My Personal Journey Into Atheism - A Hindu Perspective
Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 13 September, 2014; Revised, 02 May, 2016
© Dr. Seshadri Kumar. All Rights
Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in
this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be
construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless
explicitly stated otherwise in the article.
Note: This article was originally written in 2014. In March 2016, I submitted it to a literary contest, which required me to take it off-line to submit it to the contest (the article could not be published anywhere online during the contest.) I used the opportunity to revise the article, to polish it, and make it more accessible to non-Indians (since the contest was in the USA). Now that the contest is over (no, I did not win), I am uploading the revised article back to the blog.
The western perspective on atheism, as voiced by its most prominent
voices, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, is mostly informed by
Judeo-Christian theology. It also focuses primarily on the conflict between
science and religion, and argues that religion is completely in conflict with science
and observable evidence, and so must be wrong.
The autobiographical account that I am presenting here of my journey to
atheism is different from most accounts of atheism one will find in the
literature on two major counts:
1. It is informed by a Hindu
perspective, not a Judeo-Christian perspective, and
on moral imperatives, not on the scientific implausibility of religion, and
shows how belief in a God fails on the fundamental count of morality, which is what
religion traditionally prides itself on.
I focus on the psychological motivations for religion and show that
religion does not meet the needs for which it was created. Read on to
My Orthodox Hindu Religious Background
raised in a very orthodox Hindu religious home. My mother has always performed, and
still performs as many pujas (worship rituals) as they would do in a Hindu temple.
In fact, she never goes to the temple. She has no time, and no need, being busy
with her own pujas all the time. She follows all kinds of strange ritualistic rules,
and we have to follow quite a bit of them to humour her.
Having been brought up
in such a home, I was invested with the sacred thread at age 11. In the first
three years after getting the thread, I used to perform the “Sandhyavandanam” ritual
(a traditional worship ritual that all Brahmins who are invested with the
sacred thread are enjoined to do to propitiate the gods – once at dawn, once at
noon, and once at dusk). Fortunately for me, the school I went to was a 5
minute walk from my home, so I could come home for lunch, at which time I could
quickly do the afternoon ritual, before lunch.
I used to listen religiously to devotional
Hindu hymns such as the Vishnu Sahasranamam (the thousand names of the God Vishnu), the Rudram (hymns in praise of the God Shiva), and all the Suprabhatams (wake-up
hymns for the Gods which were played at dawn) at home. I used to pray every
morning at our home altar before leaving for school, and always used to have vibhuti (sacred
chandan (sandalwood paste) on my forehead (outward religious symbols of
Hinduism) before going to school.
When they used to show the Kanchi Shankaracharya (one of the most respected
pontiffs of Hinduism) on TV, I used to fold my hands in prayer. As a family, we
once even hired a car and went from Mumbai to Satara to
meet the Shankaracharya when he ventured that far up north from his base
in Kanchipuram in the south of India, and felt truly blessed when we were
able to have a face-to-face meeting with someone we considered a living
embodiment of God.
And yet, today, I call myself an atheist.
start at as deeply religious a state as I have outlined above, you don’t become
an atheist overnight. It is a gradual process of questioning, asking “why” each
time you do something. It takes some time to start questioning, and it takes
time to find the answers to your questions. The first step in the journey is
the abandonment of formal religion and its attendant rituals – and even this
takes time. You give up a few rituals at a time, and eventually, you give up
all rituals altogether over a period of years. And then you slowly give up the idea of a God.
There are some
problems that are common to all religions, and so I will mention these first,
before actually moving on to Hinduism and some of the specific issues which
annoyed me about Hinduism. The interesting thing is that the common problems
are less noticeable at the beginning of one’s disenchantment with religion; we
are generally so used to them that we don’t think much about them. Read on to
see this clearly.
I want to
highlight one thing very clearly at the outset. Although I have mainly
highlighted the flaws of Hinduism here, I
don’t believe other religions are any better. All religions have
serious problems. I am talking about Hinduism here only because, having been
born and raised as a Hindu, I have the most first-hand knowledge to talk
intelligently about the problems of Hinduism. This does not mean any other
religion is better.
fundamental problem with ALL religions is intolerance. All religions are
collections of superstitions, and the followers of one religion not only
disagree with the superstitions of another, they insist that followers of all
religions follow their superstitions.
example, when you go to Saudi Arabia, an Islamic country, you cannot eat during
the day during the month of Ramadan even if you are not Muslim. Even the
consumption of water is forbidden during the day during the month of Ramadan,
and non-Muslims have to drink water secretly.
always forbidden in Islam for Muslims, but it is not available to non-Muslims
either, unless you happen to live in a foreigner enclave. So Islam forces its
beliefs on followers of other religions.
Hindus eat meat of many kinds, such as chicken and mutton; but Hinduism
considers the cow sacred, and hence eating beef is forbidden for Hindus. As a
result, orthodox Hindus try to ban the eating of beef. Again, this is an
attempt to force the beliefs of one religion on followers of another religion
or on atheists. Some communities among Hindus, as well as followers of the Jain
religion, do not eat any meat at all,
as part of their religious observance. In Mumbai, several housing societies
will not rent out or sell to people who are not vegetarian – because it offends
the religious beliefs of others who live
in that housing society.
believe that life begins at conception, and so believe that performing an abortion
(at any stage) is equivalent to killing a life, and they try to force their
view on ALL people, including non-Catholics – by trying to ban abortion by
anyone, Catholic or non-Catholic alike, in Catholic countries. As if this
invasion of a person’s personal space is not bad enough, the Catholic Church
also believes that one should not use condoms – and given that people do engage in pre-marital and
extra-marital sex in real world, with multiple partners as well, this means
that deadly sexually-transmitted diseases like AIDS spread more rapidly without
even though this intolerance is present in all religions, people who live in
places where their religion is a majority never notice it, and so their own
rebellion against their religion is usually not on these philosophical grounds.
