Saturday, March 19, 2011

Atheism – Another Religion!

It is one of the questions for which we perhaps would never have a concrete answer in our life time or no one that takes birth on this planet would ever get a convincing answer. Does God exist? Don’t know. Looking at the events that happen around me every day, I get a confusing answer. My answer is positive when I come across something that doesn’t have a convincing logical answer. And, it is negative when I come across something that doesn’t have a convincing spiritual answer. Whatever be your explanation, I strongly believe that this world does not deserve so much chaos, problems, pains, bloodbaths, wars and hunger, which are experienced by right from new born babies to women to elders.

When there is no logical answer, my theist friends argue that the absence of a logical answer doesn’t mean absence of God. They shoot me back with a simple question – “Do you believe only things that are proven?” and another not-so-simple follow-up question – “Who proved to you that your father was yours?”. The very word ‘belief’ means it doesn’t need any proof (or it doesn’t have any). Likewise, when there is no spiritual answer, my atheist friends ask me if I am so foolish to believe anything that others say without questioning them. They ask me a very simple question too – “Would you believe everything that is not proven?”. What do I say? If I say “Yes”, I would easily prove that I am a fool. If I say “No”, they also have a not-so-simple follow-up question – “Then why only God?”.

I am under no compulsion to take sides. Even if I decide to do so, I don’t think the skeptics all around the world would get the right answers to their questions or the believers would have better proofs. I am okay to be in no-men’s land as long as there are unanswered questions. Having said that, I should also admit that I am finding it very interesting to talk about the subject like ever before – every time it comes up for discussion. I love to advocate atheism with theists and theism with atheists as that brings out the best in the discussions.

Okay. Let’s say God does exist. Who is it? What is his name? Is it Jesus or Allah or Shiva or Vishnu or what? I think it is Lord XYZ because that is what my parents told me and their parents told them. Would I have told the same thing if I was you – born in your place, for your parents and brought up in your environment? Or, would you have told the same thing if you were me – born in my place, for my parents and brought up in my environment? Would you or I have told the same thing if we were born in some other corner of the world? Say, Saudi Arabia or Europe or Africa. What is his form? Is he human-like in appearance or something different or form-less? Is it he or she or something else?

This question almost nails down to something – Who created this universe… a complex structure that has so many varieties of species, natural resources, inter-dependence, mysteries and questions?. But, the same question brings us back to square zero – Who created the creator then? If he could be self-created, why not the universe?! How simple yet complex question this is!

Most of the revolutionists were atheists. What does this indicate? From my personal experience, this is what I feel. When I am in trouble, if I believe in God, I go to him, cry in front of him, complain to him and get back to my regular work with the confidence that he would take care of it for me. When I don’t believe in his existence, I don’t get sleep until the problem is resolved. That keeps me reminding about the problem until it is resolved and forces me to work towards some kind of solution. Because, I know no one else would solve it for me and I have to do it for myself.

So if you want peace of mind, it is good to be a believer of some power – unknown power. But, if you want problems to be resolved, you have to go after solutions. That is what can give you long term – practical solutions. That is what can relieve you from your real problems. But, we don’t rule out a mid-path. You could still do your duty and believe in God without expecting too much from him. I think – that’s a more sensible form of theism. Belief should not have vested interests. It should not be for any worldly reasons. This is how most of our gurus advocate spirituality.

But, most of the common people (people like you and me) believe in God because they think it was God who bailed them out of their troubles when they pleaded to him. It is God who gave them everything that they have. The same people have a different answer when their problems are not solved or when they don’t get what they asked for. They say, “He wants me to go through all these for some reason, so I better do that”. So, that clearly means God’s primary responsibility is not to bail you out of your troubles or give you everything that you ask for. He takes his own calls. So, if he takes his calls then it should be based on some basis. If that basis is decided based on what you do outside the temple, church or mosque, it doesn’t make any difference anyway.

Atheists are saying non-believers have never been a problem to those who hold any kind of belief whereas those who follow a particular religion have been to those who hold different beliefs. The future of this planet has never been questioned by the non-believers but by those who strongly believe that only their belief is right. Only by those who think their belief is superior to the rest!

