Navdeep Singh is the General Secretary of the Asian Rationalist Society Britain: “The Asian Rationalist Society Britain (ARSB) was founded in 1997 by a group of immigrants from the Indian sub-continent with the main aim of raising awareness of rationalist ideas and promoting universal humanist values amongst Asian communities in the UK. Our highly successful programme of events in 2009 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s ‘On the orgin [sic] of Species’ is indicative of our commitment to celebrate the loves of great scientists, thinkers and philosophers whose rationalist thinking has shaped our world.” Here we talk about his life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let us start from the top. How did you become involved in rationalist thought, scientific thinking, and reason in general?
Navdeep Singh: That is an interesting story. I was born and brought up in India in a village of a northern state, Punjab, where there are so many superstitions and things like that around. There was some conflicting information in what the general beliefs were within the community, within the family, within the surrounding people.
Things happened and I started to ask questions. One specific question when I was about 10-11, in my village there was a gentleman. He used to be believed by the people of our village; that he got special powers, so if there is anything wrong you go to him, then he will utter a few mantras and your problem will go away.
Coming from the farming community, we always have problems with their animals, things like that, doing all sort of things. We used to go to him. When I used to go to him, his house was on another side of the village and in the middle of my classmates will be playing around in the evening time and one time I got to carry on playing with them and I forgot to go and see this gentlemen.
When I finished playing then I realized that I was supposed to go there. Then I got back home and told my mother and the problem was solved. It was a specific thing to do with the animal we were keeping. That never sat nice with me.
Otherwise, thinking here, they do not let me think and the problem goes away. So, it was sitting there and then in the late ‘80s, I migrated to England and what I read here that people and they were saying completely different things to different problems. From there, my journey started and I started to question more.
In traditional Punjabi community, you say or do what your family tells you to or your family will tell you to do, so you take it basically from there. That part was still there, that something is not right, so I started to study. I started to meet people.
In the area, there was constraint and trying to provide a little bit of explanation what are the real reasons behind the normal day-to-day problems. My journey started from there. Then you meet like-minded people, then you accelerate further more quickly [Laughing].
Singh: From there, then they got on to the region things, we were told when we were young. They did not happen. I will give you one specific example in Sikhs. They are supposed to have long hair, especially males, they do not cut their beard or grow long hair on their head.
There was a guy, he was a preacher or what they call themselves, saint. He said in one of his lectures, ”If you cut your hair in the next life you will turn into a sheep.”
Singh: Then I was thinking, back home in India in small villages, that is your world. You see similar faces, similar people who believe in the same religion you believe in. When I got here I thought, “How many people in England will have cut their hair?”
Either they shaved their beard or they trimmed their beard, they do not have long hair on their heads. Even in the female folks, the ladies, they have a haircut, so there should have been of sheeps in England.
That did not sit right with me. Those little things. Then you start to question of all the religious beliefs. Are they really real or believing it, or is it something being passed on from generation to generation without being questioned or being tested?
It never added onto two plus two, and never four; it was always five or three. So, my journey started from there [Laughing].
Jacobsen: How do faith, religion, and other ideologies impact the, especially in vulnerable years when, critical thinking skills have not been developed, if they will ever develop?
Singh: They spend their whole life being amid in dark. I see so many people around me, even today. I am going to give you one example. I went to India and this friend of mine. He was going to start an application for a job.
He said, “Could you help me?” I said, “I know nothing about the job market here because I have never been trialed or tested or applied for jobs in India. I am happy to discuss whatever you have put on your job application.”
We sat down, talked over a few questions. I gave him my input. Then he said, “I need to go and see so-and-so religious person. I am going to ask him on what day should I submit my application so I have better chances to succeed or get a job.”
I said, “If that is what you are going to do, why did not you ask him to give you the answers? Then you have more certainty. Then you will definitely get the job.” This guy, he’s got Masters in Chemistry.
He’s fussing on same old things, the old times without testing. Although, his education being science. You should question, you should ask, you should test, you should verify. If you do certain things, you follow certain protocols through standard procedures, then you should come to a conclusion more or less the same every time. That is the challenge assign for you.