For instance, as a Tamil Brahmin, I was raised a vegetarian – and so a ban on
beef-eating did not affect me, nor did any stipulation against eating meat. In
fact, I lived in a housing society where only South Indian Brahmins and Jains
lived, and since both communities are vegetarians, we never had any problems on
this score. You realize these are problems only when you become a minority.
Religion Means Organized Killing
though all religions usually talk of mercy or charity, it is often limited to
those who are within the fold of that religion. Sometimes it is even more
specific. In Hinduism, for example, charity is encouraged, but only to the
highest caste, that of the Brahmins.
in the case of intolerance, you don’t notice these problems if you aren’t
directly affected by them. For example, being a Brahmin myself, I never saw the
problem of charity being limited to Brahmins. My family hardly moved with anyone
else anyway. When we did give, I never noticed that the recipients were always
Brahmins. And, as for inter-religious conflicts, I happened to live in a
locality in Mumbai – Matunga - where there were only two
dominant communities –Tamil Brahmins and
Gujaratis (comprised of Hindus and Jains, both
vegetarian communities). The two communities were well-suited; and diet
compatibility was a big reason. Even today, South Indians enjoy Jain food and
Jains enjoy eating in South Indian Restaurants. On the street that I live in
Matunga, a suburb of Mumbai, there is a “Jain-Iyer” idli/dosa batter shop that
makes the best idli/dosa batter. I did not know a single Muslim family growing
up, because there wasn’t any in the neighbourhood. When riots happened in
Mumbai, it never happened in our area. So I happily lived in la-la land. Riots
happened to others.
led me to rebel against Hinduism were not these (very important) factors, which
I grew to appreciate only later, as my study of religions deepened. My initial
rebellion against Hinduism was due to the illogical rituals, rules, and blind
faith that I saw all around me and that I had to follow. Whether or not
atheists are more intelligent than believers, it is clear that religious belief itself is a very
un-intelligent activity, as you can see in examples below. (Every religion
will have its set of irrational rules and rituals; what I describe is based on
what I saw, and is by no means unique to either Hinduism or our community –
seek and you will find flavours in every religious denomination.)
supreme irony is that people who will question anything and everything in all
other aspects of life: “all cricket matches are fixed”; “all vegetable sellers
try to cheat you on the weight”; “all politicians are corrupt”; etc., will not
hesitate to bow down low before anyone
who simply claims to be divine.
They will not hesitate to embrace religious doctrines that are in conflict with
every principle of life they know to be true, and which are full of internal
contradictions. Simply put, religion requires a suspension of scepticism and
who, in his daily job, works as an auditor and will not accept a single penny
as legitimate unless a bill is shown for it, and thus employs logic in its
severest form, will nevertheless prostrate himself before the man who claims to
be divine but has no proof of it – who only has to manifest himself in saffron
robes and no questions are asked. This cannot be said in any frame of reference
to be an intelligent act. The person who will not invest a single rupee in a
mutual fund unless he is sure he will get the best yield and ROI on his money
will nevertheless blindly believe a friend when that friend tells him that if
you go and pray in this temple (and donate money, of course), your barren wife
will conceive a child – without any proof, and based solely on rumour.
willing suspension of disbelief, of scepticism, and logic that is the hallmark
of religious activity cannot be said by any reasonable person to be
intelligent. Essentially, religion makes
intelligent people stupid. They may not be intrinsically stupid or turn
permanently stupid, but their adoption of religion makes them temporarily so
when religion is the topic of consideration.
It is like
a Ferrari being driven in Bangalore. A car that is capable of speeds of 300
km/hr can only be driven at an average speed of 30 km/hr in Bangalore because
of the bad roads and traffic density. If you asked a person in Bangalore who
had no idea about the glory of Ferrari and asked him what the speed of a
Ferrari was, he would tell you it is 30 km/hr, not 300 km/hr, because in that
environment that is all he can see. Similarly, a normally intelligent person in
the presence of religion becomes stupid.
addition, the evil of the caste system, which flows through Hinduism's veins,
also did not make any sense to me. Hindus are divided into four major divisions
called varnas (lit., colour). The Varna
system is a hierarchy, with the Brahmins
(priestly class) being the highest Varna, the Kshatriyas (the warrior class) being the next highest, the Vaishyas (merchant class) being the next
in order, and the Shudras (servant
class) being last. Each Varna encompasses several castes, who may have
gradations among themselves but who, as a group, are higher or lower than
castes belonging to other varnas, as the case may be. Finally, there is the
huge mass of Hindus “without varna” – the avarnas,
or the untouchables, who are outcastes in Hinduism, and for whom the meanest
tasks are reserved, such as guarding dead bodies, skinning cattle, and working
Caste is acquired by birth alone, and so if one is unfortunate
enough to be born into a low caste, then no one can change his or her
misfortune – he or she will for his entire life be consigned to working in mean
tasks for the rest of his life. (This, of course, is the traditional
description of castes; in the modern world of today, there are no explicit
restrictions, but caste is still omnipresent, as you will see.)
