Atheism & Religion: A Philosopher’s Take
What is religion — a spiritual guide, an eclectic mix of philosophies, or the greatest divider ever invented by man himself? This is probably the most appropriate time to ask these questions. Zealotry is once again on the rise all the world over, and we cannot be mere audiences sitting on nonchalant benches and watching the world fall apart. The ebb and flow of religious bigotry is a feature of the human civilisation since antiquity. There are alternating periods of tolerance and madness. During the epochs of tolerance great things are achieved. The human mind explores the farthest reaches of his natural environment and the labyrinth of the neural network with effervescing zeal. Opposing opinions are welcomed and thinkers collide in camaraderie to invent new and more revolutionary ideas. But one thing leads to another. The innately restive human mind doesn’t tolerate peace for long. The symphony orchestra begins to lose its tune after a while, and all of a sudden people stop talking! Bridges are retracted and humans fling themselves in to the purgatory of isolation.
In the infinite darkness of a muted existence rage fills the human mind. Someone then comes in the toga of a messiah and hands over a book of religion. He instructs his disciples to seek solace in those verses. They seek out the path of war instead! Soon many more such messiahs begin to raise their heads everywhere and before long the world is at war. But the question is — is this human invention called religion inherently fractious? Does it contain instigations for war? Or is a book of religion merely a chronicler’s magnum opus laid out in the open for interpretation? Is religion itself tainted or is it the viewpoint that is tainted? These and several other questions have come back to haunt humanity and quite frankly the answers haven’t been discovered so far. In a bid to understand these questions better, an ever growing number of men and women are trying to take a neutral standpoint and this is leading them to the path of atheism. While this standpoint apparently lends a fresh perspective to the raging debate of religion and its associated gremlins, there are downsides to it as well. Some atheists are becoming hardliners and taking up atheism as their quasi-religion. This column seeks to ask all the relevant questions and find their answers in the storm.
Part2: Decoding Religion
In order to fully understand Atheism a little dabbling with religion is necessary. I fondly remember all the discussions on religion with my father. He was a communist by ideology but never a staunch one at that. He was always open to discussions on theology and tried to understand matters of spirituality like an eager student. He had read quite a few books on such subjects but what interested him the most was death and afterlife. He had read this one book — Maroner Parey (Beyond Death) by Swami Abhedananda — multiple times and was intrigued by the conjectures posited by the book like a child. But then all this was in direct conflict with his Marxist-Leninist viewpoints. This conflict eventually lead him to tell me the following unforgettable words. He said, “Son, if religion is true, then there has to be life beyond death and a realm of the spirit or Atma. If I pass on in to that realm after my death I will try to contact you somehow. If I succeed you will know that all of it is true. If you never hear from me again it would mean that either there is nothing beyond death and that the human body is a just a machine that shuts down at the end of its lifespan, or there are no means to contact the mortal world from the spiritual world and my spirit or Atman has dissolved in the Brahman or the One Supreme Cosmic Spirit.” That was quite something! I didn’t know then that he was alluding to the Upanishads.
My father passed away for the want of medical attention at a time when I had become a pauper. As per his will and because I had no money to cremate him according to Hindu rites, I donated his body to a local Medical College. I had to donate my mother’s corpse at the same college less than a year after my father’s passing and there, in a labelled jar inside the dissection room, I saw a pelvic bone. Upon enquiring with the old and besotted mortician and encouraging him with some money for booze, I came to know that it was in fact my father’s pelvic bone. It was all that remained after the students had dissected his body, peeked into it and then got rid of the cadaver in the incinerator. Just a pelvic bone! That was what my living, breathing, and doting father had been reduced to. But I haven’t been contacted by anything from the “other side” ever since his passing. I have stood out in the dark on sleepless nights wishing to meet the ghost of my father. Needless to say there was no contact. I have come to envy all those who claim to have seen ghosts with rock solid conviction. Now, what conclusion do I draw from this? I have dwindled between faith and the lack of it ever since.
