Sunday, September 16, 2012

My first debate with a Hindu--Not much different than arguing with Christians


Those five letters should horrify us.

TDR-TB: Totally drug-resistant tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis is a frightening disease with a tremendously difficult treatment regimen that isn't always successful, and like we see more and more frequently--as could be predicted by biological evolution--so-called "superbugs" like TDR-TB (and its slightly less terrifying cousin XDR-TB: Extensively DR-TB) are likely to occur in situations where incomplete treatment of a bacterial disease like TB occurs. The totally drug-resistant strain of the communicable disease has been reported in Italy, Iran, and its first home, India, as reported in Nature at the beginning of this year.

This brings up an important point: how did it get started, and how is India significant in that regard? To read the press release from the AP, here via Huffington Post, the reality seems to be that undertreatment of tuberculosis cases in India is the cause, a great deal of which has to do with the lingering remnants of India's caste system, which arose with the Hindu religion. In that system, there are four castes and then a class too low for the caste system, the dalit, the "untouchables." Untouchables, still crammed together in appalling living conditions in many Indian cities, still poor, are much more susceptible to diseases like tuberculosis, which has been described as a "disease of poverty." Worse, untouchables have less opportunity for medical care, particularly gruelling treatment regimens like the one required for TB, and have a stigma held over them. As noted in the HuffPo article, in most respects, no one cares.

The untouchables in India don't have this name for nothing. They are quite likely to be some of the most oppressed people in the history of mankind, outright plantation slaves notwithstanding, and in 2001 represented 16.2% of the population. They are explicitly excluded from the other castes, and they are literally not to be touched. The other castes were to avoid contact with them as contact with an untouchable would violate Hindu ritual purity.

Untouchables also resided at the lowest possible status in Indian society and were discriminated against by the everyone else. Not only were these people considered lower class, blocked from privilege in both occupations and society, the untouchables were literally seen as unclean--trapped in a life of abject poverty, squalor, and discrimination. For what crime did they suffer this fate? Birth--to the wrong parents. In the Indian caste system, children are almost always born into their castes, inheriting the caste of their parents who, almost invariably, were of the same caste themselves.

This is the set of circumstances that went into causing one of the preventable, predicted medical disasters of our time: TDR-TB. It arises because of a religious system that is propped up by a set of propositions and doctrines about the universe held on religious faith and without evidence by hundreds of millions of people. While it is possible that TDR-TB would have come about eventually anyway, the emergence of this disease can be directly tied to Hindu religious beliefs, not least the doctrine that has become quite popular in the New-Age West: karma.

Karma is a doctrine that states, in broad terms, that for actions there are "reactions," or consequences. In reality, it is a perversion of the just-world fallacy--"the cognitive bias that human actions eventually yield morally fair and fitting consequences, so that, ultimately, noble actions are duly rewarded and evil actions are duly punished," as Wikipedia so eloquently puts it. This is the same fallacy that gives birth to the concept of an omnijudicial god in Western monotheisms and thus that bears malformed fruits like heaven and hell. It is, though, a perversion of this already dangerous notion.

A person incurs karma, which is bad, by violating his dharma, which can be taken to mean "destiny," according to Hindu dogmas. By living in perfect accordance with one's dharma, etc., one can avoid accumulating more karma while possibly paying the price--in real-world suffering--for the karma of one's ancestors, which is inherited at birth. In the great cycle of death and rebirth, it is believed that a person's true essence (rather like a soul) will be born to a situation that reflects its karma, thus justifying the entire caste system. Of course, one's dharma is determined entirely by which caste one is born into. Thus, we see that the caste system, defining the dharma, is a huge stay-in-your-place swindle on humanity that prevents any socioeconomic mobility and that can be used for untold abuses and discrimination. The lynchpin of this entire corrupt system is the not-so-hippy, not-so-feel-good concept of karma. In a roundabout sense, then, karma is a concept in no small part responsible for the suffering that diseases like TDR-TB will inflict upon humanity for the foreseeable future.

That all said... I had my first argument with a Hindu today (rather interestingly, this Hindu is a Caucasian American from Nebraska), and it arose over a little picture on Facebook that reads "Everything happens for a reason." As it turns out, that statement is written down exactly in that format in my notebook for a future post on this blog, but we'll get to that another time. My Hindu debate partner indicated for us all that his belief in reincarnation and karma were comforting and "prove" that everything actually does happen for a reason.