system is maintained in Hinduism using endogamy – Brahmins only marry Brahmins;
Kshatriyas only marry Kshatriyas; and so on. But the madness does not stop with
that. The Tamil Brahmin caste (part of the overall Brahmin Varna) is split into
the sub-castes Iyers (those who
worship Shiva and Vishnu) and Iyengars
(those who only worship Vishnu). I belong to the Iyer sub-caste. Among Iyers,
there are the Vadama, Vaathima,
Brahacharanam, and Ashtasahasram
sub-sub-castes. The Vadamas (of whom I am one) consider themselves the best of
the lot. Among the Vadamas, the sub-sub-sub-caste “Vadanaattu Vadamas” were considered even better. Now the Vadamas
preferred to marry only within Vadamas, but in a pinch, might condescend to
marry into other sub-sub-castes – and only in desperate situations would want
to marry among the Iyengar sub-caste. Never in your dreams would you marry a
the conflict in any educated mind that goes to school and reads about Martin
Luther King’s great speech where he says that he hopes to see a world one day
where people are judged “not by the colour of their skin but by the content of
their character,” and then come home to see that marriages are arranged with
character as a last consideration, only after all caste matches are first
sorted out. Sure, King talked about colour, and caste is not the same as race,
but essentially, it amounts to the same thing – a form of discrimination based
on birth and not character.
One of the
earliest experiences with caste discrimination that I experienced was when I
used to go for haircuts. In those days, barbers came from a special low caste
in Hinduism that exclusively used to conduct this “lowly” profession, as it was
seen then. So, when I used to visit a barber for a haircut (and my father would
be waiting for me outside the barber
shop), I’d have to go straight to the bathroom for a shower as soon as I got
home. Not only that, my clothes would have to be washed immediately as well
because all of these had been fouled by contact with the barber.
will try to present arguments of hygiene on this – how this is done so that
hair doesn’t come in your food, etc. – but if you saw the level of paranoia –
“don’t touch anything as you come inside the house!!!” – you’d know this was
way more than concerns about hygiene.
I was told to be careful when leaving the home for school in the morning not to
accidentally brush the sweeper who was sweeping the compound – and again, I am
sure hygiene was only part of the problem. The fact is that most sweepers came
from the low castes.
addition, the Indian government had outlawed caste-based discrimination by law.
It was weird indeed to go to school and read in my textbooks about the evil of
the caste system, and yet to see it manifested daily in my life.
addition to caste restrictions, Hindu marriages are complicated by the use of
this absurd pseudo-science called astrology. People look at the arrangement of
stars in the sky at the time someone was born and decide that they can predict
his or her future. There are countless charlatans (astrologers) all over India
who claim to be able to tell whether a boy and a girl will have a good life
together after marriage simply by looking at the positions of the stars in the
sky at the date and time of their births.
addition, some people are considered unlucky without reference to the birth
constellations (also known as “horoscope”) of their prospective partner. One
common problem for Hindus all over India is the “Manglik” problem. If a person is born with the planet Mars (“Mangal” in Hindi and “Chevvai” in Tamil) in the 1st,
2nd, 4th, 7th, 8th, or 12th “house”
of the “ascendant chart” of that person’s horoscope, he or she is called a
Manglik, considered unfortunate, and will have a hard time finding a mate, unless
the other person is also Manglik. So a person might be brilliant, witty,
beautiful, smart, and educated – but she will not be able to find a husband in
the arranged marriage route if she is Manglik (known in Tamil as “Chevvai dosham” or the “Mars blemish.”)
other absolutely illogical astrology-based problems too – a girl born in the Moola constellation (Indian
constellation names are different from western names and often refer to
different combinations of stars) is considered unlucky, as well as a girl born
in the Pooradam constellation – there
is a saying that “Pooraadatthukku nool
aadaathu” – which translates to “The girl born in Pooradam won’t have a hanging
thread for long” – the thread, of course, referring to the “Mangalsutra,” the holy thread that the
husband ties around the wife’s neck as a symbol of their union during the
marriage rituals. The implication is that the girl born in Pooradam is unlucky
for her husband and he will die soon afterwards if he marries the girl.
Similarly, a girl born in Ashlesha constellation
is considered dangerous for the life of the mother-in-law – so boys whose
mothers are still alive will not marry girls who are born in the Ashlesha constellation.
This is just a superficial description of the idiocy accompanying astrology –
the rot goes several layers deep.
and Inauspicious Times for Doing Things
want to go out of the home for some important business, you can’t just leave
the house when you please; you have to note the time and make sure you do not
leave during “Rahu kalam” or “Yama gandam” – “inauspicious periods”
that can be at different times on different days of the week. When there is an
eclipse, you are not supposed to cook food because it is considered impure.