In all probabilities, when the first Homo erectus ever to walk the primordial world looked up at the sky and tried to make sense of everything around it with its evolved gray matter, it did ask itself “Who am I?” And then he shuddered and marvelled at the ferocity and benevolence of the forces of nature. He couldn’t understand the origins of thunder, lightening, rain, storms, hailstones, ice and fire. He couldn’t understand why the earth let seeds burst out as saplings through her breast and grow towards the skies. He couldn’t understand why some fruits nourished the body while others killed the moment they were bitten into. He knew he had to hunt for food but that he could just as well be the hunted. For everything he assumed to be unfathomably powerful he created the image of a deity in the mind. The earliest known attempt to create and then worship an idol can be found in the Lowenmensch figurine. Lowenmensch or the Lion Man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave site in Germany was carved out of mammoth ivory some forty thousand years ago by the Aurignacian people of the European Early Modern Humans. About a foot tall, this figurine can be seen at the Museum Ulm in Germany. It is an intriguing mix of anthropomorphic (human like) and zoomorphic (animal like) forms. The lion did exist in Europe for a very long time and went extinct there only in recent history. They must have been a formidable foe to the early humans and hence the reverence. We find a similar depiction in the Narasimha Avatar of Vishnu in Hinduism!
We find this propensity of deifying forces of nature among all ancient tribes of the world. We have the twin brothers Sudika-mbambi and Kabundungulu — the Gods of Thunder among the Ambundu people of Angola. We have Thor — the God of Thunder in the Viking lore and we have our very own Indra — the God of Thunder in the Hindu pantheon! Does it surprise you that the Greek God Zeus and the Roman God Jupiter both wield thunderbolts as their principal weapons? Unsurprisingly, these Gods, though immensely powerful, do have certain human qualities. They feel human emotions just as their human counterparts. They are flawed just as their human counterparts. They wage wars, get naughty with humans, rear offspring and often commit unjust acts. And they seem to surrender to fate often. The treatment of Gods hasn’t been a linear one in any civilisation anywhere in the world.
Who am I? — this is probably the only unassailable question to haunt man forever. With all the advancements in science, with all the studies in human consciousness and Artificial Intelligence, we still haven’t been able to crack this puzzle, or have we? And then there is the all important question about the true definition of Reality. Is it subjective or objective? Out of this imbroglio emerge the concepts of religion and metaphysics. Across civilizations divided by geographical expanse and time, man has wondered about his state of being. He has wondered why he is the apex species among all the other animals. He has wondered why he has been allowed to dominate nature despite having a body far more fragile than many other species. He has wondered why he was given the gift of thoughts and what happens after death. Does an ethereal form linger on somewhere with the consciousness of the living body? What is his point of origin or — in other words — how is the flame of consciousness ignited in a lump of flesh and blood? Over the ages he has tried to answer these questions in different ways. His thoughts and arguments have collected in huge piles of scriptures and taken the shape of philosophy and some of that is what we know as religion. There has been a general propensity among philosophers, both ancient and modern, to attribute man’s prowess to the designs of some Supreme Power. This Supreme Power has been deemed as the designer and commander of the entire Universe but belonging to some higher dimension. One can safely assume that no philosopher has been able to prove or disprove the existence of such a commandeering force. Even scientists haven’t been able to reach common ground as to whether everything in the Cosmos is just a grand chaos or a well choreographed dance. But then high science and philosophy isn’t every man’s cup of tea. It has always been reserved for the greatest of thinkers. But mind you, the pantheons of Gods, wherever they have existed, have been kept separate from the One Governing Force of the Universe.
Religions of the world can be broadly categorised in to Monotheism (Belief in One God), Polytheism (Belief in multiple Gods), Pantheism (God is everything we perceive all around us) and Animism (Belief that even inanimate objects have souls). Now these can come across as very convoluted concepts and they are indeed as such. Every religion is a mix of all these attributes albeit in different proportions. Much like the sexuality of man, any one religion cannot be deemed one hundred percent monotheistic or polytheistic. Concepts of philosophy and religion have never been easy to digest. But in all the old religions of the world there has been one central formless, shapeless Supreme Being surrounded by a pantheon of deities or Gods. As these religions have evolved emphasis has shifted from the pantheon to the One Supreme Being. This has happened to the deities of the Ancient Iranian Religions after the rise of Zoroastrianism. There Ahura Mazda became the principal Almighty and the Gods of yore became lesser deities collectively known as Amesha Spentas. This has also happened with the Vedic deities as emphasis has shifted to the One Cosmic Soul or Brahman mentioned in the Upanishads. An interesting event in human history is the attempt by Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (1350–1334 BC) to create a kind of monotheism. He abolished the worship of the traditional Egyptian pantheon and promoted the Sun disk Aten from just an aspect of Sun God Ra to a full-fledged Singular Supreme Being. He went so far as to outlaw the worship of all the other Gods and himself took the name Akhenaten meaning “Beneficial to Aten”!