He memorized the – probably the curriculum, or answered the – exam. He got his certificate, so he got M.Sc. But he never opened up his mind. He never applied those rules and that is the worst thing. He will replicate among the young because then he got into teaching. He’s a teacher now.
He’s a science teacher. I always wonder what message he’ll be sending over to the youngsters. So, this is how the whole scenario, the whole situation is perpetuated. We keep in the cycle because you never develop that scale where you open your mind opens up, then you have others to look things in more critical way and do not take it because it is being told by somebody who’s older than you.
Jacobsen: In democratic societies or even semi-democratic societies in the popular culture, the image of famous people, or in the political classes, becomes the individuals who probably most citizens admire, look up to, and try to take their own character and presentation after. How does this impact critical thought, rational thought as well when it becomes another form of faith-based ideological thinking in a secular framework?
Singh: India is a classic example. You will get bright people there, very sharp minds. They look up to these people or they are being conditioned or they are being trained to look up to certain people, and they maintain the status quo.
That could be in the village, it could be in your family. It could be somebody your family’s been following for generations because somebody did something, happened something, or they did a favour, and it carries on.
I can give you another example. In Punjab, especially where I am from, the water is the big problem. Its surface under the ground. It is going down and down and down and down. People are not listening to the voices who know about how the water is going down.
There is a gentleman, he passed away. He was well known. About in 1955, he wrote an article. He said the Punjabis must look after this, their water sources. Even in academia at that time, he laughed at him.
But now the academia is saying there are serious issues, but most of the political class, the most of religious preachers, they are not coming forward to highlight this issue. For them, that issue is whether you got long hair, whether you are Sikh, or whether you cut your hair, and you are a Hindu.
For them, that is the most important issue and the most important issue for the general public is what will happen in the next life. For them, the issue is not the problem in the next 10 years. The Punjab have a very, serious issue of the water.
In some villages even today people suffer, they do not know how to acquire clean drinking water. When I was growing old, the water was so plentiful. It was so clean. In last 30 years, the picture has changed completely.
So, when we come back to your question as to how has that kept them going, this is how. When people look up to these people and do not criticize or not look at the situation critically or apply any reason, this is how they are getting on a situation and to see how people’s lives are being delighted.
Jacobsen: How is the mix-up of the lack of gender equality with religious ideology in India and in the diaspora within Britain as well?
Singh: It is the same because this is what we are fighting against. In England, the first generation of migrants who migrated from India or Pakistan or Bangladesh, the Indian subcontinent, still have those beliefs.
They were in abundance or they were following when they were young and they are passing on to the generation here. When I migrated to England in 1988, I thought the youngsters who’ve been born and brought up here and whose schooling’s been here. They must be open-minded.
But to my surprise, working with the community, working with our organization, they are doing well-paid jobs, responsible jobs, and function well. They apply all the knowledge, but when it comes to the home.
In India, they used to say, “On Saturdays, you shouldn’t drink alcohol or consume alcohol or you shouldn’t consume meat.” People follow that. Even those people who are born and brought up here, been educated here, they are doing brilliant jobs and work.
When it comes to the superstition, they still follow that without questioning and doubting. It is even in the third generation of those migrant people. This is sometimes what we fight against here. We need to make them realize.
Sometimes people to believe so-and-so died in their family, that they turn into this lost soul or something [Laughing].
Singh: The soul is still following them. One day, I was talking to a gentleman. He’s worked for Minister of Defense here, well-paid job. I said, |How come that soul knows where you live? That when you move houses, they exactly know where you have moved to and they never get mixed up with your next-door neighbuor or two houses away?”
Jacobsen: Right, a Life of Brian sort of situation, where they go to the wrong manger.
Singh: It is unbelievable that this is still happening. This is what we are trying to make people aware of. Probably, you need to apply the same knowledge, the same critique to other situations as well, the same critique you apply to solve your challenges at work.
Jacobsen: Does the superstitious stances and beliefs of individual Indian citizens and those with Indian heritage and diaspora limit their lives, limit their ability to think clear about the situation, even though they may themselves exist at a high level of authority and prestige and competency within their own societies?