Pregnant women are not supposed to go outdoors during eclipses because eclipses
are supposed to be able to cause miscarriages. You cannot cut nails except on
Thursdays and Sundays. If someone dies, you cannot call them to express your
condolences except on a Thursday or a Sunday, unless it happens to be during
the first 10 days after the death. And on and on and on like this.
particular event helped a lot in my shaking off absurd and superstitious
beliefs that I had learned as a Hindu. I remember that when I first went to the
US, I had picked a date that would be very convenient for me to join the
University of Utah that had admitted me to an MS program. That date would have
given me plenty of time to find an apartment and also enjoy the University’s new
student orientation program. However, this was vetoed by my mother, who told me
that the almanac (“Panchangam”) told
her that my choice of date was inauspicious, and so she picked a date one week
later, which left me with very little time to do what I needed to do before
school started – find an apartment, etc. Furthermore, the supposedly
“auspicious” date ended up being extremely “inauspicious”:
1. TWA, the airline that got me from London to
Chicago, was delayed getting in.
2. I missed my connecting TWA flight to Salt Lake City
– the last flight of the evening.
3. TWA palmed me off to a United Airlines flight, which
I had no hope of making and which I subsequently missed.
4. As a result, neither airline considered itself
responsible for my being stranded.
5. Not knowing anything about Chicago, and not wanting
to spend $100 out of my limited $800 that I had brought from India for a hotel
room – the $800 had to last me my first month before my scholarship money
kicked in - I spent the night in the airport lounge at O’Hare.
6. It was extremely uncomfortable, though I tried to
sleep on three chairs.
7. I was worried about crime, since I had heard a lot
about Chicago, and could only sleep after a police officer assured me I had
nothing to worry about inside the airport.
8. The airline lost my luggage in this mess, and I only got
it a day later.
9. The two friends from IIT, who had urged me to join them a
week earlier, had found an apartment and resented me for not helping with the
effort of finding one, and so refused to accept me as a roommate, and told me I
was on my own in finding a roommate and a place to live. They summarily kicked
me out and refused to even entertain me for a night. I had to go knocking on
other people’s homes to find a place to stay the night.
I missed most of the fun orientation program that the International Students
Association had organized for new students.
Oh, but I
did leave on an “auspicious” day!!!
One of the
enduring aspects of religion is prayer. As a child, I was taught to pray at the
family altar before an exam, so that God would help me get good marks in the
exam. Every time there was adversity, we were told, pray to God, he will help
you with your problems.
never any clarity on the logic behind this guidance. We used to pray for the
Indian cricket team to win its match. No one asked the question of what happens
if the supporters of the opposite team also pray to their God. Who wins then?
Whose God is stronger? What if I am rooting for the Mumbai Indians team in the
IPL (the professional Cricket league in India, the Indian Premier League), who
are playing the Chennai Super Kings in the final? Given that the majority of
Indians are Hindu, you can imagine that a lot of Hindus will pray to Hindu Gods
to help the Mumbai team win, while a lot of Hindus will pray to the same Hindu
Gods to help the Chennai team win. So who wins? Can you out-pray the other? Is
it a number game? Is God so cheap???
also takes away the motivation for a person to take responsibility for things.
You spend the whole week goofing off with your friends in the hostel, and then
pray before the exam that God will help you pass – what kind of logic is this?
And why do parents teach these kinds of corrosive morals to their children? I
was very disillusioned with the concept of prayer.
by the Clergy
by the clergy occurs in every religion, and Hinduism is no exception. In fact,
according to the caste system, the clergy belongs to the highest caste of the
Brahmins, which means that, according to Hindu scriptures, the best treatment
is supposed to be reserved for the Brahmins. Anyone who reads Hindu scriptures
will immediately realize that these have been written by Brahmins for the
benefit of Brahmins.
It is mentioned in these scriptures that the greatest sin
in life is to kill a Brahmin; that one acquires great merit in the afterlife by
donating generously to Brahmins. Donations of cows, gold, and land are particularly
encouraged. It is considered a sin to turn away any Brahmin who comes to your
home and asks for food (though it is not a sin to turn away people of any other
caste). The priests have learned to exploit this fully. Consider the example of
father died, I had to perform his last rites. But I quickly realized they were
not “last” rites. The priests have created an elaborate cock-and-bull story
about what happens to the soul after death that is designed to maximize profits
for the clergy. Here is how that works.
explain that after death, the soul starts on its journey to the netherworld,
the abode of Yama, the god of the
dead. This is a long journey and so the soul needs to be properly prepared for
it. It needs slippers for the journey, an umbrella in case of rain, food for
the journey, etc., and so you have to give gifts of these things to Brahmins,
who are the proxy for the soul. In addition, there is supposed to be a scary river
that the soul has to cross to reach Yama’s abode – the river Vaitarani. This
river is populated by wild beasts which will tear up the soul and cause great
pain to it. But, not to worry, there are boats to cross the river with. But – these boats are only available to those who have made
the gift of a cow to a Brahmin. In cities, we don’t have cows to give, so the
Brahmin priest will kindly agree to the monetary equivalent of a cow in gold.
you have made all these gifts for the well-being of the soul, do not think it
is over. Every month you have to perform a ceremony for the benefit of the
soul, and every month you have to give gifts to the Brahmins – otherwise your
father’s soul may be damned while still on its long journey to the netherworld.
