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The Tragic Assassination of One of the World's Most Prominent Atheists

For over two decades, Dr. Narendra Dabholkar worked to overcome superstition in India, and it ultimately cost him his life.
 
 
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Photo Credit: www.antisuperstition.org

 
 
 
 

A great skeptical leader has been assassinated.

This didn't happen in a tyrannical theocracy. This happened in a modern, supposedly secular nation, with no state religion, and with first-class programs of science and medicine. And still, for the crime of criticizing religious beliefs, questioning them, and subjecting them to scientific scrutiny, a great skeptical leader was gunned down on the street in broad daylight.

For over two decades, Dr. Narendra Dabholkar dedicated his life to overcoming superstition in India. Originally a medical doctor, Dabholkar spent years exposing religious charlatans, quacks, frauds, purveyors of "miracle cures," and other con artists preying on gullibility, desperation, and trust. An activist against caste discrimination in India, and an advocate for women's rights and environmentalism, Dabholkar's commitment to social justice was expansive and enduring. But it was his work against superstition that earned him his fame.

India is a huge, hugely diverse country, and much of it -- particularly the south -- is thoroughly modern, urban, and largely secular. But much of the country -- particularly the north -- is saturated with self-proclaimed sorcerers, faith healers, fortune tellers, psychics, gurus, godmen, and other spiritual profiteers. In parts of the country, people are beaten, mutilated or murdered for being suspected of witchcraft, and there are even rare cases of human sacrifice -- including the sacrifice of children -- in rituals meant to appease the gods.

Throughout this country, Dabholkar traveled to towns and villages, investigating claims of miracles and magic, revealing the physical reality behind the tricks -- and organizing travelling troops of activists to do the same. He didn't try to persuade people out of the very idea of religious belief, but he was an open atheist, proud and unapologetic. He was the founder of the Committee for Eradication of Superstition in Maharashtra ( Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti). He fought for years for the passage of a controversial anti-black-magic bill in India.

And it was his work against superstition that almost certainly cost him his life. On August 20, at seven in the morning during his morning walk, two men ran up to him on the street, shot him four times, and drove off on motorbikes that had been parked nearby. He was 67. As of this writing, there has been one arrest made in the case -- Sandeep Shinde, a member of the hard-line right-wing Hindu organization Sanatan Sanstha.

A little background on Sanatan Sanstha. They are repeatedly referred to by the Times of India as "right-wing Hindu organization, Sanatan Sanstha." In 2011, two of its members were convicted of the 2008 bombings of two theaters -- bombings that were committed "because the movie and the play showed Hindu gods in a bad light." (Four other group members were also arrested for the bombings, but were not convicted.) Their literature speaks of converting India into a divine kingdom ruled by themselves, and of "destroying evil by all means, even by laying down one's life." Sanal Edamaruku, another experienced debunker of superstition in India (and a longtime friend and colleague of Dr. Dabholkar), described them to me as "a fanatic (or rightly, fundamentalist) Hindu group."

The organization is a strange blend: a fringe extremist group that nevertheless wields significant cultural influence, like a mashup of Operation Rescue and the Catholic League. As atheist/ skeptical activist and blogger Avicenna (from the A Million Gods blog) commented, "Sanatan are basically one of the many organisations of 'Hindu Supremacy.' They are generally called Saffron Terror in India." At the same time, Avicenna noted, "they often shut down any movie considered progressive" -- with the result being that "Indian movies have actually gotten more and more conservative." But despite the influence that they wield, a campaign to ban the group has been seriously considered by the Indian government -- despite the strong religious sentiment in the country, and despite the country's commitment to freedom of religion, even at the cost of giving religious charlatans free rein.

 
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