My Personal Journey Into Atheism - A Hindu Perspective
Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 13 September, 2014; Revised, 02 May, 2016
Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar. All Rights Reserved.
For other articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, please visit http://www.leftbrainwave.com
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it to a literary contest, which required me to take it off-line to submit it to the contest (the article could not be published anywhere online during the contest.)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
2. It focuses 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 understand more.
My Orthodox Hindu Religious Background
I was 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 ash), kumkum (vermillion), and 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.
So, what happened?
When you 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.
Why I Gave Up Religion
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.
The 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.
Thus, for 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.
Alcohol is 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.
Many 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.
Catholics 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 condom use.
Even Buddhists, who people generally mistakenly regard as inherently peaceful people, have indulged in violence and persecuted Hindus and Muslims in Sri Lanka for the simple reason that these communities practice a different faith. Large-scale riots took place in Sri Lanka a few years ago because Buddhist monks objected to Sri Lankan Muslims eating Halal meat according to the dictates of Islam.
Of course, 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.
Organized Religion Means Organized Killing
More people have been killed in the name of religion than for any other cause. Conflicts too numerous to list, from the medieval Crusades to conflicts between Muslims and Hindus in India to the ongoing conflict in Israel-Palestine to the Bosnian conflict of 1992-95 to the Holocaust of WWII, have been based on religious intolerance.
Even 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.
Again, as 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.
Superstitions and Rituals
No, what 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.)
The 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 logic.
The man 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.
So, the 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.
The Caste System
In 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 in crematoria.
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.)
The caste 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 non-Brahmin.
Imagine 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.
People 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.
Similarly, 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.
In 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.
In 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.
In 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.”)
There are 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.
Auspicious and Inauspicious Times for Doing Things
If you 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.
One 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.
10. Consequently, 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!!!
The Contradictions of Prayer
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.
There was 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???
Prayer 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.
Exploitation by the Clergy
Exploitation 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 funeral rites.
When my 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.
They 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.
But once 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.
What is 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.
What I 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?
It seemed 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.
After 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?
Even 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.
This is 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.”
This God, 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 faith:
1. Is there a point to prayer? (And, if there isn’t, that ends the personal relationship!)
2. Why do bad things happen to good people?
The Pointlessness of Prayer for a Spiritual Person
During my 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.")
Some 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?
Secondly, 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?
The second 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.
Now, the 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.
Punishment 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.
But what 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.
In 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.
So I 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.
Of course, 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.
Another 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??
I spent 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.
During 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.
The 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 atheists.
What I Believe Today – The Atheist Code of Life
I thought 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.
Life has 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.
But, to 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.
Happiness 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.
Happiness 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 financial independence.
Happiness 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.
What does yield happiness is the balanced exploration of life and all it has to offer, in the fullest sense.
Food and 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.
The bottom 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.
Many 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.
This is 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 actions.
What one 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 religion.
Atheism and Morality
Everyone 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.
There are 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.
Firstly, 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 preserves morality.
Secondly, 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.)
If everyone believed in this rule, everyone would be a good person and we would need nothing else. This rule is one of the fundamental, early discoveries of humankind, and has been shown to be extant as far back as 2000 BC, well before the advent of any of the world’s modern religions. (It was not originally developed by Christianity even though it finds a mention in the bible.) It is central to the idea of human existence and social interaction – without it, there can be no trust, and hence no meaningful interaction between humans.
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 document.
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.
It should 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.