By Ishita Jha
Edited by Shambhavi Singh,Senior editor,The Indian Economist
The process of me being awakened from my dogmatic slumber began with my gradual uneasiness with organised religions, and the rituals and practices that ensue. The uneasiness spiked gradually as I became more aware and started contemplating about what it all meant. While sitting in a temple I did not want to shut my eyes in reverence. I did not know why I had to clasp my hands and bow, and to what. The elaborate rituals, the offerings to stones, fasts, refrain from meat consumption during festivals and other dogma started to make me question everything around me. Nothing made sense. My journey may seem a bit odd as one tends to deny God’s existence first, and then move on to critique the religious institutions and their practices. As any other individual I was never explained the concept of religion or God. I was simply made to pray to some colourful pictures every day. No questions asked. It was later that I started to question religious activities, especially during festivals when they reached a level of lunacy. The lack of rationality, even though astounding, didn’t stir me enough in the beginning. I started to read about the constant demand of certain factions for strict adherence to orthodox theological doctrines. The extreme form of adherence seen in religious fundamentalism was enough to shake me out of my silence and complacency. The 20th century stands as the tragic evidence of the influence and violence of what began as a belief in wholeness, oneness, and fundamental values. Vicious acts have taken place in the name of religion – suicide missions by Moslem extremists; attacks on abortion clinics by Protestant fundamentalists in the USA; killings at the Hebron mosque by a member of a Far Right Jewish religious group. The list is endless. Of course, people will start dissenting at this point that this is not what “true” religion and belief is, and I by showing the manipulation of religion by fascists am trying to show their faith in a bad light. But that is not true. I am merely trying to trace the beginnings of my scepticism of religion. The actual argument is not this of course. Nonetheless, religion in either forms, pure or not, still is to be blamed. It may be a strong belief that serves to unite people into a community, but then it also becomes an illusion that leads people to do horrible things in its name. Of course, it is the people who are at fault for contorting their religions that way, but even so religions and blind beliefs have that kind of annihilating power.
It was not an intensive contemplation as it seems to be, but more of a gradual process of reading, questioning, being introduced to some interesting schools of thought and building up of certain fundamental convictions that changed my views. So I would like to start with certain reproaches that I have heard against atheism. Counter arguments to these approaches shaped my definition of atheism. These counter arguments were more of a condemnation or a negation of what people called “faith”. So this is where I would like to begin from.
The most common and “romantic” criticism that I would receive is would be on the “dullness” of atheism. They found no excitement in it. Where is the fun in a finite and un-mysterious world? The tendency to romanticize the world with the belief in the infinite gives people happiness. It did not do so for me. The reveling in the enigmatic, was something I was not capable of. It was not about fun, or having an unfathomable universe. It was Truth that gave me the rush. When people heard somebody say that he or she was an atheist, the immediate response most often was that faith in God was necessary, necessary to guide one through difficulties. Belief is important for the masses because it is a source of positivity, purpose, morality, and ultimate happiness. They demean not only themselves by declaring implicitly the utter lack of independent strength and knowledge in them, but also the concept of God where the divine being is reduced to a means of happiness or worse, a staff that you need to lean on. So the people who say that believing in God leads one to good things are in a way just bribing and being bribed. They don’t selflessly love God independently, but are desperately dependent on him as a “way” of getting what they want. And this is exactly what the children are being bribed with, their morality is not a conscious choice, it is instilled by fear of heaven and hell. They pray not because they imagine God as a divine perfection, but because their parents instruct them to do so as doing so will facilitate them to be in God’s goodwill, and thus subsequently will lead them to be bestowed upon with blessings. And this is what is encouraged. Morality, for these people will collapse without the concept of God. If taught independently, then Morality to them would mean nothing. I started to abhor this dependency because of my increasing belief in atheism. The dependency that not only reduces them, but also their faith ( as blind as it may be) which is not about God at all, but about the need for peace, comfort, and security. Of course, there are certain people who sincerely believe in the concept of God, who when singing hymns, can actually make you feel their sincere devotion in the concept itself. But then there is the question – What is this devotion to, and will they crumble without it?
Belief in God is mostly about the certainty and meaning it offers to life. Questions regarding our existence, our purpose, our afterlife are given assured answers to. In times of extreme trouble, belief in a higher being lets us look up and be consoled by the fact that it is all just a test and will soon be okay. It enables one to be secure in the knowledge of being looked after by a divine God, merciful and loving. Unlike the believers, I do not revel as I said before, in hailing the infinite. The fact that people elevate feelings and emotions above knowledge is something I can never grasp. Faith in the divine is all about the certainty and calm that it offers. For people, surrendering to their faith is a positive act of relief. Why would it not be? To imagine surrendering your burden and grief to a higher being is certainly as I can imagine a source of relief. The feeling that everything has meaning and a purpose reduces the pressure, fatality of consequences and responsibilities. To imagine a world without this assurance of turning to God is frightening. Welcome to my world. I talked earlier about how the act of turning to God undermined one’s own capability, but now I emphasize on the crippling effect that it has, however positive it may seem throughout your life. Without the assurance of a divine being, life for the believers will be impossible. But the fact remains that the assurance was always an illusion. A comfortable illusion, but still an illusion. The people, who believe in God, in their toughest times, have the feeling of being protected, their despair never is excess, and this is all because of that one omniscient presence that they believe exists. It does make their life easier, but also a lie. A lie they willingly believe in order to have an easier life. The tendency to worship and admire a “hero” has been a documented human tendency throughout history. Also, following a religion requires one to have humility. Humility requires one to happily “surrender” to God, and “revel” in something that is greater, something that is ideal.