Singh: Absolutely. I am going to give you another example. About 10 years ago, we were called to this family. The husband is a general practitioner, a doctor, and his wife was a [Inaudible] nurse in a hospital.
The issue was that moment, when they go to bed at night-time. They come in the morning there is water in the kitchen. They believe somebody done some black magic thing upon them and the water disappeared. It was sad.
When we had the first conversation with them, and were thinking at that time when we came into Britain where you have the cold water supply to the fridge, that turns into ice and then let down to cold water.
We were thinking there must be somewhere leakage. But when we looked at the fridge, it was a standard fridge. There was no water supply attached to the fridge. We got puzzled. ‘What is that happening?’ Then we [Laughing] looked around.
We moved the fridge around, it was fine, nothing around or at the back. What it was, when there is a condensation inside the fridge, sometimes, the water evaporated.
There is the hole in the fridge that let the water out, the few drops out, and to get back onto the motor at the back; it evaporated with a little bit heat. The hole was blocked and then rather than let the water escape through the hole the water was coming out in the morning. The problem went away.
Can you imagine two people who have been educated, highly paid jobs, and their whole education is based on to look, examine, and come up with a solution? They had paid a bit of money to get cured by the same people they believe had done something on them like a black magic.
They went to the tantric or local guy and then paid him probably in hundreds if not thousands in pounds to get the problem solved.
Jacobsen: We also live in a world in which the transparency to those with a critical eye of religious involvement in politics can be seen in Russia with the Russian Orthodox Church, America with the Dominionist Evangelicals, India with Hindu nationalism, in Brazil with evangelical Christians, the Philippines with Roman Catholicism, and so on.
We have large numbers of citizens throughout the world heavily influenced and indoctrinated within these societies often led by unscrupulous men, often termed ‘strongmen,’ with the backing of a variety of denominations of traditionalist, fundamentalist religions. What is a real buffer against this encroachment into political life of religious faith?
Singh: I’d like to hear the question again.
Jacobsen: Sure. The shorthand would be: What is a buffer against the influence of religion on politics?
Singh: It is because people – from my experience, when we interact with the people – when I initially started to work with people they always start with whether you believe in God. Then I was quick to jump to answer that question.
I said, “No, I do not believe in that anymore,” and immediately the conversation shuts down. They say, “You do not believe in God. There is no point to have a meaningful conversation with you.” But now, I start from a different angle.
I start the conversation: “Does that matter, whether I believe in God or not?” When we jump in to say that we do not believe in God, we shut down the conversation. This is how these people are trained or indoctrinated or ingrained. That anybody who does not believe in God is no good, no morality, no ethics. They are not good people.
People who are on the other side – people like ourselves; we need to keep the conversation flowing and we need to diffuse the situation to create the space where the conversation can take place where you can either start our journey with that person or at least, the minimum, make that person to listen to you, what you have to do.
People have the ability. All we need to do is need to make them aware that they have got the ability.
Jacobsen: If we look at the opposite side of the aisle in general, rationalists, freethinkers, etc., what have been mistakes made within communities there?
Singh: From my experience, I have friends who are religious, but I cannot talk to them. I cannot ask questions without offending them, without breaking down that conversation, without breaking down relationship I have with them. We both part ways. We are agreed to disagree on certain things.
Some time now, those people, they would not hear anything against their religious beliefs, now they say, “Not, if you were saying this, it does make sense.” For me that is the good point. At least if I can take them away from being part of that institutionalized region, I probably would have done my job there.
When people started to see each other as humans, whether they believe in God or they do not believe in God, there are better chances of better love, better society, or better coexistence. He’s professor Brian Cox.
Singh: He recently did an interview for BBC. He was asked the question if he knows the God exist. I never thought it through properly but initial reaction of mine was that he’s running down, when he said, ‘I do not know that God exist sor not.’ He said, ‘As a scientist, it is not my job to go out and find whether the God exist or not. I have got so many of the questions I need to find and this is what I am set out to find, whereas you have a Richard Dawkins…’ [Laughing].