And, at the end of one year after his death, I again had to do a major
ceremony, and again give lots of gifts to the priest and other Brahmins. When
asked why this was necessary, the priests gave the same cock-and-bull story of
the river Vaitarani. I asked them, “Didn’t he cross it last year?” They had no
answer. I went along for my mother’s satisfaction, since these contradictions
did not bother her.
even more ridiculous is that you have to keep performing ceremonies every month
on every new moon day for the rest of your life and then an annual ceremony every
year (until you die) on his death anniversary to make sure your father’s soul
is at peace. And it is not just my father’s soul. I offer prayers for the
benefit of my grandfather’s soul, and my great-grandfather’s soul as well. Apparently,
my father performing these rituals for their benefit his entire life was not
enough. The whole system is geared to maximize profits for priests and provide
a steady source of income for them.
could not understand is how such an illogical system is so widely accepted. The
idea that a person’s soul needs his son to do rituals for him in order to be
saved from hell is idiotic. What this implies is that even if a person was an
outstanding person during his life, even if he was a devout Hindu, followed all
the rituals and paid his respects and dues to every priest and temple, and
followed all the rules of Hinduism faithfully, and if he was a genuinely nice
and kind person to boot, he could not be guaranteed safety in the afterlife.
His plight in the afterlife depended on what his children and grandchildren and
great-grandchildren did for them. Now, I can probably influence my son to be a
good Hindu and follow traditions; my ability to influence my grandson is even
more limited; and my great-grandson I might never even see. How can I ensure
safety for my soul in the afterlife?
completely illogical and unfair to me that a person should be penalized for the
faults of others, but that is the system that the priests have created in
Hinduism, and hundreds of millions in India follow these rules without any
second thought. If that is not stupidity, I don’t know what is. It is like
saying that even if you did an excellent job in your office, others in another office did not, so you will get
a pay cut this year instead of a raise. Utterly idiotic, and clearly designed
by Brahmin priests to exploit people.
Yet, Hindus, all over India, continue to
perform rituals for the souls of their forefathers every new moon and every
year, all through their lives, without once wondering if it makes any sense or
not. Such is the hold of the clergy on the unthinking masses.
pondering all these problems for a long time, I decided that organized religion
had no basis in reality and had to be discarded. The question facing me then
was: given that organized religion is wrong and evil, is God also an illusion
or does a God exist?
though I was disillusioned with Hinduism, and could not find anything to
commend themselves in other religions of the world, such as Christianity or
Islam, I could not completely let go of the idea that there was a supreme force
in the world, a God, in the universe.
when I entered the halfway home between religiousness and atheism known as
spirituality. Having rejected all the rituals and superstitions of religion, I
reached a phase where I acknowledged the existence of a superior power, a
unifying force if you will, in the universe, that I would regard as a God. This
made me a member of the group of people in this world who are known as “spiritual,
but not religious.”
I felt, was not a vindictive or a demanding God, was not a God who needed
stupid rituals to make Him happy, but a kind, just, and loving God, who loved everyone
without discrimination. I drew sustenance from the idea that this God would
take care of me, would be someone I could talk to privately in times of trouble
and ask for help during trying times. He or She was a friend at all times. It
was a comforting illusion, but a necessary one. You cannot abandon everything
in one go.
I was in
this halfway house for a few years, until I again picked up the courage to
question things. Some things became clearer in this interim period. Chiefly, I
grew to have a greater sense of responsibility. No more coconuts to break to
pass an exam. I started believing that this fair, just God above would watch
me, help me along as I did good things ("God helps those who help
themselves"), and would obviously hold me to account for bad things. It
was an honour system, and I was expected to be fair and good by my buddy above.
But then I
went through another transformation that caused me to abandon spirituality and
become an atheist. Two main questions contributed to the end even of this
there a point to prayer? (And, if there isn’t, that ends the personal
2. Why do
bad things happen to good people?
Pointlessness of Prayer for a Spiritual Person
years as a spiritual person, I realized that my ideal of God had to be a great
being – greater than the noblest person on earth, and someone who would not be
partial among His/Her creations. Thus, I realized that there is no point in
asking for anything from God; that prayer is pointless. If God is a fair being,
then He/She will give you good things if you deserve them, and will punish you
if you have been bad (Someone asked me, “why punish?” – well, that was the only
explanation I could find for why bad things, like illness or injury, happened
to me – punishment for me being bad). No point in praying at all. (After all,
"He knows if you've been naughty or nice.")
people say that they don’t pray for things, only for courage to face the world,
but even courage is a “thing.” If God feels you need and deserve to have
courage to face things, He will give it to you without asking. If He thinks you
need a job, he will give you one. If He thinks you need a child, He will bless
you with one. It’s like parents with children. Do you, as a parent, ever wait for
a baby to ask what she wants? No, you try to figure out what the baby needs and
give it to her. If God is the Great Father or Mother above, surely He will have
a better and stronger feeling of affection towards His children than human
parents will have? So why pray?
on the issue of this personal relationship, does it even matter if I
acknowledge God? If I am God’s child, I expect God to be the ideal father or
mother. An ideal father does not care that his child grows up “respecting” him.
I know I don’t give a damn about any of that with my baby. All I want is for
her to be successful in life and to have all the tools to face life. I don’t
expect her to take care of me in my old age, and I don’t expect her to show me
respect if I am in the wrong. She needs to learn to respect people for what
they are worth, not their age alone.
If I, as a
mere human, can think in this way, I thought, why should I think God, whom I
consider the wisest and most mature being in the Universe, wants me to
acknowledge His or Her existence and honour Him or Her with prayer or worship,
especially when I cannot see Him or Her at all? Why should an omnipotent person
even care? Human parents often care because they are insecure. An all-powerful God should have no
insecurities! So I concluded that there is no point in praying to God. Being a
good person was enough.