Other than the belief, what differentiates the believers and non-believers?

A generally held belief is that those who believe in God are controlled by the fear of God whereas the skeptics do not fear for anything so they don’t hesitate to commit any sin. But, what I see and hear does not prove the point. All criminals are not atheists. All politicians are not atheists. All those who evade tax are not atheists. All those who cheat their fellow human beings for their livelihood are not atheists. All the money that is spent on religious activities is not white money. It is not that all those that are behind bars are atheists.

One could believe God and still commit sins. His thought process is very simple – ‘I have to worship him because he is the one that created me and he is the one that gives me everything that I ask him for’. My father or mother never punishes me for any of my sins. They just accept me for what I am irrespective of how good or bad I am. It is the same kind of relationship that I share with God as well. I expect God to be my unconditional savior and not to be like the police department. All that I offer to God are in exchange of what he gives me irrespective of all my sins.

Do the atheists not fear God? Yes. They don’t. They are not convinced that they would get punished by an unknown power for their sins. But, they do fear that they would get killed if they are caught by the victims of any sins they commit. They also have equal amount of humanity. They also feel bad when they see an accident or someone gets hurt. It’s the basic human nature irrespective of whether you believe God or not.

I come from the land that has the highest number of temples and the highest number of atheists in the country. They both peacefully co-exist in the same land for a few generations now. There are houses wherein both believers and non-believers exist without any problems. There exists another group of people that are fascinated by the idea of atheism, but are skeptical about the skepticism itself. They just don’t want to take any risk. “Let him be there or not, but I don’t want to waste my time in researching about him and his existence. I will just do what my parents have been doing and asked me to do as that is what they did as told and done by their parents and their parents and so on for ages” is their stand. Sensible stand indeed!

It all started off with someone by name E V Ramaswamy Naicker, who is fondly called Periyar (loosely translatable as ‘respectable person’) by his followers. He did something that nobody dared to do in our land. He categorically said aloud that there is no such thing called God. He vehemently opposed all ideas around God, rituals and religion. Although the skepticism was not new, his approach was new to the world.

Like democracy, atheism is predominantly known as a western idea. The ratios of atheists in some western countries are incomparably higher than that in ours (see the picture below for density of atheists across the world). Some claim that both democracy and atheism had strong presence in our land even before they were adopted and marketed by the west. That’s what even Dr. Amartya Sen keeps saying in his book - “The Argumentative Indian”.

But, what was new in Periyar’s approach is that he spent a great amount of time in denying and propagating against God when most of the atheists are so just because of their belief that theism wastes a lot of time and energy on something that doesn’t exist. He hit the idols with footwear in public and asked people if God would punish him for doing it. Interestingly, God didn’t. This new form of atheism attracted the youth at that time and created waves across the state.

There are ardent followers and diehard critics of Periyar in my close circles. Some call him the best Tamilian (some don’t even accept him as a Tamilian as he belonged to a community that migrated from Karnataka to Tamil Nadu before which they had migrated from Andhra to Karnataka some centuries back; so he is either a Kannadiga or a Telugu but not a Tamil!) ever born for the kind of change he brought to the society that he belonged to. Others criticize him for some of his very basic personal problems and his brutal verbal attacks on the Brahmin community just because they are a minority in the society.

Leaving all of them aside, he remains the symbol of Indian atheism even today as nobody so vehemently denied God and spent so much of his valuable lifetime in propagating atheism. Of late, I also see his pictures being used regularly in some of the north Indian Dalit movements. Most of his followers got into electoral politics later and corrupted both politics and themselves when he chose to stay away from that knowing that power would corrupt.

I don’t know what really the social condition at that time was, but I think he would have been less controversial and more acceptable if he had excluded the anti-Brahmin attacks from his agenda. Those who belong to the original movement he started (however small they are in number or however cheap they are in other aspects of public life) are still pure atheists whereas all those who chose to join mainstream electoral politics have become perfect hypocrites that make completely unconnected statements depending on the place and date of the next election.