Singh: ‘…argue and deny that God exists.’ So, we have two different stances. He did not say that he believes in a God. Brian Cox never said he believes in a God. But when it comes to the existence of God, he does not have a conclusive stance.
That is what he said. That he does not have that. Also, that is not his job. As a scientist, his particular job is not to find out whether the God exists or not. So, this is where probably, sometimes, we give a good tool to the people on the other side of the argument to be desperate.
If we tried to diffuse it, somehow, then we probably can take our message to the people.
Jacobsen: What are some activities, ongoing, into the rest of 2019 and into 2020 for the Asian Rationalist Society Britain?
Singh: Yes, we are doing a public meeting on Saturday where we are making people aware of the law. Majority of the people, they do not know if there is a legal remedy available today when it comes people paying of money to these tantrics or astrologers or people who pretend to be the gurus or religious figures.
When we started in 1997, the first case came to us and somebody paid 10,000 to this guy, to help with this family problem. We were very surprised somebody could pay 10,000 to such a person who has no idea what they are talking about or have any meaningful way to solve this family’s problems.
But now, we have cases where people have paid a hundred thousand plus British pound. Roughly about 180,000 Canadian dollars, this is not one of the cases. There are many. There are some laws existing where people can get the money back.
This is one thing we are doing this Saturday to making people aware. We are going to impress and the second thing: the focus is to deal with the community papers. They are full of advertisements of these people who claim, ‘If you pay us X amount of money, then we can do some a magic and it can cure all your problems.’
For example, if there is a problem with the husband wife, with their relationship, they can cure it. In the community language newspapers, these people are seen in India. They are running their campaigns here.
They are claiming they are gold medalists from the Indian universities in astrology; they can cure their problems, so that is a good bait. We going to go after them. We probably will work with the advertising standard agency here to deal with those where they are making false claims.
That is the second bit we are doing. The third sitting is where we are widening our network, where we are working with the like-minded associations, organizations, charities who are doing similar jobs, but they have a different skill set than us.
So, we can bring all those together, and if we can provide some solution or remedies for those people who are being exploited.
Jacobsen: If you look at Britain or United Kingdom in general, who are the biggest and worst purveyors of nonsense, who are the worst charlatans?
Singh: After we find somebody, he or she is bigger than the first one we found. We were working on a case. This came from India in the mid-80s or late 80s. He never worked in a factory, office, anywhere for a single day.
He has about 25 to 30 million pounds worth of property. There are people who have paid probably, on average, 50,000 each. So, we are investigating him with the national newspaper here. If we print it at this moment, if we are successful, he will be the biggest, what we have found so far.
But probably when we go on to the next one, he or she might be bigger than him.
Jacobsen: Are the levels of rationality of societies getting worse or better?
Singh: I would say better. When I say “better,” I am referring to the Asian community or particularly Indian community, because the first generation of migrants are losing their grip passing on to the next generations, where it probably serves a contradictory idea.
When organizations like ours or other organizations come forward, probably their message is filtering through, I am hoping things will get better. When I say it is getting better, what I mean is it is not reversing, at least, if it is at the same level as five years ago, 10 years ago, probably, it is a turn in a good direction.
In that sense, I am saying it is getting better, but the damages are there. At the moment, what happening in the Indian subcontinent, politically or religiously, and probably generally throughout the world, that work can reverse quickly if the forces on our side do not come together and keep up the momentum.
That could be easily undone. So, we are not out of the waters yet. The challenges are getting bigger but that is what the struggle is all about [Laughing]. You carry on fighting what you believe in; this is good.
Jacobsen: Does the lack of rationale in a society or an individual particularly reflect, in any research, a cognitive and emotional stunting in development? Are there physical, neurological corollaries that have been found in psychological research about a lack of rationality correlated with a stunting?
Singh: This is where we do not have a skill set within our organization or this is probably one of the area we need to grow more. That is why I said we need to widen our networking or collaboration with other organizations because our organization is relatively small.
When we find the organization who do such research, this is what we need to bring in to the full, to people. I am not able to answer your question with facts. I probably would not comment otherwise [Laughing]. It will not be the true reflection.
