Weber, Durkheim, and Disenchantment as Social Movement in India

This past week, while driving home from a delicious Thanksgiving dinner with friends, I heard a fascinating story from PRI’s “The World” that reminded me of some of the material my social theory students had just covered, specifically Weber’s understanding of rationality and “the disenchantment of the world.” The story is fascinating on its own, but I hope it might be a useful pedagogical tool as well. In India, there is a relatively large and prominent Rationalist movement that promotes scientific skepticism and actively seeks to debunk miracles. In this case, the rationalists have been trying to expose the mechanism behind supposedly mystical lights that appear at the end of a lengthy and popular pilgrimage (which the government now admits it had been generating). It’s short, so listen to it or read it if you get a chance! And for the even shorter version, here are some key quotes:

For decades the light was believed to be divine, the light of God. But in 2011, the government admitted that the light at Sabarimala is fake. That was music to the ears of India’s rationalists who believe that all phenomena can be explained by science. The rationalists have spent the past few decades trying to debunk many of India’s religious myths, including Sabarimala.

Way back in 1981, rationalists took photos of workers lighting giant camphor lamps, but nothing changed. Then, in 1999, 52 pilgrims were killed trying to catch a glimpse of the light. The same thing happened in 2011: 106 were killed. The rationalists had had enough.

That’s as clear an example of rationalization and the disenchantment of the world as I’ve yet found. It helps that the movement even named itself the “Rationalists!” Better yet, the story includes a nice quote that captures a more Durkheimian/collective effervescence take on miracles as well:

But still, many pilgrims believe in the miracle that the light is divine. Jayakumar says it doesn’t matter. “I know that it is man-made, I know everything, but still you forget all that,” he says. He says the festival is like any religious ritual. It is about a feeling and faith. “You should surrender your belief, you know,” Jayakumar says. “You don’t have to think who lit the lamp, when did they go there, nothing. You see a lamp and you are transported to a different plane. That is faith. Faith has no rationality.”

For a similar follow-up story, also from PRI’s “The World,” see here. And I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving!

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