These deities or lesser “Gods” are no more than projections or progeny of that one Supreme Being and collectively bear all the different attributes of the One. In Hesiod’s Theogony we find the history of the origin of the Greek Gods. He says that before everything started there was Chaos — a void of nothingness and utter confusion; a primordial soup, if you will. And then out of this nothingness came Gaia or Goddess Earth and she mated with Uranus the Sky to bear offspring who would later become the Titans and Olympians. The Olympians would form the pantheon of the Greek Gods. The Abrahamic Religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — all revolve around the concept of one formless, shapeless omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient Almighty. The Almighty is known as Yahweh in Judaism, God in Christianity and Allah in Islam. But He speaks only through his chosen children who walk among humans as humans and spread the word of God. There are concepts of Angels and Demons of course in all three Abrahamic religions and one cannot help but wonder if these super-beings collectively form an Abrahamic pantheon of sorts. Hinduism is no different in this matter!
Part3: A Little Bit on Hinduism
In these turbulent times when hegemony is rife and dogma is being used to mutilate the social structure of India, a very brief discourse on Hinduism seems to be just what the doctor ordered! Why? — you may ask. It is quite simply because this religion itself has detailed dialectical scriptures questioning liturgy and idolatry practices, when in fact its roots are founded on a detailed description of incantations, benedictions and oblations. Then there is the inherent conflict on God and deities and the connection between the divine and the worshipper. And who can overlook the all important question on beef! The scriptures are full of contradictions here as well. But one needs to factor in the reality that the guiding principles of what is now considered as Hinduism have been collated over a span of almost four millennia and quite a bit has been added even in the modern times. It wouldn’t be a surprise if more tributaries join into this one huge river in our times and beyond. It is impossible to talk about everything in the limited scope of this article. So, I had to omit stuff, some of which have caused my heart to bleed. Besides, a religion as ancient as what is now known as Hinduism (for the sake of brevity I will refer to this religion as Hinduism henceforth) wraps within its long and old arms so many dialectics and schools of thoughts, and so much of evolving consciousness, that it cuts across every stream of philosophy. It is impossible for an un-bestowed man like me to know everything there is to know about Hinduism and I beg for the readers’ forgiveness for the paucity of my knowledge.
But to investigate why there is an ever increasing current of atheism in the dissident Hindu youth today and to challenge the brutality of the modern-day brand ambassadors of Hinduism, one needs to understand some of the core concepts of this religion. Knowledge is power and when you are armed with the very weapons of your adversaries, you can triumph over them with relative ease. Quite interestingly, this concept of knowledge being power comes from the Vedanta canons of Hinduism. The Hindutva outfits have been at work since the later part of the 19th century to fan the flame of communal disharmony and the new norm is that anyone who challenges them has to be branded an anti-Hindu and thus by axiom an anti-National. Then there is the question of the Holy Cow and its meat! The Dadri incident of September 2015, in which a 52 year old Muslim man Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched under suspicions of storing beef in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh or the July 2020 Gurgaon incident where a man named Lukman was attacked by cow vigilantes, all paint a grim picture. Cow vigilantism is on the rise and as reported by Bloomberg.com in their February 2019 report, some 44 people had been lynched by the “avengers” of the holy cow between 2015 and 2018. But as D.N. Jha observes in his book The Myth of the Holy Cow “beef eating was not Islam’s baneful bequeathal to India. Nor can abstention from it be a mark of Hindu identity.” Needles to say, Hinduism’s stand on beef eating deserves some serious delving into.