Why do Bad
Things Happen to Good People?
point is why bad things happen to good people, and this leads to a negative
conclusion on the existence of God. If God is a fair and just supreme being,
why does He or She punish good people with suffering? This has been argued very
eloquently by Arun Shourie in his book “Does He Know a Mother’s Heart?” In this book, which I highly
recommend, Shourie talks touchingly of his son’s cerebral palsy. Shourie talks
of struggling to understand how to reconcile belief in a God who could inflict
so much suffering on a baby, a person who has done nothing wrong in life at
all…after all, this affected his son as a new-born baby.
only major religion that attempts to answer this question in any meaningful way
is Hinduism, because the other major religions do not believe in reincarnation.
If the baby has no past, no previous birth, and it is a new-born baby, it
cannot have done anything bad for which it is being punished in this way in its
present life. So other religions have no explanation for a baby’s suffering.
However, Hinduism will tell you that the child suffers because in a previous
birth he has done bad things.
But I have
a fundamental problem with the reincarnation theory and the idea of karma that
I cannot resolve.
works only when you understand why you are being punished. The whole system of
criminal justice operates in this way. You steal, and are jailed for it. In
jail, the idea is that you realize your mistake and you repent, and vow not to
do it again so that you are not jailed again and don't have to suffer again.
if, when you leave jail, they erase your memory of jail? How will the jail
experience reform you? The theory of karma through reincarnation is meaningless
to me because, unless I have a memory of what I did wrong in the past life, I
cannot do things better. If I did bad things in birth 1, then got punished in
birth 2, then got a third chance in birth 3, and was able to remember births 1
and 2, that makes sense, because now I know cause and effect, and I can become
a better person by not repeating the bad things I did in birth 1. But without
that knowledge, I am no better. It is like tossing a coin a 1000 times – each
time you toss it, the possibility of getting a heads is only 50%, regardless of
how many times you have seen tails in the past, because the coin has no memory.
addition, when you look at the magnitude of evil in the world, with mass
murderers like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Suharto, and Pinochet, just to name
a few – and most of their victims were innocent, many of them women and
children – you have to ask: If there is a God up there, what is He doing? If
God is omnipotent and omniscient, why did He create evil men like this, who had
the capacity to do so much harm to others? He could have created a better world
with better people! Why did He make so many people suffer mindlessly? Is God a
sadist? What kind of Heavenly Father watches on as Hutu or Tutsi tribesmen take
babies from their mothers’ arms, smash their heads and watch them die? What
kind of God watches on as thugs enter a home and rip apart a woman’s womb, tear
out the baby within, spear it and parade it around? What harm did those babies
ever do to anyone? When one looks at the scale of evil in this world, it is
impossible to believe that a God could exist.
discarded the concept of a God because bad things happen to good people for no
reason - and a just and fair God, if He existed, would never allow this to
happen. And that is when I became an atheist.
there still is the possibility that there is a God and he deliberately allows
bad things to happen to good people – that God is not benevolent but
malevolent. It would not be the first time if I were to postulate such a
theory. The gods of the Greeks and Romans were very much like that – petty,
lecherous, jealous, easy to anger, vengeful, and capricious. It is possible
that the reason that bad things happen to good people is that God simply is
malevolent. This is a logical possibility, but it is contrary to everything
every religion teaches its followers – that God is always benevolent. Hence it
is an inherent contradiction.
oft-used argument I have heard in India (I’m sure such arguments are used
worldwide) is to say, when bad things happen to good people, that “God is just
testing their faith.” Why??? Why
does this omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent Heavenly Father/Mother up there
need to test his devotees all the time? Is He/She so insecure??
many years as a spiritual person thinking of all these arguments before
eventually rejecting spirituality as well. I thought about and analysed my
experiences, read books and articles, and discussed and argued with friends all
those years. I know that cutting that last link with the idea of a supreme
force that pervades the Universe is not easy – it was not easy for me, but I
saw no way out - so I don’t judge those who cannot do it. I am happy enough if
they treat everyone well and without prejudice, and I respect their choices. I
would apply the same logic to the religious extremists as well, but
unfortunately their choices affect me. They do not believe in living and
letting others live.
those long years in the halfway house, I often asked people why they believed
in God. One of the most influential people in my life, who I admire and respect
tremendously, and who is still a good friend, told me that he believes in a God
because of how miraculously things work together. I told him he had a point.
For a long time I had no answer to that. But then it struck me – we only praise
a God for how wonderful things are in this world; we don’t blame Him for all
the ills in the world! This kind of selective praise is not right. It is like
those footballers who look up to the sky and perform the cross sign on their
hearts after they score a goal; but they don’t look at the sky and curse the
Lord when the goalie parries their attempt. When those Tutsi babies’ heads are
smashed against rocks by laughing pathological tribesmen, nobody curses God
above. It is very selective – and illogical.
distinction that separates spiritual people from atheists is actually thin, and
I believe that if spiritualists think through things long enough (using the
same logical process that led them to reject rituals) they will become
Believe Today – The Atheist Code of Life
a bit about writing this last section because it will appear to some that I am
talking like a guru, which I did not want to do. However, I felt it necessary
to outline the philosophy of an atheist, because many people cannot believe
that it is possible to have a structure to life without religion or
spirituality. I am writing this section to show how, being an atheist, one can
live a strong, reasoned, balanced, and highly satisfying life.
become much simpler and less contradictory for me since I became an atheist.
