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The Nehru Memorial Museum & Library


‘Being ‘Religious’, Being ‘Scientific’: Ethnography of science, religion and atheism(s) in contemporary India’, 31 March, 2015 .

‘Being ‘Religious’, Being ‘Scientific’:
Ethnography of science, religion and atheism(s) in
contemporary India’

Mr. Renny Thomas,
Jawaharlal Nehru University,
New Delhi.


Science and Religion are two different ‘Modes of Existence’ (Latour 2005, 2013). To think of the relation between science and religion in terms of the binaries of ‘conflict’ and ‘complementarity’ is both analytically and descriptively inadequate. Using this formulation, the paper attempts to discuss through detailed ethnographic description, the manner in which scientists in a leading Indian scientific research institute defined and practiced religion and atheism(s). Instead of posing science and religion as dichotomous categories the paper demonstrates its easy coexistence within the everyday lives and practices of Indian scientists. The hyper rationalism associated with modernity and western science did not over determine their everyday life and practices. The ‘religious’ scientists did not perceive their religiosity in opposition to science, nor did they accept the conflictual view of science and religion. For them, science and religion are two different Modes of Existence, and they perceived the science-religion conflict as an artificial one. Likewise, the ‘atheistic’ scientists did not find any contradiction in following a ‘religious’ lifestyle and simultaneously identified themselves as atheists or non-believers. The paper argues that the acceptance of a western canonical understanding of atheism or unbelief imposes a closure on the multiple cultural meanings assumed by these categories. Any attempt to universalize or homogenize the experiences of belief and unbelief against the scale of Western modernity runs the risk of neglecting the enmeshing of these categories within the complex life worlds of Indian scientists. The paper questions the tacit acceptance of the distinctions between science and religion and seeks to evolve new vocabularies to talk about these categories within non-western societies.


Mr. Renny Thomas is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His PhD project is an ethnographic study of the religious beliefs and practices of scientists in India. His publications include ‘Being Religious, Being Scientific: Science, Religion and Atheism in Contemporary India’ in Yiftach Fehige (ed.) Science and Religion: East and West (Routledge, forthcoming), and ‘Science, Religion and Cultural Atheism(s): Ethnography of a Discourse’ in Susan Visvanathan (ed.) Institutions, Adaptation and Change: Essays for T. K. Oommen (forthcoming).

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