No discourse on Hinduism can be complete without investigating the etymology of the word “HINDU” first. This part of this broad article will try to decode the origin of this word. History is never as clear as the summer skies. It is just an accepted concoction of truths, half truths and fables. Hence history is presented in different versions under different regimes in the same country. Overtones change to undertones, and the percentage of truth is often either reduced or shunned altogether to suit populist edicts. Since etymology is the history of a word, it has to be treated with as much credence as the history of man deserves. It is believed by scholars and historians that the word Hindu is essentially an exonym derived from the word Sindhu. What is an exonym, by the way? Cryptic though it may sound, it in fact means the name given to a certain geographical area, people or social group by foreigners. So an exonym is not exactly the name used by the settlers of that area or socio-cultural group to refer to themselves. In fact they might not even know that foreigners call them by that name! A very good example of an exonym is the word German. The Germans themselves refer to themselves as Deutsche or Deutsche Leute. So, why is it believed that the word Hindu is an exonym? There are quite a few reasons behind it — some historical and some religious. So let’s dive right in!
It is generally believed that the Persians first coined the term Hindu via a mispronunciation of the word Sindhu. Sindhu, as we all know, is the mighty river Indus that has spawned and suckled so many human civilizations and settlements across many millennia with her network of many tributaries and distributaries. In fact the Zend Avesta — the principal collection of Zoroastrian religious texts — refers to Hindu as a geographical area roughly corresponding to the Sindhu valley. It is worth mentioning here that Zoroastrianism was the principal religion of the Persian Empire and is still practiced by the Parsi community. In time people living in the Sindhu river basin came to be known as Hindus. By 571 BC King Darius I of Persia had extended his empire to include parts of the river valley and many Hindus joined his army. Soon, people living east of the Sindhu valley came to be known as Hindus. The Greeks and the Armenians followed in the footsteps of the Persians and soon made inroads into the lands east of the Sindhu valley. The name Hindu stuck and before long the people of what we now refer to as the Indian subcontinent came to be known as Hindus. Then came Alexander with his world conquering Macedonian forces (the army was itself a multinational enterprise) and the invaders began to refer to the Sindhu river as Indos or Indus; the lands east of the river valley began to be referred to as India!
With all the hum and din regarding the terms Hindu and Hindutva it is worth mentioning here that none of these terms actually appear in any of the canonical scriptures. So there is nothing called Hindu Dharma or Hindutva Dharma mentioned anywhere in these scriptures. But what are these scriptures anyway? Is it one book? Is it a collection of books? Well, the answer certainly does not allude to one single book of religion for the Hindus. A Hindu is required to swear by the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita in the court of law before he or she can testify in front of a presiding judge. So, it might occur to a layman that this one book towers over every other in eminence. I have experienced firsthand how the far right Hindu clans swear by the Manu Samhita, their favourite quote being Dharma Rakshati Rakshitaha (One who protects Dharma is protected by Dharma as a result). So, apparently, to these people the Manu Samhita holds precedence over the Gita. But the truth is a beautiful melange. One quick look at any of the major world religions reveals that there has always been a collection of books and scriptures to guide its followers. However, the importance of one book over another has varied from one sect to another within the same religious group. Of all the Hindu scriptures the first ones to come to the mind are the Vedas. Yet they are but compilations of incantations for rites and oblations to the many Vedic deities. It is in the concluding chapters or “Antas” of the Vedas — the Vedanta — that we find all the philosophical gems. Also known as the Uttara Mimamsa or Brahma Mimamsa, the Vedanta emerges as one of the six orthodox or Astika schools of ancient Indian philosophy. If one had to point at one collection of scriptures that emanates the essence of the Vedanta, then it would have to be the Prasthantrayi. It is a trinity of the texts we know as Upanishads, the Brahma-sutras and, of course, the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita! Now Dharma, as defined in the Vedanta, isn’t exactly a linear construct and it certainly isn’t called Hindu Dharma. Most importantly, the word religion doesn’t exactly equate to the word Dharma and a detailed study leaves us with two significantly important terms — Swadharma and Sadharana Dharma. Although the concepts of Dharma refer to a man’s code of conduct, duties and rights, they are not necessarily commandments. The detailed concepts are long and better left for another article. So it can safely be conjectured that the term Hindu Dharma or Hindutva Dharma is meaningless. You cannot simply marry two words and call it the name of a religion! What can however come close to defining the dominant Vedic religion of India is Sanatan Dharma.