The core belief that I have is very simple: I am an organic, sentient, thinking
life form who has somehow been born in this world – just like ants, birds,
crocodiles, pigs, and cats. Having been born, I have two choices: I can either
live until I die naturally, or commit suicide. I reject suicide because I know,
from personal experience, that life has much to offer. I enjoy a lot of things
that I can experience in this world – food, music, literature, the company of
loved ones, intellectual conversation, the beauty of nature, and many more
things. So the question is: how do I live the limited period that I have left
to live? And the answer is: by being as happy as possible.
understand this, one must understand what happiness is. Only experience – and
it is a great teacher – can teach someone how to be happy. To understand this,
however, maybe one first needs to understand how happiness is not obtained.
is not obtained by the accumulation of material things – and
one does not need a religious guru to tell you this. It comes from sheer
experience. Anyone who has spent enough time accumulating things knows
naturally that it is not the key to happiness. Money is one of those things
people love to accumulate. Money is important to have, but it is not the most
important thing in life. It is important to have enough money for your daily
needs, for a comfortable roof over your head, for all your medical needs, for
the education of your children, for some luxuries, such as travel, and for a
secure retirement so that you won’t be begging on the street. Beyond that,
money doesn’t help a lot.
is not obtained by great achievement. Achievement happens by
chance when one is deeply engaged with all his or her heart and mind in
something. One cannot go seeking achievement – for, if one does that, he or
she will be like the proverbial cat who was trying to catch his own tail because
he had heard that a tail was a cat’s most important possession. Needless to
say, he never caught it; but he realized that as soon as he left the tail well
alone, it quietly followed him wherever he went. Still, as in the case of
money, a reasonable level of achievement is necessary for both giving a sense
of accomplishment and fulfilment in one’s chosen profession, and for the
resultant feeling of positive self-worth, as well as in the attainment of
is not obtained by indulgence. This is not necessarily a
separate point from the accumulation of material goods, because it shares the
same basis – that indulgence never satisfies - but I am stating it separately
for clarity. Just as having a billion dollars is not going to make someone
happier than having a million dollars, indulging oneself excessively does not
satisfy either. Some people go to excesses of alcohol, drugs, or sex in order
to feel satiated; and the truth is, they never satiate. Again, you don’t need a
religious teacher to tell you this; plain real-life experience will tell you.
Try getting drunk three days in a row and then the fourth day you will not feel
like having even one drink. All it requires is a capacity to introspect.
yield happiness is the balanced exploration of life and all it has to offer, in
the fullest sense.
drink can make a person happy, in moderation; sufficient money can keep a
person comfortable and able to experience more of what life has to offer (say,
a vacation in Hawaii; a trip to the Lord’s Cricket stadium in England to watch
a cricket match; a ticket to the World Cup football final; an opera at La Scala
in Milan or the Royal Opera House in London; or a trek to the Everest base camp);
a feeling that one has done justice to his or her job can make one feel happy
about going to work every day; intellectual and physical exploration of the
infinite diversity and richness in this world, from art to music to literature
to sports to technology, can fill one with wonder and satisfaction; and
meaningful relationships with family and friends make one feel valued and loved
in life. For, ultimately, man is a social animal, and so the feeling of being
loved and respected by his fellow-humans is one of the most satisfying and enriching
experiences in life. Note that in none of these statements did I need to invoke
a God. I have learned all of these purely from analysing my own life.
line is that one does not need religion to understand the truths of life and of
the human condition. If one is willing to logically analyse one’s own
personality and experiences and understand what worked and what did not work,
one can be happy.
things do go wrong in life. People suffer from problems that they have no
solution to. When that happens to me, I find it much more liberating to simply say
that I have been unlucky, rather than imagine that this is due to a God
punishing me for something that I have done at some other time or some other
birth. This is simply an application of Occam’s razor– the
theory with the fewest assumptions that can explain an event comprehensively is
the best theory.
assuming, of course, that other causes, such as bad personal behaviour or negligence
is ruled out. For example, if you have been smoking and drinking all your life,
having cardiac problems is neither bad luck nor providence. It is to be
expected as the body’s natural reaction to abuse. Or, if you have always
ignored your spouse’s feelings, yearnings, and desires, and one day she decides
to leave you, this is neither the work of a God nor is it bad luck – it is the
result of your being stupid enough to ignore a loved one. One of the strengths
of being an atheist is that one takes personal responsibility for one’s
also needs is a code of morality to live by. I discuss this under a separate heading because morality is the one
aspect regarding which atheism has received the most criticism by proponents of
needs a moral code to live by. Without a moral code, we are adrift in the
world; we do not know what to do at any point of time. Is it okay to steal? To
kill? To swindle? To lie? To harm? Should I tell the truth in a given situation
or should I lie? Should I protect a friend who committed a crime or should I
expose him? Life offers so many moral dilemmas that one can never find suitable
answers to unless he or she has a code to live by.
One of the
criticisms that religion has made about atheism is that religious people feel
an urge to be “good” because of the fear of a God, whereas atheists fear no
such supernatural power, and so are not bound by any moral code.
two counters to this – one that talks of the hollowness of the position of
religion and another that talks of what an atheist’s moral code should be.
on the presumed hold of religion on people’s morals and its constraint on them
to be good, keep in mind that the majority of the people in this world are still
religious or spiritual. Atheists are a small minority. Yet so many serious
crimes are being committed daily – by fairly religious or spiritual people.
