Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Atheist awareness week

(Published in Business Standard on September 7, 2013)

I believe. Not that anyone’s asking—most of the world just assumes one does. Believing is such a universal human presumption that if you haven’t a hope in hell of landing the top job in, say, the United States, or India, unless you have a declared religious faith.

I believe in science, in intuition, in justice, in humaneness, in respect, in being true, in washing one’s hands before eating, in art, in honesty, in Nutella, in the essential health-promoting goodness of making fun of things, in the notion that if you play fair you’ll sleep better.

But I don’t Believe. You know, in god. When you’re pronouncing a capital ‘b’ in Believe, you know you’re talking god. Digression: ‘God’ is one of those words, like ‘blood’, which, if you say it aloud, repeatedly and fast, suddenly reveal its alien oldiness and urr. Oldiness and urr are not real words, just the kinds of words that you might find in the entourage of the word ‘god’—brawny words, clad in skins and carrying blunt weapons.

The reason I don’t Believe is that…I just don’t. I wasn’t brought up either to, or not to. It’s not that I had religious faith and lost it after a mind-numbing tragedy—I simply never could muster any. It obviously gives people comfort and purpose during turbulent times, but even in the worst moments of my life, when I have desperately needed to lean on something, I have not been able to find faith.

What makes perfect sense to me is the idea of randomness, of blind chance. Why did my friend die while crossing the road? No reason. No good reason, that is. No reason that gives me comfort. And that’s pretty much that. There is also the (as yet) inexplicable, which may or may not always remain inexplicable. Why do I sometimes think of someone five seconds before they call on the phone?

It is very hard work to not have faith. (To be fair, it must also be hard work to have it and keep it in the face of increasing cynicism—which, if you don’t have, you should maybe offer yourself up to science.) It means not having either a good scapegoat or an external battery source, or an immortal parent. Every bit of strength, calmness, doubt handling and decision-making, has to be self-generated. Atheists need all tenderness they can find, or all the alcohol their health will allow.

But for some reason it’s the people who Believe who seem to get all the love—everyone is always stepping gingerly around their feelings and making sure they’re all right. (Perhaps this is because they Believe some crazy stuff—exhibit A: Scientologists, exhibit B: followers of any number of sleazy godmen in this country—so it’s not a bad idea to keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t hurt themselves.)

Atheists, however, are always getting it in the neck. The nicest thing they get called is arrogant. Rationalist Narendra Dabholkar was recently murdered, after a lifetime of healing people and fighting for their rights; schoolteacher Sanjay Salve, who refused to fold his hands during school prayers, faces the fury of his school’s principal, who was quoted as saying, “Had we overlooked this indiscipline, it might have spread to others…Hence, he was denied the higher pay grade.”

So much of human history is about Believing that atheists are outsiders to, or at best observers of, many traditional cultural practices. But we’re not begging to be let in—our motto is ‘Suck It Up’ (with optional therapeutic interim stages like ‘Moan’ and ‘Wallow’). Just don’t feel free to shoot us, you know? Stick with traditional cultural practice and keep shooting each other.

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