Part4: Atheism, A Student’s Viewpoint
In my many discussions with the young adults in my classroom I have often felt two strong undercurrents — one exuding absolute zealotry and the other exuding absolute disgust for religion. The zealotry is understandable considering that it is now the favourite tool of the politico to rule our lands. This hate is now all pervasive and the collective frustration from burgeoning unemployment has been fiendishly channelized into hatred for the minority communities. I can only hope that the dark days pass soon. Sadly every such epoch in the timeline of man has always claimed lives, a lot of lives. I hope history doesn’t repeat itself. I have also tried to understand the stance of those disgusted by religion. I have tried to enquire about their reasons and knowledge of religion. I have sought a basis for their beliefs. My stunning observation is that this disgust for religion, broadly classified as Atheism, is quickly turning into a religion of its own kind and this has everything to do with a glaring lack of reading. Atheism in its current form is quickly becoming more of a fashion statement. The rebellion is quickly turning into anarchy.
The general apathy and disgust towards organised religion among the modern day Atheists stems from a genuine reason though. The world has seen too many blood feuds on grounds of religion. All humans deemed unholy or unclean by men feigning to be God’s messengers have been drawn and quartered. Countries all across the globe have routinely come under the sway of deeply religious tyrants and they have waged some of the bloodiest wars. I do not intend to name such tyrants or mention their faiths here. Such discourse is beyond the scope of this article. Any student of history can come up with an entire list of such tyrants and prove that every organised religion has spawned at least one such hyena. Quite interestingly even Communism has produced a whole bunch of despots and this has happened in lands where Communism has transformed into a cult of the Red! India has seen blood feuds between Hindus and Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus, Hindus and Sikhs, Sikhs and Muslims and the scalding exploitation of those deemed as lower caste people. In fact the countries of the Indian subcontinent have built quite a reputation for themselves for minority persecution despite the constant denial by their respective governments. No, it’s not a western conspiracy to splash news of minority persecution in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Nations founded on religion have always been unkind to non-believers. Having no faith at all has often been treated as a crime more heinous than having a different faith. Even in the 21st century apostasy continues to be treated as a capital offence in a whole bunch of Islamic Republics. Women have been the biggest scapegoats in this shadow war. The innate docility of women and their propensity to accept religion and abide by traditions have brought them shackles mostly. Hence we have the Sarbarimala row, and hence my wife doesn’t offer her prayers to the household deities when she has her periods. She has been institutionalised to believe that a menstruating woman is unclean and no amount of rambling on my part will sway her. In my conversations with young women I have noticed a rising resentment against this hegemony of religion. Religious preaching, promulgation and discourse is brazenly male dominated and stinks of misogyny. Despite attempts to reform the structure and operation of religious bodies, women have always had little opportunities to say or decide. The history of Europe is rife with accounts of women being executed on grounds of witch craft; their crime — speaking up to the male clergy. Joan of Arc raised her beloved France from ashes to win the battle of Orleans. The tide finally turned in favour of France in the Hundred Years’ War with England. Yet the Maid of Orleans was burnt alive in the name of the same religion and God she championed. And who can forget Olympe de Gouges, the French playwright, activist and champion of women’s rights? She was the one to promulgate the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen during the tumultuous years of the French Revolution. Yet she was guillotined! How many women have been persecuted in Iran so far for deviating from set socio-religious norms?
The plight of women in a deeply religious sphere is matched only by the state of the homosexual men and women there! The angst and outrage against organised religion is genuine.
