Tuesday, March 15, 2011

America: Land of the religious and superstitious.

Every year during the Navarathri holidays (or Puja Holidays as its commonly referred to) DK bloggers go into overdrive ridiculing religion (of course only during Hindu festivals) and rituals. Last year a blogger had posted a very old speech of C.N.Annathurai. Annathurai, in the 50’s, lecturing poor Tamilians ridiculed their age old beliefs and for good measure asked them to look at Western countries that are rich and technologically advanced. In typical fashion he assigns a factually wrong cause and effect relationship. The west is scientifically advanced, said Annathurai, because they are not susceptible to religious superstitions. Having lived, observed and read a good lot in USA for a decade I could instinctively say nothing is further from truth than that.
America is a very religious and very superstitious country. A westerner’s phobia of 13 is very well known (triskaidekaphobia). High rise buildings do not have a 13th floor. 13th floor is usually labeled 12A or just 14 swallowing the 13 in between 12 and 14. Houses in a community are likewise numbered. Nearly 50% Americans, much more than any industrialized country, believe that God ‘created’ the universe and that ‘Theory of Evolution’ is not true. Those who scoff at Indians worshipping their instruments of trade (Ayudha Pooja) should just take a look at Thanksgiving and Harvest festivals in US. Christmas is a very pagan festival. The statistics for Americans who go to church and say ‘grace’ before taking food is staggering.
Teaching science can be risky especially for Biology teachers. The very famous “Scopes Trial” against teaching evolution took place in USA. That trial was later made into a movie starring Spencer Tracy. The trial itself had great elements of drama and theater at the end of which science did triumph. However, as recently as 2003, a group of teachers in Pennsylvania had to go to court to be able to teach evolution. For nearly a century only priests and theologians could become the dean of Harvard University. Princeton University houses a wonderful Chapel.
Tamilians make fun of our movies that sentimentalize the mangalsutra (or ‘thaali’). Watch Apollo 13. The commanding astronaut’s wife would lose her wedding ring while bathing on the day of the launch. She would register a shock much akin to a Tamil heroine who is asked to remove her ‘thaali’. Every culture to its own sentiments.
Children are brought up on a surfeit of superstitions. The two most treasured superstitions of children are the ‘tooth fairy’ and Santa Claus. Every year NORAD, the nodal agency that deals with North American Air Defense, helps track Santa’s ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NORAD_Tracks_Santa ). The NORAD project involves Google Analytics, major corporate sponsors, even NOAA (the agency for America’s weather monitoring) and is a very big charity event. However the Santa angle is an amusing one.
Right now the Lent period is underway. From Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday it’s called the “Lent” period. Many Christians, just like the devotees going to Sabarimala, do penance for 48 days giving up something they usually love. It’s usually meat, again a coincidental similarity with the Sabarimala devotees. By the way Catholics do NOT get married during Lent period.
The US pledge of allegiance states “one nation, under God, indivisible”. The words ‘under god’ were added in the 50’s specifically to position God loving America in opposition to atheistic communism. Our dollar bills do state “In God we trust”. Every President since Eisenhower has attended the annual “National Prayer Breakfast” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Prayer_Breakfast ) and its hosted by US congress. Yes, all this in a country that swears on separation of church and state. Let me note though that in any of this no single religion is favored. In fact the White House now holds more diverse celebrations of religious events including Diwali. Presidents are known to lead the country in prayer in the wake of tragedies like 9/11.
A Tamil Nadu MLA can state that he is an atheist, get elected and take oath without mentioning God. In 250+ years of its history no atheist has held any elected office let alone the Presidency. It is IMPOSSIBLE for an atheist to become US President. JFK broke the glass ceiling when it comes to a Catholic getting elected in a protestant majority country. It was a big deal for the 60’s but a non-issue when John Kerry, another Catholic from Massachusetts, ran in 2004. Likewise it’s not yet possible  in the near future for a divorcee or an openly gay person (I am ruling out lesbians as woman becoming President itself is remote) to become a President. In all fairness I’ve to state that openly gay men do hold elected office at some levels including US congress, most famous being Barney Frank the powerful congressman.
Presidential inaugurations are replete with religiosity. A pastor is called forth to give an invocation. Religion and religious references are pretty overt. It’s a matter of huge speculation which Bible verse would the President elect bookmark in the bible he holds while taking oath. In fact placing the hand on the Bible or ending the oath with “so help me God” is not in the constitution. Ending every political speech with a “God Bless America” is mandatory. Well even our national anthem has it so.

The secular nature of the country at large, a robust freedom of opinion protected by 'First Amendment' are saving graces for USA. When we see a prominent channel release a Rs150 crore movie and as publicity promote devotees praying for its success indulging in the most shameful acts of superstition we do shudder at the impact to society at large. So while Annathurai was using hyperbole and ill-informed facts to support a much needed correction his underlying intention is something i could agree with.

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