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Dr. Narendra Dabholkar

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Prabhakar Nanawaty

Suman Oak

Why I Am an Atheist?

Like any child born into a middle class, upper caste family in India I was also part of the traditional ways of thinking and living, but with a touch of liberalism. I was initiated to be a dwija (twice born) at a very young age as it happens in the case of most of the male children of such families and I accepted all the practices without a trace of doubt or question. However, the liberal air which was also pervading the family had its own dose of impact on me. Though I accepted all the practices without question, I was not very serious about performing them and was not very much convinced about their efficacy either.

Gradually I came to be introduced to new writings even when in high school. These writings did their work   silently and I began to question, though mockingly, some of the traditional practices which were and are common in many such families as mine.  But I was not yet skeptical about the existence of god as such. I used to visit temples as a faithful devotee though was not very much given to indulge in the performances which were too long and monotonous.  When I entered college my doubts about the traditional beliefs and practices got extended to the very idea of god. I was introduced to the writings of Bertrand Russell and through him to other such   thoughts which reflected his positions. Though not strictly a student of science, I came to be convinced that it is science and scientific thinking   which formed the basis for a proper understanding of the world and its physical structure. Similarly, it also began to dawn on me that questions about human life and existence also could be answered better if one followed the method of science, instead of simply ascribing every thing to the power of god. Then there were also questions about the different perceptions about the idea of god, which had been  present some where in my mind  ever since I was a school going boy  I had quite a few friends belonging to different religions. But I had not taken those questions seriously then. As I began to probe matters pertaining to god and religion at a stage when I was more mature I could understand, I thought, the beginning of the concept of god better. I was convinced that   god was nothing but a result of human imagination which was a necessary at a time when humans needed to have explanations for the various natural phenomena which they could not scientifically explain for want of the much needed information about them. During this period I was also strongly drawn towards Marxism and that did it all.

This understanding of god also made me try to understand various superstitions which had their origin in the ignorant past. But strangely they continue to plague humanity even when not needed and what is more, even when it is possible to explain many of the so called inexplicable phenomena. I was wonderstruck that people acclaimed to be highly knowledgeable were also given to superstitions and had no qualms about becoming the disciples of god-men and women. They were also sincerely following all the old ways of living and thinking unquestioningly. I asked my self, is it mere ignorance or hypocrisy? What ever it was, I decided that was not going to be my way.

Then there had always been this question of the caste distinctions bothering me since my school days. I had my class mates who were not treated as we used to be treated out side the class room. Especially the elders in the family, though were kind towards them because they were poor and were always ready to help them, were not   allowing them to enter the precincts of the house. And I was also advised not to touch them. I could not understand why, but had to follow the instructions at least in the presence of the elders. The explanation that I got, that they were from lower  or untouchable caste failed to make any sense, but I dared not, or perhaps was not well equipped, to question that explanation. My going to a temple town for my post graduate studies in no way helped change my position in respect of the supernatural; instead, it strengthened my skepticism.

After becoming a teacher I had several opportunities to be exposed to the wider world of learning far wider than what I had known earlier.  Various social movements which were happening around me attracted me and I began to associate myself with them. This coming closer to the people as part of the movements also made me more and more convinced about my positions regarding the supernatural and the so-called hereafter which do not exist. The existential problems could be solved on the basis of what is here and any attempt to look beyond this would only lead one nowhere, I am now convinced.

Having said all this, I should also admit that I have no personal quarrel with the believers. To me, belief in god is a personal matter and one could live with or without it. Very often my ‘believing‘ friends question me as to what I believe in and I say ‘in humans’.  Belief, not faith in the religious sense, is needed to make life more meaningful.  If one believes in the so called god it may result in finding solace for oneself, but  belief in humanity enables one to  stand strong on this earth as there is nothing else for one to depend on.  What is more, it is this belief in humanity is what brings one nearer to humans and makes one socially responsive and sensitive. The faith that god is the maker of this world has, on various occasions, been used as an alibi to pass the buck on to the unseen and unknown creator.  This argument has been used by many to refuse to accept any responsibility for the ills around. God has made us what we are and we cannot go against god’s will they say. In the Indian context at least, this argument has done the worst damage to all human endeavors at bettering human existence on this earth, Even the oppressed have been taught to accept their miserable condition because they have been made so by god and they have to wait till their next birth for a better life and in the meanwhile serve the those above them. I am convinced that righteousness is independent of your belief or non belief. Religious teachings have not made this world or the humans any better. Even admitting that all religions do encourage the followers to be good, which, however is not always the case, all the people are not paragons of virtue. That is to say, the influence of religion or the idea of god on our moral being is almost negligible. If all the religious teachers, irrespective of the denominations, had been successful in influencing the believers to be GOOD the world would not have been in the state that it is in.  Belief in god is the result of ignorance and religion is an attempt at institutionalization of this belief in god. I know my detractors would pounce upon me for saying this, but that is what I believe firmly.

The so called holy books or scriptures are more venerated than studied and understood. They are said to be the guiding lights for the followers for ages and, it is claimed that since many of them were ‘revelations’ they can not be questioned. Any attempt at questioning religious precepts is heresy since by questioning the revealed truth one is questioning the very power or the very existence of god.  It is also claimed that since they are revealed truths they are universal and eternal. But while   making these tall claims, the religious people forget that these books are also the products of certain times and situations. Any book, religious or secular, is and should be created within the frame work of the times and it is grossly unscientific and illogical to say that these writings are eternal and the precepts are beyond all question. The religious bigotry has done lot of harm to humanity and almost every society in different parts of the world has witnessed the consequences of this dogma.

I have been on various occasions advised to change position regarding god by many people close to me on the ground that there nothing wrong in believing in god. They have also pointed to the examples of individuals who were for a long time atheists and switched over to theism later on. My answer has been that belief in god is neither good nor bad but is only a trait some people may not have. When a human is born, the child is neither a believer nor a non believer, but gradually the belief is thrust on the individual. As he or she grows the mindset continues to get stronger and it becomes a difficult intellectual exercise to shed the beliefs and practices introduced at a very young age. It becomes more a habit of mind or of body than being an integral part of the personality of the individual. It takes lot of conscious effort on one’s part to get out of the shackles of divinity and emerge as a free individual. Then the examples of people who shift their stand about god need not be taken seriously as there are instances of people growing strong in their non-belief.

I started off thinking of writing why I am an atheist, but I know I have written more about how I became an atheist. This can not but be so. As has already been stated, one is not a theist or an atheist but becomes one. One’s being some thing is determined by one’s becoming it. I believe this is all the more so in the case of faith, or its absence, in god. I am sure I will continue to be a nonbeliever but continue to observe how this phenomenon called god works on the society. After all, though god is not real, people’s faith in the concept is a reality.

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