It was always necessary to cast away yokes and rebellions against organised religion have happened all across the world at different points in history. To sow seeds the land must be weeded and then ploughed. But the land has the willingness to accommodate more than one type of crop. The people dejected by religion are exhibiting the same traits as the zealots they strove to oust. I can think of at least one such organisation — The Atheist Republic — that boasts of its Atheistic stance and routinely lampoons icons of all religions. While freedom of speech is their right, such actions destroy the dialogue between the deeply irreligious and the common God-fearing man. The average man has always been busy carrying out his mundane duties as a progenitor of posterity. Much like the amoeba he has gone on multiplying and filling every corner of the planet with his kind. Much like territorial predators he has guarded and expanded his territories and in the process committed acts, which he has then tried to chart with his moral compass. Some acts he has deemed to be conscientious while others he has deemed outright brutal. To validate his judgement he has sought answers in the scriptures of religion. He has always had hopes and ambitions. Sometimes he has achieved his ends. Yet, at other times he has failed miserably. In times of utter desperation he has sought solace in the same scriptures and found purpose. It is an undeniable truth that religious scriptures have helped shape the modern man’s moral compass and aspirations. It is too daunting for the average man to set up a moral compass that is not induced by religion.
One must not lose sight of the fact that religious scriptures are open to interpretations. Much like the power of a dissected atom, it can be wielded as an instrument of tyranny or triumph. The history of man is fraught with endless battles between sagacious men trying to use religion as a tool to teach ethics and fiends trying to unleash hell. Hence we have Guru Nanak existing in the same epoch as Tomás de Torquemada.
The wise German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had once stated “Religion is the masterpiece of the art of animal training, for it trains people as to how they should think.” Yet Arthur Schopenhauer was a man well versed in religious scriptures and an aficionado of the Upanishads. He went so far as to call his pet poodle “Atman” after the immortal and inextinguishable Soul described in the Upanishads. His ideological disciple Physicist and Nobel Laureate Erwin Schrodinger was equally enamoured by the Upanishads and so was fellow Physicist and Nobel Laureate Neils Bohr. And who doesn’t know that Albert Einstein was a follower of Spinoza’s God! At this point I feel compelled to clarify some concepts and dispel some set perceptions.
In my studies on religion I have perceived it as an extension of Metaphysics and my research has lead me to the following conceptions on the whole Atheism vs. Theism impasse. Theism, Atheism and Deism are Positions of Belief. A Theist believes that there is a Supreme Creator and that this Omnipotent Being interacts with us and responds to our oblations. A Deist believes in the existence of the Supreme Creator but believes that this Higher Being is indifferent to us. This here is Spinoza’s God! An Atheist believes in no God! But it doesn’t end here. We have to deal with two more types — Gnostics and Agnostics. Gnosticism and Agnosticism are positions of knowledge when it comes to religion. A Gnostic differs in stance from an Agnostic in that the Gnostic claims to have knowledge of something profound. The Agnostic doesn’t claim to have knowledge on the same thing and generally deems such matters as unfathomable. So, a Gnostic Theist is a man who is 100% certain of God’s existence and claims to have knowledge to prove such. The Agnostic Theist is much less radical and, while being inclined towards faith, doesn’t claim to have knowledge of God’s existence. So, he dwindles between faith and the lack of it. The Gnostic Theist is a hardliner who claims to know that there is no Supreme Power. To him religion and liturgy are truck loads of defecation. The Agnostic Atheist is once again our bemused man. He wants to believe that there is no God, but isn’t hundred percent sure of his stance.
In my country there is a general prevailing trait among Gnostic Atheists to label themselves as Nastikas. This is a horrible misinterpretation of this word. The Nastika school of ancient Indian philosophy refers to a stance where the Vedas aren’t considered as epistemic texts. Simply put the Nastika school is everything that is Na-Astika or Not Astika. The six most studied Astika schools of ancient Indian philosophy are Nyay, Vaisesika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta, whereas the four most prominent Nastika schools are Buddhism, Jainism, Charvaka and Ajivika. These two schools have routinely collided with each to raise tornados of social revolution and reforms. The treatment of God, deities, ethics, morality and duties of man has varied from one school of philosophy to another. In all it has been a beautiful melange that has had ample space for discourse.
There is so much to talk about on this topic that even a million words would not suffice. But a conclusion needs to be drawn for now. While debate still rages on as to whether religiosity is inversely proportional to economic success for nations across the planet, I fervently believe that the challenging religion has served well to rein in the peddlers of toxic religiosity. But the moment you treat religion as an extension of metaphysics you begin to see the beauty in at least some parts of it. To spurn these bodies of texts is thus a bad idea. A society that doesn’t encourage dialogue is doomed. In the end we need to remember Evelyn Beatrice Hall: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it!