We always say that Voltaire’s battles are far from over in the twenty-first century, but I usually think more of religious intolerance than of deeply ingrained superstition. A few weeks ago Sanal Edamaruku spoke in Oxford, hosted by Skeptics in the Pub, and made it clear that superstition is still a dangerous problem in parts of the world today, using a specific example from modern-day Mumbai. Alongside modern architecture and technological innovation in this emerging market, there remains a disturbingly large segment of the population in the thrall of potentially lethal religious practices, for example dipping infants in hot oil, or throwing them down from a temple roof to the dubious safety of a raised sheet below, in a gesture of thanksgiving for divine favours received. Edamaruku explained to us that he is currently unable to return to India because of an arrest warrant brought against him under an outdated nineteenth-century blasphemy law on the instigation of Roman Catholic bishops in Mumbai. All of this for having revealed that a ‘weeping’ crucifix was caused by a blockage in a sewage pipe, a finding which should instead be hailed as a contribution to public health, since church-goers had been collecting the ‘tears’ in bottles and vials as holy relics.
In late 1771, Voltaire wrote the article ‘Superstition’ for his work Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. In this article he heaps ridicule on just such ‘miracles’ as the blood of St Januarius, contained in a phial in Naples Cathedral and said to liquefy each year when brought into close proximity of the relic of the saint’s head. In the article ‘Vision’, written a few months later in 1772, he lashes out against charlatans who seek ‘a reputation as holy men or women, which is very flattering, or to make money, which is even more flattering’… Edamaruku has also exposed a number of religious frauds in this category.
While the battle cry of ‘Ecrasez l’infâme’ may have evolved into something less martial today, the crusade to debunk false prophets carries on. I’ll be following the progress of Edamaruku’s world tour with interest, and I hope that he will succeed in having the blasphemy charges dropped and/or the law reformed.