As it turns out, arguing with an American Hindu is remarkably like arguing with an American Christian, even if some of the terms are less familiar. Here's the laundry list in our relatively short exchange of argumentative fallacies presented to me as he attempted to defend his comforting belief. Some of these might feel familiar:
  • Red herring: notes about the "facts" that there have never been Hindu (or Buddhist or Taoist) holy wars--the 2002 Gujarat violence between Hindus and Muslims not counting--or witch-burnings--sati, the ritual self-immolation of a widow also clearly not quite the same thing.
  • Red herring: noting that the West also has a "caste system" created by politicians and corporations, which can work to prevent societal mobility--never mind that this isn't a caste system and no one is explicitly condemned by their birth (even if they may be, de facto) or held in their oppression by religious dogmas that indicate that if they do anything but suck it up and be untouchable that it will be worse for them later.
  • Red herring with a touch of no true Scotsman and poisoning the well: An injunction that if I have not been to India personally and have not experienced the right Hindu teachers that I clearly cannot know what I am talking about.
  • Non sequitur: an indication that there is no Sanskrit term for the word "caste" and thus there must not be a caste system.
  • Red herring: Current Indian constitutional law makes the caste system illegal--taking no note of the reality that such societal constructs do not simply fall away, as is easily attested to by the fact that in 2001, more than 16% of Indians were still considered "untouchables"--therefore the idea of karma underlying it must be exonerated.
  • Red herring: India is a melting pot and the largest democracy in the world, which has what, exactly, to do with the validity of karma?
  • Ad hominem with poisoning the well: an indication that I am uneducated and need to do more research because I noted these fallacies above as being fallacies. This particular class of ad hominem was repeated several times, in fact, including a question of how old I am and if I've finished high school yet.
  • Argument from ignorance with non sequitur: At one time we thought microbes were "magic," and now we do not. Therefore, we are likely to one day realize that karmic retributive forces are also real, non-magical laws of the universe.
  • Shifting the burden of proof: evidently, it is my job to prove that reincarnation and karma aren't real.
  • Poisoning the well: as I am not a Hindu, clearly I am unable to make relevant commentary about Hinduism, karma, reincarnation, or any other topic he disagrees with me upon.
Additionally, he brought up a typical religious trope of taking a well-known statement out of context and bandying it about irresponsibly. Here, the abuse was on Newton when he indicated that he believes that "for every action there is a reaction." That applies to physical forces, which could more accurately be phrased by saying that forces come in pairs, equal in magnitude and opposite in direction, but not to other things. Upon having this pointed out to him, he fell to the red herring that Newton plagiarized the Vedic literature (is this even true?).

Of course, the details of this exchange are immaterial. What is of note is the high level of similarity exhibited by this American Hindu fellow, what with his years of learning to manage himself in an ashram in India and everything, and angry, ignorant Christians that I deal with on essentially a daily basis living in the Bible Belt. Same nonsense. Same logical fallacies. Same argumentative structure. Same accusation that only the in-group can possibly understand.

For me, the interesting part, beyond this similarity, is the likelihood that there is a deeper something in common with the Christians (whom he referred to as "typical bigots" and "fools who think they get it but don't"--while accusing me of being one based entirely upon not agreeing with him). These beliefs paper over certain fears. One is of death (reincarnation). Karma papers over a different fear, however, and it seems that it must be the fear of an unsettled score--or of having to take responsibility--a topic that blogger Greta Christina handles amply here writing for FreethoughtBlogs.

At the center of all of this, though, is the simple reality that doctrines like karma and reincarnation have nothing to back them, and thus they are a very bad set of ideas upon which to base important constructions like the foundations of civilizations. That they result in maintaining the kind of oppression that religions are often designed to placate, though not to remedy, is no surprise, and that horrific unintended consequences like TDR-TB arise in the world because of them is just as predictable (it is interesting to note that at least one of the European plagues can be tied directly to Christian hatred of witches, which led to a fear and hatred of cats as familiars, which led to a lot of dead cats, which lead to a lot of disease-ridden, flea-infested rats and other vermin having a better time of it than might otherwise have been had Christians not been so busy destroying cats believed to be in league with the devil).

In any case, the long and short of it is that arguing with a Hindu (at least an angry, Caucasian, American one) is more like arguing with a Christian (at least an angry, Caucasian, American one) than it is different. "Same shit, different religion," we might say.


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