender, it becomes necessary to articulate it and then try to practice it in your own life. Moreover one has to endeavour to apply the new value to all aspects of women’s lives; to political aspect by improving women’s representation in Institutions of Local Self Government, legislative assemblies, and parliament; to economic aspect by giving women equal rights in their fathers’ or husbands’ properties; to educational aspect by providing not only educational opportunities but also hostels and dormitories for women; and to religious aspect by refusing to perform rituals like Kanyadan.
While trying to bring about this change, one must remember that the present day man with all his intellectual abilities has evolved from animal ancestors. A large part of his brain is nearly the same as that of his predecessors. His neo-cortex- the seat of his intelligence and judgement developed just a few thousand years ago. This period is not enough to create a coherent harmony between these two, old and the new parts of the human brain. Man is not just an intellectual creature; he is emotional too and most of his decisions depend on his emotional brain derived from animal ancestry. But as Bertrand Russell said, “Our life should be inspired by love and guided by knowledge.”