Jacobsen: What if we take a context in which some proxies might exist at the present? For instance, if we look at nations, states in which education levels are low and malnourishment is high in the young, do these societies more likely harbour a susceptibility to those who are unscrupulous and tend to be charlatans?
Singh: Absolutely. Absolutely, because things do not happen in the vacuum. The conditions have to be there. If somebody’s hungry and you offer him or her the food and you fulfill that requirement for that particular person, you have a big influence on that person.
If somebody is such and such a class, a social class and a particular religion who are under attack, either individually or as a community, whoever come forward to give them the protection, they’d probably go with them.
The fundamental necessities of life; most people say the hierarchy of necessities is you need to survive, you need food, you need shelter, you need safety. Sometimes, it is easy. That is evident in India.
People are using all the NGOs, all the charities. They are doing lot of work, offering all those things. In return, they are spreading their doctrines. They are spreading what they believe in, and people will take it.
Jacobsen: Who inspires you? Who do you admire, if any?
Singh: An individual or in general?
Jacobsen: An individual, especially in regards to the work of the society or its orientation and philosophy.
Singh: It is hard to say. I am probably inspired by my father. He was 43 when he passed away. The things he taught me, the things he said, never made sense to me when I was growing up and my father was around.
But now when I look back, when I reflect on them, he inspires me. He was a good person, not because he was my father, because of what he believed in. I can give you a little example. My father, one of his classmate, he belongs to a caste.
In India, they say we are untouchable. Whenever these so-called ‘untouchable’ people come into your houses, I do not belong to that but in that system where the family I was born in, we are farmers, a high caste; you can say, if I can use that word, do not let them sit by you, do not let them sit on the bed.
Or probably if you are sitting on the chair, they cannot sit on the opposite chair. I am talking about 40 years ago. 35 years ago, my father took a stand at that time. He was not a political figure. He was not a social activist. He was a guy who was looking after his family, doing things first for the family.
But he believed in things, so he made sure that I do not have that discrimination. He made sure his friend come to our house and sit with my father and can eat with my father. At that time, it could be a big thing.
That equality, that belief in humanity, and that belief that all humans are equal. Things like that. There are so many other things when I look back. He keeps me going. He gives me the strength when things get difficult. I definitely would say he was my father.
Jacobsen: Any recommended books?
Singh: Books for which section of the society? [Laughing]. When I talk about Indian community, the knowledge level, especially the people who migrated of my generation, one generation before, we read different books.
But we do not read books to start with. You walk into any Punjabi house. You probably will find three types of whiskies. [Laughing] somewhere sitting. But you will hardly find a book. I always say read any book, anything that interests you, read a book.
A couple of bucks I would suggest. There is Dr. Abraham Thomas Kovoor. He’s from Sri Lanka. He tells you all these people who claim they have all those powers and he investigated all his life and nobody has come forward and proved that they have a set of powers. Anybody who can get their hands on that, they can read that book.
Jacobsen: Any recommended organizations?
Singh: No, I do not get into the recommendations. I say work for the humanity. Wherever you think you can make a difference in other people’s lives, can make their life better, go and work for that community or for that organization. My mom’s sister, she was well-educated, she retired, and she was sitting home getting upset, getting depressed, and I said, “Why do you not go and do voluntary work?” She went and was working with the local hospital.
When she works with the patients who visit the hospitals, she helps them to find a place. She’s happy. She’s content. So, wherever they can utilize their time better to make other people’s lives better, wherever their interest is, they can work go and work there.
As long as we can make other people’s lives easier who live more peaceful, that is the organization they need to work in.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?
Singh: Frm my experience working with the different organizations, we are divided in – when I say “we,” the people on the rationalist side – many little things, so we need to come together, work better.
We can be heard, we can become a force to reckon with, and we can make a difference. Within the Indian diaspora, there are so many organizations that goes against what we are trying to achieve so this is something we need to seriously reflect upon and to seriously think about it, how we can come together, and have a force that can make a difference.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Navdeep.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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