Now moving on from everything that I find wrong with the belief in God, to why I do not believe that God exists, what it means to me and what kind of a world I live in. My belief that God does not exist started as a personal condemnation for the hollowness that faith brought. Then I saw how the belief, besides being crippling, was also false. I saw how it was a human construct because of the fact that humans could not live without faith. This implied that there is something people are not ready to face. They didn’t consider themselves capable enough to truly speak for themselves, and act freely. A sophisticated power thus was invoked to judge man’s actions. From that, different religious moral codes came into being, all driven by our inability to justify ourselves. God has been born out of different needs of men, born without proof. I could never believe in God, not because of what such a faith would require me to be as a person, but also because that faith would be just an illusion. Even if faith promises a positive life, it is a life based on a lie, a selfish need to be happy, a desperate requirement to look up to somebody, an ego willing to be crushed, and on a self that requires the disparaging illusion of a presence to guide oneself. I do not believe in God, because there is no God. For me it is a picture created for humans by humans. A construct of human mind has given birth to certain needs of worshipping an omnipresent ideal. People often knowing that I am an atheist treat it as a phase of childhood rebellion where one is just taking random decisions. I am accused of picking up some trend. My first response to these people is that, most believers have never pondered upon what religion is. Atheism is never a careless decision. Of course, there are people who will toss around the term, but if somebody resolutely insists upon it, rest assured that the person’s journey to that stage has been a gradual, studied and informed process. A process much more informed than the process through which you had the realization about your faith. Actually there is no realization about one’s faith in God, there is no chance given to an individual in the milieu we live in to go through that process. The person to be respected here is the atheist who has contemplated his decisions, and its foundations. While a religious person has not gone through the same thought process and follows the religious norms out of habit. A habit that is empty, meaningless, and never thought upon, just executed. In this world that I live, humans are responsible to create meaning and purpose through their personal choices rather than discovering it through communion with outside forces. It is a life of scepticism, of uncertainty, of rejection of comforting lies, of resisting the urge to look for meaning or purpose of a divine plan, of not being able to comfort yourself with the fact that everything is going to be okay or is happening for a reason, of not being able to hope for something better. It is a hard life, but a truly independent one that is not scared from truth.
Even if you can’t understand or disagree, you must respect the strength it requires to be an atheist. The strength that remains in acute distress, that doesn’t vanish to give way for hopes about divine miracles or a peaceful afterlife. I live without that consolation because human dignity and freedom requires me to be an atheist, to not believe in a concept I believe to be false just so that it would provide me comfort.
In the end, I would like to also give a picture of what solidified my belief in atheism. My introduction to existentialism showed me the truth. The truth that there was no truth. For Sartre there is no absolute or fixed human nature, an innate collection of “human” characteristics. Human existence for him is characterised by nothingness. As he famously claimed, “existence before essence”, neatly summing up the entire human life in three succinct words. On talking about his religious thoughts, Sartre agreed that atheism was such a demanding and unendurable experience that few can bear it, in the true sense. An existence, without God, with its absolute freedom produces anxiety and despair that people can’t handle. Now his thesis “existence before essence” means that man is nothing but what he makes of himself. Since there is no God to design man, man has no innate essence or a blueprint. His essence comes not from God, but from what he makes it to be. Sartre contends that this disproves God, for if there were a God, man would be reduced to a mere artefact of God, and thus would not be free. If man is not free in his very conception, how is one to believe in existentialism? Hence, Atheism is a prerequisite of existentialism. And I follow existentialism “religiously”.
Ishita is a student of English Literature at Ramjas college of Delhi University. She has an inherent urge to argue and an opinion about everything and anything. She is interested in literature, politics and philosophy and would love to dedicate her whole life to academic research. Usually she can be found in a tranquil corner absorbed in her books. Not only wanting to spend her career pondering over literary theories she wishes to bring about a change in people’s mentality about various cultural and social issues that have become rigid. Very passionate about issues of gender and caste discrimination she is ruthless when encounters outlooks entrenched with ossified traditions. She has interned with Teach for India and works in Enactus Ramjas which helps her to impact lives emotionally and financially. Loves travelling, heated discussions, integrity and opinions backed by research. Can be contacted at [email protected]