Other than Periyar, there were also a good number of atheists and agnostics all over India. While Gandhi was so spiritual and religious, Nehru declared himself as an agnostic. Agnostics are the ones that are not sure whether God exists or not whereas the atheists are non-believers. Bhagat Singh was an atheist. Scientist Subramanyan Chandrashekar (Nobel laureate for physics) was an atheist. Another Indian Nobel laureate Amartya Sen is an atheist. Actor Kamal Hassan is an atheist. Hindi lyricist Javed Akhtar is an atheist. But, there is also a surprising entry in this list – Vinayak Savarkar who was the president of Hindu Mahasabha was an atheist. All communist leaders (not necessarily the ones at lower levels) are atheists. Mani Shankar Aiyar who proudly uses his Brahmin-surname is a known atheist of our time.

The father of psychology Sigmund Freud was an atheist. Two of the richest people of our time Bill Gates (not sure whether he is an atheist or agnostic) and Warren Buffet are atheists. Bangladeshi writer and activist Taslima Nasrin is an atheist. No one on earth would be surprised – Karl Marx was an atheist. The future of British politics - Miliband brothers are atheists.

So, this makes few things very clear. Leaving out Periyar and few others, most of our atheists were/are Brahmins. If atheism is a western idea then we could be sure that it would have come through them (Brahmins) just like any other western idea did. If religion is a result of their innovative thinking so is atheism. In a way, it is another religion. If black and white are also colors, why can’t atheism be another religion? Those who get closer to God tend to question his existence more often than others when they are disappointed over something in their life. It’s the same logic that we apply to any relationship. You get into conflicts only when you go close to someone. You don’t bother about someone when you have no business with him/her. So, atheism is not an anti-Brahmin idea. Only in Tamil Nadu it has become so since Periyar linked-up or mixed-up both (supporters would call it link-up and justify that whereas the opposers would call it a mix-up or mess-up). It does happen that we don’t like any idea that is spoken by someone who is against us.

Next point that is coming out of Gates and Buffet cases is that you don’t have to be religious to be a philanthropist; they are two different things. What matters here is the compassion. You don’t have to be a follower of anything to feel hurt or sympathize with someone that suffers. You should have either gone through the same pain or should be able to feel someone else’s pain. I think these people are better than those who do noble things to spread their religion by converting the beneficiaries to their own religion. Those who kill people in masses to save their religion (the ones that we studied in history books as well as the modern-day terrorists) also prove this point. Being religious doesn’t guarantee humanness either!

Savarkar’s is an exceptional case. Is it possible to be religious and atheistic at the same time? Yes. That’s what he has proven. He has proven that one could be an ardent follower of Hinduism at the same time when he doesn’t believe in the existence of God. Unlike Buddhism everything in Hinduism revolves around God. Buddhism doesn’t talk about God. Most of them worship only Buddha. I don’t know if they have accepted him as God or as something else.

This takes us to the next question. Can someone be an atheist and practice spirituality? I think, “Yes”. Spirituality is not about worshipping God. It’s about working with one’s own spirit which could be with the help of God or otherwise. Atheists can do physical exercises like others as they have a physique like others do. Atheists can think like others as they have a brain like others do. Atheists can be spiritual like others as they have a spirit like others do. They can follow a religion of their own – Atheism, which is driven more by conscience than any holy book. The problem comes only when the conscience is not capable enough to have self-less rules. That way, all holy books are clear in their recommendations. What worry us are the new interpretations to those books that are coming out of late.

I don’t have to be a lawyer to know what is right and wrong in my day-to-day dealings with my fellow human beings. I don’t even have to read through the constitution of the nation from end to end to live in this country. If I just do my duty and do no harm to others, I could still be a law-abiding citizen. Likewise, if I just do my duty and do no harm to others, I could still be a good human being on this planet. I don’t really need to have a law book or holy book; a government or religion!

But, that doesn’t mean that the governments and religions are meaningless. It is for those that can’t have strong conscience. It’s for those common men like you and me who can’t be so easily governed by conscience alone. It is for those of us who can’t take our own decisions on major things. We go to our parents, well wishers, lawyers or those who are capable of giving us the best ideas. Likewise, the governments and religions have to be run by (or managed by) intellectuals for the sake of common men like you and me. Both will never be a problem as long as they stay within their territory without getting too greedy. If that is not possible, unfortunately, atheism is the solution!

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