Rafida Bonya Ahmed: Rationality needed now more than ever
The following keynote speech was given at the North American Paleontology convention at the University of California-Riverside in June in front of paleontologists from 32 countries. In 2016, Rafida Bonya Ahmed was awarded FFRF’s Forward Award, which recognizes individuals who have moved society forward.
By Rafida Bonya Ahmed
I am honored to be here today. I am not an academic or a paleontologist — not even an amateur one. But I know a thing or two about writing about science and the price you might pay for defending rational and scientific thinking. I thought it would be a good idea for me to share that with you, especially now, when rational thinking is under attack all around the globe.
My late husband Avijit Roy and I are — I guess were — writers devoted to scientific thinking, writing blogs and books after we came home from our day jobs in IT. Early on, when we met in 2002 through the blog that he founded for Bengali-speaking freethinkers, we decided to write in our first language, Bengali, because there was a lack of good books on emerging science and philosophy in our native tongue, though there was a big demand for it among the young population.
We were both born in Bangladesh, though we spent most of our adult lives here in the United States. Writing was Avijit’s passion. I don’t know how, but he managed to write eight books and edited two others on such diverse subjects as how our universe works, how life began, homosexuality, the virus of faith or the philosophy of nonbelief.
I am lazy — I only managed to write one book on the evolution of life.
In 2015, we decided to visit our home country for a book-signing trip. Two of Avijit’s books were due to be published during the month-long book fair in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
And then it happened, on the 10th day of our visit. It was the evening of Feb. 26, 2015. In front of hundreds and hundreds of people, we were attacked by machete-wielding Islamic terrorists as we were leaving the book fair. We were targeted by one of the local Islamic militant groups, which later merged with al Qaida of the Indian Subcontinent.
Avijit bled to death on the street and I barely survived. I had four 6- to 7-inch machete gashes on my head, a sliced-off thumb and numerous cuts to the nerves and arteries on my hands.
I will not go into any more detail of that gruesome night. If you are morbidly curious, you can find the pictures of the attack scene on the internet, as a young photographer took a few pictures before he came forward to take us to the hospital when nobody else offered.
I don’t have any memory of the attack itself. I remember the moment right before the attack and I have a few scattered memories of when I was taken to the hospital. It must be an evolutionary mechanism which blocks this kind of traumatic experience from being registered in our long-term memory. My PTSD-specialist psychiatrist and I “prayed” together so that the memories of that night never come back.
Why we were targeted
Our “sin” was that Avijit and I wrote about science, philosophy and rational thinking. We criticized religion and religious fundamentalism. The militants later said in a press release that we deserved to be killed because of two of the books Avijit wrote — one on the scientific and social basis of homosexuality and the other one titled The Virus of Faith.
After the attack on us, the militants vowed to kill one atheist blogger a month and the impunity was so high that they continued to do so for next few months. They killed four other bloggers and attacked both of Avijit’s publishers in their offices. One died and the other one barely survived.
Our so-called “secular” government stayed quiet because it did not want to upset the influential fundamentalist groups. The government was finally forced to act after the militants attacked a bakery in Dhaka, killing 20 foreigners and locals in a horrific night-long raid. The attackers sent gruesome pictures to ISIS as they slaughtered those innocent people.
This was not the Bangladesh we grew up in. But there is no denying that we have seen a dangerous shift toward religious fundamentalism or right-wing nationalism in many parts of the world.
Avijit’s books are not sold in Bangladesh anymore and I have been told that the shopkeepers hide my book in the back of the store. You have to secretly ask them for it because they are afraid of the threats from the religious fundamentalists — and the government, too. They do not teach evolution in the Bangladeshi schools anymore, either.
You might think we are much better than that. But, think again. Are we really?
We might not get killed here in the United States for being atheist science writers, but what about being a victim of mindless gun violence? What about getting killed by the growing white nationalists in a Charlottesville-like protest?
What about our government’s denial of the dangerous reality of global climate change and the predicament of our planet? Isn’t that a death by thousand cuts for future generations?
What about scrapping regulations that would have cracked down on coal-burning power plants, or stopping fetal tissue research that could help millions of people, including those afflicted with HIV, human development disorders or various cancers? I would be remiss to not mention the recent attacks on women’s right to choose in many parts of this country, as well.
This administration has radically reduced the use of science in policymaking. It has deliberately weakened enforcement of science-based public health and environmental laws. And the list goes on. We are seeing the same trend in many other countries.
I know it is easy to list problems without talking about the solution. I have gone through enough in life to know there are things beyond our control. But, I still believe we can do many other things. They might be small, but they have the potential to make a profound impact on our society and environment.
The new storytellers
I have always viewed you guys, the paleontologists, as storytellers. You are those enchanting storytellers who make their readers travel through the deep history of our planet where none of us have ever been.
I know the word “storyteller” rings an alarm in your scientist ears. Storytellers are not necessarily scientific! And rightfully so. But bear with me.