Also, as I mentioned earlier, so many conflicts throughout history that have
been the cause of so much bloodshed have been attributed to religion.
Sometimes, it is the people who commit the gravest crimes who donate the most
money to temples and churches. That debunks the idea that religion somehow
as an atheist, I have only one moral rule in life, and that is the golden rule. Every
good principle of life reduces to that rule: "Do unto others as you would
have them do unto you." It does not require any complicated understanding
of supernatural beings, and is something every child can relate to - fairness.
If you wouldn't like someone to steal your toy, you don't do the same to them.
If you wouldn't want someone to be mean to you and exclude you from a group,
you don't do the same thing to others. If you would not like someone to murder
your loved ones, you don’t do the same thing to others. If you wouldn’t want
others to cheat you of something, then you don’t cheat others of what is due to
them – and that includes money, credit, or work (as in the work you owe your
organization for the salary they pay you – cheating at work is also a violation
of the golden rule.)
A religious follower may ask how I propose to teach people to adopt the
golden rule as a principle of life and thus preserve morality in life. He may
argue that religious scriptures, such as the Bible or the Bhagawad Gita, tell followers of religion what moral codes to obey;
how do I propose to have atheists adopt this code? Well, consider that people
do not read religious scripture automatically. Often, parents take their
children to a church and someone preaches these lessons to young,
impressionable children; or they tell stories to children to illustrate the
importance of morals in life. In the same way, each person who is an atheist,
can teach his children about the golden rule. It should be much easier for
people to learn – when you go to a hotel and open the bedside drawer, instead
of finding a bulky Gideon bible to read, all you will see is one line that
says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Children learn morals from their parents and teachers; and if parents
and teachers exemplify the behaviour outlined in the golden rule, one need not
worry about the morality of a future atheist society.
The golden rule as a moral code for all humanity will be at least as
successful, if not much more so, than any of the religious morals that have
caused so much death, suffering, and destruction in the millennia of human
history. The golden rule is the only true moral code to live life by, because
not living by it will break the fabric of society.
It is important to note that the golden rule operates at a higher plane of
morality than any religious moral code, for most religions have violated the
golden rule. For example, when Islam was founded, it exhorted its followers to
convert people to Islam by the sword. Millions converted under the threat of
being executed; those who resisted were killed. Would Muslims have liked to be
converted to another religion by the sword? Decidedly not. Similarly,
Christianity, during the Inquisition, forcibly converted many people from their
religions to Christianity on the penalty of death. Would Christians liked to
have had the same happen to them? Decidedly not. Today we recognize that the
Inquisition was immoral and wrong; but this immoral institution would never
have been established if the people of those times had simply followed the
golden rule of morality.
I have shared with you my journey from a highly religious, suffocating
background as an orthodox Hindu, through the halfway house known as
spirituality, to the liberated world of atheism.
I hope this will help those who are themselves wondering what it is like
to be free of superstition, dogma, and darkness, and how one can live a more
fulfilled life with fewer moral dilemmas. I hope it will help people understand
how one can be an atheist and still live a highly moral, fulfilling,
meaningful, and happy life.
Experience has shown that the majority of humankind feels a need for
organized religion. A major reason for this is that most people in the world do
not think critically about anything. I do not entertain, therefore, any foolish
hope that the majority of humankind will reject religion and adopt atheism as a
way of life any time soon.
However, for those who are considering atheism, I hope my experience can
serve as a resource and perhaps answer some questions those seekers of a better
life may have.
Religion started as an infantile reaction to natural phenomena by
primitive humans who did not understand how the universe worked. To explain
phenomena that frightened them, they needed to invent a supernatural being, a
God, as responsible for the world and what happened inside it. In the millennia
since humans first started thinking, science has swept away many of the
superstitions that were invented to explain nature. For a long time, humans
believed that a God was needed to explain creation and life. Science has
obviated all of these attributes of such a God, and today the only real
question is whether God makes sense from a moral viewpoint. The impact of
modern physics and the theory of evolution on the foundations of religious
belief is well-known, and can be understood very well from the works of eminent
writers, and so I have not spent any time discussing this aspect in this
I have instead
focused on the moral arguments on why many people feel a God is needed, and
shown that one does not need a God; indeed, that the existence of a God, with
the attributes that are traditionally ascribed to such an entity, is
contradicted by what we observe in life. I have shown that if indeed there exists
a God, then He or She must be an immoral and malevolent being. That being
unacceptable to most people and most religions, it can only be concluded that
there is no God.
be remembered that this conclusion follows from the usual assumptions about
Gods that we see in most religions today. These are that God is omniscient, omnipotent,
and benevolent. There have been in the past, and still are, religions that
relax some of these constraints. An example is the religion of Mani, the
Iranian prophet of the 3rd century CE, Manichaeism. Contrary to most religions, in
Manichaeism, God is not omnipotent. Satan can be more powerful than God, and
the Universe is in a constant battle between good and evil, with God
representing good and Satan representing evil. In Manichaeism, there is no
requirement that God should be victorious or is supreme; he can lose to Satan.
Given the current state of the world, the Manichaeans would probably say Satan
is winning the fight. But while that philosophy would answer the tricky
question of why bad things happen to good people, it would bring up the
question of what use a God is who cannot guarantee the success of His followers
or even His own.