Thinking about atheism
In the past couple of weeks, I have been thinking quite a lot about atheism. The impetus was probably in one of the History classes at University when the professor asked the class the following question: "How many of you are atheists?" In the entire class of forty students, I was the only one raising my hand. Then the professor, a lady of about fifty, asked me if I had read Bhagat Singh's 'Why I am an atheist'. This lady professor was probably expecting an interesting discussion on the book. Unfortunately, that wasn't to be as I had not read that particular book. I must confess that although I was an avowed atheist, I had not approached the entire question from a systematic point of view. I was an impetuous person as most nineteen-year-olds are likely to be. But once the class ended, I decided I had to read that book. I had to study this issue.
Bhagat Singh's book was an interesting one and for that era was extremely courageous. However, I did not find too many new arguments in that book. I had earlier found similar arguments in Homen Borgohain's autobiography. The arguments about relentless questioning are also found in James Stuart Mills' Nineteenth Century essay 'On Liberty'. However, I found it interesting how he approached the question of God giving us 'punishments' for our actions of the previous birth.
I found another source one that I must confess was much more interesting than the 46-page book written by the haloed Indian revolutionary. This was an interview on YouTube that featured Javed Akhtar (an outspoken atheist), Yogendra Yadav (an agnostic) and Kunal Kamra (the supposed 'anti-nationalist'). Curious readers can search 'Shut up ya Kunal Javed Akhtar religion interview' on YouTube. There were clever arguments in that discussion and the occasional wit of Mr. Akhtar. It is based on my continuous thinking over the past couple of weeks plus the inputs gathered from the abovementioned sources that I am about to write this article.
An introduction to atheism
Atheism is not very easy to define. In the simplest terms, it implies a lack of belief in deities (for our discussion it is enough to define a deity as 'a being much more powerful than the ordinary human who is considered responsible for creating and/or controlling the universe). But the lack of belief can take different forms. There can be hardcore atheists who completely refute the presence of deities as well as an extracorporeal soul. Then some agnostics say that it is not possible to be certain about whether or not deities exist. Then there are the spiritualists who, while discarding belief in deities, nevertheless maintain a belief in an extracorporeal soul in all living beings and sometimes even in the non-living. An irreligious person, however, is different from an atheist. An irreligious person is someone who does not follow any of the organized religions. The spheres of the atheists and the irreligious do not completely coincide.
Over the years atheists have advanced several arguments to present their case in front of hard-to-please audiences. There has been the Marxist critique of religion which sees scientific materialism as the high point of human intellect and religion as the opium of man created and promoted by the powerful to continue the oppression of the poor in a justified form. This theory about the origin of religions might appear appealing in the context of Brahminical caste discrimination or the Medieval European domination of the Clergy over the peasantry. But it does not explain the primitive faiths that are believed to have emerged way back in the Upper Palaeolithic age when men were nothing more than savages who knew little more than tool-making and languages and social hierarchy was practically nonexistent. Probably religion gave the savages some hope in the face of despair – a hope of a better hunt or safety from natural calamities. That is what religion gives us – a sense of belief that we get when we pray. Little do we realize that the hope is often likely to be false. In that sense religion is indeed the opium of the masses.
Arguments against God
Bhagat Singh in his book mainly argued that since God controls the world, therefore, He is undeniably responsible for all the massacres that ever occurred on the face of this earth. This is because he could have easily stopped all the genocides and all the wars and all the great epidemics before they even happened. Therefore God who is responsible for the deaths of billions of people and still larger numbers of other creatures is worse than a Chengiz or a Nero. How can so many people worship such a God? This was what Bhagat Ji tried to argue in his book.
Some people argue that the misfortunes that befall humanity are the results of the sins committed by them and God does not stop their misfortunes to punish them for their sins. Well, were all those who died in Hiroshima on the 6th of August, 1945, all the children playing in the park, all the grandpas reading their newspapers, the young high school lovers were all of them such great sinners to die such a tragic death? Some argue (especially the Hindus and the Buddhists) that some misfortunes are the result of actions of the previous births. Here Bhagat Ji delivers the argument that I have found personally edifying. He says –
"But what is the nature of punishment inflicted by God upon men even if we suppose them to be offenders. You say he sends them to be born as a cow, a cat, a tree, a herb or a best. You enumerate these punishments to be 84 lakhs. I ask you what is its reformative effect upon man? ...I ask you how far would you appreciate a criminologist, a jurist or a legislator who proposes such measures of punishment which shall inevitably force a man to commit more offences?"
Mr. Akhtar's reasoning, on the other hand, is somewhat simpler. He says that his common sense does not allow him to believe in the existence of deities. Faith forces man to lose the sense of himself and in a metaphorical way the faithful place their brains at the disposal of an imaginary deity. He points to the numerous suicide bombers who do all their despicable jobs while being used in the name of faith.
Why this article had to be written
I have mentioned at the very beginning of this article that during a class discussion I called myself an atheist. The reason why I became an atheist was perhaps in opposition to the orthodox Brahmin family in which I grew up. All of these cumbersome rituals that are being done in the name of God appeared to be a waste of time and money with the priest ultimately being the only one smiling. The opposition to expensive rituals that delivered little in the end was the primary reason why I became an atheist. Later on, as I grew slightly older and somewhat wiser (though still a bit impetuous and impressionable) I began to find holes in the myths of almost all religious traditions. I laughed at the way some teachers at school tried to present the ten avatars of Vishnu as proof that ancient Hindus had already conceived of evolution hundreds of years before Darwin. And by the time I had reached the age of 19, nothing could convince me to disown atheism.
Yet sometimes I do feel some kind of self-doubt welling up within me. That doubt is sometimes countered with the help of self-argumentation, sometimes with the help of books and on other occasions by writing articles such as these. This article was more of a way to systematically organize my thoughts. If any believing person is hurt by my words, then I assure them that hurting them was never my intention.
God or Almighty is a concept invented by human brains. It was not discovered. It is entirely a matter of faith and belief and if one has that then there is no problem in following the doctrine that God exists. There is nothing which can stand in the way of our belief. It is something deeply rooted in our mind and hereditary upbringing. No one knows for sure whether God exists or not. Theist believes that atheist is ignorant while the atheist believes that theist is having a wrong notion. As no one knows the truth both can be right in their own stride.
In the evolutionary journey of humans sometime someone had formulated a theory that there existed a superpower managing this universe and all its contents including the live and dead matters. They also felt and propagated the theory of worshipping in which it was mentioned that if you worship and please the God he will take care of you. Then many methods were devised to please God which are still being followed and new ways are being discovered by the modern devotees.
The fight between the theist and atheist will continue and will only be resolved when the truth is unravelled by either the spiritual methods or the scientific advancements. So far, science has not succeeded to create life from a combination of dead things and this is the main stumbling block for the atheist to prove that the culmination of life is from the rare combination of dead material in some favourable circumstances.
Anyway, the theist will continue worshipping the God and scholars and researchers will be continuing their work to unravel the mystery of life and puzzle of creation of this enormous mass and energy called the universe.