What if we have storytellers who would rewrite the creation stories of our species with this new scientific knowledge we have gathered in the last few centuries? What if our stories could ignite the spark of critical thinking in kids from a very young age? Where did we come from? How did we get here? Did our species have any other siblings or cousins? We were not the only humans who roamed around this world. That plant and fungal kingdom are the basis of life on earth. Biodiversity is not just a thing to enjoy in a botanical garden, but an absolute necessity for our existence. What if we could teach our children early on that we are all dependent on each other in this biosphere, that we need to preserve our environment to preserve our own existence? That extinction is an inevitable part of life. Ninety-nine percent of all species have gone extinct. Our species is one of the newest actors on this planetary stage.
What if these new stories could teach our next generations the desperately needed humility that we have lost along the way of our unbelievable evolutionary success? Our anthropocentric worldview is nothing but a representation of our arrogance and ignorance. Our existence in this universe is small and fleeting, but at the same time it is deeply consequential.
The dinosaurs had no way of predicting their extinction, but we do, and that’s why we have a duty to protect our planet.
What if these stories could encourage people to question everything? If there is anything fixed in this world, it is that our universe, our planet, every life form, is continuously changing. Our culture, language, society, consciousness and values all change with time and space. So, we know when anyone tries to impose unchangeable rules and morals which have to be accepted without any question, they contradict the basic nature of our universe, our existence.
The reason I am obsessed with the rational and scientific storytelling is very personal. Storytelling is deeply embedded in the culture of our species. I know it works because it worked for me. One such storyteller influenced me profoundly when I was a teenager.
By age 13, I had read the children’s versions of the scriptures of the main organized religions, along with many other books. Yeah, you can tell that I had nothing better to do. And, I declared to my parents: “None of these stories is cutting it for me. All of them sound like fairytales.”
My liberal Muslim parents couldn’t care less. They said, “OK, if that’s what you want to believe.” I don’t know if this is possible in today’s Bangladesh anymore.
Then I started searching for an answer that would make sense and my uncle came to the rescue. He bought me this book called A Story Without an End, written by Debiprasad Chattapadhyay, one of the well-known Bengali rational thinkers.
And this is where I got introduced to Darwin, evolution and paleontology. The book was about the story of the evolution of our planet and life on it. It was written before the days of genetics and genomics, so it was mainly based on what we knew from geology, anthropology and, of course, paleontology.
This book shaped me in more ways than you can imagine. It told me that there were scientific and rational explanations to the questions I had about our history, our origin. It showed me our place in the universe. It made me aware of our evolutionary identity and the relationship between the past and the living life forms and it also made me understand the magnitude of changes happening through our history. Above all, it encouraged me to question, to think and to be curious.
The seed of scientific and rational thinking that this book planted in me in my early years not only helped form my worldview, it helped me immensely during the darkest moments of my life. They say rational thinking goes out of the window when you are in a foxhole. But it worked exactly the opposite way for me.
Randomness of existence
I was brought in from Dhaka to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for further surgeries and treatment on the fourth day after the attack in 2015, leaving Avijit’s body for medical research in Bangladesh.
Rather than wasting my energy on thinking, “Why have I been punished this way?,” I thought about the randomness of our existence and the probability of this happening to me. We all like to create this little Garden of Eden around us and think nothing will happen to us and our loved ones, while many around us are constantly getting hurt or dying from war, extreme poverty, natural disaster, accidents, religious execution or sexual violence — you name it.
Lying in the hospital bed, I thought, “If it happens to millions of people all over the world, all through our history, it can happen to me as well, right?”
I remember thinking that although the universe is indifferent to my random existence and feelings, I do have a choice! I could be depressed and stay traumatized for the rest of my life or I could try to live again in a way that felt meaningful to me while I am here raising my footprint on our little planet. This is what got me going and saved me from sinking into PTSD.
After I was done with my three-month-long initial treatment, I moved to Atlanta, where I had lived with Avijit for 16 years. I quit my job as an IT executive in the financial industry. I could no longer work just for a paycheck. I started writing again and lobbying against the persecution of freethinkers, writers, bloggers, publishers and intellectuals in Bangladesh. I am lucky to have help from people from all around the world, including in Bangladesh.
I recently created a charity called “Think,” with my scientist, educator and BBC documentary filmmaker friends. We are creating high-quality videos on science, history, philosophy and art in different languages — Bengali, Hindi, Arabic and English.
As you can expect, there is so much good content created in English in this new social media and YouTube era, but there is almost nothing in many other languages. We want to share the global knowledge and the scientific progress while celebrating the local history and knowledge base, treasures in critical thinking, history, art, philosophy. We are filming videos in each language separately — no more captions or dubbing from English! We are hoping to go live with our YouTube channels in October.
I would really like to thank the organizers of this convention for going beyond your academic research topics and focusing also on scientific thinking in broader society and public policy-making. We need this more than ever as we fight global climate change and the constant attacks on the rationally-informed view of evolution and the consequences of Earth’s history, locally and globally. Paleontologists have played a very important role in our scientific revolution over centuries and I am confident that you will continue stepping up to the challenge at this critical moment of our planetary history.