The Course of Reason

Hindu radicals murder a prominent rationalist

August 20, 2013

As I write this, the motivation behind Narendra Dabholkar’s murder remains unclear. But based on his lifelong anti-superstition activism, and his recent thrust for legislation combating black magic rituals, we can make some reasonable inferences.

According to, the Bill for which Dabholkar advocated was opposed by many right-wing groups as “anti-Hindu.” Dabholkar went out for a morning walk and two assailants pulled up behind him on a motorcycle and fired four shots at him, two of which hit him in the head. He died in the hospital.

A police sketch of one of the suspects shows a man in what appears to be a either a beanie, doo-rag, or headdress of some kind. I profess my own ignorance of Hindu religious garments, but I’m tentatively confident that it is a religious headdress of some sort.

  Police sketch of one of Dhabolkar's killers.

A police sketch of one of Dabholkar’s killers.

According to Wikipedia, India’s population is 80.5% Hindu.

Given these facts, I think we can conclude with some confidence that Dabholkar was assassinated by Hindu radicals, motivated by their religion.

For some in the West this may come as a shock, because we associate Hinduism with the free-wheeling new-agey believe-anything-if-it-has-“spiritual”-in-the-name brand of liberal irrationality of our world. But Hinduism is still a religion, with arbitrary rules concocted by humans, so it is fully capable of fostering a culture of irrational violence.

I’ve long had great respect for the Guru Busters of India, who risk their lives to spread rationality and skepticism in many of India’s black magic backwaters, and through India’s society generally. I see the great things they do, like confront, on national television, black magic gurus whose express intent is to kill them. They travel around like skeptical gunslingers to little one-horse towns dominated by dishonest gurus and expose their lies, often at great risk.

Tragedies like this add to the list of things we Western skeptics can be grateful for, but also to the list of areas in which our activism is direly needed. The skeptics, atheists, and rationalists of this region fight against a much more dangerous brand of irrationality than we do, where they often face death or imprisonment simply for resisting. I think it’s important for us to continue our work defending the separation of Church and State in America, science, and free inquiry, but we need to remember that those issues are not bounded by national borders, and with the Internet we can really form a more global coalition.

I would like to see more global events like the #DefendDissent global rally in support of the Bangladeshi bloggers, who by the way are still suffering at the hands of the religious government. As a single member of the community without much sway, I can’t snap my fingers and make this happen.

But I know there are people in positions of relative influence who are capable of organizing such things. Right now, the skeptical community is working very hard to address problems of racism and sexism internal to the movement, and I fully support these efforts. I think sexual harassment is unacceptable, and that Dr. Stollznow’s offender should be fired, since by CFI’s own admission it was determined that the accused individual did sexually harass Dr. Stollznow. Continuing to employ this person is to tolerate the offenses. These issues need to be addressed.

But I think we should not neglect our responsibility to help fight superstition and religious irrationality, no matter where it occurs. We fight those harms with words, and words can reach across borders and have a direct impact, like little peaceful, rational special forces or something.

With so much harm in the world caused by irrationality, I often find myself overwhelmed. Creationists hijack classrooms in an attempt to create an Ignorant Generation. Mormon fundamentalists trade young girls against their wills between colonies to minimize the effects of inbreeding. Islamists kill and imprison people for criticizing the religion. Christian fundamentalists push for blatantly harmful legislation. Parents don’t vaccinate their children. Parents don’t seek medical attention for their children when they are sick. The Catholic Church systematically rapes children and then shields the rapists. I could go on, but now I’m depressed. I can’t devote my attention to every cause.

But there are a lot of us now, and that is good. We each have something to offer, whether it’s organizational skills, a degree of knowledge relevant to a particular domain, personal experiences, or even just a bunch of friends (that is called a network, and those are important. People with lots of friends have the ability to mobilize). We need all of those things scattered around, addressing every cause. I think the best thing for you to do, Reader, is to figure out what skill you bring to the table, and pick a cause to devote yourself to. I think if you make this decision for your own reasons, we should get a pretty good statistical distribution over all the causes. We probably have a decent one now, and I just don’t see it. But each cause could certainly use more help.



About the Author: Seth Kurtenbach

Seth Kurtenbach's photo
Seth Kurtenbach is pursuing his PhD in computer science at the University of Missouri. His current research focuses on the application of formal logic to questions about knowledge and rationality. He has his Master's degree in philosophy from the University of Missouri, and is growing an epic beard in order to maintain his philosophical powers. You can email Seth at or follow him on Twitter: @SJKur.




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