Atheism in India has many more facets than merely 'European Enlightenment'

18 April 2017

The atheistic movement in India, in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, is not just a form of 'unbelief' but deeply influences everyday life. According to anthropologist Stefan Binder, we must take a more accurate and systematic look at local concepts and not just the long-standing 'European' division between religion and secularism: only then can you understand the complex composition of the secular concepts in which you devote attention to global entanglement and specific local meaning. Stefan Binder obtained his doctorate on Wednesday 19 April from Utrecht University. His research was funded by a grant from the NWO programme PhDs in the Humanities.

Bazaar near Charminar in the lively city of Hyderabad in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Image: BasPhoto / Shutterstock.comBazaar near Charminar in the lively city of Hyderabad in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Image: BasPhoto / Shutterstock.com

With 1.2 billion inhabitants, India is the most densely populated country in the world after China. It is expected that the country will overtake China to become the most populated in the world after the year 2050. Since time immemorial, India has had strong and widespread religious groupings. More than 80% of the Indian population are Hindus and 13% are Muslims. Christians and Sikhs are very small minorities. However, India also has an organised atheistic movement. Stefan Binder investigated this group in the two southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. 

Atheists: reshaping society

Stefan Binder: 'These are groups and individuals who identify themselves as atheists, rationalists and humanists. They are involved in various forms of public activism. By substantiating atheism as an all-encompassing way of life, they want to give shape to an equal, just and rational society. In practice, the atheists are trying to reshape society, usually as a complete "mental revolution" ("bhāvaviplavaṃ" in Telugu, the official language of Andhra Pradesh). The relationship between theory and practice here, forms the most important analytical focus of my research, besides the ideas being formed by the atheists themselves.'

The atheistic movement in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana is not only a form of unbelief. Binder also investigated practices of collective social activism, such as campaigns against superstition, public demonstrations, and programmes to combat the caste system. He also described aspects of everyday life, including individual life stories, marriage and family, and gender relationships. 

Binder spent more than 13 months in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. He sought to establish connections with the local atheists and recorded dozens of interviews. He carried out a systematic analysis of texts mainly written in Telugu by members of the movement as well as other parties involved. Binder: 'I propose a reconsideration of Eurocentric thought patterns. In the West, we usually generalise the secular into a single set of concepts or into a coherent idea rooted in the history of Christianity and the European Enlightenment. That is far too limited.'

Further information

Stefan Binder (b. 1985) completed his thesis Total Atheism: Making 'Mental Revolution' in South India at the Department of Philosophy and Religious studies, Faculty of Humanities, Utrecht University. His research was funded by a grant from the NWO programme PhDs in the Humanities (project: Atheism and spirituality. Configurations of secularity among the Indian middle class). His supervisors were Prof. B. (Birgit) Meyer and Prof. Peter van der Veer.

Stefan Binder is now working as a Research Fellow at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS) in Göttingen. 


Source: NWO