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Monday, July 15, 2013

The Amazing Meeting's Real Hero

I spent the weekend in Las Vegas with my daughter at The Amazing Meeting, an annual conference of skeptics, scientists, magicians, and other rational thinkers, presented by the James Randi Educational Foundation. This was my eighth TAM, and one of the best, thanks to a lineup of speakers that included Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer, climate scientist Michael Mann, Richard Saunders of the Australian Skeptics society (who forced the Power Balance scammers out of that continent), Daniel Ariely on cheating and lying, and a keynote address by Randi himself.

Among that stellar group, the most impressive was Sanal Edamaruku. I was honored to spend a few minutes talking with him Thursday evening at the TAM reception because I had spoken about him in a speech I gave at SkeptiCamp St. Louis last year:

Once in awhile, we get a victory story, like the one about Sanal Edamaruku, who heard an announcement by an Indian guru named Pandit Surender Sharma, who claimed he could kill another man with only his mind. Edamaruku stepped forward and said, “Really? Then kill me." Edamaruku is not a suicidal nutjob, he’s a skeptic, the president of the Indian Rationalist Association. Remarkably, the guru accepted the challenge. A TV channel carried the whole thing live, even preempting other programming as the showdown went on, hour after hour.

According to the Sunday Times:

"When the guru’s initial efforts failed, he accused Mr. Edamaruku of praying to gods to protect him. "No, I’m an atheist," came the response. The holy man then said he needed to conduct a ritual that could only be done at night, outdoors, and after he had slept with a woman, drunk alcohol and rubbed himself in ash. Not wanting Sharma to have any excuses for his failure, Edamaruku accompanied him to an outdoor studio, where the farce continued until midnight, when the TV station's host declared it over. In the end, of course, Edamaruku is still alive.
We don't get many opportunities to show these mystics to be the fakes they really are, so Edamaruku really hit a home run for reason with this demonstration. It's particularly important in a nation like India, where huge numbers of the poor and uneducated (and plenty of rich, smart people) fall for this sort of nonsense every day. Considering how gullible Americans are in this realm, it's even worse in a nation with nearly four times the population.
That incident four years ago was the most-watched TV show in the history of Indian television. Unfortunately, what has happened to Sanal since then isn't as amusing.

In March, 2012, there was a report of a "miraculous" dripping crucifix in Mumbai, with water dripping from the feet of a statue of Jesus. Thousands of Christians flocked to the site to collect the "holy water." Some of them drank it. Sanal went to investigate. In an interview with Slate last July, he explained what he found:
I had a close look at a nearby washroom and the connected drainage system that passed underneath the concrete base of the cross. I removed some stones from the drain and found it was blocked. I touched the walls, the base, and the cross and took some photographs for documentation. It was very simple: Water from the washroom, which had been blocked in the clogged drainage system, had been transmitted via capillary action into the adjacent walls and the base of the cross as well as into the wooden cross itself. The water came out through a nail hole and ran down over the statue's feet.
When Sanal tested it, he discovered that the "holy water" was sewage that contained a million times more E. Coli bacteria than the human body can tolerate. He did a live television broadcast to explain the real source of the "miracle" and the accompanying danger.

Did the Catholic Church thank him, inform its parishioners, and fix the plumbing? No. Instead, it attacked Sanal, accusing him of insulting religion, which is against the law in India. The bishop issued a statement saying that Sanal should be arrested and, if another prisoner killed him in jail, the Church would give one million rupees to that prisoner's family.

With a death threat like that hanging over his head, Sanal was forced into hiding for six weeks. As pressure continued to mount, he had to leave India and now lives in Finland, where he continues to run the Indian Rationalist Society from afar and make appearances via Skype for Indian media outlets, which he tells me are mostly on his side.

He has refused to apologize or bow down to the Church's demands, but he can't go home. Fortunately, he came to Vegas to share his story and received two standing ovations from the TAM crowd of over 1,100 people who recognized that Sanal has put his life on the line for the very concepts that The Amazing Meeting is about.

I consider James Randi one of my heroes. On Saturday at TAM, he said that Sanal was one of his. That's the highest praise I can think of for a skeptical activist, and wish that more people knew about the continuing work of both these men -- and many others like them.