Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Religion and Me: In 10 Fragmented Episodes
What religion are you, I was once asked at a dinner table.
I am an atheist, I said. The conversation stopped. After the pause, someone asked me whether I am a militant and whether I go around challenging and changing other people's beliefs. I do not do this, and hence, he said, I should say I am agnostic, rather than an atheist.
I have, ever since, pondered over the distinction.
It was very different even a few years ago.
I was brought up a Hindu. I started the usual - caste conscious, full of superstition about auspicious days (I still sometimes feel good about starting things on Tuesdays), and believed that the goddess in the family temple can grant me a thing or two. I also believed in astrology, and had a detailed chart telling me what will happen in my life, as did everyone else I knew.
I am not sure if there was a precise moment Scepticism caught up with me. But I remember some awkward moments.
There was someone very elderly and respected in our family who was not a Brahmin. And, I, this was when I was 10/12 year old, would not touch her feet because I learned that you do not touch the feet of non-Brahmins. But then, everyone in my family did, and my mother would ask me to do this (she did not know what I was thinking). Eventually, I realised how foolish my prejudice was, but that was after a few awkward moments.
The astrological faith persisted longer. I wanted to emigrate, and I did ask a friendly astrologer once when I would be able to do so. To my surprise, he said I would never leave India. He was quite famous, and this was a setback for me t that point. Much later, I did emigrate, but by then, my faith in astrology had dwindled.
I think two things happened to me in college.
First, I grew this belief in 'personal religion'. I started believing that institutional religion is evil, but I can continue to have my faith privately.
Second, I started seeing rituals as culture. So, I would continue to participate in festivals, projecting them as a part of my cultural identity, though I did not see the point of faith in institutional religion.
Eventually, this personal religion thing became untenable.
Part of it was the idea of praying, a private sort of conversation with God. This I did, hoping that the God will perform miracles if I prayed enough. These were about things I wanted - to see the world, for example.
I remember praying most sincerely when my grandfather, in whose company I grew up, was in his deathbed. The God did not listen to my prayers. I did it again, as sincerely, when I learned my mother was taken ill, by an early morning phone call from home. Again, when my brother collapsed and died. It seemed like I was making requests that my personal God was unwilling or unable to comply with.
I blamed God, and then I blamed myself for being so demanding. I thought being able to pray was good, even if it came to nothing. I hoped to meet all these people I dearly loved some point in my afterlife.
By then, I came across Pascal's wager: That you are better off believing because if God exists, you are better off; and if He did not, it did not matter. That sounded terribly opportunistic to me, even worse than my trading prayers for self-advantage.
Around the same time, I learned about Spinoza's God too, the God as a law-giver, one that does not perform miracles and only expressed in the nature and its laws. This is a God I felt comfortable with, and could reconcile my petty disappointments.
However, then I came across Darwin.
I guess this was my precise point of departure, only a few years ago.
My views strangely reconciled the idea of evolution with existence of God. Remember, I was a Hindu, and my avatars came through the ages following some sort of evolutionary chronology, first as a fish, then as a tortoise, then as a bore, then as a half-human, then as a Pygmy, etc.
But Darwin was different. It was not just about chronology, but the whole mechanism of chance and selection, all those ideas of deep time and nature at work. This was irreconcilable with God and creation.
As a child, I would often look up to the Sky with a desire to something unexpected. Except for meteors, nothing exceptional ever happened. But gazing into the sky always gave me a sense of wonder, something I deeply enjoyed and something that made me feel belong to the world. Darwin made me feel the same way, even as he robbed Man from any special place in the universe. It was a sense of humility as I stopped projecting my person and my intentions onto the universe, and instead, start feeling how the universe made me. After Darwin, Man was not a special creature built in God's image, but it is a wonderful rational being which is capable of discovering the truth of its own connection to the world and of serving it.
The idea of Religion as a culture, at the same time, was more sticky, but in the end, problematic.
I did enjoy attending the festivals and meeting other people. But, those festivals were too exclusive, too limited, to people of a certain kind. I came to realise that there is more to culture than just sticking to religious festivals. I lived in Bangladesh for a while, which has the same culture as my native Kolkata - the same food, music, literature - and it was better to connect with people on those, for a meal, for a song or for a book, rather than for a religious festival.
So, in the end, I had two problems with religion.
One, religion was a way to avoid our here-and-now responsibilities towards ourselves, others and our world. Hindus had an afterlife, others had confessions and there was always prayers.
Two, it was based on an us-and-them logic, one more way to delineate and divide our world. We had enough divisions already to be able to afford a metaphysical one.
Being agnostic will make me neutral of various varieties of God, but be cool with the idea of religion. It is somewhat close to my private religion idea. But I have left that house some time ago.
Atheist is a label usually associated with disrespect and disdain for others, treating people of religion as fools. But, my lack of religion gives me the opposite - a wonder at the immense abilities of human beings. Rather than God making us in his image, we made God in ours. We are capable of all the goodness that we give God, and I feel this needs to be celebrated.
In that sense, the Atheists' disregard for others' views may not be consistent with the ideal of goodness and acceptance that we want to ascribe to a loving God. In fact, atheists suffer from a sort of Jacobin search for perfection that caused so many woes from French Revolution onwards.
I would rather be, as they would call me in India, a Hindu atheist, someone who does not believe in God but believe in the variety of human beings, and treasure our ability to live with all these different ideas and contradictions as one big trait of humanness.
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How To Live
"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Theodore Roosevelt
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T S Eliot
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